Walking out of the funeral on Monday of Rivka Haut, Agunah activist, founder of the Women’s Tefilah Network and Women of the Wall, teacher of rabbis and herself a daily Daf Yomi attendee, an older woman with a sheitel, someone who might not ordinarily find herself at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, came over to me and said “Who will now be there for all the agunot? Rivka is irreplaceable.”
Indeed for the past 15 years that I knew Rivka, and the past ten when we worked together on our mini siddur and co taught at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah , I never ceased to be amazed by her devotion to those women most vulnerable-women left chained in dead marriages, a living reminder of the challenge within halakha to find a way to free these women from desperate situations and help them get on with their lives. Rivka was like Hatzalah. No matter what time of day or night, she was always available to help these women for whom she was seen as the avenue of last resort. And now with her sudden passing not only is her family left bereft but our community as a whole.
Rivka was a special and unique person who despite her high profile work, did not seek the limelight. She was tenacious, preferring behind the scenes work to the front pages of newspapers or blogs or facebook. She saw her task as one of justice, as one of trying to help women get what they deserved and do so with dignity. Another woman who had gone through a terrible divorce confided to me that if not for Rivka insisting to accompany her to the Beit Din, she couldn’t have made it through. “How could I have ever appeared if Rivka wasn’t sitting next to me holding my hand and helping me cope?”, she said behind her tears.
Rivka knew the halakhic ins and out and had the learning and tenacity not to leave any stone unturned to help the women who flocked to her door, overtaxed her email and called at all hours. Despite the desperation that always beckoned, I was always impressed by something that speaker after speaker at her funeral kept referring to. She never lost sight of the big picture. And that was reflected in two ways.
Number one, despite the cynicism that could easily have overtaken her, she didn’t let it stop her. She yearned for a new beit din that could be called upon to help solve these tough cases that came her way. She hoped for a beit din that would treat the women who came before them with respect and compassion. The other fact was that she always put her family first. Just this winter she and I were scheduled to team teach at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah but she had to bow out because the class was scheduled just when she would pick up her grandchild from his school bus stop. Family was her priority and her number one pleasure.
For me, to work with her was a wonderful experience, to be engaged with someone with deep learning, commitment to Torah and halakha and an original thinker. Over the few years we worked together on Shaarei Simcha, Gates of Joy, the first liturgical work in the modern era written by Orthodox women, she insisted that we add in a “harachaman” in Birkat Hamazon, asking that agunot be freed. She insisted that we add to a baby naming ceremony a section for adopted children, something very dear to her. And her love of animals, in particular her beautiful dog Shemesh, resulted in what would have been another opportunity to work with her — to write a book on pets in halakha. Alas we never had the chance to produce that work. But the opportunity that I was given to work with her, consult with her and learn with her will forever be with me. Our community has lost not merely a needed resource. It has lost a true treasure. May her memory be for a blessing and may her family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.