Rabbanit Rachel Frenkel
Rabbanit Rachel Frenkel
Rabbanit Malke Bina
Rabbanit Malke Bina
Rabbi Kenneth Hain
Rabbi Kenneth Hain

By Larry Gordon

Somewhere in Jerusalem, a group of as many as 50 women spend their days learning and studying pages of Gemara at Matan, a women’s institute for Torah studies, discussing and evaluating Talmudic concepts while exploring the depths of the various levels of Torah with varying levels of motivation.

Under the direction of Matan’s founder, Rabbanit Malke Bina, the yeshiva, or the seminary, as we would more likely call it, is bringing its message of Torah scholarship for women to the Five Towns over this Shabbos of December 18—19. Founded in 1998, the institution is today a source of Torah learning for thousands of women around the world.

Rabbanit Bina, along with the internationally renowned Rabbanit Rachelle Frenkel–mother of Naftali Frenkel, Hy’d, who was murdered in the summer of 2014 by terrorists from Hebron–will be speaking over Shabbos at Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence. Both women will be addressing the congregation, with Rabbanit Frenkel offering the derashah on Shabbos morning following the services (after 11 a.m.).

While not exactly new, the concept of advanced Torah learning for women is still finding its place in the traditional Orthodox world where, when it comes to Torah study, the lines of demarcation were always more defined and pronounced.

Rabbi Kenneth Hain of Congregation Beth Sholom comments that in today’s Modern Orthodox community, there are numerous opportunities for women to explore greater levels of learning. He says that Yeshiva University offers a degree in advanced Talmudic studies for women on the master’s-degree level and that it has given graduates a chance to teach and speak on subjects that were previously not so popular or not readily available to women on this level.

Matan seems to differentiate itself from others inasmuch as its objective is not to get involved in the controversial matter of wanting to assign titles like Rabbah or other synonyms for the title Rabbi. Malke Bina says that the women who achieve the highest levels of scholarship at Matan and who want to have influence on their communities are referred to as “halachic responders” and work with rabbis in various communities.

We speak briefly about where she feels Matan’s goals and objectives end and where “Open Orthodoxy,” as it is referred to today, begins. She says that they are not at all similar, as Matan seeks to work within the framework of conventional Orthodoxy and is not looking to redefine the roles of women.

Rabbi Hain made the fascinating observation that from his experience, he has seen that women who are engrossed in a higher level of Torah learning usually become more traditional, rather than the opposite. He adds that in his estimation, these high-level Torah endeavors for women are just a sign of the times we live in. “Women have advanced degrees in medicine and law; why not in Torah?”

The Shabbos derashah by Rabbanit Frenkel will focus on this week’s parashah. When I asked her what aspect of this week’s drama-filled parashah she will be addressing, she said, “V’hana’ar eineini itti,” where Yehudah asks Yosef, who wants to detain Binyamin, “For how can I go to my father (Yaakov) if the youth is not with me?” (Bereishis 44:34).

It is a riveting pasuk in the Torah, as the exchange is played out just prior to Yosef’s dramatic revelation that he is their long-lost brother and son. Rabbanit Frenkel explains that this episode with the missing Yosef, and Yehudah’s heart-rending pleas about his father missing his son so profoundly, is “a difficult and very meaningful subject for me.”

She explains that when her son Naftali, along with the other two boys, Gilad and Eyal, went missing at the end of June 2014, it became a crisis and ultimately a tragedy for the families, but also a deeply personal experience for all Jews and all fair-minded people everywhere.

She says she is here to teach Torah lessons, but her family’s personal experience is always “the elephant in the room.”

So while she will deliver a derashah at Beth Sholom in Lawrence this Shabbos morning, she will no doubt talk about how fate plucked her from relative obscurity and she suddenly found herself in the international limelight praying and hoping that the boys would be found safe.

As it turns out, my wife, Esta, and I were visiting with her in her community in Nof Ayalon just two hours before Israeli authorities confirmed that the boys’ bodies had been found in a field near Hebron. At the time, Rachelle Frenkel became a symbol of faith and an inspiration for parents everywhere. She became the spokesperson to the media by virtue of her fluency in English, having been born to parents who made aliyah from Brooklyn in the 1970s.

On Shabbos, in her derashah, she will be touching on the subject of that experience–it is inextricably interwoven into this week’s parashah as Yosef is discovered by his brothers and father–as it is now a defining and integral part of her persona.

As far as her work as a teacher of Torah to women in Israel and around the world is concerned, I ask Rachelle Frenkel about teaching women advanced Torah in Israel versus how it is received here in the U.S. “Torah,” she says, “connects people to one another.” She adds that in Israel, the idea of women studying Torah is less politicized but it is gaining wide acceptance in the States. Frenkel says that she has been well received in communities around the country over the last year or so.

In speaking with Malke Bina the day before, I used the words “friction” and “resistance from within the community” when it comes to women studying Torah. She was unfazed and just said that there have been changes of women’s status in the community, and their commitment to Torah is just one of the reflections of that reality.

Rabbanit Bina, the wife of the roshyeshiva of Netiv Aryeh, Rav Aharon Bina, said that a woman’s interest and commitment to learning is in no way detrimental. She adds that the women who have passed through the door of Matan are dedicated to learning Torah l’shem Shamayim and she does not believe that anyone in the community should view women’s Torah study as a threat.

In our conversation, Rabbi Hain mentioned Sarah Schenirer, the founder of the Bais Yaakov schools in Europe almost a century ago. “It was unpopular and there was resistance to what Sarah Schenirer wanted to do, but she persevered and changed the Jewish world.”

So in a way, I suppose you can say the same thing about Malke Bina and Rachelle Frenkel. Their work and exploration of the depth of Torah are making a significant impact on the worldwide Jewish community, one pasuk of Tanach and one shiur at a time.

Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at editor@5tjt.com.

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