Shayna Abramson
Shayna Abramson

State Halachic Exams for Women: Good in Theory?

The Good News

The Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs has announced that it will begin a plan to provide halachic exams for women, parallel to the exams it offers to men. Women will not be granted semikha after taking these exams (since the Rabbinate does not condone women rabbis or halachic leaders), but they will constitute a government-recognized qualification.

This means that finally, women will be able to have their halachic knowledge officially recognized by the state – just as it recognizes that of their male peers. They will also receive official perks that are offered to rabbis – for example, benefits for government civil service jobs that increase based on a person’s education level.

My Fear

The Orthodox world has an increasing number of institutions that grant certification of higher halachic education, akin to semikha: Maharat, Beit Midrash Har’el, Matan, and Midreshet Lindenbuam*, to name a few. But these programs are much fewer than their counterparts for men. At the same time, because the Orthodox world does not consistently offer women Talmud education from a young age, many of them have to put in more time as an adult to have the textual knowledge they need to study halacha in-depth. The years it will take the average woman versus the average man who both grew up Orthodox, to master halacha, is different, because the man starts off with a wider halachic knowledge. This means that many women have to put in more years as an adult in order to get a semikha-equivalent certification. They must be willing to live off of a student stipend – if they are lucky enough to get a stipend – at the very time they are trying to establish financial stability and to start a family – which, by its nature, may exact a physical toll on women that it doesn’t on men.

But that’s only half of the equation. While the number of women’s higher halachic education programs has increased, the number of available jobs for women is ticking upwards at a snail’s pace. First of all, while there are a few select exceptions, most Orthodox synagogues will not hire women as rabbinic-type clergy. In the US, the Orthodox Union issued a statement explicitly against that, as did the Young Israel. In Israel, it would contravene the policy of the State Rabbinate. This leaves open positions primarily in the world of education. In the Orthodox world, not all women’s education programs will be open to hiring women with semikha-equivalent certification. Even in those programs that are open to it, women must compete with male rabbis for positions. In men’s programs, by contrast, it is virtually unheard of to have a woman teacher – regardless of her title or qualifications.

I’m concerned that we are adding another qualification for women to have, without adding more jobs for the women who have qualifications. Many of the women’s higher halachic education programs have flourished within the past 15 years; if new cohorts of graduates start taking these exams now, will a woman who graduated 10 years ago find her credentials called into question, because she isn’t government certified -even though that option didn’t exist when she graduated? Will she have to take a new test, years after she graduated, in order to get jobs? Will workplaces start using these tests as the barometer by which they measure if women are qualified, to the detriment of those who completed school before the tests came into effect?

Theoretical Concerns

Of course, these are all theoretical concerns. The tests aren’t being offered yet. For now, they remain a theoretical promise. So perhaps my worries are premature. But I have seen so many talented Jewish women in the field of Torah education settle for less than -less money than they deserve, a lesser position than they deserve -and many have left the field of Torah education because it couldn’t offer them a respectable way to earn a decent living. This is a major loss. It is a loss for Jewish women, who may be in need of Torah taught in a woman’s voice. But it is also a loss for the Torah itself, because these women’s passion and talents are no longer being poured into the world of Torah, leaving that world less enriched and enriching than it would be otherwise.

So how can you help? Regardless of your gender identity, if you have a regular round of divrey Torah/Jewish podcasts/Zoom shiurim etc., that you listen to, is something by a woman on your list? If you are part of an organization, do you have women in leadership positions? If you are part of a community, have you thought seriously about the maximum leadership role that women can play within the halachic limits that you have? Have you spoken to women about it, or have you simply spoken about the women?**

One of the most meaningful changes we can make is offering both men and women quality Talmud education from a young age, in a way that normalizes women and men having ownership over the texts. It is only when that change comes, when we see it as “normal” to have a woman read Tosfot or quote the Shulchan Aruch, that we will see it as “normal” for her to give halachic psak, as well.

So while I cautiously applaud this news, I also see it as a reminder of how much work we as an Orthodox community have left to do in order to nurture more women’s halachic leadership.

 

*Nishmat offers incredible education to yoatzot but it’s in one field (niddah) and they are very adamant about how they don’t pasken, so I wasn’t sure whether or not to include it on the list. But it’s so important -how could I not mention it?

** Seems obvious, but a number of times I’ve encountered “We assumed women didn’t want this so didn’t bother asking them” syndrome.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.
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