I came to know Rivka over forty years ago, through the learned book that her husband, Rabbi Irwin Haut, wrote about the agunah problem. Whether she influenced him to write or whether his work inducted her into the world of agunah activism, I do not know, but she became increasingly passionate about helping agunot, hands on as well as dealing with the theoretical-halakhic issues. Even during the selfsame week that she was shockingly diagnosed with the cancer that would soon overtake her, she found the strength to recommend to a newly minted agunah a particular rabbi who could—and did—help.
I recall our first agunah rally together, in 1980, on a Sunday afternoon in Boro Park outside a building owned by the recalcitrant husband’s parents. Rivka called four days ahead to say that although I was from the Bronx, I should be there. I countered that that my son David was leaving for Israel that evening; she said I could go straight to the airport from the rally. Sunday turned out to be bitter cold, so I called her early, hoping again to be let off the hook. Instead she opined that many people would not show up in freezing weather, so it was even more important to appear. As it turned out, many people did show, and the scenes were memorable. Brooklyn Councilwoman Susan Alter was on her megaphone promising raises to New York’s Finest for protecting the marchers with barricades. As we circled and circled the small courtyard, we chanted, “Binyamin Ze’ev O., give your wife a get.” The building’s tenants shouted down from their windows—could they withhold rent? A black-hatted, black-suited, bearded protester added the word “now” to the chant, and the rally, full of black hats and payot, began to sound just like a NOW protest.
That rally symbolized many of Rivka’s strengths—applying values of the women’s movement to internal Jewish concerns, mobilizing friends to causes she believed in, unafraid of fallout over airing dirty laundry in public, and cutting across all communal lines to serve justice.
And persisting. She did not stop at that rally but organized another against O., this time in front of the city agency where he worked. To her satisfaction and chagrin, O. finally gave his wife a get—in exchange for $15,000 from his wife and her agreement not to sue him for breaking her leg as he dragged her down the block while she held onto the car door.
Rivka got me to other agunah rallies, including a pitiful one with five other women circling the tiny front yard of a Manhattan brownstone. It was my last agunah rally but not Rivka’s. She never gave up and never turned down a request for help. For her, it was about justice and compassion, not numbers. Many of us referred agunot to her, knowing she would take those women under her wing. She did much heavy lifting all those years for individual victims, and she used the good connections she had cultivated in the wider rabbinic world without hesitation.
But she had other passions as well. She loved the study of Torah and Talmud. Early in her marriage she organized a Talmud study class in her home on Shabbat afternoons; later she taught rabbinic students. After Irwin died, she found consolation in study of the Prophets and offered to learn with me after my own grievous loss. At her death, she was a participant in a daf yomi shiur, a page of Talmud every day.
She was a founder of Women’s Tefila and a founder of Women of the Wall, two path-breaking institutions of contemporary Jewish life. She stayed with each of these projects for decades, applying remarkable qualities of leadership and initiative. Her learning fueled her activism, and her activism fed her learning. Any one of these enterprises would have been enough for one lifetime, but she handled all of them with a faithfulness that was covenantal in nature.
Yet, despite the success of her scholarship and work, despite the radical change her projects wrought, none of it went to her head. Last November, I called her from Israel to tell her about three different events I had recently attended in Jerusalem—a Women’s Tefila meeting, the Women of the Wall dinner, and an agunah activist meeting. In all three settings, her name was evoked. She was finally receiving the recognition that she deserved for her sustained work in so many different areas. Her reaction was a surprised chuckle, clearly a feeling of pleasure, that lasted but a minute. I asked her to tell her children and grandchildren of the substance of my call, but I knew she would not because she was one of the most modest people I knew. She never spoke about herself but only about her work, and even then not to boast but only to enlist or educate others. She was one of those rare people who made a huge difference in the world in multiple arenas yet never thought of herself as anything but a “drum major” responsible for righting wrongs.
She did her work with total honesty. She never spoke a word she did not believe in, and never said something just because she thought it was what the listener might want to hear. With that came her naturally critical personality, which went into full gear whenever she encountered a new idea. She did not like to gloss over problems she foresaw in any new venture or proposal, and she cut right to the quick, ready to puncture a starry-eyed plan. I must admit that, anticipating her criticism, I learned to package a new idea with an opening salvo: “Rivka, is there any value to this idea? Do you think it has any merit?” Somehow, with that entrée I would get a much-needed (yet gentle) critique as well as support—gifts from a very wise woman.
So it was that in her last year of life she had agreed to become one of the earliest partners of the International Beit Din, a court that would give urgency to resolving the problem to which she had given so much energy and compassion. When she canceled her attendance the morning of the very first meeting between the judges and community representatives, we never imagined that she would not be there later on to contribute her invaluable insights, recommendations and connections to build one more institution.
With all that, her starring role in life was as a grandmother, which played almost daily. So serious was she about these relationships that she would not take phone calls during babysitting time. That she filled so many hours of her life grandparenting and still had time to create several organizations, author four books, write hundreds of articles, attend a thousand meetings, and do so much good in the wider world is a continuing source of amazement to me.
Few people combine huge talent, a large personality, moral fiber, and intellectual brilliance the way Rivka Haut did. Add to this Jewish knowledge and commitment to the tradition, and you have Jewish royalty. May her memory be a blessing for all of us.