Mehalekhet Bedarkhah By Malka Puterkovsky, Yedioth Ahronoth/Chemed, 2014, 88 shekels, by Johnny Solomon
The men and women honored to light the torches as part of this year’s official Independence Day ceremony in Israel were chosen for their trailblazing contributions to Israeli society; among this elite group was Malka Puterkovsky.
Puterkovsky holds a B.A. in Jewish Studies from Bar-Ilan University and an M.A. in Talmud from Tel Aviv University. She is a founding member of Takana, an organization that deals with issues of sexual harassment in the national religious community. She is a member of Mavoi Satum, which helps women whose husbands have refused to grant them a get (religious divorce), and she is also involved in the Ma’aglei Zedek social action organization. However, even though all these roles are a clear expression of Puterkovsky’s commitment to women’s rights and social justice, she is best known for her work as a scholar and teacher.
Puterkovsky—whose mentors are a veritable “who’s who” of leading female Torah scholars, including Alice Shalvi, Chana Safrai, z’l, and Nechama Leibowitz, z’l—spent many years teaching Talmud and halakhah at the Pelech High School for Girls and was the head of the halakhah program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. In both these institutions, she raised the bar regarding what is taught and what can be expected of students. Since then, she has been lecturing throughout Israel, while offering halakhic guidance to men and women who either call or visit her at her home in Tekoa. Through her classes and her writings, Puterkovsky’s message is heard loud and clear: Women can and should study halakhah to the highest levels; halakhic discourse can and should include women; and halakhic rulings can and should be produced by women.
In August 2014, Puterkovsky published her first book, Mehalekhet Bedarkhah (literally, Following Her Halakhic Way), which addresses “life challenges from a halakhic and moral perspective.” While this subtitle certainly describes what can be found in Mehalekhet Bedarkhah, it does not fully convey the unique qualities of this extraordinary work.
Mehalekhet Bedarkhah is a collection of Puterkovsky’s she’elot u’teshuvot (responsa). Thus it sits on a unique but growing bookshelf of responsa literature written by women, alongside Mah She’elatekh Esther Vate’as, also published in 2014 (reviewed in the fall 2014 JOFA Journal). However, there are differences between these two works.
Whereas the authors of Mah She’elatekh Esther Vate’as were ordained by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Yehoshua (Shuki) Reich, Puterkovsky makes it clear to the reader that she is not ordained. In contrast to Mah She’elatekh, which was published by an institution, Ohr Torah Stone, and could be purchased or downloaded only from that institution, Mehalekhet Bedarkha is published by Yedioth Ahronoth/Chemed and can be purchased in bookstores throughout Israel. Mah She’elatekh begins with an introduction and endorsement by Rabbi Reich, whereas both the introduction and the body of Mehalekhet Bedarkhah are written by Puterkovsky herself. All these factors, as well as the size of Mehalekhet Bedarkhah—a hefty 567 pages—convey the message that Puterkovsky is bold, independent, incredibly knowledgeable, and certainly worthy to be counted among those who have made trailblazing contributions to Israeli society.
Puterkovsky’s innovation continues throughout her book. In contrast to the classic method of presenting each she’elah with the barest of details beyond the halakhic question itself, Puterkovsky begins each chapter by recounting the background to each she’elah and the human story behind each. For example, Chapter 2, examining the halakhic permissibility of female poskot (halakhic decisors), begins by describing the meeting between Puterkovsky and a young married woman called Sagit who was struggling with her commitment to the laws of niddah. One of the issues that troubled Sagit was her inability to discuss halakhah with someone who could fully empathize with her situation, and it was her heart-wrenching conversation with Puterkovsky that led to the question of whether it is possible for a woman to become a poseket. Similarly, Chapter 3, which addresses the question of whether it is permitted for women to wear tefillin, begins by describing a conversation between Puterkovsky and her eleventh-grade student Mevaseret concerning which mitzvot women are and are not obligated to perform. Chapter 4 starts by recounting a discussion between Puterkovsky and her old friend Michaela, who works as a psychologist. In that role, Michaela encounters numerous situations in which the strained relationships between parents and children make it impossible for a child to fully observe the laws of honoring parents as presented in the classic halakhic sources. What should be done in such a situation?
After introducing each she’elah, Puterkovsky then proceeds to present all the relevant source material for each question in meticulous detail, explaining to the reader the background of every source and where different authorities appear to adopt conflicting positions. When terms are not clear, she explains them. When biographical information may be appreciated, it can be found in the comprehensive list of works cited, which is found at the back of the book. And when additional details are important but not essential to the key discussion, these have been added as endnotes. This means that every teshuvah is not merely a halakhic response, but also a master class in how to read, interpret, and apply halakhic texts.
Puterkovsky is also clear that many halakhic questions have implications far beyond the specific issue being discussed. Thus, every chapter in Mehalekhet Bedarkhah concludes by discussing the future directions of each given question. For example, having recounted her conversation with Sagit and presented a plethora of sources regarding the halakhic permissibility of female poskot, Puterkovsky concludes by explaining why it is so necessary for women to become more halakhically literate, and why it is so valuable for women’s voices to be expressed and heard, both in offering halakhic guidance and in shaping halakhic discourse in the modern period.
Although some have challenged some of the rulings found in Mehalekhet Bedarkhah—and in at least in one instance, Puterkovsky has written a firm rebuttal—it is clear that the publication of this volume is incredibly important in terms of its depth, breadth, content, and style. By weaving narrative and law together, Puterkovsky reminds the reader that behind every she’elah is a questioner, but also through sharing the conversations between herself and those who have sought her guidance, Puterkovsky gives a human face to her teshuvot and reveals her own qualities as a poseket.
Although Malka Puterkovsky’s role as a torchbearer for the State of Israel concluded at the end of the Independence Day ceremony, she continues to carry the torch for serious female Torah scholarship throughout the world. Mehalekhet Bedarkhah is a serious, yet moving, work of great scholarship, and one that I believe will lead the way for many more budding scholars to participate in halakhic discourse and engage in halakhic rulings.
Rabbi Johnny Solomon is a graduate of Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh and has a B.Sc. (Hons) in mathematics and religious studies. Rabbi Solomon was a major scholar at the Montefiore Kollel in London, from which he received semikhah. Before making aliyah in 2012, he was the head of Judaic Studies at Hasmonean Girls’ School. Rabbi Solomon now teaches post–high-school girls in Machon Ma’ayan and Midrash Torat Chessed and works as a Jewish education consultant.