A speaker at Society Hill Synagogue explains the changes occurring in Israel for Orthodox female scholars.
Can an Orthodox woman be a feminist, a rabbi, a recognized Jewish authority? In the United States, particularly in liberal denominations and increasingly in modern Orthodoxy, the answer is “yes.” But in Israel, it is a different story, as members of the Philadelphia Jewish community learned Monday evening.
Nearly 100 guests filled Society Hill Synagogue to listen to Devorah Evron, director of the Elga Stulman Women’s Institute for Jewish Studies Nigun Nashim in Israel, talk about challenging the traditional roles of women in Orthodox Judaism. Her work in the Israeli Jewish Renaissance is helping to connect Israelis from all walks of life to Jewish learning.
Seven years ago, after taking inspiration from female rabbis ordained in the Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative movements, Evron decided to become active as an Orthodox leader.
“I needed to study and learn what a man learns to be an Orthodox leader,” explained Evron. So every year, for the past seven years, she takes a written and oral exam before two Orthodox rabbis in Israel. Next month, she will take her final exam and will be tested by a modern Orthodox rabbi who, just five years ago, would not agree to test a woman. His willingness to examine her knowledge signals a shift in how learned women are being recognized by the authorities and by the community, Evron said.
“Orthodox women were always told you can study … but there’s a limit to how you will be able to influence Judaism,” she explained. “There is not only a glass ceiling — there is a ceiling that will tell you that you can go up there and you can’t go beyond.”
But Evron — and other women who pursued textual study — delved deeper beyond just family purity laws, a subject in which some Orthodox women in Israel have been recognized as experts.
“At a certain point, it wasn’t enough to study text, because Judaism is an active religion and it’s an active culture,” said Evron. “The concept of chesed, the concept of tikkun olam, is an action that comes out of our values and those values are embedded in Jewish texts. You can’t [just] study Jewish text … and then go on [your] way, because we feel responsible” to make contributions to the tradition.
Men who reach Evron’s level of education would be recognized as rabbis upon completion of their examinations. She turned down opportunities to study and receive ordination in the United States, as she felt compelled to study in Israel and make changes from within her own society.
Municipal rabbis in Israel have their incomes supplemented by the government. Female rabbis are not recognized. Though state recognition and funding for female spiritual leaders would be helpful, it is not her focus, she said.
“I am aware, though, of the fact that young women who see women that speak and that teach in Orthodoxy — that gives them role models to follow,” explained Evron.
She related a story from a recent all-female megillah reading in which a 5-year-old shushed her mother, who had been speaking during the recitation, admonishing, “Ima, be quiet! Rabbi Devorah is talking.”
“It was the first time I had been called rabbi in my community and it dawned on me — this little girl is growing up with an option that I never had — that’s where I’m focused.”
A natural teacher, Evron led the audience in a text-based study centered around the question: What should be done with the Torah now that it’s been given? She also used texts from Lamentations and Song of Songs to explore females’ roles in Judaism.
Nigun Nashim is housed in the pluralistic HaMidrasha at Oranim College of Education in northern Israel. Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, said that her school is looking for ways to formalize a relationship with Evron’s program, so that students from both institutions can learn with and from one another in the future.
Israeli author and former member of Knesset Ruth Calderon had been scheduled to speak, but had to fly back to Israel to attend to an ill relative. Calderon founded Alma, a Tel Aviv-based yeshiva that is open to men and women of secular and religious backgrounds, in 1996. She is perhaps most well known in the Diaspora for her inaugural speech to the Knesset in which she led her colleagues in a Talmudic text study. For her work within the Israeli Jewish Renaissance movement, which seeks to revitalize Judaism for non-Orthodox Israelis, she was honored at the RRC’s graduation Sunday night with an honorary degree.