Why Are There Empty Chairs in the Beit Midrash?: Updating the Communal Agenda
Tova Warburg Sinensky
“We are commanded to love God, exalted be He, to meditate upon and closely examine His mitzvot, His commandments, and His works, in order to understand Him; and through this understanding to achieve a feeling of ecstasy.”
Rambam Sefer Hamitzvot, Mitzvot Aseh 3
“He shall love God with an exceeding great and very strong love so that his soul be tied to the love of God, finding himself in a constant tremor, as if he were suffering of lovesickness.”
Rambam Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 10:3
During my time teaching at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School, on a few occasions we discussed whether or not we should continue to include the topic of “Women and Talmud Torah” in the curriculum. The relevant material traces the development of serious Torah She-Be’al Peh study for women from Talmudic texts to the statements of more contemporary halachic decisors. Some teachers suggested that learning about this development fosters an appreciation for the opportunity women now have to deepen a connection with God through directly encountering Devar Hashem. Others responded that that ship seems to have sailed. Serious Torah study for women is an established reality, in no need of strengthening. Or is it?
These discussions reemerged in my mind when Ma’ayanot's principal Rivka Kahan, a Torah scholar and my mentor and friend, penned an incisive article for Lehrhaus on women and Talmud study reflecting on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's vision. I take this opportunity to continue these conversations at Ma’ayanot, begun a decade ago.
Kahan proposed a number of suggestions to fulfill the Rav’s vision of intensive Torah She-Be’al Peh study for women. The common theme among her recommendations, upon which I will expand, is redressing the dichotomy between women’s and men’s Torah She-Ba’al Peh education, whether in homes, day schools, post high school institutions, or adult educational settings.
This is not a new criticism. Kahan's concerns echo the Rav's. In May 1953, Rabbi Soloveitchik argued that if “Boys and girls alike should be introduced into the inner halls of Torah She-Be’al Peh,” then we must end “this policy of discrimination between the sexes as to subject matter and method of instruction which is still advocated by certain groups within our Orthodox community.” The Rav observed that this bias “has contributed greatly to the deterioration and downfall of traditional Judaism.”
Despite great progress toward the Rav's vision, it remains unrealized. Women with a desire to learn Gemara intensively are not afforded the communal culture and infrastructure to facilitate their maximal growth in its study, do not feel fully embraced as insiders to the Mesorah, and are still relatively few and far between. It is time to put increasing opportunities for women who wish to serve God through intensive Torah She-Be’al Peh study back on the communal agenda.
To provide women with the desire, skills, and comfort to engage in intensive Gemara learning, it is time for communities that honor the Rav's values to rethink how they communicate them. It “takes a village”—parents, educators, leaders, and students of both genders—to cultivate, inculcate, and perpetuate values.
Educating Youth at Home and in School
Messaging about Torah She-Be’al Peh study for women needs to start with childhood; age fourteen is too late to begin this journey. At home, parents cultivate values in their children. The details of parent-child learning demand thoughtful consideration. What is conveyed when Abba learns Mishnah with his sons and only Tanakh with his daughters? The impact of a mother learning Gemara with her sons and daughters can be immense. (Using the plethora of English resources to learn with them does not diminish this.) Additionally, the tales parents tell their children should include both the men and women who have shaped their religious lives, as should posters and the like.
In the communal realm, youth learning initiatives must accurately reflect a community’s beliefs. Motzei Shabbat programs should welcome boys and girls to engage in the same kind of Torah study. Talmud Torah should become a major element of bat mitzvah preparation. Creating the kind of sea change that is necessary in order to actualize the Rav’s vision of Talmud Torah for women requires thinking together as communities about how to embed those values in every corner of our children’s world, and ours.
In schools, formal Talmud education should commence at the appropriate age of cognitive development, regardless of gender. Even acknowledging differences in how males and females learn, the best pedagogical practices for teaching boys should generally be mirrored in education of girls. The same applies to method. New insights gained from the newer reality of women's Talmud study, such as an emphasis on skill acquisition, can cross gender lines. Continued collaboration between male and female Gemara educators can contribute both to the quality of Gemara education and to the understanding that women have a home in the world of Torah She-Be’al Peh.
As Kahan observes, many teenage boys have never encountered female Torah personalities, and therefore are unaware of their capabilities as storehouses of Torah knowledge or of their deeply religious and impactful personalities. She suggests more exposure, and proposes presenting teenagers of both genders with opportunities to be taught by females.
This exposure should begin much earlier in life, so that there is no need to backpedal later. For instance, there is a growing number of outstanding female Torah She-Be’al Peh educators, most of whom teach Talmud to women in single-gender high schools. They can be encouraged to enter middle schools to inspire middle school boys, too. When students are exposed at a young age to male and female educators who are transparent about the role of Talmud Torah in their lives, it can aid in all students' understanding the common religious ground that men and women share.
Creating a community in which Talmud study for women is a fact on the ground requires pinpointing lacunae and filling them in a way that fosters its study. Imagine a world in which females could be hired to learn with a bar-mitzvah boy for a siyum on Shas Mishnayot. Or one in which, instead of men remarking to female scholars about how “impressed” they are with the phenomenon of their Torah knowledge, they encounter them as part of the community’s fabric.
Learning After High School
A double-standard persists at the collegiate level, and beyond. Though the Rav’s inaugural shiur took place at Stern College for Women, forty years later there are still very limited Gemara shiur offerings there in comparison to the multiplicity of options at Yeshiva College. The very structure of Stern College’s Judaic Studies schedule which is mostly “class-based,”not beit midrash based, is not conducive to the type of intensive Torah She-Be’al Peh study which usually entails and requires hours of havruta time prior to shiur/”class.” While there are outstanding Judaic studies instructors and classes at Stern college, women who are looking for beit-midrash style learning have few options.
In December 2015, blogger Rabbi Harry Maryles contended that
There simply is no demand for large scale Yeshivos for women. Let me go out on a limb and say that there never will be. I doubt that the vast majority of Orthodox women are interested in that kind of intensive Torah study. It isn’t about intelligence or will … They just don’t have the opportunity. There will never be a critical mass of female students that would populate such schools. Without the benefit of a large Yeshiva or even the many smaller Yeshivos like it, it is highly unlikely that any women will achieve anywhere near the level of Torah knowledge that the vast majority of men in those Yeshivas do.
Indeed, Stern College’s Gemara shiurim are not full, and the existing post-college programs do not have waiting lists. Maryles attributes lack of demand to women's lack of obligation. I disagree with this assertion, but there is something to his fundamental point. Something essential is missing. There are women who love learning Torah and are capable of great achievement in its study. Wonderful programs exist such as Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies which I had the privilege of attending. As yet, however, there is no framework in which women can sit for years and immerse themselves in Torah study for its own sake. Although a scholar can develop without these structures, physical institutions are crucial. Like all edifices, they not only house opportunities, but communicate and promote the norms and values of a given society.
The presence of more batei midrash for women would demonstrate that communities value intensive Torah She-Be’al Peh for women. Per Kahan, they would spur “talented women to choose Talmud Torah as their life’s passion.” If education at home and school aligns with these values, these institutions will begin to emerge organically and, to counter Maryles’s predictions, women will enroll. The expression of these larger values will be as loud and clear as the kol Torah that will emanate from those houses of study.
Females' Exposure to Torah Personalities
It is telling to reflect on both the frequency and detail with which men talk about Torah giants to whom they have had exposure. They tell the same stories over and over again, and the excitement is fresh every time. As Kahan notes, learning from and being in the presence of great Torah scholars are critical to being fully inducted into and fully comfortable in the culture of intensive Torah study. Rabbi Saul Berman describes the impact of the Rav's physical presence at Stern College. That is but one example of the profound impact of such encounters on a developing spiritual personality.
In fact, entering the presence of Torah personalities is a mitzvah throughout life. The Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh (29:11) states: “There is a positive commandment to cleave to Torah scholars in order to learn from their ways.” And, it is not just any mitzvah; Rambam and Shulkhan Arukh explicitly tout it as a launch-pad for cleaving to God, “As it says in the verse, ‘and to Him you shall cleave.’ Is it possible for one to cleave to God? Rather, the Rabbis in their blessed memory said that one is to cleave to Torah scholars ... eat and drink with Torah scholars...and establish any possible connections … One should walk in the dust of their feet and drink their words with thirst.’”
There are a growing number of outstanding Torah scholars who are staunch advocates of Torah She-Be’al Peh for women. But the opportunities for women to encounter leading Talmud scholars is still quite limited compared to their male counterparts, and they typically have access to a different type of experience. The content varies. The delivery is different. Such exposures often reinforce the double-standard about women’s learning that is antithetical to what many communities believe and to what the Rav believed. While there is certainly much Torah and many other spiritual values to be gleaned from every encounter with a Torah scholar, this should give us pause for thought.
Educating and Re-educating Adults
While communities can build from the ground up with the youth population, transforming the adult population is a taller order. It calls upon them to expand learning opportunities and also to correct misconceptions about women’s Talmud study.
In order to correct misconceptions, it is essential to distinguish between two issues that have become conflated in the past few years: women’s study of Torah She-Be’al Peh and the the boundaries of female leadership. While a discussion of women’s ordination would never have emerged without the upkick in women’s Gemara learning, the issues remain distinct.
The adult population needs a better understanding of what intensive Talmud study contributes to the religious lives of females, and to the community as a whole. This entails making community members insiders into these conversations that already take place in women’s Batei Midrash. Communities can create forums to hear them, inviting females of all ages and levels to reflect on the role that intensive Torah She-Be’al Peh plays in their lives. Asking females about this, formally or informally, may have powerful effects. To foster an understanding of contributions that female Torah She-Be’al Peh scholars bring, engaging females in sharing their experiences learning from them can be a powerful tool.
With regard to Torah learning offerings, many institutions provide successful Torah study opportunities to adults, such as Midreshet Yom Rishon for women and Kollel Yom Rishon for men. While programs such as these have transformed the spiritual landscape of many communities, they often differ with regard to both intellectual rigor and text study or lack thereof. What is communicated to children, students, and adults when we do not learn the same Torah? When planning learning opportunities, it is incumbent upon us to keep the Rav’s value of equal education in mind, thinking carefully and deeply about the underlying subtle, yet powerful messages that we send.
Do I think it is still important to teach a unit about the genesis of women’s Torah She-Be’al Peh study? Yes. Why?
Because women still encounter resistance to their learning and it is important for them to understand why they do what they do.
Because year in and out my students share with me how studying and discussing these texts has profoundly enhanced their appreciation for what Torah study is all about.
Because concluding our learning with Rambam’s vivid depiction of the experience of lovesickness for God that results from Torah study is a deeply religious and transformative experience, every single time.
And because the Rav's vision is as yet unrealized, still in need of strengthening. On the sea of Talmud, this ship is not yet securely afloat.