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Emerging women

It's about time qualified women were given the authority to address matters of Jewish law

Two very significant events have taken place in the past week or so that have ruffled feathers in their respective communities. The first event that took place was in Efrat, and came by way of a decision by its Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld was appointed by Rabbi Riskin :

“…to serve as a communal spiritual leader for Efrat’s residents, who will be able to approach her with questions concerning Jewish law and ask for advice on matters of religious life.”

Almost at the very same time, in the Haredi community, women who have been disenchanted with the men-only club when it comes to political partie, have formed their own party in response. This party, known as U’Bizchutan, was formed (in the words of its founder, Ruth Colian) for the following reasons:

 “There is a vast number of different population sectors who have representation in the Knesset – Arabs, Jews, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, haredim, and so on. But haredi women have no representation at all. There are male haredi representatives, but they do not address the needs and concerns of haredi women.”

The appointment of Dr Rosenfeld has sent many in the Dati Leumi world into a panic and the formation of the Haredi women’s party has rocked the Haredi world.

The reactions in both communities have been quick to come and somewhat predictable. In the Dati Leumi world, the reaction to the appointment of Dr. Rosenfeld has led to claims and complaints that have centered around a few main areas: “it is not OUR way,” or, it is a “departure” from the Tradition/Mesorah. While these comments have been heard from numerous people, the most vociferous have been the those in the rabbinic community. The language being used sounds, in some cases, as if their very authority is being challenged, and not so much as it is a challenge to “how it has always been.”

In the Haredi world, the reaction to the new women’s party was an expected one, as well. חרם (cherem or excommunication) for those involved, public castigation, claims that their families will never get a shidduch (marriage partner) and, bottom line: How dare they!

I have been Orthodox all of my life and have served in the capacity (both official and “unofficial”) of a Rav for fifteen years. In theory, at least as far as the situation in Efrat is concerned, I “should be” opposed to it and/or feel “threatened.” Yet, the truth is that I feel none of that. Actually, the opposite is true.

I am pleased with this move and even greater than that, I think “It’s about time!” The sensitivity, intellect, mastery of halacha, and education should and does provide a woman with the right to maintain a position in which she can answer halachik queries and minister to those in need. I have known a number of women over the years, whose knowledge of Torah and halacha were simply astounding, in my humble opinion, and certainly gave them as much authority to answer a person’s questions.

No, I am not ready, nor will I ever be, to see a female rabbi in the Orthodox world. But, by enabling a woman to be in such a position, the community is perhaps opening a door that will bring in numerous individuals to seek guidance, help and answers. This has the potential to encourage many who were hesitant about asking certain questions or discussing sensitive topics with a male with an אוזן קשבת or an ear to listen to them. Not only would an ear be available to them but also one who will be able to provide them with the answers they seek.

(It is important to note that Dr Rosenfeld has made it clear that her plan is to  “…frequently consult with her own religious teachers on specific matters of religious law at the beginning of her tenure…”)

Yes, Rabbi Riskin has taken a bold step that seems to be beyond the pale. However, what he has likely done is to ensure that MORE Torah learning, MORE Torah growth and MORE adherence to Mitzvot will occur.

And what of the new political party? Hardly anyone with whom I have spoken was surprised to hear of the reaction in the Haredi world. But, this move is not only bold, similar to the move in Efrat, but it also has the potential to open doors to Haredi women; give them a voice and bring the vanishing woman (see her article here) back into the world.

There are indeed thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands of Haredi women who are perfectly content with the current world in which they live and the mores that go with that. For those who subscribe to that set of beliefs of women not appearing in ads, not working in the public sphere, such as politics, they are certainly entitled to that belief, and to live such a life.

However, for the rest of Haredi women  who do not feel like that, those who are “fed up” with how they are treated in the public domain, the time has come for this political party, and the time is right. The name of their party, U’Bizchutan, which means “in their merit,” is a perfect name. Its very name indicates that future advances in this arena will indeed be as a result of the zechut (merit) of these brave women.

I wish Dr. Rosenfeld and the women in the new political party much ברכה והצלחה (blessing and success). Being Orthodox and adhering to tradition does not negate the advent of growth in Torah and activism. May Hashem bless them all in their endeavors.

A final note: I know that there will be those who will paint me as some left-leaning, liberal, pseudo-Orthodox rabbi, who has lost his way. I assure you that that is not the case. I say what I believe, even if it is not popular.

About the Author
After living in Chicago for 50 years, the last 10 of which Zev Shandalov served as a shul Rav and teacher in local Orthodox schools, his family made Aliya to Maale Adumim in July 2009. Shandalov currently works as a teacher, mostly interacting with individual students.