Rivka Haut— An Appreciation

By Blu Greenberg

One evening last February, a woman named Chani called me. As she related her problem—when she asked her husband, from whom she had been separated for eighteen months, for a get, he once again ignored her and sent flowers instead—I knew just what to do: I gave her Rivka Haut’s phone number. Not only would Rivka seek a get for this woman, but she would also understand the feelings of a spurned husband and handle this case gently.

What I did not know then was that Rivka was just beginning her battle against the cancer that would
shortly take her life. 

As we all began to grasp the seriousness of her illness, I realized I had given Chani a false lead. I called to explain and offer another resource. “Oh, no,” she said, “your friend told me that she was sick and could not help me, but she gave me the number of a rabbi in Brooklyn who has been very helpful.” For forty years, Rivka could not turn away a potential agunah.

Rivka Haut was Jewish royalty—a human being of integrity, modesty, compassion, and justice, a woman involved in intensive Jewish learning, deeply committed to halakha and engaged in prayer as a daily conversation with God. She was also an activist who stood up for the downtrodden, a friend who never could ignore a plea for help, a leader who ran from honor and titles. Rivka never uttered a word she did not feel carried the whole truth. She refrained from lashon hara and engaged in criticism only for the sake of a cause.

She was modest to the core and did not speak of her own many accomplishments but rather of the job that needed to be done. She was one of those rare people who made a huge difference in the world in multiple areas, yet never thought of herself as anything but a worker responsible for righting wrongs. In all this and more, she was Jewish royalty.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Rivka Haut was educated at the Shulamith School in Brooklyn and Yeshivah of Flatbush High School, one of the first schools to teach girls Talmud. She received her B.A. and M.A. in English literature from Brooklyn College and a second master’s in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary, on her way to a doctorate. Her lifelong passion for study, particularly Tanakh and Talmud, prompted her to organize a Shabbat afternoon Talmud shiur in her home.

During these past few years, Rivka was a daily presence at the daf yomi shiur taught by Rav Dov Linzer of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale. A co-student recently wrote, “I had the unique privilege of [learning with her for two years]... without really knowing who she was. I encountered her simply as a well-learned woman with insightful experiences and nuanced interpretations that at times challenged and even advanced the learning of the Rav ... I had profound respect for her.” Rabbi Linzer and her daf yomi colleagues are as bereft as are her agunot.

Rivka believed that learning was not only an intellectual and religious experience, but also a healing one. I remember her gentle call in 2002, shortly after my own loss. She offered to learn Tanach in daily havruta, adding that learning had helped her through her grief after the death of her husband, Rabbi Irwin (Yitzchak) Haut. 

Rivka Haut co-authored four books: Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue with Rabbi Susan Grossman; Women of the Wall, with Dr. Phyllis Chesler; Shaarei Simcha: Gates of Joy, with Dr. Adena Berkowitz; and a book about agunot with Dr. Susan Aranoff, which was nearing completion when she died. Whoever worked with her felt it to be a privilege. Her output of articles and letters was formidable, including a steady stream on gettlink, the listserve of agunah activists. On issues that drew passion, her writings were characterized by balance and thoughtfulness, even as she took
positions contrary to the majority view. The conversation was always l’shem shamayim.

Her early leadership was felt in women’s tefillahfirst in Flatbush and then in Riverdale, where she moved following her husband’s death; and in the Women’s Tefillah Network, which she helped found. As partnership minyanim began to garner increasing support in the last decade, Rivka remained faithful to women’s tefillah. She told her rabbi, Rabbi Avi Weiss, that she loved to hear the sounds of women davening together. She felt that women’s tefillah was more authentically faithful to halakha; moreover, it was a training ground for adult women in communal tefillah and should not be abandoned. Her commitment to women’s tefillah exemplified Rivka standing her principled ground.

A distinctive moment in her life took place in Israel in 1988, at the International Conference for the Empowerment of Jewish Women under the auspices of the American Jewish Congress. Spontaneously, with the help of Norma Joseph, Rabbi Helene Ferris, and Rabbi Deborah Brin, Rivka organized a women’s tefillah with Torah reading at the Kotel—a first in Jewish history. From that moving tefillah experience grew Women of the Wall (WOW), a monthly prayer group that continues to this day and of which Rivka remained an active member. Her involvement with WOW enabled her to form crossdenominational friendships that enriched her life.

Among her many causes, Rivka is probably best known for her agunah work, a commitment of forty years. She was an early member of the GET organization in Brooklyn, and headed the JOFA Agunah Task Force for several years. In addition to public speaking about the issue, she did much heavy lifting for individual agunot, assisting them through the challenges of the religious court system and giving advice freely. She knew most of the judges of the local rabbinic divorce courts and worked well with them, challenging them when she felt they had not done enough. In turn, they respected her learning and admired her dedication. She did not hesitate to use the good connections she had cultivated in the rabbinic world, buttonholing pulpit rabbis at every opportunity. 

For many years, Rivka helped organize protest rallies against recalcitrant husbands. I recall an early one. It was a freezing day in February 1980. I called her that morning, wanting to be let off the hook, but she quickly countered that many people would not show up because of the cold so it was all the more important to be there. As we circled the small courtyard in front of the recalcitrant’s building, chanting, “X., give your wife a get,” the tenants shouted out their windows, asking if they could withhold rent. A bearded, black-hatted, black-suited protester added “now” to the chant, and the rally began to sound like a NOW rally. Rivka was thrilled with the rally—but not self-congratulatory, because it produced no results; so she organized a second one. Another time, Rivka “invited” me to a pitiful, five-woman rally in Manhattan—my last, but not hers, because for Rivka, it was totally about justice and compassion, not numbers.

To the consternation of many of her friends, Rivka did not support the Rackman beit din because she and Irwin felt that some of its processes did not meet standards necessary to gain legitimacy in the Orthodox world. But later she came to accept and appreciate the systemic halakhic solutions applied by the Rackman beit din and advocated their use in other batei din. At the time of her death, she had begun to work enthusiastically on the new International Beit Din, a court highly committed to finding solutions in every case of iggun.

Rivka’s contributions to JOFA were enormous and not limited to matters of ideology, program, board membership or professional service. JOFA grew out of the success of the first International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy in 1997, of which Rivka was on the original planning committee. Our meetings were held in Riverdale and she lived in Flatbush. After a few meetings she called to say that she, Honey Rackman, and Susan Aranoff could not come to further meetings because they were busy helping Brooklyn agunot. However, Rivka continued to follow the planning progress. Several days before the conference, she called to say, “The program looks good, but my Flatbush ladies won’t
come—it’s too expensive.” Responding to Rivka’s pressure, we offered a bring-your-own-lunch-and-dinner rate of $40. In three days, registration soared from 482 to 1,400—numbers no one thought possible for a fledgling Orthodox feminist enterprise. Not just her Flatbush ladies, but women from everywhere flocked to an affordable conference, thanks to Rivka’s initiative.

I must add that Rivka loved to offer a critique. It was part of her nature. With great critical insight, she could puncture the balloon of a new idea faster than anyone I knew. Many times I would run an idea past her, knowing that there was an even chance that she would shoot it down. Yet I loved working this way with her and always went back for more, because I understood that her response was an act of pure friendship—to prevent mistakes and wasted energy, to warn of pitfalls. But she did not lock into a position. When one would push back with a defense, Rivka would say, “Well, maybe you’re right.” She would reevaluate her own views and advice. Criticism was about the purity of an idea, not about ego or power. 

It would surprise Rivka to know how much attention she has received since her death, how much she was loved, and how important she was to the entire Jewish community. Last November I called her from Israel to report that within the previous week I had been to three meetings—on WOW, women’s tefillah, and agunot—and at each, her name had been celebrated. She chuckled with surprise at the report and was genuinely pleased—false modesty was, well, false and not suited to Rivka’s straight nature. At the end of the conversation, I said, “Now, remember to share this with your grandchildren.” But I knew she would not.

With all her accomplishments, her family was and remained the center of her life. She was a grandmother par excellence, giving priority to the lives of her children and grandchildren. She took great pride in the accomplishments of her two daughters, Dr. Sheryl Haut and  Tamara Weissman, and sons-in-law, Dr. David Rosenberg and Dr. Seth Weissman. Her six grandchildren were the light of her life, and she felt privileged in her almost daily grandparenting duties. Often, in scheduling a follow-up phone conversation, she would say, “But I can’t talk between 2 and 9 PM because I’m babysitting.” Did she not know that all working grandmothers slip in a few phone calls or hit the Internet on grandparenting time? Not Rivka. This was serious and joyous business, important relationships to build. When Tamara moved to Maryland, Rivka traveled there often by train, with her small dog Shemesh in tow, to visit her grandchildren there.

Her death at age 71 is a blow to our community. Her work in this world will now have to be taken up by others—many others—to replace the void that one woman has left. I now understand that to be one of the meanings of the classic phrase, tehi nishmata tzrura bitzror hachaim—may her life be bound up with the lives of the living, those who will carry on her work.

May the memory of this righteous woman be a blessing for all humanity.


Blu Greenberg is the founder and first president of
JOFA. 

 

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