CSP patrons hear Rabba Rahel Berkovits explain interpretation of Orthodoxy


About 40 CSP patrons were honored to attend a lunchtime lecture with Rabba (feminine for “Rabbi”) Rahel Berkovits on Wednesday June 15. Arie Katz was equally proud to mention that Rabba Berkovits also attended his alma mater, Maimonides School, in Boston.

Rabba Berkovits was introduced by dedicated community member, Dr. Karin Hepner, who is a member of Congregation Beth Jacob, TVT parent and founder- parent of Irvine Hebrew Day School. Karin is also the spouse of Dr. Avshalom Hepner and loving mom to five wonderful children. The Hepner family ascribes to the teachings of people like Rabba Berkovits and the mission of the Pardes Institute where she teaches. It is a place where Modern Orthodox traditional practices are a constant surrounding every aspect of life.

Rabba Rahel Berkovits is a member of Shira Hadasha in the German Colony area of Jerusalem. It is “a religious community that embraces our commitment to halakha, tefillah and feminism” in response to “the growing need of many religious women and men to readdress the role of women in the synagogue.” Shira Hadasha leaders believe in the rights of women to read from the Torah as was the practice many times throughout history.

Rabba Berkovits introduced us to Pardes style learning when she gave us some insight into the Rabbis of Mishnaic times and the particular text we would be learning. We then broke off into small chevruta style learning with our partners for a few minutes of shared thought. This Beit Midrash style learning is not only used at the Pardes Institute but many Yeshivot and seminaries across Israel and the world. It is a much more engaging method than sitting in a room listening to a lecture without having any input or the ability to ask questions. It is also the mode used by rabbis studying Talmud, which then became our written Mishnah. These Rabbinic discussions are noted in other texts like the Pesach Seder service as well.

Mishnah Gittin 5:8 discusses issues within the realms of property. Although not illegal to take traps a hunter has set, it may not be ethical to steal someone else’s property. It may anger the hunter, but he/she has no legal recourse to sue. The rabbis said that in the interests of peace, just let the matter go. Rabbi Yose, however, disagrees. He says it is robbery to take someone’s hard work, whether from their traps or trees. This teaches us how important it is to leave a portion, lekat for gleaning, for poor people — Jews or non-Jews. The laws for the entire community: Kohen, Levi, Yisrael, non-Jew, rich, poor, healthy and/or disabled is the same. This teaches us how we should interact with everyone in the same way, with “shalom” peace.

Gittin 5:9 discusses issues pertaining to women and the home (of course). In Perek 8 a less observant woman asks her friend to use her utensils and oven to bake bread, and it is permitted. R’ Rahel says, “Imagine a strictly kosher person today offering her dishes and oven to cook treif?” In Perek 9 the wife of a rabbi and another less scrupulous woman are baking together. They can work together until water is needed, and then the more traditional woman must separate before the challah bread is baked. The rabbis say that both of these are in the interests of peace. We should not shun our neighbors but try to coexist, which is certainly a lesson to be learned in modern-day Israel!

In Perek 10 we read how we are allowed to help the non-Jew but not the Jew during shmittah. The reason is that non-Jews are permitted to raise and sell their crops, even to work Jewish owned land when Jews cannot. This reminds me of how we could not buy Jewish produce in Israel during the past shmittah year. Several of my family members and I were driving around the Druze village of Majdal Shams when I was in Israel last summer. There were many roadside stands with people selling various wares and produce.  A young woman was selling cherries from trees growing in her personal yard. We stopped and greeted her. An elderly couple, most probably her grandparents, were sitting on a porch above the road (and probably chaperoning the lone young woman). We greeted them as well and purchased the most delectable red cherries ever. Little did we know how we were living the Mishnah lesson for aiding non-Jews and greeting them respectfully. It just seemed like common sense.

Rabba Berkovits’ teaching continued with Mishnah Brachot where we learn how we can also stop saying the Shema prayer in order to greet someone. We can even cite a name of Hashem, our G-d. Rabba Berkovits says from this we learn how to relate and respect everyone, because we are all Hashem’s creations and that like Rabbi Yose we don’t have to agree with everything but must still treat others with respect. We need to build a community with others even if they are different from us. If only more of us followed this lesson in peace.

On a personal note I want to thank Rabba Rahel Berkovits for giving my own Orthodoxy a brilliant voice. I often get asked how I can say I am Orthodox when I do not cover my hair, wear short sleeves (and in my case wear pants). In fact, I once got asked by one of my own professor-colleagues in Israel how I can be dati-a and wear shorts, so this is not just questions that come from the uneducated in our society. Ivanka Trump seems to be getting the same tirades as even on Jewish websites there are an ad nauseum amount of people questioning how someone who dresses as she does can be Orthodox. Ms. Trump-Kushner has been converted by a very well respected Modern Orthodox Rabbi and takes her Judaism quite seriously. Her mode of dress, although not what other may consider modest, adheres to Modern Orthodox style living on the Upper East Side of New York. We no longer live in East European shtetls.

Many people do not realize that being Orthodox is not living in a bubble. Modern Orthodox practices are not Hasidic or Haredi. Yeshiva University began with the principles of Torah uMadda, Torah and secular learning. It means understanding the scientific principles within Toraic texts. It means understanding the life rabbis of Mishnaic times, because the era is studied in history class and the dynamics during psychology lectures. It means acknowledging that the wives of these ancient rabbis did not wear sheitels. In fact, being that head covering is not the mode today many, like Rabba Berkovits and I, take that to mean we don’t have to cover our head. I do wear a hat to synagogue, which in fact is how generations of my female ancestors have done. Thank you, Rabba Berkovits, for giving me a knowledgeable person that represents the Modern Orthodoxy I maintain. Hopefully, now a few dozen more local community members also understand that the more stringent Orthodoxy they often see is not the only one that adheres to halacha.

Thanks to Arie Katz and the Community Scholar Program for bringing yet another well respected illustrious individual to share some thoughts of Torah with us.

For more on:

Rabba Rabbi Berkovits rahelb@pardes.il
Pardes Institute: www.pardes.org.il
Shira Hadasha: www.shirahadasha.org.il

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