Who is a Rabbanit
For many people the Hebrew word רבנית (“Rabbanit“) is equivalent to the Yiddish word rebbetzin, referring to the (male) rabbi’s wife. I wanted to present a few observations about how the word rabbanit has begun to take on a new meaning in modern Hebrew, that of a woman in a religious leadership role whose title signifies a recognition of her knowledge, stature, and leadership. These observations do not address the existence of non-Orthodox female rabbis because in those movements and communities the existence and acceptability of female rabbis is a given, although the Hebrew term used is either רב or רבה.
You may ask, doesn’t the position of “halakhic advisor,” a יועצת הלכה (yoetzet halakhah), already exist? Yes it does, but I want to claim that the role of the rabbanit is expanding beyond that of the yoetzet halakhah. As an aside, I don’t think that it would be off the mark to say that the position of yoetzet halakhah made the ground fertile for the development of the rabbanit in more ways than one.
The first thing that I would like to point out is the use of the term rabbanit by the liberal Orthodox organization Beit Hillel. When Beit Hillel uses the term it is in order to recognize the level of learning and religious leadership of women.
Their website draws a connection to the position of yoetzet halakhah, but in my opinion hints at the desire to go beyond the traditional role of the yoetzet.
We see an especial benefit to women being involved in Halacha, especially in areas pertaining to matrimony and family purity, such as the program for “Yoatzot halacha.” This program allows women to feel comfortable asking their questions to other women. We call for women to be involved in leadership positions in their communities, alongside the community rabbis, out of a belief that this integration will broaden the Torah’s influence on the women in the community.
The two other observations are from the past week. The first is a Facebook post by Rabbi Amnon Bazak. In his FB post Rabbi Bazak, a member of Beit Hillel, wrote that there is no halakhic reason to prevent women from functioning as a rabbanit in a religious leadership role within a community and that a female leadership figure who is knowledgable and learned is important for the community. This is both to serve as a more accessible address in certain issues for women and in general to serve as a role model.
The last observation is related to a report on Israel Radio Reshet Bet this morning that the dean of the law school Sha’arei Mishpat, Prof. Aviad Hacohen, has asked the Chief Rabbinate to allow women studying halakhah at a high level to take the Rabbinate semikhah exams which are currently open only to men. Sha’arei Mishpat has apparently received numerous inquires from women who are interested in such a possibility. From an article in Ynet (H), it seems as if these women aren’t necessarily studying at Sha’arei Mishpat, but they have turned to the legal clinics at Sha’arei Mishpat to help them with this situation. The letter emphasizes that they are not asking that the Chief Rabbinate ordain women as rabbis, they just want the opportunity for these women to receive official recognition of their level of learning. Some of them already function as yoeitzot halakhah, but there is no official recognition of this learning.
May the learned women among Israel multiply and teach us all from their Torah.
Update: Based upon an article in Ynet, I have added a few clarifications to the final observation.