On the Path To Power: Women Decode the Talmud in Their Own Style

A chronicle of one woman’s year in Jerusalem and her quest for a female model for learning and teaching.

I had been hearing stories of the Orthodox Talmud teacher Malke Bina. In Hebrew, her name is both funny and fitting for her profession, much as the name I. M. Fine suits a physician. Loosely translated, Malke Bina means “Queen Brain” or “Queen of Understanding.”

I had heard one person refer to her as “an apologist who exalts the lower status of women” and “a strong woman among weak men!’ Another called her “a weibl, a Jewish wife who teaches girls to go to the mikvah” And someone else said, “Malke Bina does not see the problems Jewish women have. She should have her glasses fixed!’ I didn’t think Malke Bina would offer me what I was looking for. She sounded like a lightweight who dabbled in Talmud. But then I heard others speak of her in a totally other vein. A male teacher in a women’s yeshiva had complained, “What does Malke Bina think she is, a rabbi?” Someone called her a “well-disguised, quiet time bomb who opened up doors for women to study Talmud!’ And yet another referred to her as “Jerusalem’s best-known woman Talmud teacher.”

My curiosity was piqued. I would meet Malke Bina for myself and see just how serious an item she was.

It was late in the afternoon when I visited Malke at home. She was with four of her five children in the Old City apartment she shared with her Israeli-born husband, Rabbi Aharon Bina, dean of foreign students at Yeshivat Hakotel. It was an enormous modern apartment, Scandinavian in its brightness and clean lines, yet cozy. There was none of the dreary inattention to aesthetics that I associated with the yeshiva world. I felt elevated to be welcomed into a house that evoked the proverb: “A house is built by wisdom/And is established by understanding;/By knowledge are its rooms filled/ With all precious and beautiful things” (Proverbs 24-3).

The Bina household was always open. Malke’s former Bruria students would drop by to consult about their lives as though she were a combination of spiritual adviser, therapist, and big sister. Boys from Rabbi Bina’s yeshiva would come in at eleven or twelve at night to help themselves to drinks or fruit. Malke recalled the time she and her husband were strolling in the Jewish Quarter and met one of Rabbi Bina’s students with his father, who was visiting. The father asked Malke what she did, and the son proudly answered for her, “Don’t you know, Daddy? I always come in late at night and Mrs. Bina is sitting at the dining room table and learning. She teaches Talmud.”

We started out in Malke’s kitchen, surrounded by a row of cabinets and the good smell of root vegetables in a boiling soup. Malke was telling one son to see if there was something good on TV, advising another son on the phone to buy himself a slice of pizza while he waited for his dental appointment, and fixing bowls of soup for yet another son and his friend. She was going to set aside time to teach Mishnah to her only daughter, Chaya, because it was not taught in her school. “I agreed to teach her Mishnah Pesahim, to get ready for Passover. But you know how hard it is to teach your own child.”

The predinner chaos was only marginally controlled, as it usually was in my house. Seeing the chaos relieved me. Malke didn’t float in a bubble of holy knowledge. She was a working mother of four sons and a daughter whose job was Talmud. She didn’t compartmentalize her life. She was whole: always a mother, a wife, a teacher.

Malke fixed us some herb tea and fed me a spoonful of the soup. It was good. “Take down the recipe!’ she advised.

Malke Bina’s Vegetable Soup for Winter

Fry onions in 2 Toil.

Brown 3 T matzo meal for added body.

Dump in any vegetable: stalks of celery, carrots, potatoes, squash, red peppers, kohlrabi.

Cover with water.

Add 1/2 cup barley.

Simmer 2 hours.

To know Talmud, to know cooking — for Malke, all knowledge was valuable, all could be integrated. Surely, the Vilna Gaon had not whipped up many pots of soup in his day. It is true that making nourishing and tasty soup took time away from Malke’s learning, but it didn’t diminish her scholarship. Soup organized experience: soup was a poem of love, of sustenance, of celebrating plenty, of surviving the cold. Torah fed life, so did soup.

Malke was from Baltimore, the daughter of Rabbi Boruch and Leah Milikowsky. At the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, her father was the mashgiah, a rabbinical supervisor whose duty it was to monitor and motivate the intellectual and spiritual growth of the boys in his charge. “Did your father influence your profession?”

“My father didn’t encourage me specifically to go on with my Jewish learning. I think he might have liked for me to be a math professor or a psychologist, but he didn’t discourage me either. He’s a very practical man and he thought: You’re a woman. Something in the secular world might be a better career.”

At seventeen, Malke came to Israel to study for three years at the women’s seminary, Michlala. She decided to study religious subjects and math and to decide between them later on. The sister of her future husband, Aharon, studied at Michlala. She was nineteen then, twenty when they married.

I asked if she wouldn’t mind reviewing a point in the Gemara we’d been doing in class in tractate Ketubbot, which concerns wedding contracts.

The cadences of Malke’s speech switched to Talmud singsong. “The claim is that the husband has the right in certain situations to come to the court and say ‘I found my wife not to be a virgin because it was too easy for me to have relations with her.’ Petah patuah — the vaginal area was too open.”

Malke assumed I recalled the argument better than I did, and so represented it to me in shorthand. I strained to follow.

My head was swimming. This was as hard for me as trigonometry. I was embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t following too well. I listened on, hoping I would eventually get it.

“Finally, I blurted out what was on my mind:

I know Talmud isn’t a woman’s novel. It’s the world perceived by generations of men. The tiny peeps of a woman’s voice in Talmud are like squeaks in a roaring engine. I need to know what it’s like for you to subsist on a steady diet of the world perceived by a male intelligence and a male concept of law. Doesn’t that bother you? Isn’t it an enormous problem?

Malke was a good listener. She truly appreciated that the maleness of Talmud could bother me so, given who I was and where I came from. She, who spent her days poring over Talmud, was untroubled. Talmud may have been a bit different on certain points if women had been involved. If that would have been the case, I’d enjoy it more and find it more fulfilling. But it didn’t happen. There’s a popular expression in Hebrew that translates as “If grandma had skates!’ It means you can’t ask What if? It would have been nice if women had also contributed to the Talmud. But it didn’t happen. I hate to make an issue of sex. Men were the people who were studying then and for whatever reasons women didn’t study then. We’re dealing with people who had the Jewish nation so much on their minds that they wouldn’t go down to sexist issues. If I were making a law, I wouldn’t want someone to say I’m making it from a woman’s perspective only:

“Do you realistically see that happening, women like you making Jewish legal decisions in our times?”

I want every woman to develop to her fullest potential. In the internal way. On the other hand, I’m a practical person and I’m not a radical by any means, and what’s going to happen externally I don’t know. I don’t like to create ruckuses. There’s already so much friction and division in the Jewish nation that I don’t want to cause any more. There will be many women able to write legal opinions, many women who know more what to do in their lives, how to instruct and tell other women. Whether it’ll be time to do it or if it will be accepted by society, I don’t know.

“Why do you think the power remains male?” I asked, thinking afterward that my question was as inane as asking why people liked chocolate.

But the question seemed reasonable to Malke.

In order really to be a rabbi of a community and a legal decisor, and to do it properly, you need full concentration, eighteen-hour days devoted to study and community work. I want to have the time to be with my children at meals, have discussions, and talk to my daughter about her ballet. Not that my husband doesn’t want that, too, but he removes himself more. We are women. Women can do so many things. But this idea of ultimate power — in the rabbinic sense — and devotion to the community, the way it should be done properly — I think it’s something a woman could do if she wished but naturally wouldn’t want to. Up above, the scholars and the whole system think it’s not healthy. Those women doing it will definitely suffer. Their families will suffer a lot.

Malke seemed satisfied to live out the “the woman’s role” as defined by her religious community and did not see that role as limiting her aspirations in any way. She told me a story of a woman she admired, her brother’s mother-in-law.

The rebbetzen is articulate and well versed in rabbinics, politics, history. She was married to a brilliant Talmudist, and they had four children. They were such articulate and dominant personalities that their marriage didn’t work out and they were divorced. She then devoted herself to taking care of her ill father during his last years. He passed away, and she kept herself busy taking care of the children and maybe even had a little position here or there. The husband meanwhile remarried for a few years to a very fine woman, but the woman died and he was widowed and got sick with cancer of the lungs. It was very difficult. The four children, most of them with their own young children, were taking turns caring for their father.
Their mother came to help take care of the children so they could go take care of the father. The father really needed someone with him around the clock and he didn’t want a strange woman taking care of him. So he and his former wife remarried. She remarried him to help take care of him. Even if they couldn’t get along on a day-to-day basis, she still had great respect and admiration for him. And it helped out her children. For a year and a half or two years she took care of him. It was very difficult. Then he passed away. A woman knew what she had to do and was able to do it.

I told Malke that her stance on “women’s nature” would strike women, particularly those studying for the rabbinate in the progressive movements, as hopelessly conservative. That’s how she struck me. Yet she spent her days learning and teaching Talmud. Regardless of her acceptance of the constraints of conventional wifely and motherly roles, regardless of her care not to do anything that could be construed as “bad for the Jews!’ she was, in the context of her community, a radical activist. Not only was she fashioning herself into a Talmudist, but she was also empowering other women by giving them the tools and the confidence to approach the texts themselves.

It wasn’t clear to me whose glasses needed the fixing. Malke smiled at my description of her as a renegade. It didn’t mesh with her own self-image. Still, I think she was flattered….

When I got around to making Malke’s recipe for soup again, instead of winter kohlrabi and turnips, I substituted spring peas and green beans. Frying the onions and matzo meal together — her special trick — I recalled the last of her classes I had been to. Before she began to teach, Malke addressed us calmly, as if she were about to give an assignment. Her father had been suffering from back pain, and his doctors had decided to operate soon, to remove his kidney. Resting her hands on the open pages of her Talmud, she announced, “I’d like to dedicate today’s learning to my father.”

Once Jewish women could offer up only their prayers, good deeds, and charity to plead for the recovery of a loved one. Malke believed it was just as effective for a daughter of a Talmud scholar to offer Talmud study as a talisman for her father’s health, so the merit of our learning might intercede for him in heaven. Unorthodox though the gesture may have been, Malke felt sure it was appropriate, for her father had always encouraged her to develop her intellect. When she was five, she told us, he would give her a difficult math problem such as nine times nine, and challenge her to work it out.

We returned to the tractate Ketubbot, to honest virgins, to lying brides, and to grooms deprived of their marital rights who wanted revenge. Out of respect for my teacher Malke, I postponed fretting about the problems I had with the maleness of Talmud.

When my attention drifted, which it inevitably did, to my family or to my teaching or to the texture of the upholstery that rubbed against the back of my legs, I tightened the screws of my concentration until no distractions could filter in.

My soup burned some, but the family enjoyed it nonetheless. Over the years they have grown accustomed to a burnt flavoring, like vanilla or curry, the spice of my distraction.

“Women Have No Need To Scream”

Linda Gradstein, an advanced part-time student at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, tells her story:

I come from a traditional feminist background, where there are no differences between men and women, and anything men could learn, I could learn. My goal was to learn Gemara. That to me was the symbol of Jewish learning. What does it mean for today? The Gemara is the way people have tried to interpret the Torah. I almost dropped it three or four times: it was so difficult and I was so frustrated. I find it’s fascinating but very male. The method of thinking is male: it seems to me that one of the problems in Torah is that there are really very few women who are learned enough but who are also feminine, who have a woman’s approach to Torah, not a copy of the male approach.

My hevruta (study partner), Susan, is incredibly bright — she’s the one who’s pregnant and wears a head covering. We’ll sometimes argue but there’s not that edge of hostility. To learn Gemara you have to have an opinion and follow it through. But I think you can have intellectual strength and power without being competitive. I can argue a point with Susan, and if she proves to me that I’m wrong, I’ll say, “You’re right!’ We complement each other, we’re each better at different things. I sense that when men learn, there’s more competition: Who can learn more? Who can be right eight times out of ten? The Gemara is called the milhamta, a struggle. There is an intellectual struggle going on, but I don’t think it has to be a battle. It can be a building together. I remember hearing Leah Shakdiel [a member of the Yeruham Religious Services Council who took her seat only after the Supreme Court decided a woman could not be denied membership] say that when her husband studied Gemara with her, he would scream at her. And when she asked why, he said that you have to scream when you study Gemara. She said that when women start really learning Gemara, women will find it is not necessary to scream. They will teach men they don’t have to scream either.