Recent Shabbaton Demonstrates the Impact of Inclusion in Halachic Discourse

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When I was in my early twenties, living in another city and becoming increasingly Jewishly observant, I looked to the Orthodox Jewish community for ways to participate, yet found few opportunities for women to be included in discourse on Halacha (Jewish law). I am grateful that I moved to Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac, Maryland, 11 years ago with my husband, Rabbi Nissan Antine, and our first child, where I found a vibrant Jewish community full of diverse Jewish learning opportunities for both women and men.

One of those opportunities has been attending and learning from scholars at the annual Herbert Lieberman&Ruben D. Silverman z”l Memorial Shabbaton.

I look forward to the Lieberman/Silverman Shabbaton every year because the Lieberman family brings leading Modern Orthodox teachers and thinkers as scholars-in-residence to Beth Sholom. The shabbaton stands as a memorial to their fathers, Herb Lieberman and Ruben Silverman, and the values their fathers gave them: to invest in community and to see all sides of an argument. The scholars-in-residence engage the community in Torah study and educate about key issues in Modern Orthodoxy. This was the 17th shabbaton and took place over Shabbat Parshat Tetzaveh/Zachor, on Feb. 23-24.

This year’s scholar-in-residence was Rabba Yaffa Epstein, Director of Education for North America at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. She received smicha (ordination) from Yeshivat Maharat and holds a law degree from Bar Ilan University. Rabba Epstein has taught Talmud and Jewish Law at Yeshivat Maharat, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, the Wexner Heritage Program New Members Institute, Kayam Farm Kollel, and Young Judaea. She has lectured at Limmud Events on five continents, has written curriculum for the Global Day of Jewish Learning, and has created innovative educational programming for Hillel International.

Rabba Epstein’s overall message that she reinforced through her participatory teaching style and her subject matter was that each person in the community has a role in shaping Torah; that each person has a unique voice and contribution to bring to the study of Torah.

“I love that she underscored that everyone has a part in the endeavor of bringing Torah to life, which is a powerful message for men and women alike,” said Maharat Dasi Fruchter. "She reminded us to ask ourselves who are the people who are not being heard and hear them better."

Indeed, Rabba Epstein showed us that we can be active participants rather than passive recipients in Judaism. I connected Rabba Epstein’s message — that we each have a unique voice that can offer possibilities, thereby illuminating insights from the Torah — to my own practice as a poet, teacher, and Bibliodrama facilitator.

Rabba Epstein’s philosophy as a teacher seems to echo what she taught about Talmudic figure Hillel the Elder and his inclusion of his students in the halachic discourse. Hillel was accepted as the leader of a yeshiva when he asked the students to figure out how to solve the halachic dilemma of how to sacrifice their korbanot (sacrifices) on Shabbat without having to carry on Shabbat, and the students themselves came up with a creative solution. Like Hillel the Elder, Rabba Epstein asked participants to delve into the text and ask questions and come up with ideas to share with the larger group, moderating as the leader of an active chaburah (study group) rather than passive listeners.

Beth Sholom member Jeff Savett said he believes it creates a more whole community when women are included as spiritual leaders and scholars-in-residence in Orthodox Jewish communities. “By safeguarding opportunities like these, we are not only reinforcing the ideal of b’tzelem elokim (in G-d’s image); we are making sure that the hub of our spiritual community looks like us, like G-d,” he said.

“It is wonderful to bring in a high-level Torah scholar, especially a female Torah scholar,” said Rabbi Antine, because “it is a good model for our members — especially our high school students — to give them a role model for achieving high levels of Torah knowledge.”

I still seek role models in Orthodox Judaism, and through the yearly shabbaton, the Lieberman family has brought in influential scholars who illuminate a path for the whole community that I can look up to.

By Sarah Antine

 Sarah Antine is the director of the Deborah Lerner Gross Jewish Cultural Arts Center at the Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland, and has poetry upcoming or published in the following outlets: The Journal, Ekphrasis—A Poetry Journal, Lilith Magazine, PMS: poemmemoirstory, The Mom Egg: VOX MOM, Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal, Moment Magazine, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, and others. She has previously written for Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) Blog and for Kol HaBirah.