In First, Women Will Be Able to Take Israel's Jewish Law Exams

'These female Torah scholars want official expression of their broad knowledge of Jewish law in a way that will be recognized by the state,' attorney Elad Caplan says

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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From right: Attorney Elad Kaplan and Sarah Weinberg, of ITIM, and Petitioners: Rabbis Sarah Segal Katz, Rachel Keren and Deborah Evron, June 29, 2020.
From right: Attorney Elad Kaplan and Sarah Weinberg, of ITIM, and petitioners: Rabbis Sarah Segal Katz, Rachel Keren and Deborah Evron, June 29, 2020.Credit: ITIM
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

The State of Israel announced last Thursday that it intends to allow women to take the Chief Rabbinate’s examinations in halakha, or Jewish religious law, but the exams will not be administered by the Rabbinate and it has yet to be determined which outside party will conduct the tests.

Women who pass the new exams still will not be able to serve as rabbis or rabbinical court judges. But otherwise, the civil service will treat the women’s exams the same way it treats the Rabbinate’s exams for men.

This means women who pass the exams will be eligible for certain benefits that the civil service only grants to people who have at least a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent. Under a 2016 decision by Interior Minister Arye Dery, rabbinical ordination is considered equivalent to a bachelor’s degree.

The announcement is part of the state’s response to a petition to the High Court of Justice. In a brief, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit wrote that the Rabbinate’s current practice of barring women from taking the exams is legally problematic.

Interior Minister Arye Dery speaks during the swearing in of the 35th Knesset,  May 17, 2020.
Interior Minister Arye Dery speaks during the swearing in of the 35th Knesset, May 17, 2020.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / Knesset Spokesperson

The brief said that over the past few months, consultations have been held with all the relevant state agencies – the Rabbinate, the Religious Services Ministry, the Education Ministry, the Higher Education Ministry and the Civil Service Commission – to create a women’s track equivalent to the most basic level of certification given by the Rabbinate.

This track will most likely be administered by the Education Ministry and the Higher Education Ministry, and it will be open to both women and men who aren’t seeking rabbinical ordination from the Rabbinate.

Israel's Chief Rabbinate rejected the decision, saying that it is “not an institute for higher education” and that its role is to train rabbis in Israel. It added that Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef instructed Rabbinate professionals to wholly oppose Rabbinate training of women. “The Jewish law and tradition that the Rabbinate must maintain does not allow for the training of women in the Rabbinate.”

The Chief Rabbinate said that for as long as there is a legal directive that would require it to train women “as contrary to halakha,” the rabbinical ordination system will be completely frozen and no rabbinical exams will be held until a legislative amendment is made to regulate the matter.

The petition was filed by an organization called Nashot halakha, with legal representation from ITIM – the Jewish Life Advocacy Center, Bar-Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status and the Kolech organization, along with Rabbis Sarah Segal Katz, Rachel Keren and Deborah Evron.

It argued that women who have studied halakha at a high level face discrimination compared to men because they aren’t allowed to take the exams.

The new track is expected to help hundreds of women who have been studying halakha and Talmud in recent years.

“Over the past few decades, and especially the past few years, there’s been a significant growth in Torah study by women,” said attorney Elad Caplan, who is ITIM’s managing director as well as one the petitioners’ lawyers.

The Jerusalem Chief Rabbinate Building, July 10, 2016.
The Jerusalem Chief Rabbinate Building, July 10, 2016.Credit: Lior Mizrahi

“As a natural and necessary part of this process, these female Torah scholars want official expression of their broad knowledge of Jewish law in a way that will be recognized by the state,” just as the thousands of men who take the Rabbinate’s exams every year receive, he explained.

Many civil service positions that aren’t strictly religious give preference to someone who has either an academic degree or Rabbinate certification, he noted. “Therefore, a man who has learned in yeshiva for several years can be tested on his knowledge and become eligible to apply for various jobs, while a woman who undertook identical studies, or even longer ones, and has great knowledge of Torah and halakha currently isn’t entitled to be recognized, because the she can't take the Rabbinate’s exams.

“Moreover, passing the exams provides public recognition of the testee’s halakhic knowledge and affects the social and public honor he receives,” Caplan added, terming the state’s brief “a first step toward recognizing women’s Torah studies.

“Nevertheless, one would have expected the Rabbinate to magnify and glorify Torah study by opening its gates to female Torah scholars, without it being necessary to set up a new agency for this,” he added. “The Rabbinate’s inability to accept the gender changes taking place in religious society is liable to erode its foundations.”

ITIM’s chairman, Rabbi Seth Farber, said that “the reality speaks for itself. More and more learned women are taking on halakhic leadership roles.

“This is a great blessing for the Torah world, which has become richer for the believing public,” he continued. “The state’s response provides an opening for changing the absurd situation in which the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is actually the one blocking growth of the Torah world.”