Meet Prof. Noam Vered, the 1st woman to win the Israel Prize for Talmud

As a child I felt that Talmud is a conversation that links people and creates joy and also has something different from everyday life, something higher and beautiful.

Noam: Teaching on Zoom is difficult and requires more effort than teaching in the classroom. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Noam: Teaching on Zoom is difficult and requires more effort than teaching in the classroom.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Prof. Vered Noam, 59, was in high school in Jerusalem, her school did not teach girls Talmud. So twice a week, she snuck out of school and went to the newly opened Pelech school for girls in Jerusalem to study Talmud. Today she is the first woman to win the Israel Prize for Talmud. She is the chair of the Chaim Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies and Archaeology at Tel Aviv University. When she talks about Talmud, her face lights up. She spoke with The Jerusalem Post on Zoom.
How did you get interested in Talmud?
I can’t remember a time I wasn’t interested in Talmud. I grew up in a house filled with Torah conversations at the table. As a child I felt that Talmud is a conversation that links people and creates joy and also has something different from everyday life, something higher and beautiful, so it was very clear to me that I wanted to be part of that.
Tell me about your family growing up.
I grew up in Jerusalem, in Rechavia. My father was a Bible scholar at Bar Ilan University – Prof. Yehuda Elitzur, and my mother, Rivka Elitzur, was a children’s book author. She wrote several books that went on to become iconic, at least within the religious community. For example, Shalom Lach Orachat (Welcome, Guest) is a book that everyone who grew up around here knows. Every religious home and every religious preschool has a copy.
I grew up with four siblings. I have an older sister and three brothers; one of my brothers, Uri Elitzur, a shrewd thinker and journalist and the founder of the Makor Rishon newspaper, passed away five years ago. I was the youngest, by far, so maybe part of my desire to study was to join in, to be part of the conversation. It was really a beautiful, happy religious-Zionist home with an emphasis on the importance of life in Israel and in Jerusalem and being thankful we have a state of our own.
Passover Seder was a very formative experience for me. I was thinking recently that most of my choices in life come from that experience. Seder was very central for my father. He used to say every part of Jewish history corresponds to one of the holidays. You could say those living in exile, who were hunted and lived in harsh conditions, were living out the High Holidays, whereas we – living in an era of redemption, as he believed – are experiencing Passover. The Seder is the only religious ceremony we perform at home, with our families, not in synagogue. Seder isn’t in fact a dramatization of leaving Egypt, but rather a revival of sorts of the Tannaitic Beit Midrash, (the Study Hall of the sages of the Mishna, compiled in 200 CE). So I think part of my love for that world of the Talmud was born there, at the Seder table, which, as I intuitively felt as a child, connected me to my parents and siblings on one hand and back to the sages and Jewish history on the other.
Where did you study?
I went to high school at Evelina de Rothchild and then did all three of my degrees including my doctorate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Then I moved to Tel Aviv University and started teaching at the Department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud.
What is your research focused on?
I’m most curious about the world of the sages (of the Mishnah and Talmud), because it’s such a different world than the Biblical world which preceded it. The sages make major changes that seem so far from the literal interpretation of the text. The central Jewish values of studying Torah, the creation of a huge multifaceted halachic edifice and a new, fascinating hermeneutical system are among the rabbinic phenomena that don’t exist in the actual Bible. In many ways, the sages constructed a whole new religious culture which molded Jewish practice, values and unique identity to this very day. One can say that where the prophets failed; the sages succeeded.
I am curious about how this world came to be and I think the missing link between the Bible and the sages is the Second Temple period. We don’t know enough about this period in these regards, but we do have Josephus’s writings, Philo, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament. So my work connects the edges of the ends of Second Temple times on one side and the beginning of the Sages period on the other side. My first book dealt with (the Talmudic tractate) Ta’anit, which is a semi-historical text, written in Aramaic during the Second Temple period, but later adopted and interpreted by the sages. Another study of mine dealt with trying to follow the development of halacha from its ancient inceptions in the Dead Sea Scrolls, through the test case of certain aspects of purity and impurity. I recently published a book with Tal Ilan and others about the literary relationship between Josephus’s writings and the rabbinic literature.
Now I’m working on a new critical edition of a Qumran scroll named Some Precepts of the Torah, which deals with halachic disputes between the Judaean Desert sectarians and their rivals, probably the Pharisees, who were most likely the progenitors of the rabbis. Trying to understand this debate, you essentially go back in time to when halacha was being shaped.
Does your research influence your own religious practice?
I really try to keep it purely academic. That is, I’m sure that every scholar who studies a certain field in the humanities does so because it is somehow connected to what Kabbalists would name “the roots of his soul.” It is impossible to sever one’s intellectual interest from one’s biography and social circumstances. Still, I think it’s crucial that when you deal with research you do it for research’s sake, as pure as possible.
Do you define yourself as Orthodox?
I grew up in an Orthodox world and I consider myself committed to halacha. On the other hand, I think the labels “Orthodox,” “Conservative” [and] “Reform” are anachronistic. They aren’t intra-Jewish definitions, but rather arose in the 19th century, based on changes in the Christian world. So, I think it would be best if we abandoned them entirely, and instead looked at halachic challenges on a case-by-case basis, according to the intrinsic rules of halacha. For example, if a woman wears a tallit (prayer shawl), we shouldn’t react with alarm simply because it reminds us of Reform politics, but we should debate the question on its own halachic merits.
In my private – rather than scholarly – life, I’m very interested in the questions of the extent of freedom the halachic framework enables. I believe we have a lot more options of change and renewal than what is granted by the religious establishment today.
Tell me about your family.
I’m married to Elhanan, and everything I’ve done is thanks to him. We have six children; three boys and three girls. Five are married, and we are waiting for our 12th grandchild. Elhanan has a financial consulting firm for companies and businesses. During these difficult times he’s very busy.
Do you think women learn Talmud differently than men?
My inclination is to simply say no. At least I hope not. If they still do, it’s because there’s still strong discrimination in terms of the rabbinical education available to women, so sometimes when women encounter Talmud and its idiosyncratic way of reasoning, they express an outsider’s point of view. Sometimes these reactions are useful, sometimes we need to step back and ask the fundamental questions, and that’s fine. It doesn’t need to be women’s questions, and as they receive a more Talmudic education, the learning will become everyone’s. Just like women’s study of math or biology or medicine is not different than men’s, it should not be different with regard to Talmudic learning either. Human intellect is human intellect.
What do you think of the Daf Yomi movement which has lately become more popular among women?  (Note: It takes 7.5 years to complete the entire Talmud studying one folio a day)
At first I thought it was better for a person to sit and study a tractate in depth. Daf Yomi is very demanding, it’s hard to stick to and by definition it’s pretty superficial; but later, at some point when they started (the tractate) Baba Kama in the previous cycle, I decided to join and I found it meaningful. It’s encouraging that so many people all over the world are studying the same thing at the same time.
That got me thinking that there may also be a way to deepen the learning, if occasionally, when something on the page catches your eye you look into it and share your findings. If there’s a large enough group and everyone shares something, then you end up delving a lot deeper into the text. I started doing this on my personal Facebook page, when I had an idea I posted there and then I wondered, why not open a group? So, halfway through Baba Kama in the last cycle I opened a page called “Yomi” on Facebook, just as a personal initiative, and it now has more than 2,000 members.
How did you find out that you had won the Israel Prize for Talmud?
It was Tu Bishvat (in February) and I was at Tel Aviv University. It was a cold, rainy evening and I was on my home to Kfar Adumim. It’s a long trip and I was exhausted. Halfway through the trip my husband called and said he was with our daughter, who lives in [Jerusalem’s] Ein Kerem. He said, ‘Come join us, just turn around and drive to Ein Kerem.’ I debated, I was tired and didn’t know whether to go to my daughter’s or go straight home. Then I decided, ‘OK, I’ll go to her house.’ I went there and got the call, happily, with my husband and daughter, which was much better than getting the call driving alone in the dark.
A lot has been made of the fact that you’re the first woman to win the Israel Prize in Talmud.
I’m a bit torn on the matter. It’s very important to me that there be egalitarian Talmudic education, from the age of six through places that give women the equivalent of “smicha” (Rabbinic ordination). Once that happens, women will be a full part of the religious world; I think that’s a very important goal. On the other hand, it’s very important that this progression be natural and I dislike the emphasis on women being women. I want to be part of the learning community. So on the one hand I disliked the focus on my gender, but on the other hand when I saw the joy it brought some communities and how excited some of my friends got I was moved. If it gives a push and opens the Talmudic world to women who deserve it and who want it then I’m grateful for the opportunity, and happy about it.
How has coronavirus affected your work?
Being cut off from the university and from the campus is not easy. I’m trying to teach through Zoom and keep running the School of Jewish Studies and Archeology from afar, so I also have a lot of administrative work and responsibilities. Teaching on Zoom is difficult and requires more effort than teaching in the classroom, since interaction with students is limited. You cover more material, but it feels strange and exhausting. I think we all share the burden of being cooped up. I’m lucky to live in a rural area.