Manhattan's 42nd Street public library was Chana Henkin's default beit midrash. As a master's student at Yeshiva University in the late 1960s and early '70s, she spent hundreds of hours in that library poring over rabbinical literature.
"At the time an academic degree in Jewish studies was the only way that a woman could learn the Talmud and other halachic texts," says Henkin. "Once, a nice elderly gentlemen who had been watching me with my big pile of books stacked up in front of me came up and said in a Yiddish accent, 'Do you understand what you are reading there?' From then on I studied in the back of the library where they keep the microfilms." She did not want to attract undue attention.
Henkin finished "Development of Legislative Authority in the Early Ashkenazi Communities" in 1972, on the eve of her departure for Israel with her husband, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin. "I presented my dissertation, but it was rejected. The dean of the graduate school said to me, 'You couldn't have written this, your husband must have written it for you.'"
Years would pass before Henkin, a mother of six, received recognition from Yeshiva University. But she enjoyed what she called "poetic justice" when Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, called her a few years ago to inform her that she would receive an honorary doctorate degree for outstanding achievements in promoting female scholarship.
Times have definitely changed dramatically for aspiring female Torah scholars, especially during the last two decades since the Henkins founded Nishmat, an institution that provides Orthodox women with the highest level of Torah scholarship.
"When I finished college, I wanted to sit and learn Torah," recalls Henkin, who met with The Jerusalem Post at her small apartment on Nishmat's campus in Jerusalem's Pat neighborhood. The Henkins regularly sleep here, away from their home across town, to better enable them to devote all their waking hours to teaching, learning and administration. "But there was no beit midrash in the world that was there for me. That unfortunate reality ultimately led to the establishment of Nishmat."
Henkin believes that the ba'al tshuva movement was the greatest catalyst for change in the approach to women's Torah education. It was a group of young women from a secular background who had come to Jerusalem from the US to study Torah who set in motion a chain of events that led to the establishment of Nishmat.
"At the time I was teaching at a religious Zionist institution for women in Jerusalem. These girls were a bright group, graduates of Harvard, Yale, Stamford, who were new to Judaism," recalls Henkin. "Their male colleagues had come and found intellectually stimulating place to learn. But these girls did not find a place that could give them the high-level Torah learning they were looking for.
"And that's because there was no such place. These women were unwilling to accept the idea that there was no Jewish education on par with what they were accustomed to in their secular studies. I just could not ignore their pain because I knew what it felt like to be looking in at the magic of the beit midrash and not being able to go in there. The truth is it is anachronistic to have a glass ceiling in the area of Torah learning when the glass ceiling has been shattered in all other areas."
Henkin talked it over with her husband, and though they knew it would have an enormous impact on their family, they decided to go ahead with the idea anyway.
NISHMAT'S MOST ambitious program trains women to serve as quasi rabbis. Called yo'atzot Halacha (advisers of Jewish law), these women specialize in an area of Jewish law known as family purity. According to Halacha a Jewish wife is not allowed to have sexual relations with her husband during menstruation and for a short time afterward. At the end of a waiting period, she must immerse herself in a mikve.
The rules, laws and customs regulating when a women can and cannot be with her husband are intricate and complex and demand knowledge of gynecology. As fertility treatments, family planning and use of hormones and drugs to treat gynecological problems have become more widespread, issues relating to family purity have grown increasingly complex.
The extremely intimate nature of the laws requires religious women to be exceedingly candid with personal details about their bodies. Embarrassed to expose themselves to a rabbi, Orthodox women were often overly stringent in their adherence or simply stopped adhering altogether.
"Imagine keeping Shabbat without a hot plate or without electric timers or without an eruv," says Henkin. "It would be unimaginable today because we have become so accustomed to these innovations that make religious life so much more convenient."
Henkin may liken the training of Orthodox women as quasi rabbis to a gadget that automatically turns lights on and off on Shabbat, but she knows that the Yo'etzet Halacha program was much more. Training women to make halachic decisions sparked a revolution in feminine roles in Orthodox society.
So far 61 female halachic scholars have graduated from Nishmat's two-year program since it was launched 12 years ago. Women undergo the same training as male rabbinical students, learning central Jewish texts starting with the Talmud and continuing through the vast rabbinical literature that has been written over the past 1,800 years by male rabbinical scholars to elucidate, extrapolate, interpret and adjudicate Jewish law.
In fact, Rabbi Ya'acov Warhaftig, who helps men prepare for rabbinical ordination and also teaches at Nishmat's Yoetzet program, says that his female students are just as talented as his male ones. And the women learn about various medical issues such as fertility methods and gynecology which are not taught to rabbinical students.
But the most revolutionary aspect of the program is the fact that for the first time women are participating in the most avant garde dimension of rabbinic authority: the creation of new legal precedents in response to a changing reality. Even among males only a small percentage of the most talented intellectual elite deal with the field of Jewish studies that applies ancient Jewish law to modern circumstances.
So far graduates of Nishmat's program have answered more than 100,000 questions via Internet and a telephone hot line. The women make their decisions in close cooperation with two rabbinic authorities.
Warhaftig is head of Beit Ariel's rabbinical program and a synagogue rabbi in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood. He is also the son of Rabbi Zerah Warhaftig, former National Religious Party leader. Henkin's husband, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, is author of Bnei Banim - four volumes of responsa - and former chief rabbi of the Beit She'an Valley region. He is the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Eliahu Henkin, one of the greatest halachic authorities of America in the previous century.
"Something incredibly exciting is happening," says Henkin. "Women are receiving practical training in how to formulate answers to halachic questions, some of which have never been asked before."
The real success of the program has been Henkin's ability to create a new leadership role for women that challenges the male-only rabbinical hegemony while remaining within mainstream Orthodox circles. Part of the secret to Nishmat's success is proper marketing. Henkin has insisted on calling the women yo'atzot Halacha and not anything that sounds like rabbi. Nishmat also emphasizes that all halachic decisions made by its women are backed up by male rabbis.
At the same time, unlike various Orthodox feminist groups, Henkin has stayed away from more controversial issues such as gender-equal prayer or public criticism of the rabbinic establishment in, say, divorce matters. She says that she has no desire to perform religious commandments that are traditionally performed only by men.
Do you ever have an urge to wear tefillin?
I have enough problems getting my act together in the morning without having to worry about putting on tefillin.
How about reading from the Torah in synagogue?
I am just so grateful to get to shul on time. Just being able to pull it all together and arrive in time for the reading is enough for me.
Would you call yourself a feminist?
I do not like labels. They oversimplify things. But I can say that Judaism has always developed within the context of larger world and there has been a constant deliberation about what to allow in what not. Jewish thought would have been poorer if not for the interaction with thinkers outside Judaism. I don't think we should allow everything in because that would turn Judaism into Times Square. But I am a strong believer in cross-fertilization.
Nevertheless, Henkin admits that there is still work to be done. In the vast majority of religious high schools for girls the curriculum does not include the study of Talmud. While boys graduate high school with several years of intensive Talmud study under their belts, girls do not get the chance to seriously study Talmud unless they decide to enroll in a post-high-school program known as a Midrasha, the female equivalent of a yeshiva. As a result, women are at a serious disadvantage. But Henkin is convinced change will come.
"When my oldest daughter graduated from high school, there was no serious learning of Mishna besides the Ethics of the Fathers. But when my second daughter enrolled, they began learning the tractate of Shabbat. Slowly things are changing. We just have to be patient."