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In a religious society constantly thirsting for authentic leadership, three women were certified as halachic and spiritual leaders by the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) earlier this month.

Rabbanit Avigayil Unterberg Nouriel, Rabbanit Idit Mevorach-Shaag and Rabbanit Hila Naor joined the 19 others who have already been certified by the Institute from the Ohr Torah Stone (OTS).

WIHL’s five-year intensive program covers a broad range of topics in Jewish law, including Shabbat and holidays, kashrut, mourning, family purity, and marriage.

The women have been certified as Morat Hora’a and Manhiga Ruchanit, that is, spiritual leaders who can lead on matters of Jewish law. They have passed exams on these and other topics. The certificate and title (Morot Hora’ah) authorize them to make halachic decisions on the topics they deal with.

Mevorach-Shaag’s sister-in-law, Yehudit Mevorach, is the sister of hostage Avinatan Or, who was kidnapped by Hamas in Gaza on October 7 and is still being held by the terror group along with 119 others. Or’s girlfriend, Noa Argamani, was rescued in an IDF operation earlier this month.

Rabbanit Devorah Evron talks to students at Midreshet Lindenbaum Beit Midrash in Jerusalem. (Source: JARED BERNSTEIN)

“We live in a time that makes connections difficult, especially now (with the) political upheaval and during war (when) there is a sense of fear and terror in the air,” said program director Rabbanit Devorah Evron. “That’s why it is even more important for women to fight for their sisters and colleagues during this time,” she added.

OTS announced last week that Rabbanit Chamutal Shoval has been named the new director of WIHL, taking the helm from Evron, who is stepping down after seven years in the role. Shoval is herself a former student of the program.

The struggle for female Torah scholars in Israel

Five years is no small amount of time. 48-year-old Naor had to move with her family from the north to complete the program.

“I’ve been looking for this type of learning for years. Back then, learning at the level that exists today, with today’s conveniences and access – we weren’t there yet. I took the initiative and was active, learning on my own and with friends, but I was looking for something established that could offer me a deeper level of learning,” she said.

Conversations about Halacha sometimes begin with, “I have a problem with this law,” and the answer is often, “But that’s the law, it’s not flexible.”

Naor says she always knew “that was not a comprehensive answer.”

“I knew it wasn’t that simple,” she said. “These conversations always ended with ‘That’s what the halacha says,'” even though she knew that “couldn’t be the final answer.”

“I’ve always loved learning halacha and everything (else),” she said, “but when I started learning it in this context, my love for it and for learning it grew inexplicably. I felt like I had arrived at a place that was right and true for me. The world of halacha is deep and vast and fascinating.”

She explained: “You think you come and experience things and learn. These five years have shown me how much I don’t know and how much there is still to learn. It doesn’t end; these five years are just the beginning.”

OTS has 32 educational facilities, social projects, outreach programs and leadership development initiatives for men and women.

The WIHL program is one of the few programs currently attempting to provide women with the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the Jewish community at a professional level. It includes pastoral training as well as leadership skills instruction to ensure that graduates are well prepared for the diverse challenges and opportunities they will face in their roles.

OTS Director Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander addressed the graduates: “We see grassroots leadership creating transformative change in our country – soldiers and citizens shaping our generation. The demand for your Torah – the demand for female Torah scholars – is coming from below, from the people of Israel and the Diaspora.”

Of course, there are still gaps – both in Israel and the United States – and “changes need to happen at all levels,” Unterberg Nouriel said.

She explained: “In Israel, the big gap (between the halacha education of men and women) is when and how they begin learning the Gemara, which is the foundation of everything.”

When her students ask her why this is important, Unterberg Nouriel explains: “Gemara is the language of Judaism,” she says. “If you can’t learn Gemara, if you don’t understand what it is and what it does, then you can’t really learn Halacha, because it is the foundation of everything we do.”

“Here in Israel,” she continued, “in the religious Zionist world, men begin their education in a yeshiva tichonit (national religious high school). In seventh grade, they take part in the morning seder (intensive, in-depth study of a specific section of the Gemara, learned in pairs). For women, on the other hand, Gemara learning is never compulsory—even in the select high schools that offer it, it is a regular class,” so the learning is not as deep.

After that, “they may go to midrasha (seminary), they may not. There is no hesder (intensive yeshiva study before military service) for women. So if they want to go to military service, sometimes they go to midrasha, sometimes they don’t. Men from the same circles usually go to hesder by default, so they (automatically) have another three years (of intensive study) behind them. So even if a woman goes to midrasha, it’s only for one year. There’s so much to catch up on.”

Naor added, “Today, young girls who choose a halachic lifestyle come from educational systems where their experiences actually lead them away from halacha. It’s boring, something they ‘have to do.’ They are given colors about what is ‘permitted’ and what is ‘forbidden,’ and the nuances are missing. They learn certain halachot that the schools think they need to know, that their home structures think they need to know, which is fine and also important; that is a foundation of halacha that is so important” (for them to acquire). But many levels go beyond that, and they are either afraid to engage with it or are not even properly aware of it.

So as they get older and work their way through the educational system, “it becomes easier for educators to teach them and learn more thought-oriented things – things like Jewish philosophy, Chassidut and Gemara. When they learn Halacha, it becomes harder to deal with, because then they’re faced with the question, ‘What if I’m doing something wrong? What if I should be doing something differently?’ The question is: How do I deal with it? What do I do? How is this going to affect my everyday life? So sometimes they prefer not to touch it. It can be unsettling. Something happens to them when they encounter this nuance and depth of these texts, and they realize they don’t know them well enough. And that’s a constant process.”

Naor will continue to teach halacha – as she did before her certification – to the girls studying at Midreshet Lindenbaum, an educational center for women completing their year abroad before and after military service, where the WIHL program is also held.

Unterberg Nouriel, who will also continue teaching, explained: “I always knew I wanted to teach, and I wanted to teach Torah. I started teaching in one of the gap year programs and realized that I did not have the expertise to be the teacher I wanted to be. I also saw that my students needed female role models in halacha.”

She felt that “they did not feel connected to the world of Halacha, as if it belonged to them. Rather, it was a male-dominated field that was imposed on them by men 1,000 or 2,000 years ago and that simply limited their lives and was not a conversation in which they had a voice.”

That’s why she decided to study Halacha. “I felt that the next generation of Jews – not just women, but women and men – needed to see a world of Halacha that reflected the voices of men and women.”

“I have become a better qualified teacher,” she said. “I have a broader and deeper knowledge not only to teach the subject I teach – but also to answer my students’ questions and address the problems they are struggling with.”

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