The headlines heralded what many of us have been agitating for years: Orthodox women are going to be recognized as rabbis in Israel. All over social media, Orthodox women virtually cheered, as did their allies.
But that excitement after last week's decision by Israel's attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, to require the rabbinate to accept women's ordination was a bit exaggerated, or at least premature. There is quite a long way to go before we see a female chief rabbi in the Jewish state — or even get to call Orthodox women "rabbi."
The directive, which mandates that women must be allowed to take the rabbinate's exams that lead to ordination as well as state-funded rabbinic jobs and other economic benefits, is only one step in a complicated process to recognize women as rabbis. The rabbinate has already announced it would go on strike if forced to implement the decision, and even if women are indeed allowed to take the same test as men, experts said it still may not mean they will be ordained, or hired into government roles.
Israel's rabbinate was established in 1921, during the British Mandate, and since the state's founding has maintained power over all religious affairs, including conversion and kashrut, as well as marriage, divorce, and prayer at the Western Wall. Hundreds of rabbis work for the rabbinate or otherwise in publicly funded rabbinic positions across Israel.
"Their threat doesn't matter," Rabbanit Devorah Evron, director of Ohr Torah Stone's Susi Bradfield Women's Institute of Halakhic Leadership, said of the rabbinate. "The significance of the decision is that the state will have to recognize women's advanced Torah learning," she added, "just as it does for men."
Evron was one of six Orthodox women who were the first ever in Israel to pass rabbinic exams in 2015, via the Halakha Program for Women at Beit Morasha. Though that program no longer exists, there are six others that train Orthodox women to be halakhic authorities, with a total of about 45 students, though most do not call their graduates rabbis.
As someone who spent over 20 years advocating for women's leadership in Orthodoxy and then shifted gears to begin rabbinic studies at the Reform rabbinical school, I have a keen interest in seeing women gain religious authority. For myself and women across denominations who want to be heard and respected for our knowledge and expertise, this ruling has both tangible and intangible significance.
"It's a very big crack in the glass ceiling that has been sitting on religious women's heads for a long time," said Rabbanit Rachel Keren, who has already passed all the ordination tests and was among the six women who brought the legal petition that led to Mandelblit's ruling. "The ruling sends the message that women are fluent in Jewish law, that our knowledge is legitimate, and that we deserve to be leaders. It gives a green light to our entire movement."
Yael Rockman, who is director of the religious feminist organization Kolech, one of the organizations that brought the petition, said that there is also real money at stake: women who pass the exams should now be able to apply for state jobs that require rabbinic ordination. Rabbinic certification also comes with child-care allowances paid by the state; in fact, men studying at yeshiva currently receive subsidies for child care, while women studying at yeshivas do not.
"This ruling is about equal economic opportunity," Rockman said. "Israel has a Religious Services Ministry with a massive budget and a wide range of paid, state positions that are often open exclusively to Orthodox rabbis, which until now has meant only men."