Beit Hillel Movement Gives Women a Voice in Spiritual Leadership(Karen Miller Jackson)
In February, more than 100 Orthodox rabbis and female Torah scholars came together to establish an Orthodox spiritual leadership forum that represents a more moderate and modern voice within the Religious Zionist camp in Israel. Beit Hillel is a rabbinic organization that has decided to open its ranks to learned women (in addition to community and yeshiva- based rabbis). It took the name Beit Hillel after the followers of Hillel, who conducted themselves modestly and were respectful of their ideological opponents.
Members of the board of directors include Rav Amnon Bazak of Yeshivat Har Etzion; Rav Dr. Tsachi Hershkovitz of Petah Tikva and Bar-Ilan University; Rav Meir Nehorai of Masuot Yitzhak; Rav Tzvi Koren, rabbi of Kehillat Kinor David in Ra’anana; Rabbanit Oshra Koren of Matan HaSharon and Kehillat Kinor David in Ra’anana; Rav Ronen Lubitch of Nir Etzion and Haifa University; Rav Yoni Rosensweig of Yeshivat Torat Yosef Hamivtar and community rabbi in Beit Shemesh; and Rav Ronen Neuwirth of Beit Knesset Ohel Ari in Ra’anana.
The following is an interview with Rav Neuwirth, conducted by Karen Miller Jackson.
What was the impetus for starting Beit Hillel?
The goal of the movement is to restore the centrist Orthodox hashkafah in Israeli society, a hashkafah that has begun losing its legitimacy within religious society in Israel due to a variety of sociological influences. Religious Zionism is a very broad umbrella term for people who believe in the State of Israel and who serve in the army.
The Religious Zionist sector is composed of a variety of streams, some leaning more to a Hareidi-Leumi (ultra-Orthodox nationalist) hashkafah, others leaning toward a centrist hashkafah, more or less aligned with the Modern Orthodox view. Due to many factors, the voice of the Hareidi-Leumi leadership is presently dominant in the Religious Zionist yeshivot, educational systems, and communities, whereas the majority of the ba’alei batim ties and educational institutions and generates a sense of delegitimization among the Modern Orthodox.
The centrist Orthodox approach is often portrayed as a compromise by those who are not serious in their religiosity.
Thus, values such as academic studies, modern culture, democracy, equal rights for women, and even commitment to the State of Israel are sometimes dismissed as illegitimate by some rabbis and educators.
Beit Hillel aspires to restore what was previously the mainstream, the solid centrist Orthodox hashkafah under the direction and guidance of spiritual and rabbinical leaders. This hashkafah is not a compromise, but rather is authentic Judaism, seeking to balance different and sometimes conflicting values.
This goal is expressed in the mission statement of Beit Hillel:
We believe in the permanence of Torat Yisrael, and are absolutely committed to Jewish halakha.
Recent events have presented our Holy Torah to the Israeli public in an inappropriately narrow-minded, exclusionary light. We, who are engaged daily in teaching and studying the Torah, believe that this has misrepresented Judaism, and that only the authentic, enlightened, inclusive Judaism—whose ways are pleasant and peaceful—has a true message for Israel today. In that spirit, we believe it imperative to include women in public leadership roles. It is therefore that we have resolved to establish an Orthodox Spiritual Leadership forum to open its ranks to women. Talmidot hakhamim, women scholars and spiritual leaders, will find in Beit Hillel a welcoming home alongside community and yeshiva rabbis.
We view ourselves an inextricable part of Israeli society. Albeit we have our criticisms of certain aspects of the Israeli public sphere, yet we voice such critique with love and identification. Our aim is to elevate Israeli society from within and not from without. We look upon the modern world and its innovations appreciatively. New developments in human society and culture, science, and technology bear promises both good and bad. As such, we refuse to dismiss these developments and choose instead to separate the good from the bad. In our opinion, a general education is crucial to the building of a believing Jewish personality in our age.
We are committed to the State of Israel, and contend that Israel’s viability and prosperity are necessary for the Jewish people’s continued development. We stand fast against all attacks leveled at the Zionist cause from different quarters in Israeli society. We are convinced that the ideas we express are acceptable to the majority of the religious community, which is a full partner in the State of Israel and
Israeli society. We strive to give voice to the silent majority. Hazal taught that the school of Beit Hillel conducted itself modestly and [was] respectful of its ideological opponents. So do we take upon ourselves to conduct an open, attuned dialogue with those with whom we don’t identify, while giving expression to our way of studying and spreading Torah.
Who can become a member of Beit Hillel? How many members are there? What is the breakdown of male/female membership?
All members of Beit Hillel serve (or have served) in rabbinical positions or in teaching positions at posthigh
school institutions, and bring with them immense halakhic and spiritual training, as well as commitment and devotion to Beit Hillel’s goals. We have 150 members— 30 women and 120 men. We invited most of our members personally, but whoever fits into this category can approach us and seek to join, as many have done.
What is the role of the women of Beit Hillel?
Women have the same role as men in Beit Hillel. They are equal partners in all the discussions and the positions that Beit Hillel takes. They have an equal vote on every matter and have representation on every committee of Beit Hillel. We have decided to call them “Rabbanit”; nevertheless, we are not giving them rabbinical ordination.
What actions or activities has Beit Hillel undertaken?
First, Beit Hillel put together a platform that details our hashkafah on the burning issues within the religious Zionist community. All members have signed on to the platform. We have also taken courageous public positions on issues such as Givat Ha-ulpana [the evacuation of settlers from an extension of the West Bank community of Beit El, from an area where they did not have permission to build], the deportation of Sudanese refugees in southern Tel Aviv [weighing the suffering of the inhabitants of the neighborhood against the need to show rahamim toward endangered strangers, and suggesting that the refugees be dispersed over a wider area], and the exclusion of fathers from school celebrations for their young daughters [balancing the desire of fathers to share in the rites of passage of their daughters against the requirements of modesty and the wishes of older girls for privacy].
The following are four programs that Beit Hillel will be promoting in the near future:
• Beit Midrash for Halakhic and Hashkafic Renaissance:
The beit midrash will bring together rabbis and female spiritual leaders with broad experience in the realm of halakha and hashkafah, to renew the chain of halakha and compose extensive responsa that will courageously address the major issues evolving from the social and technological changes in modern society, as well as new issues arising from the creation of a Jewish state after two thousand years of exile. The beit midrash group will consist of fifteen members, including women, from Beit Hillel who will meet ten times a year to learn the relevant sugiyot in depth and to suggest halakhic solutions that take into account the values, demands, and culture of modern society.
The group will publish piskei halakha on behalf of Beit Hillel, based on the discussions and other comments received from the entire membership of Beit Hillel.
A similar beit midrash for Jewish thought will be operated by Beit Hillel. It will publish collections of articles in halakhic and Jewish thought on topics concerning Beit Hillel’s mission statement. The publications will include materials produced by the batei midrash and members of Beit Hillel, and will be distributed in shuls across Israel before the various hagim.
• National think tank: Beit Hillel is creating partnerships with communal leaders in Israeli society— something that is less common in Israeli culture than in American culture, where true partnerships between spiritual leaders and lay leaders exist. We will facilitate a think tank and action center for the production of new initiatives and for the advancement of tolerant religious Zionist values in communities and educational systems.
• Media/communications/technology core competencies:
Beit Hillel plans to have a strong presence in the media and the press, both in the general media and the religious media. The goal is to make our voice present, relevant, and accessible to our target audience.
• Social networks: One of the most effective ways nowadays to have an impact on the public discourse is to create a social network of supporters and followers that will serve as an interactive platform for discourse between Beit Hillel leaders and the public.
We will strive to connect tens of thousands of people to the rabbinic network of Beit Hillel.
How has Beit Hillel been received in the Israeli press?
Beit Hillel has been received very positively. Israeli society is craving for a voice of reason within Religious Zionism.
How is Beit Hillel perceived in the mainstream Orthodox community?
Our target audience is the 65 percent to 70 percent of the Orthodox community who comprise the mainstream silent majority. People have been in despair, and when we speak, there is a great sense of relief that finally someone is finally giving voice to their thoughts.
What kind of relationship would you like to have with Jewish communities in the United States?
I think the American community is facing similar challenges to those of the religious community in Israel. My dream is to form an international Beit Hillel spiritual leadership, with spiritual leaders from the United States as well as Israel, to create a strong coalition of people who think alike, can strengthen one another, and together lead the Jewish world to a better place with stronger commitment to halakha and maximal integration into contemporary culture.