It is a weekday morning and at Midreshet Lindenbaum, an Orthodox women's seminary in Talpiot, a handful of students in the Manhigot (women leaders) program - designed to give women tools in psika (religious ruling) - are sitting and learning Baba Metzia (a talmudic tractate) in the seminary's beit midrash.
Down the road at Beit Morasha, a center for Jewish studies and leadership development, a group of women in the Halacha program are sitting in pairs learning Even Ha'ezer, part of the corpus of Jewish law. Not far away at Nishmat, a leading center for Jewish women's learning, students in the Keren Ariel program are learning the key halachic sources relating to family purity.
The three programs - each of which provides a select group of exceptional women scholars with the opportunity to reach the highest level of Jewish scholarship, often with the same curriculum as rabbinical schools - were created to address different needs within the modern Orthodox world and, arguably, are unprecedented in their attention to training women for involvement in halachic discourse and the application of Jewish law.
"What is different about the Keren Ariel program is that women are involved in the application of Halacha and are not just involved in the study of Halacha," says Rabbanit Chana Henkin, the founder and dean of Nishmat. "There is nothing like this anywhere else in the world."
The Keren Ariel Fellowship program for yoatzot Halacha (female halachic advisers), founded 12 years ago by Henkin, was devised in response to a perceived need in the modern Orthodox world that Jewish women needed a resource to turn to and would perhaps be more comfortable approaching women with questions relating to Jewish family life, women's health and sexuality than they would be in approaching their rabbis. A 10-year restriction that had been put in place on validity of the advisers' certifications was recently lifted at a ceremony held at Nishmat.
At the end of the two-year program - with a curriculum that is the same as what a rabbinical student would be studying in the field of nidda (separation during and immediately following menstruation), as well as supplementary studies in women's health - students take four-hour oral exams before a panel of rabbis associated with the program and are employed as advisers on Nishmat's telephone hot line and interactive Web site. To date, the 61 graduates of the program have addressed more than 100,000 inquiries from within Israel and abroad.
"I describe it as a moment of ruah hakodesh [divine inspiration]," Henkin smiles when asked what the impetus was for the program. "For a good quarter of a century I was saying to myself that this has got to exist. On the one hand, many women were not asking questions. Some women were observing too leniently. Many women were observing too stringently, and that needed to be remedied. Many women were having very serious problems, problems that were creating a lot of pain, a lot of grief. I realized that the solutions to these problems lay in creating something that we had never had before - women who were educated on the highest level on these laws in order to be able to be a resource for other women."
Racheli Schprecher, who works on the halachic hot line, describes some of the phone calls she receives from both men and women, which touch on a range of health issues, contraceptive side effects, fertility and in some cases, bizarre travel scenarios, such as one where a young woman travelling in India could not find a safe place to immerse at the end of the nidda period. She was a week's journey away from the Chabad House, and the only available bodies of water in which to immerse were the sulphur baths or the Ganges River.
Schprecher explains that very often women will call with one question relating to Halacha, and then launch into a discussion about a very difficult situation they may be facing.
"I didn't know how significant it [working on the hot line] was going to be. I came for the book knowledge; but over time, I was exposed to people's needs and it is still very stimulating intellectually," she says.
WHILE THE Keren Ariel program addresses a particular niche market - training women to be consultants in the area of family purity and then providing them with salaried positions on their hot line and Web site - Lindenbaum's Manhigot program and Beit Morasha's Halacha program (both of which were established four years ago) are designed to give women, many of whom are already working as community leaders or will be in the future, the knowledge and skills to grapple with important halachic issues.
Rabbi Ohad Teharlev, the head of Lindenbaum programs for Israeli students, explains that the Manhigot program arose out of a need for women, many of whom hold positions as heads of schools and batei midrash, to have a set of skills in Halacha relevant to their leadership positions.
"We saw that in the Torah world women are learning Gemara, but one field that many don't encounter is Halacha," he says. "One of Rabbi [Shlomo] Riskin's [the founder of Ohr Torah Stone institutions, one of which is Lindenbaum] biggest visions was that women would have the ability of psika. These women receive the tools and the foundations of learning Halacha so that they will know it and in the future be able to make these decisions."
A student in the Manhigot program, who did not wish to be named, explained her reasons for joining the program. "I really am learning so that I know for myself. On the other hand, I believe that there is a sense of shlihut [mission] and a social purpose and that women will become part of the milieu of religious legal ruling," she says.
Lindenbaum also has a women's program modeled on hesder (a program combining in-depth Torah study with army service) called Hadas, in which women combine a year of learning with two years of service in the Israel Defense Forces' education or intelligence corps.
Asked why religious girls choose to do a program involving army rather than doing voluntary national service, Teharlev seems surprised by the question.
"Why shouldn't they go to the army?" he asks. "There are roles in the army that in the first instance I would give women. Why, if girls can fulfill important tasks in intelligence, should they not do it?"
RABBANIT MICHAL Tikochinsky, the head of the Moshe Green Beit Midrash for Women at Beit Morasha, says that the primary aim of the Halacha program - where a select group of women leaders learn the same material studied in the rabbinical ordination track of the Interdisciplinary Beit Midrash for Men - is that women will have the relevant halachic knowledge to use in their positions as leaders and will be able to engage in halachic dialogue relating to key issues in contemporary Judaism.
"We saw that there was a gap in that these women were heads of batei midrash and girls' schools but could not answer halachic questions asked by their students. While male heads of yeshivot answer questions as a matter of routine, this wasn't happening with women because they were learned in Gemara but had not studied Halacha."
Tikochinsky emphasizes the importance of women's participating in broader discussions relating to Halacha within the modern Orthodox movement. Tikochinsky herself is asked by prominent rabbis to send them articles she has written about halachic matters.
"It doesn't mean necessarily that the women [graduates of the program] will give religious rulings, but rather that they will be able to participate in the halachic discourse," she says.
Rabbi Benjamin Lau, the head of Beit Morasha and rabbi of Katamon's Ramban Synagogue, explains that rabbis have a responsibility to include women and to respond to their demand to become more involved in the world of Halacha.
"The task of rabbis is to be in touch with reality, which means if women are asking to be involved in the Torah world, we need to listen to this and ensure that it happens. Every congregation has its own pace, and each rabbi needs to listen to the demands of the community."
Lau put this theory into practice on Simhat Torah, when for the first time women at the Ramban Synagogue danced with the Torah. This followed a request by a group of women in the congregation to increase their level of involvement in the festival celebrations. Lau told the women that they would be able to do hakafot of their own in the synagogue's social hall. "The atmosphere during the dancing was happy, spiritual and meaningful," comments Leora Kesten Roth, a member of the synagogue.
WHAT IS the future of women's leadership and the likelihood of Orthodox women receiving rabbinic ordination? Teharlev says this is the direction in which modern Orthodoxy is heading but emphasizes that the Manhigot program does not see this as a goal.
"We don't use the word 'rabbi' because of how it sounds. We are not coming from a davka perspective. The motivation is not to fight battles with others. Our motivation is pure, leshem shamayim [for the sake of heaven]," says Teharlev. "Perhaps one day there will be rabbaniot, but let it come from the grassroots, not by us creating the situation. The whole feminist revolution in the Torah world should come from the grassroots; it should come out of a need."
Tikochinsky believes that as women continue to become more learned in halachic matters, the community will begin to recognize their expertise and turn to them with questions. This does not necessarily mean, however, that women will formally receive rabbinic ordination, she says.
"You are asking me if women will become rabbis," says Tikochinsky. "We are not there yet. And the truth is, that's not what really matters to me. I believe that at a certain stage - and I don't know what it will look like - Orthodoxy will accept that women can be halachic points of reference and can answer questions. The more women learn, it will become more natural that people will turn to them, as well as to rabbis. It won't be such an issue."
As for the choice of the word "yoatzot" for the women in the Nishmat program rather than the term "rabbi," Henkin says, "You don't pull the community after you by doing things that sound sensationalist. You pull the community after you by creating a new reality, and that is what Nishmat has created. The issue is not the name. When people ask, 'Where is it going?' very often they do not have a sense of the drama of where it is now. Right now we have 61 women out there in Jewish life who are top-level scholars, who are dealing with the kind of pain and dilemmas and issues that can profoundly affect someone's life. People ask, 'Well, are they also going to learn kashrut?' Most of these women have already learnt kashrut. This isn't waiting to happen. This is here; it's half occurred," she says.
While programs such as Nishmat and Lindenbaum call their graduates "yoatzot" and "manhigot," some members of the Orthodox movement have taken the question of women's leadership a step further by addressing the issue of whether women can receive the title of rabbi.
In July, this was addressed at a [modern Orthodox feminist organization] Kolech conference on Women and Judaism, where one of the central topics was women's leadership. Conference participants took a survey about what the women should be called. Options included rabba (female rabbi), rabbanit and maharat ("manhiga hilchatit ruchanit toranit" - leader in Jewish religious law, spiritual matters and Torah).
Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, head of the Ma'aleh Gilboa Yeshiva, a Religious Kibbutz Movement member and one of the speakers at the conference, spoke to In Jerusalem about Orthodox women becoming rabbis. "There is no halachic problem with women sitting the exams and receiving certification that they are a rabbi. Rather it is a sociological issue. It not like the question of the role of women in synagogue services, where there is a question of Halacha."
Gilad says, however, that in order for this to happen, it needs to evolve naturally, referring to it as "evolution, not revolution" and that there must be a demand for it. "The demand needs to come from women and men, the same as the yoatzot Halacha came from a demand. That was also a breakthrough."
What do his colleagues think about the issue? Gilad says that most of them agree that women can be rabbis but are reluctant to say so. "Some rabbis think it's too dangerous to say what I said, but I think everyone believes it because it is not an issue of Halacha."
RABBI HAVIVA Ner-David, who has received private Orthodox rabbinic ordination, says that aside from issues that people may have with calling women "rabbi," such as the blurring of gender lines and sharing of halachic authority between men and women (primarily for sociological reasons and the fear of the collapse of traditional Judaism), some authorities believe that using the term "rabbi" will not advance the goal in the long run.
"There must be some male Orthodox rabbis out there who do not want to use the title because they think that using it will set back the struggle. I guess they think that if we get women into these positions but without the title, either the title will come later; or even if it does not or should not, what does it matter if women are doing the job anyway? So it's a kind of political move. But one has to wonder why this is only the case with Orthodox women rabbis and was not the case with doctors or lawyers or professors or even soldiers," she says.
While a handful of women have received private smicha (rabbinic ordination), the only institution offering ordination for Orthodox women in Israel is the Hartman Institute, which this year opened a multi-denominational rabbinical program that ordains men and women to work as rabbi-educators in community Jewish high schools across North America. Those ordained in this program will receive the title of "rav mehanech" (rabbi-educator).
"We haven't had any modern Orthodox women apply," says Rabbi Phil Field, the director of the program. "I don't think modern Orthodox women would see it as a problem because the program is not to make poskim [rabbinic decisors] but rather aims to broaden the educator's background so they can function in the day-school setting."
Dr. Chana Kehat, the founder of Kolech, says that the organization would like to establish an institution for women's ordination. But, she says, "This will only happen if it is what women want and if we can get funding. We need a donor who will understand the importance of such an initiative."
The issue of funding for women's learning is relevant across the board. Henkin explains that despite the success of the hot line, the main challenge has been finding donors who understand the value of women's scholarship.
"Jewish life has understood that resources need to be available for men to study Torah. It has been my job, and I have to say it's a challenge to re-educate the community, to tell people that women are a leadership resource," she says.
"Nishmat has (a) created a concept of having women experts on the laws of family purity; (b) created the rabbinic consensus to do this; (c) educated women; and (d) managed to bring the community along with us to say this is beneficial. But now the next step is to obtain the resources to get the women into leadership roles."
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