How do women “speak” halakha?
An erev iyyun dedicated to women’s halakhic discoce and perspectives on the Role of Women in the Beit Midrash
What do we call a woman who learns halakha – a Rabbanit? Rabba? Rabbi? Why do we seem to get so tongue-tied, so confused trying to figure out the appropriate language?
Rabbanit Shira Lieberman, a first year fellow in the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL), asked these questions in her introduction to a special program hosted by the WIHL in cooperation with Midraisha – an innovative “mobile seminary” where halakha is taught by women, founded by four WIHL students to bring the study of halakha to girls and women throughout Israel.
During the course of the evening, women professors of Jewish studies, educators, organizational leaders and scholars of halakha debated the place of women in the beit midrash. Should women have the same opportunities to learn halakha as men? Is it appropriate? Necessary? And what should they do with this knowledge?
WIHL fellow Rabbanit Ravit Kalech shared the life story of Flora Sassoon. Born in 1859 to a prominent Jewish Indian family, her parents invested heavily in both her Jewish and secular education and in addition to learning seven languages, she also studied Talmud. By the turn of the century, Flora Sassoon was in regular contact with leading rabbis of the time, frequently asking them halakhic questions regarding her opportunities and responsibilities as a Jewish woman. As Rabbanit Kalech noted, “She had everything, and what she yearned for most was involvement in the world of Torah.”
Michal Zechut, Coordinator of the Chochmat Lev website, which makes the wisdom and teachings of Sephardi woman available to the broader public, spoke about the tremendous leadership shown by women throughout the generations, even those who came from less privileged backgrounds. These women may not have had the opportunity to study seriously, but many became community organizers, leaders and teachers of women in their communities. Zechut spoke about a woman from Algiers who loved to learn Talmud; about the wife of a rabbi who, when the rabbi went blind, became her husband’s de-facto study partner. “When a woman begins to learn and to teach, people begin asking her questions,” she explained. “It’s an organic process.”
Over the years, Zechut has interviewed hundreds of people for this project. “I’m interested in learning these women’s stories and their “Torah she’ba’al peh“, the lessons they have passed down, so that this wisdom doesn’t just remain in the family, but becomes available to the wider public.”
Should Women Study Halakha?
WIHL doesn’t shy away from hearing and sharing different perspectives, and in this case, sought out participants with different points of view regarding the role and responsibility of women when it comes to studying halakha and responding to halakhic questions.
In a panel discussion on Torah learning for women, WIHL Director Rabbanit Devorah Evron explored the role of women in Jewish study alongside Rabbanit Dr. Naomi Shachor, rabbanit of the neighborhood of Maale Levona and a lecturer at Midreshet Orot, and Rabbanit Dr. Meirav Tovol Kahana, a Talmud and halakha teacher at the Midrasha at Bar Ilan University. “There are no boundaries to learning,” stated Rabbanit Dr. Kahana. “For a long time, women felt there wasn’t anything they could do with it. Today, this is no longer true. Women of every age are learning, but we shouldn’t call it ‘Torah for women;’ it’s Torah from Hashem.”
Rabbanit Evron discussed her own passion for advanced Torah learning, explaining, “Both of my grandfathers were rabbis but they wanted to learn with my brother, not with me, even though I was always interested. Today, the sky is the limit; the more we learn, the greater awareness we develop of our responsibility to the Jewish People.”
As the wife of a rabbi in her community and as a teacher of Tanakh, Rabbanit Dr. Shachor teaches many classes to women. “Rabbanut includes the wife and the entire family. I call myself a Rabbanit because of my role as a ‘rabbinic wife.’ I believe that my husband’s learning is in my merit, as well, but I don’t believe I can or should respond to halakhic questions, where we have a tradition going back 3,000 years.”
So, should women strive to learn halakha on the same level as men? Should those who have learned and been tested on halakhic material be allowed to respond to halakhic questions?
While Rabbanit Dr. Kahana offered that “anyone who learns can respond to certain questions based on what she knows,” and Rabbanit Dr. Shachor added that many people come to her as a leader in her community, she expressed concern that women’s Torah learning has crossed a line. “I worry that rather than strengthen the Jewish people, we will cross too many lines,” she said.
Rabbanit Evron asserted, “We must use what we learn to serve the Jewish People. Women who have studied intensively and passed exams on the relevant material can and should respond to questions. Anyone who answers halakhic questions, man or woman, must respond with modesty, a sense of responsibility, and a recognition that there are times when it’s necessary to consult with others who have more knowledge in a particular area.”
“We can’t prevent development.”
The evening wrapped up with a fascinating conversation between Rabbi Shaul David Buchko, Rosh Yeshiva of Heichal Eliyahu and his daughter, Rabbanit Atirat Grenovich, who has been studying halakha seriously for many years.
“Every time I asked my father a question, I got so much more than a simple answer. I received an entire explanation of the background and dialogue that informed his response,” shared Rabbanit Grenovich, describing what it was like growing up in a home filled with Torah. “I’m certain that inspired my passion for Torah learning.”
Rabbi Buchko, in turn, expressed his pride in his daughter’s learning. “If she enjoys it and it comes from the heart, then she should do it,” he declared. “I respect her and it’s not up to me to decide whether it’s good or not. There are often issues that women are more comfortable discussing with other women and so it’s important that there are women qualified to respond to their questions. We can’t prevent development.”