By AARON HOWARD | Jewish Herald Voice of Greater Houston • Thu, Jan 24, 2019
“Imagine how much richer the Torah world will be when a generation of women share their thoughts and insights into our cherished texts.” That’s what Sally Mayer told the JHV from her office at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem.
Places devoted to serious Torah study are easy to find in Jerusalem. But, serious Torah study for women? Subjects such as Talmud and Halakha were considered to be the exclusive province of men in the Orthodox community. Today, Midreshet Lindenbaum, and a handful of other institutions for Torah studies in Israel, have opened the doors of the beit midrash to women.
Rabbanit Mayer serves as rosh midrasha at Lindenbaum’s Overseas Program. She teaches Talmud, Halakha, Parsha and Jewish Philosophy. Mayer will be one of the Barish scholars at Yom Limmud on Feb. 17. She also will be the Parish Shabbat Limmud scholar in residence at United Orthodox Synagogues Feb. 15-16.
Approximately 200 women study full time at Midreshet Lindenbaum. More than half are Israeli, most of whom are 18 years old, pre-army or national service. Some of the Israelis have returned after army or service to study further.
There are approximately 80 young international women, aged 18-20, in Lindenbaum’s English and Spanish language overseas programs. The institution also runs a program called Darkaynu for young women with special needs, from abroad. And, between 10-15 adult women are studying in a five-year course, called the Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership.
“Some of the young women who study in the program will become the next teachers and leaders of their Jewish communities in Israel and throughout the world,” said Rabbanit Mayer. “Most of them will take their Torah learning and apply its values to whichever field they choose – medicine, law, social work, etc. – as well as in their families and communities. We believe that gaining the skills, knowledge and passion for Torah will enrich every young woman’s personal, family and professional life, and improve the Jewish community as a whole.”
Midreshet Lindenbaum was established when Ohr Torah Stone, headed then by its founder and chancellor emeritus, Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin, merged with Rabbi Chaim Brovender’s Michlelet Bruriah. It was OTS’ Rabbi Riskin who spearheaded the campaign to allow women to become to’anot; that is, women who serve in a judicial capacity and as advocates in Israeli rabbinical courts. Today, female rabbinical advocates commonly negotiate divorces in the Israeli beit din.
Over time, Midreshet Lindenbaum has pioneered new programs that have widened the role of women within the Modern Orthodox community. Examples include the first program that taught women Talmud, which opened the first IDF hesder program for women and the first (and only) program for young women with special needs.
Rabbanit Mayer grew up in New Jersey in a Modern Orthodox family. She attended high school at Yeshivat Frisch where, she said, she received a solid grounding in both Bible and Talmud, and fell in love with the study of Talmud in all its richness and complexity.
“I had the privilege of studying all Jewish texts on a high level at Ohr Torah Stone’s Midreshet Lindenbaum, and continued on to Yeshiva University’s Stern College, Bernard Revel Graduate School and the Drisha Institute Scholars Circle. All of these institutions of higher learning deepened my knowledge of, and love for Torah.
“For the past 15 years since I moved to Israel, I’ve been a member of the core faculty of Midreshet Lindenbaum, where I meet outstanding young women from all over the world.”
Rabbanit Mayer holds the title of rabbanit. Clearly, this aligns her with the Modern Orthodox movement. Most right-wing and traditionalist segments of the Orthodox community, both in the U.S. and Israel, still oppose the idea of ordaining women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used.
For gradualists, the real revolution in the Orthodox world has already happened: the opening up of Torah and text study to girls and women. No longer are advanced Jewish texts the exclusive province of Jewish men.
In 2016, the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem, a Religious Zionist Orthodox congregation, hired a woman, Karemit Feintuch, as a spiritual leader. Feintuch, who serves along with Rabbi Benny Lau, took the title “rabbanit.”
“We are at an exciting time for the Orthodox community and the Jewish people, as a whole,” Rabbanit Mayer said.
“Baruch Hashem, women of all ages are coming closer to Torah and mitzvah observance as a result of deepening their Jewish knowledge and commitment through advanced Torah study. I remember encountering many raised eyebrows when I began high-level study of Talmud as a student 30 years ago. Now, this study is much more accepted in many parts of the Orthodox community. The doors of the beit midrash have been opened to women.
“I see women teaching at the highest level, answering questions, serving as educators and spiritual guides in their communities, and proving to be inspiring role models to girls – all with deep respect for tradition, and with an unwavering commitment to Halakha and Jewish law. Women are showing that deepening our Torah knowledge brings us closer to G-d and to the mitzvot.
“I personally believe that titles are unimportant. What is significant is the inspiring education, the Halakhic advice and the caring counsel women can provide their students and communities.”
Rabbanit Mayer contends that many of the Orthodox leaders who oppose women functioning as rabbis are comfortable with knowledgeable and committed women teaching and answering questions, as evidenced by the p’sak (resolution) of the Rabbinical Council of America on the issue. Those who defend the RCA position maintain the drafters of the resolution sought to restrict the focus to the ordination of women and not to address the propriety of Yoatzot Halakha and other newly created women’s titles and the programs which grant those titles.
Yet for others, the RCA p’sak was strikingly clear: No ordination of women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; no hiring or ratifying the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution; no allowing a title implying rabbinic ordination can be used by a teacher of Limudei Kodesh in an Orthodox institution.
“I think our time is best spent, not on discussing what we call women who are knowledgeable, inspiring teachers and sensitive, competent Halakhic advisors,” Rabbanit Mayer said. “Instead, let’s train and encourage them to teach, inspire and guide our students and communities in ways that increase love of Torah and mitzvah observance.
“We should be encouraging our young people – men and women – to put their scholarship, sensitivity and leadership ability to work for the Jewish community in all different ways. We should be encouraging them to pursue careers in Jewish education and communal work and being proud of their accomplishments in those fields. All of this helps create the next generation of leaders, be’ezrat Hashem!”