Rabbanit? Rabbah? Maybe just plain Rabbi? What should be the title of an Orthodox woman who happens to also be a rabbi?
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women who took part in a conference Monday organized by Kolech, an Orthodox feminist movement, were asked precisely that question.
The vote is a milestone. The very fact that women self-defined as committed to Orthodox Jewish law are deliberating the proper title for a female rabbi – the most powerful figure in the traditional Jewish hierarchy – is proof that the Orthodox feminist movement has come a long way since it first began women’s prayer groups and Torah and Megillah readings in Israel over three decades ago.
“I’d estimate that within five years, we will be seeing women making groundbreaking decisions on Halacha,” predicted Dr. Chana Kehat, a former chairwoman of Kolech and an Israeli trailblazer in a movement previously dominated by Americans but now spreading to a wider range of Orthodox Israeli women – both Ashkenazi and Sephardi.
“It will take a few more years for people to get used to the idea,” Kehat added, “but it will happen soon.”
The excitement was palpable as women with hair coverings of various sizes, shapes and styles, dressed in long sleeves and short sleeves, wearing slacks, skirts and dresses, packed into the sessions offered throughout the day and thronged the hallways and classrooms of Jerusalem’s Keshet school.
The afternoon Mincha prayer organized by the few men who came to the conference included a handful of women standing at the back of the classroom-turned-prayer-house. These women represented just a tiny fraction of the many hundreds who relaxed in the main hall during the lunch break. At the end of the prayer, three of the women joined a man in reciting the mourner’s Kaddish.
Though uncommon in most modern Orthodox circles, women’s participation in prayer sessions – including the reciting of the Kaddish along with men – is within the boundaries of Orthodox Halacha.
Nor was there an atmosphere of feminist revolution – no burning of head coverings or skirts, à la the bra-burning rallies that supposedly marked 1960s American feminism. And women came with infants slung across their stomachs or strapped into strollers, which immediately raised the question: Where is dad? Answer: Infant-free at work. Not exactly radical feminism in action.
Nevertheless, in the weeks that led up to the conference, several religious Zionist rabbis launched an attack on what they called “neo-reformers” that included Kolech, comparing them to the German Jewish Reform Movement of the 19th century.
In fact, the conference, entitled “The Woman and Her Judaism,” was conducted under the shadow of these allegations that Kolech was a “neo-Reform” organization. In many of the sessions, speakers referred to themselves tongue-in-cheek as “proud neo-reformers,” convinced that any changes in practice or approach could be fully justified in Orthodox Jewish law.
Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, head of the Ramat Gan Hesder Yeshiva and one of several religious Zionist rabbis who lean toward a quasi-haredi approach to Orthodoxy, was perhaps the most prominent figure to attack changes in Jewish tradition. In a speech before members of the Bnei Akiva youth movement that took place several weeks ago and that received media coverage last week, Shapira was recorded as saying that this “neo-Reform” in Orthodoxy was motivated by two factors – romantic notions and undermining the limits of Halacha.
Shapira specifically mentioned as a type of “neo-Reform” Bnei Akiva’s coed educational policy. But he also attacked the activities of Kolech, which he claimed gave legitimacy to “birth without marriage.”
Shapira was referring to Kolech’s support for artificial insemination for women who have remained single until late in life and whose biological clocks are signaling the end of fertility.
One can only imagine what Shapira or other conservative-minded religious Zionist rabbis would have thought of the call during the conference by Malka Puterkovsky, a noted female Torah scholar and teacher at Midreshet Lindenbaum (Beruria), to allow married women to use birth control more freely, and her rejection of the trend in religious Zionist circles to marry early and bear many children.
Shapira warned in his speech that members of Kolech were misleading because they were often “more scrupulous about their adherence to mitzvot than their opponents.” But, he added, these reformers “undermine the Godliness of the Torah and its continuity today, both of which are based on contemporary rabbinic authority.”
Rachel Keren, Kolech’s chairwoman, said that Monday’s conference was probably the motivation for various comments by Shapira and other rabbis, such as Technion Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Rachamim Zini.
“The Kolech conference raises many issues that demonstrate so clearly the need for change in the Orthodox world,” said Keren. “One of these issues is leadership. Suggesting that women can also be spiritual and community leaders undermines the existing hierarchies and frameworks.
“But,” she added, “Kolech also breaks other taboos, such as our demand to confront domestic sexual abuse and fight denial of this phenomenon. And for many rabbis, this is not easy to accept.”
The confrontation between Orthodox feminists and the rabbinical establishment has escalated in recent years as the increasing integration of women into serious Torah scholarship programs, senior community leadership positions, and more involvement in the synagogue has sparked a reaction among more traditional-minded rabbis.
But the vying sides are not necessarily drawn along gender lines. Rabbis, who in the present context need to be defined as “male,” as opposed to female, spoke at the conference as well.
Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun of the Gush Etzion Yeshiva spoke in favor of transferring more authority to female spiritual leaders.
Rabbi Benny Lau, head of the Center for Judaism and Society and the Institute for Social Justice at Beit Morasha, talked about how gender segregation and messages in traditional Jewish texts that were not explained properly had a negative impact on young men’s perception of women.
“The female image is often portrayed as demonic, a source of sin, of prohibition – ideas which are in many ways Christian and foreign to Judaism,” said Lau.
But perhaps the most controversial talk was given by Rabbi Yehuda Gilad of the Religious Kibbutz Movement’s yeshiva in Ma’aleh Gilboa, who said that ordination of female rabbis was inevitable and that women had a special contribution to make to the development of Halacha.
“Obviously, in intimate areas such as laws dealing with family purity, women are much better suited to make halachic decisions,” said Gilad, who spoke with The Jerusalem Post a day after the conference by phone. “But women can also bring more empathy and understanding to fertility issues. As a man, I can never understand a woman’s need to bring into the world a child of her own.”
Gilad said that since women were unfettered by male prejudices, they were in a special position to issue novel halachic decisions.
“But there are also dangers,” he said. “For instance, if women become rabbis out of a desire to prove something or out of an angry desire to right past wrongs, they are liable to distort justice. There is also the phenomenon of being overly cautious. Women might end up being more conservative than men.”
In the vote for the title of female rabbis, participants were given seven options which included also hachama (sage), talmidat hachamim (a student of sages) and maharat (an abbreviated form of Halacha teacher and Torah rabbi).The voting results will be revealed Wednesday.
Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, considered more haredi in his approach and known to be opposed to feminism, said in response to the vote that “if women’s motivation is truly pure, then they should be encouraged to learn Halacha and be able to answer questions that come up. But if this is an attempt to attack the rabbinic establishment, then the initiative should be strongly opposed.”
Asked if he would support women as chief rabbis of cities, Eliyahu – the son of former chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu – answered that the public should be allowed to decide.
“But how many female prime ministers have we had?” he asked. “How many female chiefs of General Staff have we had? Why has there not been a feminist initiative to appoint a woman to the post of chief of General Staff?”