311_jewish women learning.
(photo credit: 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
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,
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.