Acknowledging women’s Torah knowledge

The High Court of Justice ruling is significant in that it is a critical recognition of women’s education, knowledge, and integration into the sphere of Torah and Halacha.

By Rabbanit Devora Evron | January 27, 2024

THE WRITER converses with students in the Midreshet Lindenbaum Beit Midrash in Jerusalem
Rabbanit Devorah Evron teaching students in the Midreshet Lindenbaum Beit Midrash (photo credit: Jared Bernstein)

It has been over 100 years since the first assembly to elect the chief rabbis of Israel was convened, and now the matter has come to the attention of the High Court of Justice. This week, for the first time, the court ruled that according to existing law, there is no impediment to appointing women who are knowledgeable in Torah and Jewish law to serve on the electoral body for the chief rabbis under the designation of “rabbis”, despite the fact that they are not ordained as rabbis provided they have a Torah and Halakhic education.

We live in a time when nearly every day brings news of the significant contributions being made by women. Certainly we are aware of the heroines on the home front, caring for their families for weeks on end while their husbands are away and rising to fill many roles on behalf of a society in pain. We are also witness to women serving on the front lines exhibiting great courage and valor, saving the lives of many – sometimes even paying for it with their own lives.

It is therefore significant to recognize the accomplishments of women on the “spiritual front”.  For the women who entered the sacred gates of the beit midrash years ago, many of whom are extremely well-versed in Jewish law and serve as halakhic leaders, the High Court of Justice ruling is important and significant, based on a critical recognition of women’s education, knowledge and integration into the sphere of Torah and halakha.

It is important to understand that although the initial ordinances related to electing the Chief Rabbinate of Israel stipulated that all the members of the electoral assembly must be men, the High Court of Justice ruled as early as 1988 that women may not be excluded from the electoral body (in a petition that dealt with the assembly for the election of the rabbi of a city). In practice, women have served on the assembly charged with electing the chief rabbis for years – albeit in relatively small and insufficient numbers. Recent years have seen an attempt to address the underrepresentation of women in the assembly through the appointment of ten public figures who are women (representatives appointed by the Minister of Religious Services).

Now, however, the heart of the issue is not the focus on female representation per se, but rather to focus on a larger question of who can fall under the expanded category of “rabbis” in the electoral assembly, based on their Torah education and proficiency in halakha.

If we go back to the days before the establishment of the state, Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook urged that the chief rabbi be chosen by an electing assembly made up exclusively of rabbis. Ultimately, a compromise was reached, which divided the composition of the electoral body into a majority consisting of rabbis and a minority consisting of public representatives. Over the years, the ratio between the two parts of the electoral assembly has been altered, although the rabbinic majority has been maintained.

A century has passed and today, women are a critical part of the world of Torah and Jewish legal discourse. While women are unable to take the official rabbinical ordination exams, for many years already there have been educational institutions offering women intensive halakhic studies conducted at the highest of levels and with commensurately high-level exams. Over a year ago, for the first time, the Ministry of Religious Services held examinations to assess the halakhic knowledge of such program participants, and certificates were awarded to the 15 women who passed.

Despite this, the majority of seats in the electoral assembly designated for “rabbis” remain irrelevant for women, because they are reserved for people serving as city, community and council rabbis – positions requiring ordination and thus held exclusively by men.  The ruling of the High court of justice specifically addresses this, determining that there is no barrier for women to nonetheless be included under this designation. This ruling is an important and clear statement by the court that halakhic Torah education not obtained through the rabbinate can still be recognized, giving de facto acknowledgement to the educational settings in which women have been studying.

This recognition is part of a long grassroots process. It began with trailblazing women who took their place in the beit midrash and engaged in the study of Talmud and halakha despite their learning not being acknowledged and despite having no indication of where their learning would lead. They pursued this path simply because they were motivated by an inner passion and desire to understand halakha, and they acquired vast knowledge through their diligent efforts and commitment.

And then, recognition grew among the grassroots – initially in educational institutions and later among the public, when people started turning to these women with halakhic queries, alongside communities and synagogues that began to incorporate them into spiritual and halakhic leadership roles. Now we are witnessing the next crucial step in making women scholars an integral part of the public and religious fabric: recognition by the establishment.

After more than a decade of women being trained in Jewish law, we are seeing the beginnings of an intersection between what is happening in the field and the establishment – the appointment of women to lead religious councils, funding for women spiritual leaders in communities, halakhic examinations for women given by the Ministry of Religious Services, and now, this ruling by the High Court of Justice. We hope that these steps will open doors for women to serve the state in diverse, adequately compensated religious positions.

We understand that the ruling will not result in the widespread appointment of women halakhic leaders to the electoral body since there is no requirement to appoint a minimum number of women (unlike the positions reserved specifically for women on the committee to appoint rabbinical judges, the electoral assemblies for the election of city rabbis and representation in religious councils). Nevertheless, the court, through its ruling, has established a crucial foundation for future potential advancements. While such changes may not occur in the current coalition, they could materialize through legislation in a future Knesset that mandates the integration of women.

During this time, as we unite in our efforts and prayers for the soldiers, the return of our hostages and the speedy recovery of our wounded while mourning the fallen, the court has provided us with yet another avenue to examine the partnership and involvement of everyone – women and men alike.

The writer, a rabbanit, is director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) and campus spiritual adviser at Bar-Ilan University.

Read this oped on the Jerusalem Post website


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