High School Tefillin Debate Just Tip of Iceberg for Orthodox Jewish Women

News Analysis

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By Uriel Heilman

Published January 23, 2014.
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(JTA) — The announcement this week that SAR, a modern Orthodox high school in New York, is allowing girls to lay tefillin is helping expose an increasingly sharp fault line within Orthodoxy.

For decades, it has been difficult to sort out the precise dividing lines between the varieties of Orthodoxy — ultra, haredi, centrist, modern, liberal. Each elastic category bled into others, and the movement has been broad enough to encompass everyone from black hat-wearing rabbis with long beards to young women in jeans and T-shirts. What united them was a stated commitment to halachah — Jewish law traditionally defined — and, of course, self-definition as Orthodox.

In recent years, however, a visible divide has been emerging over a single issue: the role of women. It quickly is becoming a line in the sand, pitting the reformers against the traditionalists.

The decision by SAR High School, located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, is just the latest development on this front. Before it came the decision by Rabbi Avi Weiss, an Orthodox rabbi in Riverdale, to ordain female Orthodox clergy. The ordination call was preceded by Orthodox minyans that took a second look at halachah and decided that allowing women to lead certain parts of worship — Torah reading, the introductory morning prayers known as Psukei D’zimra and a few other rituals — did not violate the letter of the law.

It’s difficult to say when it all began. Was the original Bais Yaakov school for girls, opened in Poland in 1917, the first breach, breaking the traditional ban on giving girls a formalized Torah education? The school, which by today’s standards would be considered ultra-Orthodox, was then seen as groundbreaking. Only the imprimatur of the widely respected Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chaim, helped stem the controversy that greeted its establishment.

In America, a key milestone came in the latter half of the 20th century when Orthodox schools began offering girls the same Jewish education offered to boys. For many years — and this is still the case in many Orthodox institutions today — only boys were allowed to study Talmud, the central text of Orthodox Judaism. But when Orthodox schools began allowing girls to study Talmud, under the authority of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of the Maimonides School near Boston, it opened the door to a new way of thinking about the role of Orthodox women.

Many of the logical conclusions followed. If an Orthodox girl could study Talmud in high school, why couldn’t she in college? By the early 1980s, Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy, was offering elective Talmud classes at its Stern College for Women, though it wasn’t until 2009 that Stern opened a master’s program in biblical and Talmudic interpretation to women. In 1984, the Drisha Institute, a New York institution under Orthodox leadership, opened the first full-time women’s kollel study program.

The glass ceiling of female Orthodox spiritual leaders began to shatter, too. In 1992, Drisha began offering a three-year program “paralleling rabbinic ordination” to certify female scholars. A few years later, Nishmat, an institution in Jerusalem established in 1990 “to open the gates of higher Torah learning to women,” inaugurated a program to certify women as “yoatzot halacha” — consultants on Jewish law. The consultants mainly ministered to women on laws pertaining to sex, Shabbat and kashrut.


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