The women who study Torah are as unique and individual as the men in the pages of the texts they study. Some come from dynasties of learners, some are the first woman in their family to delve deeply into the texts. Some see the task they have put before themselves as their greatest challenge, and others as their greatest achievement.
For some, it has lifted a burden; for others, it is the burden. But all see it as their life’s work – alongside the raising of their families.
There are many opportunities in Israel for women’s scholarship in Torah, and while women studying seems to be less controversial than ever, ordination, or the conferring of a title based on this scholarship, still raises hackles. However, increasingly, learned women are called “rabbanit” – the title that used to belong to a woman married to a rabbi, but now is used for a woman scholar in her own right.
In the US, however, the issue of titles and ordination is far stormier, with some saying the issue will split the community. Earlier this month, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot and his shul Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, New Jersey, were censored for hiring Marianne Novak – who is studying for ordination at Yeshivat Maharat – to be a rabbinic intern. Both the local Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC) and a number of rabbis in the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) responded to the move.
The RCBC amended its bylaws, which now bar from membership those rabbis of congregations that let women hold rabbinic positions or internships that are part of ordination programs.
In a blog post in the right-wing blog Cross Currents, Rabbi Avraham Gordimer wrote, “The few RCA members who retain female as clergy, assistant clergy, adjunct clergy or clergy interns at their congregations, as well as those who are involved with or promote semicha programs for women, act in outright defiance of halachic norms, the explicit stance of our poskim (rabbinic authorities), RCA policy and the standards mutually held and adhered to by our association of over 1,000 rabbis... It must be noted that in some cases, the female rabbis are cleverly given non-clergy job descriptions, in order to evade outside criticism.
Nonetheless, these female rabbis, who have Open Orthodox ordination and use rabbinic titles (including ‘Rabbanit’ when their husbands are not rabbis), often perform full-blown rabbinic functions in the congregations of the offending RCA members.”
In Israel, the synagogue system is a bit different, with the Diaspora model of a full-time rabbi being the exception, not the rule. Yet women are being hired for other jobs within schools and midrashot and hold authoritative positions within rabbinic organizations such as Beit Hillel, Matan and Nishmat’s Yoetzet hotline that offer advice and rulings – and in at least one case, on a religious court for monetary disputes.
The women who yearn to learn Torah and serve their community aren’t going away. With so much discussion on women’s achievements and so much scrutiny and suspicion devoted to questioning women’s “motivations,” perhaps it is time to hear from the women themselves as to why they have made the studying and teaching of Torah their life’s work.
RABBANIT SARAH SEGAL-KATZ’S home is as warm and inviting as her smile. Holy books line the top shelves and toys, the bottom. Born to a large religious family and raised in Jerusalem, she was profoundly influenced both by the pious men and the educated women who raised her. “The women in my family hold PhDs. I grew up in a home where a woman could be whatever she wanted to be – in all areas but Judaism.
“I was a curious child and learned on my own. Then I shared what I learned. Other children would ask me questions and I would answer them.”
Segal-Katz was encouraged to achieve academically, but not religiously. In high school, she studied Talmud and loved the cognitive and spiritual aspects of it, but was stifled, even as she was encouraged to continue. Often, she heard: “It’s a shame, if you were a man, you would have been a scholar,” at the same time as she was told to stop expressing her opinions and “be like everyone else.”
Following service in the air force, Segal-Katz studied in a midrasha as well as university, earning a master’s degree in Jewish philosophy. The mixed messages continued and influenced her as she sought a partner who would appreciate her intelligence, love of learning and desire to teach.
She found, fell in love with and married newly religious Adam Katz and the young couple devoted the beginning of their marriage to Torah study. Segal-Katz studied at Beit Morasha for several years, joining the halachic track and studying the laws of family purity with the goal of taking the same written exam given by the Chief Rabbinate. She was also tested orally by Rabbis Yehuda Brandes, Benny Lau, David Bigman and Rabbanit Michal Tikochinsky, who headed the program.
The Beit Morasha students went on to study the laws of Shabbat and, in due course, were tested by rabbis whose names cannot be publicized but that nearly everyone would recognize. One rabbi asked the women why they were studying Torah. Segal-Katz answered: “This is how we serve God.”
“Of course, they don’t ask the men why they learn. If you’re a man, you can... give a shiur (class), get an aliyah [to the Torah], even if you’ve just become religious... There is a perceived threat in women wanting to learn deeply.”
Segal-Katz asks, “What is the motivation in asking about women’s motivation?... There is a great suspicion when women learn. The minute I started learning, people asked me, ‘What are you going to do [with your learning]?’ I didn’t know what I was going to do. There are many women who ask me to teach. Women told me I need to do it for them, so they can learn from someone they connect to... the state doesn’t recognize any of it... [but] that’s a non-issue. It’s simply my life.”
For Segal-Katz, knowledge is integral to being Jewish.
“In order to serve God, one must have knowledge. Moreover, knowledge of Halacha, of how it works, its history, its development and its application is a necessary language, freedom and understanding to be a full citizen of the Jewish people. Fluency and understanding makes one a full partner in Judaism. It changes the person from spectator to full participant. It creates freedom and ownership that brings one closer to God, Torah and Judaism.”
Of course, it has real-world consequences, too.
“The conversation changes when we have knowledge. Men treat us differently – we become equals. We speak the same language. This knowledge gives us autonomy in Jewish life. It’s very important for the future of Judaism for women to learn Halacha – we will be legitimate members of the club. Judaism needs to work everywhere – not only in a shtetl.”
She acknowledges that knowledge is a burden which can sometimes bring pain. Segal-Katz runs the sexual abuse hotline for the organization Kolech, an organization that provides resources and employment assistance for female scholars and runs Dorshot Tov -an annual national female scholar-in -residence Shabbat. In this capacity, she encountered rabbis who used Torah to defend perpetrators.
“My life was easier and happier when I didn’t know Halacha. Now, when I encounter people who use Torah to defend bad behavior to women, to non-Jews, and it hurts, I ask, ‘How did this happen? How did this come from Torah?’… This using [of] Torah to harm hurts me… In my work with sexual assault victims… I worked with rabbis who defended offenders and used their knowledge of Torah to bully me. They knew a language that I did not, so I gave in – but now, I understand, I can respond. I can handle these conversations differently than I did five years ago. I can refute their claims.”
Beyond the four years in the Women’s Halacha Program at Beit Morasha, Segal-Katz graduated from Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa’s Halachic Kollel for Women and studied in the Har-El Beit Midrash.
“Knowledge is power. It’s comfort. One thing that most influenced me was learning ‘issur and heter’ in kashrut. You learn stringencies that are folklore, not Halacha, and now I understand that there were so many things that I did wrong. I threw away food and violated the commandment against wasting, ‘bal tashchit,’ because what I thought wasn’t kosher, was fine! All of a sudden you’re aware that things are not as they seem.”
This happens often, she says. Especially when it comes to ritual purity. “We are so overly strict at times that we create situations that are potentially worse. Often, brides are taught stringencies as Halacha.”
To counter this, Segal-Katz will be running a course in Merkaz Yahel: The Center for the Jewish Intimacy for bridal and couples counselors that will focus on high-level Halacha, as well as intimacy and sexuality. She will also teach at a new beit midrash in Beit Avi Chai and is opening a website for couples to learn about intimacy.
What does the future hold?
“Leadership is changing before our eyes. There will be opportunities for women. Rabbaniot of neighborhoods, heads of schools, communities... I want the experience of learning Halacha not to depend on gender... It’s difficult to understand why we were denied this knowledge. I want our children to have the choice, the opportunity, the chance to learn. My children know that ‘he’ can learn and so can ‘she’ – they have access. My children aren’t growing up with a struggle – the message is that they can do it all. Eventually, they will face reality outside, but we will be with them.
“I’m part of changing the world for my daughters, how they learn, what they learn. There will be less of a difference in what boys and girls learn... My children won’t be divided anymore into what ‘he can do but she cannot.’ It will just be part of the system.”
UNLIKE SEGAL-KATZ, who felt freed by learning Halacha, Rabbanit Yael Shimoni finds that learning Torah grows heavier as time goes by. Sitting in the library at the Susie Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL), where she earned a Certificate of Manhiga Ruchanit (spiritual leader), Shimoni shares that studying as a woman comes with a great weight and responsibility and drags politics and responsibilities with it. Yet she, too, loves learning.
Born in Jerusalem to an American mother and an Israeli father, Shimoni studied Talmud from sixth grade through post-army in Migdal Oz under Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. She also attended the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, from where she has a degree. She continued her studies in Matan Machon Talmudi for two years and recently graduated from WIHL.
Shimoni, 37, is the mother of three, holds multiple jobs and is trying to achieve what men achieve years earlier in life and without all of these obligations. “Most of my time is not spent learning,” says Shimoni, “it’s earning money... doing laundry... making costumes... running a house.”
She is frustrated that there is no full-time women’s yeshiva.
“Women carry around doubt that they haven’t learned enough of the hard-core Gemara. For women, it’s hard to get what for men is very easy to access. Many women who go into Talmud feel that their male peers had years of hard-core learning that they did not have. It takes time to tackle all of the tractates deeply. There aren’t enough women who are advanced enough to learn together, but we need to work to change this. We need women not only in [the subject of] family purity, but in all places in Torah. Women are half of society.”
Describing her reasons for learning, Shimoni is serious and reflective.
“My interest and my call to Torah isn’t because I’m looking to change anything. I’ve loved Torah from a very young age and when you’re young, you don’t see the world as broken. You see the world as whole. Now... it’s clear to see the world is broken and it needs to be fixed.
“The question we must ask is, ‘How do I make a change that is good and true to Torah? I don’t want to break from Am Yisrael, I want to be part of the Torah discussion. I want women to become part of mesorat Yisrael (Jewish tradition) on par with men, not a new Torah, not a new community, not a separate thing. We want to be part of the beit midrash.”
But how do rabbis and rabbaniot work together when the women aren’t yet at the educational level of the senior rabbis, with tznuit, masoret, yerat shamyaim (modesty, tradition, fear of Heaven)? Beit Hillel is the first place to open its doors to women that has women in the top levels of the organization.
Shimoni heads the Beit Hillel program Meshivat Nefesh, in which rabbaniot give halachic and spiritual guidance via the Internet. Having answered more than 200 questions online, “many of which are delicate and need women to address them,” they held a successful campaign to fund the new site, showing the desire for this service.
Shimoni admits she feels the political aspects of women studying.
“Facing the issues in feminism and change is hard – it’s in the air all the time. Even something as simple as a woman giving a shiur in shul – people ask, why is she doing this? Feminism affects the world – beyond Torah, in art and life. But in Torah, these questions arise all the time, each involvement of women... is a question of the slippery slope. I feel it when I walk into class and when answering questions. Talmud Torah for women is very heavy. Every time I learn, these are on my head. When I was younger, they weren’t, but now, I feel them.
“Women who are learning Torah have no clear aim, because there is no clear aim. We are looking to learn Torah and see how will this become part of our life.”
Shimoni taught in Jerusalem’s Pelech Girls High School for 10 years and will serve as a rammit (teacher) and vice-head of yeshiva in the Rosh Zurim Yeshiva, a full-time study program for women headed by Rabbanit Hanna Godinger (Dreyfuss).
She knows that many women feel challenged and frustrated in Judaism. To them she says, “Religion is not only Halacha, and Halacha is not only closed doors, it’s also open doors – it’s how you build yourself.” Shimoni suggests that women who feel stuck in Judaism should “find other women to get together with, to learn together to be together in this challenge.”
What of the future?
“I hope to see more yeshivot for women. I hope women write more. They don’t write as much as men – and it is one way men and women can talk – through their writing. I would like to find funding for women to publish.”
BORN IN the US to a family of rabbis, Rabbanit Devorah Evron made aliyah at age seven. Sitting in her office where she directs Ohr Torah Stone’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership, Evron shares that she, too, was told from a young age, “If I were a boy I’d go to Gush or Mercaz Harav,” referring to two famous yeshivot in Alon Shvut and Jerusalem, respectively.
Instead, she studied Gemara at Bar-Ilan University “before there were midrashot for women to learn” from 1984 to 1986 and studied psychodrama, becoming a therapist while continuing to study and teach Torah.
After earning an MA in gender and the arts, Evron worked in the Elga Stulman Women’s Institute for Jewish Studies at Hamidrasha in Oranim.
“In 2008, I realized that in order to make a difference in women and Judaism, we need women in leadership and Halacha, because everyone is losing, the world of Torah is losing, the community is losing, and women are losing.”
She studied at Beit Morasha and while she was there, the study program became a training program.
“Women were becoming more knowledgeable, people turned to women for answers, the Yoatzot Halacha (halachic advisers) program was happening – things were changing on the ground.”
At the end of the program, numerous rabbis – some very well-known – tested them for certification.
“You can’t print some of the names and they would never admit to it, but they came, they wanted to see if what people were saying is true. ‘Do these women really know what they are talking about? What is going on?’ They were very impressed, despite not being ready to give approval.”
Those rabbis who tested the women and whose names we can print are: Rabbis David Stav, Baruch Gigi, Amit Kula, Elyashiv Knoll and David Bigman. The women also took written exams toward certification as an “arbiter of Jewish Law” – the certification given to rabbis.
How is it to be one of the first certified female halachic decisors?
“I’ve gotten up to speak and people have walked out. In the middle of a shiur, a man asked me if I wasn’t uncomfortable answering halachic questions. I said, ‘There are questions I feel comfortable answering, things I’ve studied and I know the answers to – so, too, my male colleagues.’ It’s a great responsibility – whatever one’s gender. It’s not about gender, it’s about knowledge.
“As I see it, the role of halachic authorities is to assist the Jewish people, as individuals and as a community, to live a life of Torah, and a life of tikkun olam in service of God… Whether she serves a community or works in education, she is constantly thinking about how to ensure that Torah belongs to everyone, is accessible to all and how the Torah will be enriched by widespread Torah study. She must be approachable to everyone and keep their privacy.”
Are there a lot of people who won’t come to you?
“Yes, but there are a lot of people who will come… a woman because she feels we understand them, non-religious people who care about what Judaism has to say… because they feel they will be accepted, not that the halachic process will be different, but that we will listen to them. Our availability means that people who would otherwise not ask are able to ask.”
Many of the questions Evron describes are ones of emotion, or of difficult situations that need guidance and understanding. “Life does not always fall into categories… We need to deal with the ones that don’t fit easily.
“The good thing is that people know that there are women learning Halacha and they can find us and get what they need.” Even though women’s scholarship is not recognized by the state, which means women are not eligible for many things that men are eligible for – including certain positions, discounts on childcare and a higher pay scale (the certification is the equivalent of a master’s degree) – things are changing, evolving.
“Being a professional woman in Halacha is a statement – it is the change.”
ONE THING that seems constant is support from the men in their lives.
Segal-Katz noted immediately, “What really makes a difference here [in women’s ability to study seriously] is our spouses – they are a very a big part of our ability to do what we do.” Her spouse is known as the “rebbetz-man,” a play on the word “rebbitzen” – traditionally, a rabbi’s wife. Segal-Katz’s husband says, “It is my job to help her sprout wings… She’s a unique person and her voice needs to be heard. If she doesn’t do it, who will?”
Shimoni mentioned that she doesn’t study “one-on-one” with men because of the intensity and intimacy of that kind of learning – yet she does study with her husband, who teaches in Yeshivat Har Etzion. “It’s something we share.”
Evron says simply, “The support of my spouse has always been absolute. It is a partnership, a way of life and an inspiration.”
Indeed. This is part 2 of a two-part series. Read part 1 here.
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