Torchlighter Malka Puterkovsky: A trailblazer for religious women

The pioneering author, teacher and lecturer prefers to remain modest despite her accomplishments.

April 20, 2015 12:29
Malka Puterkovsky

Malka Puterkovsky. (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/MAARIV)

Malka Puterkovsky wrote a book on Halacha. She taught Talmud to female students and was the head of a women’s religious studies seminary. She’s also toured the country giving lectures to Jews of all backgrounds on sensitive religious topics.

But behind the modest pioneer’s accomplishments, achievements and sometimes controversial rulings in the world of Talmud and Jewish law, hides someone who simply enjoys exploring everything the Torah has to offer.

“I just loved studying,” the 51-year-old mother of five told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview. “I never had any grand goals. I never said, ‘Okay, I want to be the chief rabbi of Israel. What do I need to do now?’ First and foremost, I just wanted to study.”

In recognition of these efforts, Puterkovsky is one of the 14 Israelis chosen this year to light a torch at the official ceremony marking the conclusion of Remembrance Day and the commencement of Independence Day on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl.

According to the torchlighters’ ceremony panel, Puterkovsky is “a women’s lecturer and teacher who is a unique trailblazer in the world of Halacha and Talmud, subjects reserved not long ago solely for men.”

While she doesn’t deny her work in the world of religion can be classified as feminist, Puterkovsky says she draws her strength from a more general nationalistic obligation – that all Jews are responsible for one another.

On many occasions, the Tekoa resident receives phone calls from people who have stumbled their way into the realm of Halacha, a world that, at times, she says, has become completely disconnected from reality.

Puterkovsky describes the example of religious youth who confide in their spiritual leaders that they have homosexual desires. The rabbis’ solution today, she says, is to send these kids to “conversion therapy – get married and everything will be okay.”

“That type of answer lacks integrity – both intellectually and according to Halacha,” she says. “What really hurts is that the rabbis are saying that they chose to be homosexuals.”

When offering a halachic ruling to others, Puterkovsky says she knows she isn’t bound to any religious authority. All she wants to do is hear the problem and help out. But that doesn’t mean she plans on turning Orthodox Judaism into a religious free-forall.

“At the end of the day,” Puterkovsky says, “I’m only afraid of two things – God and the mirror. The verse that I’m always thinking about is ‘I keep my eyes always on the Lord’ [Psalms 16]. How can I lie to God and to myself? I can’t be hypocritical.”

These types of issues – along with many more controversial and groundbreaking ones – are the subject of Puterkovsky’s “work of art,” a 750-page book of responsa, which she published last year after working on the manuscript for a year-and-a-half.

The title of her book, Mehalechet Bedarka, (Walking on Her Path – Life Challenges From a Halachic and Moral Perspective), sums up the teacher’s values and courage when it comes to making halachic decisions that might be unpopular among the generation’s rabbinic leaders.

Yet, amid all the attention the media has given Puterkovsky in recent months, she is quick to point out that any success the public deems she has achieved should be attributed to her upbringing.

Her parents, Holocaust survivors, instilled in their children a great sense of Zionism and love of the land and the people. They decided to settle the wilderness, opting to move to Ashdod when the city was still in its infancy.

It was Puterkovsky’s father, born to a haredi family in Hungary, who introduced the young Malka to the world of Torah. “I would watch my father studying, and I saw how he had this special look on his face and a special glow in his eyes,” she says. “He was so immersed in the world of Torah, and it just interested me so much.”

Her father started teaching her the basics of the weekly Torah portion, eventually moving up into the world of Talmud, which back then was exclusive to men.

When Puterkovsky received the news about lighting the torch for Independence Day – after she was convinced it wasn’t one of her sons playing a trick on her – she thought about her parents, who were so connected to the Torah and to the Land of Israel.

“I thought to myself that it’s kind of sad that they won’t be able to see me light the torch, but I know that they’re looking down on me and will be with me in spirit,” she says. “They deserve this honor.”

After her family moved to Jerusalem, Puterkovsky enrolled in Pelech, a high school for religious girls, known for being one of the first institutions in the country to teach women Talmud, and a leader in the Orthodox Judaism feminism movement.

She served as soldier-teacher in the army, later receiving a bachelor’s degree in Talmud, Jewish history and philosophy at Bar-Ilan University. Puterkovsky returned to Pelech as a teacher in 1988, subsequently becoming the head of the women’s seminary at Midreshet Lindenbaum and its Halacha program, all the while earning her master’s degree in Talmud from Tel Aviv University.

Puterkovsky, who lights up when speaking about the rich world of rabbinic literature, also helped found the Takana Forum, a national-religious organization that deals with sexual abuse treatment, and she is also a member of Mavoy Satum (Dead End), which aids women whose husbands have refused to grant them a religious divorce.

While she still teaches Talmud today, she is mainly occupied by the lectures she gives nationwide. She speaks in communities across the country to both religious and secular audiences – and everything in between.

All she hopes is that those who come to hear her speak have a desire to learn. In return, she does her best to give them something new to think about each time. Part of Puterkovsky’s teaching philosophy is to renew as much as she can. She uses a lesson plan only twice before approaching the exact same segment of the Talmud or rabbinical literature with different techniques.

“I’m always thinking to myself: What other ways are there for me to teach this?” Puterkovsky, whose favorite Talmudic tractate is always the one that she’s currently studying and teaching, is also interested in making a change in the way rabbinical adjudicators think. She imagines establishing a kollel that will operate very differently from the Chief Rabbinate’s scholarly institutions.

Instead of a focus on obtaining a wide breadth of religious studies to receive rabbinical ordination, the focus would be on halachic reasoning – to understand how a rabbinical adjudicator thinks. Students will study and complete assignments in psychology, sociology and economics – among other areas of concern relevant to the realm of Halacha – to understand that when someone approaches them with a halachic query, the solution has to be more than just a black-and-white answer from the legal codes of the Shulchan Aruch or Mishna Berura.

Citing the type of students that she wants in her school, Puterkovsky recalls an exemplary decision that renowned Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach made during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Seeing that the nurses could barely handle the needs of wounded soldiers in the hospitals, the head of Jerusalem’s Kol Torah yeshiva told his students that now is the time to close the Talmuds and go visit the wounded.

“I want a mensch,” she says. “[Auerbach] is the paragon of this type of behavior. He was a true man of the Torah.”

Puterkovsky still has a long way to go in achieving such a lofty goal, but she hopes that once the entire nation sees her light an Independence Day torch, there will be an increased desire for genuine and sincere worship of God.

“Hopefully this will be a torch that will lead the way for all of what we believe in.”

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