I can trace my choice not to go to rabbinical school to a particular moment in time. Rabbi Matthew Cutler was driving me home from a youth group retreat where I had been the song leader. As a senior in college, I was sharing my questions about my next steps– Should I become a Jewish educator or a rabbi? Rabbi Cutler asked, “Do you believe in God?” I feared the question. I felt incompetent to answer it, and I had never done any serious exploration of what I believed. At that moment, I decided to apply for a master’s degree in Jewish Education and pursue my commitment to the Jewish community, but retreat from the idea of becoming a rabbi.
During the first year of my master’s program in Jerusalem, I did a lot of reflecting on why I was so ambivalent about the rabbinate—even as I had a yearning to pray and study Torah, to create and support community, and to serve the Jewish people. I had grown up in an egalitarian, liberal Jewish community and was raised to believe I could be anything I wanted to be. Yet, I saw no one on the bimah who looked like me. It wasn’t that I thought I couldn’t be a rabbi. Intellectually, I knew I could, but my own sense of seeing myself on the pulpit was blocked by the lack of women role models before me. Obviously, you know the rest of the story—I became a rabbi—but what bridged the distance?
In that year of living in Israel—studying, reflecting and immersing myself in it all—I became aware that I had a deep sense of calling to be a rabbi. Though I had fears and reservations, I increasingly felt that I should walk right towards them, not run away from them. I came to realize that I could choose to become a rabbi in my own image. I decided I would become the kind of rabbi that felt consonant with who I was and what I believed God was asking me to be in the world.
Fast-forward two years: I was studying modern Jewish thought with Rabbi David Ellenson, and we read Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective by Dr. Judith Plaskow. All of a sudden, I had a much larger understanding of what had informed my ambivalence, even suspicion.
Although I was deeply engaged as a Jew, there was something about the patriarchal structure in the stories I studied that left me subconsciously marginalized. While I was so drawn into the Jewish tradition, its practices, and the Jewish communities I was blessed to be a part of, something was also telling me I didn’t belong. Standing Again at Sinai gave me language to articulate my desire for an embrace of “my Torah” as a woman: a breakdown of the power structure, different language, and metaphors to name God.
Twenty-five years later, an enormous amount has changed in Jewish life and the larger society around us. There is much to celebrate. Not only for the fuller inclusion of women into Jewish life, but also for the pathways towards an expression of Jewish life that, in many ways, were birthed through the Jewish feminist and at-large feminist movements. I am profoundly grateful to Rabbi Matthew Cutler, who asked me the right question at the right time that sent me on a path of discovery. I am also indebted to the Torah of Dr. Plaskow for giving me the language of critique, inspiration to open up new pathways in the search to live out my calling as a rabbi, and for the blessings of creativity and justice that emerged with her book, from which we all reap the benefits.
Rabbi Sol will be speaking at B’nai Jeshurun’s Meet Me at Sinai event this Sunday. It’s a full day of panel discussions, films, dance and more dedicated to the effects of Dr. Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai, a book that shook the foundations of Jewish expression with its candid discussion of Jewish feminist theology.
The experience of being a self-identifying Orthodox Feminist Jewish woman on a college campus can be simultaneously empowering and alienating. On one hand, the college experience tends to be conducive to self-expression and experimentation, and challenging existing norms—a common conversation in Orthodox Feminist circles–seems like a perfect activity for college campuses. On the other hand, there are still many roadblocks which can prevent these initiatives within the college setting. For example, other Orthodox individuals might question your validity within the movement, while secular social action advocates might exclude you due to your religious affiliation. Meanwhile, Orthodox Jewish groups on campus might not be willing to undergo the process of engaging with the halakha (Jewish law) in order to find ways to empower women on campus within the confines of halakha. At times, feminist work within the Orthodox setting can prove a lonely and tiring experience.
This past weekend’s Campus Leaders Shabbaton provided an invaluable opportunity for individuals across college campuses who face these successes and struggles on a regular basis to come together in order to learn, discuss challenges, and brainstorm solutions to these issues. College students from over seventeen campuses, including Barnard College, NYU, Brandeis University, Stony Brook University, University of Pennsylvania, McGill University, the University of Bristol, Temple University, and Yeshiva University all came together, united by our identities as Orthodox Feminists and our determination to grow throughout the weekend through listening, talking and learning. The event was graciously hosted by the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a Modern Orthodox synagogue colloquially known as ‘The Bayit’ which has been at the forefront of halakhically empowering women for many years, ultimately leading to the ordination of Rabba Sara Hurwitz as a female Modern Orthodox halakhic leader in 2009. The shabbaton programming included a panel on navigating synagogue politics, which was open to the synagogue community at large, followed by a closed discussion for college participants; a session discussing the halakhic implications of partnership minyans; discussions with prominent Orthodox feminists about how to engage others in Orthodox feminism; and open brainstorming sessions to discuss ideas and programming pertaining to the topic.
For myself and the other participants, the weekend posed an invaluable opportunity to meet, and engage meaningfully with, others who are passionate about Orthodox Feminism. In our home communities, we may not be understood and heard, but at the JOFA shabbaton we were given a chance to not only speak about the issues in a supportive environment, but to also brainstorm solutions to these issues in formal and informal settings. On Sunday, we role-played discussions with individuals in our communities who were wary of feminist influence within Orthodox Judaism, and also discussed which tactics were either successful or unsuccessful in instituting positive change to empower women. Over and above the issues, however, was the sense of camaraderie which prevailed throughout the weekend. A group of individuals, both men and women, had been brought together by JOFA in order to empower a group which consists of half the Jewish people, and it truly created a kehilla kedosha—a holy community—when brought together as a whole.
I subscribe to a variety of listservs, Facebook groups, and news outlets across a wide range of the religious spectrum, in order to have an understanding of local issues in different circles of the Jewish community. One group, which I have found to be informative, although I may not always agree with most of the opinions posted in the group, is a Facebook group for female Jewish outreach professionals. Most of the members, nearly ninety-five percent, would not consider themselves to be Modern Orthodox. They are right leaning, which is what made their reaction to recent news all the more inspiring to me.
As I was following the story of Angela Merkel being photoshopped out of the front page photo in the Hareidi newspaper, HaMevaser, I was somewhat torn about my reaction. I was most concerned with those who had just lost their loved ones, and I did not feel like it was the time to give attention to fanaticism in Orthodoxy. I felt uneasy pushing an agenda, shedding light on the likes of HaMevaser, when I should have been mourning or praying.
What really surprised me throughout this ordeal was the conversation that ensued among these generally right-wing women outreach professionals. The conversation opened my eyes, and I hope that their sentiment is heard as a call for action. It is not only left-leaning people who feel disenfranchised and dare I say, enraged, by the omission of women in leadership during such a difficult time. The women who are hosting challah baking and strongly identify as traditional Orthodox Hareidi women, are enraged as well. They worry about their public roles diminishing because of their absence in the media.
They are frustrated that their faces will not be in public relations material or their annual dinner’s video simply because they are women. They worry that they will not be able to do their jobs because a Judaism without women is inauthentic, extremist, and not what they signed up for. They see HaMevaser’s tactics as fanatic and one woman in this group suggested that this portrays Orthodox Jews as radicals, specifically as being no different from the Taliban.
While a number of photoshopped images made their way across my Facebook newsfeed as a way of protesting or calling out HaMevaser’s censorship, one photo said it all for me – the photo highlighting that only three women had to be erased from a group of world leaders.
When all of us women feel this way, across the board, how do we take a stand? How do we make sure that we have a voice in all publications? How do we ensure that we aren’t erased and that we have a role and an impact? It seems that following the example of the newly minted “Bezchutan” party could be a great place to start. Maybe it is time for ultra-Orthodox women to become editors and decision makers in Hareidi publications. If they are not given those opportunities, then it’s time to start a new newspaper and create more jobs and opportunities for women to have a voice.
We can also spread awareness in other ways, similar to the photoshopped image which crops out all of the men. One woman in the group suggested, in a joking manner, photobombing images–making sure women are included in all photographs of male rabbis or politicians. Maybe it is time for us to unite in a photobombing social media campaign. The National Council of Jewish Women recently funded a successful advertising campaign with women’s images on busses in Jerusalem. What I would like to suggest, or rather affirm, is that women’s exclusion is not a Haredi problem, it is our problem. There are men and women, some who identify as liberal, and others who identify as Hareidi, who see this as an opportunity to call for change. Let’s heed that call and empower all women.
In third grade, most learning stopped while we prepared for our class play. It was quite the production. We each stood up and recited a Rashi we had learned by heart (the equivalent I suppose of a pep rally in our fairly ultra-Orthodox school) and then we performed our little hearts out. The story: the age-old classic of Joseph and his brothers. Since we were an all-girls school and the parts were mostly male, we were forced to get creative. Yet the most coveted role of all was that of Serach, Jacob’s granddaughter. It wasn’t a major part but Serach, the only female character in our play, was modest and sang to Joseph—two very important and enviable skills in our world.
My school had strong views. We were taught to be modest, taught to be good girls. The role of follower was lauded. You followed the rules without questioning them. The best girls were the ones who followed. They were the ones who got to play Serach in our class play. The leaders found themselves hearing about how we should be behaving more like them.
In elementary school, we skipped the first eleven chapters of the book of Bereishit and just stepped on to the story train with Abraham. The thought being that the first part of the book of Bereishit would be lost on us youngsters, or that the Torah truly begins with our first patriarch. Be that as it may, we began chanting the stories of the Torah with Abraham.
And Abraham taught us the art of following. Meaning God said, go, and Abraham did. Perhaps what is significant for us today is to understand the motivation behind following. What inspires us to listen to others and follow their lead? At times we follow because we love, we have faith, we have trust, we are committed, we are scared, we are lonely, we are vulnerable. There is a whole range of human emotion that leads us to a place where we agree to follow.
The Torah is full of followers. And they are noble and praise-worthy. The roles of leader and follower are not mutually exclusive—you can be both. Abraham follows God and then goes on to start a great nation. Moses rejects the role of leadership only to later be called the greatest leader we have seen. Deborah leads as a prophet but then follows Barak on to the battlefield. It is a complicated role—to lead. Know what else is complicated? To follow. Following requires the right balance of buying into an ideology and not questioning that ideology too much. If we took a true look at what we follow blindly, we may not like what we see.
I have been both a leader and a follower. I think we pick the moments when we lead and the moments when we follow. Society gives us cues when it is appropriate to shine and when it is appropriate to step out of the limelight. But society gets it wrong from time to time. Specifically, my society gets it wrong. Not always, but often enough that it may be time to question the culture we find ourselves in.
We all create our own societies. Like building blocks, we pick and choose what goes into it— friends, family, community, religion are all part of mine. And, to be fair, each of those elements has failed me from time to time. But I don’t walk away. I question, I reassess, and I make changes to the world I am committed to.
Over the last few weeks, so many people have spoken about religious institutions, oversight and female involvement—and that is all appropriately meaningful. But I am certain that as individuals we need to re-evaluate the moments when we are leading and the moments when we are following. Women’s leadership roles, much like the role of Serach’s in my third grade play, need to be coveted. More of us need to be standing on the stage. We find ourselves, once again, at a pivotal point, in the intersection of scandal and halakha. Let us take this moment to lead.
I was never a contender to play Serach. I wasn’t a renegade leader in elementary school. I just didn’t follow the way they wanted me to. I probably still don’t.
There are several things that happen when a stone is thrown into a lake. First, the stone pierces the top layer of the water creating a splash. Second, ripples undulate on the surface. Third, the stone plunges downward until it lands atop the lake’s floor. What is most visible is what occurs on the surface. We are less aware of the layers that the stone cuts under the water; of the muck it disturbs when it hits “rock bottom.” It is the alleged crime, perpetrated against unsuspecting women at Kesher Israel’s mikveh, which has unearthed fears of unchecked religious power.
If the allegations are true, the women who entered the bathroom of the mikveh—the regulars, converts, students—they represent that which is most directly and egregiously violated by the breach. Still, others are stabbed by the deception: the mikveh attendants, congregants, colleagues, family. Even less transparent, however, are the ripple effects that cascade down and out, disturbing unconscious layers of lived experiences.
Fast-forward to Friday night, just ten days after the news broke. I am sitting at Kabbalat Shabbat at the Modern Orthodox synagogue that I attend. I am the only woman there, until one trickles in, then another. I go into Friday night services as many do, with the intention of leaving the week behind and entering a space that extends beyond time. Mincha, led by one of the men in the community, shifts into the beautiful tunes of Kabbalat Shabbat. I close my eyes and sing along. All at once, as the leader begins singing Shiru L’Hashem, five men rush the bima, podium, with undaunted energy. Indeed, it is a beautiful sight: men singing blissfully in harmony together. Nonetheless, it is precisely at this moment, at a time when they likely feel the most connected, that I feel the least connected. In fact, I feel horribly disconnected. Marginalized. A feeling that I am not unused to; one that I have struggled with for the last twenty four years as my husband and I have chosen to raise our selves and our family in a Modern Orthodox community.
Overall, what I cherish about the community outweighs what I grapple with. Raising a family with a commitment to shomer Shabbat observance, particularly in the era of being plugged in 24/7, is a blessing in our life. But, this Shabbat, I feel sucker punched, overwhelmed with a heightened negative emotion that causes me to literally get up and walk out of services.
Was it the experience of watching the physical presence of a group of men– all of whom, by the way, I respect and count as friends—commandeer the space that triggered my reaction? Was it the fact that they and our Orthodox spiritual male leaders can’t possibly know what it is like to have the lived-experience as a woman in an Orthodox synagogue where there are so many things that we are not permitted to do, like join the men in their drum and dance circle, merely because of the fact that we are women? Was it the fact that the mechitza, something that I have mostly come to appreciate over the years, stood there that evening as a symbol of banishment? I’m incredulous: how is it that in the year 2014 I feel so deeply the pangs of second class citizenship?
Why tonight have I found myself having such an unusually strong reaction to observing the men at the bima? After all, this collective step-up to the amud happens with regularity at our synagogue, and, I often find my private way to cope with and move beyond the separation. Why was this week different? Because this week, the allegations were in the back of my mind. Because if true, the act of allegedly secretly videotaping women in the mikveh tramples on a deep public trust, a trust bestowed readily by congregants on their Orthodox rabbinic leaders. Any use of power to bastardize authority at the expense of those most vulnerable represents the deep and dirty muck at the bottom of the lake. Absolute power corrupts. Who is watching the gatekeepers of our halakhot, of our rituals?
Tears welled up in my heart as I instinctively raced out of the room and into the main sanctuary, which thankfully happened to be alight and utterly empty. Bursting into the space on the “men’s side,” I took a seat right behind the bima which stands in the center of the room. My friend, who had followed me out, sat with me and we talked. Two women talked, yet again, about our frustrations secondary to the fact that there are many things women are halakhically permitted to do, but that still aren’t permitted by the Orthodox rabbis. We talked about the lack of standardization of practice in Orthodox communities around the world. We agonized at the disconnect we felt between advances made in our secular lives and the great lag that appears to follow in the Orthodox world.
Our talking, however, did not leave me feeling better. I remained agitated. Affixed in our seats, quietly at first, my friend and I spontaneously began singing Mizmor L’David. I found myself rising up, standing squarely at the bima, she following in tow. We started in on a soulful Lecha Dodi, our voices rising synchronously and spontaneously in volume, in rhythm. We began to pound intuitively on the amud with increasing vigor; to circle the amud just as we have witnessed the men do week after week. We didn’t consciously come into the space to “take back the night,” but, that is what we did instinctively together. Creating a holy space through active participation, through action. In Orthodoxy, part of my “woman-self” comes into synagogue uplifted and comforted by the amazing women around me; but, another part of my “woman-self” is wholly and systematically muted.
If true, the rabbi’s alleged crime highlights a fundamental challenge for Modern Orthodoxy in the twenty first century. To be sure, there are practical problems that require immediate solutions. Women need additional protections to foster safety and trust and to optimize the sacred that must exist in the experience of mikveh. However, there are halakhic matters relevant to Modern Orthodox Judaism that require additional unpacking. There are deep and divisive issues which must be explored openly by the Orthodox community.
When JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, put on their first conference years ago, I remember hearing Blu Greenberg speak in the context of the agunah about the notion that: “Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way.” This purported act of total desecration of trust should serve as wake-up call to all those rabbis in positions of power. The time is now. The muck is calling out from the deep. Do the right thing. Express your rabbinic wills.
When 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.
For millennia, it has been taken for granted that the place for Jewish women was in the home and in the kitchen. And of all the public arenas that women were discouraged from entering, the Beit Midrash (study hall) was on the top of the list. Many Jewish women never even had the opportunity to engage with a page of Talmud.
While that reality has changed for most modern Jewish women, we owe a great debt to those pioneers who cleared the way for thousands of Jewish women to engage in high level Torah and Talmud study.
To celebrate a few of these women, JOFA has teamed up with six young Jewish women artists to create a poster featuring six such educational leaders from the 19th and 20th centuries. These posters are available now through a Kickstarter campaign ending July 14.
Meet the scholars:
Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997) Nechama Leibowitz was born in 1905 in Riga, educated in Berlin, and moved to Palestine in 1930. She taught at many schools including Tel Aviv University, where she was appointed a full professor. In 1942, she began distributing stenciled pages of questions on the weekly Torah portion, They reached a vast audience and were eventually translated and published. She was awarded the Israel Prize for Education. Though her thoughtful, literary approach to the Bible revolutionized Torah study, she humbly insisted, “I only teach what the commentaries say. Nothing is my own.” Her tombstone is inscribed, “Nechama Leibowitz: teacher.”
After graduating high school in Baltimore, Henrietta Szold established the first American night school to teach English and vocational skills to Jewish immigrants in Baltimore. After moving to New York, she became an editor for the Jewish Publication Society. At the age of 49, her first trip to Palestine sealed her life’s mission: the health, education, and welfare of the Yishuv. In 1912 she founded Hadassah, which became the largest and most powerful Zionist organization in America, and which now boasts 330,000 members worldwide. Starting in 1933, Szold also ran Youth Aliyah, which helped save 30,000 children from Nazi death camps.
Rachel “Ray” Frank was born in San Francisco to Polish immigrant parents at a time when Jewish communities were just beginning to emerge in the West. She taught bible studies and Jewish history in California, where she quickly garnered a large following. She rose to prominence after delivering a series of sermons in Washington for the High Holidays and was soon dubbed “the Jewess in the Pulpit,” and later, “the Golden Girl Rabbi of the West.” Although she had no rabbinic aspirations, Ray Frank’s presence in the pulpit made space in the collective imagination for public female religious leadership.
Farha “Flora” Sassoon was born in Bombay to a family of influential tradesmen from Baghdad known as the “Rothschilds of the East.” By the age of seventeen, she knew Hebrew, Aramaic, Hindustani, English, French, German and had a thorough knowledge of Jewish texts. She wrote on Rashi, lectured on religious education, read publicly from the Torah, and her expertise in Sephardic doctrine and practice was unparalleled. According to historian Cecil Roth, she “walked like a queen, talked like a sage and entertained like an Oriental potentate.”
Born in Poland, Beilka “Bessie” Gotsfeld immigrated to New York with her family in 1905. In 1925, she founded the precursor of AMIT, an organization connecting religious women to the cause of Zionism and expanding educational and vocational opportunities for religious women in Israel. Gotsfeld became the Palestine representative of the organization, eventually settling in Tel Aviv. She worked to establish three urban vocational schools for adolescent girls and two large farm villages that provided Jewish children, Holocaust survivors, and new immigrants educational programs and resources.
Born in Krakow to poor Hassidic parents, Sarah Schenirer left school after she turned thirteen and became a seamstress. After World War I broke out, she started to teach Jewish studies to a group of girls. This blossomed into 300 schools now known as the “Beis Yaakov” network, and by the time of her death approximately 35,000 girls were learning at Beis Yaakov schools. In her will, she wrote: “My dear girls, you are going out into the great world. Your task is to plant the holy seed in the souls of pure children. In a sense, the destiny of Israel of old is in your hands.”
This is a continuation of Friday’s post. In part 1, Bracha explained the background for the question and here she concludes her analysis.
This 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, 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. 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 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. 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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 Reshimot Shiurim, Sukka, p. 226
 The Baal HaTanya was the only one I found to rule that Israelis should observe two full days.
 Har Tzvi 3:78
 Pninei Halacha: http://revivim.yhb.org.il/2013/02/
I 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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
 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
 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.
 Shulchan Aruch HaRav 496:11, Mishna Brura 496:13, Iggerot Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:101, and others
 Rav Tzvi Hirsh Ashkenazi (1660–1718), Responsa 167
Two years ago a number of parents in my community approached me for assistance. Their daughters would all become b’not mitzvah within the next year and they wanted to read from the Torah at their ceremonies. I offered to teach the girls and coordinate the services.
Our rabbi was not supportive of the Women’s Tefillah gatherings and he would not permit the families to borrow a Torah from the synagogue. Ultimately, I scrambled to call in a few favors and successfully acquired a scroll for each occasion.
The s’machot (celebrations) were all lovely. The bat mitzvah girls were mature, poised, gorgeous, and proved to all in attendance that they had learned well. But, my experience of getting the Torah scrolls was stressful. I wanted to find a way to make it easier for the next cohort of girls in our neighborhood. So, I approached JOFA about the possibility of storing a Torah to lend to those in need.
In May of last year, my dream became a reality with the inauguration of the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program for the tri-state area. Thanks to the generosity of the Meyers and Lindenbaum families, individual women have free access to a Torah – for the bat mitzvah leyning at her Rosh Chodesh Tefillah, for the bride-to-be celebrating at her Shabbat Kallah, and for the new mother as she is called up to name her infant. We also provide communities with free access to a Torah – for the nascent partnership minyan hosting its first Shabbat morning service, and for groups of women who want to be able to touch, kiss, hold and dance with a Torah on Simchat Torah. A Torah for one and a Torah for all!
I take great pride in knowing that the Joan S. Meyers Torah Lending Program has reached its first anniversary. You can help extend the reaches of this program by getting the word out to family and friends. And when you borrow the JOFA Torah, please tell me about your experience! Did you teach a class for girls to learn how to chant the ta’amei hamikra (cantillation marks)? Did you call up a woman for her very first aliyah? Did you witness a woman recite Birkat haGomel with this Torah on the shulkhan (table)?
Though the Torah is housed at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, its true home is in its portable aron kodesh (holy ark). This Torah wants to take part in your milestones. This Torah wants to move from one place to the next. This Torah wants to join in relevant and meaningful celebrations. This Torah wants to make its home in your home.
If you’d like to borrow the Torah, fill out this form and someone will be in touch to discuss details.