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Leaders in Israel's Religious Communities

by Tova Cohen

Since the late twentieth century women have begun to assume leadership positions that are undoubtedly “religious” in both content and form. Religious leaders, like any other leaders, guide their followers towards achieving goals and purposes, and can do so by influencing their followers’ motivation. Religious leaders guide their followers towards religious goals and derive their authority to do so from the strength of their own religious characteristics. What therefore distinguishes them from secular leaders is that even in democratic societies their authority does not emanate solely from the public, but also from a religious source—in the case of Judaism, the Torah. Hence, a crucial criterion for religious leadership in the world of Jewry is “knowledge of the Torah,” by which is meant the ability to refer to the canonical texts in an unmediated manner. Thus in Jewry the leadership of a rabbi finds expression in that he is both a posek (decisor) in matters of Jewish law (halakhah) and a spiritual-educational mentor.

In Israel, women religious leaders do indeed derive their authority from the attainment of the traditional virtues of piety and Torah erudition. They also wield considerable moral and spiritual influence within the communities that acknowledge their leadership. In Orthodox circles, women religious leaders usually differ from male religious leaders in two main respects: they still do not assume the authority to deliver a pesak (decision in halakhah); and their followers usually consist solely of women rather than of mixed-gender communities.

Numerous forms of women’s religious leadership have emerged in several different Jewish religious sectors in Israel. Of necessity, the sphere of women’s religious leadership is limited to those circles that define themselves as in some way “religious,” even though women religious leaders may also speak to non-religious circles. The following discussion will include three important clusters, each of which expresses a different attitude towards the status of women and each of which, consequently, allows for varying possibilities of women’s religious leadership. At one extremity are the Reform and Conservative movements, which espouse full equality for women and, for this reason, equality in religious leadership. The other end of the spectrum is occupied by the haredim (Ultra-Orthodox), who reject the ideology of women’s equality and, perforce, the possibility of women’s integration into religious leadership. The middle ground is occupied by the Modern Orthodox, whose members partially accept and partially reject the premises of the other two groupings. In Modern Orthodoxy, therefore, there has emerged a unique synthesis.


Unlike all other religious circles, the Reform and Conservative congregations and leadership do not consider women’s religious leadership to constitute a religious problem. Due to their unqualified acceptance of the principle of gender equality in rights and obligations, the Reform Movement rejects the Jewish tradition that bars women from leadership positions. Thus, in Israel, as in the U.S., women rabbis are ordained by Hebrew Union College and serve as congregational rabbis.

The Conservative Movement has made slower and more serpentine progress toward the ordination of woman rabbis because of its commitment to halakhah. However, today in Israel, as in the U.S., women in the Conservative community receive ordination from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and can serve as congregational rabbis. Their ordination of course also entitles them to serve as Rabbis in all accepted capacities, including that of pesikah. Indeed, two women, Gilah Dror (b. 1950) and Eynat Ramon (b. 1959) have been members of the Conservative Va’ad Halakhah (Halakhic Council).

In both movements, the number of women qualifying for ordination has in recent years begun to equal (and occasionally to exceed) that of men. Nevertheless, fewer women actually serve as communal rabbis in Israel than do men. In the Reform movement the numbers are (in 2006) eleven women and eleven men, and in the Conservative movement three women and twenty-one men. However, recent years have seen a new development. Fewer Conservative congregations are employing a rabbi. Instead, the members themselves carry out the ritual and educational functions. Women have become prominent in the role of “lay rabbi.” It is in this informal way that they can be said to be slowly attaining the status of religious leaders.


The stated ideal in haredi society is the maintenance of traditional limits as bulwarks against the threat posed by modern secular society. Hence, haredi society altogether suspects and rejects non-material Western ideologies, feminism included. Indeed, it perceives feminism as a synonym for a range of evils that encompasses permissiveness, destruction of family life and abandonment of Judaism.

Such a context ensures that women’s secondary place on the socio-religious ladder is strictly preserved, reserving the apex of the social and religious hierarchy for men. Women help men to fulfill their role as scholars by taking on the dual function of homemaker and breadwinner and thereby releasing men from domestic chores.

The role of breadwinner (even in its current incarnation, with haredi women functioning as computer programmers and accountants) is considered secondary in importance and an auxiliary to the male imperative, which is Torah study.

The extent to which women are thus allocated a secondary religious role has direct implications for the possibility of the emergence of women’s religious leadership in haredi circles. Although several prominent women teachers have acquired a status that might be considered one of religious leadership, they themselves limit their role to teaching, stressing their secondary status by always referring to a male rabbi as a source of authority. Significantly, the haredi world adamantly excludes women from studying what it considers to be the most substantive body of Torah knowledge: Mishnah, Talmud and canonical halakhic texts such as the Rambam and Shulhan Arukh. Their exclusion from the study of these sources prevents women from advancing to positions at the apex of the haredi intellectual-religious pyramid and from access to the sphere of pesikah, which is an integral part of the rabbi’s religious leadership role. Haredi women accept this situation as a norm. As is common in deeply entrenched patriarchal societies, they too oppose as a matter of religious principle any restructuring of the traditional hierarchy, in which men are always located at the top of the pyramid of religious knowledge and leadership.

Even so, there are two developments taking place in the haredi world that merit attention, since both do place women in religious leadership positions vis-à-vis followers outside the haredi world. Both of these developments derive from the phenomenon of “return to the faith” (hazarah bi-teshuvah): one is the haredi Arakhim movement; the other is the appearance of women “repentance preachers” (mahazirot bi-teshuvah) in Sephardi (Mizrahi) communities. A famous and popular such mahazirah bi-teshuvah is Leah Kook.

In both movements haredi women gain a position of spiritual guidance and in that sense could be described as “religious leaders.” The mahazirot bi-teshuvah themselves, together of course with the male religious haredi establishment, continue to exclude women from religious leadership and even to deny them access to the resources that might confer that status. In practice, however, in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi haredi worlds several of the mahazirot bi-teshuvah seem, albeit slowly, to be assuming some positions of religious leadership amongst women who “return to the faith” (hozerot bi-teshuvah).


Within the circles of Israeli Modern Orthodox society a conscious effort is being made to create a form of female religious leadership that will integrate the feminist concept of women’s leadership with traditional Jewish limitations on its exercise. In this sector of Israeli society, several specific women can already be identified as “religious leaders” and one can reasonably expect the entire stratum of recognized women’s religious leadership to grow in the future.

The extent of this development must not, however, be exaggerated; it is still limited to rather restricted circles within Modern Orthodoxy. Women’s leadership is developing at a different pace in the two major spheres of religious leadership. Where educational, moral and spiritual leadership is concerned, developments have been swift as well as impressive. But in the sphere of pesikah, changes have been very much slower and more cautious.

Within the sphere of Torah study and moral and spiritual leadership, in which women have already begun to assume leading positions in Israeli Modern Orthodoxy, four main areas of activity which contribute to the process may be identified: (1) the midrashot (academies of Torah study for women); (2) women’s voluntary communities; (3) women’s intellectual leadership; and (4) the organization of women for public religious activity.

1. The midrashot constitute the most visible area of activity that promotes the emergence of Modern Orthodox women’s religious leadership. Indeed, the latter phenomenon first made its appearance amongst some principals of those institutions in the mid-1990s, and to this day the midrashot retain their position as a sort of “hegemonic center” of the female religious world. True, the midrashot are not all cut of one cloth. There exist significant variations in their attitudes toward Torah study by women and these variations are also mirrored in their views on issues relating to women’s religious leadership. Only some midrashot attach importance to developing future religious leaders and to influencing society at large; others focus on enhancing the women’s religious world. What is significant, however, is that in both cases the principals and prominent teachers in the institutions hold positions of de facto religious leadership.

Many of the principals and dominant or charismatic teachers are religious leaders in the major sense in which that term was defined above. Their authority does not stem only from their formal status; it also reflects the excellence of their Torah scholarship and the quality of the ethical image that they project. Amongst the best known of such midrashot principals are Malke Bina, Chana Henkin and Esti Rozenberg. They interact with and influence a permanent group by teaching, by setting a personal example and (to judge by the testimony of many of their students) often also by exercising their personal charisma.

2. Women’s communities outside the midrashot became fertile ground for the development of women’s religious leadership. Such communities sometimes grow from the midrashot, as is the case with Matan (Torah Institute for Women) in Ra’anannah. Oshra Koren, principal of Matan ha-Sharon in Ra’anannah, is an example of a religious leader who developed in the scholastic milieu of the midrashah and has attained a position of broad influence in the wider community of Ra’anannah. In addition to heading the midrashah she has gradually initiated activities that grow out of the midrashah’s world of learning, but that have in various ways penetrated the life of the local community. Today she conducts many additional religious activities for hundreds of women in Ra’anannah, who regard her as their religious leader.

In other women’s religious communities, the leader and the group are not necessarily associated with a specific scholastic institution. In these instances, small groups of students and followers form around the leaders concerned, sometimes for classes and on other occasions in a prayer group. An example of an “unaffiliated” religious leader of this type is Haviva Ner-David, who personifies an ultra-feminist model of a struggle to change women’s religious role within the world of the halakhah and serves some women as a spiritual mentor. She, for example, presents women with a new and groundbreaking women’s religious model by wearing tefillin. Ner-David operates outside the institutionalized setting of a midrashah and, like Oshra Koren, is active within the setting of a non-establishment Orthodox community and a women’s prayer group.

Altogether, women’s prayer groups, which have emerged in various locations in Israel, provide voluntary religious settings for women who wish to lead prayers themselves without breaching the halakhic framework. Sometimes these groups gather around a leading figure; on other occasions they operate democratically.

3. Theological and philosophical discussion, by women, of the problematic nexus of feminism and halakhic Judaism constitutes the third sphere of activity that facilitates the emergence of women’s religious leadership in Israeli Modern Orthodoxy. This sphere is dominated by the figure of Dr. Tamar Ross of Bar-Ilan University. Ross is active at two levels of religious leadership: As a charismatic and influential teacher she inspires change among her students at the university, including those who attend Bar-Ilan’s own midrashah, and at Midreshet Lindenbaum. Ross also provides religious leadership and intellectual guidance by means of her writings, which boldly explore new territory by examining the theological implications of the encounter between Judaism and feminism.

4. The organization of women for public religious activity in order to promote practical, feasible changes within the limits of halakhah and custom. This sphere of action is exemplified by the religious feminist group, the Kolech Religious Women’s Forum, which aims (in the words of its statement of principles) “to influence public awareness and take practical action to change the role and promote the advancement of religious women in public and family life.”

What distinguishes Kolech from all other organized public initiatives undertaken by religious women is the explicit feminist awareness of its membership, its feminist activism concerning rights of women, and its expressed ambition to exert influence in the field of religion, custom and halakhah insofar as these pertain to women.

As the above “map” of developments in Israel’s ramified religious world shows, women’s religious leadership is developing in two main forms. Within the Reform and Conservative communities, women’s full religious leadership, of gender-heterogeneous communities, is strengthening (albeit rather slowly), based on egalitarian ideology. In Modern Orthodox circles, it is the formation of gender-homogeneous (women-only) groups that facilitates the rise to prominence of women religious leaders. However, some processes within the Modern Orthodox community may generate the development of a stratum of women religious leaders whose influence will not be confined to specific communities of women but who will be active in all spheres of religious leadership, including pesika. This forecast is based on the prediction that the near future will witness the strengthening of developments already under way:

A. Girls’ education in midrashot: This educational environment is creating a widening circle of Torah-knowledgeable women who eventually may serve not only as teachers but also as religious leaders. Especially is this so since a few of the midrashot are developing selected groups of students who receive grants that enable them to devote their entire time to study, thus imitating the situation long existent for men who attend a kollel.

B. Women’s prayer groups and Modern Orthodox egalitarian prayer groups provide another area for the development of women’s leadership, especially among the younger generation of girls who participate in such groups. The fusion of this religious activism with the religious creativity that the women apply as they create the new setting lays the groundwork for the development of a future generation of women religious leaders.

C. Orthodox circles still obstruct women’s inroads into halakhic decision-making positions. However, several current and diverse developments may eventually lead, in a slow, cautious process, to rabbinical ordination and dayanic certification. The first is the training course for halakhic advisors at Nishmat (Women’s Academy for Advanced Torah Studies). The course is not designed to infiltrate women into the “male” sphere of pesikah, but to meet a need among the religious public for women who can advise other women in matters of marital halakhah. Since autumn 2000 graduates of this program have provided their advisory services by means of a telephone hotline that allows callers to remain as anonymous as they wish, and they also handle specific halakhic questions and more intricate problems in family life. In its current incarnation, this development cannot be said to be producing “women’s religious leadership.” However, it constitutes a step on the path toward certification in halakhic decision-making (pesikah).

A second development in this sphere is the strengthening and consolidation of the status of rabbinical court advocates (persons licensed to appear before a rabbinical court). In the 1990s the first moves towards training women for such positions were strenuously opposed by the religious establishment, which attempted to halt the process by setting barrier examinations. Today, however, the religious establishment grants recognition to the training program and the courts no longer regard women rabbinical advocates as ineligible. Their influence is not restricted to specific rabbinical courts. It also extends to discussions with the senior judicial administration.

The degree to which women rabbinical advocates are involved in training and professional activity helps them to develop religious-leadership traits. Erudite in the Torah and halakhah, in possession of a rising status in the rabbinical courts and, in many cases, outspoken and charismatic, this group of women will certainly eventually produce women religious leaders who can generate important changes in women’s halakhic status.

A third development is that of private Orthodox rabbinical ordination, a step taken by one Israeli woman (Haviva Ner-David) who is currently studying with an orthodox rabbi for ordination while working on a Ph.D. in the Department of Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University. The rabbi has expressed his willingness to ordain her in this field once her studies are completed. By studying for ordination, Ner-David is consciously blazing a trail that she hopes will end with the appointment of women as rabbis in Orthodox communities.

Women are thus advancing to religious leadership in various ways. In the Reform and Conservative movements, the process is the outcome of a “top-down” establishment decision that few congregations implement today but that may receive support in the future, as young members of the congregations gain greater influence. In Orthodoxy, on the other hand, only a very few women are acting consciously to “take over” religious leadership by obtaining rabbinical ordination. The overwhelming majority, which includes those who believe in the possibility of women’s religious leadership, favor an incremental progress. However, consciously or not, voluntarily or not, religious women have already assumed positions of religious leadership and today’s women leaders are fostering and encouraging the next generation of leadership.


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How to cite this page

Cohen, Tova. "Leaders in Israel's Religious Communities." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 24, 2014) <>.


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