She Who Dares to Tackle Jewish Religious Law

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A few weeks ago, Dr. Hannah Friedman, a lecturer in Talmudic and Jewish thought, posted an article in an Orthodox rabbinical Internet forum that deals with halakha, Jewish religious law. She argued that the attitude of the religious community toward gays and lesbians requires halakhic consideration. Even though the forum is identified as liberal, and even though Friedman took a cautious stance no more than positing a few question marks and a possible direction of how it will be possible to gloss over the sources in due time so that homosexuals can be accepted into the congregation her act was considered radical in the Orthodox religious world. She had dared to raise questions concerning the biblical ban on homosexuality.

The attitude toward religiously observant gays and lesbians is posing a challenge to religious society. One reason is that the homosexuals, some of whom are the offspring of rabbinical families, are knocking on the gates of the community and seeking admittance to it. For years, the rabbis have made do with recognizing the existence of the phenomenon and with vague comments to the effect that homosexuals should be treated more humanely. Even the activists of the rabbinical forum known as the Beit Hillel Group liberal Orthodox rabbis who work on in an egalitarian way with women, including Friedman are reluctant to issue a halakhic ruling that will undermine the stringent prohibition.

Friedman practices what she preaches. She chose to head the Yahad ‏(Together‏) congregation in Tel Aviv, which declared that it would accept alternate families of various kinds. Apart from Yahad, no other Orthodox synagogue has invited gays or lesbians to join the congregation.

“The request of the gays and lesbians to go back into the closet is actually our request,” says Friedman. “We don’t want them to confront us with this burning issue. We want them to deal with the religious issue of principle on their own. But the price, from their point of view, is simply intolerable.”

Thanks to her personality and her status as a learned person, Friedman has brought about a conceptual shift. The 40-year-old mother of five was recently ordained as a teacher of halakha, the feminine equivalent of a rabbi in Israel, by Beit Morasha, a Jerusalem institution. Will her status pave the way for her to establish herself as a religious leader who challenges halakhic and social conventions?

Friedman says she chose the Torah path in response to religious radicalization. “We were all jolted by the extremist rulings of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner and other representatives of fundamentalism not to rent apartments to Arabs in Safed, or modesty requirements for a three-year-old girl and the like,” she says. “My heritage in the religious-Zionist movement was different. But if you want to sound a different voice, you have to do it from within.”

In the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism, dozens of women have led congregations for years. What’s new here is that women are being granted halakhic authority in the Orthodox stream. This status was also conferred on two other Orthodox women in addition to Friedman. They are Michal Tikochinsky, who heads the beit midrash ‏(study center‏) for women at Beit Morasha; and Devorah Evron, the director of the Nigun Nashim ‏(Women’s Melody‏) religious track at Oranim Academic College. The three women passed exams which are the equivalent of rabbinical ordination exams in halakhic subjects such as dietary laws, family purity, mourning customs and other topics.

Rabbi Benny Lau, who professes liberal views and is one of the founders of the program and a senior teacher in it, does not consider the female teachers of halakha to be on the same footing as rabbis in halakhic matters. “It’s a one-day-a-week program. The women do not acquire expertise in small, side alleys of the halakha. They walk on the main road,” says Lau. “At the end of a year, the graduates of the program are knowledgeable about the high road of the halakha. That does not meet external standards.” Still, to enhance the women’s status from the viewpoint of the Orthodox community, authoritative rabbis, among them some who are right-wing and Hardalim ‏(a fusion of ultra-Orthoodx and national-religious‏) were chosen as the examiners.

For untold generations, Torah study was a strictly male preserve. In the past two decades, the spread of religious feminism was accompanied by a revolution in learning for women. Religious colleges for women sprang up all over, attended by hundreds of students. But until now these learned women were not bold enough to take the next step and engage in halakha.

The dam of halakha studies for women was breached six years ago. Currently there are several programs in operation, which have some 20 or 30 students. In contrast to other places, the women who came to Beit Morasha bore leadership potential. Accordingly, despite what Lau says, Friedman, Tikochinsky and Evron possess the halakhic knowledge and the depth of Talmudic study needed to stand before congregations, engage in a learned discourse with rabbis and also issue religious rulings.

Beyond the declarative aspect, does this new status of women in the halakhic realm, with its male hegemony, possess practical, social and public validity? Given the rabbinate’s monopoly, do these women have a chance to receive a public appointment. And finally, will this trend be beneficial to women or not? Friedman is ambivalent about her motivation to issue halakhic rulings. “I don’t have a good memory,” she says modestly. “I prefer to contribute to the discourse.” According to Hannah Kahat, founder of the Orthodox feminist organization Kolech: “If one of the women will say she wants to take the rabbinical ordination exams, we will back her with all our might. We will go to the High Court of Justice and launch a struggle.” While welcoming the development, Kahat is also cautious. “This is a development that could strengthen the practice of turning to an authority, instead of developing autonomy,” Kahat says about the women who teach halakha.

A woman’s voice

Friedman grew up in a family that revered scholarship and excellence, and did not think that a broad education conflicted with the observance of religion. She studied Talmud and is considered an authority on the Sages literature. Does she accept the halakha without question? “I am committed to the halakha,” she declares, and then admits, “There is one thing that infuriated me from a very early age, namely ‘kol be’isha erva’ [literally, “a woman’s voice is nakedness,” a stricture that forbids women to sing if there are men present], and not because I want to be a singer. But I felt that this is a form of silencing that borders on being trampled. I have a lovely voice. I encountered the prohibition when I was doing National Service. I was leading a group and the question came up of whether I could sing before men. My father found all kinds of dispensations, as a person learned in halakha.”

From the outside, finding dispensations or exemptions looks like some kind of trick, like the rabbi is pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Friedman takes a different view: “It’s an opportunity for negotiation, and when you feel that a halakhic range exists you also find halakhic solutions. Apart from Bible-based prohibitions.”

She adds, “Since the Reform movement, which caused something of a trauma in Jewish culture, the halakha has been at a peak of defensiveness. The pace of change in the general society, the ultra-Orthodox extremism, the religious-Zionist movement, which is still occupied with questions of right-wing politics ? all these developments are paralyzing the rabbis.”

At the same time, Friedman excludes herself from the community of female religious feminists. She does not think that her reading, as a woman, of a halakhic text is more sensitive or subversive.

But, she notes: “To be a mother of a child with special needs [Friedman has a son on the autistic spectrum] exposes you to other minorities. Because of that position I am more sensitive to wrongs and to the pain of the minority. I believe that there is a very big toolbox in the halakha, which can be used to find solutions.”

A new look at niddah

Her attitude toward the problematic niddah laws is practical. “Just as one needs to neutralize homophobias, one needs to neutralize emotions of affronts and slights, and to clarify matters with intellectual integrity,” she says sanguinely. “The niddah laws refer to those things which make a person unclean, such as vermin and death. In the ancient world there were fears of bodily secretions, including those of men.” In response to the feminist argument that the niddah laws have become a tool to police women, and in regard to the rules about cleaning oneself before immersion in the mikveh the Jewish ritual purification bath ? which have become outlandish over time, she blames women “who have taken on themselves strict prohibitions, for some reason.”

In comparison to Friedman, Tikochinsky and Evron seem far more committed to gender identity. “Concerning the niddah laws, I think that only a woman can understand the problem in depth,” Tikochinsky, who formerly practiced law, says. “Although I consult with rabbis, because it is important to be familiar with the ways of ruling, in the end I decide on the basis of what I heard and learned. That is my world.”

Five years ago, Tikochinsky wrote an article critical of the practice whereby women undergoing conversion to Judaism immerse themselves ritually before a rabbinical court. Although this is done in a way that does not reveal the woman’s body to the rabbis, “it was clear to me that it is immodest. I looked into sources and said that a rabbinical court is not obligatory the immersion can be done before a woman.” That procedure will apparently soon be introduced into official conversion practice.

According to Evron, one of the founders of Kolech and a therapist for the mentally ill, there is place for critical thought about the niddah laws, which in certain religious streams are considered inviolable. “When I was married, my mother said about the niddah laws ‘That’s how it is.’ No one likes it,” Evron says. “One of the things my study of feminism and Judaism has enabled me to do is to look at things from a different perspective and ask myself, ‘How do I want to look at this only from the no-choice viewpoint?”

Evron is working to have women chosen for religious functions, such as kashrut supervisors. She is optimistic about the role of women in public positions and also thinks that the number of women who study will grow, that girls’ religious studies will begin earlier and that more and more congregations will be headed by women.

Hannah Friedman. Credit: Nir Kafri

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