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Tikvah Fellow Profile: Tova Ganzel


Published on The Tikvah Fund Website, January 13, 2014

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.


Interview with Tova Ganzel

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—thousands of halakhic questions being answered, questions that in the past might not have been asked at all. That implies marriages that are less happy, fewer children being born. Advice on these issues is a very existential, a very necessary part of our lives. If there are thousands of questions on the Internet on a regular basis you can’t ignore it. And they don’t.

Right. The next question is, given that it’s so obvious, why did it take so long?

The yoatzot and a lot of the other programs that we see today are actually the result of a long evolutionary process. There had to be enough learned women around with enough background to be tested on Jewish sources on the same level—or maybe even a higher level— that men are at. That doesn’t happen overnight. Before I entered the yoatzot program I was able to study for a full year and devote my mornings, afternoons and evenings to gemara and halakha. This was after I already did my BA in bible and philosophy at Bar Ilan. Without those years beforehand I wouldn’t have been qualified.

When I was in the yoatzot program in 1997-1999 there were seven women there. It was hard to recruit them; they are recruited once every other year. There weren’t as many institutions for women then. They were just in their first steps. And even when they started they didn’t have full time gemara groups, full time halakha groups.

While you were training as a yoetzet you were also starting graduate school at Bar Ilan. How, if at all, did these two paths cross?

Yes, they crossed. My dissertation was on the concept of holiness in the Book of Ezekiel. In theyoatzot program we were constantly discussing the concepts of “pure” and “impure.” I saw exactly important these concepts still are to our lives today; I wanted to go back and see what the seeds of these concepts were, to go back to the concepts of holiness and purity and sanctity in the Bible. I went through the Bible trying to figure out which Prophet dealt the most with purity. Well, most of it’s in Ezekiel.

And what is the concept of holiness in the Book of Ezekiel?

It’s hard to discuss Ezekiel’s concept of holiness today without being anachronistic, because we use the same term thinking of totally different things. Our world of associations and understandings are different. He had come from Jerusalem to Babylonia; he had seen the First Temple. He was a priest himself—holiness meant a whole way of living which we are very far from today. Ezekiel had to be pure, holy, every day in order to walk into a sacred space.

But then the Temple was destroyed. So when Ezekiel was exiled to Babylonia his prophecies started to process that fact, the fact of exile. He asked the question: what happens to a nation that has lost its holiness? How did the Temple become profane? How could God’s name become profane? Even before the Temple was destroyed he was trying to convince people that it could happen. There were different opportunities for it to be destroyed, like when the Assyrian army invaded, but it was always saved. So to the Israelites it seemed like no matter what happened, even if all the people died, the Temple would always stand there, to keep God’s name and the names of the nations out there.

What did it mean when it was destroyed?

To them it meant God’s shrinking down, and being seen by the nations as almost non-existent. It also meant that their concepts of holiness needed to be modified to suit Babylonia, to suit exile. Instead of a religion centered on the Temple, Judaism became a religion centered on the community, on keeping the Sabbath. That’s partly Ezekiel’s legacy.

You wrote a paper called “He who restrains his lips is wise: true or false?” True or false?

That was written for a panel from a few years ago on biblical criticism and its acceptance in the traditional Jewish world. I didn’t feel that I had “a” point of view of my own to give, so I gave a 19th century point of view, the point of view of several 19th century rabbis—Shadal, Shir, Ranak. I showed that in their personal letters and correspondence they were very aware of biblical criticism. More than that, they accepted a large part of it. They accepted that the text might have been copied with errors. They accepted that biblical scholars’ knowledge of languages was able to shed light on passages that they didn’t understand or that medieval commentators didn’t understand.

But there’s a gap between what they were writing privately to each other and what they would write in their published commentaries. So that’s why I gave the paper that title, which is a verse from Proverbs 10:19. Is it right to have a dual approach, to think one thing in private but to restrain your lips in public? Is it actually wisdom to say other things that are more easily acceptable to the public domain?

Do you have an opinion?

I’m not sure. I’m very interested in biblical criticism and its effect on traditional thinking. How can you actually be a bible scholar and still be Orthodox? Being Orthodox means that there are certain fundamental assumptions that are part of your worldview, and being a bible scholar means that you’re supposed to be willing to question everything and come up with any conclusions logic demands. Can we solve that contradiction? Is it actually a contradiction?

I do think it matters, and here I’m back with the 19th century rabbis, that the audience matters. You should say what can be heard. I also think every biblical scholar, Orthodox or not, comes with their own assumptions. The difference is that our assumptions are obvious. I walk into a room and I’m wearing a skirt and my hair is covered, so right away people are thinking of my prejudices. For others it’s less obvious, but it’s there.

For you the very fact of discussing this isn’t an admission of defeat.

No. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that there’s a problem. That I’m willing to say. There are conflicts. Or the appearance of a problem. They have to be discussed, but I don’t think they have to be solved. How can we be expected to use our mind intelligently when we’re going through our daily life, but when it comes to our religious beliefs we’re supposed to accept that things don’t necessarily have to be logical?

There’s also a kind of confidence to that position. You’re presuming that your beliefs will be able to take it.

They will. I think that our faith and our beliefs have a large capacity, and the more confidence we have the larger that capacity gets. I don’t think that any of my beliefs are threatened by asking questions sincerely, and putting them on the table. Just like I don’t think my kids’ lives are shattered by being confronted with people who believe differently. I think that’s actually part of what Judaism says that we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to look for the truth. That’s what the Bible and the Rabbis teach us. There’s a nice pasuk in Proverbs 3:6: In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct thy paths. In other words, do whatever you think you should do as long as you’re doing it with the knowledge of the recognition of God, and God will straighten your path. I really believe that. I believe that if we walk in this world sincerely thinking that what we’re doing is part of understanding God’s world, God’s creation, His conflicts, His challenges, that He ends up straightening narrow paths out—walking before or after you, you can choose.


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