‘To Rectify the World You Have to Rectify Yourself’ – Tziporah Heller

An interview with Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, one of the most influential female Torah teacher in the Haredi world, whose eighth book, "Through a Distant Mirror: exploring the paths of women in Tanach" will be out this summer.

Most people would not think of a Haredi Torah teacher as one of the foremost public intellectuals in Israel. The term seems more suited to secular Jewish women of the diaspora. One tends to think of a public intellectual as someone who raises their voice on the most important political questions of the time, whether through the press, in lectures, or even at the barricades. But one should  remember famous examples, such as Rosa Luxembourg or Hannah Arendt, for their contribution to a canon—Luxembourg to Marxist writings, Arendt to Greek and German philosophy—as well as their influence on tens of thousands of students in the case of Arendt within the context of the institution of the university. Either way, thinkers such as these transcended the academy to inform the thoughts and actions of people outside of it.

Seen from this perspective, the designation of Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller as one of the most important female Jewish intellectuals of today is neither a misnomer nor an exaggeration. Heller is quite possibly the most prominent female Torah teacher of her generation, reaching thousands if not tens of thousands of religious women in Israel and in the English-speaking Diaspora through her seminary teaching, online classes, and newspaper articles. Her teachings are an exploration of the canon of Torah and rabbinic scholarship, which she elucidates for the current generation in her own clear and penetrating style. She brings Torah to life primarily but not only to women across the globe. But unlike secular public intellectuals, her interest is not in innovation or in reconceptualizing canonical ideas to the time, but rather in explaining in contemporary language timeless concepts from divine revelation.

Born in Brooklyn, Rebbetzin Heller is a product of the Haredi world of women’s education. She was educated at a Bais Yaakov school in Brooklyn; after moving to Israel in the mid 1960s, she studied at the seminary for religious women of Rabbi Wolf in Bnei Brak. In the early 1970s, she became a teacher at what would become the largest seminary for baalot teshuva (formerly secular women who become Orthodox), Neve Yerushalayim. Today she is a senior faculty member at the Neve Yerushalayim College for Women, principal of the Bnos Avigail seminary on the Neve campus, and a lecturer for the online Jewish college Naaleh.com. Her speciality is textual analysis of Biblical literature and Jewish philosophy, and exploration of the role of women in Judaism. The author of eight books, she is also a weekly columnist for the Hamodia newspaper. Her most recent book, Through a Distant Mirror; exploring the paths of women in Tanach will come out this summer.

Rebbetzin Heller is both disciplined with her time and a disciplined thinker. She conducted this interview by telephone, on the same February morning that I approached her, without preparation or prompt notes. In the Haredi world, the great rabbis and teachers are renowned for their efficient use of time in order to avoid bitul Torah.  Haredi women teachers are no exception. Steeped in Jewish texts and ideas, Rebbetzin Heller answered all my questions with the precision and clarity that characterizes her teaching style. Follow-up questions were likewise conducted over the phone and likewise included Torah passages recited by heart.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: So first of all, thank you very much.  I’d like to start by asking you—if you don’t mind telling us—how many years have you been at Neve Yerushalayim, and what have been the major changes, your own changes and your own journey in terms of your teaching over the years?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: Yes. I’ve been with Neve since its second year, although I took three years off in the middle when I moved up to the north.  And when I returned, I taught first very part-time and then began teaching full-time as I do today.  The reason I took these years off had to do both with the physical distance and also that my children were very young at the time.  And as long as my children went to school and were not really independent, I had the policy of adjusting my teaching schedule so that I would be home when they’re home. So I would teach from the morning until 1:00pm, and only after they matured I began to teach full-time as I do now.

So the difference is between Neve then and Neve now.  Neve began as a tiny grassroots institution. Rabbi Dovid Refson, who is the head of all of the Neve institutions, put an ad in the Jerusalem Post offering teaching to anyone who has limited background in Judaism and wants to learn more.  Six women answered the ad, no men.  He raised money to rent a small apartment in Bayit Vegan; the girls cooked themselves, took care of themselves and teachers came in to teach on a voluntary basis. Over the course of time, Neve grew so much that that sort of a framework was completely out of the question. He began renting an apartment building and from there grew into the school in which we find ourselves now. It has 10 sub-branches, it’s a huge institution.

So how did the students change? Way back when, the students tended to be more serious seekers who took time off from their lives to make a spiritual journey.  Today, the students tend to be young women who are involved in doing what they’re doing; they are either in university, finished university, or are working and taking a limited amount of time out with the clear intent of saying, “This is a time I will give to explore Judaism.”  So it’s a very, very different perspective.

In terms of myself as a person, besides having grown— As it says in the posuk, נָעַר הַיִיתִי וְגַם זַקָנְתִי (“I once was young and now I’m old”). Besides growing older, I also developed a different relationship with the students. At first, I was their age or younger, they were my friends, they hung around my house, they helped me raise my kids.   The students now are still close to me, they come over Thursday night, we cook together, we talk, but it’s a different relationship.  And my relationship to them has become more intellectual, more focused on giving them what they really need to hear, what they want to hear in terms of Judaic study.  My own scholarship has also changed over the years.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: I want to talk about that in terms of Judaic study.  What was the vision of the types of texts and concepts that you were teaching in the beginning, and how has that changed over time?

In terms of what the Neve girls expect, they expect a completely repressed, patriarchal system and they assume I’m going to be justifying the kind of image of women that was popular in Victorian England

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: At the beginning, women were coming for longer periods of time.  I was able to do textual learning with greater intensity.  So we did it using text, Chumash (the Five Books of Moses), the major commentaries; sometimes, I would have them get into the very serious philosophical works in a textual manner.  Today, I’m giving them the same kind of information, the Chumash with its major commentaries, spiced with the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel 1520-1609 CE), Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser 1809-1879 CE), Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon 1135-1205), but there’s much, much less use of text because the time that they’re spending is so much briefer.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: And some of the students in Neve are known for having explored other religious traditions and then finally making their way to Judaism, be it Buddhism or Hindu traditions, et cetera.  Is the discussion of the relationship between Judaism and these other traditions something that happens at Neve or not?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: It happens usually at the very beginning level, which is called Mechina.  However, by the nature of things, as things have changed, the seeker who came to Neve after her trek through India is somebody we see much less frequently.  So there is intellectual rather than experiential curiosity about other traditions. The result is that we speak about it, not only about the Eastern traditions which was once the case, but also about Christianity and various other offshoots of these traditions.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: What is the place of Halacha and of Talmud in your teaching?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: My field of expertise is not Halacha, my students have a Halacha teacher.  In fact, the current Halacha teacher Rabbi Schwab has smicha (“ordination” ) for dayanut (“judgement in a rabbinical court”).  He’s in a position to answer virtually any kind of Halacha question that might arise.  In terms of the study of Talmud, anybody who studies chumash with Rashi or any of the major commenaries, or hears the profound ideas of Maharal as my students do, are learning from scholars whose teaching are part of the Oral Tradition of the Talmud. As I teach them and by the nature of things, this is all oral tradition (Talmud), none of this is the text of the Chumash itself.  I also teach personalities of the Chumash and Neviim (Prophets), which of course requires going to all of the classical texts including the oral tradition.  And as I said, the women today tend to stay anywhere from a few weeks to maybe half a year.  We don’t have the two-year students that we had a while back, so we don’t have people who leave knowing how to go to these kinds of sources on their own.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: You have written about women in the Chumash.  How do you see your message about women in the Chumash in relation to the viewpoints or attitudes that your students might have when coming in?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller:  I’m going to be publishing a book on this topic called Through a Distant Mirror; exploring paths of women in Tanach, which is forthcoming.  And the classes in that book come primarily from the sources I use when teaching in Neve but also out of Neve.  There is a program called Naaleh, which is an online seminary at a very high level—it reaches a very wide spectrum of listeners.  In addition to that, many of concepts  came from articles produced by Naaleh for the Hamodia newspaper, which comes out once a week.  And again it reaches a more limited spectrum—primarily Haredi but not completely Haredi – but these are classes that I’ve given for many different audiences, not just Neve.  In terms of what the Neve girls expect, they expect a completely repressed, patriarchal system and they assume I’m going to be justifying the kind of image of women that was popular in Victorian England, where a woman was depicted as fragile, beautiful and in need of protection, as opposed to the Judaic image which is אֵשֶׁת חַֽיִל, the woman of valor.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: Yes, and then I suppose they come out quite surprised.

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: Yes.  (laughs)

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki:  Could you give us a brief portrait of אֵשֶׁת חַֽיִל (A Woman of Valor), and tell us whether you think that women today are living up to that model, and if so, where?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: So, I’ll give you an example using three verses directly from אֵשֶׁת חַֽיִל, which is a poem.  A Woman of Valor, written by King Solomon, Shlomo, so it’s ancient.  Ancient indeed, close to 3000 years old.  It’s not an apologetic to contemporary feminism.  One verse is “פִּֽיהָ פָּתְחָה בְחׇכְמָה, וְתֽוֹרַת חֶֽסֶד עַל לְשׁוֹנָהּ”: (Her mouth opens with wisdom, and the Torah of kindness is upon her tongue) Here, the Jewish woman is represented as wise, way before people dreamed of women thinking, being literate, being wise, was this.  Her mouth opens with wisdom and the Torah of chessed is on her tongue.

Another one: “קָמוּ בָנֶֽיהָ וַיְּאַשְּׁרֽוּהָ, בַּעְלָהּ וַיְהַלְלָהּ” (Her children will rise and face her and call her blessed and her husband will praise her.)  Meaning, there is an expectation that what she does is significant enough that it deserves to be noticed, it deserves being there. She is not meant to be invisible.

One last one will be “גְּמָלַֽתְהוּ טוֹב וְלֹא רָע, כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיהָ” (Her deeds are good and not bad all of the days of her life.) There is an expectation that she’d will be a doer and that she will be discerning.  So, when you contrast these ideals with the ideals that you would have, let’s say, in a troubadour’s song of a beautiful princess rescued by the noble prince riding his white charger, whose primary role was to be beautiful, passive, and vulnerable, it’s a very different ideal.  So today, as always, the ideals of Eishet Chayil are the ideals of the observant community, because this is what they were brought up to think of as being the ideal for a woman.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: And in terms of your outreach and recruitment, you are located in Jerusalem, the center of Israel, are you interested in reaching a Hebrew-speaking public or younger Israeli women?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: So I do teach in a Hebrew-speaking midrasha (women’s religious seminary) called Netiv Binah. And I have spoken in different places on a one-off basis. I don’t know what that says about me, but honestly most of the people who ask me to come and speak have been English speakers.

The first place that I saw the phrase tikkun olam used in the Jewish sources is Perush (commentary) of the Vilna Gaon’s (Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman 1720-1797 CE) on the Book of Jonah.  He says that the soul descends to this world—these are his words not mine—tikkun atzmi and tikkun olam, rectifying yourself and rectifying the world.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: And if you look at the young women you teach today, where do you think they are most lacking in terms of their understanding of Judaism, or with which issues do you feel there’s the most tension, between how you see the world as presented in the texts and how they might come to you with their world view?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: The most difficult issue with them is the huge gap between halachic standards of behavior on every level and the contemporary reality in the West.  Basic ideas like the centrality of the nuclear family, even some ideas concerning integrity are very much oppositional to the liberal agenda in the eyes of some of the girls.  So this is, if anything, a clash between a liberal agenda and the Jewish agenda which is more family centered, which is more morality oriented. Even the basic idea of Israel being the home of the Jews is sometimes misconstrued. They all come out without having addressed these issues before, but they’re extremely receptive. But they’re coming in with false assumptions sometimes, not always, and these issues have to be addressed with the understanding that they’re coming from a different place, a different narrative.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: And has this changed significantly over your years of teaching?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: Yes, as the students have come with progressively less Judaic backgrounds—which is reflective of the general reality in the West—more of these issues have to be addressed in greater depth.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: And now, there are some people who will say that in the West today, there’s in fact a liberal and a conservative camp and that the conservative camp might come closer to the Jewish perspective. Do you agree with this?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: Both of them are far from the Jewish perspective, but the distance is coming from some opposite poles.  There’s a certain thread of self-preservation and—I want to think of a nice way to put it, just let me think it through for a second…A lack of perceived compassion in the conservative world which sometimes is valid but does not always correspond to the Torah perspective.  Conversely, in the liberal world, the absolute lack of any kind of binding morality is something that raises many more religious questions.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: It’s often said of the liberal Jewish world that there’s a strong interest in what the reform movement calls tikkun olam which is often related to liberal politics and self-described progressive movements.  And I was wondering how you view this, both personally but also in your teaching in relation to the Torah that you teach?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: The first place that I saw the phrase tikkun olam used in the Jewish sources is Perush (commentary) of the Vilna Gaon’s (Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman 1720-1797 CE) on the Book of Jonah.  He says that the soul descends to this world—these are his words not mine—tikkun atzmi and tikkun olam, rectifying yourself and rectifying the world.  The Judaic perspective historically has always been if you really want to rectify the world, you have to rectify yourself.  The goal of having a critical mass of people who are living with generosity, with morality, with integrity, all of which are strong Torah values, has been the way which Judaism is spread.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: And one could say that in the last 10 or 15 years, there’s been a strong increase not only in globalization but also in dialogue between groups and religions. How useful do you see this dialogue, under what conditions should it occur and what would its purpose?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: Neve is a place of dialogue. We have great respect for our students and they have respect for us, otherwise they wouldn’t be here.  My students in Bnos Avigail, which is a Haredi institution that I head simultaneously with teaching at Neve, are 17-18 year-olds who come from Beit Yaakov backgrounds (the Haredi religious school system for girls) who also have great respect for people as people.  We try our best to destroy stereotypical thinking, we try our best to get across the big ideas that are in the classical commentaries—that every Jew under any number of layers still has a core that can never defiled. We aim towards having great respect.  Respect means having the ability to hear.  But what I find sometimes is, and again I don’t want to say that this is categorically true, that when people say “dialogue,” they mean the acceptance of a sort of middle ground between two views.  That isn’t dialogue, that’s creating a new narrative. I think that people could look at the Haredi narrative and say this is a narrative and see it for what it is, rather than expecting it to change on the basis of dialogue.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki:  You’ve described tikkun olam as being primarily about personal rectification. What do you see as the role of the political or the social in Jewish observance?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: As I said, personal integrity and personal morality have to be mirrored by what you are pro or against in your political and social life.  This is my opinion and I believe that this is the opinion of the majority of people in the Haredi camp. What brought about the decline of critical thinking in morality is lack of knowledge. You can’t compare different views when you only know one. So Torah education is the primary mover and shaker when you’re talking about where the Haredi public in general will be—when they come to the ballot box they are pro knowledge.  And we’re living in a society in which Torah knowledge is at a new and abysmal low, such that our grandparents would not be able to believe if they were told.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: And so speaking of Torah knowledge, in some communities there’s a lot of interest in Hasidut (Jewish mysticism).  And I was wondering, what was the place of Hasidut in Neve?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: In Neve, a great deal of Hasidut is taught not necessarily in the form of teaching with the Sfat Emet (a Hassidic commentator called Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter 1847-1905 CE) from a book a text.  But the ideas of Hasidut, the idea of there being worlds beyond this world, the idea of God being unknowable yet contracting his presence into this world through various traits, various ways of hanhaga (action in the world).  All of these ideas are very familiar to the Neve girls.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: There is also, to a certain extent, a canon of the more commonly referred-to commentaries. There’s been a movement by some people recently to look at lesser-known commentators—you know, medieval, again Orthodox, but less well known. I was wondering, where those lesser-known commentators fit in your scholarship, what you think of this approach.

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: So I want you to envision in your mind’s eye a tree.  The tree has roots.  The roots would be the moment that the Torah was revealed to Moshe by G-d on Mount Sinai.  The trunk of the tree is the scholarship that had to be written down, apart from the five original books and books of prophecy. And they were written down in two major, major works.  One is called  called mishneh, and the second gemara   These, together, are called Talmud.  Anything that’s serious about the Jewish tradition will come basically from there.  That’s what’s closest to the roots.  Later, other books come forth from them, not as commentaries but as segments of the oral tradition that were written down somewhat later, such as the Zohar and some of the other early kabbalistics.  So what we have is mishneh, gemara, and midrash and some of the kabbalistic ones.  Those are the core.  This is the trunk.

These books are not easy reads.  As scholarship diminished, for many reasons, basically persecution, as it distanced one big Jewish community from another, major branches came forth from the trunk.  So we have one era, the earliest era that extends beyond that, that was called the era of the Rabbanan Sabora (5th century CE): the middle rabbis, the ones who were still close to the Talmudic Era, but were branching out to make things more comprehensible and easier for the people with whom they lived.  The subsequent era is called the era of the Gaonim  the geniuses (6th-10th century CE).  We’re talking about up to the ninth century, tenth century.  And from there, you have what you call the early scholars.   Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040-1105 CE) was an early scholar.  Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon 1135-1204 CE) was an early scholar.  And at this point, scholarship was living in many places, in Eastern Europe, in Middle Europe, in Northern Africa, in Yemen.    The function of the Rishonim (literally “the first ones,” or scholars from 11th to 15th centuries CE) was to clarify and codify the earlier works going all the way back to the midrash, Mishnah, Talmud.

After that, you have the era which is called the era of the Acharonim (literally “the later ones” from the 16th to 19th centuries CE).  As scholarship diminished even further, there was the need to write more, to explain things that would have been a given in Rashi’s time.  Rashi, who set his job as being a simplifier, would give his explanations coming from the Talmud with a 5-year-old sitting before him, to see if what he was saying could be understood by a non-scholar.  But today, our basic lack of information is so huge and our lack of ability to trace Rashi back to his Talmudic sources is so genuine that there are many commentators who write on Rashi.  So these commentators are going to be some of the late Rishonim, the early Acharonim, this is where scholarship comes from.

A basic rule of thumb is that the more well known a scholar is, such as Rashi, Rambam—the reason why they gained their reputations was because what they said had the two main qualities that we look for, which are serious sourcing and logic holding it together.  So Rambam, for instance, who didn’t present his sources, other commentators who came after him will find the source of virtually everything he wrote in the Talmud.  It’s there.  So when you have very obscure writings, sometimes their function is to clarify things still further.  Sometimes, though, the original ideas or conclusions, the lesser-known scholars felt really more authentically part of the text.  So basically, any comment that you have has some level of genuine possibility if, again, it can be sourced and it’s logical.

So, sometimes you have scholarships that are presented theoretically; that is to say it’s not meant to bring a halachic, meaning a legal decision, but to present different ways of focusing upon a given problem.  So this is what later scholarship is about, and that’s where the more obscure scholarship that you sometimes hear of will be coming from.  Still later, and again, and this takes us all the way until today, you have people who are taking existent ideas, clarifying them, giving you their take on them, and simplifying.  This would include the Chassidic world, which does this with the kabbalistic work.  This will have to do with some of the kabbalistic works written by the non-Chassidic thinkers such as the Leshem (Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv 1841-1926 CE).  This would include the works of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman 1720-1797 CE).

When you have a virtual unknown suddenly popping up on the scene, your first questions are: What are his sources? What’s his logic?  What you occasionally find … and I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with research,( I have a program that’s called Otzar HaHochma that gives you access to over 99,000 books.) you may have trouble coming to grips with the serious nature of say a quote from Rambam, and last week’s edition of Torah Tidbits.  If you don’t know very much, (and I’m far, far from being a real scholar) you may not have the tools to do the sourcing, or the feel for tradition that is the result of hundreds of years of serious scholarship. So there are people whose scholarship is so limited that they don’t know what they don’t know,, and they quote every source as being equal to every other source, which could present a problem.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki:  And what is your view on teaching classic thinkers versus more modern ones?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: So in terms of classics or newer teachings, unlike science where one thing builds on the other so today’s discoveries are better than discoveries of a hundred years ago, the goal of Torah is to get to the core truths about the soul, about morality, about integrity, about living in society—these ideas were given over at Mt. Sinai.  So the purpose of there being new books is to have these big ideas in language and narrative, that the modern reader can understand and relate to, but it’s not to rewrite the Torah.

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki: I have one last question.  Is there is a specific Torah adage or quotation or pasuk that is particularly dear to you, or that you think is particularly important for this generation of Jews or even of people globally?

Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller: Everybody has their own type.  I’m going to choose a pasuk that’s very familiar to many of your readers.  “שְׁמָע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְ-הֹוָה אֶ-לֹהֵינוּ יְ-הֹוָה אֶחָד Hear, Israel, Hashem (The name, the word used instead of the tetragrammaton by religious Jews) is our G-d, Hashem is one.  It contains so many big declarations.  Hear—that means, Hashem addresses Himself to us.  He can be heard and understood to some degree.  We are, after all, only human.  He’s our G-d.  Now, of course He’s everyone’s God.  He also has a defined and specific relationship, historically and presently, with the Jewish people.  And He’s one, which means everything you’ll ever see, pain, hear, touch, is a manifestation of Hashem.  There’s no place where He isn’t.  There’s no place where you could say, this is a dark hole.  Wherever you look, He is.  If things are dark, then they’re there to challenge you.  If they’re beautiful, they’re there to inspire you, but everything is a manifestation of Hashem.

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