Time To Make Room for Women In The Orthodox Religious Hierarchy


One of the biggest challenges facing Orthodox Jewish communities is rarely spoken about publicly. By admitting women into the cadre of the religious hierarchy, those who traditionally hold this place must make room to allow new members to be part of their ranks. It comes as no surprise that those in power are reluctant to relinquish it and evoke women’s modesty, biology or formal position naming issues to hinder the negotiation between present demands and past traditions.

The implications of this highly sensitive subject within Orthodox circles was one of the topics explored at a recent international conference on Gender and Jewish Identity, held at Bar-Ilan University (BIU) in Ramat Gan, Israel. More than 30 participants from nine countries spoke at the conference, sponsored by BIU’s Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism along with the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, the Gender Studies Program and the Ruth & Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at BIU.

Many of the conference speakers presented papers that reinforced historical, literary and sociological studies conducted over the past decades that examined women and gender issues within Judaism.

The evidence is clear. Steady changes are happening even as they are being resisted.

It is time for those in the current religious power structure to stop resisting change, and start discussing how to best bring it to fruition. Once the process is set in motion, even in the most intimate and private spheres, it is bound to reach the public sphere.

The recent heated debate about the possibility that Orthodox communities will soon have female rabbis made this a fitting time to reflect on changes that have already taken place within the Orthodox world over the past generations. At the Fanya Heller Center conference, it became extremely clear that we should enjoy the fruits of this creativity sooner rather than later, and in the public domain — not only in our private lives.

Indeed, when it comes to improving the religious influence of women in “private” life, there has been tremendous progress. Dr. Tova Ganzel, a member of the first class of halachic advisors on menstrual purity graduating from Nishmat, a women’s seminary in Israel, presented a preliminary analysis of the data gathered by the organization’s hotline over the past five years. Her talk underscored the immense cooperation between these advisors and rabbis within the community.

Dr. Ganzel’s study shows that rabbis will allow women to take the lead when it comes to privately consulting other women about intimate matters. They do not undermine rabbinic authority, and in many ways they absolve male rabbis from dealing with a topic which has always been dealt with uneasily – the female body. The vast number of women who have turned to the Nishmat hotline for advice is indicative of the tremendous need for these women religious consultants. One can only imagine the consequences for Orthodox Judaism if this resource did not exist.

These halachic advisors are just one example of women whose knowledge of Jewish law and custom has grown tremendously over the past decades. The changes brought about by these knowledgeable women were evident in a talk by Ruth Feuchtwanger, a doctoral candidate in Bar-Ilan’s Gender Studies Program. Changes in women’s Torah learning can be charted back over the past 200 years, but it is only in the past two decades that there has been the flourishing of a new generation of learned women. She examined the changes in traditional styles of learning and teaching Torah when women teach the materials traditionally taught by men.

Feuchtwanger discussed what she called “troubled” readings taking place when women analyze classic texts, which focus on the distance between the world of the authors of these texts and those women who study and teach them today. She posed the question of how can women respect, relate and teach texts that disparage them. While this distance exists with modern men who read these same texts, she emphasized how some of the concerns women have brought to the field have changed methods of teaching and learning.

Problematic paths to change were also explored at the conference. Dr. Ronit Irshai, who teaches Gender Studies at Bar-Ilan University, discussed the philosophical reasoning behind the halachic rulings that object to allowing women to read from and participate in mixed Torah readings. She distinguished between upholding male honor and preserving female dignity as part of the legal reasoning process, and argued that these two needs did not contradict each other. Some of the rulings revealed the challenge of facing changes in the world of religious ritual. Part of her message was that halachic sources can uphold a variety of rulings.

Prof. Ruth Halperin Kaddari, director of the Rackman Center, presented a study she conducted with Dr. Yaacov Yadgar on Gender Equality in Israel. In their study examining gender mobility and freedom in Israel, they found that the monopoly of religious courts over marriage, together with the political situation in Israel, are among the greatest and most debilitating factors that impact on gender equality. Rulings taking place in the public sphere, such as the rabbinic courts, often come down hard against strengthening the legal rights of women. The admittance of women legal advocates in Israel has been far more difficult than that of halachic advisors or female teachers since they threaten the monopoly of male dayanim [religious court judges] over family matters.

Since a woman by definition cannot serve as a judge, they are not able to fully participate in these conversations. This is especially the case in Israel, where the reality is that the ultra-Orthodox rabbis have great influence over these courts.

The rapidity with which women Torah teachers and female halachic advisors have gained ground over the past decade is a harbinger for the future. The presentations at the Heller Center conference provided me with a degree of optimism. It made attendees aware of the variety of ways in which such change will lead to Jewish women becoming even more vibrant, creative and contributing members of their religious communities and congregations.
Dr. Elisheva Baumgarten is a medieval historian at Bar-Ilan University and the Acting Director of the Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism. This Center was established by Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, of New York, to study and understand the Jewish women’s place and roles in society in the past and in the present and to empower scholars in these areas. (www.hellercenterforjewishwomen.com)


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