HALACHA MATTERS: An unprecedented time in Jewish history

Today, even the most ultra-Orthodox communities have strong education systems for girls through and often post-high school, recognizing that education may threaten the status quo but it also empowers

 Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
S havuot – the holiday on which we commemorate the receiv - ing of the Torah on Mount Si- nai – is on May 20. As I think about learning and accepting Torah, I cannot help but reflect on two recent events that reflect the steps forward and backward in the advance- ment of Torah education for women.
Two weeks ago, on Parashat Emor, over 70 learned women went out to communities around Israel to teach Torah. Shabbat Dorshot Tov was an exciting venture organized by the Orthodox Jewish feminist organization Kolech for the third year running in partnership with Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Study, Midreshet Lindenbaum, Midreshet Ein Hanatziv and the rabbinical organization Beit Hillel.
The following day, information began to circulate about the rabbinic conference of national religious rabbis that took place on May 10, to commemorate the 70 years of national religious Zionism in Israel and to discuss contemporary challenges.
Women were not invited, which in and of itself is not unusual. Nonetheless, this created a minor uproar that reached the media, since some of the roundtable discussions were to be about women and their increasing interest in greater participation in synagogue, among other topics. The idea that men would be sitting around talking about women’s needs in religious ritual, or how we find meaning in observance, was jarring in an era where women are capable of adding their voices to such conversations.
If I look back at history, I am, however optimistic. Rabbi Eliezer made a strong statement in the Mishna found in Tractate Sota almost 2,000 years ago: “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah, it is as if he teaches her tiflut .” Roughly translated, this means lewdness or sexual immorality. He is reflecting on the possibility that teaching women may increase the incidence of women accused of adultery, but without the legal proof needed to convict her in court.
But his is not the only voice in the Mishna. Ben Azzai took the opposite approach: A man must teach his daughter Torah so that she knows that merit will suspend her sentence. Ben Azzai was less concerned with resultant promiscuity and more concerned with providing women with the tools needed to navigate this complex and humiliating ritual.
The Mishna presents two fundamentally opposite approaches: Education empowers and gives a person resources to handle or possibly avoid untoward situations, or, in contrast, education disrupts and threatens the status quo.
In this case, I would suggest that Rabbi Eliezer was talking about a certain societal structure of rabbinic authority coupled with expected gender behavior: if women know the loopholes in a given system, this may encourage promiscuity by brazenly empowering women to go around the authority structures.
While Rabbi Eliezer remained the dominant position for 2,000 years, already attitudes begin to shift with Maimonides, who while upholding Rabbi Eliezer, wrote that women receive a reward for studying Torah, although not equal to the reward of men. A century or two later, in Ashkenaz, the author of Sefer Hasidim writes that women have to be educated enough in order to know how and what to do within the labyrinth of religious practice and ritual. Both of these ideas are passed down in the Shulhan Aruch.
The conversation did not progress very much until the 20th century, when Sarah Schenirer recognized the terrible price Orthodoxy was paying for ignoring women’s education. Mandatory education laws throughout Europe forced religious girls into the secular public-school education. There was no alternative. Schenirer came to set up the Bais Yaakov school system beginning in 1917, gaining rabbinic approval only after the fact.
At this point, the language in the halachic discourse around educating women began to change. There was an admission that the family no longer provided the anchor for belief and observance that it once did. It was seen as an hour of necessity and crisis. It became an outright obligation for fathers to ensure the religious education of their daughters.
Today, even the most ultra-Orthodox communities have strong education systems for girls through and often post-high school, recognizing the reality – that education may threaten the status quo but it also empowers, engages and enriches and ultimately, creates the anchor that defines and strengthens identity and connection.
Some 40 years ago, Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in New York City began teaching Talmud to women, more or less at the same time that other institutions in New York and Jerusalem began teaching it as well. It was the obvious next step for a generation of women being raised to believe that there should be no limitations to their educational access, but it was unprecedented and the ramifications were many in terms of what such education would or could lead to.
I often reflect that I had the honor and privilege to be part of an unprecedented time in Jewish history as part of a growing group of women who have been offered the opportunity to study Talmud and later halachic texts, allowing me to enter a conversation that could not have been possible even 50 years ago.
Women are teaching, writing and answering halachic questions, mostly but not exclusively, in the areas of divorce, ritual immersion and sexual intimacy as well as in the areas of Shabbat and kashrut and much more. Perhaps the organizers of the national religious rabbinic conference should recognize that when women and men can sit together to respectfully build a religious society based on shared goals, it can only result in a better society – “for the sake of heaven.” I understand that change is threatening, and I don’t want to lose the men to gain the women. However, I firmly believe that creating a partnership in which men and women take an equal role in building and shaping religious society – even if that space is not egalitarian – is one worth educating toward.
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.