Alt+SHIFT: Mehalekhet be-Darka

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | May 18, 2023

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew. See the archive of all columns in this series.

Malka Puterkovsky,Mehalekhet be-Darka: Etgarei ha-Hayyim be-Mabat Hilkhati Erki (Maskil&YediotSefarim,  2014), 567 pages

Malka Puterkovsky’s Mehalekhet be-Darka surveys twelve halakhic topics in three sections divided between women’s issues, family life, and the modern challenge of living in the State of Israel. Each chapter, save one, begins with a real-life question addressed to the author. The subsequent discussion reads less like classic responsa and more like a scholarly essay, with the characteristics of that genre of writing: clear topical section divisions and an extended summary at the end. In terms of the legal analysis, Puterkovsky does an able job without offering any major innovations. I will focus on more novel aspects of her answers. 

Opening stories lend power to the human component of each answer. A chapter on family planning tells the story of a middle-aged woman who still resents her oldest son for being born too early in her marriage. An only child secular daughter of a Holocaust survivor knows that her father always wanted a child to recite Kaddish for him come the day. A devoted husband wants to know if he should follow his sick and suffering wife’s request to pray for her death. These framing devices clarify that these are not abstract halakhic questions but dilemmas involving human suffering where the posek (or poseket, as the case may be) must weigh emotional factors into the decision-making.

Some of her quoted sources expand the normal range of halakhic writing. A poem by Yehuda Amichai enhances a chapter about honoring parents (157), and Agnon makes an appearance as well (460). The most impactful source of this “extra-halakhic” variety is a historical survey of the accomplishments of Sarah Schenirer in a chapter about women’s Torah study (41-47). Readers will discover that Schenirer was not influenced by Eastern European rabbis but rather by a German Orthodox rabbi who she encountered when her family fled to Vienna during World War I. Thus, the growth of 20th-century Orthodox women’s learning may be traced to the Hirschian community in Frankfurt.

Another notable feature is the absence of a need for definitive decisions (this, too, sets the book apart from conventional Shutim). Regarding family planning, Puterkovsky says that only a mother can truly know what stress she is under and, therefore, the couple has to make the decision for themselves (within the framework of the halakhic options). Similarly, halakha does not have a decisive answer for the husband asked by his ill wife to pray for her death. In a chapter about taking on security risks in order to perform mitzvot, a different factor generates subjectivity. In 2001, a dangerous year on the GushEtzion highways, Puterkovsky would drive at night to Midreshet Lindenbaum to deliver shiurim. Her students suggested that she should stop due to the risks involved. Puterkovsky notes how difficult it is to gauge degrees of danger. Is it truly more dangerous at night than during the daytime? Since terrorists sometimes attempt to infiltrate yishuvim, is it obvious that travel is more precarious than staying home? Due to this difficulty, the author leaves the decision in each individual’s hands. (As for her, she kept teaching.)

R. Yoel Katan wrote an excessively harsh critique of Puterkovsky’swork that helps highlight another feature (printed originally in the BaSheva newspaper [archived here]). Katan writes about “the author’s desire to solve human dilemmas stemming from the normative application of the halakha; in simpler words, to undermine accepted pesak” (my translation). This is not a fair characterization. Halakhic decision-making takes into consideration both human needs and hashkafic factors. In his critique of Puterkovsky’s allowing delay in starting a family Katan himself assumes that the point of marriage is to produce children. One could also cite sources noting other Jewish values in married life and arrive at a different or more nuanced conclusion. In terms of human need, wanting to allow a woman to honor her father’s wishes through reciting Kaddish is a fully legitimate factor in pesak. Accepting Katan’s critique that a secular woman’s Kaddish is meaningless due to her lack of belief would have terrible implications for our encouraging secular Jewry to connect to religious ritual. One wonders if Katan would instruct a secular man not to recite Kaddish.

Puterkovsky has an inclination to seek leniency but she does not always take it to the fullest extreme. For example, she allows a woman to wear tefillin but only in private, not in shul. In sum, we have an interesting work documenting our community’s success at producing learned women.

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

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