Orthodox Jewish women’s leadership is growing — and it’s not just about rabbis

(The Conversation) – More and more Orthodox Jewish women around the world are following the path of ordination, although the controversy over female rabbis continues in most Orthodox circles. But as more and more Orthodox women are showing, ordination is not the only path to religious leadership.

As a professor of Jewish studies who studies gender and religious authority, I spent five years interviewing and observing Orthodox women who have been ordained. I have also spent several years studying the expansion of women’s leadership roles outside of the rabbinate and the growing acceptance of their authority.

Just a decade ago, only a handful of women were ordained by Orthodox rabbis — decades after their peers in more liberal Jewish denominations. But in 2013, the “stained glass ceiling” that blocked women’s leadership collapsed, as the first batch of female rabbinical students graduated from a New York seminary called Yeshivat Maharat.

Today, nearly 50 Orthodox women have been ordained to Yeshivat Maharat. But other roles for women are growing and changing faster, with many serving as guides to Jewish law, wives of professionally trained rabbis, and congregational scholars.

Yoatzot halakha: Female religious leaders

Yoatzot halakha, who are “advisors” or “guides” of Jewish law (halakha), are women who have studied Jewish legal texts on topics such as sexuality, intimacy, pregnancy, birth and what Orthodox Judaism calls “family purity” laws, which deal with menstruation. They also provide advice to Jewish women on a variety of issues related to marriage, relationships, sex and reproduction.

Training in yoatzot halacha, or yoatzot for short, began in 1997 at the Nishmat program in Israel. Graduates respond to questions posed by phone or online. When the first class graduated in 1999, many of them started working on the yoatzot hotline. Today, Nishmat yoatzot have answered over 100,000 questions.

Many yoatzot work in communities in the United States, United Kingdom, and Israel. They can authoritatively answer questions about the laws of Taharat Hamishpacha, or “family purity,” and teach about them. Some yoatzot are hired by individual synagogues, while others are employed by a community, with their salaries paid by multiple synagogues.

Yoatzot and their advocates make it clear that they are not rabbis and often define their authority as focusing on the laws of family purity. Yet they present an alternative mode of legal decision-making on these issues that sometimes excludes ordained rabbis.

In my own research, I have seen how the way yoatzot provide answers differs from that of a rabbi. When yoatzot answer questions about family purity, they answer based on their understanding of Jewish law as well as their own personal experiences observing those laws. It is precisely this expertise and empathy that lead Orthodox women to turn to yoatzot and not rabbis.

Yoatzot also answers questions asked anonymously via the website, which is a significant change from the way rabbis are used to answering legal questions individually. They might also engage in longer conversations about marital bliss and sexual satisfaction.

The professionalization of rebbetzine

For generations, the closest women who could become religious leaders were to marry them instead. But in recent years the role of the rabbi’s wife, called a rabbi, has become more professional, with formal training and institutional authority – as is also the case with the wives of many Christian preachers.

The Orthodox Union’s Campus Jewish Learning Initiative has placed rabbinical couples on more than 20 college campuses across North America to mentor, teach, and guide Jewish students. The program says it trains Orthodox rabbis and their wives to help Orthodox students on secular campuses “balance their Jewish commitments with their desire to engage in the secular world.” The positions of husbands are full-time, while those of their wives are part-time. They receive separate training and are remunerated separately.

Even ultra-Orthodox rebbetzins officially serve as outreach activists to non-Orthodox Jews. Often, young couples will receive training for their future roles while living in Jerusalem for several years. The organization Ner LeElef, for example, trains men and women separately in the skills they will need as community activists. Women’s positions include traditional female tasks like cooking and hosting guests, as well as teaching classes and recruiting Jews unaffiliated with the ultra-Orthodox movement.

Many ultra-Orthodox rabbis use the internet to spread their reach. Women refer to their role as spiritual leadership, not “clergy”. This term is intended to distinguish them from rabbis while simultaneously creating a unique position of leadership.

Congregational scholars

Finally, Orthodox women have benefited from increased opportunities for them to study rabbinic texts, especially the Talmud, which is often seen as a catalyst for their religious leadership.

The first women’s seminary opened in Israel in the 1980s, and since then Orthodox women have had several other options for advanced Talmud study in the United States and Israel. Of note is the Drisha Scholars Circle, which until 2014 educated women in the same field that men would study for ordination. Yeshiva University of New York offers students a similar opportunity for advanced Talmudic studies through the Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies for Women.

Women who received this high level of religious education also held leadership positions in synagogues.

Take the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York, which has a history of pushing the boundaries of women’s involvement in synagogue rituals. In the early 1970s, it was one of the first Orthodox synagogues in New York to hold a bat mitzvah, the girl’s version of a coming-of-age ceremony that was traditionally reserved for boys only. . In the late 1990s, Lincoln Square Synagogue hired its first female intern in the congregation, and has had several since – many of whom have completed advanced Talmud studies for women or had doctorates in Jewish studies.

Other Orthodox women with doctorates hold leadership positions in the congregation elsewhere. Dr. Mijal Biton, for example, is not ordained but is the Rosh Kehilla, or “community leader”, of Downtown Minyan in New York.

By offering classes and answering women’s questions, female religious leaders are creating a new cadre of educated Orthodox women. Jewish philanthropies, on the other hand, invest in women as congregational leaders to inspire the next generation. Together they are formalizing new spaces for women within the Orthodox Jewish community and changing the way girls in their communities see their own potential.

(Michal Raucher, Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies, Rutgers University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Mara R. Wilmoth