Breaking ground

In April 2021, fresh ground was plowed in the Orthodox Jewish world in Israel when Shira Marili Mirvis, a mother of six, was appointed as the country’s first ever Orthodox female rabbi (rabbanit) for a community in Judea and Samaria, in the rapidly growing town of Efrat.

Judaism is rich and complex. The necessity to debate and argue for “the sake of Heaven” has created a paradox of growth and division culminating in Judaism historically splitting into three different movements: Orthodox Conservative and Reform. Although the latter streams have already ordained women as rabbis, in the Orthodox world, until Shirat’s appointment, women were only allowed to serve in positions of spiritual leadership alongside rabbis, but never by themselves. 

After five years of hard study, Shirat passed the stringent exams which proved she handled competently all matters of ‘Halacha’ – the Written and Oral Jewish Law – such as Shabbat, dietary laws, family purity, death and burial, marriage and divorce, and every other aspect needed to live a life according to the commandments. Her duties as a rabbanit, will be exactly the same as her male counterparts throughout the country and the extended Jewish world. 

Although there was opposition to her appointment by some staunch traditionalists, other male counterparts welcomed the decision, including the popular Oded Revivi, the mayor of her town, and the world-renowned Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who is also a resident of Efrat. Alumnus of the highly-esteemed Yeshiva University, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, made an especially bold statement when he said the place of women in Jewish leadership can go fully hand in hand with Halacha and Jewish tradition. 

Her journey is one of hope for many women who believe her ground-breaking appointment will open up new possibilities for Jewish women in the future. In an interview with Israel’s Army Radio, Shirat said it was a long journey which  began during her studies abroad, when she was exposed to Jewish communities where women took on roles not accepted in her own religious world. It troubled her. It also lead her to wonder about some of the limitations which had been placed on her and other women in her Orthodox upbringing. 

It was during this time of studies, that many would approach her and ask her questions about Jewish law. Her answers showed her diligence and aptitude. It wasn’t long before she began to teach Talmud and even give the occasional sermon.

Yet the moment which tied it all together, took place at her father’s funeral. Tradition has it that male mourners tear their clothes, a custom steeped in the figure of Jacob who rendered his garments when he thought his son Jospeh was dead. 

At her own father’s funeral, a man from the burial society told Shirat that it was forbidden to tear her clothes, because it was immodest for a woman to do so. But Shirat’s grief was so vast, she went ahead and ripped her garment anyway. It was then that she knew, that all her life she had yearned for a woman to tell her what she should be doing in all aspects of life that adheres to Jewish law. 

As destiny would have it, it was the marking of death, that changed her life. She now finds herself as Israel’s first female rabbi, a leader who will unavoidably need to juggle with aspects that bother her. Yet she is a leader who is content with the choices she has made. She had missed having a female Torah figure in her life, and this ordination gives her the opportunity to be that woman to others.