In a ground-breaking development, the first ever book of responsa on questions of Orthodox Jewish law written by women who were ordained to serve as halachic decisors was published this week and presented to the public.
Idit Bartov and Anat Novoselsky were ordained three years ago to render halachic decisions for men and women in all topics of Jewish law after completing Midreshet Lindenbaum women’s college five-year ordination course in advanced studies in the corpus of Jewish law, in addition to passing exams equivalent to the rabbinate’s requirement for men.
The ordination was bestowed upon them by the municipal chief rabbi of Efrat, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the founder and chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of religious education institutes including Midreshet Lindenbaum, along with Rabbi Shuki Reich, head of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership at Lindenbaum.
Bartov and Novoselsky have, since their ordination, dealt with the halachic questions that are typically posed to arbiters of Jewish law by friends, acquaintances and others seeking guidance.
From this experience, and from the repository of questions and answers they have dealt with, the two authors compiled a book of eight halachic responsa on subjects such as smoking on Jewish holidays, whether or not a woman can serve as a rabbinical judge and the use of a water heated by solar panels on Shabbat.
There are several programs in Israel for advanced Talmudic studies for women, but Lindenbaum is the first Orthodox institution in the country to ordain women as authorized to give halachic rulings in every realm, and not just in the fields of family purity and women’s issues.
However, the notion of women issuing halachic decisions in Orthodox Judaism is a very new development and is not widely accepted, especially within the haredi community as well as the national-religious community.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Riskin insisted; however, that there has never been a question within rabbinic sources that a woman who is knowledgeable in Jewish law has the right to make halachic decisions.
“This is not a halachic departure in any sense and it is not a revolution in halacha,” said Riskin, citing a list of rabbinic sources and authorities from the Talmudic era until today that he said support the idea that women can give rulings in Jewish law.
He opined that “denying 50 percent of the Jewish people” the right to study and teach at the highest level would be far more divisive and problematic religiously than advancing halachic leadership for women.
Bartov, 47, acknowledged the lack of acceptance for women issuing halachic rulings, but said this was due to societal realities as opposed to obstacles in Jewish law.
“It’s not mainstream, it is a ground-breaking development, but we’re talking about a societal issue not a halachic one,” she told the Post, comparing the situation to the modern phenomenon in the ultra-Orthodox community of men studying full time in yeshiva while their wives support the family financially.
Bartov pointed out a Jewish marriage contract stipulates a man work and provide financially for his family, which he doesn’t do while in yeshiva.
“Society can be stronger than halacha, or accepted halachic norms, and something which is generally accepted by society can become acceptable in the realm of halacha,” she said.
“People think that women teaching and deciding upon halacha is a feminist or Reform practice, but we’re saying that such a thing exists as an Orthodox ‘poseket halacha [halachic arbiter].’” Bartov says she is optimistic that acceptance in the Orthodox world will grow, but conceded that it may not be easy.
“This is not something which contravenes halacha, but it might be harder to overcome the societal and sociological psychological barriers than any halachic issues there might be,” she said.
Riskin addressed the reasoning behind what he sees as the importance of bringing women into the halachic discourse, saying that a female approach to Jewish law and the challenges facing Judaism today is a required component for religious life.
“Women naturally bring to halacha an emotional sensitivity which is a very important aspect of our oral law,” he said.
“The oral law was given within the context of God’s revelation of Himself as a God of love and loving kindness and compassion and patience,” he continued, emphasizing the importance of bringing such attitudes into the modern conversation on Jewish law by empowering women in the realm of halacha.
Riskin said however that he did not believe it would be practically possible for women to serve as the sole rabbinical head of a community, because of communal requirements such as leading prayers and other services that in Orthodox Judaism can only be performed by a man.
“Women can certainly play an important role as spiritual leaders,” he said, however. “My vision is that I want women to have an opportunity to study and teach Torah at the highest of levels. And I think women will add immeasurably to the world of halacha once they have the necessary knowledge, because they come to it with their own unique way of thinking and feeling.”