The female talmudists

A small but growing number of women’s schools in Israel are providing talmudic education to their students.

Women at Matan institute 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Matan)
Women at Matan institute 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Matan)
Only several decades ago it would have been unthinkable for women to learn Talmud within Orthodox circles. The prevailing notion, which still holds sway over considerable portions of the haredi community, is that women have no place within the halls of Torah study and that their place is in the home. However, over the last few decades, and especially since the gains made by the feminist movement in bringing women into the workplace and academia on equal standing with men, Jewish women, both observant and not, have begun to study Torah on their own terms.
In the more modern Orthodox mixed-gender high schools of the northeastern United States, it is now not uncommon to have boys and girls sitting together in lectures on talmudic law and philosophy, while a small but growing number of women’s schools in Israel are providing talmudic education to their students.
Talmud is a central part of the character of rabbinic Judaism, containing as it does the canonization of an oral tradition believed to have been received in tandem with the Pentateuch at Mount Sinai and only written down and formalized following the destruction of the second Jewish commonwealth by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago.
The work, which is approximately the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica, comprises canonical Jewish thought on issues ranging from torts to sacrifices, etiquette and protocol, and metaphysics and moral philosophy.
The role of women in the study of the Talmud, which as stated has been historically minor, entered the public discourse in Israel recently during the completion of the Daf Yomi cycle. Daf Yomi, or the daily page, is a system of Talmud study in which one double-sided folio page is completed every day according to a fixed schedule shared by participants around the world. Every seven years the Talmud is completed in its entirety and celebration ensues.
This year, a group of women studying at Matan, an Israeli women’s institute for Torah studies, celebrated the first siyum, or completion ceremony, for women since the establishment of the Daf Yomi program in 1923.
Having finished the Talmud’s 2,711 pages, the participants in Matan’s shiur, or Talmud class, became something of a media sensation, especially as women were completely absent at all of the large siyum celebrations in Israel and the US.
Matan, founded 24 years ago, has been “promoting Talmud study for women” for decades, says founder Malke Bina. “When we realized we had grown a cadre of teachers through the Talmud program, the idea dawned that a Daf Yomi class could be initiated and taught by women,” she told The Jerusalem Post during the siyum in August.
Only 15 women took part in the siyum itself, but the event has significance out of proportion to its size. The very fact that a women’s Daf Yomi can occur within an Orthodox context is in itself amazing and a sign of the growing acceptance of such study within the Orthodox community in Israel.
While in the US, the modern and centrist Orthodox movements believe in Talmud study as an important, if not central, part of a young woman’s education, such ideas are not as widespread among their Israeli counterparts, the national religious.
It is important, therefore, to note that many of those who have worked to push Talmud study for women in Israel have been American immigrants.
According to Bina, while many in the ultra-Orthodox world look askance at women seeking to study Talmud, upon conceiving of the idea of teaching women the previously closed book, she had received the approbation of leading ultra-Orthodox decisor and ideological guide Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who said that the Talmud would strengthen religious commitment among the women studying the it.
Rabbi Daniel Landes, the director of Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, is also a fierce advocate for talmudic study for women. Pardes, which means orchard in Hebrew, is another Anglo innovation in Israel’s religious world.
Founded in 1972, Pardes is an institute dedicated to the concept of Torah Lishma, or the study of Torah for its own sake. While run according to Orthodox interpretations of Halacha, Jewish law, Pardes is unaffiliated in that it accepts students of all genders, ideological beliefs and levels of observance.
As another of the institutions that has promoted Talmud study among women in Israel, Pardes has sought to blaze a new path for women in their participation in the talmudic discourse.
Landes says that he has seen a “renewal of interest in Talmud” and that at Pardes women have been participating in this renewal since the 1970s.
“Prior to Pardes and schools like it,” he says, “women who wanted to study Talmud had to find a teacher somewhere. While they could take a university course, the courses did not provide a robust community for study. Schools like Pardes provide peer support. This is why you need a beit midrash [traditional study hall] atmosphere.”
At first, he says, there was a great deal of scoffing at the concept of mixed lessons.
“Men and women studying together was thought to be totally ridiculous and completely impossible. ‘Is that really real learning?’ people would ask about the women studying with men. There was a great deal of cognitive dissonance,” he says, explaining that this response came equally from the haredi and the national religious factions. Pardes “got this [response] from dati leumi [national religious] factions because it wasn’t popular in the dati leumi world either.”
Landes believes, however, that “it’s hard to talk to a real talmid hacham [Torah scholar] who will not admit that even Maimonides says that there are always individual women who can understand Gemara [Talmud]. That’s already a tremendous improvement.”
The Orthodox-trained rabbi cited a haredi rabbi with whom he was familiar, whose wife would give halachic advice to men from the community in her husband’s absence. While women are not permitted to serve as rabbis, many modern Orthodox Jews believe that should not prevent them from serving as advocates in rabbinical courts or as experts and researchers enriching the Orthodox discourse.
“Now they don’t believe in this as an educational direction in the haredi world,” Landes says, but in recent years “with people in the national religious world there is a much greater acceptance.”
“There are now women scholars who are as good as the best within both the haredi and national religious world... and it is an amazing trajectory,” Landes says.
This new birth of scholarship, he says, in which women with both beit midrash experience and academic degrees in Bible and talmudic scholarship instruct a new generation of women students, is in part due to the “safe environment in which women can be encouraged and challenged” that is provided by a small but growing number of women’s high school, pre-military academies and institutes of higher learning such as Matan and Pardes.
Moreover, female participation in talmudic dialectics can be crucial for the advancement of Jewish scholarship, Landes asserts, saying that “women bring to the study of Talmud their own contributions.”
“I was teaching Talmud to women, the same thing I have been teaching to men, and I came to a part that talks about what happens after a woman is attacked and has been raped. The guys asked wonderful legal questions. The women also asked wonderful legal questions then all of a sudden a woman asks about how the victim reenters the community. She also asked about how the man reenters the community as well, as we are talking about a civil settlement rather than a criminal trial in that specific case. How do they go back into the community? For a moment I was so confused, I was so ready to dismiss the question,” he says. “I had never asked myself that question.
“So women come with interests regarding relationships and community building that in general, I know I am being stereotypical here, they have a great interest in and men do not have a great interest in. For me, this is a fantastic opportunity for Torah. What an opportunity to understand Talmud” from a new perspective.
One such woman providing a fresh perspective is Avital Hochstein, former head of the Kollel at Pardes and a Talmud scholar.
She is currently co-head of Yeshivat Hadar, a project of Mechon Hadar, an egalitarian educational institution in New York, and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. She recently co-authored The Place of Women in Midrash.
Hochstein says that she didn’t have enough role models regarding women studying Talmud and she is not sure that there are enough for the younger generation either. While learning Talmud is now more accepted and even expected in certain circles, she says, there is certainly room for growth.
“From what I understand,” she says, “from the pre-army programs where the dati [religious] girls go, many have a learning component but not all are focused seriously on Talmud like the men. There definitely aren’t enough places and it’s not much of a norm as it is with the men, but there are plenty of women around who are doing the matriculation exam in Talmud or are studying it the year before starting their national service programs or military service.”
There are not many women for whom Talmud is their main focus, she says... yet.