In a step that marks a major change in gender roles within modern Orthodoxy, women will be ordained as Orthodox rabbis.
Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute, founded by Rabbi David Hartman, himself a modern Orthodox rabbi, will open a four-year program next year to prepare women and men of all denominations - Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and also Orthodox - for rabbinic ordination.
Ordination will be provided within the framework of a teacher-training program that prepares graduates to serve in Jewish high schools in North America.
"For too long now we have been robbing ourselves of 50 percent of our potential leaders; people who can shape and inspire others," said Rabbi Donniel Hartman, co-director of the institute and son of David Hartman.
"The classic distinctions between men and women are no longer relevant. People who come to the Hartman Institute to study are committed to making gender equality in Judaism a reality."
Hartman said the institute was not trying to make a political statement by ordaining women as Orthodox rabbis, but rather was fulfilling a real need for "master educators" who could take on leadership roles in education in North American high schools.
Why would an institute that runs an Orthodox middle school and high school for boys, and that will open an Orthodox girls' school next year, decide to provide rabbinic ordination to women despite the controversy it will arouse in Orthodox circles?
"Hartman has been multi-denominational for the last 12 years. We make no distinctions between men and women here. Our latest decision is a natural evolution of our existing policy," Hartman said.
"We think the title 'rabbi' is important because in the Jewish tradition, the highest level of educator was given the title rabbi, which literally means teacher. Today, the top-tier educators seek the title of rabbi to reflect their status as well," he said.
During the four-year course, participants will receive a master's degree in Jewish Philosophy from Tel Aviv University and intensive training in teaching techniques and theory.
"This is a smicha [ordination] program that is not built around the classic learning of Jewish law, rather on the ability to communicate the central ideas of Judaism in an inspiring and meaningful way for the next generation of youth," Hartman continued.
Traditional Orthodox rabbinic training programs focus exclusively on text learning and the acquisition of legal knowledge. They do not devote time to teaching skills that Hartman believes are desperately needed.
Hartman will be the first institute to offer Orthodox rabbinic ordination to women.
In all non-Orthodox streams, being female is not an obstacle to becoming a rabbi. The Reform Movement began ordaining women in 1972, Reconstructionists began in 1977 and the Conservative Movement began in 1983.
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a leading modern Orthodox rabbi and head of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva, said in response to the Hartman Institute's announcement that he opposed giving women the title "rabbi."
"I think it is degrading to tell a woman that she won't be respected and appreciated unless she adopts a man's title," Aviner said. "Throughout the generations there were always scholarly women who were highly respected. Jewish law dictates that a man must stand before a learned woman just as he must stand out of respect for a learned man."
Aviner said he was more concerned with the idea that Orthodox Jews would study together with their Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist brothers and sisters.
"Learning Torah is like getting married," he said. "It is not just an intellectual exercise, it is a Jew's life. To learn with a totally secular Jew is permitted, but learning with Reform and Conservative Jews is problematic because they do not believe as I do, they do not have a fear of God."
The Hartman program will be the first rabbinic ordination program to bring together students from all the streams of Judaism. Each graduate will receive ordination in accordance with the stream of Judaism to which he or she belongs.
Aviner added that there was nothing in Judaism that prohibited learned women from answering questions about Jewish law.
"In some cases, women feel much more comfortable asking another woman certain halachic questions," he said, referring to issues of "family purity" or when and when not a woman is permitted to her husband after menstruation.
Nishmat, a modern Orthodox educational institute in Jerusalem, has been training women to answer family purity questions for several years. Orthodox rabbis familiar with the program say these women, who are doctors, lawyers, social workers and other highly educated professionals, often have more knowledge of family purity issues than their male rabbinic counterparts.
However, Nishmat, afraid of losing Orthodox legitimacy, is careful to emphasize that the women are not ordained as rabbis. Instead, they are called "halachic advisers" [yoetzot halacha].
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David, perhaps the first woman ever to receive Orthodox ordination (from a private rabbi, Aryeh Strikovsky, on Pessah eve 2006), said she hoped what she termed Hartman's rabbi-educator program would be "the first step toward full rabbinic ordination for Orthodox women."
She asserted that the Hartman Institute was "stopping short" of "calling them rabbis" and said this was "annoying." But, she added, "perhaps it is a political decision to start off with a half-title so as not to be too controversial and only later to give women the full title of rabbi.
"As people get used to seeing women in these positions they will open up to the idea of female rabbis," said Ner-David.
Ner-David, who has a doctorate in Jewish Studies from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, said she hoped female rabbis would transform the entire rabbinic institution.
"Women's voices are changing the way we practice Judaism. Ordination of female rabbis will not only bring these voices to the forefront, it will also change the way men serve as rabbis," she said.