AS WE ap­proach Chanu­cah, I al­ways re­flect on how dif­fer­ent some of our Jewish prac­tices might have looked if it had not been for the sage Hil­lel, who in­sti­tuted and fought for the way in which we kin­dle our Chanu­cah lights. Not only Chanu­cah, but some of our most ba­sic rit­u­als and moral be­liefs: di­vorce, telling white lies and ac­cess­ing Jewish learn­ing. Hil­lel be­came well known fol­low­ing an episode when he al­most died of a chill on the roof of the study hall. As a pau­per he just man­aged to sur­vive, pay­ing for bread and the fee for his stud­ies. One day, pen­ni­less and un­able to af­ford the en­try fee, he was turned away from the study hall. With his pas­sion for learn­ing, he made his way on to the roof and put his ear to the sky­light. Af­ter a night of heavy snow­fall, he was dis­cov­ered un­con­scious and was res­cued by the hum­bled yeshivah stu­dents.

This pas­sion, com­mit­ment and de­ter­mi­na­tion fol­lowed him through­out his life. Best known as dis­agree­ing with his col­league Sham­mai, it was his opin­ion that pre­vailed ex­cept on 18 oc­ca­sions (out of 316!). Yet for me, Hil­lel stands out, not for his bril­liance or im­pact on our tra­di­tion but for the way that he bal­anced it with re­spect for oth­ers with dif­fer­ent opin­ions. Ex­am­ples of this are pep­pered through­out the anec­dotes about Hil­lel in the Tal­mud. It was he who fa­mously taught “don’t sep­a­rate from the com­mu­nity”. He em­pha­sised the im­por­tance of “lov­ing one’s fel­low” as writ­ten in the To­rah. It was he who, de­spite hav­ing dif­fer­ent re­quire­ments for mar­riage, en­sured that his de­scen­dants and those of Sham­mai would in­ter­marry.

While this all sounds won­der­ful, what if I fun­da­men­tally dis­agree with my com­mu­nity? What if I dis­agree about women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the ser­vice?

Hil­lel did not make his state­ments wear­ing rose-tinted spec­ta­cles, nor did he be­lieve only half-heart­edly in his own prin­ci­ples. He lived his life like this be­cause he recog­nised that it is sel­dom worth the risk of jeop­ar­dis­ing communal unity. He un­der­stood from his many hours in the study hall that de­bate for the sake of heaven is not per­sonal; it is part of what it means to be the Jewish peo­ple.

We live in a blessed gen­er­a­tion, where ac­cess to Jewish ed­u­ca­tion is at an all-time high. I have never known a world where the bet midrash was ex­clu­sive to men. I feel priv­i­leged to have learnt in some of the most dy­namic batei midrash and been taught by some of the lead­ing rab­bis and ed­u­ca­tors (male and fe­male) in the world to­day. Here in Lon­don, the Judy Back Women’s In­sti­tute for Jewish Stud­ies pro­vides in-depth learn­ing pro­grammes for women (at the Lon­don School for Jewish Stud­ies).

Un­der the Chief Rabbi’s lead­er­ship, when he was the rabbi of Finch­ley United Syn­a­gogue, I be­came the first yoet­zet halachah to be em­ployed by an Ortho­dox com­mu­nity in the UK — a move which re­quired a great deal of courage and con­vic­tion.

A yoet­zet halachah is a fe­male ad­viser cer­ti­fied by a panel of Ortho­dox rab­bis to be a re­source for women with ques­tion­sre­gard­ing taharathamish­pachah, anareaof Jewish­law that re­lates to mar­riage, sex­u­al­ity and women’s health. It is cur­rently the most ad­vanced ha­lachic pro­gramme avail­able to women. Rab­banit Chana Henkin, dean of Nish­mat in Jerusalem, who founded the pro­gramme, was re­cently in­ter­viewed about the in­cred­i­ble evo­lu­tion of women’s learn­ing. She ob­served that there had been a dif­fer­ence in the way it was man­i­fest­ing in Is­rael to the USA. She said that “it wasn’t com­ing from a place of gen­der but from a place of thirst for To­rah. Women’s learn­ing pre­ceded Ortho­dox fem­i­nism in Is­rael.” She is making the same dis­tinc­tion as Hil­lel for the need to al­ways qual­ify the de­bates that are for the sake of heaven.

I fear that re­cent de­bates here in the UK, about the chang­ing role of women in Ortho­dox Ju­daism, have failed to make this dis­tinc­tion. Dis­course on the sub­ject has be­come ag­gres­sive and per­sonal.

As con­tem­po­rary Ortho­dox Jews, we live our mod­ern lives while cling­ing to our tra­di­tional val­ues. Ev­ery now and again they clash, and un­der­stand­ably there will be vary­ing opin­ions as to the best way to rec­on­cile a chang­ing world with eter­nal val­ues. As a de­bate for the sake of heaven, ev­ery­one is work­ing to­wards a com­mon good. Some­times, as with Sham­mai and Hil­lel, their routes may be dif­fer­ent, but that must not be­come a source of neg­a­tiv­ity or di­vi­sion.

A de­bate for the sake of heaven will al­ways have red lines which will be de­fined by the bound­aries of the halachah, as was the case with Hil­lel and Sham­mai. Surely, the most ap­pro­pri­ate way to deal with dif­fer­ent opin­ions is to re­turn to the study hall, im­merse our­selves in the dy­namism of Jewish de­bate and hold dear re­spect for those red lines that will al­ways ex­ist in a de­bate for the sake of heaven.

Liv­ing by the tra­di­tions of Hil­lel as we do to­day, it is my hope that we will be able to learn from the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Hil­lel and Sham­mai. Let’s take the sting out of the di­a­logue.


Lau­ren Levin in­structs a group of women at the Judi Back In­sti­tute for To­rah Stud­ies

Rebbetzin Levin holds the post of yoet­zet halachah at Finch­ley United Syn­a­gogue

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