First in Line
By Chen Gilad | Nashim Magazine, Sivan Issue
It has been questioned for many years why public institutions do not have a female position, parallel to a rabbi, when the world of Torah has been blessed with many women scholars who are learned and knowledgeable in the myriad of halachic texts. Bar Ilan University listened to the voices arising from the field and appointed Rabbanit Devorah Evron to serve alongside the Campus Rabbi.
Exactly one year ago, in the cover article of this same magazine, Rabbaniyot Chamutal Shoval and Shira Marili-Mirvis were pondering why in public institutions such as hospitals, academic institutions, etc., where there is no halachic issue preventing a female Rabbanit from serving alongside a male counterpart, is there not such a position? After all, for various halachic reasons, this is a necessary function.
Such considerations have arisen frequently in recent years and Bar Ilan University decided to pick up the gauntlet and become the pioneering leader, marching before the camp. Several months ago they announced that, in the coming academic year, Rabbanit Devorah Evron would serve as the female parallel to the Campus Rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Shefer.
Is she a Campus Rabbanit? This new position has been given a name: “A feminist Torani Voice on Campus.” It seems that the university powers-that-be are not rushing to wage battle on this matter, and truth be told, in the agitated political reality in Israel, that is quite understandable. So between the dramatic announcement of the new position and its actual implementation, I met with Rabbanit Devorah Evron in the days leading up to Shavuot.
Even before we start, because of the blurry job definition, I ask her to clarify the nature of her role. “’It’s not a Campus Rabbanit and not ‘Spiritual Leader,’” explains Rabbanit Evron. “This title definition expresses the will of the campus leaders and forum of the university management to bring another voice, one of religious female leadership, to the campus; to serve as a contact person for male and female students and staff members. The university leadership wanted to reflect – at conventions, events, student activities, staff forums – the process of religious female leadership that was growing outside the campus and lead in this field.
The university’s approach to her, with the new proposal, was initiated by outgoing rector Prof. Miriam Faust, who asked Evron to consider the offer. “The Campus Rabbi’s office is doing a wonderful job, but naturally it is still missing the diversity of religious female leadership. Bar Ilan University regards itself as a place that has always promoted women in all fields, and obviously in academia. This decision is a very significant social and religious statement.” After giving her approval and formulating the goal of the position and its practical significance to campus life together with the university management, a letter reporting on the new position was sent to the students. “I received many letters and good wishes as soon as the announcement was made. Interestingly enough, the first two responses came from men.”
How is your position different from that of the Campus Rabbi?
“First of all, there are different areas of responsibility. The Rabbi, who has been in this position for many years, rules on halachic issues on campus, participates in many forums, gives shiurim, etc. My position is not in the Rabbi’s office, but rather is parallel to it. Our different perspectives expand our access to an additional audience on campus. The diversity is not necessarily due to the fact that I am a woman, but because of the areas that I engaged in over the years: Judaism, feminism, field work, research, studies and the connection between all these.”
Facts About Change
Indeed, for many years Evron has been working on the connection between Judaism, feminism, research, study, interpersonal meetings, and everything in between. She has been a member of Kolech almost since its inception, a member of the Beit Hillel Torah leadership organization of Rabbanim and Rabbaniot, and for the past four years had headed Ohr Torah Stone’s Susi Bradfield Institute of Halakhic Leadership at Midreshet Lindenbaum, so she is not a stranger to the fields of Rabbanut and Torani leadership.
Her day starts with tefilla and learning Daf Yomi. Her schedule is full with preparing and giving lessons, meeting with colleagues, answering halachic questions, and more. “A large part of my work is with women who want to promote matters in their communities. I also provide support to many people on the laws of mourning, the shiva and life after that, but there is no doubt that the highlight of my work is promoting halachic studies for women.”
You obviously encounter the following question frequently: why is female Torani leadership that important?
“Obviously. And I answer that in the last decade women have entered and worked in many spheres and the world has benefited from the myriad of opinions that characterize the female perspective. Today we already know that in order to have a widespread outlook, we have to engage both men and women. It is true in management, field work, research, and it is also true in the world of Torah. In the past 50 years we have experienced a bilateral process: women’s Torah studies have made the world of Torah accessible to women, and on the other hand, it also made women accessible to the world of Torah. The voice that women bring – even when they learn the same topics as men – is different. Women, like men, come to study with their biography and create a new perspective that greatly enriches the world of Torah and the world of practicality.”
Evron would like to see women in Torani leadership, alongside the rabbis, in state institutions. “I have no doubt that alongside the Rabbi – and not instead of him – there is a large space for a Rabbanit, and there is a population that wants it. There is no halachic reason for women not to serve in Rabbanut positions in institutions such as hospitals,” says Evron. “Moreover, in halachic terms there are many reasons that justify the appointment of a woman to a position that is parallel to a Rabbi, for example in laws of yichud [the prohibition on seclusion between an unmarried male and female]. There are still political obstacles that delay this, but we are working on a change and with God’s help it will happen.”
It is not easy to choose the path you chose, especially when, even in the sector in which you live your life, there are many opponents to halachic feminism.
“It is true. There were uncomfortable moments when I was called degrading names, and even on a practical level when people opposed my positions and opinions. But there was not even one moment when I said to myself: ‘Well, so maybe not.’ I think that other women paid higher prices than I did. There were some in my extended family who were not, to put it lightly, excited with what I was doing. But I never lost a job and I don’t think that there is anyone who doesn’t speak to me because of my opinions. Around the time I took the position at Bar Ilan there were many talkbacks on social media and most were positive. There were some that were not, but it was quite obvious that even reports on my appointment in the religious media were positive, as were most talkbacks.”
A Tune that Attracts the Heart
One of the most burning issues that Evron deals with, which also evokes vicious arguments in her religious sector, is the matter of religious gays and lesbians. “I know religious gays and lesbians who are God-fearing and keep the laws of Shabbat and I would never consider the possibility that they do not have a place in society,” she says decisively. “These are people who live in a world of faith, despite all the difficulties. The role and responsibility of spiritual leaders is not to put greater burdens on their shoulders. As it is, this is a complex reality, so we have to be there for them within the questions, dilemmas and any other issue they want to discuss, help them cope with their social challenges, and support them. I believe that the matter of religious gays and lesbians is an example of the precept ‘study leads to action.’”
What do you mean?
“’Study leads to action’ means that our studies impact on how we cope with current challenges. Even though our Torah study is based on Torah learning throughout the generations, we still have to add in our current challenges. I think that we not only have the permission to learn Torah in this way, but we actually have a religious obligation to do so.”
What affected your interest and love in learning Torah?
In my parents’ home and in my extended family studying was an integral part of life. We had constant discussions on Torah and halacha, and those were the kind of logical debates that I heard from a young age.” Her extended family includes many well-known Orthodox rabbis and from the time she was young, the Oral Law, the singsong of studying and Torah commentaries, always captivated her, even more than female conversations which at that time she found less interesting. “When our extended family met with our grandparents and uncles for family events, the division was clear: the boys would learn Torah and the girls would not. The men’s conversations always interested me. I would sit with the women and listen to what was going on behind me. It was clear that they were discussing Torah studies and I found that the tunes of their “shakla and tariya (Aramaic for give-and-take)” were mesmerizing.”
Rabbanit Devorah Evron (58) was born in New Jersey, USA, to the Landau family. Her father initially learned at Yeshiva University and her mother at Stern College. When they married, it was clear that it was only a matter of time until they immigrated to Israel.
“I am the eldest daughter of four,” she says. “Three of us were born there and my youngest sister was born in Israel.” Her family came to Israel after the Six Day War, when she was seven. They lived in Beersheva for a year and then continued to Petach Tikva. Her father was a doctor of chemistry who worked in quality assurance, and her mother worked at the National Religious Women’s Organization, was a teacher at a conversion school and worked in fundraising and administration.
Evron studied at the Netzach Yisrael religious primary school and the Yeshurun high school. When she was in 11th grade, she decided to enlist in the IDF (Nachal) and thought that she needed to obtain halachic permission to do so. “I went to my grandfather, who was our posek (halachic ruler), and I spoke to him. I told him that it was important for me to join the army mainly because the law requires this and I believe that we have to be involved in the general Israeli society. My grandfather gave me permission and even though my school encouraged all girls to serve in Sherut Leumi (National Service), somehow I maintained my independent thinking. I wasn’t avant-garde, I was not kicking,” she emphasizes. “I was always on the inside.”
Before her induction she looked, together with a group of friends, for a place to learn Torah. The only midrasha available to women at that time was Machon Ora, so she went there. “I remember this period in my life as incessant sweetness. Since then, and almost throughout all the years, I have had study partners for my learning. There were very few times in my life when I did not have a study partner.”
After her discharge from army service she served as a youth group leader and then continued to a BA degree in Israel Studies and Informal Education at Bar Ilan University. She also studied Theater and Jewish Studies at the women’s Midrasha at Bar Ilan. During her third year of studies she met Yuval Evron, a chemical engineer originally from Kibbutz Sa’ad, and at the end of that year they married. Nine years later they moved to the northern community of Mitzpe Netofa, where they still live today.
In non-Covid times she rents an apartment in Jerusalem and sleeps there several nights a week to be near Midreshet Lindenbaum. The couple has four children – Natan (33), Roni (29), Shira (28) and Benaya (19) – and six grandchildren.
One Foot in Torah and One Foot in Therapy
During her first years in the North, she held drama classes, produced plays and, at the same time, studied psychodrama, after which she worked as a psychodrama therapist. “I started my practical work at the hospital in Safed and upon completion I was accepted to work in the psychiatric department for children and adolescents. I worked there for about ten years. My main responsibilities were with girls dealing with personality and eating disorders.”
At the same time, she taught classes on many topics: Tanach, Rambam, Mesilat Yesharim, and more. “I spent many years with one foot in the world of Torah and one foot in the world of therapy, each time leaning more on one than on the other. I have two great loves and they are people and Torah. The privilege of working with people fills me, just like the privilege of learning and working in the realm of Torah.” She set up a Torah class for women in her local community and occasionally they have tefillot and Torah reading for women.
How did your community respond to the new atmosphere you brought with you?
“It splits in two: in everything regarding Torah, things were always accepted positively. The disputes were around the changing of reality, for example when women want to read the Torah in their own prayer groups, or hold women’s’ prayers. Today it is accepted that there are women’s readings of Megillat Esther, but this was not common at all in many communities ten years ago, so there were objections. Women, as Morot Halacha (halachic guides) or Rabbaniot, are also part of the evolving reality, and change takes time. Practical issues that change reality also raise suspicions. But, over time, when people see how serious women are in the world of halacha – their learning, the intensity and investment day and night, the fact that they remain committed to halacha and to the religious arena – there is an understanding that their goal is to promote and be promoted in their service of God.”
And this is how it was accepted in your community?
“Yes, they saw that we did not come to take apart, but rather to add. Our community was also growing, so that there is a greater demand for women’s Torani activities. Today, everything is coordinated, but this was not a process that happened overnight. I also know that there are people who are not happy with our activities, but, Baruch Hashem, the change did not split the community or society apart. During those years, I also taught gemara to women and many came who did not specifically identify with the direction; this made me very happy. Over the years I became a ‘target’ for many women’s’ prayers from all over the country, also before Simchat Torah and Purim. Inquiries were not only about halachic questions, but also on perspective: what to do? What should someone focus on during tefilla? And more.”
This year before Yom Ha’atzmaut, Evron was invited to be one of the torch bearers. “A member of our local cultural committee contacted me and asked me to light a torch at the ceremony, whose theme was “innovation.”
How did you feel?
“I was very excited. With tears in my eyes, I accepted the offer. I am not the Rabbanit of the community. I am a community member. True, I am not anonymous and community members know what I do, but when I entered the world of halacha I had no intention of dictating a community agenda, and the committee’s feedback was very touching. I think that this is a very positive ripple in the community’s atmosphere.”
She completed her MA degree in gender studies and art at the extension of Lesley College in Israel, and the study courses had great influence on her outlook on life. “I went to gender and art because I thought that within psychodrama, arts are part of the story, and gender has always interested me on a personal level.”
Journey to Studies in Halacha
When author and editor Dr. Anat Yisraeli offered her to be a partner in the steering committee of Nigun Nashim – a joint beit midrash for religious and secular women – she responded to the call. “After the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, when the social atmosphere was very tense and difficult, the midrasha in Oranim opened a mixed study group for religious and secular men and women. After some time, we noticed that the group divided into religious men and secular men, while among the women there was a connection between all sectors. The women felt that they had a lot in common and that the language was difficult from the dichotomic division into secular and religious. This is how Nigun Nashim, a beit midrash for women from all walks of life, came together to learn Torah and create a feminist commentary on the content they studied. Several batei midrash around Israel grew out of this original study group.”
Not long after that she began to moderate the beit midrash and later even to head it. “I moved from working in therapy to the area of pluralistic Judaism in Israel. It was amazing. We held a Shabbat for our souls, for women from all sectors, we published a Haggadah for women and held other activities. I worked there for about ten years and through the activities I realized that I was being exposed to halacha study. I understood that, in order to be part of the general Jewish dialogue, and the Torani dialogue in particular, here in Israel, we must know halacha. So, I decided to embark upon the journey of studying halacha.”
You’ve undoubtedly heard the claim that women learn gemara and halacha only to be combative and contrary. What is your response to that?
“You cannot delve into Talmud studies every day if you do not enjoy the manner of studies,” answers Evron. “It is impossible to say that I learn so much just to prove something to somebody. I studied for six years at Beit Morasha in Jerusalem under Rabbanit Michal Tichochinsky, Rabbi Benny Lau, Rabbi Yehuda Brandis; I learned and was tested orally and in writing. I practically learned all the halachic material that one studies to become a Morat Halacha (halachic guide). Studies were held one day a week, but there was a lot of homework. When I was studying, it meant that there were volumes of Talmud on the table and at every free moment I would go and learn. On Friday I would clear the table to set it for Shabbat and on Shabbat afternoon all the volumes were brought back to the table.”
Who gives a dvar Torah at your Shabbat table, you or Yuval?
“Yuval is a man of Torah in his own right. He is currently teaching his third cycle of Daf Yomi. He is a Ba’al Tefilla and Ba’al Kriya, and on Shabbat whoever has something to say says it; parents and children alike.”
In 2014 she completed her studies and after ending six years of study with many exams, the certification ceremony was finally held.
How did you feel when you received your certificate after six years of studying Halacha?
“I was very excited. We had a small but very emotional ceremony. I remember that even long before receiving the certificate, when I came out of the last exam, I said the “she’hechiyanu” blessing and burst into tears. It touched me very much. Many dramatic changes have occurred throughout my studies: many Torah institutions have been established and the social networks have moved things forward.” Her family was also excited along with her. “My studies were accepted with great support and happiness in my immediate family and I could not have done anything without Yuval. Truly. He is the ultimate spouse.”
Women who delve into the world of studies say how they felt the gaps, the studies that had been deprived from them just because they were women. Did you also feel that?
“This happened to me when I started learning halacha and I saw what a mass of information there is. I knew that if I had started studying Talmud and halacha at a younger age, I would have known much more. I felt that this sea of studies had been taken from me, not granted to me or withheld from me. At first I was angry and I mourned, but then I said, ‘Okay, I am here. This is the point at which I’m standing. From here I will do my utmost,’ and baruch Hashem amazing things have happened.”
What are the differences between the women in your generation and the girls in the younger generation regarding the study of halacha?
Baruch Hashem, girls today are starting to acquire knowledge and Talmud skills at a much younger age, already in middle and high school and in the midrashot. Today there are institutions for women who want to learn halacha, acquire skills and knowledge and become rabbaniot in Israel. We can see the change happening. Today it is totally natural for girls at midrashot that the head of their school is a woman. They have role models with whom they can identify.”