Commentary

The Opaque Ceiling Hovering Over Women’s Torah Study: A Reply to Judah Goldberg

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Editors’ Note: This article is part of a series on advanced Talmud study for women. See responses by Sharona Margolin Halickman, and a rejoinder by Judah Goldberg.

Chaim Saiman

My good friend Rav Dr. Judah Goldberg, a maggid shiur at Migdal Oz and an accomplished physician to boot, recently published an article in these virtual pages regarding women’s advanced Torah study. R. Judah’s argument is brilliant in its simplicity. In communities that maintain halakhic reservations about female Torah study, the lack of advanced Talmud Torah for women is understandable, perhaps even mandated. But in Centrist Orthodox communities that follow the path charted by Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein who encouraged women’s Talmud Torah, there is no reason for women not to achieve standards of excellence. Drawing on the traditions of both classical yeshivot and elite research universities, R. Judah issues a characteristically balanced “Programmatic Agenda” for our community: we should move beyond simply granting women access to Torah, and design institutions that enable women to develop true expertise in Talmud and Halakhah. Like his rebbe, Rav Lichtenstein, R. Judah trucks no patience for mediocrity, certainly not in the holy endeavor of Torah study. Having found no halakhic rationale for the “glaringly opaque ceiling” hovering over women seeking excellence in learning, R. Judah calls on us to dismantle it.

My reservation is that one cannot initiate change in the community without a clear understanding of its motivations and unstated assumptions. Thus, to the extent R. Judah wants to change the facts on the ground, we must start with a clear understanding of why the topography assumes its present shape.

The Goals of Women’s Torah Study

We begin with how women’s Talmud Torah has evolved to date. One of R. Judah’s sharpest insights is articulating the curricular goals prevailing in most shana aleph/bet programs. The primary rationale for Talmud study in these settings is exposure and engagement rather than developing expertise in halakhic analysis per se. As the article perspicaciously notes, the objective is to “cultivate deep religious commitment and vibrant spirituality that will sustain students in the coming years and across a lifetime.” In this endeavor, “Talmud Torah is the principal means towards that end,” but not the primary motivation itself. This accords with Yoel Finkelman’s analysis of the many boys’ yeshiva programs that do not cater to the small cadre of elite learners.

It is no accident that women’s learning landed at this equilibrium point. Since there is broad agreement regarding  the goals and methods of such learning programs, this form of women’s learning has achieved broad success across many Centrist Orthodox institutions.

While this may be a worthy end-point for most, R. Judah challenges us go further and create intuitions in which the goals are not simply “exposure to new texts or ideas, or an exploration of … religious identity,” but which cater to a limited set of women “looking to develop expertise” (emphasis in original). Notably, however, from this point forward, the article is silent on the ends of such study. At one level, the reticence is understandable. R. Judah wants to stay away from the political hot potato of the “women’s leadership” debate. Further, he implicitly claims that within Rav Lichtenstein’s framework, one should pursue excellence and expertise in women’s Talmud Torah without taking a stand on these contested matters.

But here is where I part ways with R. Judah. From my vantage point, the current structure of women’s Talmud Torah is neither accidental, nor merely the result of a failure of imagination or a lazy acceptance of mediocrity. Rather, it is a reflection of the community’s value judgments as to why we educate  women in Torah. Centrist Orthodoxy has not moved to foster female expertise, because it is uncertain whether it should. And without a shift in the underlying culture, I am not sure how another institution will help.

The Family Structure of Female Torah Leadership

Developing a cadre of female halakhists is not simply a question for the early years of life, but applies with equal force to young families, middle age and beyond. We should therefore consider what this leadership and expertise looks like and how it becomes embodied within actual families and communities.

The standard male-centric “Torah leadership family” often features several recurring characteristics. The husband spends several years in full-time intensive learning, has a job in some quarter of avodat ha-kodesh, invests considerable time learning, giving shiurim and attending to other communal needs, and a minimum of 1.5 hours a day in tefilah be-tzibur. The community feels most comfortable when such a family has more children than the surrounding norm, when the wife is engaged in various teaching and hesed projects, and plays hostess to those seeking physical and spiritual nourishment. Our community wants to ensure its role models embody the complete package; raw Torah learning must be supplemented by avodah (in the form of prayer and child-rearing) and gemilut hasadim.

What then, does the female-led Torah leadership family look like? Following R. Judah’s suggestion, we might look for analogies to female-led career households which, though a minority, exist within our communities. But in these cases, the number of kids is typically at or below the communal norm, and due to the timing conflicts between work, minyan, and child-care duties, the husband is less likely to be regular participant in the (weekday) beit midrash and beit kneset.

We expect Torah leadership families to serve as communal role models. Listening between the lines of Shabbat table conversation, however, and examining who is asked to assume positions of influence, makes clear that many are uncomfortable drawing on the leadership of a woman whose family structure does not reflect our aspirational and idealized norms, even if these criteria are never stated explicitly. Further, technical halakhic issues are also at play: the male’s tefilah be-tzibur and Talmud Torah take precedence over that of the female, and we become uneasy when these baselines are inverted. Thus, even in communities that appreciate families in which females take the lead in secular endeavors, halakhah and sociology fuse in ways that make it difficult to accept the woman as a Torah/halakhic leader and role model.

The OU and Appropriate Roles for Women’s Leadership

While R. Judah consciously avoids entering the women’s leadership thicket, I am not sure the matter can be entirely ignored. As is well known, the 2017 OU documents, which largely formalized pre-existing norms, indicate both broad acceptance of some forms of female religious leadership, paired with a firm line women are not permitted to cross. And while the OU may be a bit more aggressive in policing this line than favored by some, few institutions are willing to openly defy the letter of the OU’s ruling. In fact, staying within the OU’s guidelines is arguably what distinguishes “mainstream” or “centrist” Orthodoxy, from iterations to its left.

Following publication of the aforementioned documents, much of the ensuing discussion sought to understand how the OU drew its lines. To my mind the distinction is best explained in terms of how social scientists distinguish between primary elites, second-tier elites, and third-tier elites. Though using different terms, the OU gave its imprimatur to women functioning as third-tier religious elites whose expertise is premised on Tanakh, philosophy, academia, and “women’s Halakhah.” It equivocated as to whether women can function as second-tier halakhic elites (as evident in internal disagreement about Yoatzot Halakhah), and marshalled arguments predicated on mesorah and serarah to declare that women cannot serve as primary elites. (This is the most cogent explanation of the OU’s reading of serarah: unlike most halakhic rules, it is not grounded in a set of prohibited or required acts, but speaks to the social reality of a woman serving as a primary elite).

Whatever R. Judah thinks about these matters, his educational proposal entails training women as primary halakhic elites and cannot but raise the question of whether women may take on these roles. The OU documents emphatically answer in the negative, but despite some arguments about precise lines and formulations, they largely channel communal self-understanding.

These social facts exert downward pressure on how aspiring Torah scholars formulate their life goals. While the 23-year-old shteiger may not be very sophisticated about his potential career path, he recognizes the well-trodden avenues of melekhet ha-kodesh that lie before him that justify the many years of unremunerated learning. In addition, he confronts a dating pool of young women who aspire to marry a rising lamdan and who themselves can draw on a plethora of role models to emulate. Finally, if at age 28 the young male decides against pursuing Torah as a profession, he can go to law school and lead a life of Torah leadership as a secondary elite. The time spent in learning is an affirmative mitzvah and an independent good the community respects, regardless of ultimate career path.

Consider the parallel situation facing an equally bright and devoted young woman. Her path is far more uncertain and undefined, and filled with pitfalls. To pursue a life of halakhic expertise, she must be a trailblazer, yet a very unblazing one at that—as she cannot press too hard against communal norms. A step too far to the left, and the Centrist community will no longer accept her; too far to the right, and she will cease to be of interest to those craving female halakhic expertise. (I’ve seen both.) Further, she must find a mate who is, in many instances, her spiritual and religious equal, yet is willing to embark with her on an uncertain path which may significantly impact his own religious aspirations and standing. Finally, such a woman has fewer exit options. If at age 28 she decides to enter law school, she will be seen as disappointment to those who invested dearly in her education. Without the hiyuv of Talmud Torah standing behind her, the years spent learning are less appreciated by the surrounding community.

Scalability

Finally, we must address the question of scale. While careful selection process can improve on Hazal’s ratio that for every 1,000 students who begin to study, only one will obtain halakhic expertise, experience in both men’s yeshivot and research universities shows that to produce a first-rate scholar the community must invest in training a much larger group. Further, the more established the track, the more the available off-ramps become clearly defined. Students can find jobs that draw on some of their advanced training, even if they did not excel in or complete the entire course (consider the wide range of quasi-rabbinic jobs that lie between Rosh Yeshiva and front-line mashgiah). But it is harder to see what opportunities are offered to the parallel group of learned women.

In practice, to fulfill R. Judah’s goal we must be willing to direct communal energies towards educating women at elite levels who will inevitably drop out for educational, financial, or familial reasons, and/or owing to the difficulty of staying on the ideological tightrope. It also means supporting not only those who will score a perfect 10 in the decathlon of challenges that face female halakhic experts, but nurturing those who can navigate only 4 or 5 of the hurdles. And because these programs are new and rub up against established boundaries, they will face increased scrutiny. The institution and its base of supporters must be willing to absorb these “failures,” and withstand the hue and cry that its “less than perfect” students will bring on the institution and its mission.

In sum, my response is that the absence of excellence in women’s Talmud Torah is not rooted in a simple lack of will or imagination, or even a failure to fully realize the vision of Orthodoxy’s revered rabbanim. Rather, it is correlated to the Centrist community’s normative stance on family structure, the comparative priority of male versus female mitzvah observance, the role of women as primary halakhic elites, and our willingness to carry the financial and ideological burden of a group large enough to consistently produce the desired result. Until these issues are addressed more directly, it will be difficult for advanced women’s halakhic study to become a stable reality and follow the pattern of men’s yeshivot and research universities.

At the same time, R. Judah’s engagement in this effort pushes my predictions in the opposite direction. Experience shows that the Centrist community will not be swayed by novel halakhic arguments or boundary-pushing efforts. If the norms of this community subtly shift, it will be due to positive encounters with trusted exemplars of the approach R. Judah advocates. To that end, there are no finer ambassadors than Judah and Shayna Goldberg: a Torah leadership family of unparalleled yirat shamayim comprised of talmidei hakhamim whose ongoing commitment to Torah, avodah, and gemilut hasadim reflects the very best our community has produced.

Postscript: Ha Lan Ve-ha Le-hu

Notwithstanding my differences with R. Judah’s analysis, we may be tilting in different directions because we are looking at different communities. In fact, there are several reasons to think R. Judah’s vision is more likely to take hold in Israel than in America.

First, the set of seriously learned women who are respected within their communities is considerably larger in Israel than in the US. This provides a ready base of talent and support from which more advanced programs can develop. Second, as others have written, Israeli society is considerably more open to creative and fluid career paths, which offers the necessary flexibility for select women to navigate forward. Third, because the Israeli conversation is not held against the backdrop of rampant assimilation or the experiences of Reform and Conservative Judaism, there is less anxiety over the slippery slope. Fourth, the greater separation between the haredi and dati leumi communities in Israel makes the latter more self-confident and less likely to peer over its right shoulder. Finally, the OU and its formulations are of less consequence in Israel. This is both because the OU reflects the distinctly American sensibilities described above, and because its guidelines focus primarily on the social-religious and physical structure of the shul. Since, in Israel, religious leadership is less connected to synagogue life, advances in women’s leadership tend to occur more organically than parallel trends in America.

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Chaim Saiman
Chaim Saiman is a Professor of Law at Villanova University where he teaches Jewish law, Contracts and Insurance law. He is an editor of the American Journal of Comparative Law, and has served as the Gruss Professor of Jewish Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, as a fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University. In 2017, he was the Gruss Visiting Professor of Talmudic Law at Harvard Law School.