Orthodox Women & Religious Leadership
Though the Orthodox rabbinate remains all-male, some Orthodox women have assumed para-rabbinic roles.
The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s caused women to question their roles in the family, in the workplace, in society at large, and in religion.
Orthodox Jewish women were no exception. It was in this social context that, in the late 1970s, institutions began emerging in Israel and the United States that offered advanced text-based Jewish learning--including the study of Talmud--for Orthodox women. These institutions, like Matan in Jerusalem and Drisha in New York City, created a cadre of learned Orthodox women who wanted to take on public roles in religious life.
Though these women have not been given the title "rabbi"--the Orthodox rabbinate remains all-male--some Orthodox women have assumed para-rabbinic roles in their communities. Working as rabbinical advocates, family purity experts, and synagogue leaders, these women perform tasks that were once exclusively the domain of male Orthodox rabbis.
In Israel, since the early 1990s, women have functioned as rabbinical advocates, or to’anot rabaniyot. Prior to 1990, this was a job that was performed only by male rabbis (to’anim). The task of an advocate--male or female--is to help divorcing couples navigate the tricky Jewish legal system. Since there is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel, any couple wishing to divorce must follow the proceedings of a beit din, or rabbinical court, where secular legal
representation is supplemented by halakhically trained and certified advocates familiar with the complex rabbinical law involved.
Blu Greenberg at the
First JOFA International Conference
It was Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Ohr Torah Stone who spearheaded the campaign to allow women to become to’anot, particularly in light of contentious cases in which recalcitrant husbands attempt to withhold the get (Jewish divorce) or try to use it as a bargaining chip in negotiations about finances or custody. He argued that divorcing women are more likely to reveal incidents of physical or sexual abuse as well as other intimate details to other women--and this kind of disclosure could significantly affect the decision of a beit din.
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel agreed with Riskin’s proposal, and in 1990 Ohr Torah Stone created a training program in which female participants study Jewish law, marriage counseling, mediation, and negotiation for three years, and then take a rigorous exam administered by the rabbinate. This is the same exam given to men who wish to work as rabbinical advocates.
After the first class of Ohr Torah Stone participants passed the qualifying exam, the rabbinate became hesitant about allowing women to enter the previously all-male space of the rabbinical court. So the rabbinate changed the exam for the next year, making it so difficult that all candidates, male and female--with the exception of one woman--failed. However, a group of women, including to’anot and to’anot-in-training, appealed to Israel’s Civil High Court of Justice, which condemned the rabbinate’s exclusionary tactics.
Today, female rabbinical advocates commonly negotiate divorces in the Israeli beit din, thanks to organizations such as Yad L’isha, a legal aid center where graduates of the Ohr Torah Stone program offer advice and representation at no cost for women.