Rivka Haut, a prominent champion of Orthodox Jewish women fighting for divorce in rabbinical courts and seeking to pray together as a group, died on March 30 in the Bronx. She was 71.
The cause was cancer, her daughter Sheryl Haut said.
In 1980, when she was living in Brooklyn, Ms. Haut organized one of the first public protests in the United States concerning Orthodox divorce, outside a building owned by a man who had refused to give his wife a document known as a get, which is needed for traditional Jewish divorces. Under Orthodox law, only the husband has the power to grant a divorce.
Though Ms. Haut, a teacher and author on Jewish topics, did not question that tradition, she fought to make it easier for Orthodox women to obtain a get through rabbinical courts, where they are known as agunot (pronounced aw-goo-NOTE), Hebrew for “chained women.”
“She took a personal interest in these women and she never even considered turning anybody away,” said Blu Greenberg, the founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Ms. Haut would take calls day and night for decades, helping hundreds of women navigate the often dizzying religious procedures to receive a divorce.
“In many ways she was my conscience and in many ways the conscience of the community,” said Rabbi Dov Linzer, the dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, who leads a daily Talmud study group in which Ms. Haut participated for several years. “She would say to rabbis all over, ‘You’re not doing enough to help these women, and you could be doing more.’ ”
Her aim, he said, was to help women “who were suffering.” It was not, however, to challenge Orthodox Judaism as a political activist, her daughter said.
“Eventually people started to call her a feminist, but she had a pretty traditional role at home,” Sheryl Haut said. “For her it wasn’t about equality between men and women, but about women’s dignity and voice.”
In the late 1970s, Ms. Haut also helped organize, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, one of the first Orthodox women’s prayer groups, with women reading from the Torah scrolls, an activity long reserved for men.
In 1988, while on a flight to Jerusalem for a women’s conference with the American Jewish Congress, she decided to convene the first all-female prayer service with a Torah scroll at the Western Wall, considered one of Judaism’s holiest sites. There, women in the group, wearing prayer shawls, publicly led prayers and read from the Torah.
Their actions drew immediate protests from ultra-Orthodox religious leaders. The demonstration, however, caught the attention of Orthodox women worldwide, and a movement grew under the name Women of the Wall. A group has continued to meet at the site monthly despite continued cries of protest in Israel. Last May, thousands of Orthodox Jews, including women and girls, tried to block members of the group from praying at the wall.
“We did not know — how could we? — that we were beginning a new chapter in the history of Jewish women and prayer, yet we felt the momentous nature of our act,” Ms. Haut wrote in “Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site” (2002), an anthology of essays she edited with Phyllis Chesler. “It was an extraordinary experience for me, combining both public and private prayer at that sacred site.”
Ms. Haut was born Renee Rivka Makowsky in Brooklyn on May 13, 1942, the eldest daughter of Teddy and Esta Makowsky. She attended high school at the Yeshiva of Flatbush.
After graduating from Brooklyn College with a degree in English, Ms. Haut received a master’s in Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, a Conservative Jewish institution, in part because no Orthodox seminaries offered advanced study programs for women, said Tamara Weissman, Ms. Haut’s younger daughter.
She later taught courses at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the Academy for Jewish Religion. She dropped her given English name when she became more involved in advocating on behalf of agunot in the early 1980s.
Besides her daughters, Ms. Haut is survived by a sister, Arlene Talerman, and six grandchildren.
Ms. Haut moved to the Riverdale section of the Bronx after the death in 2001 of her husband, Rabbi Irwin Haut, who was also a lawyer and the author of a book about the agunot.
She was a co-author of several books on Jewish topics. In one, a prayer book titled “Shaarei Simcha: Gates of Joy,” she and Adena Berkowitz included traditional Jewish blessings but also liturgy written by them — the first by Orthodox women to be published in modern times.
“To be involved with writing prayers and creating rituals gave her joy,” Ms. Weissman said.