Gila Fine: Teaching Talmud with a twist

Gila Fine’s interpretations of the Talmud are kind, inspiring, and relatable for modern women. Let’s hope the men are on board.

 Fine lecturing in Jerusalem (photo credit: COURTESY GILA FINE)
Fine lecturing in Jerusalem
(photo credit: COURTESY GILA FINE)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Just over 2,000 years ago, the Talmud tells us, a widow named Homa petitioned Rava, who was sitting in judgment. “Grant me an allowance of board [food],” she requested, and he agreed. But he vetoed her allowance of wine, on the grounds that Abaye, her late husband and his study partner, did not drink. “By the life of the Master,” she objected, “he would give me to drink in horns as large as this.” As she demonstrated the generous size of her late husband’s beakers, her arm was uncovered, and a light shone upon the court.

The Talmud relates that Rava, instantaneously aroused by a glimpse of her gorgeous body, rushed home to his wife for relief. Rav Hisda’s daughter, unused to noontime dalliances, did not greet him with delight. “Who was in the court just now?” she snapped, presumably keeping her own body under wraps. 

“Homa, the wife of Abaye,” he admitted.

The wife, singularly unimpressed that Rava had come to the connubial couch instead of doing a Harvey Weinstein, grabbed the nearest implement and ran after the hapless widow, striking her with a lock of a chest until she chased her out of all Mehoza. “You have,” she said, “already killed three men and now you come to kill another!” (Ketubot 65a).

We never hear of Homa again. 

 Fine sits next to Rabbi Sacks as he delivers a speech in Jerusalem. (credit: COURTESY GILA FINE) Fine sits next to Rabbi Sacks as he delivers a speech in Jerusalem. (credit: COURTESY GILA FINE)

A new interpretation of Talmudic tales

This would seem to be another chauvinistic Talmudic tale about the perils of sexuality and immodest dress. But Gila Fine, another beautiful Jewish woman, is spreading her own kind of light about Talmudic stories like this. Born in London, Fine made aliyah with her parents when she was two, grew up in the Shomron, and has lived in Jerusalem since her National Service at age 18. 

“I grew up in a staunchly right-wing Modern Orthodox community,” she explains, “and women were certainly not allowed to study Talmud.” Fascinated by the taboo, and full of questions which she believed the Talmud could answer, she took her father’s tome down from the shelf and waited for a lightning bolt to strike her. “I was filled with a real sense of transgression,” she recalls, “but also still fascinated by that world.”

After her National Service stint, Fine studied at a women’s seminary and discovered the new trend of women studying and teaching the Talmud. “But Talmud tore me down,” she admits. “Meeting the imperfections, trivialities, and wide range of human conversation in a text I had always been taught was divine was very shocking.” She stayed on for a second year, hoping to find answers in study and then carry on with her life. Instead, she spiraled into an intense religious crisis that lasted a number of years and led to serious questioning of religion and the place of women in Judaism. Then, a degree in English literature at the Hebrew University led to a peace treaty with the Talmud – “Shakespeare, Wilde and Bronte were my way into the literary masterpieces of Talmudic stories; exquisitely crafted, intensely stylized worlds of drama that are held together in three short lines.”

Shakespeare, Wilde and Bronte were my way into the literary masterpieces of Talmudic stories; exquisitely crafted, intensely stylized worlds of drama that are held together in three short lines.”

Gila Fine

Religion has traditionally banned women from the Talmud, despite classic rabbinic debate on the matter. One view held that Talmudic study would lead daughters into promiscuity; the other advocated for teaching daughters the Talmud. Traditional societies intuit correctly that empowering women endangers the social structure, claims Fine; and historically, this led to excluding women from Talmud. It was not until the 1970s that female learning exploded. Trailblazing female scholars have enabled thousands of women now to “do the Daf” and study Talmud even every day. 

Fine is fast becoming one of the most fascinating teachers in the field. Her methodology includes close reading, context, and the exercise of empathy. Thus, for example, she dissects the well-known story of a tyrannical older rabbi and an aggressive student arguing in a beit midrash. The Rav turns out to be old and feeble and desperately trying to hold on to his former self; the student has a facial blemish that makes him vulnerable. “These narratives are often deliberately misleading,” Fine says. “We need to be incredibly sensitive to each word so we can unpack the meaning.” The reason for this, she believes, is to teach readers to be careful when they dissect “reality.” The very act of reading Talmudic stories makes us into better individuals: more humble, more moral, more understanding. 

Fine’s chidush (originality) is that she searches for recurring archetypes throughout history and across cultures – in Greco-Roman and Persian cultures, for example, as well as ancient myths and medieval folklore and modern fiction and film – and analyzes how rabbis sometimes adopted and adapted these stories for their own reasons. Archetypal analysis is based on Jung’s theory that every culture works through primal feelings by telling stories; this applies to stories in the Talmud as well. Universal themes include fighting the angel of death; sleeping for long stretches and waking to a different world; or falling for dangerously beautiful women. The fascinating part is comparing Rip Van Winkle’s reaction to his new reality and that of the Talmud’s Honi, who slept for 70 years. 

Fine is a wildly popular lecturer at Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies, the London School of Jewish Studies, the Nachshon Leadership Program for young Americans (in conjunction with the Hebrew University) and more, and a sought-after speaker at conferences and synagogues around the globe. She regularly Zooms with groups from North America to Asia, equally delights seasoned scholars and first-time students of Talmud, and happily embraces a broad spectrum of listeners of all ages and religious beliefs (or non-beliefs). 

Fine does not focus on the legalities found in the Talmud, steering away from the more sensationalist halachic discussions of how large a woman’s breasts have to be before they are considered reasonable grounds for divorce or how many pubic hairs constitute sexual maturity, concentrating instead on the sparse, telling tales of the Talmud and how they should be read. 

As for the fabulous flesh under Homa’s sleeve, Fine, who uses modest language to discuss even the Talmud’s most salacious stories, explains that the fear of unbridled sexuality was over-riding. The rabbis were less reticent. Some believed it could lead unhinged individuals to utilize donkeys for satisfaction. Homa can be seen as an archetypal femme fatale – a Delilah figure or a siren – traditionally captivating a man who falls victim to her beauty. But if we consider the context, Fine claims, and the characters who appear in other stories, we can extrapolate that the rabbis wanted to teach us the dangers of being judgmental and of ostracizing innocent victims. Homa is “a deeply tragic woman, grossly mistreated by the community,” she says, “and the rabbis wanted us to understand this.”

Who knows what the Talmudic sages really thought about Rav Hisda’s daughter beating the living daylights out of a beautiful single woman who had a wardrobe malfunction in her husband’s court. But one thing is certain: Fine’s interpretations are kind, inspiring, and relatable for modern women. Let’s hope the men are on board.  ■