Mazal tov to the two newest graduates of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) at Midreshet Lindenbaum, Rabbanit Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld and Rabbanit Shira Zimmerman.
Both Zimmerman (left) and Rosenfeld – whose internship of the past two years as a Spiritual Leader in Efrat recently turned into a paid position – received certification as Spiritual Leaders and Arbiters of Jewish Law (Morot Hora’ah) in a January 3rd ceremony, after successfully completing five years of intense study and then passing exams equivalent to those taken by male semikha students in the laws of kashrut, Shabbat, family purity, mourning, marriage and divorce, and conversion.
Participating in the ceremony were Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone (OTS); Rabbi Ohad Teharlev, Director of Hebrew-language programs at Midreshet Lindenbaum; Rabbanit Chana Godinger Dreyfus, head of the Midreshet Lindenbaum Beit Midrash; Rabbi Shuki Reich, Head of the WIHL; and Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner, WIHL Director.
The ceremony featured a panel discussion on various models of female communal leadership and challenges unique to women spiritual leaders; amongst the panelists were Rabbanit Meira Welt-Maarek, who was certified by the WIHL in 2015, and Mrs. Shani Taragin, senior faculty member of Midreshet Lindenbaum and the WIHL.
A New Model for Emulation
“Certifying women to serve as spiritual leaders and arbiters of Jewish law is important, even revolutionary,” said Rabbi Riskin, “but it’s something that should have happened already a long time ago. To our great satisfaction, today’s girls and women have a new type of role model to look up to and emulate. I sincerely hope that the integration of female spiritual leaders will grow, so that greater numbers of women will be given positions in synagogues, communities, and other institutions, both in Israel and in the Diaspora,” said Riskin. “And it will happen,” he declared.
Words from Rabbi David Stav, co-Chancellor of OTS, were read aloud. “Rabbi Stav was here to personally congratulate tonight’s graduates, but unfortunately had to leave the ceremony a few minutes ago in order to perform a wedding,” explained WIHL Director Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner, who shared Stav’s formal blessing to the rabbaniot: “We have merited to live in an era in which women are learning intently and achieving status of talmidot chachamim and morot halacha, [women who have permission to make halakhic rulings]. I am pleased to bless you with the prayer that you will continue to sanctify God’s name, that you will merit to increase holiness and promote Torah within the hearts of the people of Israel, and that we will all merit to strengthen and glorify the Torah.”
An Additional Outlet
“Inclusion of women in the world of the Rabbinate provides society with an additional outlet for questions and understanding,” according to Chana Godinger-Dreyfus, the head of the Midreshet Lindenbaum beit midrash. “The partnership of women in positions of leadership creates by its very definition a new opportunity for identification and personal connection, in addition to bringing a new hue of perception and perspective to the field. May it be G-d’s will that we be blessed with ever-greater numbers of women scholars, and that ever-greater numbers of communities will seek out female Torah leadership,” said Godinger-Dreyfus.
Rabbi Klitsner noted the fact that in this, the WIHL’s third certification ceremony, the recipients are both women who made aliya to Israel. “Midreshet Lindenbaum began as a beit midrash for women from the Diaspora, infusing them with the Torah of Eretz Yisrael,” he said. “It is symbolic, therefore, that while the first graduates of the WIHL were native Israelis, this year’s graduates were born in the Diaspora, showing the melding of the worlds of Israeli Torah study and world Torah learning.”
For the Sake of Learning
Rabbanit Shira Zimmerman delivered a short shiur highlighting differences in approaching Torah learning lishma – for its own sake – and Torah learning lo lishma – for a practical purpose – after which she shared elements of her own personal journey toward full time immersion in studying halakha and, eventually, spiritual leadership.
“After my first encounter with gemara, I studied for two years and for three years and still felt that I needed more time on the benches of the beit midrash,” she related. “Even as a teacher, I felt that lacked the breadth necessary to provide my students with a full picture, so I came back to the study of halakha.
“The yearning of women to achieve fulfillment in Torah study has brought women to discover that there is, indeed, halakhic permission for them to do so,” she said. “In a short period of time we advanced in our discovery and sought to explore the traditions and sources of our heritage, and we are finding our voices in a new spiritual dialogue, where the point of origin is a halakhic way of life. We are exposing the emotional and intellectual subjects which give life to the texts which resonate so deeply in our lives.”
Ironically, Zimmerman noted, “in a world that so quickly judges women and questions their motivation in studying ‘men’s’ subjects, I found it interesting that everyone would ask me, ‘but what are you going to be getting out of this?’ And because I came to learn for learning’s sake, I didn’t really have a good answer. But I have discovered that there is an importance to attaining certification,” she said. “There are women who want to share religious ideas with halakhic women, who want to discuss subjects that are important or intriguing to them while in the playground. Without definition and a title of religious authority, they will not know that there are learned women whom they may approach and ask.”
Zimmerman concluded: “I want to thank God for allowing me to be born at a time when women do not just watch, but also act and teach.”
Fulfilling a Dream
Rabbanit Dr. Rosenfeld also expressed gratitude for changes in women’s learning and leadership which enabled her to “be fulfilling a dream that I never really dared to dream, even when I studied in the Midreshet Lindenbaum overseas program many years ago,” she said. “I would never have dared to think about a “poseket halakha” – a female who can render Jewish legal decisions – or of acting in a rabbinical role, because when I was growing up that simply did not exist in the Orthodox world,” Rosenfeld stated.
“For the past two years I have merited to work in Efrat as a spiritual leader under the guidance of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin; a position which began without definition, as a pilot project – and it has been an incredible experience. There are four major areas in which I work: teaching Torah in the synagogues, also during the week; visiting houses of mourning and answering questions in that realm; answering halakhic questions in individual meetings and phone calls; and managing the Religious Council’s Financial Claims Court. In all of these areas, I feel I have contributed by virtue of being a woman. With the passage of time, I have been receiving greater numbers of questions from men in the community, such that today, I really feel that I am not there as a woman for women, but rather for the entire population.”
Rosenfeld concluded her remarks by looking at her two daughters and blessing them: “I hope that when you grow up, the world you grow into will be one which is more open to accepting female spiritual leadership.”