On the Road to Religious Leadership, Orthodox Women in Israel Don’t Stress Over Titles

The recent ordination of female Orthodox religious leaders (Maharats) in New York triggered recriminations alongside celebrations. Why have Israeli programs met far less opposition when preparing women to be arbiters of religious law?

A few days ago I watched, streamed in real time, the ordination ceremony of Yeshivat Maharat in New York, in which three Orthodox women received rabbinical ordination. (Maharat is a Hebrew acronym for "leader in legal, spiritual and Torah matters.") The ordination was given according to the traditional formula used for men: "Yoreh Yoreh," ("If he decides, he decides!")

The great excitement that accompanied the event was clear even to a virtual witness like me, watching the ceremony on a computer screen. Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, the head of the yeshiva, spoke about the fact that the Shehina – the divine presence - was in the auditorium, and created the feeling for the audience that the occasion was one of receiving the Torah. The captivating words of Rabbi Avi Weiss, who supported this step from its inception, began in Hebrew, with the words: "Halom halamnu…" ("We dreamed a dream").

During his speech he sang the song "Hashmi'ini et kolech" ("Let me hear your voice", in the feminine form in Hebrew) with the audience, and his sincere desire to hear the voice of the women, the voice of Torah, was evident from his proud expression.

Joining the rabbis conferring ordination was Rabbi Daniel Sperber, who read out the wording of the certificates when he gave it to one of the graduates. Each of the three new Maharats spoke briefly about her five years of study, and mentioned the supportive environment, thanking Dean Rabba Sara Hurwitz for being there for them.

The words "a historic step" and "a new path" or "the fulfillment of a dream" were the leitmotif of the evening. The Shehehiyanu blessing recited on special occasions, which concluded the event, indicated more than anything else the desire to seize this moment in time, in a process whose future development is unpredictable.

One point that was emphasized at the ceremony at Yeshivat Maharat was the fact that the graduates are already on their way to serving in leadership positions in synagogues and schools, in the United States and Canada. The goal-oriented nature of the program and the desire to make a clear statement is a clear part of the American concept of Jewish community, which gives a central place to the congregation and its leadership.

There have been more than a few negative reactions to the concept of the Maharat, and the ceremony did not go down easily everywhere in the Orthodox world in the United States. Perhaps that's why I watched this ceremony from two angles. One was as a simple spectator who was given a glimpse of a historic event that is controversial in the religious Jewish world to which I belong, while I examined my own viewpoint as a rank and file person: a Jewish Orthodox Israeli woman. The other angle was of someone who heads a program on halakha (religious Jewish law) at Beit Morasha in Jerusalem, and teaches halakha to women on an exact par in terms of quality and quantity to that which men are expected to achieve in order to pass the rabbinical ordination exams in Israel.

Despite the fact that our halakha program in Beit Morasha started a full seven years ago, and that we too have already completed more than one cycle of studies (which include the halakhot of what is forbidden and permitted, Shabbat, niddah - ritual purity for women, mourning and festivals), our graduation ceremony was different.

The differences are not accidental. The goals of the programs are entirely different. When we started the program at Beit Morasha we weren't aiming for women who were supposed to grow into leadership roles; we designed it for women who were already filling these kinds of positions. That was because there was an unambiguous expectation from our community that women who serve in important teaching positions would also be able to provide halakhic solutions for their students.

When these female students began to ask halakhic questions, they couldn't turn to their most natural and closest arbiters: their female teachers. Until then the women in the Beit Morasha course, even those in the advanced programs, concentrated mainly on Talmudic studies; it was obvious there was a need for a program that would provide the answers that were missing.

We thought about a program that would empower women who were in any case considered role models and the address for questions of religious law. The women were tested orally, by rabbis, on various areas of halakha. Over the years they have been tested by the best rabbis of our community: Rabbi Baruch Gigi, head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut; Rabbi Elyashiv Knohl of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion; Rabbi Ami Kula of Kibbutz Alumim; Rabbi David Stav of Shoham; Rabbi Yaakov Wahrhaftig, head of the Har Nof beit din (rabbinical court); Rabbi Uri Cohen of Mevasseret, and many others.

All the rabbis, without exception, immediately agreed to test the students, and were highly impressed by the depth and extent of their knowledge, and mainly by their analytic skills, their attentiveness to the needs of the community and their profound understanding of halakhic dilemmas. The main objective of the program was seen as learning, of expanding knowledge. As an added value, this was clearly practical knowledge, which there is no reason even from custom not to pass on to female students and to the public.

At the Beit Morasha ceremony in Jerusalem early this year we distributed certificates attesting that the students had been tested orally by rabbis on the specific subjects. We called them "morot halakha" (female teachers of halakha). The speeches dealt with profound questions relating to the processes taking place in the world of Torah study and of women's contribution to them. One of the graduates spoke about the significance of feminine knowledge acquired through life experience, and another spoke about the gap between public sermons and the study within the walls of the beit midrash (traditional house of study). Additional topics were discussed in depth in a similar spirit. We had a sense of a high point in Torah study for women, but not of innovation. But the audience did sense it, to the point that one of the rabbis sitting in the audience got up and recited the "Shehehiyanu" blessing himself.

As opposed to Yeshivat Maharat, we didn't plan to change the Orthodox and rabbinical worlds, nor did we feel that we had done so. In effect, the exams opened a door for discussion between male and female rabbis. We are discovering that there is movement, that there has been a change and that rabbis have begun to consult with learned women when they are asked specific halakhic questions, or even in a request for comments about articles and books. In Israel the strength of knowledge and the satisfaction of studying seem to have overcome the need for a seal of approval and a document.

Apparently, the ease with which the unprecedented higher learning of women has been received in Israel is quite dissimilar to the atmosphere prevailing in the United States. And I find myself disturbed by many questions arising from the comparison. Why was our step accepted without opposition while that in the U.S. was accompanied by rejection and strongly worded refusals recognize the new Maharats? And will a slow process whose direction is unclear suffice, or not? And what does that indicate about the different problems of Israeli and American Jews, and about the cultural differences between them? Can they learn from one another, and if so, what and how?

I would like to suggest, in a few words, an idea that may not provide an overall explanation for this dissonance, but may suggest why the window opening for women religious leaders in Israel is not being taken as antithetical to traditional ideas of continuity and leadership. Our era, the post-modern era, with its revolution in terms of the freedom of information and its accessibility, have greatly reduced the importance of official institutions, of people in authority, of governments. We are free to explore information democratically on the Internet, and with that information come challenges to the hierarchical 'officials', the professionals.

In this way, for example, the authority of doctors has been questioned, and at the same time the power of alternative medicine, and the patient's ability to challenge the doctor with information taken from the net, has increased. Politicians communicate with their voters via Facebook, and are answered back.

In a sense, these repudiations of automatic or assumed hierarchies mean that the post-modern world has only now come to resemble the dynamics that have always been present in the rabbinical world, and the general cultural revolution is only strengthening this phenomenon. Historically, rabbis with status and public recognition were not necessarily those who had received the most precise training and had passed all the ordination exams. For the highest position, "gadol hador" (the greatest scholar of the generation) there are no ordination exams and no official appointments. The rabbinical world has always been led by those to whom the public chose to address its questions, those whom the generation itself saw as leaders, and not only those who were authorized and who held official appointments.

This phenomenon did not weaken the rabbinical world and its importance in the life of the nation, even if here and there it undermined the official rabbinical establishment. Therefore, even the entry of women into the rabbinical world in our time will not necessary come through recognition by the establishment, but as a result of a response to the natural needs and wishes of the community, both men and women.

Rabbanit Michal Tikochinsky, LLB, is the head of the Beit Midrash for Women's Leadership http://www.bmj.org.il/inner_en/2at Jerusalem’s Beit Morasha, teaching Talmud and Halacha. She is writing her doctorate at Bar Ilan University’s Talmud department on the foundations of the scholarly method in the "Minchat Chinuch"of 1869.

Yeshivat Maharat graduates, June 16, 2013.
Joe Winkler / JTA Photo Service