Fervently religious women gaining new access to Torah

NEW YORK — Knowledge is power — and Orthodox women are applying the maxim to their lives in unprecedented numbers.

Across the Orthodox world, women are turning to Judaism's most sacred texts to understand for themselves the foundations of their faith.

"It's all over, like poppies pushing up in a winter field," said Rabbanit Chana Henkin, who is given the title "rabbanit" to acknowledge her status as a respected teacher.

Henkin founded Nishmat in Jerusalem, one of several institutes created in recent years to accommodate a burgeoning number of Orthodox women who want to learn Judaism's primary texts — the Bible and its codified commentaries.

But while an explosion of Jewish learning among women has created a mini-revolution in the modern Orthodox world, the phenomenon is sparking a backlash in those Orthodox communities most sheltered from the secular world.

Leaders in the most fervently traditional part of the Orthodox world fear that access to Judaism's texts might tempt their women to alter their time-honored roles as wives and as mothers.

But it's a different story in the modern Orthodox world, where today, several thousand Orthodox women are learning Torah as a full-time pursuit.

Those women who pursue such a high level of scholarship find themselves facing a variety of vexing challenges — from finding appropriate jobs to finding husbands.

While learned Orthodox men become interpreters and scholars of Jewish law, writers, teachers or pulpit rabbis, there has been no communally sanctioned place for women with similar levels of talent and knowledge.

Today some parts of the Orthodox community are trying to address that problem.

Two Orthodox congregations in New York have hired female interns whose responsibilities include teaching and lecturing.

Scholarly women are also working in other types of settings — yeshiva high schools, Jewish community centers and at universities.