A Kosher Certificate for Women Rabbaniyot
After they have filled the study halls and taught Jewish law to the masses, the State of Israel is giving a thumbs up to the revolution of women rabbaniyot | The Ministry of Religious Services will for the first time allow women to be tested for the rabbinate on a track parallel to that of men | The women spiritual leaders are excited about the support of the minister, who has declared his commitment to them, but the association leading the struggle is not popping the champagne just yet, and has decided carry on with its petition to the High Court of Justice.
by Chen Artzi Sror | 04 November 2021
They persevered for years at their studies in the Beit Midrash, were examined by great rabbis on a track identical to the exams given by the Chief Rabbinate, they are proficient in Jewish law and they love it. Nevertheless, until now, the State of Israel has not recognized the knowledge or standing of Orthodox women rabbaniyot. In fact, even the Hebrew language doesn’t recognize them. In Hebrew, after all, the title of rabbanit/rabbaniyot until now has designated the wife of a rabbi. However, these women did not receive the title by virtue of marriage, but rather thanks to the education and training they received. They also earned the title by virtue of the support of a public thirsty for their leadership.
Until a few years ago, the world of women’s Torah focused only on study and was limited in scope, but the past ten years have seen a sweeping change. More and more women scholars have become spiritual leaders, Morot Hora’ah [women authorized to provide direction in matters of halakha-Jewish Law] and halakhic decisors in the eyes of the public that has chosen them and that considers them the person they want to go to with their questions.
In 2005, Ohr Torah Stone’s Midreshet Lindenbaum opened the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership (WIHL), the first training track for women who wished to take the exams that exactly parallel the ordination exams for men rabbis given by the Chief Rabbinate; two women from that first cadre graduated the course. Today, there are seven institutions throughout Israel in various midrashot that are training women in Jewish law, with dozens of graduates and dozens others who are still training. Just the same, women Orthodox rabbaniyot are a rare creature: They exist in reality, are multiplying and becoming increasingly common, but lack any official designation.
Now, for the first time, the Ministry of Religious Services will test religious women giving them the exact same examinations given by the Chief Rabbinate for men. This moment in Jewish history and the history of Jewish women is a great one. It is a moment of recognition never seen before. The program of the Ministry of Religious Services was born in response to a petition filed by a number of women rabbaniyot to the High Court of Justice, represented by the Jewish life advocacy organization, ITIM. The rabbaniyot argued that the Chief Rabbinate was discriminating against women by not allowing them to take the exams as the men do, and the High Court of Justice demanded that the state find a solution. The Chief Rabbinate, for its part, responded that if it were going to be forced to accept women candidates for the tests for the rabbinate, it would not test anyone – men or women.
With the entry of Minister Matan Kahana into the Ministry of Religious Services, a change in attitude occurred. Kahana is very familiar with the world of women’s Torah learning. Since taking office, he has visited midrashot, met with women studying Tosfot and the Beit Yosef, and is also well acquainted with the considerable support they enjoy among the National-Religious public. This phenomenon has gained momentum at a dizzying speed. In February, Rabbanit Devorah Evron (Director of the WIHL) was appointed the spiritual leader of Bar-Ilan University, a position that did not exist in the religious university until now. In April, recent WIHL graduate Rabbanit Shira Marili Mirvis was appointed to lead the Shirat Hatamar synagogue in Efrat, becoming the first woman Orthodox rabbanit in Israel to lead a congregation. And of course, there are many women who are Morot Hora’ah and rabbaniyot who are filling the study halls, invited to participate in public forums, members of the Beit Hillel rabbinical organization, and who attend to the needs of the public. While the women Orthodox rabbaniyot do not lead prayers and are not counted as part of a minyan, they do respond to halakhic queries, teach Torah to the masses, provide spiritual support for people in various significant stages of life such as mourning, birth or marriage and serve as an address for any halakhic question, like a male rabbi.
According to the program being promoted and budgeted by Kahana to the tune of about a million shekels, a system parallel to the Chief Rabbinate’s system of examinations will be established within the Ministry of Religious Services. A steering committee led by rabbis and rabbaniyot will draft the exams for the women, which will be identical in scope and depth to those given by the Rabbinate to men. Any women who successfully passes the exams will thus be able to compete for any public position that demands passing the Rabbinate’s tests as a threshold condition.
This revolution is dramatic, but as always is only partial. There’s a catch: Women cannot contend for the position of city rabbi because the position requires rabbinical ordination. Even the petition to the High Court of Justice can’t provide a solution to that.
“I encourage these women to join religious councils, to compete for their leadership, to impact their communities,” says Kahana. “I would be happy to see them in positions of leadership and I will support them. The world of women’s Torah learning is wonderful news for the public that believes in it, and it enjoys the support of some of the greatest rabbis. We decided that in the Ministry of Religious Services we would integrate women in as many positions as possible. The petition to the High Court of Justice is certainly on the table, but this involves what I want to do and I want to address this in my ministry. I am amazed by the devotion and yearning on the part of the women Torah students and scholars, and as an observant Jew, I am committed to them and I will be there for them.”
And indeed, it appears that never have so many women entered the gates of the Ministry of Religious Services. The minister meets regularly at roundtables with women from Torah worlds, with women’s organizations and other populations, for example with representatives of the traditional communities in Israel, which have recently started to form an association. There is a genuine effort on the part of the ministry to understand the different needs of the various groups. The tests for the Morot Hora’ah are a link in a long chain. Kahana encourages the appointment of women Kashrut supervisors, and a program for Yo’atzot Halakha, halakhic advisors who respond only to queries on family purity, is also on the table.
The ITIM association, which is representing the petitioners before the High Court of Justice, is less satisfied with the current situation and has no plans to withdraw the petition to the court. “There is really no such thing as ‘separate but equal,'” says Rabbi Shaul Farber, chairman of ITIM. “There is a lot of good will here, but a lot of people may cause the solution to fail. We need a budget, a plan, legal advice, and I fear that we won’t attain our goal. The steering committee is also unnecessary. It should be the same test on the same day, and then no money or steering committee will be needed and there will be no need to suspect the exam’s content. The government’s clock is ticking and that’s why we want an immediate solution, not a year-and-a-half plan.”
I met with Rabbanit Devorah Evron, who runs the halakhic leadership program in Ohr Torah Stone’ seminary and is training the next generation of women rabbaniyot, exactly four and a half years ago for a meaningful conversation. She was then a new graduate who had just completed her certification exams whom I interviewed for my book The New Religious Women, about the religious feminist revolution. Evron was examined by some of the greatest rabbis, including the late Rabbi Elyashiv Knohl and Rabbi Eliezer Melamed of Har Bracha Yeshiva. I asked her then why she entered into such a long and difficult process given that her knowledge would not be officially recognized. I asked her if we can expect to see the change in our lifetimes, or if only our daughters will benefit from the fruits. I haven’t forgotten her answer to this day: “I want to be part of processes that will remain with us for years. It is clear to me that I won’t see some of them in my lifetime,” she said. “I am a link in the chain of generations and so the question ‘What will happen in the end?’ is not relevant for me because this is a process measured by the clock of eternity.”
Time apparently flies very fast. Today, as the spiritual leader of Bar-Ilan University, Rabbanit Devorah sees her rabbinical students repeatedly receiving a mandate from the public and does so with joy and generosity. When we recall that interview from back then, we both laugh. “I knew there were things that would happen after I left, and that is the long-range view we take, but I was sure that recognition by the official institutions would take much longer, that I wouldn’t be part of it. But things are happening more quickly than we thought. I congratulate the Minister of Religious Services and his staff for everything they have done in this matter. It’s not only the halakha test, but the change in approach that creates collaborations of a kind we’ve never seen before. They are taking the subject seriously and are doing so out of proficiency and understanding. Social processes occur from the bottom up and ripen when there is movement from the bottom down. And here we are at this point. We have done the field work, the public has made its choice, and now it’s the turn of the State.”