Let's cool down the overheated debate over Orthodox women


As we approach Chanucah, I always reflect on how different some of our Jewish practices might have looked if it had not been for the sage Hillel, who instituted and fought for the way in which we kindle our Chanucah lights. Not only Chanucah, but some of our most basic rituals and moral beliefs: divorce, telling white lies and accessing Jewish learning.

Hillel became well known following an episode when he almost died of a chill on the roof of the study hall. As a pauper he just managed to survive, paying for bread and the fee for his studies. One day, penniless and unable to afford the entry fee, he was turned away from the study hall. With his passion for learning, he made his way on to the roof and put his ear to the skylight. After a night of heavy snowfall, he was discovered unconscious and was rescued by the humbled yeshivah students.

This passion, commitment and determination followed him throughout his life. Best known as disagreeing with his colleague Shammai, it was his opinion that prevailed except on 18 occasions (out of 316!). Yet for me, Hillel stands out, not for his brilliance or impact on our tradition but for the way that he balanced it with respect for others with different opinions. Examples of this are peppered throughout the anecdotes about Hillel in the Talmud. It was he who famously taught "don't separate from the community". He emphasised the importance of "loving one's fellow" as written in the Torah. It was he who, despite having different requirements for marriage, ensured that his descendants and those of Shammai would intermarry.

While this all sounds wonderful, what if I fundamentally disagree with my community? What if I disagree about women's participation in the service?

Hillel did not make his statements wearing rose-tinted spectacles, nor did he believe only half-heartedly in his own principles. He lived his life like this because he recognised that it is seldom worth the risk of jeopardising communal unity. He understood from his many hours in the study hall that debate for the sake of heaven is not personal; it is part of what it means to be the Jewish people.

We live in a blessed generation, where access to Jewish education is at an all-time high. I have never known a world where the bet midrash was exclusive to men. I feel privileged to have learnt in some of the most dynamic batei midrash and been taught by some of the leading rabbis and educators (male and female) in the world today. Here in London, the Judy Back Women's Institute for Jewish Studies provides in-depth learning programmes for women (at the London School for Jewish Studies).

Under the Chief Rabbi's leadership, when he was the rabbi of Finchley United Synagogue, I became the first yoetzet halachah to be employed by an Orthodox community in the UK - a move which required a great deal of courage and conviction.

A yoetzet halachah is a female adviser certified by a panel of Orthodox rabbis to be a resource for women with questions regarding taharat hamishpachah, an area of Jewish law that relates to marriage, sexuality and women's health. It is currently the most advanced halachic programme available to women. Rabbanit Chana Henkin, dean of Nishmat in Jerusalem, who founded the programme, was recently interviewed about the incredible evolution of women's learning. She observed that there had been a difference in the way it was manifesting in Israel to the USA. She said that "it wasn't coming from a place of gender but from a place of thirst for Torah. Women's learning preceded Orthodox feminism in Israel." She is making the same distinction as Hillel for the need to always qualify the debates that are for the sake of heaven.

I fear that recent debates here in the UK, about
the changing role of women in Orthodox Judaism, have failed to make this distinction. Discourse
on the subject has become aggressive
and personal.

As contemporary Orthodox Jews, we live our modern lives while clinging to our traditional values. Every now and again they clash, and understandably there will be varying opinions as to the best way to reconcile a changing world with eternal values. As a debate for the sake of heaven, everyone is working towards a common good. Sometimes, as with Shammai and Hillel, their routes may be different, but that must not become a source of negativity or division.

A debate for the sake of heaven will always have red lines which will be defined by the boundaries of the halachah, as was the case with Hillel and Shammai. Surely, the most appropriate way to deal with different opinions is to return to the study hall, immerse ourselves in the dynamism of Jewish debate and hold dear respect for those red lines that will always exist in a debate for the sake of heaven.

Living by the traditions of Hillel as we do today, it is my hope that we will be able to learn from the relationship between Hillel and Shammai. Let's take the sting out of the dialogue.

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