Women take on the mantle of leadership • By SHOSHANNA KEATS-JASKOLL
Women are increasingly being heard and taking on fresh roles in observant Judaism, particularly in Israel – naturally bringing Orthodoxy toward a renaissance
‘Women’s voices have been generally missing from the great Jewish discussion that takes part within our communities. For millennia, the corpus of both Jewish law and thought has included the perspectives and outlooks of men alone. Today, we are witnessing an important renaissance, allowing us to benefit from the distinctiveness and singularity that women bring to the table.
“I believe that their voices allow us to view many of the pressing issues facing Judaism today from a fresh perspective. I believe that anyone who took part in this significant Shabbat, and went to hear one of the women who spoke throughout our various communities, was indeed impressed by the need for female Torah erudition.”
So said Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig, who teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a well-regarded women’s educational institution in Jerusalem, and is the rabbi of the Netzach Menashe community in Beit Shemesh. His congregation hosted Dr. Penina Neuwirth for Shabbat Dorshot Tov, which in April saw 80 women Torah scholars take to podiums in Orthodox synagogues across Israel. Dorshot Tov, and the extent to which it has grown and is supported by so many Orthodox rabbis and communities, is a testament to the increasing acceptance of women’s Torah leadership in Orthodoxy.
This communal acceptance is a result of a number of factors unique to Israel, which together create an atmosphere of opportunity for women’s leadership. Many are the individuals, institutions and organizations that are working to make women’s Torah and leadership a normative part of Judaism and Israeli society. This piece is the first in a series that will look at the phenomenon of women’s leadership, meet the women at the heart of this shift and explore why this movement is good for the Jews.
WHILE THERE is no shortage of female teachers or lecturers – and there certainly are and have long been female scholars – the opportunity to shape Jewish law and policy has been largely closed to them. Men studied the law, and men made the law.
However, the past three decades have seen a major shift in women’s access to Torah study, with numerous institutions providing women with deep education in Jewish law. Moreover, in Israel, innovative trailblazers are constructing creative positions in which women can apply this knowledge.
What has led to this shift? Some claim that it is born from the need for women in leadership positions, for the benefit of both the community and women themselves.
Yael Rockman – executive director of Kolech, a prominent Israeli Orthodox feminist organization, and initiator of Dorshot Tov – explains.
“In general society, women are analysts and judges. For religious people, Judaism is a huge part of our lives. If we prevent women from fully participating in Judaism, we create a reality where a woman can fully express herself and serve her community in her secular life, but is stifled Jewishly. This kind of dissonance is unhealthy and won’t last. For a thriving Jewish community, we must resolve this tension. There is room for women leaders. We need to give them ways to participate in the community. Otherwise, we will lose the next generation.”
Indeed, institutions such as Matan, Nishmat, Beit Midrash Harel and Midreshet Lindenbaum, all in Jerusalem, and Midreshet Ein Hanatziv in Ma’aleh Gilboa – to name a few – boast programs that teach women Jewish law at high levels and provide certification after rigorous testing. Women’s midrashot, the women’s educational counterpart to the men’s yeshiva, are packed with hundreds of young women studying Jewish texts, weaving themselves into the legacy of Jewish discourse.
Those familiar with the debate surrounding women’s scholarship and leadership in the Diaspora (specifically on the question of Orthodox women rabbis) may be surprised by the flourishing of women’s opportunities in Israel. It is important to note that there is a significant difference in the approach to and acceptance of women’s learning and leadership in Orthodoxy in Israel as compared to the United
WOMEN LEARN in the beit midrash at Jerusalem’s Midreshet Lindenbaum.