Female Jewish rabbis are rising

Female Jewish rabbis are rising

A trend of women taking action in the Jewish community can be seen all around the world. A major example is the study of the Torah. For years, Orthodox Jewish men were the only ones allowed to study the oral Torah. The oral Torah contains laws and statutes that were not initially written down in the Torah itself, but are still regarded as prescriptive by Orthodox Jews.[1] Thanks to efforts of several daf yomi – a daily page – groups, women are now coming together to study pages of the text. When the study finishes, all 2,711 pages will have been studied. Jewish women have been opening up their homes to others who wish to join. The Jewish Chronicle describes the efforts as “a quiet revolution … in women’s learning.”[2]

Ordaining female rabbis
The revolution of the role of women in the Jewish faith is not limited to the study of the Torah.  In July 2019, the fourth female rabbi in France was ordained. According to newspaper Libération, this step shows the growing importance of women in Judaism, both in France and in the world.[3] Similar progress is being made in Italy, where Marian Camerini is currently studying to become the first female Orthodox Jewish rabbi in her country. In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, she stated that she notices a lack of acceptance by the male-dominated community. However, she also believes that there will continue to be an increase in the number of female rabbis in the future.[4]

The number of female rabbis has been on the rise since the 1970s, before which women usually did not serve as rabbis at all. Nowadays, progressive Jewish branches ordain women as rabbis. However, this change has not spread throughout the entire Jewish community. Orthodox Jews still show resistance to this change, as illustrated by the case of Miriam Camerini.[5]

Equal blessings for men and women
Besides increasing education and changing roles of leadership, Jewish women have also been given greater recognition during religious ceremonies, in particular Simchat Torah. The annual Simchat Torah marks the completion of the Torah reading cycle.[6] So, during this holiday, it is celebrated that the entire Torah has been read and that a new cycle starts. The reading cycle ends with the final book in the Torah, Deuteronomy. Immediately after this book is read, the reading of the first book, Genesis, is started. This symbolises that learning is never completed and the Torah never ends.[7]

Men have always held the most important roles in this celebration. In particular, two men are given the roles of ‘Chatan Torah’ and ‘Chatan Bereshit’. The man who gets the honour of reading the last section of the Torah is titled Chatan Torah. Chatan Bereshit is the title for the man who is given the honour to read the first part of the new reading cycle of the Torah.[8]

There had never been such a special blessing for women. However, in October 2019, the Chief rabbi of the UK, Ephraim Mirvis, composed a special blessing for women who are honoured by synagogues during Simchat Torah.[9] Mirvis introduced the honour of Eishet Chayil: woman of worth. When a woman is given the honour of this title, it means that the rabbi has recognised her ‘outstanding contribution’ to the community.[10] This change is further evidence of how the Jewish faith is changing to give greater recognition and responsibilities to women within the religion.

Beyond the Jewish community
The growing importance of women in Jewish society is reflected outside the community as well. Disney provides a good example of this. In September 2019, the firm announced its first ever Jewish princess. She appeared in a Hanukkah-themed episode of the hit series Elena of Avalor.[11]

It is clear that the revolution in the role of women in the Jewish community is part of a global movement. Around the world, women are fighting for their voices to be heard and for their ideas to be represented. Jewish women are taking on the challenge in their own communities. Although complete equality is not yet a reality, a more equal balance of power, influence and respect is slowly being realised.

Anne Clerx

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[1] Oral Torah
[2] Talmud study isn’t just for men
[3]Une quatrième femme rabbin va exercer en France à la rentrée
[4] The making of an Orthodox woman rabbi
[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbi#Women
[6] Meaning and Traditions of Simchat Torah
[7] What Happens in Synagogue on Simchat Torah
[8] The “Chatanim”: Chatan Torah and Chatan Bereishit
[9] Chief Rabbi composes special Simchat Torah blessing for women honoured by synagogues
[10] Chief Rabbi composes special Simchat Torah blessing for women honoured by synagogues
[11] Disney is introducing its first ever Jewish princess