To many of the rabbis who rebuked Weiss in April, this new yeshiva is a more extreme rerun of Weiss’s last act of heresy. Ten years ago, Weiss resigned from Yeshiva University, which he and all his children had attended, where he had taught for decades, and where Toby had worked for 21 years as head of alumni affairs. Life at YU had become inhospitable. Influential rabbis there were contemptuous of Weiss’s ideas (including a women’s prayer group he championed) and not shy about voicing them, even when his son was in their classrooms. “They were calling my dad terrible names,” Dov recalls. “For whatever reason, the heads of YU were not putting a stop to the vitriolic language.”
Rather than continuing to try to push the school to the left, Weiss decided to found his own. “I thought he was crazy,” says Rabbi Dov Linzer, whom Weiss approached to run the new seminary, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. “There was no other Modern Orthodox rabbinical school in the United States. How can you start something else that would attract people and be able to compete with YU?” Ten years later, the school’s graduates are often placed at some of the most prestigious college Hillels and pulpits. But the RCA does not offer membership to its graduates, several of whom report that they’ve been maligned by YU associates.
While many Orthodox hard-liners chafe at Chovevei Torah’s leftward bent, they view Yeshivat Maharat as an existential threat. Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a revered scholar at YU widely known as the foremost authority on Halacha in the United States, raised eyebrows at the RCA convention when he reportedly put the ordination of women in the category of yehareg ve’al ya’avor, a tenet that literally suggests one should opt for death before violating the law, used by rabbis when referring to acts that are absolutely impermissible. “He believes that it is a slippery slope that will lead to the breakdown of traditional Judaism,” explains Marc B. Shapiro, an expert on Orthodoxy.
Exhibit A for rabbis like Schachter is Conservative Judaism. “It’s a model of what went wrong,” Shapiro explains. “People had a commitment to observance and then made small reforms, and this led to bigger reforms, until Jewish law was almost completely jettisoned as a binding force.” The main culprit, many Orthodox rabbis agree, is feminism. (Indeed, Agudath spokesman Avi Shafran has called Weiss and his allies “rabba-rousers,” writing that “their master seems to be feminism, not Judaism.”) “I think there’s this preoccupation that Rav Schachter has that anything that might smack of the Conservative movement must be avoided like the plague,” says Rabbi Shai Held, dean of Yeshivat Hadar in Manhattan. “There’s a tremendous amount of anxiety among religious traditionalists that when you take one step toward egalitarianism, the floodgates are open and everything that seemed self-evident will no longer be. Men go to work, and women raise children. If you undermine that, you have lost your whole universe.”
Shortly after Weiss’s conversations with the Rabbinical Council, after a nudge from its conservative flank, the RCA’s first vice-president told the Jewish daily Hamodia that the council “in no way endorses the title ‘maharat’ or the ‘maharat’ program under the direction of Rabbi Avi Weiss.”
Neither side has budged since.
At one recent Friday Shabbat service, Rabbi Weiss sits inconspicuously among his male congregants. He greets men in black hats and prayer shawls, gripping a hand, squeezing an arm. On the women’s side, Sara Hurwitz, dressed a little haphazardly in an ill-fitting skirt, light-blue cardigan, and faux-straw hat with a low brim, chases after her toddler son, Davidi, who is clearly at home careering around the temple. For the standing prayers, she hoists Davidi up in her left arm while holding the prayer book in her right. When seated, she lets her son knead her face. Occasionally, she ambles over to her fellow worshippers sharing the female side of the gender divider—the mechitza—making sure they know which page the cantor is singing from. During one song, she dances briefly, though not exuberantly, in a small circle of women, including Toby Weiss, while across the partition, Rabbi Weiss, tallis slipping off his shoulder, starts his own congalike procession, snaking around the cramped rows of chairs.
Hurwitz has privately told people she worries about how Weiss’s championing of her has backfired for him. She’s gone so far as to publicly float the possibility of relinquishing her title if it continues to distract. She nevertheless believes she has earned it. “Do I consider myself a religious leader? Yes,” she tells me. “I wake up in the morning and help out with a Bris, and then counsel a couple who is going through a difficult time, and then answer a question about Passover, and then teach a class. I don’t know what else I am if I’m not a spiritual leader.”