Tide of Orthodox Women Spiritual Leaders Making Waves in Israel

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
eJewish Philanthropy

Women’s-Institute-of-Halakhic-LeadershipFirst there was the Matriarch Sarah, who according to the Talmud was a greater prophetess than her husband, Abraham. Then there was Judge Deborah. Later, there was Bruriah, quoted as a sage in the Talmud.

“Throughout Jewish history, there have always been special women who have studied Talmud and been wonderful leaders,” said Efrat Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Riskin.

However, in at least the last century, Orthodox women have been discouraged and forbidden from studying the Talmud and becoming adjudicators on Jewish law or serving as spiritual leaders. In Israel, this is changing.

Last month, Rabbi Binyamin Lau appointed Jerusalem’s first female communal leader at his synagogue in south Jerusalem. Carmit Feintuch, a former teacher and educator at the Migdal Oz seminary in Gush Etzion, was selected to serve as “rabbanit” of the 140-member religious-Zionist shul, Ramban. Her first Shabbat was Sept. 2 to 3.

Feintuch’s selection came just one year after Rabbi Shlomo Riskin appointed Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld the first woman in the history of modern day Israel to serve as the spiritual leader of an Orthodox community. Rosenfeld received her degree as an arbitrator of halakha from the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) at Midreshet Lindenbaum.

In the last decade, a number of Orthodox women’s training programs have opened in Israel. Nine years ago, WIHL started to serve women who wanted to learn full-time. Students who are generally married and in their 30s and 40s are provided with a stipend to learn Talmud, Jewish law – Shabbat, family purity, kashrut, mourning, marriage and divorce – and receive leadership training.

According to Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner, program director, the women must be “very steeped in and committed to tradition,” if they are to be accepted to and survive WIHL. So far, six women have received their heter horaa licenses to offer opinions about Jewish law.

Graduates have become assistants to rabbis at major hospitals; have written recommended legislation rooted in Jewish law, and penned legal briefs on issues such as the mikvah, which could impact issues of religion and state.

Beit Midrash Har’el, founded in October 2013, ordains men and women rabbis, who study Torah together. In June 2015, it became the first program to grant a full smicha to two women. This year, it launched a fellowship program to train future thought leaders. Har’el will grant smicha to students who complete a three-year program of thrice-weekly seven-hour session and a one-and-a-half-hour evening session once per week.

Rosh Beit Midrash Rabbi Herzl Hefter said the mission of Har’el is to provide a viable alternative for Modern Orthodox Jews to learn and construct a vision of Torah life that addresses the thorny issues rooted in the contemporary sensibilities of fairness and equality that challenge Orthodoxy in 2016.

“We live in a world where men and women function together,” said Hefter. “Separate but equal is not equal.”

Hefter contends that the Modern Orthodox Jew is bifurcated by what the Torah says and what individuals believe to be right. He said that if women can become CEOs, project leaders and take on other leadership roles outside of the synagogue, then it is nothing short of “offensive” that when they walk into shul “women cannot speak, cannot be president, rabbi. … Our two worlds have to be brought together.”

A Natural Part of the Community

The results seem to be of benefit to congregants and communities. Rosenfeld said since taking up her role she has seen the need for it. She receives many questions from men, women and those on “the fringes” of Orthodoxy who told her they had not felt comfortable addressing certain issues with male rabbis in the past.

Rosenfeld teaches well-attended classes in Efrat and visits area middle schools.

“The kids are growing up with this so for them it will be the norm,” said Rosenfeld. “It has really become natural part of the community.”

Klitsner, too, said it is vital that women serve in leadership positions to provide role models for the next generation.

“If you don’t have women leaders then we are depriving ourselves of 50 percent of the reservoir of talented intellectual and spiritual leaders,” he said.

Rabbi Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, one of the first two rabbis to receive ordination, said she did not go for the degree in order to get a title. However, she since realized, “without a title, I wasn’t actually able to perform precisely the same work as my make colleagues,” she wrote in Haaretz in 2015.

A Step toward Redemption

Of course, it was not easy for those trailblazers who first granted women these opportunities. Riskin recalled how when he started the first high schools in which young women learn Gemara many looked askance.

Lau said it took him three years of discussions and private meetings to get his congregation on board. Still, when the congregation voted whether or not to hire a woman spiritual leader, only two-thirds voted in favor.

The position of women in communal life in America has led to significant divisions within the Modern Orthodox community. The Rabbinical Council of America in 2015 banned RCA member rabbis from ordaining women and from hiring women for rabbinic positions at RCA institutions. Hefter was attacked in the U.S. as non-Orthodox, he said. And Agudath Israel of America, which represents the ultra-Orthodox stream of Judaism in the U.S., denounced institutions that hire women as “beyond the pale of Orthodoxy.”

Will this new phenomenon stick in Israel?
“The whole movement is flowering,” said Riskin.

He noted that the decision by Lau to put a woman in a leadership role will serve as a model for other congregations, which could follow in Ramban’s footsteps.

While Rosenfeld did express concern about where funding will come from in a Jewish state where women rabbinical leaders will not be recognized by the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate or likely funded through public funds in the near future, Hefter said there will be a way.

“What I care about is modeling a future in which there is no need for differentiation between men and women,” he said. “It shouldn’t be an issue.”

“I think this is another step of the redemption,” said Lau.


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