When she was a teenager growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, Malke Bina read Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Yentl," about an Eastern-European girl in the early 1900s who disguises herself as a boy in order to pursue her passion for Torah learning. The story had an interesting effect: It made her wonder what it would be like to do something similar. Little did she know that the seeds for what she would be doing later in life had been planted.
What she did know - or assume - was that dressing up as someone she wasn't for the sake of studying would not have gone over big in her household or her community. Not that Torah learning was forbidden to her. On the contrary, says Bina - who founded Israel's first beit midrash (study hall) for women - she recalls lovingly how her father, a rabbi, used to "learn with" her. Still, adds the 58-year-old director of MaTan - the Sadie Rennert Women's Institute for Torah Studies, that is kicking off its 20th-anniversary celebration with a gala dinner tonight - there were limits to the kind of knowledge an Orthodox female had access to.
Bina never thought such limitations on learning made sense. "God gave us the Torah," she emphasizes, during an hour-long interview at her office in Jerusalem's Katamonim neighborhood. "And he wants all of us to learn it."
Escorting me from her office down the stairs to the auditorium, where a standing-room-only crowd of women are attending a seminar, Bina smiles proudly and asks whether she may "toot her own horn."
"These women," she says, looking fondly at the massive crowd of 20- and 30-somethings in modest attire, listening attentively to a member of their gender give a shiur at the podium, "take for granted what I as a young girl could only dream about."
But dreaming about it wasn't all Bina did, given the result: an Israel-based international organization boasting thousands of members, with elite bilingual beit midrash and advanced scholars' post-high-school programs abounding and ever-expanding, a Web site, newsletter and plans for outreach to less advantaged populations.
"That's the beauty of MaTan," Bina waxes poetic about the "baby" she says was born out of her own personal desire to delve into talmudic texts and commentaries - an endeavor that began in the living room of Lilly Weill (long-time chairwoman of the board, and among the honorees of the dinner). "It's exciting that we were able to create a new, mainstream reality."
Indeed, so mainstream has this reality become that since the establishment of MaTan in 1988, dozens of similar institutions have sprung up in this country. Furthermore, Bina explains, when it first started out, the ratio of English-speaking students to native Hebrew-speakers was about 50-50, and now there is a majority of the latter.
As for how she is received and perceived in the Orthodox world, including that of her husband, Aaron, who heads a yeshiva, Bina - a mother of five and grandmother of 15 - shrugs and says she has no complaints. "But you know, I have good motives and they come across. I'm neither threatening nor out to compete with anybody."
Do you consider yourself an Orthodox feminist?
I'm always a little hesitant about the word "feminist," because, along with many positive connotations, it has a certain negative one.
Negative in what way?
In the sense of women's having to prove ourselves as women, and having to do everything just as well as men - losing a certain femininity. But if you interpret feminism as women's wanting to use all their talents, being focused on and accomplishing important things in the world, then I'm all for that, because it's a positive phenomenon, which I try to be a part of. My founding of MaTan came about because I saw where things were missing for Jewish women. I felt the level of Torah learning for women was not up to what it should be. I thought that women should not only go into the beit midrash, but create one, as well. So I just went about and did it.
You say the level of Torah learning for women was not at the level it should be. Did you come to this sense after moving to Israel, or had you also felt this way in the United States?
I'd have to say it applied to Jewish life in general, not merely to Israel. Up to age 17 and a half, when I unofficially made aliya, I was in what you could call a more haredi environment: I attended a Beis Yaakov school. And though we had very fine Bible and Hebrew studies, in addition to Shakespeare and math, it was when I started doing more serious studies in the michlala [post-high school seminary] after coming to Israel that I began asking, "If a woman can do x, in terms of Torah studies, why can't she also do y?" But everyone told me that women can do just so much. I never understood why there had to be limits on learning.
Both during high school - when my father, who was a rabbi, learned with me - and through my studies in the michlala, I felt a certain depth in Torah. I also felt that if the Rambam [Maimonides] wrote that for a person to get shlemut [spiritual wholeness] he needs to study and understand Torah in a fuller way, that included women. So I made a survey, and looked into the different sources. What I found, from earlier periods, was about how things began slowly to change for women as they began leaving their homes [to work]. In fact, there was a famous psak [ruling] of the Hafetz Haim [Rabbi Yisrael Meir of Radin, 1838-1933] about this. You know, in earlier generations, women were not allowed to learn in certain situations, and knowledge was optional for them. But now, because women were leaving the home and needed more knowledge, it was imperative that they learn. The only question was what they should learn.
When I first got my humash [the Five Books of Moses] in kindergarten, my grandmother started crying. I asked, "Bubbie, bubbie, why are you crying? Aren't you happy?" And she said, "I'm happy for you, but I'm crying because I didn't have this opportunity. When I was a young girl, I wanted to learn, and I begged my father to let me learn with my brothers' melamed - tutor - but he wouldn't let me. He said, 'You're a girl, and girls don't learn.'"
As a result, many women in my grandmother's generation who didn't learn - including her own sisters - really lost touch with Jewish traditions.
What made you work toward opening up Torah learning to women, as opposed to rejecting it altogether, like shunning a club that doesn't want you as a member?
I often think about that question. The answer is that I like the learning. Torah is the word of God and the prophets, on which our traditions and our lives are based. And we should know it.
Is there no slippery slope here? Once you're allowed to learn Torah, why not be allowed to read from it on the bima of the synagogue? As you yourself say about women's learning and its limitations, other streams of Judaism have said the same thing about women's full participation in the services. What makes your Orthodoxy different? Where and how do you draw the line?
The line I draw is at Halacha. There are rabbinic authorities according to whose rulings and guidance my husband and I live. And recently there have been a lot of rabbinic responsa that do allow for and encourage more beit midrash-type learning for women.
This is the 20th anniversary of MaTan, which you founded and for which you undoubtedly had to fund-raise. Did you encounter resistance or disapproval from your community?
Not from the community that I was a member of, for the most part. I mean, we've always been friends with some people who might not have approved fully of what I was doing. But look, I'm not the type who arouses antagonism. I think that a person should think through what he's doing and not be impulsive. Which is why I don't recruit students from Geula or Mea She'arim, for example. Those are not the people whom MaTan is for. They have their own institutions that teach women, and I think they're on a higher level than what they used to be 20 or 30 years ago, as well. The same goes for fund-raising. I only approached those people I knew felt that it was important for women to be more actively learning.
At MaTan, we have the more modern-Orthodox population, as well as a growing number of secular Jews.
What's important to note is that MaTan was the first full-fledged beit midrash for women. Since then, another 15 to 20 have been established. And I think that men's learning has been influenced by the fact that more women are learning.
Do you think women have a better ability to take this kind of learning, and think about it in terms of their own lives than men do?
Yes, and analyze it psychologically. At the same time, women also have the technical, legalistic skills. Maybe men have a bit more of those kinds of skills, but they now want to include psychological analyses. In other words, there's been a kind of cross-pollination or -fertilization - so everyone's gained from it.
How similar or different is all this from your original vision?
I really never had an original vision. I liked learning. I wanted to go into teaching. I liked the Torah texts. I wanted to inspire other women. I thought that women had the same genes as men, and that they could teach well and on high levels. I was a little disappointed that at the michlala, of the 30 teachers, 29 were men. It just didn't make sense to me that there weren't women teaching Torah at the higher levels. And how did men get to where they are? They sat themselves down and they studied. They developed their skills and their ability to analyze and compare. I knew that if women did the same thing, we would also reach those levels.
One of your better-known programs is the bat-mitzva course. What is special about it?
It's called "Jewish Women through the Ages." To prepare for the bat mitzva, mothers and daughters attend together, to experience a value and learn about Jewish women personalities, historical and contemporary, showing women as a source of strength for the Jewish people, and posing the question of which woman participants feel they are more like: Deborah or Hannah?
Which of those role models do you yourself most identify with?
You know how a Jew always answers a question with another question? [She laughs] Well, my question is may I give both as my answer?
I consider both to be role models, each in a different way. Deborah is the public leader, the teacher, the woman who knew Torah, who judged the nation and inspired the people when they went to war. Hannah was more introspective - a woman praying to God for a child and then being able to give the child to God. She was a leader in a quiet way. Our prayer today, 3,000 years later, is modeled after Hannah's prayers for her child, Samuel. So, the two types of role models for women are important. The point is that you should be who you are, whether it's a Deborah or a Hannah.
Speaking of women leaders, how much do politics come into play in the beit midrash? How many comparisons are made between women in the Bible and modern-day ones, such as Tzipi Livni?
The comparisons arise, but we don't talk about politics, per se.
What about discussions on political-halachic issues, such as abortion or the fate of agunot?
We tend to shy away from the political side of the issues, and focus on the halachic aspect - in a learning environment. But where we can help in terms of the scholarship on these issues, we certainly do.
What's your position on women's becoming dayanot [rabbinical court judges]? If Deborah was one of your role models, and she was a judge, why not the women who study at MaTan?
There's a principle in Jewish law that says "kablei alei" - behaviors and practices need the acceptance of the masses and rabbinic leaders before they can be legal. Now, it's true that we're at the point at which women are more learned, knowledgeable and capable, but we don't yet have the consensus for us to be dayanot.
Do you anticipate a time when there will be such mass consensus?
I would hope so. The Jewish people sought Deborah's help, because of her knowledge and ability to lead them. Right now, I don't know if there are enough people coming to a particular woman like that, or whether there are enough rabbinic leaders who would accept it if there were. My idea is that women should always be learning at the highest level, and that people can ask them questions individually. We should be ready for when the day comes. But even during Deborah's time, most of the judges were men. She was the exception to the rule. Still, there was a consensus about her and what she was doing. And right now, we're still working towards that.
What you have to realize, though, is that there is a crucial role women can play today, in spite of the restrictions. Though my father was a rabbi, where I saw him being extremely effective was as a rebbe - which is a little different from being a rabbi. A rebbe is more like being a mentor, a teacher, a guide, a spiritual nurturer. And those are things that there's no problem with a woman being. She might not be called a "rebbe," but she's basically being one.
Isn't that traditionally the role of the rabbi's wife, the rabbanit?
Yes, but where MaTan has made a difference is in how knowledgeable such a woman is - that she not only has the social-nurturing skills, but the Torah knowledge, as well.
Do people approach you, instead of your husband, for Torah guidance?
In some cases, where I've done the research, yes. This is not different from men. There are cases in which my husband says, "This I can answer, and this I can't."
And sometimes my husband's students will phone, and if he's not at home, they'll ask me what I say about a certain issue.
Do you and your husband argue over points of Halacha?
Sometimes, but we usually see eye-to-eye. My husband's really been an angel and very supportive throughout. In fact, once I suggested that maybe my activities weren't so good for him as the head of a yeshiva. I asked whether it seemed that his wife was learning too much Gemara, and that maybe it's not God's will. His response was: "Who knows what God's will is? You're doing important things and bringing so much Torah to the Jewish people, that I think it's God's will. It also makes you more interesting."