Who is Yalta?
This weekend has been very exciting for me–the synagogue that my family belongs to is hosting Sara Hurwitz as a guest speaker. For those of you haven’t heard of her: after studying for seven years at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, she was given the title of “maharat” by Rabbi Avi Weiss (an Orthodox rabbi) in March 2009, and deemed a Jewish spiritual and halachic leader. Few people understood that "maharat" meant spiritual and halachic leader, and so Rabbi Weiss changed her title to "rabba." However, the Rabbinic Council of America, a group of mainly modern Orthodox American rabbis, considered expelling Weiss from their group because of the similarities between the word “rabba” and “rabbi,” and so Weiss changed her title back to "maharat." And that’s where we stand today—Hurwitz is now the head of Yeshivat Maharat, which trains women to become spiritual and halachic leaders in their communities. Hurwitz is also a full member of the rabbinic staff of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where she teaches, officiates at life cycle events, and advises congregants on halachic issues, among other responsibilities.
You can probably see why I was so excited to meet her. Last night, after dinner, Rabba (she still refers to herself as a "rabba", and I’m certainly not one to object) Hurwitz invited the congregation to join her in a Talmudic case study of Yalta. Who is Yalta, you might ask? Great question–most of the congregation had never even heard of her (we’d only heard of the treaty). Yalta is a woman mentioned in various parts of the Talmud, known as being the wife of Rabbi Nachman, a famous rabbi, as well as the daughter of the exilarch (who is essentially the secular leader of the Jewish community).
Hurwitz taught and analyzed with us three stories that mention Yalta, and then led us in discussion of the implications of her role as a female in the Jewish community. The first source discussed the fact that Yalta was known to be carried on alanki on Shabbat, something that is usually prohibited, as it is seen as work. The source suggested that perhaps she was allowed to do so because she was needed quickly by someone in the community (a known exception to the rule), implying that she played a significant role in the community and had some kind of authority. Not such a small accomplishment for a woman living in Talmudic times.
The second source described a guest, Rabbi Ulla, coming to dinner at Rabbi Nachman’s house and refusing to pass a cup that had been blessed to Yalta after Nachman requested he do so. Instead, he cited a verse saying that “the fruit of a woman’s body is blessed from the fruit of a man’s body.” Enraged, Yalta stormed away from the table and broke four hundred jars of wine in her cellar. Nachman turned to Ulla and asked him, once again, to give her the juice, which he refused, and then she retorted that “gossip comes from pedlars and vermin from rags.” No one was exactly sure what that last line meant. However, the story itself involves some interesting symbolism: the line that Ulla quotes treats women like a vessel that must be blessed (and fertilized) by a man, and in breaking four hundred bottles of wine, Yalta (quite dramatically) shows Ulla the necessity of that vessel, the woman. Without the vessel holding in the wine, nothing can be contained, just as without a woman, man cannot reproduce. Hurwitz acknowledged the excess in Yalta’s actions (400 bottles is a lot), but also emphasized the powerful message that she sent.
The final source we discussed was one that I found to be particularly relevant to Hurwitz’s own struggle as a Jewish female authority. The source discussed an instance where Yalta brought a sample of her menstrual fluids to Rabbi Bar Hana to judge if it was “clean,” meaning that her period was over, or “unclean." He said that it was unclean, and so she turned to Rabbi Isaac (they were apparently in the Beit Midrash, or house of study), who initially agreed with Rabbi Bar Hana. However, she told Rabbi Isaac that on every other occasion, Rabbi Bar Hana had ruled such blood clean, and that only on that day did he rule in unclean because he had something in his eye, and so Rabbi Isaac finally ruled it clean. The source then goes into a discussion of when you can believe a woman on her menstrual fluids, which is a weird and interesting discussion for another time. What Hurwitz emphasized was that Yalta clearly knew that her blood was clean, but she chose to go to the rabbis anyway to ask if it was clean–and only then did she argue her point. She tried to challenge authority without trying to ignore it: she wanted to bring about change from within the system.
And that, I think, is Hurwitz’s thinly veiled metaphor for herself. In listening and talking to Hurwitz this weekend (she was nice enough to answer a few of my questions after speaking), it became clear to me that while she is very much trying to challenge traditional authority and pave the way for women to take on new and important roles in Orthodox Judaism, she also has a deep and unwavering respect for Orthodox Judaism and its traditional system. I asked her last night if she had ever considered going to a place like the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative institution, where she would not have to deal with the complaints of the RCA, etc, and she responded that she never had–that she feels at home in the Orthodox world, and that it is important to her to bring about change while working within the framework of the system that is in place.
Even though I find myself more comfortable outside the Orthodox realm and within a less traditional sphere, I have a lot of respect for her commitment to being both an Orthodox Jew and a female authority and leader. Learning with her this weekend was great, not just because I discovered Yalta, who was quite the rebel, but also because I had the opportunity to see a room full of Modern Orthodox Jews engaged by an intelligent, educated woman on Halachic issues–a site that I don’t see too often, but that could hopefully become commonplace in the next decade or two.