Hilkhot Nashim- Halakhic Sources Guide Volume 1: a book review by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

May 17, 2019 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen
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This volume is a collection of essays dealing with three aspects of Jewish life as it applies to Women- Saying Kaddish, Birkhot Hagomel [prayer said after being in danger] and Women reading the Megillah.

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

Rahel Berkovits – editor

This book was sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance which while initially based in New York has followers/advocates all around the world. The fact that it is published by a major Orthodox publisher lends some credence to its importance. There are those of the right in what is described as ultra-Orthodox who will dismiss this book while those of the left will want to know what all the fuss is about as they have accepted the underlying arguments for decades.

Rahel Berkovits has a connection to Australia as her grandfather was the Rabbi of the Central Synagogue in Sydney from 1946-1950. In 1990, he published a book entitled Jewish Women in Time and Torahwhich was a precursor to predict Rahel’s journey. Rahel is one of the few women in Israel to have received Rabbinic ordination which was in 2015 and can clearly be seen as a successor to her grandfather who was both a rabbi and an academic. She has chosen to use the title Rabba. Other women who have graduated from a liberal orthodox program in New York have usually adopted the title Maharat. This does not mean that any of them are accepted by all sections of Orthodoxy, and in fact even what may be viewed as mainstream Orthodoxy such as the Rabbinical Council of America and its congregational counterpart known as the OU (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations) have taken strong stands against this development.

The first section is on whether a woman can say Kaddish in an orthodox world. She cites many sources- for that section takes up the first 140 pages of the book. The leading (modern) orthodox thinker of the last century, Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, often referred to as The Rav, ruled in the affirmative, provided the woman was in the women’s section. What was not clear was whether she could say it aloud if she was the only person present who had such an obligation. Also included is the thoughts of Henrietta Szold who is better known in our community as the founder of Hadassa in the USA and WIZO internationally. Henrietta Szold was one of eight daughters (and no sons) of an Orthodox rabbi. She speaks in her letter dated in 1916 about saying Kaddish and her rejection of an offer by a male relative to say Kaddish for her father on her behalf.

The second section deals with reciting the benediction following when someone has been placed in a position of danger. Today, one hears it most often in the synagogue recited after an international journey or after surgery. Clearly, for women, one place when they are in a situation of danger is childbirth- for while the outcome is pleasurable the process is definitely life-threatening, although not as much as to generations which proceeded us. The appendix to this chapter is devoted to the question around childbirth. She cites one authority which rejects that a woman should recite this blessing after childbirth and that others should recite it on behalf of the child as if only the child had been in a position of danger!

The third section is around the question of women reading the Megillah of Esther. While following the discussion she presents it was almost a case of trying to shut the gate after the horse has bolted. In most communities, but not necessarily in every Orthodox synagogue, for the past generation, women have gathered to read the Megillah. My daughter began reading it as part of a Women’s Megillah Reading around 20 years ago.

This is a major contribution to modern Orthodox practice. It does require some level of comfort in reading rabbinic texts [even though all made available in English translation as well] for the style of rabbinic argument is not the same as Western/Aristolean argument. I do await the next volume to see what topics are covered and how the texts are presented.

Maggid Books- an Imprint of Koren Publishing 2018. Available on Amazon.

Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is Associate Professor in the School of Medicine (Sydney Campus) at University of Notre Dame, Australia. He spent 5 years as CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum


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