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Havruta 5 – Thinking About Women

In the Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 117a), it is taught: "Rabbah used to say something humorous [milta debedichuta] to the other rabbis before he commenced [his discourse], in order to amuse them." In homage to that great sage, I shall open our conversation with a classic Jewish joke:
Moishe is the manager of the forests on the estate of a Polish nobleman. One day, the nobleman calls him in and says, Moishe, you’re a smart guy, make life easy for yourself, be a normal person, avoid the persecution, get yourself and your family baptized. Moishe thinks it over, then announces to his wife and kids, we’re becoming Christians, and they do it. A year goes by, another year, and Moishe is wracked with guilt, he can’t bear it any longer, so he calls his family together and says: we’re going back to Judaism. And his wife Rivkah says: "Moishe, okay, but do me one favor, please. At least wait till after Pesach!"
I’ve told this quintessential chestnut a hundred times, but only lately have I viewed it as a feminist text. The man makes the decisions; the woman cleans the house; and finally, she finds her voice and challenges him boldly. Our new issue, devoted to “Thinking about Women,” is meant to illustrate and encourage this sort of reading – to see old texts with fresh eyes, to apply traditional lore to the concerns of the contemporary world. That’s the larger theme of this (and every) edition of Havruta.
Our contributors include Hartman scholars in Jerusalem and North America, as well as prominent voices from the wider community. The articles span many intriguing subjects: intermarriage in the Book of Ruth; a feminist analysis (by a male author) of the prayers of the matriarch Leah; the biblical poetry of Muriel Rukeyser, author of "To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century;" feminine divinity in Kabbalah; the Talmudic taboo on a woman’s singing voice, which the ancient Rabbis equated with nakedness (and many male Jews still do.)
For the last couple of years, a group of young Israeli women and men have sat around a table twice a week at the Shalom Hartman Institute, studying traditional texts in a beit midrash program called “Seder Nashim.” Havruta invites our readers to join them in a fascinating discussion of an unusual Talmudic story, about a rabbi’s wife who masqueraded as (perhaps) a man and drank a potion that made her sterile – a Jewish woman of antiquity, taking command of her own body.  
Who was the first woman rabbi? If you said Sally Priesand, who was ordained a Reform rabbi at Hebrew Union College in 1972, you’d be wrong by almost forty years. Our closing Afikoman section features excerpts from “Can Women Serve as Rabbis?” a treatise penned in Berlin by Regina Jonas, who in 1935 became the first woman in history to prove by example that indeed they could. This still-controversial topic, and other pressing issues of Jewish life in the 21st century, are candidly discussed by the seven thinkers assembled in our Symposium, who include Naamah Kelman, the first woman ever ordained a rabbi in the Land of Israel.
 As our contributors illustrate, everyone involved in women’s issues travels her or his own path, often unpredictably. The feminist icon Gertrude Stein, raised Reform in Oakland, California, quit Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1901 to pursue a writing career. A friend (as Stein related in her inimitable Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas) beseeched her: “Gertrude Gertrude remember the cause of women, and Gertrude Stein said, you don’t know what it is to be bored.” Closer to our own time and concerns, Rabbi David Hartman says, in his spirited roundtable remarks: “I don’t want to coerce any woman into having an aliyah or giving a sermon. If one is happy with how things have been, that is fine.” Not every reader, of course, will necessarily agree with what they read in our pages – but few, I am certain, will be bored.
Stuart Schoffman
Editor, Havruta

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