Torah Study-The Difference Between the Sexes

There is a wonderful Torah study program in Teaneck called Lamdeinu. It is located in an Modern Orthodox Shul. The class is led by Rabbi Daniel Fridman who teaches Gemara to women there 3 times a week.

It’s nice to know that women who so choose – now have the option of studying a subject that until relatively recent times was closed to them.

There are some rabbis in Orthodoxy that oppose such study. Their opposition is based on a Mishna in Sotah (Talmud Bavli -21b) that says - one who teaches his daughter Torah – is teaching her ‘Tiflus’. That Aramaic word is most often translated as promiscuity. Why the Gemarah considered it such is beyond the scope of this post.

Until the early 20th  century Torah was not formally studied by women. Jewish tradition up to that time was that a woman was educated informally in the home. Their role in Jewish life consisted almost entirely of being a wife, mother, and homemaker. There was an infinitesimally small number of religious schools for women up until the 30s.  

That was changed dramatically by a courageous young woman by the name of Sarah Schenirer. She created the Beis Yaakov School system which that began teaching Torah formally to women. This was a radical departure from tradition (Mesorah) that might normally have been rejected by the great rabbinic leaders of that time.

 But the opposite happened. The most prominent Rabbi of that era, Yisroel Meir Kagan (The Chofetz Chaim) enthusiastically endorsed it. Although there was some rabbinic opposition, most rabbinic leaders went along.  Rabbi Kagan saw the lack of such schools as an existential threat.

The enlightenment had opened its doors to the Jewish people. And Jewish women started taking advantage of it. Universities then were even less conducive to traditional Jewish beliefs or practices than they are today. In many cases they were hostile to it. The university environment caused many of these women to abandon observance. Had this situation not been addressed, the primary source of Jewish education in the home  - a Jewishly religious mother - would be lost. The answer was Beis Yaakov. A school that would instill in young Jewish women the values of Judaism by teaching them Torah.

But their Torah studies were limited. They studied biblical texts only. In most cases that included commentators like the Ramban. As well as other Jewish subjects like Jewish history and Jewish thought. But the Gemarah was closed to them. Rabbis felt that if tradition had to be breached it should be done as minimally as possible.

Along came the 70s. By then societal attitudes had changed and women were getting advanced degrees right along with their male counterparts. The idea that women were not suited to advanced study had by then been abandoned. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik determined that it was no longer legitimate to exclude women from Talmud study and launched the first formal Talmud class for women at Yeshiva Unviersity’s Stern College for Women, giving the very first class himself.

But what are the implications of this in our day, in light of the feminist spirit of the times? How far do we go with this? Should we abandon all differences between men and women? Should women now be ordained and become rabbis?

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will know that there are some rabbis on the left that think so and have started doing it. And that has created the biggest rift in Orthodoxy since the advent of the Conservative movement. I am not going to get into the reasons for this controversy other than to say I am opposed to it. They are beyond the scope of this essay and have been widely discussed.

There is however one major difference which I do not believe has been addressed. It is a difference that even the most left wing rabbi has to recognize. I have not heard it mentioned by either protagonists or antagonists. The difference is in the intensity of Torah study and the time attributed to it over the course of many years. This ought to be a consideration in the granting of a rabbinic ordiantion. It shouldn’t be just about passing tests.

I believe that on this basis, most women today would not qualify. There is a very logical reason for that. Women are not required to study Torah. They are only permitted to study it. And like all other Mitzvos which they are permitted but not required to do -  it is laudable when women do so. However, because of this lack of requirement, there are no major Yeshivos for women like Lakewood, Mir, Telshe, or Yeshiva University, where the bulk of one’s day and much of the night is spent pouring over Talmudic texts and their commentaries. 

Can such yeshivas arise? Sure. But they won’t. 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. They don’t have to be. For those that are interested, there are smaller programs available. But not anything near the major Yeshivos. Or even the smaller ones like them.

It isn’t about intelligence or will. Both men and women posses the intelligence to do this. And there are surely women that have the will. They just don’t have the opportunity. There will never be a critical mass of female students that would populate such schools.

Although I’m sure there are exceptions I do not see women going to a beis hamedrash day after day, year after year studying Gemarah from early in the morning until well into the night.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.

This is not to take away from what they can and many do achieve. It’s just that I don’t see the conditions materializing that make it as conducive for a critical mass of women to achieve as much as men do. Nothing to do with intelligence or individual motive.

So when I see certain left wing rabbis giving Semicha to women saying they passed the same exam as men do, I tend to doubt that their level of Torah knowledge or proficiency is anywhere near the same. They may have learned the material to pass the tests given. But it is highly unlikely for women to have studied as much as men have by the time they get ordained Albeit through no fault of their own.

This does not mean that we can’t recognize what women can and do achieve. Surely we can and should. As Rabbi Shmuel Goldin put it

"My position is that we are in favor of women’s higher learning and that there should be a leadership track for women," he said, "but it doesn’t have to be the identical one as men. There should be women scholars, educators, leaders and religious counselors; they don’t have to be rabbis."

I agree. This is the right approach to Torah study for women. Rabbis that want to ordain women need to acknowledge that Jewish education of men and women are simply not the same. No matter how much they try or want it to be. It probably never will be.  

It is nice to see that there are Modern Orthodox women like those Modern in Rabbi Fridman’s Talmud studying for purely intellectual reasons and not feminist ones. Says, Lamdeinu founder Rachel Friedman: 

(T)here’s no discussion of such issues among the nearly 300 women who have signed up for the array of Lamdeinu courses.This is all about the learning and becoming more knowledgeable in Jewish texts.  (She) stresses that the study hall is free of any feminist or political agenda. The onetime attorney who left the corporate world to study Jewish texts she said she has long dreamed of creating an environment where women from diverse backgrounds can gather and feel comfortable asking questions and learning interactively. 

All I can say about this attitude is ‘Ken Yirbu’. May it increase.