WATER FROM THE WELL: A rupture of her own

As Simhat Torah approaches and the celebration of Torah will be felt in synagogues and communities around the world, I wish to address my experience as a woman studying Torah.

Torah scroll (photo credit: Courtesy)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: Courtesy)
T his column is excerpted from an article appearing in the upcoming symposium on Prof. Haym Soloveitchik’s essay from 1994, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Modern Orthodoxy” to be published in the journal Tradition.
As Simhat Torah approaches and the celebration of Torah will be felt in synagogues and communities around the world, I wish to address my experience as a woman studying Torah texts over the past 30 years and how I have experienced the rupture and subsequent reconstruction in Jewish identity and practice in its wake. I was part of a small group of young women in the 1980s at Stern College interested in studying Talmud seriously. After graduating, I spent years studying Talmud in Jerusalem at Matan before going on to study Halacha in Nishmat’s Yoetzet Halakha program and Matan’s Hilkhata program. The evolution of halachic thought and application fascinated me spiritually and intellectually and gave rise to a longing to be part of the chain of transmission and education.
The challenge that came with learning text was seeing the words through a lens it had never been held up to – the lens of women’s perceptions, thoughts, and considerations. Hand in hand with slowly gaining mastery over the language and skills necessary to study and understand Talmudic texts and codes of law, came the growing recognition that I was reading these texts differently than the men who were teaching me or my male counterparts who were studying the same thing. While most men are able to delve into the legal conversations in an impersonal way, my experience from the world of a women’s beit midrash is that one cannot remain indifferent to statements that objectify women in a way that is no longer acceptable in modern society.
The initial rush that came with the privilege of Talmud study morphed into a lifelong experience of ongoing connection. Studying Talmud allows me to access the most seminal Jewish text after the Torah. It connects me to my past and illuminates my present and future. There is a sense of awe in listening to the voices learning and interpreting the Torah as they have for thousands of years. No topic is too small or mundane and the many stories and narratives give insight into personal and theological struggles. It is an intellectual challenge and a spiritual anchor. Moving from the Talmud into the vast world of halachic codification, I better understand how I am meant to live my life in a constant encounter with the divine. Torah study has a vibrancy and passion that invites connection through questioning and exploring and provides the guidelines and boundaries I need for this ongoing journey.
However, in my pursuit of knowledge and understanding, there is also a sense of alienation. I cannot ignore that the world of Talmud is a world of hierarchy. In that hierarchy men have more mitzvot and obligation in the private and public sphere, serve as witnesses and judges on rabbinic courts, acquire women in marriage, and have exclusive control over divorce, all of which translate into more stature and worth. This is best exemplified in a classic Talmudic discussion: if a man and woman are drowning and only one can be saved, the man takes precedence because his life is worth more as a result of his greater obligations to Torah and mitzvot.
Not surprisingly, I am most drawn to the texts that are the most challenging – and most directly relevant – for me. There is something ineluctably fascinating in reading about yourself through the eyes of another. Over and over again, I return to the tractates of Ketubot, Kiddushin and Gittin as well as the tractate of Nidda, circling the texts and re-immersing, searching for my voice in a sea of men’s voices about women’s bodies, women’s experiences and women’s most intimate moments.
The sense of dissonance becomes more acute when women seek written proof that the codes of dress and behavior mandated by religious society are justified. Dress style has always been mimetic, based on society’s expectations and standards. In the Talmud, this is expressed in a series of short sugyot around the code, called dat yehudit, or Jewish practice, which is concerned with the behavior and dress of (married) Jewish women in an attempt to prevent acculturation. Religious women today actually want to acculturate in their dress and are heavily influenced by fashion styles that largely fall far short of the modesty standards required by religious communities.
When my students unpack the sources and engage in text analysis on this topic, they are underwhelmed by how unrelatable and insufficient the sources seem. The Talmudic and post-Talmudic discussions on the topic are androcentric and are almost exclusively concerned with men’s obligation to focus on the spiritual and not lose focus due to a woman’s partial bodily exposure during ritual practice. There are no fully parallel restrictions on men. While inevitable in modern Jewish institutions, text study on matters of dress, hair covering and women’s singing voices can lead to a complete delegitimization of the topic.
My own experience has been that in today’s source-based learning environment, the “touchstone of religious authenticity,” as it were, invites new challenges to the foundations of religious life. Often, rigorous text study, especially on women’s issues, but not only, can lead to disillusionment. The demystification of halachic sources unmasks the fragility of the entire construct, which at times can be shattering. There is a growing sense that in this generation the entire system of Halacha is on trial! I spend many hours discussing and defending its integrity, value and truth with students after teaching contemporary halachic issues. For some, text study liberates, providing tools to grapple with and reconcile our tradition and lending context to the structure. This, however, does not always lead to stricter devotion. Often students feel at liberty, because of the learning, to pick and choose what speaks to them. For others, there remains an unsettling sense of the arbitrary, and meta-questions of faith and belief hover implacably in the background.
I believe that we are at a seminal time in Jewish history. The walls of the academy might be tilting forward and backward to regain equilibrium, but the inner core is solid and strong and will withstand. The challenge is to find more nuanced and authentic ways to teach the sources, but simultaneously admit that not everything is text-based and the values and traditions that have been passed on through the generations are as much at the core of our Jewish identity and observance as the text itself.
The writer is a yo’etzet halacha, holds a master’s degree in Talmud from Bar-Ilan University and graduated from Matan’s Hilkhata program. She teaches Talmud, contemporary halacha, and gender and religion at Pardes, Matan and Torah V’Avodah.