In 2012-2013, Tova Ganzel took sabbatical from her role as deputy director of the Midrasha for Women at Bar Ilan University to serve as a Tikvah Fellow and to join her husband doing his own fellowship at Sloan-Kettering. Upon her return to Israel, she became the director of the Midrasha and has created a Tikvah program that was inspired by an element of the Fellowship curriculum – something we call “The Jewish Citizen.” This series, which will be a part of the Summer Fellowship this year as well, is a course of study built around major policy issues facing the Jewish world – issues that are informed by the study of classic Jewish and Western texts but that also require measured judgment about what is to be done today. The program is meant as training for the art of the possible (as Otto von Bismark called politics) as it relates to the Jewish future.
Dr. Ganzel’s Tikvah program at Bar Ilan is tailored to issues related to the goals of the Midrasha. As she describes it, the program “provides a weekly forum for engagement between a broad array of religious thinkers and a select cadre of achieving women scholars spanning the range of religious observance.”
Here we republish an interview that we did with Tova during her fellowship, discussing her ideas on women and halakha, holiness and Ezekiel, and biblical criticism and orthodoxy.
Originally Published February 21, 2013
In 1999 Tova Ganzel became one of the first two yoatzot halakha—women certified in halakha to advise other women on questions of family law and purity—in the world. Since then she’s helped thousands of women, finished a dissertation on the prophet Ezekiel, earned a professorship, and become the deputy director of the Midrasha for Women at Bar Ilan University. Now she’s a Tikvah Fellow. We talked about the evolution of the concepts of holiness and purity in Judaism, and how a person, such as herself, can be both an Orthodox Jew and a biblical scholar devoted to “questioning everything.”
Let’s start with the yoatzot halakha.
It’s a two-year program at Nishmat on Jewish law that gives women very thorough training in the hilchot niddah, the laws of family purity. They get tested and are awarded a certificate; after that they can answer halakhic questions. The idea of women as halakhic consultants developed as a response to women who weren’t sure where to turn to for advice. They wanted to ask questions and discuss women’s issues—reproductive health, sexuality, et cetera—but many were uncomfortable doing so in front of men, in front of rabbis. So in 1997 Rabbanit Chana Henkin at Nishmat started the yoatzot program. After that Nishmat started a telephone hotline and a web form so women could call in or log on and get personal advice.
It was immediately popular?
The reception to the yoatzot as a whole has been tremendous. It was obvious right at the beginning that it was catching on. At first the hotline rang once an hour, and then there were four an hour, and today it rings constantly. It’s been very well accepted by women.
And men? The rabbis?
It’s just too hard to argue with. The rabbis see the outcome—th