Malka Puterkovsky, Ronit Irshai and a New Era for Israeli Jewish Religious Feminism

by Professor David Ellenson

September 19, 2016

Judaism in Israel is often viewed as a monolith, and attention is all too often paid only to conflicts surrounding religion and state. The American and world press and media frequently focus on issues surrounding the monopoly enjoyed by the Chief Rabbinate over matters of personal status among Jews, the struggles surrounding the attempts made by Women of the Wall to pray at that site, and the success of ultra-Orthodox elements in the Knesset in preventing the Conservative and Reform Movements from having access to mikvaot (ritual baths) built at state expense. However, Judaism in Israel is actually multi-valent, and there are many exciting and novel elements that deserve notice and commentary.

Orthodox Jewish women writing in the realm of Halakhah (Jewish law)

One of these novel elements has been the appearance of learned Orthodox Jewish women who have begun to write in the realm of Halakhah (Jewish law). A substantial number of Orthodox Torah learning institutes in Israel for women have been created over the last few decades and talmidot hakhamim (women rabbinical sages) are now increasingly common on the Israeli scene. Two of them are highlighted here as testimony to this dynamic new phenomenon.   

As Schusterman Center Fellow and Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department Ph.D. candidate Iddo Haklai has demonstrated in recent seminar work, Malka Puterkovsky has been foremost among these women. For many years, Puterkovsky served as head of the famed women’s yeshiva Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, where she became a halakhic (Jewish legal) authority for many observant Israeli Jews and answered their questions on numerous Jewish legal issues. In 2014, she published Mehalekhet B’Darka (Following Her Own Path), the first published work of responsa (Jewish legal opinions) by an Orthodox Israeli woman. The book, published by one of the largest publishing houses in the country, Yediot Ahronot Books, received wide media attention upon its release. While not limited to women’s issues, her ritual decisions that justified the right of women to wear Tefillin in daily morning prayer, to recite the mourner’s prayer (Kaddish) for a deceased relative, and to engage in “family planning” through the use of contraception – thereby knowingly limiting the size of a family – attracted the most attention. Not surprisingly, her publication of these decisions led to virulent debate in the traditional religious press and criticism has often been severe. However, this has not cowed Puterkovsky and she has stood by her decisions and answered her critics directly through an encyclopedic citation of classical rabbinic sources. 

Ronit Irshai of Bar Ilan University, a guest of the Hadassah Brandeis Institute for this academic year (2016-17), is an Orthodox pioneer in feminist legal hermeneutics and has been writing parallel to Puterkovsky. Schooled in both classical rabbinic sources and in modern philosophy and gender studies, Irshai offered a path-breaking approach to Jewish legal adjudication that I described in an article, “To Reshape the World: Interpretation, Renewal, and Feminist Approaches to Jewish Law and Legal Ruling in America and Israel,” published in The Journal of Jewish Ethics (Summer 2016). In her book Fertility and Jewish Law: Feminist Perspectives on Orthodox Responsa Literature (Brandeis University Press, 2012), Irshai maintains that the lens of gender sharply illuminates the stance that the overwhelming preponderance of modern rabbinic writings takes in relationship to women and reproduction. 

At the very outset of her book, she charges, “Jewish law is the product of an exclusively male preserve” that leads to a denial of independent personhood of women in contemporary halakhic writings. This is because male rabbis “emphasize the reproductive value of a woman at the expense of her value as a person.” Her discussion of the sources on this topic mirrors the writings of Puterkovsky, and Irshai contends that most rabbis forbid unlimited access to birth control because lenient rulings in this area would “involve a challenge to the traditional role of women.” As such, the question of birth control “leaves the domain of pure Halakhah” and becomes a matter of political control in which the personhood of the woman is diminished and the power she exercises is severely circumscribed. Her principal criticism of halakhic rulings surrounding reproductive technology are directed not at the promotion of childbearing but at a conception of women that fails to acknowledge their worth as full-fledged human beings apart from their child-bearing capacity. The work of Irshai, like that of Puterkovsky, has met with stern critique. However, again, like Puterkovsky, she has not been cowed by her critics and has strongly maintained the correctness of her readings of the halakhic tradition.

Reshaping Israeli Jewish faith and practice

Puterkovsky and Irshai are actively engaged in reshaping the contours and substance of Israeli Jewish faith and practice in our time. They see themselves as bearing responsibility for Jewish continuity and spirituality even as they unapologetically demand the reconstitution of Jewish communal life on Jewish textual foundations that recognize the full personhood and dignity of every human being – women and men alike. They and others are ushering in an exciting and dynamic new era on the contemporary Israeli Jewish religious scene.

Professor David Ellenson is the director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and a visiting professor in the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. He is Chancellor Emeritus of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

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