The world lost a valiant advocate for women last week: Orthodox feminist Rivka Haut. Rivka often worked behind the scenes because she eschewed fame.
But she played an important role in some of the most significant advances for Jewish women over the last half century, especially in Orthodoxy.
It was Rivka, for example, who suggested in 1988 that women take a Sefer Torah to the Western Wall in Jerusalem for services, forever shaping the direction of the group that became known as Women of the Wall. She remained a tireless advocate for Women of the Wall, rallying support for the group’s legal battles, which still ripple through Israeli society.
The fact that Women of the Wall ultimately drew in women from across all Jewish denominations was consistent with Rivka’s own vision: Rivka, who died of pancreatic cancer on March 30, was a woman who defied stereotypes. She was a graduate of Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Flatbush, and had completed a Masters of Arts and doctoral work in Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Rivka felt that JTS was the only place a woman could study Talmud seriously at the time. She staunchly advocated expanding women’s access to rabbinic education and accepting women as teachers of Torah.
Rivka herself was a wonderful teacher. For many years, she led a Sabbath Talmud class for women in her home in Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood. I remember sitting around her dining room table with women of all backgrounds and skill levels. That is where I learned how to grasp a sugyah, a talmudic discussion, years before rabbinical school was open to me.
Rivka later taught rabbinical students at the Academy for Jewish Religion, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and other institutions, without regard to denomination. She lectured extensively, including at the Conservative synagogue I now lead. She was a true lover of klal yisrael, the people of Israel, bridging affiliations and perspectives to connect Jews around Torah and women’s rights.
Ironically, it was a mehitzah — the barrier that separates men and women in Orthodox synagogues — that brought us together in 1981. We met at a nontraditional Orthodox synagogue dedicated to women’s inclusion. But the synagogue’s mehitzah was a ceiling high opaque curtain that cut the women off completely from the service. We convinced the rabbi to allow us to shorten part of it to the minimum allowable height and set to work. Our friendship was sealed in Rivka’s basement while altering that mehitzah.
She and I shared a deep solidarity despite our sometimes separate paths. I joined the first class of women at JTS’s Rabbinical School. Rivka helped found the Flatbush Women’s Davening Group, working with rabbis and other Orthodox feminists to define and defend women’s learning, leading, and laining, or Torah chanting.
Today, it is hard to imagine how viciously the Orthodox community reacted to these groups. Rivka received threatening letters; noted rabbis declared participants zonot, whores. It was ugly and scary, but Rivka would not be deterred. She could read the halachic texts as well as any rabbi, so she knew that what she was doing was kosher and just.
She joined forces with legendary feminist author Phyllis Chesler to co-edit Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Sitein 2003. I was honored to be included in that volume, just as I was honored, years earlier in 1992, to co-edit with her Daughters of the King, a book that examines women’s role in the synagogue from biblical through modern times.
We once studied Pirkei Avot together. I am still struck by Rabbi Tarfon’s teaching in that text: “The day is short, the task great…. It is not your job to finish the work, but neither are you free to exempt yourself from it.” Rivka was 71 when she diedbut she still had much left to do. A dedicated mother and doting grandmother, Rivka leaves behind her two daughters, Sheryl Haut and Tamara Weissman, along with six grandchildren and a sister. Her husband, Rabbi Irwin Haut, who collaborated with her in her work to help agunot — women whose husbands will not grant them a religious divorce following their civil divorce — predeceased her by almost 13 years after 37 years of marriage. Rivka never exempted herself. It remains for us to continue the work.
Rabbi Susan Grossman serves as spiritual leader of Beth Shalom Congregation, in Columbia, Md., and sits on the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.