Culture, Religion, Sex & Gender

Overheard on Shavuot at the Hartman Institute… Ordaining Women?

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 In other words, Hillel makes a blanket proclamation that laws from the Torah are no longer in effect in order to accomplish what seems to be the spirit of the law.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?

19 thoughts on “Overheard on Shavuot at the Hartman Institute… Ordaining Women?

  1. 1. The prosbul is for the sabbatical year, not the jubilee year. The Jubilee year has probably never been observed, and the sabbatical year is next year (at the end of which people will write prosbulim).
    2. The way the Rabbinate looks, I see no point in joining.

  2. For clarification, he was offering a very radical critique of the get situation, and went as far as to suggest that the entire system of Jewish divorce–in which divorce hinges on the man’s decision to grant it–was problematic. He was, in essence, suggesting that just as Hillel suggested a significant reworking of the d’Oraita law in the name of social justice, so too should we think about doing so with the get situation.
    It wasn’t just a small critique of the present-day (agunah creating) situation, but rather a call to arms to reclaim Judaism in the name of human rights. Hott stuff.

  3. I don’t know what the good R. Hartman has to say on the kiddushin issue, but I do know that there are lots of smart people working on that question now. I’ve actually compiled somewhat of a sketchbook of shitot I’ve heard there out in the ether here:
    Again, not sure what R. Hartman’s answer is, but I do know that a lot of the folks that run in similar circles to his are arguing for Derech Kiddushin or something even more explicitly non-kiddushin-like.

  4. Amit wrote: And what about qiddushin, in which women get bought in exchange for rings? What about that?
    Several years ago (somewhere around 2k-01), I read in a Haaretz article about an Israeli (supreme court???) judge who claimed that because no modern woman would actually agree to be chattel, all “kosher” weddings may actually be null (i.e. because the women acceding to them don’t really believe that they’re chattel, which is what a Jewish wedding requires to be viable; in other words, that the average Jewish woman doesn’t actually understand teh ceremony she is undergoing). I have been looking to find this article now for oh, I dunno, forever. Anyone who can find the citation and send it to me, would have my eternal gratitude….
    Anyway, I digress: if this is in fact true, it makes all Orthodox weddings (or at least many of them) invalid, and would pretty much take care of the agunah problem. Of course, then the only probelm would be that the entire ceremony would have to be replaced with something else… well, maybe it’s not a problem….

  5. nope, not a problem at all. Except in the interest of “tradition” people are still keeping th ceremony, which then effects a trade, which then causes problems…

  6. This is not news. Rabbi Hartman has been saying this for at least 7 years (last time I heard him say it.) The news is that Rabbi Hartman, who has no real bridges left to burn with the Orthodox world, hasn’t ordained women yet! What is he waiting for??

  7. Kol Ra’ash, the shita (that kiddushin isn’t valid b/c women don’t really give consent b/c they don’t totally understand to what they’re consenting) sounds like the shita of Professor Meir Simchah Feldblum (z”l) of Bar Ilan–a summary of his idea is linked to in my comment above; email me if you want me to send you his (Hebrew) article.

  8. Hartman actually hasn’t ordained anyone. He’s not in the ordination business at all. Its like going to a bank to get your dry cleaning done.

  9. KRG – why does this not make conservative (or even reform) weddings invalid? As far as I know, most C and R rabbis still use kiddushin and its formulae in their weddings.

  10. steg– a “work around” on the subject of marriage would probably be some alternative to kiddushin. (like in Danya’s links above)

  11. Amit asked:KRG – why does this not make conservative (or even reform) weddings invalid? As far as I know, most C and R rabbis still use kiddushin and its formulae in their weddings.
    It would, of course, but whomever it was (Danya says perhaps Professor Meir Simchah Feldblum (z”l) of Bar Ilan) in the article I have attempted to locate all these years was in Israel, and thus attempting to address the problem of Orthodox weddings and agunot – COnservative et al is not such a big problem for them, since they’re not recognized by the state (given the usual caveats that I do not include here).

  12. HARTMAN ORDAINING WOMEN – He wasn’t joking!
    Hartman have already announced that they will start an ordination programme for both men and women as an add-on to the diaspora track of their ‘Melamdim’ educators programme. This will be a teaching-semicha (along ‘Rav Mehanekh’ lines) designed to create high school rebbes for pluralistic/cross-communal North American high schools and not an ordination designed to create halakhic decisors (poskim). Those who begin the ‘Melamdim’ programme on the diaspora track this year (two years) will have the option (if accepted) to continue for a further two years to receive this ordination.
    Hartman are committed to the idea, even though the details are not yet online (,although they are a little wishy-washy on the details seeing as nobody will actually start the programme for another two years. If anyone is interested the best idea is probably to get in touch with the individuals mentioned on the website.

  13. > Hartman are committed to the idea, even though the details are not yet online
    Email them for the blurb and they will send it to you. Unfortunately it isn’t much more than that yet, but it seems like they have the funding and general idea sorted.

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