Yesterday was the Kolech Conference (Forum of Religious Women- Feminism is not in the title but it is an unspoken part of their charter). Though I was only able to stay for two sessions – I did hear a few thoughts that moved me and made me think.

I felt an overall push this time for women to take up the reigns of leadership – as poskim and as Rabbis. More so than in the US, the modern religious community in Israel feels very bound by halakha, is fluent in the texts that make this system, and still refers to Rabbis for ‘heterim’ or dispensations when their personal needs and law conflict. Which means the realm of writing psak and answering questions engenders Rabbinic control of the community.

Malkah Petrokovsky (Midreshet Lindenbaum) spoke about the importance of family planning and urged Rabbis, Poskim and teachers to take up the issue of birth control and family planning in a public and serious manner. In her experience many of her students feel required to have children immediately and if they ask for a “heter” to take birth control they will often receive permission for only 6-8 months.

I thought her call to put this topic on the table was very strong and well put. She was both emotional about the need to take up this issue and persuasive about the ability for the halakha to cope with change and adapt itself to people’s individual needs.

She also advocated a different vision of halakhic consultation where the posek or poseket gives the lay person the knowledge they need to make such personal decisions on their own, yet within the halakhic system. (In the US many modern orthodox couples  already feel that this question should be decided without consulting a Rabbi or halakha).

The question arose at the conference: what changes will occur as women become more vocal and respected within halakhic decision making world. Malkah’s speech suggested that the topics discussed and the sensitivities brought to the table will be different. But her words also suggest that the approach to psak and the structure of hierarchy and control will be different. A “Feminist” halakhic expert (female or male) may no longer dictate law; He or She use their knowledge to empower people to make knowledgeable decisions in light of Jewish law.

Painting by Cricket Diane C Phillips
The recent Air France plane crash has halakhic consequences for one women whose husband was on the flight. While she and her family had a natural reaction to plan a memorial ceremony after the coast guard began finding the awful remains of the plane and its passengers, the Rabbis were debating her status as a married woman, an agunah, or a widow.

If a woman's husband disappears, she must remain in limbo, awaiting the facts of his absence. The talmud says, if a man drowns in a Yam Shayin lo sof, a sea that has no end (a very large one), then the Rabbis free her on the assumption that we have enough (if not 100%) proof that he died.

I don't want to add my own comments today,  for this issue feels like a Sea of tears with no end, for the widow, for agunot of all types of cases, and for mesoravot get.

I do have to say the comments on this recent article intrigued me.  While I disagreed with a few, overall I was glad to see a civil public debate on the topic. 


I thought this article was a nice clear overview of Rabbi Dr. Sperber's work and ideas, and a convincing review of modern/liberal/ "friendly" psak (law decisions) that are still based on texts and tradition.