In first, women take official Jewish law tests, but activists say it isn’t enough
For now, the state-issued exams represent a purely symbolic victory, granting female Torah scholars formal recognition with no practical significance
Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.
A group of 17 women took government-issued exams on Jewish law in recent weeks in what advocates called a step toward greater recognition of female religious scholarship by the state, albeit a step with an unclear future.
The examinations, which were administered by the Religious Services Ministry, were similar to, but still significantly distinct from, the tests given by the Chief Rabbinate to men seeking rabbinic ordination.
The testing began in mid-November, and all but a handful of the women have received their results.
“One or two haven’t received their results yet. But everyone who has received them passed,” said Rabbanit Devorah Evron, the director of Ohr Torah Stone Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership, which trained most of the women. The others studied at Matan Hasharon — The Sadie Rennert Women’s Institute for Torah Studies.
The exams were the result of a petition to the High Court of Justice that was filed by the ITIM religious advocacy group on behalf of eight female religious scholars. As people who pass these examinations can be eligible for certain government jobs and entitled to higher pay, ITIM lawyers argued that denying women the right to take the tests represented a form of prohibited financial discrimination. Before the court could rule, the state agreed to develop examinations for women similar to the ones taken by aspiring rabbis.
For now, the examinations represent a purely symbolic victory for female Torah scholars. As they are not exactly the same as the tests given to male rabbinic candidates, they cannot currently be used as a basis for those government jobs or higher salaries.
The examinations recognize that the women have a mastery of Jewish law in the same way that men do. The 16 women were tested on the laws of Shabbat, marriage and divorce, family purity (nidda), and mourning, with other subjects to be tested in the future.
“It provides some formal recognition, but it doesn’t have any legal implications whatsoever,” Rabbi Seth Farber, the head of ITIM, told The Times of Israel. “That’s why the lawsuit is going to continue.”
Farber compared the exams, which were issued by the Religious Services Ministry instead of the Chief Rabbinate, to a driver’s test issued by the Welfare Ministry instead of the Transportation Ministry. “Until everyone starts recognizing them, they don’t mean anything,” he said.
Farber stressed that although he was disappointed that greater progress hasn’t yet been made, he didn’t want to “rain on the parade.”
“I don’t want to be dismissive. It is a victory,” he said. “And I take a victory whenever I can get one.”
Evron said she appreciated that it represented some advancement in state recognition of female Torah study.
“This is a step forward, giving women more place in the world of Torah in the State of Israel. It’s a good thing for Torah, for women, for the country,” Evron said.
And yet she too considered it a somewhat bittersweet victory. Though similar, the tests given to the women were not identical to those given to men. And no formal framework has been set up for the future. “There is no structure that says, ‘If you want to take the tests, do x, y, and z.’ And yet, it is still the first time that a government office is giving a test on halacha to women,” Evron said.
Rabbanit Oshra Koren, director of Matan, described the tests as a “fundamental development” and said they mark “a significant step in the process of positioning women scholars as a link in the chain of Jewish tradition.”
In a statement, Farber’s ITIM said the tests were not necessarily a step in the right direction, however, as they set a precedent for women being excluded from the standard tests. “ITIM applauds the women who took the halacha examinations, but establishing a separate testing system institutionalizes the discrimination [against women] by the rabbinate. Instead of recognizing all Torah study as equal, instead of resolving the forbidden discrimination by the Chief Rabbinate, the state instead is forming a testing framework for women,” the organization said.
ITIM’s lawsuit demanding that women be permitted to take the same government exams as men is ongoing, with the next hearing scheduled for January, Farber said.
The Torah is the water of life for us. That’s what we serve. We’ll continue to do so
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, the head of the modern Orthodox Ohr Torah Stone network, which runs Evron’s Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership, said he hoped that in the future women would be granted “equal opportunities in the workforce in service to our people.”
Brander said that would be in line with “the vision of Rabbi [Joseph] Soloveitchik” — one of the most influential modern Orthodox rabbis — “to ensure that Jewish women can study and teach Torah on the highest of levels.”
Evron said regardless of whether the government recognizes female Torah scholars, her institution and others would continue their work.
“We’ve been doing this for years without recognition from the government,” she said. “The Torah is the water of life for us. That’s what we serve. We’ll continue to do so.”
She said she hoped that as more and more women study Torah and Jewish law and then go on to teach it in their communities, there will be a groundswell of support for their efforts, leading to greater recognition.
“I hope that as people understand that there’s a need for this, that the public wants it, we’ll get more cooperation from the government,” she said.