Feminine Orthodox rabbinics
Formal traditional recognition, which confers the qualifying title, is not a possibility in the Orthodox world for a woman.
Haredi family Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
Bar-Ilan University has decided to confer an honorary doctorate upon Malka
Puterkovsky in a special ceremony to be held on May 22. With no formal rabbinic
training, the Israeli Ms. Puterkovsky has developed into a traditional Orthodox
rabbinic leader. That is, traditional in all ways but one – she is a
The traditional rabbinic leader is recognized publicly for having
acquired deep knowledge of the Talmud, as well as rabbinic responsa and
literature. Many times the leader has gained this recognition due to teaching
Torah in formal or informal educational settings, or through the publication of
writings. This recognition can be crystallized in the form of questions in
Jewish law being posed to the rabbinic leader by private individuals or even
public forums. When the responses to these questions demonstrate erudition
alongside creativity and thoughtfulness, the leader’s reputation spreads
This is a centuries-old natural process.
Puterkovsky has gone through this decades-long process.
However, she is
missing one element – she has never received smicha, rabbinic ordination, which
is ordinarily the first step in the process. Due to the fact that she is a woman
the possibility never even came up. Formal traditional recognition, which
confers the qualifying title, is not a possibility in the Orthodox world for a
woman, and Puterkovsky herself does not seek it. Nevertheless, Bar-Ilan
University has determined that Puterkovsky is indeed worthy of recognition for
her life’s achievements, thus bestowing upon her an honorary
Bar-Ilan University, and its president Prof. Moshe Kaveh,
should be commended for giving recognition to a phenomenon that by and large has
gone largely unnoticed or which is even at times denied by mainstream Orthodoxy.
The phenomenon is that of serious Orthodox women learning Torah, studying Talmud
and gaining proficiency in rabbinic literature and law.
programs of Nishmat’s yoatzot halacha, Women Halachic Consultants, trained in
laws of ritual purity, and Ohr-Torah Stone’s toanot rabbaniot, Rabbinical Court
Advocates, trained in Jewish divorce law and bet din practices, have contributed
learned women to Jewish society. In fact, several of these highly trained
professionals have gone on to increase their breadth of knowledge, acquiring PhD
degrees in various Judaic Studies programs in Bar- Ilan University.
it is not surprising that the first Israeli institution of higher learning to
acknowledge such a woman in a distinguished manner is Bar-Ilan
Its Department of Talmud and Jewish Oral Law has schooled and
granted PhD degrees to a number of such women in the past few years, with its
law school recently adding another female PhD in Jewish Law.
unique combination of academic freedom and critical thinking strongly based on
Jewish tradition has allowed female scholarship in the traditional texts to
Having been a participant and observer for many decades of
women studying Torah, I can state that there is one obvious difference between
the direction of studies one overhears in a beit midrash – study hall –
populated by men to that of one filled with women. The women have a similar
acquisition of the theory, but there is an ultimate practical utilitarianism
added on. It can be compared to studying math theory alone as opposed to then
immediately continuing on to applied mathematics. This can be called the
feminine side of Talmud study.
The feminine “take” continues through the
study of early-day and latter-day responsa of the rabbinic
When a particular woman ultimately is recognized as being
part of the Orthodox Jewish leadership by her students and those who read her
writings, consultations and questions in Jewish law follow. At that point,
practical application of the Jewish legal thinking is natural.
a decade ago, a “rabbi doctor” friend of mine told me that I must go for a PhD
degree in Talmud – for as an Orthodox woman I could not acquire the title
“rabbi” and thus no formal recognition or status. The title “Dr.” in front of my
name could serve in its stead. Little did we know at the time that we stood at
the threshold of an evolutionary process where the formal rabbinic title would
prove to be not an absolute necessity.
Feminine (as opposed to feminist)
Orthodox rabbinics has received its first formal recognition in the form of the
honor bestowed on Malka Puterkovsky for her life’s work. Ken Yirbu – so should
we be blessed in abundance.
The writer has a PhD from Bar-Ilan University
in Talmud and Jewish Oral Law, is a rabbinical court advocate and coordinator of
the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the Council of Young Israel
Rabbis and the Jewish Agency. She is the author of Minee Einayich MeDim’ah on
prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get refusal.