Amelia Earhart was the first woman who conquered the Atlantic Ocean with her impressive solo flight at the beginning of the 20th century. Sally Reid, the first female astronaut, made history when she traveled to outer space in 1983. Idit Bartov is the first woman to be ordained by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel. She’s also deputy commander of the volunteer firefighting and rescue team in the region where she lives in Binyamin – which means she sometimes must violate the Sabbath to save lives.
“If I would have stopped for a moment and thought about what I was doing, I might not have done it,” Idit Bartov confesses. “It’s a good think I didn’t think too much.” What made Idit choose this trailblazing path of rabbinical ordination as a woman? “I studied for the rabbinical exams because I deeply felt that it was something I had to do,” she explains.
It’s no wonder we wanted to sit down with Idit for a thorough talk about her unusual decision to pursue rabbinical ordination, the reactions she received from society and also to hear about her volunteer work as a female firefighter. What was obvious from the start is that she is anything but ordinary.
While men who study for rabbinical ordination are valued for dedicating their time to this important pursuit, for a woman, it’s as if she’s taking a cooking class or drama or dance
Idit, you seem to have chosen the most challenging occupation to deal with as a woman.
It’s definitely a challenging field for any woman interested in entering it. The first challenge is that it is a new occupation for women that did not exist beforehand, so you are expected to justify your interest. People tend to follow the social norm. In religious circles, this tendency is perhaps even stronger. Many feel the need to tag and categorize every aspect of life. Therefore, a woman who is a rabbanit (the Hebrew word for female rabbi) is automatically considered to be a Reform Jew and a fighting feminist. You need to prove your capability; you are not given the right to be presumed innocent. That is the main challenge.
What are some other challenges?
Because it is a new area for women, the public is not familiar with it. The feeling is that people are thinking: “Things were fine until now without this, so why create something new?” In certain places, people will continue to go to a rabbi, because that is what they’ve always done. This impacts the amount of work I actually receive, because less people will come to consult with me than with a male rabbi. There are many men who have completed studying for rabbinical ordination but do not actively work in this field. So there is definitely not much of a demand for a woman with these credentials.
How does the religious community view your decision to pursue rabbinical ordination?
Socially, it is viewed as some sort of whim that you’re pursuing for your own satisfaction. While men who study for rabbinical ordination are valued for dedicating their time to this important pursuit, for a woman, it’s as if she’s taking a cooking class or drama or dance – something she’s doing for herself that’s almost egoistical. It threatens the familiar social status quo.
How is this sentiment expressed in your everyday life?
I hear various types of reactions. For example, there are men who often throw out comments such as: “Here’s the rabbanit, she’ll teach us a Torah lesson,” said sarcastically. They feel threatened, because I broke through a barrier that was closed off to women until now.
Why do you put yourself through this?
I always followed what I believed was the truth in every area of my life. In this case too, I sincerely wanted to learn and I felt a deep need to do so. When a friend told me about a program geared toward female empowerment, I pursued it because I thought that it would give me the tools to give advice and help other people do what I intuitively did.
I’d like to say something that seems to be a generalization, although there are always exceptions – women possess the ability to understand complex situations in a manner that men do not always fully understand
“Jewish law is a captivating, creative and even individualistic realm”
Aside from the challenges, what are the positive aspects of your work?
There are very many positive aspects. There are those who think that Jewish law is the driest thing out there, with no room for creativity. But I am captivated by it. It is mesmerizing, very creative and even individualistic.
What is captivating about it?
Jewish law is seemingly black and white, permitted or forbidden, yes or no; the rabbi just needs to pull out the right card. But that’s really not the way it is. There can be several possible answers for the same exact question. Each rabbinic authority has their own style and manner of ruling, all of which are in the framework of Jewish law, of course. Its boundaries are inclusive of many styles.
Is your style of decision rendering unique?
I don’t compare myself to others, but I think that I have an advantage as a woman because I understand complexities that men do not understand. As a woman, I can understand unique situations related to marriage and family issues. I think I am also perhaps more attentive, and there are areas that I am more technically familiar with. I’d like to say something that seems to be a generalization, although there are always exceptions – women possess the ability to understand complex situations in a manner that men do not always fully understand. There are definitely also those men who are very sensitive to various issues in their rulings as well.
What types of people come to consult with you?
There are a lot of people who I don’t necessarily know personally, who reach me via various social media outlets: Facebook, WhatsApp, or by word of mouth. I think that some people expect that I will say everything is permissible, or assume that because I’m a rabbanit, I’ll probably be lenient in my rulings. But that’s not at all true. My decisions are based on what I believe is the truth and most correct. My female friends and other women that they refer to me also come to consult with me because they prefer to consult with a woman rather than a man.
Where do you work?
I primarily work at two different places where I render decisions pertaining to Jewish law. One is called ITIM, an organization that provides guidance and assistance regarding services related to religion and state. There, I write rulings of Jewish law and decisions regarding public issues such as conversion, personal status in the framework of marriage and more. In addition, I am involved in Women for the Temple. I am responsible for deciding matters of Jewish law related to practice, giving classes and answering questions over the phone – which I provide on a daily basis.
Jewish law is dynamic and ever-changing, to reflect modern times
What feminist changes have taken place in Judaism?
I am happy to say that there are many. It could fill an entire book. I was in the first class of rabbaniyot (plural for “rabbanit”). There were two of us. I completed my studies six years ago. Last year, two additional women were ordained, and this year, there were two more. The situation is always dynamic. Everyone quotes Rabbi Kook, who said that “women should not vote in elections.” But we must understand that in that period, women didn’t vote almost anywhere in the world. There are European countries who granted women the right to vote long after Israel did. Therefore, what he said was pertinent to his times. But religious laws are ever-changing. This is reflected in the Hebrew word for “law” – Halacha, which comes from the root halicha – “walking,” constantly in motion.
Fireman Sam, Right Behind You
Okay, rabbanit makes sense to me now. But you’re a firefighter too?
You could say so. Officially, my title is deputy commander of the volunteers in our region. We provide the first response in cases of fires and car accidents. Sometimes, we’re actually the only response. We react until the fire department arrives – and if we are able to manage on our own, it spares the call to the fire department.
If, for example, a car accident takes place on Shabbat, even if the vehicle is from an Arab village, we don’t even think twice about arriving at the scene.
How did the initiative to set up a regional volunteer firefighting unit develop?
The initiative began in Binyamin about 18 years ago. At that time, Binyamin was one region. Yitzchak Bloch, who was the head of the fire department, decided to divide the region into small stations because as one large region, arrival time took too long. There could be a fire near the Dead Sea region or in Modiin, and it was all considered the same region. In order to provide a first response to distant areas, volunteer stations were formed.
And you decided to volunteer. As a woman, you’re trailblazing here too, correct?
Yes, you could say that I was a trailblazer here. There was only one other woman with me in the course. In this case, though, my community urged me to join the course. The community was small at the time with a limited population, and they pushed me to participate – so I did.
How long was the course?
It’s a 60-hour course in which we learned both the theory and practice of evacuating victims from vehicles, putting out fires and handling dangerous substances.
“I continued cooking our Passover meal wearing my firefighting uniform”
As a firefighter, you often need to be on-call, right?
Of course. One situation that I especially remember was right before Passover this year. I was sent to put out fires that started when people were burning their chametz (bread products that are forbidden on Passover) and the fire got out of control due to a change in the wind direction. Afterward, I came home and kept cooking with my firefighting uniform on, so that I would be ready to go if I was called again. On Yom Kippur (a fast day and the holiest date on the Jewish calendar), there was a case of arson. I went to put out the fire, and afterward, I needed to drink. That was very hard for me. But I had no choice, because after that extreme heat, it would have been dangerous not to drink.
Are there any other female firefighting volunteers?
Yes. When we took the course 17 years ago, we were two women. Today, there are four, but this is obviously a small number in comparison with the men, of which there are about 25.
Have you ever provided rescue services to the Arab population?
Yes. Even on Shabbat. First of all, because if the fire is close to us, it could spread and endanger us as well. If, for example, a car accident takes place on Shabbat, even if the vehicle is from an Arab village, we don’t even think twice about arriving at the scene.
In cases like those, are personal connections made? Do they thank you?
Yes, when there’s direct personal contact, one on one, then this definitely happens.
What is your vision for women like yourself in 2067?
It is clear to me that there will be female rabbaniot, even on the Beit Din. It will happen. I don’t even call it a vision. It’s clear to me that this is what’s going to happen. In terms of Torah study, girls will be exposed to the same content and materials as boys. From a certain age, a woman will be able to make a choice, like a man, regarding what she would like to learn. Just as women are slowly joining the firefighting services, this will happen in other areas too.