On two consecutive Fridays in June, headlines in the press caught my attention.
On June 5, The Jerusalem Post’s editorial headline was “Marriage scandal.” That article informed us that “thousands of couples are presently unable to divorce due to an unhealthy marriage of politics and religion.” It would appear that for the past 18 months, the committee for rabbinical court appointments, which consists of rabbis and politicians, has been paralyzed due to infighting among its political element.
The committee has been unable to agree on the appointment of urgently needed new members to the Rabbinical High Court, which has suffered the loss of a number of judges due to ill health or age.
As a result, there is an unprecedented backlog of cases – some 2,900 – awaiting court hearings. A high proportion relates to chained women, agunot, whose husbands decline to give them a get (a divorce under Jewish law). Too often, this is because the wives refuse to succumb to their husbands’ demands for money in exchange for the get.
The following Friday, June 12, Haaretz carried a front-page story of two committed women who, together with two men, were ordained by Rabbi Daniel Sperber and Rabbi Herzl Hefter, founding head of Jerusalem’s Beit Midrash Har’el. These four made history as the first to have gained smicha (rabbinical ordination) through Har’el’s coed smicha program. Rahel Berkovits and Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy will now be able to call themselves “rabba,” the female version of “rabbi.” They will join Sara Hurwitz of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale’s synagogue in the Bronx as the only Orthodox women to hold that title. There can be no doubt that these exceptional women have broken a glass ceiling within the Orthodox community.
Berkovits has been teaching at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, open to post-college men and women, for some 20 years and will continue to do so. Speaking with her shortly after the announcement of her smicha, one could feel her excitement and wonder over her achievement.
“I still can’t believe this has happened,” she said. “It is a major breakthrough...women have never had this opportunity until recently.”
It is her hope that this breakthrough will penetrate the grassroots of communities worldwide so that it will no longer be seen as unusual, but become the norm. Her vision for the future is that women will finally be accepted as part of a chain of rabbis giving commentaries on the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) that will pass down from generation to generation.
Hefter, under whom Berkovits studied for the past 23 years, was anxious to clarify that the Har’el institute is 100-percent Orthodox and traditional in its teachings. He emphasized that those endeavoring to gain smicha in the program – whether male or female – are likely to have studied for 20-plus years in Israel, abroad, or a combination of the two. Of paramount importance is that his pupils – irrespective of sex – are treated equally. There is no “positive discrimination” in favor of female candidates. On the contrary, he was quick to point out that study results had shown the women to be in the top 10% of his students.
That this should be seen as remarkable inevitably poses questions at a period when women in the Western world are breaking glass ceilings in numerous directions.
HAVING BEEN involved for many years in promoting equality for women – including seven consecutive years as a member of the Israeli Delegation to the UN’s Annual Commission on the Status of Women, held in New York – I have witnessed progress in various areas. In Israel, it was heartening to see that a record 29 women were recently elected to the 20th Knesset – almost 25% of its membership.
Sadly, though, this phenomenon has not translated into women’s roles within traditional Orthodoxy. Perhaps Hefter’s words – that “modern Orthodox people are facing unprecedented challenges today in terms of commitment on the one hand and authentic openness to modernity on the other” – express a prime reason for the lack of progress.
Can we envisage a time when women have a more equal role within the Orthodox community? As a former chair of the Hillel Foundation in the UK, I had occasion to talk to a number of dati (religious) girl students who felt totally excluded from the synagogue ritual.
There was a strong sense of wanting to participate far more actively in the service itself. Yes, there were opportunities emerging for women to hold their own Shabbat services, and that actually happened in an Orthodox community in Stanmore, a northern suburb of London.
However, those women, known as the Women’s Tefillah Group, were not initially allowed to hold services in the synagogue itself, and instead did so in a private home (at a later stage, they were permitted to use a hall within the synagogue precinct). Although they were able to conduct the service and read the weekly Torah portion, they had to do so from a humash (printed Bible) rather than a Torah scroll, which was not permitted.
While some might see this as “progress,” it definitely was not what the university students I had spoken to had in mind. They were looking for an egalitarian experience.
Fast forward a few years, and that is what we find has evolved in Jerusalem, in the form of the Shira Hadasha congregation. Shira Hadasha embraces Halacha, tefila (prayer) and feminism with the participation of both genders.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that one of the founding members is Rabba Berkovits.
STAYING WITH my son and his family one Shabbat in Jerusalem, I said that I would love to experience the service at Shira Hadasha. A little reluctantly, my son agreed that he and the family would accompany me and my husband to this congregation on Shabbat morning.
One of the first things I noticed was the high percentage of young families who made up this community. It was also interesting to note that the mehitza (partition) went right down the middle of the hall – dividing the bima into two.
A woman led the Shaharit service and a man led the Musaf prayers. Women were called up for aliyot (reading the blessings before the Torah reading), with the exception of the first two sections of the weekly portion, which are reserved for a kohen and a levi. Women also read from the Torah itself.
Now for confession time: Having been brought up in a traditional Orthodox environment conversant with the synagogue service, and while completely understanding that many younger women wish to play a more active role within the prayer service, I personally have no desire whatsoever to do so. In fact, as much as I was looking forward to participating in the Shira Hadasha service, I spent a sleepless night on the eve of my visit praying I would not be given an aliya! In witnessing the breakthrough that two Jerusalem women have made, we can but hope that this is a first step toward a more egalitarian faith. Will these learned women and those who follow be able to make their voices heard? Can we foresee a time when they might sit on the Rabbinical Court Appointments Committee and ensure, for example, that the chosen judges will know how to address the challenges confronting a woman who is refused a get? Can we imagine a day when the Orthodox synagogue will accept a rabba to lead the congregation? For sure, as Bob Dylan said, “the times they are a-changin’” – but perhaps not just yet. ■
The writer is co-chairperson of ESRA, and has been active in public affairs and status-of-women issues.
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