Commentary

Why I believe in Women and Their Batei Midrash

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Shayna Goldberg

The challenge is real. The frustrations often run deep. Every woman who has followed her heart to the beit midrash, into the arena of higher Torah learning has a story—or several—that she can share. Maybe her intentions were questioned or her yirat Shamayim doubted. Perhaps she felt underwhelmed by the learning opportunities that were offered to her or that no one really believed in her abilities. She may have worried at times that the risks were too great, the endpoint too uncertain, and any possible career path too unclear.

Nonetheless, I remain dedicated to encouraging young women to enter the beit midrash. Why do I believe so strongly in women experiencing firsthand what it means to engage seriously with Torah She-be’al Peh? Are we not just leading them to the edge of a cliff and inviting a lifelong struggle with tensions that may remain forever irreconcilable?

As a lifelong participant in women’s batei midrash—first as a student and now as an educator—I read with great interest and concern Ayelet Wenger’s recent self-reflective Lehrhaus essay. It provoked my own reflection about the place in which my students, colleagues, and I find ourselves.

I don’t know where the path of women’s learning will lead, and I can understand that, for some women, the questions of where they can go on it and how fast they can get there are so unsettling that these feelings overtake the joy that brought them to the gates of Torah to begin with.

Moreover, these questions are most haunting for the most talented and ambitious and thirsty among us; those who yearn to grow into genuine scholars in a way that I never could; those who, with a different set of chromosomes, might have become roshei yeshiva. The glass ceiling hangs low and is not likely to be shattered.

Yet, I still believe that the immersive experience of talmud Torah in a traditional setting is too important to dismiss, even if it means hitting up against the ceiling. Just because we are not sure what the endgame will look like for the select few who could be reaching for the stars does not mean, I believe, that we should discourage our young women from entering the field. I do not think that the success of a women’s beit midrash should be measured only by the number of true talmidot hakhamim it produces. Even under a low-hanging ceiling, the walls of the beit midrash have much to offer.

A woman who has seriously engaged in traditional analysis of our primary texts can converse in them as an “insider.” Like a doctor reading the medical literature and a lawyer researching judicial rulings, a “professional Jew” must be able to read and interpret Hebrew and Aramaic legal texts. A woman trained to do this can ask questions and research them and enjoy the benefits of literacy and fluency. This experience alone is a game-changer in the life of a Jewish woman. She is not just a blind follower but an active participant. She is privy to a more sophisticated understanding and appreciation of how halakhah operates, and as such often develops a deeper respect for the halakhic system. She can understand the key principles in play. She can differentiate between de-Oraita, de-rabbanan and minhag. And she can understand when and why exceptions can be made.

A woman who has experienced the breadth and depth of Torah learns to approach it—I hope—with deeper humility. A woman who has studied an issue in depth has a greater ability to value different approaches, to understand different opinions, and to appreciate decisions that different communities make. Real exposure to the complexities of the system makes it harder to write off or criticize a halakhic position out of armchair intuition or common sense.

A woman who has intensively studied halakhah can make better educated and more informed decisions in her halachic practice. She is empowered to know what to do in her day-to-day life and is not paralyzed or dependent every time a halakhic question arises. When she does need to consult with rabbinic authority, she possesses the ability to ask better and more relevant questions. She knows when there is room for flexibility. Overall, she can engage with halakhah with more understanding and less resentment.

A woman who has sat within the walls of a beit midrash can contribute differently to her various circles of community, starting with her own family. Torah will play a different role in her relationship with her spouse; it will appear with greater sophistication in her mealtime conversations. A mother who is familiar and comfortable with our core texts can be more deeply involved in her children’s Torah study and in their schoolwork. She feels comfortable navigating material with them and answering their questions. Her knowledge and engagement can leave a deep, if quiet, impact on her children, especially on her daughters’ connection with their Judaism, with Torah, and with God.

A woman who has learned is a woman who can teach. She can deliver shiurim in her community. She can weigh in more thoughtfully on community decisions. Her learned voice can (though may not always) be heard, and her opinion can be valued in a halakhic conversation.

A woman who has turned the pages of a Gemara can have an impact on learning that reaches beyond the batei midrash of women. She can raise different questions that may not have been asked before or at least not considered from a feminine perspective. She can also encourage and demand a deeper sensitivity when thinking about and addressing complicated issues of marriage, divorce, rape and other topics within Judaism that relate directly to women.

A woman who loves and learns Torah can be a role model for young women and for young men. She can stretch imaginations, expand horizons, and challenge assumptions. She has a relationship with Torah that is real and alive. She can speak openly about her successes and her challenges as she continually forges a tighter relationship with her Creator.

A woman who has learned extensively can advocate for other women in front of a beit din. She can help couples navigate personal questions in taharat ha-mishpaha and can advise on all kinds of situations that arise. She can serve a community, provide guidance, offer counseling, and provide pastoral support. She can inspire in formal and informal ways.

Finally, a woman who has spent time in a beit midrash understands that the halakhah is not just a rulebook, but a life force. She understands that it is not just an instruction manual with laws to follow but also a wondrous world to enter, breathe and experience. Through her study, she has learned to experience and appreciate the enormous spiritual significance of a humble encounter with the Divine.

As someone who has been privileged to learn a little, I have developed high aspirations for my children and for my students. I want them to be not only shomrei mitzvot but full bnei and bnot Torah who are active participants in this transcendent drama of engagement with devar Hashem.  I want to see them foster a spiritual identity that does not just practice halakhah but is immersed in it, and I believe that a key way of fostering that identity is by toiling in Torah.

Is there more that can be done for women? Of course.

Are there heavy questions that we are not sure how to resolve? Definitely.

Could the educational system for young girls, starting from an early age, use an overhaul and benefit from fresh perspectives and new creative methods? Without a doubt. Do we need more institutions that offer multi-year tracks for women who want to pursue limmud Torah on the highest of levels? Most certainly. Is it time to open programs, for the select aspiring talmidot hakhamim, that demand the same commitment and time investment, if not more, that other elite professional tracks do? I think so. Should these programs be opened even if only a handful of women are initially interested? There is no other way to start.

Are there women who feel that the system has failed them and are left searching for more, or women who have fled to environments that they felt would believe in them more? I know them.

I would love to see more opportunities, more intensive programs, longer hours, more years of Torah study and broader career options available for women whose souls thirst for it, even if there are only a few. Even if the programs must be built first so that they will come. I believe there are many other women and men who would like to see this as well.

I know men who believe in this vision le-khathila and are devoting their professional lives to teaching high-level Gemara to women. They do so because they believe in these young, talented women and believe that the future of Judaism depends upon them, not because these men couldn’t land jobs in yeshivot for men. There are institutions actively thinking about all these questions and planning their next steps—though perhaps not as quickly and aggressively as their constituencies might like.

We could tell our daughters and our students that there is nothing there for them. We could tell  them that change is too slow and that it is taking too long, that the experiment has not worked. We could tell our daughters and students that perhaps it is not worth the wait or the struggle. We could lament that everyone has failed them.

But I cannot fail them.

I feel compelled, instead, to tell them that life is complicated; that it is not all or nothing; that you cannot choose the reality into which you were born but you do get to choose how to respond; that, as my mother likes to emphasize, everyone ultimately “does what they want to do;” and that people have to make their own calculations and decide what works for them, but that they also have to own those decisions.

I can empathize with those—men and women—who have chosen out of frustration to not pursue the field of Torah in its traditional context. I don’t judge, and I certainly don’t want to blame.

Personally, though, I choose to not simmer in frustration or let cynicism bring me down. I have found that anger and resentment, while real and valid and not always controllable on the personal level, are not usually productive in advancing our cause in the public square. And this cause matters to me, and to many others. We feel that it is worth the fight, despite all the frustration involved.

When we first ventured into the beit midrash, no one told us that our path would be easy. No one made us promises they couldn’t keep. No one told us that developments would happen at the pace we wanted or in the ways we expected. No one said that we wouldn’t be lonely or have to swallow a lot along the way.

But I have chosen to not turn back. I learn and teach Torah because it is invigorating, thought- provoking and stimulating. I learn and teach Torah because it builds my religious world and shapes its contours. I learn and teach Torah because it enriches my life and fills it with meaning. I learn and teach Torah because it brings me closer to my Creator.

I learn Torah because I cannot imagine my life any other way. And I teach Torah because there is no career I can fathom as more fulfilling, rewarding, and satisfying than traveling with others on the well-trodden paths of our traditions and journeying with them into realms still unexplored.

There are plenty of things that could frustrate me if I chose to dwell upon them. But I don’t have that luxury. So many of our students and daughters would like to throw their lot in with Torah in its most traditional form, and they are looking to us. My job, I think, is to share with them the connection, excitement, and passion I feel when I engage directly with devar Hashem and to continually try to uplift and inspire them, even when I am feeling tired and especially when they start to grow frustrated.

For I cannot fail them.

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Shayna Goldberg
Shayna Goldberg teaches in the Stella K. Abraham Beit Midrash for Women at Migdal Oz. She previously taught halakha at the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck, NJ and served as a yoetzet halacha for Congregations Rinat Yisrael and Ahavat Torah, as well as for Kehilat Kesher, all in New Jersey. She lives in Alon Shevut, Israel, with her husband and five children.