In a revolutionary development in the Orthodox Jewish world, the first ever book of halachic decisions written by women who were ordained to serve as “poskim” has just been published.
As reported by the Jerusalem Post, the sefer’s authors are Idit Bartov and Anat Novoselsky, who three years ago were ordained to render halachic decisions for men and women in all areas of Jewish law. The two women were awarded that unique status after completing Midreshet Lindenbaum women’s college’s five-year ordination course in advanced studies in Jewish law, as well as passing examinations equivalent to the rabbinate’s requirement for men. The ordination was bestowed upon them by the municipal chief rabbi of Efrat, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a leading Modern Orthodox rabbi who is the founder and chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of religious education institutes including Midreshet Lindenbaum, together with Rabbi Shuki Reich, who heads the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership at Lindenbaum.
Since receiving their ordination, Bartov and Novoselsky have handled the halachic questions that are typically posed to poskim by acquaintances and co-religionists seeking guidance. Based on this experience, and from the collection of questions and answers they have been involved with, the two authors compiled a book of eight halachic responsa on such diverse subjects as smoking on Jewish holidays, whether or not a woman can serve as a dayan and the use of water heated by solar panels on Shabbos.
While there are several programs in Israel for advanced Talmudic studies for women, Midreshet Lindenbaum is the first Orthodox institution there to ordain women as halachic decisors in every realm, as opposed to the more accepted areas of taharat hamishpacha and women’s issues. In general, the concept of women issuing halachic decisions in Orthodox Judaism is regarded as a radical development, and is not widely accepted, especially within the chareidi community and even the somewhat more “modern” national-religious community.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Riskin insisted that there has never been any aspersion within rabbinic sources against a woman who is knowledgeable in Jewish law having the right to make halachic decisions. “This is not a halachic departure in any sense and it is not a revolution in halacha,” asserted Riskin, citing a host of rabbinic sources and authorities from the Talmudic era until today that he said approve of the idea that women can render rulings in Jewish law. He went on to contend that “denying 50 percent of the Jewish people” the right to study and teach Torah at the highest level would be far more divisive and problematic from a religious standpoint than advancing halachic leadership for women.
The 47-year-old Bartov acknowledged that a significant portion of the Orthodox world does not accept the practice of women issuing halachic rulings, but she said this was an outgrowth of societal realities as opposed to obstacles in halacha. “It’s not mainstream, it is a ground-breaking development, but we’re talking about a societal issue, not a halachic one,” she told the Jerusalem Post, comparing the situation to the current trend in the ultra-Orthodox community of men learning full time in yeshiva while their wives work at jobs to support the family financially. Bartov noted that a Jewish marriage contract stipulates that the husband will work and provide financially for his family, which, she said, he does not actually do while in yeshiva. “Society can be stronger than halacha, or accepted halachic norms, and something which is generally accepted by society can become acceptable in the realm of halacha,” she stated.
“People think that women teaching and deciding upon halacha is a feminist or Reform practice, but we’re saying that such a thing exists as an Orthodox ‘poseket halacha [halachic arbiter],’” the scholar continued. Bartov says she is optimistic that acceptance of women in such leadership roles in the Orthodox world will grow, but she admitted it may not be easy. “This is not something which contravenes halacha, but it might be harder to overcome the societal and sociological psychological barriers than any halachic issues there might be,” she elaborated.
Rabbi Riskin spoke to the reasoning behind what he sees as the value of bringing women into the halachic discourse, positing that a female approach to Jewish law and the challenges facing Judaism nowadays is a required element for religious life. “Women naturally bring to halacha an emotional sensitivity which is a very important aspect of our Oral Law,” he explained. “The Oral Law was given within the context of G-d’s revelation of Himself as a G-d of love and loving kindness and compassion and patience.”
Riskin balanced this sentiment somewhat by stating that he did not believe it would be possible on a practical level for women to serve as the sole rabbinical leader of a community, due to communal requirements such as leading prayers and other services that in Orthodox Judaism can only be performed by a man. “Women can certainly play an important role as spiritual leaders,” Rabbi Riskin said. “My vision is that I want women to have an opportunity to study and teach Torah at the highest of levels. And I think women will add immeasurably to the world of halacha once they have the necessary knowledge, because they come to it with their own unique way of thinking and feeling.”