Women carving new place in Orthodox Judaism

NEW YORK — A quiet revolution is changing the face of Orthodox Judaism.

Women are studying Jewish texts long forbidden to them, some of them becoming so learned they're beginning to interpret Jewish law and serve in roles previously filled only by rabbis.

"Young modern Orthodox women today have, for the first time in history, taken the initiative in setting their own agenda in terms of what kind of religious development they want to have," said Karen Bacon, dean of Yeshiva University's Stern College for Women, an Orthodox institution.

Just a few years ago, only men would be invited to hear well-known rabbis speak in Orthodox neighborhoods such as the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Today, an increasing number of women attend these lectures.

A small number of extremely learned women even teach men.

In Israel, women are also being trained as advocates for other women in Jewish courts, where divorces are settled by a panel of judges without legal representation for the parties involved. To date, women have often felt at a disadvantage during those proceedings because they haven't had the education in Jewish law to argue their cases or even understand the discourse.

The prospect of recognizing learned women in the Orthodox community as rabbis remains highly controversial. But the training of women as halachic arbiters, or interpreters of Jewish law — the primary role of Orthodox rabbis — is already under way.

In North America, the best-known educational institution offering women advanced study of Judaism's classical texts is Drisha, located on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where 500 women take courses each year.

One recent morning at Drisha, three pairs of modestly dressed women in their 20s sat scattered around a large, well-lit room lined with crowded bookcases, deeply immersed in the study of the Talmud tractate before them.

It was a typical chavruta, or paired Talmud study, for the Drisha scholars, each of whom is devoting between one and three years to full-time Torah study.

Those who study for at least three years and pass a series of examinations will be certified by Drisha as sufficiently knowledgeable to answer questions on matters of Jewish law in the areas of kashrut, niddah (the laws regulating sexuality) and Shabbat.

Three women's yeshivas in Jerusalem are considering instituting similar certification courses, and are training women at the same level. In addition, a small number of women are studying privately with rabbis in Jerusalem, receiving the same education as a man preparing for the rabbinate.

While just a few dozen women are being trained at levels that are considered controversial, the study of Judaism's classical texts by women at all levels has become a widespread phenomenon that has gained acceptance in the centrist Orthodox world.

Twenty years ago, the very study by women of the Talmud and other rabbinic texts was virtually unheard of in the Orthodox world, where girls and women were traditionally taught only biblical texts.

The last two decades have witnessed large numbers of observant Jewish women pursuing advanced secular studies, leading many to want to learn about their own religion at a similarly sophisticated level.

One indicator of just how accepted women's study has become is that Tradition, the journal of the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, devoted the spring 1994 issue to a symposium on women's education.

"This level of learning is in some ways a miracle," said author and Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg. "No one would have imagined even a decade ago the extent to which learning has galloped along in the Orthodox world — or the rabbinic support for it."

The creation of Orthodox women's prayer groups in pockets around the world is another result of the expansion of women's learning. Highly controversial in the Orthodox world, these groups have received approval from only a few rabbis.

Participants stress that a women's tefillah group does not constitute a minyan, or prayer quorum, which consists of 10 men and is required in traditional Judaism in order to say certain prayers.

But those who object say the groups are so similar to a traditional minyan that participants are indeed violating prohibitions against women making up such quorums.

The lack of rabbinic support has not stopped the proliferation of women's tefillah groups, though, and, according to one participant, has resulted in women depending on themselves to answer legal questions rather than turning to rabbis for guidance.

"In the tefillah movement we are looking less to rabbis and are figuring out the halachot [laws] involved by ourselves, creating new rituals and even writing new prayers. This is happening without rabbinic approval," said Rivka Haut, a co-founder of the Women's Tefillah Network, a loose confederation of about 25 such groups.

Shelley List, a Baltimore resident, is writing a prayer based on the classical structure of tefillot for women to say after childbirth.

On their first visit to shul after giving birth, women have traditionally recited a blessing thanking God for delivering them from danger. But List's prayer is intended to be said immediately upon giving birth.

"We say a brachah [blessing] every time we go to the bathroom, and [giving birth] is so much more dangerous and important, but there has been no tefillah to mark it," said List.

Bat mitzvah, the ceremony marking a girl's passage into adulthood, has become the norm among the modern Orthodox, despite the fact that it was virtually unheard of in the Orthodox world just 20 years ago.

The way this life-cycle event is observed has changed, too.

Orthodox girls are not called to the Torah in synagogue, as boys are for their bar mitzvahs, and as girls are in Judaism's liberal movements.

But while an Orthodox girl's bat mitzvah was until recently a party with no religious content, now many girls are preparing and delivering reflections on the Torah portion of that week, according to Greenberg.

Likewise, the Shabbat before a woman gets married used to be devoted to "reading fashion magazines and putting your hair in curlers with your friends," she said. "Now it's become a time to learn."

Some say that the learning trend will result in the acceptance of women as rabbis in the Orthodox world in the very near future.

Others disagree. "There is a lot of negativism in the Orthodox world associated with" the concept of women as rabbis or halachic arbiters, said Stern College's Bacon.

One young woman applied last year to Yeshiva University's smicha, or ordination, program, but was rejected.

According to Greenberg, "learning is the road to ordination, and you can't close the last gate of the path.

"I used to say it would happen within my lifetime. Now I believe it will happen by the year 2000."