Understanding of one of the most central aspects of Jewish life has inspired me and my female colleagues to develop the “MidraIsha”.
Rabbanit Batel Picar, June 07, 2022
I distinctly remember the formative experience that made me realize that the key decisions in my life are not in my own hands.
I remember sitting among my fellow students on a weekend getaway with my girls’ high school. As is typically the case with these school weekends, the school brought along some young men to act as counselors for the program. These were yeshiva students in the latter years of their studies who were there to teach and address all sorts of topics. Perhaps the highlight of the entire weekend was the oneg Shabbat where we gathered in song and were encouraged to ask questions related to both faith and halakhic practice.
In my young innocence, I looked up to these men, who weren’t actually that much older than I but came across as masters of halakha, and took in their words with excitement and wonder. When I had the opportunity, I summed up the courage to ask a halakhic question that was troubling me.
“Why,” I asked, “are women not allowed to make kiddush?”
The answer was delivered back to me without any hesitation. “What do you mean?! That’s the halakha as is written in the Shulchan Aruch”.
I felt my place and chose to hold my tongue and left it at that. I was forced to admit that at that age I had never opened a Shulchan Aruch and had limited familiarity with the holy book itself, so I was certainly unable to debate what was and what was not written there.
Over time, I came to the realization that every aspect of my daily life came from that very book that I knew so little about. And that as someone who yearns to live a life motivated by halakha, I needed to know what was written in it.
But I was pained to again admit that I didn’t have the tools to tackle that text. Even if my school’s library provided me access to this famed Code of Jewish Law, I wouldn’t know how to learn it or objectively understand its words.
I knew that I was schooled in many rabbinical texts and sources.
I had embraced the writings of Rav Kook long ago. His teachings and perspectives had guided me and helped frame my academic path. But Rav Kook – at least in the books I had read then – did not speak halakha but rather about our outlook on life.
So where would I go if I wanted to better understand and embrace the pursuit of halakhic observance and learning?
I approached my school’s principal- a remarkable man in his own right – with my halakhic questions, and he always did everything he could to respond and explain whatever challenges I presented. When I moved on to a seminary, the head of the program was no less responsive. But when I left the seminary, there was no one who I naturally felt was the address for my questioning mind.
Blessedly, I married a man with years of yeshiva study behind him, who knew who to turn to if he was not able to answer my questions himself. But it was always about asking or knowing who to ask rather than having the confidence to pursue the halakhic process on my own.
Years on, I know that this a reality which remains an obstacle for many women. Whatever the topic, we had grown used to hearing the answer,“The Gemara says this, or the Shulchan Aruch says that,” and that would end the discussion because most women still don’t have the tools to take the discussion any further. We prefer to humbly accept whatever verdict is being discussed and bow our heads in admitting that we simply don’t understand.
I certainly wouldn’t say that this is a gender-exclusive issue because there are many men who are similarly unequipped to challenge these answers. But at least they have the option of taking the issue further, and most have at some point in their lives been taught how to use the gemara as a source of halakhic rulings, or have spent time learning the Shulchan Aruch or Mishna Brura.
This understanding drove me to invest myself in Torah study, eventually directing more and more attention to learning halakha. As someone who was raised and continues to live in a conservative religious framework, I was apprehensive about approaching the world of halakha, but I felt that it just could not be that the Shulchan Aruch, which so greatly affects how I live my life, would remain hidden from me.
That decision, set me on a journey to my current studies in the Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL), part of the Ohr Torah Stone network.
Becoming acquainted with the halakhic world has taught me that the statement ‘this is the halakha’, which the counselor told me at that high school oneg Shabbat, is not accurate at all. Halakha has width and breadth, enabling a range of rulings. It is a living and breathing school of thought that demands that we listen and take into account the sensitivities and circumstances of the people involved.
This core understanding of one of the most central aspects of Jewish life has inspired me and my female colleagues to develop the “MidraIsha”. Our vision is to give fellow women the halakhic tools to so that they can be more knowledgeable to take on that sacred process. Halakha certainly has boundaries that cannot be crossed or disregarded and we need to know them and maintain them, while at other times there is room for personal choice. But if we know where specific halakhot originate and how the process has brought us to this point, we can ultimately be more confident that we not just observing halakha but doing so in ways that are inspired by meaning and joy.
The evolution of Jewish academia makes it very clear that we remain with many questions in how this process of female halakhic scholarship will continue to grow and we know that many questions will remain along the lengthy path that lies ahead.
My personal path still leaves much to be discovered and while the Shulchan Aruch has become a daily learning companion as I delve through more and more chapters, I am far from reaching the point at which I have mastered it. But the beauty of this pursuit not only lies in individual achievements but in the path itself, and I hope that my experience will allow many others to join us around this special table of discovery.
Given the chance, I am confident that they too will find it to be an entire world of endless learning and meaning.
Rabbanit Batel Picar is a second-year fellow at the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL), a division of Ohr Torah Stone, and a founder of the MidraIsha, an innovative “mobile seminary” where halakha is taught by women. On June 8th, WIHL hosted a seminar entitled “How Do Women ‘Speak’ Halacha?’ dedicated to promoting the place of women in communal halakhic leadership roles.