At a time when Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate is being accused of being rigid and worse, Rabbi David Bigman is offering a different, more “open” vision, especially on issues involving women and pluralism in Israel. Rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa — located on the kibbutz of the same name in Israel’s Gilboa Mountains near Beit She’an — he is perhaps best known for his controversial halachic opinion allowing women to sing in public, contrary to more conservative views on the principle of kol isha. He is also a strong supporter of agunot — women whose husbands refuse to give them a Jewish divorce, or get. He also believes non-Orthodox rabbis ought to be permitted to perform marriages in Israel.
Born and educated in the Midwest, Bigman made aliya in 1976 to Kibbutz Ma’ale Gilboa when he was 22. He eventually cofounded the women’s yeshiva now known as Midreshet Habanot Ein HaNatziv and has been head of Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa since 1995.
On Sunday, Feb. 6, he will speak at Mount Freedom Jewish Center in Randolph. The Orthodox synagogue is led by Rabbi Menashe East, who was ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which promotes “open” Orthodoxy.
Bigman took part in an e-mail exchange with NJJN about his views on a range of topics.
NJJN: Do you think liberal forms of Judaism should be more accepted in Israel?
Bigman: Although I seriously disagree with approaches to Judaism that are not halachic, I think it is imperative that our discourse be free and open without intervention of the state. Therefore, I find no problem with alternative approaches competing with our own. I even espouse allowing marriage ceremonies that are not strictly Orthodox, although arrangements will have to be made to prevent halachic problems that may arise in the future as a result of this pluralistic approach.
NJJN: What do you think are the most important issues with regard to pluralism in Orthodoxy today?
Bigman: On the Israeli Orthodox scene, the most important issue concerning pluralism is the legitimacy of various opinions within halachic Judaism. In spite of the clear ideal of “shivim panim laTorah” — the 70 faces of the Torah — there are those who seem to think that there should be monolithic responses to theological questions, interpretative approaches to traditional sources, and practical halachic issues. The cultural mode of classical Judaism however, is one that greatly respects our source material but allows for a wide range of readings, encouraging intellectual integrity, curiosity, and creativity. There is no reason to be wary of diversity if it expresses itself within the classical mode of halachic Judaism.
NJJN: Your interpretation of the kol isha prohibition — that women may sing in public as long as their singing is innocent and neither intended for sexual stimulation, nor flirtatious — got considerable play in the media. Does your approach reflect a kind of open Orthodoxy or do you see it as a necessary departure from Halacha?
Bigman: Although my halachic response mentions the contemporary needs of our community, the decision was in consonance with our source material. In general, both this sensitivity to the needs of the community and loyalty to sources is the classical mode of Halacha. A halachic response that fails to include these components is a departure from tradition.
NJJN: You have long been a supporter of help for agunot. What can be done about this issue now?
Bigman: The best way to deal with agunot is to establish rabbinical courts that are more sensitive to this problem and will use the halachic means readily available. This is not a problem with the halachic system per se, rather with its practitioners. The State of Israel has provided the rabbinical courts with these means, but unfortunately the courts, for the most part, are wary of using these powers extensively. This is completely different from the situation in the States where halachic courts are not invested with such powers.
NJJN: Do you support women’s rights in other areas, such as reading from the Torah in tallit and tefillin at the Kotel?
Bigman: Instead of talking about women’s rights, I would talk about the importance of participation in all aspects of Judaism and avodat Hashem [serving God]. There is still much to be done and more opportunities to explore within Halacha, and much more participation to be gained.
NJJN: You have been the head of Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa since 1995 and been on the kibbutz for a considerably longer period of time. Have you seen changes in students coming through, and in religious life in general in Israel, over this time?
Bigman: In the early years, students came with a clear sense of obligation to the halachic system but with little appreciation for the diverse aspects of our cultural tradition. Students today come with an awareness and appreciation of all this diversity, from the intellectual rigors of talmudic discourse to the personal quest for authenticity in Hasidut, but tend to have a less developed sense of halachic obligation. This is of course indicative of our era in general, and our educational goal is to instill in our students a commitment to Halacha and enrich their lives through contact with all the aspects of our culture.