Orthodox woman trains as Halacha adviser
She won’t be a ‘rabbi,’ but aims to fill a need for qualified leaders
JERUSALEM — When Eryn London was an undergraduate, her fellow Jewish college students often suggested she become a rabbi. London, who grew up in Randolph, was one of very few Orthodox students on her campus (Goucher College in Baltimore), and she soon became their point person for Torah-related questions.
“I told them I was Orthodox and that becoming a rabbi just wasn’t possible for me,” said London. Years later, London applied to a women’s study program at Ohr Torah Stone’s Midreshet Lindenbaum College in Jerusalem, which certifies women to decide halachic issues.
During a pre-admission interview, the rabbis asked her about her future career goals. “I gave them my stock answer that I like teaching, pastoral care, and community building. Their response was, ‘So, you want to be a rabbi?’ I said yes, but that I wasn’t sure I could say that here.’”
London, 28, is now in her second year of the five-year program, which was founded by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat. Graduates do not receive certification as rabbis but rather a “heter hora’ah,” which is the license to decide halachic issues, London said during an interview with NJJN.
London’s studies focus on learning the laws of Shabbat, kashrut, ritual family purity, pastoral care, mourning, and marriage, which are the main topics that are covered in traditional ordination programs, she said.
“I think it’s important within Orthodoxy because we live in a world where women are extremely knowledgeable in religious studies. Women today are very much a part of the community. They should be part of the halachic and talmudic conversation,” she said. “Women are often more comfortable asking a woman halachic questions. So it’s very important for women to learn the laws and be able to teach and discuss them.”
The training of women as advisers on Halacha has riled many Orthodox leaders. They fear initiatives by Riskin and another Modern Orthodox rabbi who has been training women advisers, Riverdale’s Avi Weiss, undermine tradition and the role of the male posek, or rabbinic legal decisor.
Weiss’s support of training women as Jewish ritual and spiritual leaders is believed to be part of an ongoing feud between the rabbi and Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
Riskin defended the “heter hora’ah” in a 2013 article for the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. He emphasized that the program’s graduates are not referred to as rabbis, but nonetheless fulfill an “increasing demand in the Orthodox Jewish world for qualified women’s leadership.”
A graduate of Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, London made aliya in February 2010. Her parents, Hank and Fran London of Randolph, are deeply supportive of their daughter’s ambitions, they said. “The Orthodox communities here and in Israel need more women in leadership roles to work with and counsel women,” said Hank London.
The family is affiliated with Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph, where London taught a women’s beit midrash for six months after she finished a graduate study program at Goldsmiths, University of London. At Goucher, she majored in theater and double minored in psychology and Judaic studies. She served as Hillel president for two years, and founded a Shabbat-observant theater program.
“I am very thankful that I have a lot of support from my community back home and my friends in Israel. Not everyone agrees with the goals of this program, but I don’t need everyone to agree,” she said.
“My goal is to one day work in a shul as a rabbinic leader in whatever country I will be able to find a position, even if it means moving to Zimbabwe or Finland.”