The Women Who Teach Women in War and Peace

Beth Kissileff

Beth Kissileff

Freelance writer, editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2015).

click for full bio >>

~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Beth Kissileff ~

From the Blog

A quiet revolution has taken place in women’s religious education in Israel. Rachelle Fraenkel, whose son was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists this summer, is one of this movement’s leaders and has become an inspiration to many.

Israel, and those who share its fate around the world, experienced tragedy this past summer when three Israeli teenagers, Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel, were kidnapped and eventually killed by Hamas terrorists. What is less known outside of Israel is that during the terrible two weeks before the boys’ tragic fate was known, the country was gripped by an unusually strong feeling of national unity. A rally for the boys at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square the night before the bodies were found and the boys’ deaths were confirmed was packed and intense. The concern of all citizens was constant, with people checking their smartphones and asking each other, “Have you heard anything about the boys?”

The three boys were all from religious families, and the faith and strength all three families displayed played out in very public ways. At the request of the boys’ families, even intensely secular Israelis prayed, in hopes that it might somehow help the young men return home safely. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, de facto leader of Israel’s secular population, said to the families, “I haven’t prayed for six years. Since the bar mitzvah of my son I haven’t been in a synagogue. When the story of your sons broke, I looked through the entire house searching for my grandfather’s siddur [the traditional Jewish prayer book]. I sat and prayed.”

In a phone interview, Rabbanit Malke Bina, the founder of Matan, the Institute for Women’s Torah Studies, told me that one thing was behind this outbreak of “positive unity and positive spirit”: It was the mothers of the victims. It was “very impressive,” she explained, to see the “goodness and care and concern and appreciation” they “felt for all helping them. And their being able in spite of personal grief and loss to express faith in Hashem [God].”

The woman who became the public face of the families, especially to the English-speaking world, is Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel.

In a recent interview, Fraenkel refused to set herself apart from the other mothers and often talked down her own significance, but she is a woman of considerable accomplishment. In fact, Fraenkel is in many ways representative of learned religious woman of this generation: She is a female scholar who teaches Torah to women, a role that has emerged only in the past two generations, and is now more widespread than ever. And she brought everything she learned as a scholar and teacher to her unwanted role as a personification of, and spokesperson for, Israeli grief and national unity.

This was particularly apparent during her speech to the United Nations in Geneva, which she infused with spiritual and theological meaning, emphasizing her deep understanding of what it means to wait for salvation. She consistently expressed her thanks to those praying around the world for her son’s safe return.

Malke Bina told me there are “moments where a person rises above herself.” She believes this is what happened with Rachelle and her ability to “say such words of wisdom and encouragement for the Jewish nation.” This, Bina believes, was “very special.”

The “wisdom and encouragement” Fraenkel exhibited on the public stage was no accident, but something Fraenkel has practiced and taught over many years. Her colleagues say that, while seeing her on the public stage because of tragedy was not something they hoped for, the Rachelle they saw was no different from the one they saw regularly in the beit midrash [the traditional Jewish house of learning].

Nehama Goldman Barash is currently a student at the Hilkhata Advanced Halacha [Jewish law] program at Matan. Fraenkel is both director of the program and a fellow student. Barash told me in an email,

Her comportment over the last few weeks has been inspiring to hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of people. Were we, sitting in the beit midrash and watching this all unfold from a distance, surprised? No, because she has remained recognizable as the Racheli we know throughout.

Laurie Novick, a certified advisor on halacha who teaches with Fraenkel at Nishmat—a women’s school in Jerusalem—said of the new public awareness of Fraenkel, “No one would have wanted it to happen in this way.” But she also believes it may have a silver lining by allowing a general public access to a personality that had not been seen so openly before. She hopes Fraenkel will be able to enrich Israel with her previously unknown talents. “Racheli has a lot to offer the Jewish people,” she said. “One of the more positive effects of this tragedy is that klal yisrael [the Jewish community] will get her talents working in full force.” While Novick believes it may “take some time to get the form and the channel, I am confident that is what is going to happen.”

To fully understand how Fraenkel developed the abilities that made her such an important figure to so many people during the nation’s ordeal, one must examine the world of female religious scholarship in Israel. This world shaped Fraenkel and she, in turn, is helping to shape it. Indeed, the institutions at which Fraenkel has studied and taught are on the vanguard of providing an advanced education in halacha and Talmudic commentary to women in Israel.

It was clear from many I spoke to that Fraenkel’s role in these institutions is a large one; in particular, she is highly regarded as a teacher. Michal Segall was one of Fraenkel’s halacha students at Nishmat’s Shana Ba’aretz program for American post-high school students in 2013-2014. Fraenkel, she said, had a “fantastic impact on my year”; and learning halacha from a woman who is “knowledgeable in an area where traditionally only men knew” had a positive effect on her.

Fraenkel seems to inspire her students to follow in her footsteps. Segall calls her “a huge role model…. To watch her talk about her job and her role and learn from her breadth of knowledge is so inspiring, powerful, and fantastic.” She said Fraenkel is a teacher who makes her students “so badly want to emulate her,” particularly when they see how “conscientious” she is. “Any issue you ask a question about,” testifies Segall, “she will look at from all angles, and is considerate to any situation in the matter.”

Segall particularly liked Fraenkel’s engaged methods of teaching. When they studied the concept of tithing, Fraenkel brought a basket of lemons from her backyard so they could take the appropriate tithe. Then they made lemonade. Segall felt this showed how Fraenkel “brought life to Jewish teaching.”

Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

Rachelle Fraenkel teaching at Nishmat. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

Segall’s first memory of Fraenkel is from a program Nishmat held the first week to help students get acquainted with teachers. Each teacher was told to give a short speech and discuss what they would be teaching. Segall’s recollection is that Fraenkel gave a speech about transitions, that when leaving Egypt, the Israelites “complained about the fish they missed, that all the good things, a good life, had been taken away.” She said that Fraenkel explained that the Israelites were able to only “think about the last situation, and did not realize they were truly coming to a new place of milk and honey, that they needed to detach from the old place, and put faith in their future, in themselves, in God, in people trying to help them along, to discover how amazing this place can be.” Her message was to “trust in ourselves, new friends, teachers, in this experience that can be as amazing as something we give it the chance to be.” Segall said that hearing Fraenkel “made me more hopeful,” which she found an “exciting and powerful thing to tell new students.” Even though halacha had not been a favorite subject of hers in high school, Segal signed on.

Fraenkel herself tends to downplay her work and the role she plays in women’s education. “I’m not being humble by saying I’m really not a big deal,” she said. “There’s nothing to write about.” She pointed out that there are many other female scholars doing important jobs. “I’m not leading this,” she added.

But Fraenkel does lead, as the director of Matan’s Hilkhata and as a teacher at Nishmat. According to Fraenkel, at Nishmat she teaches “Talmud and halacha for women, mostly Americans post-high school and Israelis after national or army service.” She adds that most Israeli women do not have “much background in Talmud,” because only a few Israeli high schools teach the subject.

Rachelle Fraenkel. Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

Rachelle Fraenkel teaching at Nishmat. Photo: Sara Fefer

Though she has not opened an institution of female learning as her colleague Esti Rosenberg did at Migdal Oz or been appointed to a committee of scholars like Malka Puterkovsky, Fraenkel’s career is, in many ways, paradigmatic of the expanding opportunities for female scholars. These opportunities simply did not exist even a few years before Fraenkel began her own studies. “I feel very privileged to be at this time and age of Torah learning,” she told me. When asked how she decided to pursue her studies, she said, “I tried different things at university. At some point, my husband said, of all the things he saw me try, with Torah I was using the highest percentage of capacity and commitment. I agreed. I thought it was a good idea to go in that direction.”

She benefited from the encouragement and experience of her own family. Her father received rabbinic ordination from the legendary American Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik before he made aliyah and taught in the chemistry department at Bar-Ilan University. Her father’s mantra, she said, was “If you do something you should try to excel.”

He was also an early proponent of women’s study of Judaism. At Bar-Ilan, he “started promoting high-level women’s Torah learning” by starting a midrasha, a Jewish studies center for women. This was “a simple issue, nothing to make a big deal about,” Fraenkel said, because her father was a student of Soloveitchik, who was always in favor of Torah study for women.

Her mother also participated in Jewish studies. She “is a psychologist… she never learned Gemara [Talmudic commentary],” Fraenkel told me, but “over the years, when she became older, she did learning in various ways, though it was not her direction originally.” Fraenkel’s mother is now a regular attendee of the Bar-Ilan midrasha.

After studying at Bar-Ilan, the next stop for Fraenkel was the advanced Talmud program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. The institution was founded in 1978, and describes itself as the “first women’s program to promote havruta [collaborative] Torah study, and is currently the largest women’s beit midrash program in the world.” Fraenkel said she has been fortunate in her timing, because her interest in advanced learning came at the precise moment it became possible for women to do so.

I was very lucky with opportunities. When I started becoming serious about this field, one after the other there were good opportunities, that offered scholarships, first at Lindenbaum. Just a few years before, my friends and myself, women who wanted to learn, had to really struggle, like my bosses Chana Henkin and Malke Bina. The basis was laid for us, good conditions to really get a wonderful education.

The fact that there are now institutions where groups of Jewish women can learn texts together, not as isolated individuals but in a group, has created a tremendous change. There have always been learned Jewish women; the Talmud quotes two women, Bruria and Ima Shalom, as authorities. At other times in history, there have been such figures as the Maiden of Ludmir (1805-1888) and Rayna Batya Berlin (c. 1817-c. 1875). According to writer Yael Unterman, Berlin was so dedicated and engrossed in study that “her husband sometimes even went without meals while she spent her days learning Torah.” Unterman sees a contrast between Berlin and later female scholars such as Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997), “who never felt deprived (except possibly in her lack of full Talmudic expertise). For Nehama, the gates of Torah were wide open, both to study and to teach.” Though Leibowitz was a brilliant teacher with many students, she never had the opportunity to form an institution for herself, though she taught both at the Hebrew University and privately. As Unterman said in an email interview, “The world has changed tremendously since Nehama Leibowitz’s time, and there are now thousands of women teaching Torah on a high level, and even taking on roles of a rabbinical or even legalistic nature.”

After Lindenbaum, Fraenkel went to Matan, where she now directs the Hilkhata program. Surale Rosen, who directs the Advanced Gemara program at Matan and is a colleague of Fraenkel, sees a sea change in women’s Torah education, noting that it is now widespread: Sixty percent of Matan’s teaching staff is female, and Rosen’s class of advanced Talmud students includes “a mathematician, a professor of literature, a sociologist, a scientist, a social worker, and many others who all share a thirst to further their learning.” She added that these women continued to engage in Jewish learning “while they were completing their studies in university and working. They deem learning the bread and butter of their intellectual pursuits and avodat hashem [worship of God].”

She also cited a group of about 100 female religious soldiers who came to Matan to study during their service. When Rosen asked how many had studied Gemara before the army, half the group raised their hands. “I am 37,” she said, “and I can say that 20 years ago, you would be lucky to have ten raised hands.” At Matan today, she added, the high percentage of female teachers is significant:

It means that the students—beginners and advanced alike—turn to these female teachers for guidance and also with halachic questions. If you deem your Gemara teacher an authoritative figure for passing on the tradition of learning, then the next step is to ask them halachic questions.

Rosen believes that this is increasing women’s religious authority. Her husband is a rabbi in Jerusalem, and “people sometimes call with questions; and when he’s not available, they ask me. Sometimes they don’t even ask for my husband, but simply ask the question.” She adds, “I think the next step would be halachic and Gemara responsa [responses to questions of Jewish law] written by women.”

Many of the people I spoke to believe that Fraenkel’s public conduct has contributed to this trend. Novick, Fraenkel’s colleague at Nishmat, said that Fraenkel’s public recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish at her son’s funeral exemplifies “seeing more and more natural expressions of learned women’s authentic connection and dedication to Jewish law and Jewish practice….That is naturally going to bubble up into the public sphere as well.” The public recitation of the Kaddish, particularly in Israel, has been mainly the province of men, though many feel it is permissible and valuable, according to Jewish law, for women to recite. Novick sees public actions like Fraenkel’s as particularly important because “what is really going to make the difference is what [role models] the children of this generation grow up with.”

Women younger than Fraenkel are aware of the fact that this represents a tremendous generational change. As Surale Rosen told me, “I can use my mother-in-law’s words: ‘You are reaping the benefits of our generation’s struggle.’”

There seems to be little doubt that the people and institutions that shaped Fraenkel’s scholarship and beliefs had an enormous influence on the talents she eventually displayed on the public stage.

First among them, it seems, was Fraenkel’s father. The midrasha at Bar-Ilan he founded, according to its current director Professor Tova Ganzel, is the largest institution for women’s learning in the country, with over 750 students enrolled last year. Ganzel personally testified to the role played by Fraenkel’s father in its success: He “set the tone, made sure learning has a spiritual component, and was as substantial as it could be.” He believed that “what women should know and be a part of has to be done on the highest level.” Speaking of Fraenkel herself, Ganzel said, “It is obvious that is where she came from. There was no compromise on anything less” than the highest level of study.

The midrasha is now getting attention and support from the highest religious authorities. Ganzel told me about a recent visit from Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, who was surprised to see that so many women studying Torah, and said he was not “aware of the numbers and the intellectual level.” In Rabbi Lau’s conversation with doctoral students, Ganzel recounts, he was able to “see abilities and a high level of learning.” In fact, the Chief Rabbi was so interested in the institution that he wanted to speak there prior to Rosh Hashanah, despite his extremely busy schedule.

Shani Taragin, a teacher at Midreshet Lindenbaum, where Fraenkel studied Talmud, knows Fraenkel and has sons at the same school that Naftali Fraenkel attended. In an interview, Taragin quoted Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel who said, “Just our involvement in Torah transforms our ethical personality.” Taragin believes this helped make Fraenkel a force for “true goodness in the face of attempts to undermine us.” She and Malke Bina, the founder of Matan, have discussed how Fraenkel has accomplished so much for the “world of Torah” due to her “saying Kaddish” and “being a voice of women involved in Torah learning and able to share what that voice is, not just quoting Hazal [the ancient rabbinic sages] here or there.”

Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower

Fraenkel, she said, represents “not just clichés, but the ability to explain what tefilah [prayer] is all about,” referring to Fraenkel’s statement during her ordeal that, despite everyone’s prayers, God is not our servant and does not owe humans anything. In an interview with the Times of Israel, for example, Fraenkel said,

Prayer is very powerful but it’s not a guarantee for anything…. I believe it could help, especially when thousands and millions are praying…. But nobody owes me anything. And if tomorrow, God forbid, I’ll hear the worst news, I don’t want my children to feel, where did all my prayers go?

Taragin sees this attitude as a very public example of “not just emunah temima [simple faith], but emunah amuka [deep faith]”; an example to everyone of “how to deal with struggles.”

One of the best definitions of the importance of Rachelle Fraenkel and female scholars like her was given to me in a phone interview by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. “In what ways,” I asked him, “will the presence of a cadre of learned women such as Rachelle Fraenkel have an impact on Orthodox Judaism?” Rabbi Sacks answered,
There are two places in Tanach [the Jewish Bible] where the word “Torah” appears with an abstract noun, a virtue. One is in Malachi, “torat emet hayita b’pihu” [“the law of truth was in his mouth,” Malachi 2:6], about the kohen [“priest”]; and the last chapter of Mishlei [Proverbs], eshet hayil, the “woman of strength.” It says, “torat hesed al lishona” [“On her tongue is the Torah of kindness,” Proverbs 31:26]. There is a great deal of torat emet, not enough torat hesed. When the law of kindness speaks, it will be in the voice of eshet hayil, the woman of strength. That will be the singular contribution of this emerging group of women Torah scholars.

No one exemplifies this torat hesed more than Rachelle Fraenkel. Through her public faith and public grief, she became the best argument for women’s Torah study. Throughout the ordeal of not knowing, and then knowing, the tragic fate of her son, she was able to maintain her focus on being positive, having faith, and trying to bring good into the world. At her son’s funeral, she said, “The act of prayer is worthy, no matter what the outcome” because “each prayer has its own work to do. There is no senseless act of love and charity. A good act stands on its own.”

She has even become a voice of hope for reconciliation and peace with the Palestinians. “I just want to turn to Palestinian parents,” she said on CNN,

And say maybe you can stop Hamas from using you as human shields and your death as propaganda. I promise the Palestinian parents: All we want is to live in peace and raise our children without threats of missiles or tunnels under our communities…. Maybe we can teach our children that we want to live in peace.

And through it all, Fraenkel did not abandon her vocation as a teacher and scholar. According to Malke Bina, the day after the shiva vigil for her son was over, Fraenkel was at Matan, helping her students study for their exams. Though she came to the attention of the world through terrible tragedy, she continues to bring her sense of hesed and deep understanding of Torah to her students. And now, perhaps, she will bring that to the attention of the larger world as well.

Banner Photo: Aviram Valdman / The Tower