Chamutal Shoval and Shira Mirvis are expanding the circles of women’s spiritual leadership and Torah study. They aim to reach everyone in Israeli society who wants to connect to their Jewish roots and study Torah, while serving as resources on wide-ranging issues to Jews of all backgrounds.
Chen Gilad | Nashim Magazine | June 2020
Photos: Shai Kedem
What do you call women who study Torah and Jewish law all day, morning to night, in a program lasting several years? Talmidot Chachamot (learned scholars)? Rabbaniot (rabbis)? This new phenomenon has yet to be fully conceptualized, but it is gaining momentum.
Every generation has its own innovations – If the first generation of female Torah scholars taught in the Beit Midrash (study hall), the second generation is already making learning accessible through social media. These are role models of Torah learning and leadership who use YouTube, Facebooks, blogs, and Zoom to expand the circles of study and gain an ever-growing audience of both male and female students.
Prominent among the leaders of the second generation are the duo of Chamutal Shoval (left) and Shira Marili Mirvis. For nearly four years, they have been studying five days a week for certification at Ohr Torah Stone’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership, based at Midreshet Lindenbaum. “The fact that we study Torah from morning to night is amazing. It’s a form of redemption,” says Shoval. “My grandmother was not privileged to have this, and neither was my mother. There was never a period in history where it was possible for women to engage in full-time Jewish text study. I have five daughters, the youngest of whom was born during my studies, and I think that the reality my daughters experience, seeing their mother sitting surrounded by books day and night, is wonderful.”
Unlike rabbis, whose path to rabbinical studies is set from a young age, the path described by the duo before they arrived at rabbinical studies was long and convoluted.
Mirvis (40, married, and mother of five), studied at Horev High School and then served two years of National Service, following which she studied at a seminary for a year. She then studied psychology, and eventually met and married her husband, Shlomo. Together they travelled to Los Angeles to work as emissaries in the Jewish community. Before returning to Israel, after a conversation with Shlomo, Mirvis realized she wanted to make a change. “I had a job waiting for me at the Jewish Agency for Israel,” she recalls. “Everything was great. But when Shlomo asked me if I was happy, I said no. He asked me: ‘If everything were possible, what would you like to do?’ I told him I really missed my Jewish studies, and so I returned.”
The path taken by Shoval (37, married, mother of five girls) did not include a route to spiritual leadership. After completing national service, she studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum. Although it had been a wonderful year (“I fell in love with the place”) she felt she needed to pursue a career, and chose to study psychology at Hebrew University. At the end of her studies, she found herself in a recently opened journalism course, after which she began working at the Israel Broadcasting Authority as a reporter. Later she became editor of broadcasts related to Judaism. “I had two very interesting years,” she recalls with a smile. “I continued learning with my study partner at Lindenbaum once a week, and also studied and taught a little. But when I became the Judaism editor, I went back to really opening books.” When the Broadcasting Authority was closed in 2017, she felt it was time to make a change. “Shira called me and suggested I join her in the WIHL program at Lindenbaum. I said no way – I was in the middle of a graduate degree in Communications. How could I add full time Jewish studies on top of that? With all due respect, I still had a family to support.” The families knew each other from the days when they both lived in Efrat (Shoval and her family have since moved to Neve Daniel). The two couples met for dinner, during which everyone tried to convince Shoval to join the program with her friend. It worked.
Difficult Masculine Discourse
Let’s begin with the sensitive issue of women studying Jewish law. Clearly you have often heard the opinion that, “The study of Jewish law is not for women, period.” You represent a diametrically opposite approach. What are your opinions regarding women’s study?
Mirvis: “A woman who lives her life according to Jewish law needs to understand what she is doing. If she fulfills the mitzvot (commandments) without a deep intellectual and emotional basis, she may end up hitting a barrier at some point. To continue upholding Jewish law, we must infuse it with meaning, and this, in my opinion, can only stem from study. If someone doesn’t want to study – they don’t have to. I study Torah because I love it. This is my passion and my greatest talent. If I can use my knowledge to help other women, I think it would be wrong to keep it to myself.”
Shoval: “I remember a teacher of mine saying: ‘If you don’t understand Jewish law, you don’t understand the bedrock of Judaism.’ That sentence etched itself deep within me. It is very important to study faith and Jewish philosophy, but for women to feel that the world of Jewish law belongs to them as well, they must be partners and understand how it evolves.”
They see the pages of the Talmud as a way to charge their batteries for the outside world. Yet sometimes, they admit, their studies force them to face uncomfortable issues, mainly discussions held among men that deal with women’s issues. “Talmud discourse is very masculine. It can be hard to take, especially with regard to women’s issues, says Shoval. “I study with my eldest daughter, who is twelve. She often asks me, “How can the rabbis say such a thing?” I reply that this was the reality of the time and this was the discourse. A masculine discourse dictated by men to men.” “In these cases,” adds Mirvis, “You really want to go into their Beit Midrash (study hall) and say, ‘Hey! Wait a minute! Let me tell you what really goes on.”
So why enter this world?
Shoval: “That question is asked very often. When I tell people what I do, many women have a Pavlovian reaction and ask, ‘but what motivates you?’, and my reply is, “I don’t understand – if I love Torah, love to learn, and love to inspire others, why do I have to prove my intentions?” I think women should also be present in the world of Jewish law. Otherwise the girls of the next generation will say: ‘The religious world is for boys because they get up for prayers and learn Torah, the whole legal discourse belongs to the boys, so why should we stick around?’”
This year, after seven and a half years of Daf Yomi (daily Talmud study) throughout the Jewish world, another cycle of study of the entire Talmud was completed. One of the most uplifting celebrations was the women’s event. “It was one of the defining moments of my life,” says Shoval. “Some 3,000 of us gathered in the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. I took my daughters, and we realized that if women are not part of this world, they can never be part of discussions about Jewish law. There are always headcounts of women who are CEOs, MKs, and important decision makers. Women need to be among the decision makers in the Jewish world, as well. It is crucial that the female voice be heard in the realm of Jewish law.”
To demonstrate the depth of the vacuum created by the absence of women in Jewish legal leadership, Shoval relates an amusing anecdote. “I read a question asked of a rabbi on a website: ‘Is piping whipped cream onto a cake permitted on Shabbat?’ The rabbi’s response was: ‘I don’t know what piping is, but in any case it is forbidden.’ Clearly men can answer questions on topics of so-called women’s interests, yet when women who have actually experienced childbirth discuss sanctioning a labor coach to drive on Shabbat, they present a more empathetic voice.”
How do you foresee girls of the next generation experiencing the importance of keeping the mitzvot (commandments) and studying Torah?
“I believe that we need to set high goals for them,” says Shoval. “Many of our friends do not wake their daughters for prayer services, and I ask: Why? Women are also obligated to pray.
In my mind, the approach which says, ‘Don’t involve the girls’ is simply counter-productive. It would be inconceivable to tell girls, ‘You’ll study math at a lower level, whereas the boys will study math at a higher level.’ Parents would be furious, and for good reason. But regarding Talmud studies, if you say: ‘Your son will study high level Talmud, and your daughter will study very little, if any – most parents won’t object. This attitude is limiting women’s ability to advance in the world of Torah scholarship and leadership.
Mirvis: “Nowadays, you can’t raise a generation that is committed to Judaism only based on what their mother and grandmother did. We are raising boys and girls who are extremely individualistic, wise and curious, and if we can fulfill their desire to acquire knowledge in any other field of life, then we must do the same with regard to Jewish knowledge. Connection to Judaism must come from someplace deep within.”
The cliché that behind every successful man or woman is a supportive spouse is entirely true in this case. “When I wanted to study, Shlomo said: ‘I understand and value your choice. If you love to study and teach Torah – that’s your mission.’” Mirvis shares. “The fact that our spouses are proud of us and push us forward is amazing.”
“I think that both Ronen, my husband, and Shlomo, Shira’s husband, are people with a special world view,” Shoval adds. “They really understand the need for us to study and lead, and they encourage us. Ronen says, ‘There was the era of the Rishonim (early rabbinic leaders), and the era of the Achronim (later rabbinic leaders). This current era will be remembered as the women’s era.’”
Several months ago, Mirvis and Shoval started a blog where they upload their classes to Hadran’s (a website focused on women’s Torah study) Facebook page. Exposure to the page grew significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and today they enjoy many views and comments.
“We wanted to share our study sessions and the discourse between us, to provide a glimpse into our study process,” says Mirvis. “I think it’s important to be relevant. One young man wrote to us on Facebook: ‘I study at an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva. I came across your blog and it really enhanced my studies. I’ve studied this topic in the past and I know it inside and out and I never thought of studying it the way you suggested.’ He wrote such a touching message, and I would never have reached him without the virtual world.”
In the blog, they discuss issues from daily life, answer Jewish legal questions, and maintain relevant discourse with diverse followers. “When I worked in communications, I met all types of people.” relates Shoval. “Since then, I’ve been dogged by the question of how Judaism can appeal to everyone. Nowadays, a rabbi and a rabbanit must be familiar with the outside world. How can a community rabbi not know about Netflix or Instagram, and not be able to speak that language? When you are on Facebook, you discover other voices. The people who approach us with questions through Facebook are not necessarily close to us geographically or in age. For a rabbi or rabbanit to answer wide-ranging questions, they must be knowledgeable and engaged with the outside world.”
In contrast to the opinion that women with Mirvis’s and Shoval’s training should only address questions related to women’s issues, they find themselves answering questions on wide ranging topics, including mourning and Shabbat, among others.
The Revolution has Already Taken Place
Last year, Shoval wrote an article for Tchumin, a respected journal of Jewish law. This was a significant milestone as it was the first time the journal accepted a Jewish legal article written solely by a woman. “I am mainly intrigued by it,” says Shoval. “A woman can head a government, but if a woman writes an article for Tchumin it’s considered a big deal.”
From their perspective, the revolution of women’s learning is already underway, but there are still many stages to get through before women are properly represented and accepted. Part of the delay stems from the fact that women cannot sit for rabbinical exams under the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, a basic requirement to be appointed for Jewish leadership positions in Israeli public life.
What is an example of how women can be integrated into public Torah leadership roles without crossing Orthodox Jewish legal boundaries?
“Jewishly knowledgeable women are needed in many places: in the army, in the police force, on the ethics board of the health insurance companies, and in hospitals,” Mirvis replies. “How can there be a hospital rabbi but no rabbanit when there are so many women hospitalized in various wards? If there was a rabbanit going through the wards, from oncology to maternity, things would look different. Think of a woman who has experienced a miscarriage and has a million questions, or a woman whose child has cancer – if a woman serving as a spiritual leader sat and talked to her, and not just a social worker – things would look different. The same goes for the police force.”
Mirvis painfully felt the need for a woman spiritual guide three years ago, when her father passed away. When he died, she suddenly had to cope with a new, unsettling reality. “Rabbis came and talked to us about the various rules. If there had been a female figure who knew the laws of mourning, it would have made things easier for me.” Following this experience, Mirvis felt she wanted to fulfill the role that she had needed so badly, and reached a decision. “When we finished sitting shiva, I immediately began studying the laws of mourning. It was a difficult, yet important experience. Today, I volunteer with my local burial society and at the mikvah (ritual bath) because I want to be available at the places where a woman might need me, where I would have liked to have a woman to talk to.”
Shoval: “We are not looking to take anyone’s place or push anyone out, but I think that girls and young women in today’s world need women role models in the religious-spiritual field.”
When I asked what they think will be the next field to change, they both gave the same answer: the role of women in the synagogue. “There are many things that can be done within the boundaries of Jewish law so that women will have a place in the formal prayers,” states Mirvis. “In my synagogue, the Torah scroll is also passed through the women’s section and I frequently give the sermon.”
Shoval: “The synagogue is an anchor of the community, especially on Shabbat, and it must be an expression of the entire community, not only of the men. Change must take place in so that women will feel part of the world of organized prayer.”
As women who study Torah all year, what was the significance of the festival of Shavuot for you?
“First of all, Ruth is my favorite character,” Shoval confides. “She is courageous, takes initiative, is proactive, a Zionist, and also proof that if you really want to, you can choose your own destiny. On Shavuot, our living room is packed and there are many classes taking place here. I consider this the ultimate holiday. My most magical memories are related to this holiday, when we studied Torah all night at Midreshet Lindenbaum. I try to give the members of the community a similar experience, to show a celebration of Torah. That’s very important to me.”
Mirvis: “In recent years, my children have begun studying all night with me. They come with me to classes, as it’s important for them to stay up all night whether I’m teaching or learning, in order to experience the essence of the holiday. Shavuot is the holiday that encompasses the intellectual and emotional aspects of Torah study. I try to create this refinement for my children, my community, and for the broader Jewish community.”
Where will we see you a few years from now?
Mirvis: “It’s clear to me that I will continue to teach, learn, and be a guide and role model within my community and beyond. I hope I can engage anyone who is seeking Jewish connection and show how the Torah is relevant to everyone, whatever place they are in.”
Shoval: “Beyond studying and teaching in the places where I am currently teaching, I want to be relevant not only for religious people but also for wide sectors of the Israeli public, responding to questions, providing guidance, and giving everyone the feeling that someone hears and understands them.”