From Matan to Harel, women push the boundaries in Torah learning

Matan was founded 30 years ago by Rabbanit Malke Bina, who began teaching a group of women around her dining room table.

Beit Midrash Harel's new cohort of rabbis. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Beit Midrash Harel's new cohort of rabbis.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbanit Surale Rosen sits at a table at the front of the auditorium at Matan in Jerusalem’s Katamonim neighborhood. About 20 women are listening to her class on Moses and Repentance. Some of the women wear the head coverings of married Orthodox women, others have their hair partially covered, and others, not at all.
She is a dynamic speaker, describing what happened when Moses came down from Mount Sinai and found the Jews worshiping the Golden Calf.
“I’m going to use a harsh word here,” Rosen said. “Massacre. This is a decision that Moshe (Moses) made by himself. He needed to reveal to the nation of Israel exactly who God is,” she says using the Hebrew “Kadosh Baruch Hu.”
One woman raises her hand.
“But the Jews haven’t even received the Torah yet.”
“No,” Rosen replies. “They had received the 10 Commandments, and we believe the entire Torah was given on Sinai.”
Forty-two and a mother of six, Rosen is a dynamic educator who has been immersed in the world of Halacha and Talmud for many years. Her family moved to England when she was 14, and she went to the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Beit Yaakov school.
She remembers a weekend trip with her class to a mansion that a wealthy Jew had bought in rural England. On the top floor was a library with antique carpets and hundreds of Jewish religious texts. The other girls walked in, looked around and left.
Rosen stood there and burst into tears, because the books were inaccessible to her.
“I promised myself that when I came back to Israel these books would not stay unopened for me,” she says.
She then embarked on many years of learning and teaching in various Jewish learning institutes in Jerusalem and at Bar-Ilan University. She came to Matan at age 30 and spent years focusing on Talmud.
For the past five years Rosen has focused on Halacha, as one of 10 fellows in Hilkhita, Matan’s Advanced Halachic Institute. The focus is on high-level studies dealing with Jewish law in the fields of Shabbat, kashrut, practices of mourning, and issues of family purity (when sex is permitted according to Jewish law).
The studies are often even higher level than those needed to become a rabbi. While the Chief Rabbinate would not recognize female rabbis, and these women say they do not see themselves as rabbis, they in effect learn to function as rabbis in terms of answering questions about Halacha, and learn how to write a teshuva, a halachic response to a legal question.
Today Rosen also runs Shayla, an English-language online platform that answers various halachic questions, and offers articles on issues such as: “Can I go to the mikveh (the Jewish ritual bath) with a tattoo?” The answer is that while it is not permissible to get a tattoo, it does not interfere with a kosher immersion in the mikveh as it is not a barrier between the water and the woman’s body.
Another student in the Hilkhita program is 40-year-old Rachel Weinstein, a mother of eight. She is a yoetzet Halacha, an adviser on Jewish law trained in issues surrounding family purity and fertility who teaches brides the laws of family purity. She says she does not use a title, just “Rachel.”
“One of the reasons I chose Hilkhata is I knew the focus is on the learning,” she says. “The Torah is the center, not personal gain, and not struggles for power. I feel the learning is very pure and it’s so refreshing.”
Weinstein says that studying Halacha on a serious level is the next challenge for women, after studying Talmud on a high level at places like Matan. She said she does not feel that getting smicha – the official title of rabbi – would make a difference for her.
“I received questions throughout the years I was learning, and we continue to do so,” she says. “Halacha is my history, my family, my tradition, and even what I sometimes struggle with.”
Matan was founded 30 years ago by Rabbanit Malke Bina, who began teaching a group of women around her dining room table. Today there are 11 branches in Israel, where hundreds of women study each year in both Hebrew and English. Bina said that Matan has helped shape the conversation about women and their role in Jewish law.
“Matan’s cutting-edge Hilkhata program is a unique and game-changing addition both to the field of women’s learning and to the world of Halacha,” says Bina. “Never in Jewish history has there been the phenomenon of a cadre of highly learned women in all areas of Talmud and Halacha. Hilkhata has grown these women, and they’re now halachic responders and inspirational leaders for the Jewish people.”
At the same time, there are some Orthodox institutions that bestow the title of “rabbi” on women. Rabbi Herzl Hefter is the head of the Beit Midrash of Harel, which describes itself as a “rabbinic studies program to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”
Harel recently graduated its second cohort of nine rabbis – five women and four men. All were granted the title “rabbi.”
While the Conservative and Reform movements have been granting women rabbinic ordination for decades, the idea of an Orthodox female rabbi is new, and to some, unacceptable.
“The pushback is coming mostly from America and a little bit from Israel,” Hefter says. “My former chavruta (study partner) was very angry with me. It makes it harder for me to be a scholar-in-residence in certain synagogues in America, but it’s nothing unbearable.”
One of the recent graduates is Batya Jacobs, daughter of Modern Orthodox leader Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat and founder of several schools in Israel. At the graduation, Hefter invited Riskin to give his daughter a blessing.
“He came up on the stage, he gave her a bracha (blessing), and he called his daughter a rabbi,” he said.
This would have been unheard of just a few years ago. Hefter says he believes it is important for men and women to study together, just as they live together in the world.
“I want to provide a vision for the future where the fact that it’s a woman learning or getting smicha is not even noticed,” he said. “The only way to show it’s axiomatic is to model it and to do it and show that even though women got smicha, the heavens haven’t fallen and Orthodoxy didn’t collapse.”
The students study three days a week for three years. Classes include public policy, comparative religion and creative writing.
“The idea is to bring the Torah into conversation with the 20th century,” Hefter says. “There are questions of social justice, civil rights, and what’s just and fair. It has to do with how we understand the Torah develops over time.”
He said he believes it is important that women who have earned it use the title of “rabbi” rather than “rabbanit,” which means “a rabbi’s wife.”
The problem, he admits, is Israeli grammar, with “rav” being masculine, and “rabbanit” being feminine.
“Right now there is this bifurcation between women being completely equal in their secular life but second-class citizens in their religious life in the synagogue,” he says. “Religion has to be relevant to our lives in a real way.”