Are women kosher supervisors a step toward gender equality?

Orthodox Jewish women attend a "Mashgiach" course at the Faith Seminary College for Jewish Women's Studies in Jerusalem on April 18, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Orthodox Jewish women attend a “Mashgiach” course at the Faith Seminary College for Jewish Women’s Studies in Jerusalem on April 18, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — In a step that further expands the opportunities for women to serve as recognized authorities in Jewish law, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for the first time is allowing women to serve as kosher supervisors.

Nine women took the Chief Rabbinate’s kosher supervision exam last week in Jerusalem. Should they pass, they would become the first women qualified to enforce Jewish dietary laws in any Israeli institution the Chief Rabbinate certifies as kosher.

The change resulted from a 2012 petition to Israel’s Supreme Court from the Orthodox women’s advocacy group Emunah. The following year, with the court having not yet issued a ruling in the case, Emunah launched a six-month class in kosher supervision for women that covered the topics included on the Chief Rabbinate’s exam, from overseeing non-Jewish cooks to the laws of kosher slaughter, or shechitah.

Late last year, Israel’s Chief Rabbinical Council voted to allow female supervisors.

“Everything that allows women to take part in religious services and doesn’t transgress halachic principles, we’ll fight for,” said Liora Minka, Emunah’s director general. “Everything that is at the heart of the religious Zionist consensus, we’ll fight for women to take part in.”

If they pass, the nine candidates will join a growing group of women recognized as authorities in particular areas of Jewish law, among them advocates who argue cases before Israel’s religious courts and informal advisers in areas of women’s health and sexuality, including the Jewish laws of family purity.

Some activists see this most recent development as another incremental advance toward women serving alongside rabbis as general authorities on Jewish law. But others view the change as entrenching traditional women’s roles within Orthodoxy rather than a push for gender equality.

“We don’t need to be kosher supervisors to be like men,” said Talya Libi, a 23-year-old mother who took the course in part because she believes a Jewish woman’s traditional role is to supervise her own kitchen. “Calls for advancing the status of women are wrong from their foundation.”

Chief Rabbinate spokesman Ziv Maor told JTA that rabbinic authorities disagree on whether women are allowed to be kosher supervisors. The Chief Rabbinate had sided with those who prohibited women from serving in that capacity, but Rabbi David Lau, who was elected chief rabbi over the summer, took the opposite view.

Like kosher supervisors, women gained the right to argue before religious courts only after a Supreme Court petition in 1991. Female yoatzot halachah, or advisers in Jewish law, generally provide guidance privately and have not sought official endorsement.

“We haven’t previously had institutions that were enabling the degree of Jewish legal knowledge that women are acquiring today,” said Chana Henkin, the founder of Nishmat, which has trained 85 advisers since 1997. “Whether the community will be turning to women is something we’ll all see within the next period of years.”

A similar question hangs over a parallel American effort for greater women’s leadership opportunities within Orthodoxy. In 2009, Rabbi Avi Weiss opened a seminary to train Orthodox women as clergy, a move roundly rejected by the mainstream Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America. Yeshivat Maharat has since ordained three women and currently has 17 students.

Rabbi Shlomo Ben-Eliahu, who has taught women in the kosher supervision course, has employed female supervisors unofficially in his northern Israeli community for 15 years. He denied that the course constituted a revolution in Orthodoxy, noting that supervisors merely enforce Jewish legal decisions made by male rabbis.

“Every supervisor who works with me is in daily contact,” he said. “You need to ask the rabbi, you need to talk to the rabbi.”

But Hemda Shalom, a 54-year-old mother of five who took the exam last week, said she foresees a day when women will be able to adjudicate Jewish legal matters just as rabbis do.

“To decide Jewish law, you need very, very broad knowledge, and not a lot of people are capable,” Shalom said. “If a woman meets the demands of adjudication, I don’t see why not. Sometimes the grassroots dictate these things to the people up high. Time will tell.”

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