By Karen Miller Jackson
Women’s Torah learning, teaching, and leadership is booming in Israel today. The number of beit midrash programs that exist and the number of women studying in them have increased significantly over the past few years. The most significant stride has occurred in the study of halakhah. Training in hilkhot niddah (family purity law) may have been the first step and the area of halakhah that answered the greatest need for women, but today there are several programs that cover rigorous study of hilkhot Shabbat, aveilut, kiddushin, and kashrut as well. Study of halakhah has given these women the ability to join halakhic decision-making alongside their fellow male rabbis and publish articles and teshuvot (responsa). They are doing all of this while often juggling the needs of their large families, several jobs (sometimes two different careers), and fewer benefits. These women have helped change the image of what Torah leadership looks like for the next generation.
I am interested in and passionate about the world of women’s Torah learning, as I have been traveling through it for the past 20 years. I recently completed the first cohort of Matan HaSharon’s Morot l’Halakhah program in hilkhot niddah and life-cycle halakhot and am now studying hilkhot Shabbat through a joint program with the Eretz Hemdah Kollel. The more I study, the more I feel there is so much more to learn. The women I have met from various batei midrash have been humbled by their learning and are aware of the responsibility that comes along with greater halakhic knowledge.
This article highlights the growing number of women taking part in this journey. The book of Bamidbar teaches us something about counting. When God commands Moshe to count the people, Rashi explains that the counting was symbolic of God’s love for the people of Israel. Similarly, the “counting” and listing of the strides made in women’s batei midrash and beyond reflect these women’s love for Torah and am Yisrael.
Following is an up-to-date survey of women’s Torah learning programs in Israel, as well as of the organizations that are promoting lamdaniyot (learned women) and the latest glass ceilings that they have broken. I would be remiss not to begin with tremendous hakarat hatov (gratitude) to the original rabbis and rabbaniyot who forged the way and opened the doors of the beit midrash and Talmud study for women: Rabbi Chaim Brovender, Rabbanit Chana Henkin, Rabbanit Malka Bina, all in Jerusalem; Rabbi David Silber in New York and now in Israel; and, a little later, Rabbanit Oshra Koren in Ra’anana. It is a privilege to know them, and their commitment and bravery are an inspiration.
Halakhic Leadership Programs for Women in Israel
Today there are several programs training women in halakhah. These programs include written, and sometimes oral, exams with renowned rabbis. (Official rabbinate exams are off limits to women in Israel.) Nishmat is by far the oldest program that identified the area of halakhah (niddah) where there is the greatest need for women to consult with women about their bodies, menstruation, fertility, and related matters. Nishmat has created a world-wide hotline and website run by female experts.
Other institutions offer a fuller program of halakhah, modeled after the curriculum for rabbinic ordination. Matan Jerusalem’s Hilkhatah program and Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Women’s Institute of Halachic Leadership program have already held graduation ceremonies for women who have completed this course of study. Beit Morasha has graduated one cohort as well. Outside Jerusalem, two women just completed Midreshet Ein Hanatziv’s comprehensive halakhah program and nine women completed Matan HaSharon’s Morot l’Halakhah program in the halakhot of niddah and life cycle, and several are continuing through hilkhot Shabbat and perhaps beyond. The Morot l’Halakhah program emphasizes different forms of community leadership beyond the beit midrash. Migdal Oz has begun an advanced halakhah training program recently as well, and Beit Midrash Har’el is training women alongside men in rabbinic studies.
Young Women—the Midrashah Phenomenon
For women at the younger end of the spectrum, there has also been a growing phenomenon of Torah study in Israel. As it became more common for young religious women to choose IDF service (mostly in non-combat roles) instead of sherut leumi (national service), the trend became to study in midrashah or mehinah first, to emotionally and spiritually prepare themselves for the IDF. These programs provide a framework that prepares them for religious challenges they may face and establishes relationships with rabbis and female teachers with whom they can consult during army service. Mostly, however, it is a year to discover Torah learning and its meaning in their lives.
Programs may be found all over Israel, including those at Midreshet Lindenbaum, Midreshet Ein Hanatziv, Mechinat Tzahali, Midreshet Be’er, Migdal Oz, Mechinat Lapidot, and more. These programs are also a source of employment for the women who complete some of these programs. Young women who choose sherut leumi also sometimes study Torah for a year before or after their service. The growing midrashah trend is reflective of the value that the religious Zionist community puts on Torah study, now by women as well.
Promoters of Female Torah Leadership
In addition to the institutions that train the women scholars, two organizations in particular have provided opportunities for growth and empowerment of the women completing advanced halakhah programs. Beit Hillel was the first rabbinic organization to include female membership. Created to foster and strengthen attentive rabbinic leadership, Beit Hillel publishes journals on topics of halakhah and Jewish thought by its members. Most significantly, Beit Hillel recently published a book of halakhic teshuvot on contemporary issues, such as halakhic issues faced by people with mental illness, by its rabbis and rabbaniyot. This recognition and encouragement of female Torah scholarship by mainstream rabbinic leadership has had a significant impact.
Kolech, the Religious Women’s Forum, has devoted much energy and resources to promoting female Torah leadership in Israel. This year marked the fourth annual Shabbat Dorshot Tov project (see poster), in which 100 women delivered shiurim and lectures in more than 200 shuls throughout Israel. This project tries to reflect the diversity of Israeli society, including speakers from both Ashkenazic and Sephardic backgrounds. This program has wide reach and presents communities with female role models in Torah study and communal leadership. By showcasing the growing number of female Torah scholars all on one Shabbat, the communities and women feel strength and pride in how far religious women and Israel have come. Kolech is also encouraging women’s halakhic writing (discussed later).
Employment of Female Halakhic Leaders
Several of the jobs open to male rabbis are not open to women who complete the course of halakhah study. This does create a challenge and puts pressure on these women to compete for a limited number of jobs. Shul in Israel is only one of several centers for community building and leadership, and it has provided less of a route open to and taken by female Torah leaders, although a few communities either have employed a “power couple” to lead the shul or have created a position for a woman specifically.The many beit midrash programs also provide some employment for these women.
Israeli culture is less formal overall, but most of the women who choose to take a title at all have chosen rabbanit. Classically, rabbanit means “rebbetzin” (the wife of a rabbi), but Israeli women have transformed the meaning of the word. There is something special about having a word that only women can use, which perhaps highlights the unique contributions they are making in communal leadership and the Torah world today.
Female Torah “Celebrities”
Even though most of the women in this category have not studied in the halakhah programs highlighted in this article, it would not give a complete picture if they went unmentioned. A number of learned women have become Torah “celebs” and have a following all over the country. Fans join WhatsApp groups to follow these women when they speak. Some are affiliated more with the right-wing side of the religious Zionist world, yet appeal to the masses, such as Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi and Sivan Rahav Meir, who is a television reporter who launched a second career through classes on parshat hashavuah and meaningful Torah-
inspired thoughts on social media. For the more mainstream is Rabbanit Pnina Neuwirth, who is a full-time judge and, in her free time, gives thoughtful and inspiring shiurim.
These examples give a small sample of the thirst that religious women in Israel have for female role models and the value increasingly being placed by the whole community on women’s Torah study and leadership. Girls around Israel even dress up as these celebs on Purim!
Women’s Torah and Halakhic Writing
Writing and publishing are probably the most recent glass ceiling to be broken in the world of female Torah leadership. There has been a significant increase in recent years in women’s writing, but these are still the token few. Rabbanit Malka Pietrekovsky’s book Mehalehet B’darkah is a halakhic work on life’s challenges. Beit Hillel’s recent book of responsa includes several written by women. Moreover, women have started an online responsa service by Beit Hillel called Meshivot Nefesh and one by Matan called Shayla. To encourage younger women’s halakhic writing, Kolech has also funded a writing competition called Tiyuvta. Finally, one of the major Israeli journals of halakhah, Tchumin, from Zomet Institute, published an article for the first time with a halakhic hiddush written by a woman.
It would be easy to look in from the outside and conclude that there is still so much inequality regarding women’s Torah leadership in the Orthodox world in Israel. Even with all these accomplishments, there certainly remains a lot further to go. But there is no doubt that the entry of women into halakhic discourse and leadership in Israel is on the rise and will continue to have a positive impact on the whole Jewish world.
Karen Miller Jackson is a Jewish educator and writer who teaches at Matan HaSharon and recently completed Matan HaSharon’s Morot l’Halakhah program. She developed educational content for Lookstein Virtual and also directs Kivun l’Sherut, a guidance program for religious high school girls before army and national service. She is also on the board of Kolech and the JOFA Journal Editorial Board. She has an M.A. in Talmud and midrash from NYU and has learned in Drisha, Matan, and Midreshet Lindenbaum.