The scholars
The scholarsCourtesy

For the first time in Israel’s history, the Ministry of Religious Affairs has administered an exam for women Torah scholars to test their expertise in halakha studies.

In mid-November, 16 women sat for this first-ever exam, 12 of whom study at the Ohr Torah Stone Susi Bradfield Women's Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) and four who study at Matan HaSharon. Among the subjects of study tested were the laws of Shabbat, marriage and divorce, nidda (Family Purity) and mourning, with other subjects to be tested in the future.

“This is a very important and meaningful point in time for women in the world of Halakha,” said Rabbanit Devorah Evron, director of the Ohr Torah Stone Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL), which has been training women in halakha and religious leadership since 2006. “Pioneering women have put in the hours on the benches of the Beit Midrash, engrossing themselves in the pages of the Talmud and rabbinic texts. They did this out of love of the Torah, even though the value of their learning and even their ability to learn were not officially recognized by the State.”

The exam, equivalent to the one given by the Israeli Rabbinate to men studying for ordination, was administered by the Ministry of Religious Services in response to a petition filed by the Jewish life-advocacy organization ITIM on behalf of female halakha scholars.

The petition argued that the Chief Rabbinate was discriminating against religious women scholars by not allowing them to sit for the exams, since the exams can be a threshold requirement for certain civil service positions. By denying women the right to take the tests, the State is harming their ability to find employment. The Israeli High Court of Justice agreed, demanding that the State find a solution; thus the Ministry of Religious Services’ parallel track was established.

“The remarkable dedication and achievements of our 12 WIHL scholars is manifested through this historic event,” said Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone. “Their passion and commitment to Torah living, learning and leading are being actualized through these exams, with the hope and goal of providing them with halakhically appropriate, equal opportunities in the workforce in service to our people. The vision of Rav Soloveitchik to ensure that Jewish women can study and teach Torah on the highest of levels continues to be realized through this groundbreaking development.”

“These women have been trained as halakhic advisors and leaders, and have already been serving in spiritual and halakhic leadership roles in communities and synagogues,” continued Evron. “Happily, this recognition that they have received from the field is finally being complemented by recognition from the State. The establishment of the state-administered halakhic exam is an important and historic step in recognizing women’s knowledge and their halakhic judgement, and will open the door for them to serve the state and the Jewish people in a diverse set of religious positions.”

"These exams serve as a fundamental development for the State of Israel which for the first time is recognizing the achievements of women scholars, and a significant step in the process of positioning women scholars as a link in the chain of Jewish tradition,” said Rabbanit Oshra Koren, director of Matan Hasharon. “We are grateful to the women in the Matan HaSharon halakha program on their investment, achievements and desire to bring greater light into our world."