Ysoscher Katz

Modeh ani she’samta chelki mi’yoshvei beit midrash: In gratitude — taking leave of the Lindenbaum Center for Halakhic Studies

This note marks the formal end of my tenure as director of the Lindenbaum Center for Halakhic Studies at YCT Rabbinical School.

In addition to being intellectually stimulating, serving as the Center’s director was also spiritually rewarding. The work we did helped alleviate a personal pain I have harbored for as long as I can remember.

I am a male, raised in a spiritually inspired, intellectually engaged, and religiously active home, and went to schools that provided me with a comprehensive Jewish education.

All this afforded me opportunities to choose a life which is punch-drunk with Divinity. I can speak to God whenever I wish, privately — as part of the tzibbur, or publicly — as their shaliach. Conversely, as a result of my stellar Jewish education, I can open a Tanach, Gemara, or any Rishon or Achron (medieval and modern commentators) and hear God speaking through those texts.

Often, this dialogical back and forth culminates in a powerful moment of deep and physical intimacy with God-when I get an aliyah, kiss the Torah, and make the bracha (blessing).

It is an embarrassment of riches. I am unbelievably blessed.

Yet, while I was continuously enjoying these riches, I was keenly aware that the talented women in my life were not afforded these opportunities. This dialogical spiritual encounter was not available to them because of their gender. I, consequently, yearned for the chance to delve into the pantheon of halakhic sources in order to — whenever halakhically possible — enable them to have optimal access to Jewish learning and experiences.

Taking the helm at the Lindenbaum Center provided me with that opportunity. It was a chance to explore the possibility of shrinking the seemingly expansive boundaries of halakhic gender-essentialism. I knew from the outset that it was impossible to completely eradicate halakhic discrimination[1], that there will, unfortunately, always be areas where women are considered second-class in the eyes of halakha. But the research I intended to do at the Center would at least allow me to look my wife, two daughters, three sisters, mother, 15 aunts and hundreds of female students in the eye and tell them that I did my utmost to enable them to attain those moments of transcendence one derives from optimal engagement in Torah study, performance of mitzvot and active participation in Jewish ritual.

Thankfully, much of what I set out do was achieved. Close examination of our halakhic tradition allowed me to write responsa that have helped reduce halakha’s exclusionary stance in various significant areas. I wrote on Women and Conversion, Nursing in Shul, Women Getting an Ali’ya (and here), Women as Sandakiyot, Davening Mincha on Friday after Candle Lighting, Women Leading Selichot, the ability of women to create a halakhic tzibur, and finally, on the permissibility of carrying a little child while davening, layning or when getting an aliyah. Hopefully, these teshuvot will minimize the women’s exclusion in vital areas of Jewish ritual or practice.

We, with God’s help, did a lot, these were very productive years.

It will be a while before one will be able to tell if these teshuvot have durability and survive the test of time. I hope and pray to the Ribono Shel Olam that they will indeed endure, but ultimately only history can make that judgement. Now the time has come to tackle different frontiers.

As I have written elsewhere, I believe that Orthodox feminism has reached its outer limits, she is not likely to break any additional substantial halakhic barriers. There is still, of course, a lot to be done. Implementing the changes already established will require tremendous effort. Much work also remains to be done to make Orthodox communities, to the extent halakha allows, optimally egalitarian. We are, however, approaching the limits of expansion. The three remaining discriminatory frontiers (including women in a minyan, serving as a shlichot tzibur and the ability to serve as a witness or testify in a Jewish criminal court) are unsurpassable. Halakha will never be perfectly egalitarian. (Ultimately, time will tell whether my assessment is correct. If history proves me wrong, all the better.)

Having accomplished my primary goal of expanding opportunities for women to encounter the Divine, I feel that I must now utilize the extensive traditional knowledge I was privileged to attain for other pressing sociological and halakhic issues, which require much attention, sensitivity and halakhic creativity.

ויהי רצון שתשרה שכינה במעשי ידינו.

[1] I am using the term “discriminatory” descriptively, not critically or judgmentally.

About the Author
Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for more ten years, and is a graduate of the HaSha'ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz taught at the Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School, and gave a popular daf yomi class in Brooklyn for more than eight years.
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