Women entering the great halachic conversation

Each of our unique challenges affect women existentially as equal citizens of our Jewish state.

July 10, 2013 22:28
Jewish woman lights the Shabbat candles

Jewish woman lights the Shabbat candles 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)

In the July 7 edition of The Jerusalem Post, Rachel Kohl Feingold, a recent graduate of Yeshivat Maharat in NY, wrote movingly of her own course of dedicated study of rabbinic texts and issues.

Admirably, Feingold also spoke moderately and respectfully of corners of Orthodoxy where certain domains of women’s leadership remain outside their comfort zone – including the large rabbinic organization RCA that saw Maharat’s ordination of women as a “violation of our mesora.”

Here in Israel, far from the American Jewish scene, where synagogue life remains the uncontested center of religious experience, far from the RCA’s particular concerns regarding halachic “slippery slopes” and far from the reality in much of middle American cities and neighborhoods where the rabbi is often the only leader capable of reading the Torah scroll and performing other ritual functions – here, the reality calls for a slightly different courageous trailblazing.

In the state of Israel we face numerous challenges of religion versus nationality, especially in critical personal status issues such as conversion, marriage and divorce and in giving the Sabbath and Festivals their due as expressions of our unique ideals without coercing individual citizens, to mention just a few.

And since Judaism presents both a religious and a national identity in terms of our literature, our festivals and our lifecycle celebrations, each of our unique challenges affect women existentially as equal citizens of our Jewish state.

The need for learned women’s halachic voices here is all the more crucial at a moment of unprecedented renaissance of thirst for Jewish learning and meaningful Jewish experience on the part of traditional and secular Israelis, who fully expect the leadership of women alongside men. Moreover, promoting women’s voices within halachic conversation has become all the more possible in our generation as a result of a virtual revolution in women's study of halachic texts, largely initiated by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik in America.

HALACHA, IF understood profoundly, is the ongoing attempt to take the rich and multi-vocal Jewish tradition of law and custom and the voluminous and wide ranging Responsa to questions that arose from an infinite array of human situations and have all of this confront the nuances of an ever changing social, political, economic, and sometimes deeply personal reality.

Halacha is, at its core, a great and ongoing conversation.

While history provides us with some salient examples of women scholars entering this conversation, never before has there been such an existential need and such a societal possibility of engaging women in this conversation as equals. If indeed the halachic conversation is to play an important role in the development of Israel as a Jewish state, we dare not exclude, and we dare not deprive ourselves, of this invaluable reservoir of talented leadership that comprises at least half of our people.

FOR THE past seven years, Ohr Torah Stone's Midreshet Lindenbaum College has been training women who possess rich prior backgrounds in Talmud and Halacha in an intensive, fiveyear program geared toward providing them with the knowledge and nuanced thinking to enter the great halachic conversation.

Two years ago, together with Rav Yehoshua Reich, I certified the first two graduates of our program with what halachic terminology calls “heter hora’ah.”

This is the license to decide halachic issues that has been the core of rabbinic training throughout the centuries. These two women, Anat Novoselsky and Idit Bartov, regularly answer halachic queries from laypeople in areas of kashrut, Shabbat, family purity and mourning.

To echo Kohl-Feingold: is what we’ve done trailblazing? And yet, in addition to biblical, Talmudic, and medieval precedents of great women halachists, judges, and spiritual leaders (albeit few in number, but who were accepted and respected), the move to train women poskot (halachic decisors) and dayanot (religious judges) has been recognized as legitimate and desirable by contemporary authorities as well.

Rav Bakshi Doron, a former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, wrote in Binyan Av (65:5, p 287), his book of responsa, that women may be “gedolei ha’dor, great halachic leaders of the generation, serving as decisors, teachers of Torah and dispensers of halachic rulings.”

Additionally, the recent, wellreceived publication of the Shulhan Aruch Hoshen Mishpat, published by the Ariel Institute of Rav Sha’ar Yashuv Cohen, former chief rabbi of Haifa with the imprimatur of former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, affirms that a woman is “qualified to render halachic judgments (to be a dayan) if she is accepted by the litigants or by the leader of the municipal government, as long as she is learned and expert in laws of the Torah.” (Halacha pesukah, Hoshen Mishpat Laws of Judges, 7, 1) We will continue to expand our program of the Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership. We will continue to provide these extraordinary women with practical pastoral skills and sensitivity workshops (that are standard in our Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Rabbinical Seminary for men, and should also become standard in all male seminaries), and we will promote their leadership in Jewish communities and schools in Israel and throughout the world.

We opt, however, not to use the title “rabbi” for our graduates because – especially in smaller congregations throughout the Diaspora – the “rabbi” is expected to pray on behalf of the congregation in public prayer and publicly read from the Torah, functions which we believe that women may not discharge for congregations comprised of men and women.

But we do refer to them as “spiritual leaders” and “morot hora’a” (those with license to answer halachic questions), which reflect all of the areas in which they have been trained.

The training of women in areas from which they were traditionally excluded within Orthodoxy will accomplish a much-needed change within modern Orthodoxy worldwide, will serve a crucial need for the national-religious community and will provide an otherwise inaccessible link to modern secular Jews, as well.

Modern Orthodoxy in Israel today desperately needs an infusion of a clear, distinctive ideology that is both consistent with the dynamic nature of Halacha and with the changing social and ideological reality of a generation that views women as endowed with spiritual and intellectual capacities that are no less prodigious than those of their male counterparts. An Orthodoxy that discriminates (without halachic justification) between its male and female constituents will have less and less relevance to a large section of its members.

The need for women to serve as role models to younger women, to be available to female petitioners on sensitive gender-related topics, to provide a woman’s sensitivity on many issues, to be available as leadership on the other side of the mechitza, etc. – all this goes without saying as filling a crucial void.

However we also anticipate that the leadership of our women will benefit the male population as well. Ultimately, women's leadership will strengthen the entire halachic enterprise and add immeasurably to the ongoing halachic conversation.

May God grant us the wisdom to do all of this with the courage of conviction and the sensitivity that trailblazers need to have – lest they look back and see that few have followed.

The author is the chief rabbi of Efrat and the chancellor and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, a comprehensive network of educational institutions.

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