These Israeli women are breaking barriers in the Orthodox community

Historically, rabbis were always men. The Reform movement has been ordaining female rabbis since 1972.  

 WIHL 2023 graduates.  (photo credit: GERSHON ELLINSON)
WIHL 2023 graduates.
(photo credit: GERSHON ELLINSON)

Five additional women were recently certified as halachic and spiritual leaders by the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halachic Leadership (WIHL). These newly certified leaders, who some consider female Orthodox rabbis, go by the definition of rabbanit, which is how the religious Zionist community refers to female scholars, as opposed to rabba, the term used by the Reform and Conservative Movements for female rabbis.

WIHL emphasized to The Jerusalem Post that these women are certified as Morat Hora’a and Manhiga Ruchanit, (a leader who can give guidance in matters of Jewish law. These women have successfully passed all the exams on all of the areas that men do to receive rabbinic ordination. This is a sensitive topic among Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist rabbis, most of whom have not approved ordination for women, since traditionally rabbis were always men. The Reform movement has been ordaining female rabbis since 1972.

The five new graduates of the program are Rabbanit Yaffa Aranoff, Rabbanit Aluma Florsheim Dor, Rabbanit Ravit Kalech, Rabbanit Tikva Spira and Rabbanit Moriah Taasan Michaeli, all of whom have successfully completed the grueling course of intensive study in the five-year Ohr Torah Stone (OTS) program.

According to an OTS statement, the graduates passed exams on Halacha and “demonstrated a high level of proficiency in a wide range of topics, with a focus on areas associated with communal leadership such as the laws of Shabbat, kashrut, family purity, marriage and divorce and bereavement.”

In addition to being trained to adjudicate on halachic questions, WIHL students were also trained in areas of communal leadership and managing personal and family crises. The new graduates join previous WIHL alumnae who are already providing halachic and spiritual leadership throughout Israel and the Jewish world.

Ohr Torah Stone President and Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander saluted the five women, saying “When the sun rises, that’s all you see. But when the moon rises, you can also see the stars. This is your role: to lead and enlighten our people, while also igniting the sparks within others and illuminating the communities around you.”

As each of the graduates spoke at the event they were cheered on by younger students whom they teach and mentor in various settings, an entire busload of Rabbanit Spira’s students traveled from the coastal town of Ashdod to pay tribute. “After so many generations of girls and women who had only male spiritual leaders to turn to on matters of Jewish law, for our generation it is really exciting to have female role models to turn to and also to emulate,” one was quoted in an OTS.

WIHL Director Rabbanit Devorah Evron said in her congratulatory remarks that “We are blessed to live in a generation where the number of women learning Torah is on the constant rise. Each and every woman has the potential and the power to become teachers and inspire others to join this important journey.”

Rabbi Ohad Teharlev, the head of OTS’s Midreshet Lindenbaum women’s seminary, to which the WIHL is affiliated, also spoke at the event. “Fifteen years after we launched our program for women’s halachic study we witnessed five more women being certified for completing the program,” Teharlev said.

“Just last week, a group of male rabbis came together in a room to decide who would be the next Religious Zionist chief rabbi, without a single woman involved,” he continued. “What we are commemorating here tonight is our response. May each of these scholars have the strength and wisdom to serve as our leaders in their own right and place.” These five rabbaniot have joined 14 other graduates of this program across Israel.

Female religious leaders in Orthodox Judaism

The subject of female spiritual leadership in Orthodox Judaism is complex. Although some Orthodox women have been ordained as rabbis, many major Orthodox Jewish communities and institutions do not accept the change. In an alternative approach, other Orthodox Jewish institutions such as Ohr Torah Stone, Matan and Migdal Oz train women as Torah scholars for various Jewish religious leadership roles.

These roles typically involve training women as religious authorities in Jewish law, but without formal rabbinic ordination; instead, alternative titles are used. Yet, despite this alteration in title, these women are often perceived as equivalent to ordained rabbis.

There are a number of rabbis and organizations that ordain the equivalent of a female rabbi in Modern Orthodox circles. Between 2013 and 2022, the “Open Orthodox” Yeshivat Maharat in the US conferred rabbinic ordination upon 57 women. However, the titles Rabbi, Rabba, Maharat, Rabbanit, and Darshan are used interchangeably among the program’s graduates. Additionally, private institutions in Israel have ordained dozens of female rabbis, including Beit Midrash Har’el.

The graduates were also part of a group of 15 women from the WIHL and Matan HaSharon who passed anexam administered by Israel's Religious Services Ministry.

There have been a number of women who were considered to have been ordained by a number of Modern Orthodox rabbis at the beginning of the century, and since then a number of organizations have institutionalized the process. Sara Hurwitz, an Orthodox Jewish spiritual leader aligned with the “Open Orthodox” faction of Modern Orthodoxy, is considered by some to be the first female Orthodox rabbi. She serves as rabba at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and is the president and co-founder of Yeshivat Maharat.