Honoring a Jewish Revolutionary in Israel

On the day Israelis headed to the polls, I attended a ceremony honoring a great rabbi who brought Talmud learning to Modern Orthodox women in the 1970s and is now bringing yeshiva study to the Web: Rabbi Dr. Chaim Brovender.

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As Israel prepares for a new government, there is much talk of fundamental changes in society and the fresh hope engendered by the new parties and politicians. Others remain skeptical; the challenges are enormous, revolutions are rare, and great leaders are in short supply.

Still, just occasionally, there is a seismic shift in the Jewish world, and I am fortunate enough to have witnessed one of them. On the day that Israelis went to the polls to elect new leaders that they hoped would make a difference, I attended a ceremony to honor a man who really has staged a revolution in the Jewish world, my teacher: Rabbi Dr. Chaim Brovender.

Israel is the center of Jewish religious scholarship; it now houses frameworks for pretty much anyone who wishes to engage in intensive Jewish study. But this was not always the case. Until 1976, there was no institution catering to Orthodox Jewish women who sought in-depth study of our holy texts. No matter how intelligent they were, nor how deep their religious motivation, most of the Jewish bookshelf was inaccessible to them. They could study some basic texts, but for anything more sophisticated, they were reliant on their fathers, brothers or husbands for edification.

Rabbi Brovender was the man who changed all that. Having established Yeshivat Hamivtar for men, he started to teach a cadre of women in a small Jerusalem apartment. His intellectual integrity and his commitment to teaching his students the skills to become independent scholars made him a Torah teacher par excellence. His philosophy also made him a natural leader for the most talented and intelligent Jews seeking access to the world of Jewish literacy and profound Jewish thought. As word spread, demand increased and that mini-program morphed into Bruria, Jerusalem's first institution offering intense, intellectually robust Torah study for women. The move sent shockwaves around the religious world. Some feared that by making skills and knowledge available to Jewish women, Rabbi Brovender would wreck the structures of Jewish family life and revolutionize the Jewish world. They even sent him threats.

Their fears were misplaced. Today, learning Talmud is normal for Modern Orthodox women and most have no idea of the battles fought to gain that access. Rabbi Brovender's students are running institutions in Israel and around the world. They continue his synthesis of intellectual openness with absolute faithfulness to Jewish law and tradition. The ripples continue and the revolution expands with more and more women taking their learning deeper and deeper. The intellectual glass ceiling has been removed.

Rabbi Brovender is an unlikely revolutionary. He is scholarly, witty and unassuming. His lack of pretension is legendary and disarming; so much so that in his early years, it was not uncommon for visitors to assume they were dealing with a younger relative of the great rabbi, demanding instead to meet, "the real Rabbi Brovender". Those who sought him out in the Beit Midrash (study hall) would find him sitting at the back immersed in his books or exchanging ideas with an inquisitive student or faculty member.

Rabbi Brovender's approach matches the Talmudic statement that encourages us to use the phrase, “I don't know” (Berachot 4a). It's something he says frequently. Not for lack of research. On the contrary; His studies are exhaustive, yet his thirst for intellectually robust answers is not easily satisfied. It is this that fosters intellectual honesty, a genuine relationship with God and outstanding Jewish leadership.

If one mission is accomplished, Rabbi Brovender's creative spirit ensures that another is in progress. He is passionate about using modern technology to open the portals of Jewish tradition even wider. His pioneering "Web Yeshiva.org" offers classes through the day and night to Jewish men and women in different time zones at the furthest ends of the earth. Unsurprisingly, it is Rabbi Brovender, now in his 70s, who is at his desk at five o'clock each morning delivering classes and inspiring another generation with his love of learning.

Too often, Judaism is hijacked by those whose path is simplistic, brash, ultra-nationalist, and overly pious. God's revolutionaries are not like that. They seek truth with integrity, pursue it with passion, and demonstrate their spiritual successes by their boundless sensitivity and kindness to others. This is the path of my teacher Rabbi Chaim Brovender, a true model of outstanding Jewish leadership.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Rabbi in Israel and directs the education program for the Jerusalem branch of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program in Judaism and Human Rights

Women studying at a beit midrash in Jerusalem, Jan. 24, 2013.Credit: Emil Salman
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, left, with Rabbi Chaim Brovender.Credit: Courtesy

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