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Tova Hartman: Bringing women into Orthodoxy

Tova Hartman

Prof. Tova Hartman – a Jerusalem-based scholar, educator, author, feminist and social activist – spoke about feminism in Judaism and social inclusiveness in Israel at several synagogues in Toronto and Montreal at the end of March.

She is the dean of humanities at the Kiryat Ono Academic College, which serves a high number of Ethiopians, Druze, haredi and other groups who are underrepresented at many Israeli post-secondary institutions. She was formerly a professor of gender studies and education at Bar Ilan University.

Hartman has written three books and is currently doing research on multicultural Jewish education and male trauma.

In 2002, she co-founded Kehillat Shira Hadasha, an Orthodox congregation at which female congregants read from the Torah and lead services.

She’s the daughter of the late Rabbi David Hartman, a philosopher and professor of contemporary Judaism. Before he made aliyah in 1971, he served as the rabbi at Tiferet Beit David Jerusalem in Montreal for 12 years.

What did your father think of Shira Hadasha?

At first, he was not that supportive. He was not born a feminist. To his credit, he changed. I studied with him for most of my adolescence and I continued for years after. Many traditional rabbis made a distinction between women’s learning and women’s ritual. My father did not understand my need to participate in the rituals. But he became one of my biggest supporters. I was very appreciative of that.

Why did you establish Shira Hadasha, if egalitarian congregations already existed?

I didn’t want to leave my home in traditional Orthodox Judaism. I felt that there were more possibilities in traditional Judaism, so I decided I was going to make the change from within. Shira Hadasha was an attempt of a group of men and women to give the system and the tradition another chance.

Can you talk about ritual equality for women?

When we established Shira Hadasha, I thought I was doing it for my daughters. But we were also doing it for our mothers and grandmothers. Part of leadership is to create need and show people what is possible. There were a large number of older women who came to Shira Hadasha. Every Shabbat, there would be deep, heartfelt tears of joy and appreciation from someone from a traditional background who had had her first aliyah.

In traditional Judaism, we have the Freudian thing that women should be happy with our role. If you’re an Orthodox woman, you can be a neurosurgeon, but you cannot be a hazzan. You’re trusted to perform surgery on a rosh yeshiva’s brain, but you can’t say Ashrei for him. Those two things do not square anymore.

What was the impact of your activism on your three daughters?

They will say they gained a lot from my activism. In the face of adversity, they saw that mommy tried and that change is possible. At different times, our house became overly ideological. I’m grateful to them for their sense of humour about it, but it was not easy to be different from the kids in school.

You said you made a bat mitzvah for your eldest daughter before Shira Hadasha was founded.

It was important for me that she become bat mitzvahed in front of the whole community, in the presence of her father, her grandfather and her uncles. I made a minyan for her just for that Shabbat. She was the first girl in her class to have a bat mitzvah. The parents at her school did not allow their sons to attend. I was criticized for not giving her the choice. But how many boys do we give the choice to have a bar mitzvah?

How are women included at Shira Hadasha?

It’s a partnership between men and women. Women play a major role. They have aliyahs. They can now take the Torah from the ark and even dance with it. Services can’t begin until there’s a minyan, which at Shira Hadasha means 10 men and 10 women.

How did you decide on that number?

I was trying to adapt within the framework of what so-called Orthodoxy had to offer.

What was the rationale for maintaining the mechitzah?

To be an Orthodox congregation, you have to have a mechitzah. In order for me to feel there was integrity in the shul, I asked myself, “Do I have to take the mechitzah down to have equality?” I was comfortable with the mechitzah, if there were two equal-sized sacred spaces and the Aron Kodesh was exactly in the middle.


Why do you think traditional Judaism will eventually become more egalitarian?

In Judaism, the law is based on precedence. We look to see how traditional Judaism dealt with values and competing values in each era of history. My father would say that Judaism is an alive tradition and it has within it the mechanism to correct itself.

We can’t necessarily expect people from hundreds of years ago to have had the same kinds of issues as today, like kashering a microwave oven at Passover. Feminism was also not alive and kicking during the talmudic era and not something the rabbis would have discussed a thousand years ago.

What has been the impact of Shira Hadasha?

Sixteen years ago, it was the only shul of its kind. In Jerusalem, there are five similar minyanim and they’re all over Israel and the United States and Canada. Things have changed in traditional Judaism.

Why did you leave Bar Ilan and move to Ono College?

I had been at Bar Ilan for five or six years in the school of education and counselling. I had already passed the leadership of Shira Hadasha to the next generation. I had my doctoral students. I enjoyed teaching and the research I was doing. But there was something inside me that was still bubbling, in terms of social activism.

My younger brother, Ranan Hartman, had started Ono 15 years previously. He opened the college with a business and law school. He had tried to recruit me earlier to head up the school of education and Jewish studies. I realized that I could not bring as much good to Israel in traditional academia as I could at Ono, where the learning environment was making higher education more accessible to less privileged groups in Israel.

How did Ono become more inclusive?

The Jewish agency called my brother and asked if he would accept an Ethiopian student into the law program. The agency said the other universities were considering accepting one student. My brother said, “I’ll take whoever wants to come.” His response reflects the strong social consciousness that we grew up with.

Ono was the first college to have an Ethiopian program. The Ethiopian graduates were all working in law and business. But we did not know anything about who they are as Jews. They did not practice talmudic Judaism, so we opened up a heritage program for the study of Ethiopian Jewry.

Could you talk about some of the other groups who attend Ono?

The ultra-Orthodox students were recruited slowly. We have over 3,000 haredi graduates now working in Israeli society. The haredim need segregated classes. Many people were against it. I’m a staunch defender of the right to culture and the right to education without forcing it on anybody else.

We also welcome thousands of Arab students. There’s a lot of motivation for them to integrate, but there are tensions. At the campus in Jerusalem, we have a high percentage of Arab and haredi students. Integration doesn’t happen by putting people in classes together. It won’t happen without active multi-cultural, educational programming. I’m learning and working on that now.


This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity

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