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  • In Memoriam:Chana Safrai (1946–2008), Friend And Colleague
  • Naomi G. Cohen (bio)

Chana Safrai (1946–2008) was a friend, a colleague and a kindred soul. At a time when it was a matter of consensus that feminism, by any name, was politically incorrect in the Orthodox world, we stood together. Though our stance on several important issues differed, what made us kindred souls was our firm conviction that the realm of serious Torah scholarship is sine qua non—the foundation upon which our world, feminist and otherwise, would stand.

Chana had a rich life, and she made significant contributions to society in many spheres. She was an educator, an academician, an interfaith activist, a family person and a good friend to many people—but, first and foremost, she was a feminist.

Chana once said, "Behind every feminist of my generation is a feminist father." It was her father, Shmuel Safrai, Professor of Talmud and Second Temple Judaism at the Hebrew University, who taught Chana to swim in the "Sea of the Talmud." He encouraged her in her intellectual endeavors, particularly in the traditional Jewish curricula normally reserved for boys: Talmud and Midrash. She and her brother, Prof. Ze'ev Safrai of Bar-Ilan University and Kevutzat Yavne, were both imbued with an unquenchable thirst for the study of rabbinic literature, in which father, son and daughter all were/have been immersed for a significant part of their professional lives.

Chana was born and raised in the Haredi neighborhood of Etz–Hayyim, in a Jerusalem that no longer exists, though its flavor lingers in my recollection. Her family had its roots, on her father's side, in the rich Jewish soil of Eastern Europe, and on her mother's in German Jewry. Hence, her parents took the natural step of sending her to the Horeb School, whose founders were suffused with the values of "Torah with derekh Eretz," the humanistic religious [End Page 197] doctrine espoused by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the nineteenth-century leader of German Jewish Orthodoxy.

After high school, Chana did a form of National Service when this was still in its infancy, before it became an institutionalized alternative to military service for religious girls. She went on to study at the Hebrew University, majoring in classics and Jewish history and eventually branching out into Jewish philosophy. She taught at the Hebrew University for several years while working on her doctorate, but left when she was asked to organize the Judith Lieberman Institute for the study of Talmud—the first school for women to place Talmud study at the center of its curriculum.

As with so many "firsts," there is an interesting story behind this appointment. The renowned Talmud scholar Prof. Saul Lieberman wished to create a memorial to his beloved and esteemed wife, Judith Lieberman. He and his good friend R. Ya'akov Vainstein, head of the Ramot Shapira educational compound in the Jerusalem hills, called a meeting to discuss his proposal for a school for the education of women. Several women, including myself, were invited.

After various possibilities had been put forward, I had the temerity to suggest: If Prof. Lieberman really wanted to do something pioneering, how about establishing an institution where women could seriously study Talmud? Prof. Lieberman lit up at the idea. It fell to me, as the author of the proposal, to look for someone appropriate to create and head the novel institution.

At the time, Chana Safrai was one of the very few women in Jerusalem—or anywhere else, for that matter—who could study Talmud independently, and had some experience in the field of education. I turned to her and convinced her to accept the challenge. She then received a formal invitation from Rabbi Vainstein, and the rest is history.

Later, Chana became the Acting Principal of the Pelech high school for girls in Jerusalem, under the aegis of Prof. Alice Shalvi, founder of the Israel Women's Network. In view of her manifold other activities, Alice gave Chana a free rein in running the school. Here lay a similar challenge, for Pelech was the first religious girls' high school in Israel, outside of the Religious Kibbutz Movement, where...


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