Feminine Orthodox rabbinics

Formal traditional recognition, which confers the qualifying title, is not a possibility in the Orthodox world for a woman.

Haredi family 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi family 311
(photo credit: 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 woman.
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 further.
This is a centuries-old natural process.
Malka 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 doctorate.
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.
The Israeli 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.
So, it is not surprising that the first Israeli institution of higher learning to acknowledge such a woman in a distinguished manner is Bar-Ilan University.
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.
Bar-Ilan’s unique combination of academic freedom and critical thinking strongly based on Jewish tradition has allowed female scholarship in the traditional texts to flourish.
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 literature.
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.
Well over 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.