Latest update: May 8th, 2013
Even those who paint a slightly less radical story of this change and maintain that the statement of halacha was a case of innovation (chiddush), as women were always technically allowed to study oral law (the Rambam’s formulation of “tzevo chachamin,” used to prohibit women’s Torah study, does not create a formal issur), agree that for centuries the practice was not to allow women to study Torah and so the change was still quite radical.
Problem With the Status Quo
We all agree that a dramatic change has taken place in the last fifty years. By and large we live in a society where many women are studying Torah intensively and participating extensively in a plethora of professional capacities, including many different roles in Jewish communal life: Women teach our children, found and run our schools, counsel troubled adults, run social service agencies, lecture on Torah topics and texts and serve as outreach professionals.
Women also study a large variety of Torah subjects and texts – far beyond what was studied a generation ago – at sister institutions of numerous great yeshivot and at many independent Torah institutions. Reflecting these changes, Rav Soloveitchik wrote simply and directly nearly fifty years ago (Community, Covenant and Commitment, page 83) that “not only is the teaching of Torah she’b’al peh to girls permissible, but nowadays an absolute imperative… Boys and girls alike should be introduced into the inner halls of Torah she’b’al peh.
Just as, in order to save Torah from total destruction 2,000 years ago, the oral law had to be put into writing in direct violation of Jewish law, the oral law now needs to be studied by men and women alike if Torah is to be preserved. If that seems like a radical position, consider that today one would be hard pressed to find an Orthodox high school that does not, in fact, teach portions of the oral law to girls.
The above-mentioned changes have created something of a dilemma: What should those women who have studied Torah for several years after high school or college do for a living? I confess to having counseled many such women to “go to law school,” assuring them that if they can master a halachic tome by Rav Moshe Feinstein or Rabbi Y.M. Epstein, they can master a legal work by Benjamin Cardozo or Louis Brandeis. I had given that advice because there were few, if any, good careers in Torah for women, despite the personal realization that this represented a significant loss for the Jewish people.
Training Women as Orthodox Clergy
We all see and sense that there are aspects of the clergy role in which women do better than men, and our community would be deficient if we did not, in fact, have women already serving in quasi-clerical roles. What the community needs is a training process – analogous to the one we have for men – to ensure that women are properly trained in halacha, theology, and pastoral matters and practice in order to best serve our community.
Training people for a job is more prudent that expecting them to do such a job untrained. If they are serving in these roles and servicing our community well, the Orthodox community will grow.
The opening of institutions to train women as members of the Orthodox clergy would be an excellent alternative to law school, and would serve as a logical progression in the development of women’s Torah education in the Orthodox community.
Some will insist that whatever role women clergy play, they may not answer questions of Jewish law. This does not, however, seem to be mandated by halacha. As the Chinuch (mitzvah 152) noted many centuries ago, as a matter of Jewish law there is no issue with a woman answering questions of halacha if she is qualified to do so. Women involved in kiruv regularly answer questions of halacha and hashkafa. Should we not want to see to it that women in this field have adequate training to handle the issues that frequently present themselves?
Indeed, in Israel women are being trained to assist other women in taharat hamishpacha matters as yoatzot halacha and the rabbinical courts of Israel have welcomed women as advocates in the area of divorce as toanot rabbaniyot. Both of these formal programs and the many informal programs in Israel recognize that training is important to those who are in the field.
About the Author: Rabbi Michael Broyde is a law professor at Emory University School of Law and a fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.
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