Kolech calls to appoint female rabbinical judges

Modern Orthodox feminist group marks decade of fighting for religious women's rights.

woman with torah 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
woman with torah 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
To mark its 10th anniversary, Kolech, the modern Orthodox women's organization, plans to begin training women to serve in the future as dayanim (rabbinical court judges). The organization is also calling to create an independent rabbinical court system staffed by dayanim more sensitive to women's needs and more in touch with modern Orthodoxy. "All of our successes over the past decade are a preparation for the future," said Kolech director-general Chana Pasternak. "Women need to become dayanot. Appointing women as rabbinic judges is the right thing to do now and we should start the process of training women for this immediately." Pasternak, who met with The Jerusalem Post ahead of Kolech's anniversary celebrations, which took place Tuesday at Bar-Ilan University, said that many of the problems in the rabbinical courts can be solved by a more feminist approach to adjudication. Pasternak also revealed Kolech's plans to create independent rabbinical courts but she was careful to separate between the appointment of women as rabbinical judges and the creation of these independent courts. She said that if the two were not separated, the chances for the creation of such courts would be hurt, since it would be seen as a stepping stone to the more controversial step of appointing female rabbinical judges. "These are two different things that we are working on. They have nothing to do with one another," she said. In arguing for independent rabbinical courts, Pasternak said, "Belz, Gur and Viznitz [hassidic sects] have their own courts. So does the Edah Haredit. These courts are justified because they deal with a very special population. It's time that we create our own courts as well, with judges who are sensitive to the needs of modern Orthodox men and women." Pasternak said that the appointment of female rabbinical judges would build on the advances that Kolech has achieved over the past decade. In numerous fields, Orthodox women have achieved a more equal status. Perhaps the most significant headway in women's status is in the field of Torah study. Advanced women's Torah education in places such as Midreshet Lindenbaum (Bruria), Midreshet Ein Hanatziv, Matan, and dozens of others, women learn Talmud and rabbinic literature on the highest levels. This has led to the development a cadre of highly erudite Orthodox female Torah scholars. More egalitarian synagogue environments have created more roles for women. Perhaps the most famous is Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, which integrates women more fully in the prayer service. Women lead certain prayers, read from the Torah and give sermons. Also, there has been increased Israeli consciousness regarding the plight of agunot, or chained women who are unable to finalize their divorces and remarry due to a recalcitrant husband. Organizations such as Mavoi Satum, Yad Le'isha and the International Coalition for Aguna Rights (ICAR) - an umbrella organization of 27 different groups - have succeeded in building a groundswell of support for changes in the way rabbinical courts relate to women. Kolech is probably the only Orthodox women's organization that has had a part in advancing each of these developments without limiting itself to any one of them. Emunah, the modern Orthodox women's organization that was loosely affiliated with the National Religious Party, tends to take a more conservative approach to Orthodox feminism. Kolech's call to begin training women to serve as rabbinical judges is an example of its more radical approach to advancement for women. In Israel, divorce law is based on Halacha, and the field of halachic adjudicating has been reserved solely for men. While Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism have ordained female rabbis, Orthodoxy has vigorously opposed opening up the field of rabbinics to women. Rabbinical judges are considered even more of an intellectual elite than regular rabbis and, therefore, that field has been totally off limits to women from the point of view of Orthodoxy. Kolech's campaign to get women appointed to rabbinical courts is likely to come up against stiff opposition. In the past rabbis have equated Kolech and other feminist organizations with deviants from normative Judaism. For instance, Rabbi Herschel Schachter, a head of the Institute for Advanced Research in Rabbinics at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, has equated Orthodox feminists with heretical sects such as the early Christians and the Sadducees. Schachter's attack on organizations such as Kolech is particularly vexing to these groups, since he is considered one of the most important leaders of modern Orthodoxy in the US. Meanwhile, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar recently referred to women's organizations as "the fear of the land." Amar made the comments during a speech lamenting the deterioration of rabbinic authority. Others, such as Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel, have declared that it is prohibited according to Halacha to participate in egalitarian prayer groups such as those at Shira Hadasha. Pasternak, who dresses modestly and wears a wig, was born in Visheu, Romania to haredi Holocaust survivors, grew up in Haifa and was educated in the local Beit Ya'acov schools. After high school she broke with the haredi way of life and enrolled in university, but she remained observant and lives a modern Orthodox life. She said that she was not overly concerned about the inevitable rabbinic opposition to Kolech's initiative. "Wasn't there opposition to the appointment of female rabbinical court advocates [to'anot rabbaniot]? Wasn't there opposition to giving women more of a role in prayer services? And wasn't there opposition to women taking on various important positions in religious communities? "We are moving forward. Some people are visionaries who look to the future, while there are others who need to be pulled along. I would have hoped that the rabbis would be the ones to lead the way on this issue. I am sorry to say that they have not taken up the challenge. "The truth is that sometimes some our most vocal opponents, including rabbis, privately praise us for what we are doing," Pasternak said. "They admit that we are answering a real heartfelt need of modern Orthodox women. For political reasons they have to pretend that they oppose what we do. Otherwise they will be blackballed by the religious establishment." Pasternak admitted that opposition among modern Orthodox is no less strong than among haredi men. "The feeling is that a lot of crocheted-kippa wearing rabbis are looking to the haredi right. Only a minority have the courage to speak against injustices against women," she said. Pasternak said that she was not concerned about the schism that would be caused as a result of the establishment of an independent rabbinical court. "The truth is that there already is a schism," said Pasternak. "I believe that in the next decade there will be women sitting on rabbinical divorce courts. And it will all be within the framework of Halacha," she concluded. "Instead of trying to help women to finalize their divorces quickly, many rabbinic courts ignore women's feelings. This has pushed many women to totally abandon the halachic framework and have a relationship with another man without waiting for divorce. This could lead to the birth of mamzerim [children born to a married women from a man who is not her husband]. "Once we create our own rabbinical courts, they will be the true representatives of morality and Halacha while the other courts will be a deviation from the spirit of Halacha," she said. Pasternak admitted that the appointment of female rabbinical judges is not something that will happen tomorrow. She said that the first step would be to train women who are already well-grounded in Talmud and rabbinical literature.