Meet Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner and Judy Klitsner

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Longtime educator Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner is the former director and current chairman of OTS’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL), a one-of-a-kind, intensive five-year program training women scholars to serve as halakhic and spiritual leaders for the Jewish people. 

Judy Klitsner  is a senior educator at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where she has taught Tanakh and biblical exegesis to a generation of students, of whom many now serve as teachers and heads of Jewish studies programs throughout the Jewish world. She is also a Founding Board Chair of Sacred Spaces, an organization which works to prevent institutional abuse in Jewish communities. 

Both Rabbi Shmuel and Judy are beloved teachers, sought-after lecturers, published authors and active role models of communal engagement and advoates for social justice.  In advance of the Virtual Gala, we asked them a few questions… 

Q: Everyone realizes that the real work in fostering the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership is the day-to-day dedication of the women fellows and the faculty, but Rabbi Klitsner, are there particular moments during the six years that you directed the WIHL or during the subsequent years as you chaired the institute that stand out in your memory?

A: Great question. So many candidates for an answer. What immediately comes to mind is a moment from about three years ago. The scene: a graduation ceremony in the Midreshet Lindenbaum Beit Midrash with 250 women and men in attendance. One of our brilliant Rabbaniot, Amira Raanan, is about to receive her heter hora’ah, the age old certification for issuing piskei halakha (Jewish legal opinions). This, after five years of intensive study and written and oral examinations equivalent to those of the chief rabbinate in all major areas of Jewish ritual law. Amira had already made history by delivering weekly halakha classes in OTS’s Robert M. Beren Hesder Yeshiva for Men. She was also already a veteran lecturer in Jewish law at the Yakov Herzog College in the Negev.

Though I’d taught philosophy of halakha for thirty years at Midreshet Lindenbaum and to the WIHL fellows, her noting of the following sematic paradox had never occurred to me. Issuing psak halakha (Jewish legal opinions), she said, is a beautifully complex concept with an internal tension. In Hebrew, to “posek” means to stop, or to limit. In contrast, the word halakha comes from the verb “halokh,” meaning motion. If halakha does not relate to prior boundaries it is not psak; if it is not dynamic and subject to change, it is not halakha. To engage in psak halakha is to encounter the creative tension between tradition and innovation, to negotiate between past precedents and the dynamic present reality. At least, that’s what I remember her saying.

Then, the joy that I was experiencing ascended to a higher level when the ceremony ended and the young women of Midreshet Lindenbaum danced and sang around the newest arbiters of halakha to enter the Jewish world. But the most significant moment for me was when several of my younger students at Midreshet Lindenbaum came up to me after the ceremony and spoke excitedly about how inspirational it was for them, of how the evening had pointed to a distant goal that now seemed reachable, and then proceeded to ask me how they might prepare over the next few years to be eligible to apply for the rigorous five-year program.

Now I’m tempted to ask for another candidate for outstanding inspirational moment.

You’ll notice I don’t have to stretch to activate that muscle. I’m thinking of a couple of years ago when we received a surprising application from a very impressive mid-career lawyer who was head of one of the legal departments at Israel Aircraft. When we asked her where she received her adult training in gemara, we were thrilled to hear that she had studied for many years in the women’s gemara institute in Modi’in, called Sha’alina. Her inspiration had been the founder and main lecturer of Sha’alina, Rabbanit Anat Novoselsky – who was one of the WIHL’s first two graduates and the co-author of a historic small volume of she’elot u’teshuvot (questions and answers) together with Rabbanit Idit Bartov. Our first fruits were bearing their own first fruits.

Judy, what is similar about your work and your husband’s work? How does it stem from the same Jewish values?

First of all, I have been “OTS-adjacent” for many years; I am a great fan of all the work that Shmuel has been doing at Midreshet Lindenbaum and certainly in the WIHL. I have made a few guest appearances at OTS, most regularly in teaching the ORA group [part of the Finkle overseas program] for Tanakh aficionados.

But my day job is at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. For the past 30 years I have been teaching in an institution that allows me to do what I am most passionate about: teaching texts in a way that is empowering and meaningful. With my enthusiasm for the text unabashedly on display, I do my best to provide my students with skills so that they can become independent readers of the biblical text– so that they can feel that they own it. With that sense of ownership, they are better able to plumb the great depths of the text and discover its inexhaustible wellsprings of meaning. It gives me enormous nachat to see many of my former students, now teachers themselves, modeling to their students their own passion for text study and forwarding to them the skills needed to independently explore its depths.

Both Shmuel and I in some sense come from the same methodological factory. We both had the great privilege of studying with Nechama Leibowitz z”l. In fact, I can thank Shmuel for bringing me into Nechama’s learning circle to begin with; he was a student at Yeshiva University’s Gruss Kollel and she was their teacher. One day he came home and just said, ‘This is fantastic, you should come.’ And so, as unusual as it was, I did come, and I continued to learn with her in various settings for many years thereafter. Learning with Nechama was a foundational experience for both Shmuel and me, and as a result, the idea of imparting skills and empowering students to become independent readers of the text underlies much of what we both do.

In addition, we both believe that the Bible contains profound, eternal human truths. And that is what keeps us riveted, even after decades of reading the same texts over and again. We are both drawn to the literary beauty of the text, to its artful ambiguity, to its many layers of meaning, and the intriguing nature of parallels in the texts – in fact, this last piece has been so compelling that I was moved to write a book about it: Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other.

We are also both very committed to allowing for open inquiry, even regarding the hard questions. We both have a great deal of faith in the system, that it is strong enough and broad enough to handle these questions. We also have a great deal of faith in our students: that they are actually better served if we address those questions head on rather than burying them. And finally – we are both passionate about women’s learning and about women achieving the highest possible accomplishments on every level of Jewish scholarship and activity.

We have been using the word “heroes” to discuss some of the people we are saluting at the Virtual Gala. What is heroic in your eyes?

Some of the strongest forces out there are the forces of intertia, denial, rationalization, blending in, succumbing to group pressure… To me, a hero is someone who rises up at the critical moment, who stands up to all of those pressures, hears the voice of morality and does the right thing.

Rav Shmuel, what do you look forward to in the coming years?

Most recently, we’ve made progress in the placement of our graduates in communal spiritual and halakhic leadership roles. I anticipate that in the post-corona flowering of Jewish communities and institutions, more and more of our outstanding WIHL leaders will take their rightful places in leading Israeli Jewry in inspirational and innovative ways. A glass ceiling has been shattered and where we go from here is only as limited as our collective imagination and our embrace of profound learning and of the role of that learning in future leadership.

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