The Faces Behind the Epithets: My Winter Vacation at Chovevei and Maharat

By: Rebecca Hia  |  February 17, 2014

YeshivatMaharatLogo_squareAfter finishing my last final, as my friends boarded planes for sunny beaches, I took the 1 train to Riverdale, home of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (Chovevei) housed at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR), affectionately known as “The Bayit” to its congregants. For my winter vacation, I decided to join Chovevei and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools in their collegiate winter weeks of learning. As per their respective websites, Chovevei trains men to be open modern Orthodox rabbis and Maharat ordains women as halakhic decision-making members of the clergy, the first institution to do so.

As an emerging young adult, committed to halakhic observance with no family precedent swaying me in any particular direction, I am still navigating Jewish institutions and their respective ideologies. Many are disturbed by the hype Rabbi Avi Weiss’ Open Orthodoxy movement has created, fearing that the movement will tear at the fabric of our tradition. This fear has impeded a careful look at his institutions from the inside, resulting instead in ad hominem attacks on the movement’s leadership.

For example, Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein’s open letter in Haaretz stated that Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the current Chovevei president, and Open Orthodox leaders are on the “wrong” side of the line between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. “We are not pushing you out of Orthodoxy – you have plunged over the line yourselves again and again,” the article stated. Another article, by Rabbi Moshe Averick in The Algemeiner Journal, likened Rabbi Avi Weiss to the biblical Korach, deeming him “duplicitous” and a “conniving politician.” It stated that Weiss’ halakhic authority was “non-existent,” and termed those affiliated with his “neo-Conservative” movement “shallow individuals.” In an editorial in Ami Magazine, Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter calls Open Orthodoxy a “heretical movement” and states that “one is not permitted to be mechalel Shabbos to save his [Rabbi Lopatin’s] life.”

So, what was I afraid of by participating in this program? I was scared of being indoctrinated, as I am with any institution that has an explicit ideology.

On my first trip, I walked around until I found the Beit Midrash. I walked inside, took a Talmud off the shelf and tried to decipher my Aramaic traditions. I was unfazed, though acutely aware, that I was the only woman there. My head turned back down towards the Talmud, curious if a male response would ensue. A few minutes later, none other than Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder and founding president of Chovevei, approached me and welcomed me to the Beit Midrash, asking “Do you feel comfortable here?” I knew there was something different about this place at that moment.

The next day when I began my studies at Chovevei, female and male participants and rabbinical students all learned together b’chavruta in one Beit Midrash, I noticed that everybody in the room seemed at ease. When it was time for maariv, I made my way over to the other side of the room, as the mechitza was erected for two other females and myself. Throughout the week I learned that the mechitza is erected no matter how many women show up; it is important to them that women have a space to pray with the minyan. That night, I met Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who introduced himself to me as Asher. We engaged in polite chat that was casual and non-threatening. I started thinking about how Torah doesn’t exist in a vacuum; people and their unique circumstances matter. This is why I found both Chovevei and Maharat’s emphasis on interpersonal skills so refreshing. Pirkei Avot teaches us to “Make for ourselves a Rabbi and acquire a friend,” often interpreted to be the same person. I found this to be the case for the Chovevei and Maharat rabbis and rabbinical students.

Avi Shafran of Agudath Israel of America wrote to Tablet Magazine that the role of Maharat is “dissonant with tzniut,” “which expresses the essence of a Jewish woman’s role and strength.” I discovered that, contrary to what I had heard, the Maharats’ true intentions are not to abandon tzniut, but rather to teach Torah and help the Jewish people. From my encounters with the Maharat students, I observed how they are utilizing their strengths to model positive associations for women with the halakha and showing them that they too can be involved in leadership roles. As one Maharat told me, “we are not here to seek power or to usurp rabbinical male authority.” Likewise, the Chovevei and Maharat educators were humble in how they introduced themselves and interacted with us. The types of grappling-with-faith questions these rabbinical students are asking seemed different. They weren’t afraid of answers; there were no boundary to questions out of fear of what the answer would imply.

One of my peers, Brandeis’ Nathan Young, observed, “The students are also able to teach [and encouraged to foster their own opinions], the Rabbis aren’t the only ones able to speak.”

Another peer, SCW Senior Sarah Robinson, noted, “I was impressed because their curriculum was so varied and comprehensive. After one week of learning, I had participated in interactive lectures about bioethics, bible, sexual ethics, conversion, and theology. Each presenter challenged me and provided food for thought. Nothing was watered down; we all studied from the original sources.”

I learned from my experience that Chovevei and Maharat are not trying to rip the fabric of our tradition; rather, they are trying to re-knit our tattered communal quilt, frayed by assimilation, dissatisfaction and exclusion. What Modern Orthodoxy is saying about Open Orthodoxy isn’t much different than what Ultra Orthodoxy is saying about Modern Orthodoxy. The conflict does not seem much different than past conflicts in Jewish history in which new schools of thought were disputed. Only time will tell, as Pirkei Avot suggests, whether this disagreement will last because of its pure intentions, or disappear because of its ulterior motives.

In the meantime, instead of vilifying Rabbi Weiss and Rabbi Lopatin, I urge you to visit and see the environments for yourself. Some think they are overstepping their boundaries, creating unnecessary rifts in our community. But perhaps this is just pushback on a movement that is trying to make scary, but necessary, change. Let’s take a lesson from Hillel and Shamai and learn to respectfully disagree with one another, while hearing both sides.