Sefirat Haomer and Women’s Leadership — Counting towards a New Reality
by Rabbi Kenneth Brander – 18/05/2018
“Not only is the teaching of Torah Shebe’al Peh to girls permissible, but it is nowadays an absolute imperative. This policy of discrimination between the sexes as to subject matter and method of instruction which is still advocated by certain groups within the Orthodox community has contributed greatly to the deterioration and downfall of traditional Judaism.”
These comments were written by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in May 1953, but, sadly, they reflect a continuing challenge. Many still argue and protest the educating of women in Torah Shebe’al Peh in the State of Israel, and throughout the Diaspora.
Exactly 65 years have passed since Rabbi Soloveitchik’s proclamation, and we are indeed partners in this journey. Not because we wish to, God forbid, uproot the role of the synagogue rabbi or to compromise the tradition of the rabbinate throughout Jewish history. Quite the opposite; our goal is to enable the sea of Talmud to become part of “Torat imecha” — the Torah of our mothers. Women who are able to encounter and intellectually engage with Ravina and Rav Ashi, Rava and Abaye, Rabbanu Tam, the Ravad and the Rambam. Women who, with their deep Torah knowledge, can give guidance to others in all aspects of halakha.
Yet, it is critical for us to realize we are part of an entity known as Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, part of a metaphysical unit that requires our individuality to surrender to the mesorah (tradition) of our people and its halakhic framework. It is this commitment to the halakhic framework that guides our personal and professional goals, including our aspirations to enable women to serve as Manhigot Ruchaniot and Morot Halakha; as Torah personalities, continuing the legacy of Devorah the Prophetess.
At Ohr Torah Stone’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership, we seek to add a unique light increasing the illumination of Torah to our people — men, women and children — as well as to the rest of humanity.
We find ourselves concluding the period of Sefirat Haomer, the Counting of the Omer. It is the only time in which we are asked to count the passage of time not only mentally but verbally. In fact, according to the Magen Avraham (R. Avraham Gombiner), while one can fulfill one’s obligation of kiddush or shofar through hearing it from another, in the case of Sefirat Haomer, this is not sufficient. One must verbally articulate the counting and proclaim each day by himself or herself. It is this unique verbal requirement that causes the rabbis to legislate a bracha highlighting the counting. Why is there a special obligation with regard to Sefirat Haomer to verbally articulate the count? And why can’t that obligation be fulfilled by a chazzan, or through the principle of shomea k’oneh?
A friend of mine shared with me an idea that resonates with our vision here tonight. Sefirat Haomer marks the movement, the march from the physical deliverance of Pesach to the spiritual salvation of Shavuot. It symbolizes the removing of the physical shackles of slavery to becoming free through our coronation as servants of God on Mount Sinai.
Yet how does one serve God? There is, of course, a set of norms and mores, the framework of mitzvot and halakhot that give us guidance. But each and every one of us finds a different chord of music, a different color in the tapestry of the mesorah’s mosaic to connect with God. Each and every one of us searches to find our own voice and our own connection to God within this framework. If Sefirat Haomer marks our individual journey, then the counting of the Omer cannot be recited by another to fulfill our obligation. Each of us must verbalize the Omer in our own pitch, in our own tenor, on our march to create a personal romantic rendezvous with God.
Tonight, we celebrate the fact that we are committed to creating a unique light and a great illumination for our people. To the students and the families of the Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership, never underestimate your capacity to inspire Klal Yisrael, to live lives that inspire yourselves, your spouses, your families and your communities. You are on a personal journey while simultaneously representing a national one. Be true to our people, while at the same time be true to yourself. We are all so proud of you.
Mazal Tov and Chag Sameach.
The above is based on my remarks at Ohr Torah Stone’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership graduation ceremony held in Jerusalem on Wednesday evening May 16, 2018.