Englewood resident Dr. Monique Katz, sponsor of the Ta Shma: Come and Learn project, said she has always wanted to help make halachic resources available to women so that they might “learn for themselves.”
“Some rabbis may say yes to a question and some may say no,” she said. But, she explained, that doesn’t help a woman understand the rationale behind the answer.
Ta Shma, said Katz, director of radiology at the Irving Pavilion Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, has been created to remedy that situation. The educational initiative -which has already generated two source books – seeks to guide readers through relevant halachic discourses on topics relating to women’s obligations and involvement in ritual life.
A discussion of the two guides, “May Women Touch a Torah Scroll?” and “Women’s Obligation in Kiddush of Shabbat,” will take place at Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah on Dec. 10. The session will be offered as part of the shul’s Isaac Perry Beit Midrash program, said Katz, a member of the synagogue.
Ta Shma is a project of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, which has 500 members in Northern New Jersey, according to a spokesman for the organization.
Devorah Zlochower, author of the guide on touching the Torah and one of the two presenters at the Englewood session, said that the goal of JOFA, founded in 1997, is “to increase women’s participation in the Jewish community and in Jewish ritual life within the bounds of halacha.”
“It’s the dance between feminism and traditional Judaism,” she said.
According to the group’s Website, www.jofa.org, “JOFA is guided by the principle that halachic Judaism offers many opportunities for observant Jewish women to enhance their ritual observance and to increase their participation in communal leadership.”
Zlochower, director of full-time programs and an instructor of Talmud and halacha at the Drisha Institute in New York, has written and lectured widely on topics relating to halacha, feminism, and women’s religious leadership. Together with scholar and teacher Rahel Berkovits, who lectures at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, Zlochower has already led discussions of the two guides.
“We’ve done it in a number of synagogues in New York,” she said. “This is our first time in New Jersey,” she added, noting that she hopes to do a session in Teaneck.
“My generation didn’t have the background to look things up,” said Katz, who serves on the JOFA board, explaining that the goal of Ta Shma is to make information “easily accessible.” While there is a charge for the printed booklets, the two source guides can be downloaded for free at the organization’s Website.
Katz explained that the topics chosen for the source guides are the “most frequently asked questions” received by the organization. For example, she said, divorced or single women have not known whether they are permitted to recite kiddush on Shabbat, when, in fact, they are obligated to do so in the absence of a man.
“We are not looking to be controversial or to push the envelope,” said Katz, stressing that the purpose of Ta Shma is educational. The next two guides will deal with reciting Kaddish and women’s obligations as regards Megillat Esther.
According to the group’s Website, “the guides are designed for everyone – from well- versed scholars and rabbis to lay people and those with a limited Hebrew-language background – and are suitable for individual, havruta [partner study], and class study.”
Katz said she hopes the Englewood session will attract people “interested in learning the ‘whys and hows’ of ritual practice for women – anyone who takes religion seriously and is interested in the background” of ritual practice. “Our shul is into anything that has to do with learning,” she said, explaining that she has dedicated the Ta Shma project to her late father, Jacques Censor, who encouraged her own religious studies.
“He used to say it’s very easy to say that something is forbidden. He would point to his set of the Talmud and say, ‘You see all those books, you need all of those to say you can do something. Saying no is the easy way out.'”
“My father truly believed that the only way I would likely observe halacha would be by understanding the issues behind the rulings and making the determination for myself, rather than by his telling me what to do,” Katz wrote in dedicating the project.
For more information about Ta Shma, call JOFA at (212) 679-8500. For information about the Englewood study session, call the synagogue, (201) 568-1315.