Tag Archives: halakha

Life as a Female Semicha Student

Meira Welt-MaarekWhen I was young, I was drawn to the study of Torah as a way to get closer to God and as an answer to questions that arose in the formation of my identity as an observant Jew. Talmudic dialectics demanded of me not to leave my own intellectual integrity on the outskirts of my spiritual explorations. Talmud study also offered a source of enjoyment and an analytic challenge. But after several years of studying Talmud, I wanted more. All my best teachers had invested more than a decade of intensive study in these texts and it was clear to me that I was still at the threshold.

For me, the years at the Drisha Institute in New York were not the end goal but rather, the springboard for further learning—though clearly the years I had invested would already have equipped me with the necessary background to teach Oral Law in high schools and even to teach Talmud in a post high school midrasha, seminary. A similar educational and career trajectory typifies many of my colleagues at Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership. They were also driven to further learning after completing the Matan Institute for Advanced Talmud, Nishmat’s program for Yoatzot Halakha, or Lindenbaum’s own training for Rabbinic Court Advocates—all of these frameworks enabling women to explore in depth various areas of Jewish tradition, ancient, medieval and modern.

In my opinion, just as in houses of prayer there must be windows—so too, houses of study, the beit midrash, must be an open space, and not just open towards heaven. As distinct from my academic study of Talmud, wherein I was required to track the various manuscripts of a text in musty basement libraries aided by microfiche technology—my training in applied Rabbinic rulings meant dealing with people and on behalf of people with an awareness of them as holy vessels. The voices from the outside that enter the beit midrash of halakhic learning are not viewed as intrusions into the turf of a silent library, nor are they an intellectual threat of anachronistic data suspect of disturbing the sterility of an historical context. Rather, they are perceived as an invitation to further conversation—to a connection between the texts and the street, between the Torah and the marketplace. It is in this connective window space where Torah achieves its greatest relevance and vibrancy.

Obstacles to Study

At first, the obstacles to the study of halakha are technical: Aramaic, decoding acronyms and abbreviations, broad knowledge of Talmudic concepts and terms, reading between the lines in texts that take for granted numerous unstated assumptions, and texts that often express themselves in purposely cryptic or laconic language. Though the process of zooming in to minutiae in every clause and paragraph is wearying and painstaking, it allows us to subsequently zoom out to a glorious landscape wherein one can see the intricate fabric of halakhic discourse and the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate spheres of halakhic writing. After being exposed to this broad and systemic study of halakha, one also becomes aware of how artificial a confined study of the laws of Niddah, family purity, or any other “tunnel visioned” area of law can be. The narrow study of one area to the exclusion of a broader curriculum will not allow for a deep understanding of the factors, possibilities, and tools that are available to a posek, decisor of halakha.

I can’t point to a specific moment when this occurs, but there is a time when the challenges of halakhic study shift from the technical to the essential and the personal, and the student of halakha moves from a passive recipient to an active participant. In similar fashion to the way in which an artist or a parent moves from mere involvement to utter identification, so too, the seeker of Torah moves to a place where the Torah begins to demand responsibility on the part of her disciples. One asks relentless questions, the way one would allow one’s self to demand of a close relative: Why is there a ritual vacuum here? How could he say this? The difficulty is no longer textual; it is substantive. The tear is not a contradiction between two sources but rather a rip in the textured fabric of a cherished cloth that I myself have participated in weaving.

In thinking about Torah study, we speak in terms of revelation, and we use metaphors like “the hammer splitting a rock.” Basic assumptions are constantly getting shattered and rebuilt in a slow and reflective process not unlike labor contractions that lead to birth.

For me, this is the meaning of Torah becoming my own, of owning it—that remarkable process in which ownership leads to a sense of responsibility to respond to the ethical challenges of the time while remaining attentive to the doubts and questions of the generations of students who came before us—who endeavored to clarify the illusive Divine will.

Semicha for Women

As distinct from the written tests that often typify those of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for semicha, rabbinic ordination, our written tests do not just demand a retention and expulsion of the material. I am expected to have internalized the material and to add my own thinking; my study was supposed to be transformative. Even though the heads of the program say that the five years of study are required in order to make allowance for mothers who want to be at home when their children return from school, I think the five years are a necessary gestation period for the processes I’m describing. Even in the age of fast internet, there are some things that need to slow cook, to percolate.

I actually understand the concerns of rabbis like Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, who are worried about the lack of a “nigun shel masoret,” music of tradition, in women’s Torah learning. But I also think this may be an advantage. As a woman, at least sociologically, I am an outsider to the discourse. But this is precisely what gives me empathy for and sensitivity toward the others who need to carve out a route of entry—like converts and the newly observant. There are also certain things that can only be perceived from the outside, or from the other side of the mechitza. Coming from the outside provides new perspective.

Just as the Chief Rabbinate refused to let a fourteen year old prodigy take the tests for the rabbinate because there is no substitute for life experience in training a rabbinic leader for the mediation between text and life, so too, there are areas of human experience that being a woman allows myself and my colleagues to experience differently. We bring a fuller spectrum of life experience into halakhic leadership. The fact that my colleagues also come from various academic and career backgrounds—ranging from social work to theatre to advocacy and mediation—only amplifies our potential contributions to halakhic discourse.

A friend recently shared her insight with me that the issue is not so much a glass ceiling as it is that of obstacles on the path and an unequal point of departure. The fact that the present Israeli Chief Rabbinate does not recognize our learning toward semicha and that of our musmachot, graduates, toward dayanut, impacts on our ability to serve communities and institutions in various capacities. The impediments are social and political rather than halakhic. The forward vision of Rabbi Riskin and of the Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership to train women for positions that don’t yet exist is a testimony to the power of dreams. The passion, commitment, and deep religiosity of the women and the inexorable forces of rapid social change promise to combine in furthering the realization of that dream.

This article was originally published in Hebrew in Makor Rishon. It has been translated and reprinted with the author’s permission.

Posted on July 15, 2014

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An Open Letter to Everyone Who Asks Me Why I’m Still Here

This is the second post in a two-part series of blog posts written by high school students. We encourage you to engage in constructive conversation with the authors around these posts. Read the first post here. 

eden_farberEach morning, my first destination is my living room. I take out my siddur and tefillin (unless it’s Shabbat, of course) and I pray the Shacharit service as my family bustles around. As I finish, I swap out my tefillin and siddur for a gemara to study. My day continues on, and between my chavrutas—studying with friends—and teaching at Hebrew school, my Jewish practices are hardly put aside. Meals are symbolized in both start and finish with blessings, and the chunks of the day are split up by my recitation of Mincha and Ma’ariv.

Somehow, because of these practices, I am “not Orthodox.”

The fact is: I am Orthodox.

Yet, I’m living in a paradox. When I say I want to daven (pray) more, I’m considered less religious. I take on more practices, suddenly, I’m less religious. I want a leadership role in my community’s prayer, I’m less worthy of actually being in my community. This attempt to purify the Orthodox community from people who practice differently—or rather, different people who practice—isn’t going to work. When we do this, we’re simply shutting doors on people who are committed to and in love with Judaism. Pushing me out won’t fix the problems, won’t stop the questions; it will merely slow down the process of change.

The problem is that the Orthodox community no longer defines itself as a group of people who are committed to Judaism. Rather, it is a group of people who are committed to a particular version of Judaism—a gendered Judaism. I believe it is time for a new paradigm of commitment to mitzvot, and a new paradigm for Orthodox Judaism.

Mitzvot are Mitzvot

Gender is not prescriptive of the ways that a person connects to religion. There is no such thing as male spirituality or female spirituality. Some women want to lay tefillin while some men don’t; some women want to be religious leaders while some men don’t. As an Orthodox community, we can either push away the women deeply committed to mitzvot on account of gender roles, or push away the gender roles on account of a deep commitment to mitzvot. I recommend the latter.

Mitzvot are mitzvot, and people who keep them are observant Jews. Do I believe that everyone (who takes on halakhic obligation) is equally obligated in tefillin regardless of their gender identity? Yes. But we shouldn’t try to build a community based on forcing people to perform mitzvot out of obligation; we should build a community of people who perform mitzvot out of commitment—out of acceptance of obligation. Of the male peers I know that pray every day, an absurdly low percentage care about it—yet they do it because they are told they must. Forcing all boys to keep mitzvot and coercing all girls not to generally results in resentment on both ends.

But somehow, that’s what it has come to. We’ve decided it’s better—for the sake of tradition—to build our foundations on boys who wish they didn’t have to go to minyan and girls who wished someone would ask them to. If, instead, we didn’t ask anyone to come to minyan, and merely counted on having enough interested members of our community commit to be there, I believe we would not only be able to maintain a minyan but it would be a happier one than ours is now.

Bringing In, Not Pushing Away

For those of you who are thinking, “But we have communities that are egalitarian and halakhic, why does Orthodoxy need to budge?” I have a simple question. What would happen if halakhic egalitarian communities started calling themselves Orthodox? If they simply pointed out that they are observant in every way that observance matters to us—merely disregarding gender and gender roles—and they are therefore still Orthodox, we would be a larger Orthodox community. If every time someone interprets halakha—not disregarding, but understanding it in a new light—we bring in rather than push away, the vibrancy of the Orthodox community can remain strong.

It would be simpler for me to stop calling myself Orthodox because it would mean I could do what I want. I could have an easy pass to interpret halakha any way I want. To anyone who argues with me I would simply say “I’m not one of you.” But I am. I’m an involved, committed, interested Jew and that’s about as you, Orthodoxy, as I can get. Even though it would be easier to take myself out—away from a place that judges and resents me—I don’t. If I let Orthodoxy’s inertia win, then in ten years, when my sister struggles with the same feelings of religious pride and fear of abandonment, I will have done her no good. I will have opened a door that closes right behind me as soon as I walk out through it. I have told her that she must either blend in or bow out, but she cannot be a red flower in a field of white. There is no value for the Orthodox to keep pushing away those who care about it—so I’m going to take the fact that I don’t budge easily and use it to keep having hard conversations. I’m going to keep bringing up difficult subjects, and I’m going to keep looking for answers. And every time I am pushed aside, my questions ignored or my answers rejected, I will still be just as much of an Orthodox Jew. It’s not just about affiliation, it’s about community. I am halakhically egalitarian and communally Orthodox—that needs to be a legitimate option.

I’m not going to stop praying. I’m not going to stop observing halakha. I’m not going to stop having pride in my religion. The question is whether or not you’re going to support me.

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Posted on July 10, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Controversial Clarification

This is the first post in a two-part series of blog posts written by high school students. We encourage you to engage in constructive conversation with the authors around these posts. Read the second post here.

helynsteppaApparently I’m right-wing now. Conservative, closed-minded, and a traditionalist. This is all very new to me given my highly liberal politics, feminist identification, reverence for human rights and idealism. You may be wondering what changed. Well, nothing really. You see, as I understand it, there’s a new movement forming between Conservative and Modern Orthodox Judaism.  This is evidenced through the rise of partnership minyanim, the Maharat movement and the very existence of organizations like JOFA, Mechon Hadar, Drisha, Women of the Wall, etc. However, there is a vital distinction that very few people are making: the difference between Orthodox feminism and halakhic egalitarianism.

The best way I can describe this difference is that Orthodox feminists see partnership minyanim as a good solution to women’s ritual exclusion, rather than a stepping-stone to full egalitarianism.  Orthodox feminists might not wear tefillin themselves, but they support the right of all women to wear it if they choose. Now pause. You may be offended, outraged, hurt or confused.

Here’s the thing: I will never believe that I am obligated to wear tefillin, or attend morning minyan, or wear tzitzit. However, I do want people to admit that women are still permitted to do these things and to make space for those who wish to do so. I will never try to eradicate all gendered aspects of Judaism. I simply want people of all gender identities to be recognized and respected in our history and communities. I will not stop identifying as Orthodox, rather I will balance my desire for inclusion and respect with my adherence and loyalty to tradition.

shutterstock_145952546 (1)

I have had the privilege of basically never encountering explicit anti-women, misogynist religious Jews (though I have encountered many harmful implicit messages and offensive statements). Frum (traditionally observant) life has always seemed positive and rich to me; something of which I wanted to be a part.  Perhaps that is why I am far less bitter or hurt than some of my sisters. While these women need to be heard, respected, and involved, I do not think that their pain should be the primary focus of Orthodox feminism.

Now pause again. I promise I’m not a super-privileged victim blamer. Rather, I am someone who feels misrepresented. I view gender problems in Orthodoxy slightly differently than some in the JOFA community. First of all, I think we must be more conscious of the fact that women who follow normative halakha can absolutely feel fulfilled, respected and empowered. This fact does not invalidate the feelings of those of us who pursue egalitarianism, but rather emphasizes 1) that every woman is different and has the right to choose her lifestyle, even if it’s non-liberal (a fundamentally feminist value) and 2) that Judaism does have richness (even in  areas that  may feel restricting). The Torah is not broken, Jewish communities are.

I’m also a bit different from the mainstream halakhic feminist discourse in how and where I place the blame of exclusion. Yes, I have felt ritually excluded and ignored. I wonder, though, how much of this may be my own issue to work out, or truly an institutional injustice. Judaism’s richness lies in its history and tradition, and throwing that away or altering it to our fancy may not really be legitimate halakhic practice and could even be cheapening the power behind the rituals. That being said, put a Miriam’s cup on your seder table, let a woman say the mishaberach for Israeli soldiers or hold a women’s Megillah reading. I’m not saying that women who are unhappy in Orthodoxy are creating something out of nothing (I’ve certainly felt unhappy with Orthodoxy at times in my life), but I am saying not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

I believe that halakhic activism cannot be the same as secular activism. Jewish culture and law is based on exegesis and commentary. If you do not have the proper sources and psak (halakhic decisions), your argument simply cannot hold water. There are red lines in normative halakha, and we must fit our feminism into our Judaism and not the other way around. Let us not lie to ourselves and our children and pretend that everything is halakhically perfect when we are stretching concepts (even if for the admittedly noble cause of uniting Jews). I still want there to be rabbis who think that the concept of female ordination is absolutely against halakha. Not because I am a masochist, but because I am intellectually honest. I fully support female clergy members (and aspire to possibly be one). However, if we do not know our sources, we cannot properly apply them to our lives. This goes both for those who say women could never be rabbis and those who say that women are obligated in tefillin. We don’t need one uniform hashkafa (halakhic outlook), we need intellectual honesty.

I know that people feel real suffering and want change. I do not intend to blame them or make them feel guilty. I also do not mean to say that halakhic egalitarianism is wrong or illegitimate; in fact, this movement creates a vital space for many people. However, I am not sure it is Orthodox, and am frustrated with the blending of what I see as parallel but distinct agendas.

I am trying to convey that Orthodox Judaism and feminism are both inextricable parts of my being, and therefore, they should strengthen rather than dilute one another. I know I am privileged. As a straight, feminine woman who wants a family, the normative role of a frum woman is not an insurmountable leap. But, I also know that Judaism is the best thing in my life and I will protect it fiercely from unwarranted harm and slander.  Jewish communities are far, far from perfect, but let us act together, conscious of our differences, into the future. Here’s to intellectual honesty and ahavat yisrael.  

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on July 9, 2014

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The “Dance” of Halakha

Woman DancingA new issue of the JOFA Journal will soon be in our subscribers’ mailboxes; its theme is Orthodox women in the performing arts and sports. The headline we’ve given it is “Raising our Voices”—because many of the articles deal with the topic of kol isha, a woman’s singing voice heard in public. But I think a better title might be “The Dance.” The difference is not about artistic genre, but concept. Let me explain.

A rabbi I highly respect once told me that halakha—Jewish law—is like a dance between the rabbis and the Jewish people. The rabbis are the leading partner, putting their arms around the people and guiding them this way and that. But if they are out of rhythm with the people, if both are not moving in the same direction, then the dance will fail and the dancers will be frustrated with each other.

Within this issue of the journal, one can see the dance in motion around the issue of kol isha. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, in a d’var Torah on Vayishlah, recalls Rashi’s question about the whereabouts of Dina, Jacob’s daughter, when Jacob was about to cross the river and confront his brother Esau. The Midrash tells us that Jacob had put Dina in a box to protect her, so that Esau would not lay eyes on her. However, Rashi tells us, because she had been inappropriately locked up, Dina became a yatzanit someone who “goes out,” and she fell into the hands of Shechem—to far worse consequences. Rabbi Herzfeld sees this story as instructive for the issue of kol isha, in which over-stringency has had the effect of drowning out the voices of women and girls in every context and thereby squelching their spirituality. He calls for a more nuanced view that takes into consideration the content of the singing, not just the gender of the singer.

Rabbi Herzfeld’s understanding of kol isha is presented in tandem with the voices of women who wish to pursue careers in singing and struggle with the notion of kol isha. They run the spectrum from the Hasidic women’s rock band Bulletproof Stockings, who only play for all-female audiences, to Neshama Carlebach, who, after years of conflict, has concluded that kol isha ”is an antiquated, misogynistic concept that has no place in our modern society.” Neshama believes that she is following her father Shlomo Carlebach‘s conviction in stating that, for her, singing is “a holy calling.”

Woman SingingWe also hear the voice of the young woman, Ofir ben Shitrit, who placed second in the Israeli talent competition, “The Voice,” and was consequently suspended from her religious school. We meet the Glaser sisters, who sing together both on stage and around the Shabbat table. We hear singer Rebecca Teplow proclaim, “It cannot be wrong for me to use my God-given talent to encourage hearing the inner voice of the soul’s yearning.” For each of these musical women, kol isha is no theoretical question, but is central to how they will live their lives and pursue their chosen paths.

There are few places in the Orthodox world where halakhic issues are discussed from the perspectives both of the rabbis and of the people for whom these decisions are critical. The JOFA Journal is a forum in which the voices of women struggling with, and living joyously with, halakha can be heard. It is a place where “the dance” that is the process of halakha can take place.

Posted on June 24, 2014

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Spiritual Nourishment at a Graduation?

2014 YM GraduationI know that attending the Yeshivat Maharat graduation is the “right thing to do” but it is easy to forget, until I am there, how incredibly important it is to my own spirituality and notions of what Orthodoxy can be. This past Sunday was Yeshivat Maharat’s second graduation and as Rabbi Avi Weiss noted, seconds are pretty big in the Torah, i.e. Noah, Yitzchak, etc. Seconds validate that firsts are not a flash in the pan.

Sunday was that kind of big day. There will soon be five practicing, Orthodox, female clergy who have been ordained by Yeshivat Maharat. They will be working in synagogues in Washington D.C., St. Louis, and Montreal and on the West Coast. This year’s incoming class of seven students is the largest class so far. What strikes me each time I see them is: how natural, warm, wholesome, and unmotivated by ego they are. It just seems so right.

For me, the highlight came when Rabbi Daniel Sperber, unable to contain himself, talked about the “generic criticism” that innovations in leadership and ritual in Orthodoxy have been getting. As he noted, the traditional role of halakha was to solve problems that arose. Halakha was never meant to be static or petrified as people now demand. Hence the root—halekh—to go, to move forward—makes that abundantly clear and yet is so distant from where we are today.

For those who weren’t at the graduation, I suggest that you watch it online—it should give you renewed hope in the vitality of Orthodoxy. For those who were there, and some who were not, I look forward to seeing you next year for the “Chazakah graduation,” the third graduation.

Mazal tov Maharats Rori and Victoria, Rabba Sara and team. May you go m’chayil l’chayil, from strength to strength! We need you!

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Posted on June 17, 2014

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One Day or Two Days (part 2 of 2)

This is a continuation of Friday’s post. In part 1, Bracha explained the background for the question and here she concludes her analysis.

bracha jaffe picThis year, I embarked on my first halakhic investigation as a Yeshivat Maharat student, researching the question of whether visitors from Israel should observe one or two days of a holiday when traveling outside of Israel. As I explained in my previous post, the Chacham Tzvi rules that a resident of the diaspora who travels to Israel for a holiday should observe the holiday for one day only.

The next step in my journey was to research the Chacham Tzvi in the opposite direction – for a person traveling from Israel to the diaspora. Interestingly, he does not address this issue directly. So instead I turned to other poskim, halakhic decisors, and looked for responsa and rulings of authorities who follow the Chacham Tzvi’s ruling regarding visitors to Israel to see if and how they used this logic to address the question regarding visitors to the diaspora.

Here came the big surprise! While rabbis such as Rav Chaim Soloveitchik[1], Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook, and Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank agree with the Chacham Tzvi that everyone should observe one day in Israel, almost no one uses this logic in the opposite case[2]. If we were to follow the Chacham Tzvi’s logic, a visitor from Israel to the diaspora should observe two full days of the holiday, the custom of the place she is visiting. But the majority of rabbis do not rule this way.

Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank[3] explains beautifully why this is not the case.  He writes that nowadays, after the Jewish calendar was established, communities in the diaspora are no longer observing two days because of inherent doubt as to which is the correct date. The underlying reason for observing two days has changed from a rabbinic requirement to a communally obligatory minhag (practice); one that is incumbent on communities in order to respect memories and preserve customs over time. Our sages wanted to make sure that if there were ever a time in the future when doubt about the correct date led to a need to observe two days, communities in the diaspora would know what to do. Therefore, a visitor from Israel would not be required to observe two full days of the holiday as it is incumbent on the community but not on a passing visitor. I was pleased to see that this followed the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch as well.

Now the question remained as to how one defines a visitor? When does one become an integrated part of their new community? This, too, required research and I found a plethora of opinions. There are those who say that if the visitor owns a home in Israel, is absolutely planning on returning to Israel to live, and never entertained the thought of staying in the diaspora – that is enough to grant them “visitor’s status” when they are in the diaspora and they should therefore observe only one day when traveling outside of Israel.

One responsum explaining the categories of resident and visitor that resonated especially well with me was from Rav Eliezer Melamed[4]. He says that if an Israeli is going abroad for an undetermined amount of time of at least one year, that person immediately becomes part of the diaspora community (particularly if the person’s family comes along). However, if the Israeli is going for a specific purpose, then it depends on the amount of time she will be away. As Rav Melamed notes, most courses of study and shlichut, emissary work, range up to four years, so he suggests that anything longer than that period would constitute an identity shift from “visitor” to permanent “resident,” which would require observing two full days of the holiday.

Upon returning to answer this question for my own situation, I applied Rav Melamed’s criteria. I realized that although Yeshivat Maharat is a four-year program, I came to the U.S. a full year before it started, bringing my total stay up to five years. It felt odd, yet strangely correct to have a second seder and to observe eight days of Pesach this year while my children visiting from Israel observed only one day of the festival (and therefore a seven-day Pesach). My halakhic integrity had come home.

My halakhic journey has been empowering, exciting and enlightening. This is why I am on this path; this resonates with my soul and is fuel for my passion. With God’s help I look forward to many more journeys such as this one – for individuals and for sharing with the larger community as well.

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[1] Reshimot Shiurim, Sukka, p. 226

[2] The Baal HaTanya was the only one I found to rule that Israelis should observe two full days.

[3] Har Tzvi 3:78

[4] Pninei Halacha: http://revivim.yhb.org.il/2013/02/

Posted on May 25, 2014

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One Day or Two Days? (part 1 of 2)

bracha jaffe picI have lived in Israel for most of my life. Many mitzvot are only relevant in the land of Israel, but there is one question that only crossed my mind once I left my country. I had not contended with the issue of what to do when traveling abroad for a holiday. I knew that there were differing opinions but on the rare occasion when I did travel abroad, I followed a psak, halakhic ruling, to observe only one day of the holiday, while being careful not to do any melakha, prohibited activities, publicly in a Jewish community on the second day of the holiday.

However, this issue came to an abrupt head when I moved to the U.S. for a period of a few years to study at Yeshivat Maharat. During my first Sukkot in the U.S., I observed one day but felt an unsettling disquiet within. I was eventually able to put a name to it – I felt lacking in my halakhic integrity. As a future Maharat, it was time for me to do my own research and find out what was really going on behind the scenes of the halakha.

I had heard of a ruling requiring all Jews to observe one day while in Israel and two days when outside of Israel. This made sense to me as it matched the original customs observed within and without the land of Israel and seemed the best way to commemorate those customs.

Background

The lunar month is either 29 or 30 days long. During the time of the Sanhedrin (supreme rabbinic court), Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month, was determined by eyewitnesses who actually saw the new moon. They would report to the Sanhedrin, which would then determine the date for Rosh Chodesh, and send out messengers to notify all the Jews living in Israel and in the diaspora of the appropriate date. These communities would then celebrate Sukkot and Pesach on the fifteenth of Tishrei and Nissan and subsequently count 49 days to Shavuot on the sixth of Sivan. The messengers always had enough time to reach the communities in Israel before the fifteenth of each month. However, the messengers would reach communities outside of Israel after the fifteenth of the month, which left them with a doubt as to the correct day to celebrate each holiday. They therefore observed two days of chag, just in case[1].

Once the Jewish calendar was set (sometime between 400 and 500 CE), our sages instructed these same communities outside of Israel to continue observing two days of the holiday. This was so that they would not forget customs[2] unique to observing two days of the holiday, lest we lose track of the established Jewish calendar or a foreign government not allow us to observe the holidays on the proper date.

One Day in Israel

Visitors to Israel have myriad options. Many halakhic decisors[3] opine that one should observe two days, based on Mishna Pesachim 4:1. This Mishna says that a visitor must observe the stringencies of the land from which she came as well as those of the land which she is visiting. According to this logic, visitors to Israel must observe two days in Israel because that is the custom of the communities from which they came. However, the Chacham Tzvi’s[4] brilliant read of the Mishna in Pesachim leads him to a different conclusion.

The Chacham Tzvi explains that this rule applies only when comparing “apples to apples.” In other words, when the circumstances are exactly the same in both places but the custom itself differs. However, the case of one vs. two days of the holiday is not simply a personal custom observed differently in Israel and in the diaspora; rather, because communities in Israel never had any doubt as to the correct day of the holiday, it was never relevant for them to observe two days. The custom of observing two days of the holiday is geographically linked only to the diaspora and therefore the Mishna’s imperative to keep both the local custom and your home community’s custom does not apply when visitors come to Israel for a holiday. The Chacham Tzvi posits that everyone should observe one day while in Israel. He even suggests that one who does observe two days in Israel risks violating bal tosif, the prohibition against adding commandments to the Torah.

Intuitively it seemed that this same logic of the Chacham Tzvi would be applied in the other direction. I was growing more and more sure that the correct ruling would be for me to observe two days outside of Israel – no simple task for an Israeli. But again I noticed an unsettled feeling as I continued to research the issue. It took some introspection and hard thinking before it came to me in a flash. Of course! It was difficult for me to give a ruling for myself as I would be directly affected by the decision. I needed to continue my research as if someone else had asked me this halakhic question.

Amazingly, this simple realization eased my tension immediately and I returned to my halakhic journey with renewed enthusiasm.

Click here to read Bracha’s conclusion.


[1] Beitza 4b: see Rashi who explains why two days were observed in the Diaspora as it was too far for the messengers to get there before the fifteenth of the month

[2] This includes issues such as saying shehchiyanu, preparing from one day to the next, different Torah readings, when to say yizkor and others. In some communities burial may take place on the second day.

[3] Shulchan Aruch HaRav 496:11, Mishna Brura 496:13, Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:101, and others

[4] Rav Tzvi Hirsh Ashkenazi (1660–1718), Responsa 167

Posted on May 23, 2014

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Confronting Mikveh with Honesty

sad woman sitting alone, b&wThere have been numerous conversations recently about mikveh, tzniut, niddah, and sexual relationships within the Orthodox community. They have spanned the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s about time that we’re having these conversations, because these are really important and central issues that have an enormous impact on our lives. And when issues of personal status, ritual, and belief systems are hard to talk about, they tend to get swept under the rug or ignored. And when people feel ambivalent about halakha, they often feel a terrible sense of shame.

Two years ago, Mayyim Hayyim asked me to write a blog about sex and the mikveh. Now might be a good time to revisit the issue of when halakha becomes a smoke screen to hide sexual problems. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.

I’m a medical sex therapist. I see dozens of women each week who are struggling with their sex lives. The struggles don’t differ much between the women in the Jewish community and other communities. But I am constantly struck by the role that the mikveh (and the laws surrounding its use) plays in the observant Jewish woman’s personal struggle, how it both effects and is affected by the quality of the sexual relationship.

Continue reading “When the Mikveh Feels Overwhelming” at Mayyim Hayyim’s blog, The Mikveh Lady Has Left The Building.

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Posted on May 13, 2014

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From Isolation to Community: Opening the Conversation on Mikvah

longingTwo weeks each month, I refrain from physical intimacy with my husband because of Jewish law. It is not only difficult because I miss his touch. I feel overwhelmed that my body’s natural rhythms have placed a distance in our marriage. For me, the practice of taharat ha-mishpacha is an emotionally draining and frustrating experience.

According to traditional interpretations, taharat ha-mishpacha (family purity) requires a couple to abstain from all physical intimacy and touch, and imposes various other restrictions including not sharing a bed. This period of abstinence lasts twelve or more days: while the woman is menstruating (a minimum of five days) and for seven additional days. It concludes when the woman fully cleanses herself, and immerses in a mikvah (ritual bath). A woman is called a niddah while in this state of separation.

I got married six months ago and was so excited to observe this mitzvah. Every inspirational book I read told me that taharat ha-mishpacha is the key to maintaining a happy relationship. They explained that niddah is not meant to imply that I am dirty while menstruating; rather, the separation should build intimacy in our relationship through improved communication and non-physical expressions of affection. “Taharat HaMishpacha is the secret to Jewish femininity….showing them [husband and wife] how to relate to each other and express and build their happiness and devotion.”[1]

an angel is bornAnd yet, I feel cheated. I struggle to find the magic in performing a bedikah (the internal examination to check for blood). The woman who taught me the laws said “an angel is born every time a woman does a bedikah.” But when I do it, I am always anxious that, God forbid, at the end of our separation, I’ll find a blood spot that will prolong it yet another day. I feel ashamed and stressed that my body’s natural cycle often does not cooperate with Jewish law and I have to wait yet another day to be with my husband.

I was taught that going to the mikvah is the best private retreat a busy woman could have – time away from the world to focus only on myself.  But frankly, I find it inconvenient that I need to change my plans to take a bath. Recently, I was so sick that I could not get out of bed yet I was supposed to go to the mikvah. Delaying mikvah night is considered a terrible sin but I had no physical energy to go. I felt guilt-ridden that I was delaying our limited time available for intimacy. While my husband insisted I stay home, my emotions about my relationship have become so intimately tied with this mitzvah that I felt depressed nonetheless. I count the days when we can be together and I count them when we are apart. Every moment feels precious and the opportunity for intimacy must be a priority even when we are exhausted after a long day.

mivkeh

We are told that mikvah is a private matter. One should not discuss her niddah practice or mikvah night. Rori Picker Neiss and Sarah Mulhern, students at Yeshivat Maharat and Hebrew College respectively, facilitated a session at the JOFA Conference dedicated to opening up the conversation about mikvah. The discussion was aided by an anonymous live-polling tool. Prompted by quotes and pictures, we submitted, via text message, our reflections on all things mikvah. There, I realized I am not alone in my anxiety, sadness, and frustration. Participants were both deeply committed to halacha and tremendously dissatisfied with the practice.

For now I am starting to find solace in the shared experiences of my friends. I am not alone in my feelings. I know many people may wonder why I do not just give up on niddah. But ending my practice of taharat mishpacha would fundamentally shift my sense of self. I am an Orthodox Jewish woman and that means I take the good with the less than pleasant. I believe in the halakahic system, and niddah is a central aspect of my observance.

Judaism is based in communal experience and not meant to be practiced in isolation. Our prayer services require community, our food is certified as kosher by other Jews, and Shabbat is best experienced with large, joyous meals. We are not just a religion; we are a community. And yet the mitzvah that dictates one of the most fundamental aspects of human behavior is meant to be kept a secret. There is no community experience in the practice of niddah.

let's talkSo here is my appeal: let’s talk about it. We are a religion of partnership, so let’s bring community back into the practice of taharat ha-mishpacha. The laws may not change but at least we can experience the joys and sorrows together through conversation and community.


[1] Tehilla Abramov, The Secret of Jewish Femininity, pg. 36

 

Posted on March 18, 2014

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Fasting for Two: Who Makes the Call?

This Thursday (March 13) many Jews will fast from sunrise to sunset in commemoration of Esther’s fast before she approached the king, unbidden, to ask for compassion on her people. The Fast of Esther is one of the four minor fast days in the Jewish calendar. At the JOFA conference in December, Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold presented a session called Fasting for Two: Who Makes the Call? in which she contributed a much-needed woman’s voice to the conversation.

For centuries, halakhic questions around pregnant and nursing women fasting have been asked by women and answered by men. This session will explore the sources surrounding fasting from the female perspective. What does it mean to study these sources with a woman who is a halakhically knowledgeable member of the clergy who has actually experienced pregnancy and nursing? The answers may surprise you.
Rachel Kohl Finegold

Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold recently joined Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim as the Director of Education and Spiritual Enrichment. Previously, she served for six years as the Education and Ritual Director at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. Rachel (pronounced “Rakhel”) is a founding member of the Orthodox Leadership Project, serves on the editorial board of the JOFA Journal, and was recognized as one of Chicago JUF ‘s “36 Under 36.” Rachel received her B.A. in Religion from Boston University and completed the Drisha Scholars Circle. She recently graduated as part of the inaugural class of Yeshivat Maharat. Rachel lives in Montreal with her husband, Rabbi Avi Finegold, and their three young daughters.

Session handout available here.

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Posted on March 10, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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