Shavuot in Jerusalem is a wild night. It’s like a pub crawl, but with Torah. Each place you go has a different flavor: maybe you’ll start out with some neo-Chassidic talk on cleaving to God and then walk to your next stop at a Freudian exploration of the parasha with Dr. Aviva Zornberg, after which maybe you drop in on a discussion on Jewish law.

This year
, I started at the Shalom Hartman Institute, which was founded by Rabbi David Hartman. For those who don’t know Rabbi David Hartman, he is a real gadol in Jewish philosophy, pluralism, and Israel-Diaspora relations. He’s also not afraid to push the envelope. So I was delighted to hear the second half of his lecture on the meaning of Shabbat, in which he was looking at the Shabbat of the land of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. (What can I say, I was eating dinner with friends and had some sheva brachot to celebrate with the new couple–can’t cut that short!)
He was talking about how the Torah’s laws on the Sabbatical and Jubilee years didn’t quite play out right. The main element of them is letting the land go fallow for one year out of seven, giving it a Shabbat of its own. There was also an economic aspect: the Jubilee year included the remission of debts, return of land to original owners, and freeing of slaves. The laws can be seen as preventing the accumulation of wealth into only a small number of hands.
The Talmud presents a discussion of the laws in which the rabbis notice that people are not lending to the poor before the Sabbatical year — in effect, the laws are doing the opposite of their intention, keeping the poor starving instead of enabling them to eat. Therefore, Rabbi Hillel of blessed memory instituted the prosbol, basically making these laws inapplicable so that people would continue to lend to the poor even when approaching a Jubilee year. In other words, Hillel makes a blanket proclamation that laws from the Torah are no longer in effect in order to accomplish what seems to be the spirit of the law.
Rabbi Hartman concluded by giving a table-pounding speech about the need to do this today in the context of agunot, women whose husbands have left them but refuse to give them a get (a Jewish writ of divorce) that they need in order to remarry. This is a really hot topic in Orthodoxy today, because there are thousands of women at the mercy of their deadbeat husbands, who refuse to give them a get either trying to extort money from them or simply because they have disappeared and can’t be found to issue the get. Rabbi Hartman said this is a time like that of the Jubilee year when we need to look at the spirit of the law and ask, “Did God really want one group of Jews to be exploiting another group and keeping them powerless? No.”
It was really electrifying. I was totally with him. But I turned to fellow rabbinical student Danya and said, “Okay. This is great stuff. So when is he going to start ordaining women?” She nodded knowingly.
Maybe ten minutes later, Rabbi Hartman was walking past us out of the auditorium. “Now’s your chance to ask him your question,” Danya said. I made sheepish excuses, so instead she marched up to him.
“Rabbi Hartman, I really enjoyed your drash, especially what you were saying about agunot. So, I just wanted to know, what do you think about ordaining women?”
“No problem,” Rabbi Hartman said immediately. “Absolutely.”
Which leaves me still wondering: when the Hartman rabbinical program that is rumored to be in the works does actually start up, do I get to come and learn?