From grass roots to the establishment – Opinion
We recently witnessed history in the making: the new state-administered halakha exams for women.
Rabbanit Devorah Evron | December 21, 2022
It’s not every day that we get to witness history unfold, and for me personally it’s certainly all the more remarkable when those developments relate to the changing role of women in the world of halakha.
So it was with deep excitement and joy that we were blessed to experience just such a historic moment recently, when Israel’s Religious Affairs Ministry administered the first ever test for women in halakha. The purpose of the test – to examine the knowledge they have accrued over the years but which, until now, was not recognized by the State.
It is somewhat hard to grasp the gravity of this achievement in a world where women serve as Prime Ministers, presidents of the Supreme Court, chief executives of corporations and banks, and other leadership positions.
But for us, the women who have been studying halakha at the highest levels for years, many of whom are experts in halakha and even recognized as arbiters of Jewish law, the exam is a historic milestone based not only on validating our knowledge, but also on the integration of women in the world of Torah and halakha.
Every successful historic process, big or small, is made up of a series of steps.
In 1850 in Austria, the Semmering Tracks were laid as the very first railway which could successfully traverse the Alps. What made this project so remarkable was that the tracks were completed even before technology had developed the railcars that would be able to make the climb through those mountain conditions. But the visionary designers had the confidence that if they built the tracks, that technological gap would be closed within a short amount of time.
The process of integrating women into the halakhic world was inspired with similar vision and faith.
Pioneering women put in the hours on the benches of the Beit Midrash and engrossed themselves in the pages of the Talmud and the rabbinic texts, without fully knowing where their efforts would lead. They did this even though the value of their learning and even their ability to learn were not officially recognized. They did so out of a sense of personal passion and a sincere desire to understand the intricacies of the halakha that guides their own lives– and through their sincere dedication and hard work, their understanding of halakha became deeper and richer.
Out of that process would come eventual recognition.
And then, from the field, the recognition began to grow – at first their achievements and knowledge were recognized by the institutions in which they studied. That later extended to the local communities, as people began seeking them out to address all types of halakhic questions and dilemmas. Communities and synagogues began to integrate them into folds of halakhic and spiritual leadership. However, in order for a change of this magnitude to be able to be sustained over time, to develop fully and become an integral part of the public and religious fabric, it is crucial to receive official recognition.
Happily, after more than a decade in which there are women who are experts in halakha, we began to see the meeting point between the establishment and what was happening in the field through moves promoted by the Ministry of Religious Services under the leadership of former minister Matan Kahana, such as appointing women to head religious councils and the establishment of funding for positions of communal spiritual leadership.
The establishment of the state-administered halakhic exam that took place last month is an important and historic step in attaining the institutional recognition that until now has been an elusive dream. Recognizing women’s knowledge and their halakhic judgment will open the door for them to serve the state in a diverse set of religious positions.
Despite our joy and optimism, we are also greatly concerned that these encouraging measures could easily be reversed and nullified. Even the most casual political observer knows that the dawn of this new government brings with it politicians who don’t share the worldview of the visionaries who have made this process possible – despite the fact that all aspects of what we have achieved is permitted by halakha. So we live with the very real worry that our this historic development of state-administered halakha exams for women may be fleeting – and that we very well may need to struggle for their continued existence. Yet whatever might lie ahead, we will remain committed to continuing to chart our path however possible. We will continue to train women as halakhic arbiters and spiritual leaders, because we know that this is a right that should in no way be contingent on which ministers currently occupy the seats of powhalaer. Rather those rights are linked to our religious duty; our commitment to our country, our communities– and our identities as women who love our people, our Torah and its traditions.
Rabbanit Devorah Evron is the director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) and Spiritual Leader at Bar Ilan University.