The world my daughter lives in is not one I could have imagined. She attends a program at a school for Torah studies that has served 10,000 students in 10 branches, says the homepage of its website. Thirty years ago, when I was her age, this school had only one teacher, a woman who taught Talmud to twelve other women in the living room of an apartment in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Women at the school learn the same things that men learn to take the exam for the Israeli rabbinate. Twenty-six students from her school and four others have set up a website for women or men to ask questions of women who are experts in Jewish law. The world of my daughter and her school is one in which women are authorities in Jewish law, qualified and competent to make judgments and decisions.
On one of her first days of class, in a one-year program of study in Israel for American girls between high school and college age, my daughter’s female teacher asked the assembled young women:
“How many of your mothers learned Gemara?”
About half of the hands went up.
“How many of your grandmothers?”
One hand of the 20 or so in the room went up.
When I was 19, I went to Israel for a year, ostensibly because as an English major with an interest in Bible as literature I needed to master Hebrew to really study the sources, eventually at the graduate level. Really, it was a cover for my deep desire to spend time learning more about Jewish texts and also figuring out what kind of Jew I wanted to be, where I would fit, and who I could learn from.
I got so much more out of the year than I anticipated. Though I liked my program, run by the Israeli arm of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the institution connected to Conservative Judaism, it wasn’t just the academics that appealed to me. I loved the tiyulim each week with tour guide Aryeh Routtenberg, a son of a Conservative rabbi who had made aliyah and become a director of a “beit sefer sadeh,” field school in Kfar Etzion. He showed us the land with a Tanach (Hebrew Bible) in hand, but I was still looking for something else.
I loved my Mishna teacher and felt like I wanted to learn more than we were getting in the classroom so another student (who is now famous for asking Hillary Clinton about her spirituality) and I went to his house every week and learned more. Seeing our teacher folding laundry and teaching us, the teacher part and the human part, helped me learn from him that he was an integrated personality. My only female teacher at Neve Schechter was Carmia Shoval, the ulpan teacher who taught us Israeli kids’ songs like “Banu Hoshech,” which I still sing every Hanukkah, and encouraged us to use our Hebrew as much as possible. I was thrilled to bump into her in a class I attended the last time I was in Israel, three years ago, proud to show I could now attend and understand lectures in Hebrew.
But what I did not know I was looking for and only realized once I found it, was a female teacher who could be a role model. Someone who, like my Mishnah teacher, had kids and a family and a home life and hosted Shabbat meals, and an intellectual life, read books, contemplated the texts she read and the ideas they generated, and taught classes.
I was fortunate that someone who was attending classes at Neve Schechter was writing a book about women in Jerusalem who learned and taught Torah. She told me that since I was an English major I should go to a class given by a woman who had a Ph.D. from Cambridge and had taught in the English department at Hebrew University. I was intrigued, attended the class and found Avivah Zornberg’s methodology—as well as her personality as I have come to know her over the years both in person and through her writing—compelling and deeply satisfying on both an intellectual and spiritual level.
Thirty years later, there are countless learned women in Jerusalem and all over Israel, schools that teach women on an advanced level and at least two who give them the same exam that men take to be certified a rabbi by the Israeli Rabbinate. Their second X chromosome disqualifies them from being permitted to take the official test, but they learn the same material. The title they will carry has not been settled yet. My daughter, if she wanted to stay in Israel and study, would have five institutions dedicated to women’s higher Talmudic learning—Migdal Oz, Matan, Midreshet Lindenbaum Nishmat and Beit Morasha—which train women in halachic knowledge. My fellow student the year I spent studying in Israel, Vanessa Ochs, was writing a book which ultimately became Words on Fire. In it, she asks Malke Bina, the woman who started Matan, the school my daughter’s program is housed at, “Do you realistically see that happening, women like you making Jewish legal decisions in our times?” To which Bina replied: “There will be many women able to write legal opinions, many women who know more what to do in their lives, how to instruct and tell other women. Whether it’ll be time to do it or if it will be accepted by society, I don’t know.”
There are so many more opportunities for women to study and so many ways they are recognized and seen as both fully human and fully Jewish that did not exist when I was in Israel 30 years ago.
Yet, not everything in Israel has changed for women. Another movement that was started that year, 1988, Women of the Wall is still not successful, despite numerous court battles which have granted them permission to pray together as women and read from the Torah. It seems crazy that a girl growing up in America with a female rabbi and able to read from Torah at her synagogue would go to her Jewish homeland and be denied rights she has in America and elsewhere in the world.
The problem of agunot, chained women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorces, persists, though more awareness and a more widely accepted halachic prenuptial agreement have ameliorated this somewhat.
I was curious to see what Rabbanit Bina would have to say about her conversation with Ochs over 30 years ago, so I wrote to ask her. Bina emailed me back, “The world of Torah learning for women has advanced tremendously in the last 30 years—it’s a whole new world. Women are reaching levels and entering areas of Torah scholarship and taking on positions of leadership that I never fathomed would be possible.”
Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novelQuestioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.