A quiet revolution is changing the face of Orthodox Judaism – an explosion of women studying Jewish texts long forbidden to them some of them becoming so learned that they are beginning to interpret Jewish law and serve in roles previously filled only by rabbis.
Just a few years ago, only men would be invited to hear well-known rabbis speak in Orthodox neighborhoods like the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Today, an increasing number of women attend these lectures.
A small number of extremely learned women even teach men. A handful of notable women throughout Jewish history received advanced educations from their fathers and were regarded as so learned that the Jews of their communities turned to them for religious decisions.
But never before has there been an organized, structured effort to offer Orthodox women the same comprehensive training that men receive in preparation for their ordination as rabbis.
Whether or not learned women will ever be recognized in the Orthodox community as rabbis is highly controversial.
But the training of women as halachic arbiters, or interpreters of Jewish law – the primary role of Orthodox rabbis – is already under way.
In Israel, women are also being trained as advocates for other women in Jewish courts, where divorces are settled by a panel of judges without legal representation for the parties involved. Women have often felt at a disadvantage during these proceedings because they have not had the education in Jewish law to argue their cases or even understand the discourse.
In North America, the best known educational institution offering women advanced study of Judaism’s classical texts is Drisha, located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
One recent morning three pairs of modestly dressed women in their 20s sat scattered around a large, well-lit room lined with crowded bookcases at Drisha, deeply immersed in the study of the Talmud tractate before them.
It was a typical chavruta, or paired Talmud study, for the Drisha scholars, each of whom is devoting between one and three years to full-time Torah study.
The women who study for at least three years and pass a series of examinations will be certified by Drisha as sufficiently knowledgeable to answer questions on matters of Jewish law in the areas of kashrut, niddah (the laws regulating sexuality) and Shabbat.
These advanced Drisha scholars are the elite of the 500 women who take at least one course at the institute each year.
Three women’s yeshivas in Jerusalem are considering instituting similar certification courses and are training women at the same level. In addition, a small number of women are studying privately with rabbis in Jerusalem and receiving the same education as a man would who was preparing for the rabbinate.
While just a few dozen women are being trained at levels that are considered controversial, the study of Judaism’s classical texts by women at all levels has become a widespread phenomenon that has gained acceptance in the centrist Orthodox world.
Twenty years ago, the very study by women of the Talmud and other rabbinic texts was virtually unheard of in the Orthodox world, where girls and women were traditionally taught only biblical texts.
In many cases today, in informal weekly study groups and in women’s prayer groups, as well as in formal classes, women are teaching other women.
"Young Modern Orthodox women today have, for the first time in history, taken the initiative in setting their own agenda in terms of what kind of religious development they want to have, rather than be the passive recipients of what they system doles out," said Karen Bacon, dean of Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, an Orthodox institution.
The last two decades have witnessed large numbers of observant Jewish women pursuing advanced secular educations, leading many to want to learn about their own religion at a similarly sophisticated level.
One indicator of just how accepted women’s study has become is the fact that the Spring 1994 issue of Tradition, the journal of the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, is devoted to a symposium on the topic of women’s education. Most of the articles enthusiastically endorse it.
"This level of learning is in some ways a miracle," said author and Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg. "No one would have imagined even a decade ago the extent to which learning has galloped along in the Orthodox world or the rabbinic support for it."
The creation of Orthodox women’s prayer groups in pockets around the world is another result of the explosion of interest in women’s learning.
Highly controversial in the Orthodox world, just a few rabbis have approved of them.
Participants stress that a women’s tefillah group does not constitute a minyan, or prayer quorum, which consists of 10 men and is required in traditional Judaism in order to say certain prayers.
But those who object say the groups are so similar to a traditional minyan that participants are indeed violating prohibitions against women making up such quorums.
The lack or rabbinic support has not stopped the proliferation of women’s tefillah groups, though, and, according to one participant, has resulted in women depending on themselves to answer legal questions rather than turning to rabbis for guidance.
"In the tefillah movement we are looking less to rabbis and are figuring out the halachot (laws) involved by ourselves, creating new rituals and even writing new prayers. This is happening without rabbinic approval," said Rivka Haut, a co-founder of the Women’s Tefillah Network, a loose confederation of about 25 such groups.
Shelley List, who lives in Baltimore, is writing a prayer based on the classical structure of tefillot for women to say after childbirth.
On their first visit to shul after giving birth, women have traditionally recited a blessing thanking God for delivering them from danger. But List’s prayer is specific to childbirth and is intended to be said immediately upon giving birth.
"We say a brachah (blessing) every time we go to the bathroom, and this is so much more dangerous and important but there has been no tefillah to mark it," said List.
A prayer for agunot, or the women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce, was recently composed by women who are lobbying for rabbis to make the changes in Jewish law that would help their plight.
The prayer for agunot is being widely recited in women’s tefillah groups worldwide, said Haut, as it has made its way to England and Australia by being passed from one woman to another.
Bat Mitzvah, the ceremony marking a girl’s passage into adulthood, has become the norm, despite the fact that it was virtually unheard of in the Orthodox world just 20 years ago.
The way this life-cycle event is observed has changed, too.
Orthodox girls are not called to the Torah in synagogue, as boys are for their Bar Mitzvahs, and as girls are in Judaism’s liberal movements.
But where an Orthodox girl’s Bat Mitzvah was until recently a party with no religious content, now many girls are preparing and delivering reflections on the Torah portion of that week, according to Greenberg.
Likewise, the Shabbat before a woman gets married used to be devoted to "reading fashion magazines and putting your hair in curlers with your friends," she said. "Now it’s become a time to learn."
Some say that the learning trend will result in the acceptance of women as rabbis in the Orthodox world in the very near future.
Others disagree. "There is a lot of negativism in the Orthodox world associated with" the concept of women as rabbis or halachic arbiters, said Stern College’s Bacon.
One young woman applied last year to Yeshiva University’s smicha, or ordination, program, but was rejected.
According to Greenberg, "learning is the road to ordination, and you can’t close the last gate of the path.
"I used to say it would happen within my lifetime. Now I believe it will happen by the year 2000."