Rivka Haut, considered by many to be the leading grassroots advocate for agunot, or chained women, and a founder of Women at the Wall and the Women’s Tefillah Network, died March 30 of cancer in New York. She was 71.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, and married to Irwin Haut for 37 years until his death in 2001, she co-authored four books: “Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue” (with Rabbi Susan Grossman); “Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site” (with Phyllis Chesler); “Shaarei Simcha: Gates of Joy” (with Adena Berkowitz); and a forthcoming book about agunot, Orthodox women who are refused divorces (with Susan Aranoff).
On Dec. 1, 1988, Haut led prayers and Torah reading at the women’s side of the Kotel, a pivotal moment at the creation of Women at the Wall.
She earned a master’s degree in English literature at Brooklyn College, a master’s in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary, was a daily student of Daf Yomi, and taught rabbinics at Yeshivat Chovivei Torah and the Academy for Jewish Religion.
Berkowitz, her co-author, posted on Facebook that leaving Haut’s funeral, “I was stopped by an older woman with a sheitel. ... With an ache in her voice and soul she said to me, ‘Who will now be there for all the agunot? Rivka is irreplaceable.’”
Berkowitz added, when it came to agunot, “I never ceased to be amazed by her devotion to these most vulnerable women. ... [She is] a living reminder of the challenge within halacha to find a way to free these women. ... Rivka was like Hatzalah [the Jewish emergency ambulance service]. No matter what time of day or night, she was always available to help these women for whom she was seen as the avenue of last resort. She was tenacious, preferring behind the scenes work to the front pages of newspapers.”
Berkowitz continued: “Another woman who had gone through a terrible divorce confided to me that if not for Rivka insisting to accompany her to the bet din [religious court], she couldn’t have made it through. Rivka knew the halachic ins-and-outs and had the learning and tenacity not to leave any stone unturned to help the women who flocked to her door, overtaxed her email and called at all hours.”
At the funeral, Phyllis Chesler, another of Haut’s co-authors, spoke of the joy of learning Torah with Haut, whom she recalled meeting at the founding of Women of the Wall in 1988. “My darling Rivka turned this wild rebel child into a more refined rebel. She taught me gentleness, forgiveness, the importance of putting family first…. Rivka was humble, strong, tireless — a woman who lived her life doing God’s will.”
Said Berkowitz: “Over the few years we worked together on Shaarei Simcha, Gates of Joy, the first liturgical work in the modern era written by Orthodox women, she authored a ‘harachaman’ to be added in Birkat Hamazon, asking that agunot be freed. She insisted that we add to a baby naming ceremony a section for adopted children, something very dear to her.
“Our community has lost not merely a needed resource. It has lost a true treasure.”
Haut is survived by her daughters, Dr. Sheryl Haut and Tamara Weissman, her sons-in-law, Dr. David Rosenberg and Seth Weissman, her grandchildren Ariel, Ayelet, Aaron, Eleanna, Adi and Nitzana, and her sister Arlene Talerman.
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