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May women study the Talmud?

Ask the Rabbi: To inspire the next generation of women toward a religious lifestyl, they must be afforded greater opportunities.

Jewish women learning
Photo by: Lydia Polimeni
In a famous Biblical passage recited daily in the Shema prayer, the Torah commands, “And you shall teach them [the commandments] to your children” (Deuteronomy 11:19). The Sages derived from this verse the obligation to both learn and teach Torah (Kiddushin 29b), and further extolled Torah study as the greatest of mitzvot (Peah 1:1). The Bible further states that one should study Torah every day and night (Joshua 1:8). While this mitzva is minimally fulfilled by reciting the Shema, the Sages greatly commend those who establish fixed times for daily study.

The Sages, however, understood that women were excluded from the formal commandment to study Torah, at least in its most comprehensive form (Kiddushin 29b).

One sage, Rabbi Eliezer, went further to forbid teaching Torah to daughters by comparing it to the teaching of “tiflut” (Sotah 21b).

While commentators dispute the meaning of this term, many followed Maimonides’s explanation that unlettered women would denigrate the Torah’s wisdom into trivialities and vanities (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:13).

Rabbi Eliezer’s stand was so strong that he refused to answer an intelligent query from a woman who was one of his primary patrons (JT Sotah 3:4). While an opposing sage, Ben-Azzai, contended that fathers must teach their daughters, he garnered minimal support (Otzar Hamelech 1:13), with the historical consensus siding with Rabbi Eliezer.

Yet several limitations were put on the scope of this alleged prohibition. Numerous commentators believed that women may study Scriptures, at least on a basic level, even as study of the Oral Law remains prohibited (Taz OC 47:10). This would help explain female participation in the Hakhel ceremony every seven years, when the Torah was publicly read (Bach YD 246). Women must recite the blessings over Torah study each morning, which further indicates that they may be rewarded for their voluntary study (Gra OC 47). Equally significant, several medieval scholars asserted that women are obligated to learn the material necessary for their halachic observance (YD 246:6).

Accordingly many communities historically limited women’s education to practical instruction from their mothers, with very minimal textual study (Aruch Hashulhan 246:19), a practice that continues today among Satmar Hassidim (Vayoel Moshe).

Yet other decisors asserted that while the Talmud discourages fathers from teaching their daughters, a qualified woman can elect, on her own, to learn Torah (Prisha YD 246). This self-motivation proves that the woman is not turning the Torah’s wisdom into trivialities, and makes her worthy of reward. This dispensation, Rabbi Chaim David Azulai (18th century) further asserted, explains why the Talmud gave Bruria accolades for her wisdom and knowledge (Tov Ayin 4). Indeed, despite limited educational opportunities, many examples of learned women (usually related to great scholars) have been mentioned in rabbinic literature throughout the ages (Halichot Bat Yisrael 9:7). In light of this historical phenomenon, a few scholars have questioned whether Rabbi Eliezer’s statement really represents a bona fide prohibition, or was simply meant as a word of caution (Aseh Lecha Rav 2:52).

Others contended that he only meant to prohibit teaching younger children, but not mature, sophisticated daughters (Torah Temima, Deuteronomy 11:17).

As women worldwide began to receive greater general education, a number of schools for girls developed, particularly in 19th-century German communities, with the belief that the knowledge necessary for women to maintain religious commitment was greater than in previous generations.

This sentiment culminated in the early 20th century, when the famed Rabbi Yisrael Kagan gave his support to Sarah Schenirer’s fledgling network of Bais Yaakov schools (Likutei Halachot, Sotah 21). Noting the phenomenon of secularly educated women leaving traditional lifestyles, he asserted that contemporary women must receive greater exposure to Scripture and rabbinic ethical literature. This limited curriculum is maintained in many girls’ schools under the belief that Talmudic literature should remain off-limits to the average female student (Igrot Moshe YD 3:87).

Other scholars, however, including rabbis Zalman Sorotzkin (Mozna’im Lamishpat 1:42) and Joseph Soloveitchik, asserted that women, especially those with secular education, must be exposed to the most sophisticated of rabbinic literature. Soloveitchik implemented this belief in his own schools, asserting that a Talmudic curriculum was an “absolute imperative” and that the continued neglect of such teaching “has contributed greatly to the deterioration and downfall of traditional Judaism” (Community, Covenant, & Commitment).

As Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein has argued, students in more traditional circles are indirectly exposed to Talmudic teachings through the biblical commentaries of Rashi and Ramban, as well as in legal works, and there remains no reason to categorically deny women more intense exposure. This curricular development, he further asserted, does not break from traditional Halacha, but instead recognizes that the education necessary to inspire the next generation of women toward a religious lifestyle must afford greater opportunities for rigorous and sophisticated study.

The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.

JPostRabbi@yahoo.com


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