Life as a female smicha student

There are also certain things that can only be perceived from the outside, or from the other side of the mechitza.

Life as a female smicha student  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Life as a female smicha student
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When I was young, I was drawn to the study of Torah as a way to get closer to God and as an answer to questions that arose in the formative stages of my identity as an observant Jew. To play off the language of the Mishna: “Know how to respond – to yourself.” Talmudic dialectics demanded of me not to leave my own intellectual integrity on the outskirts of my spiritual explorations.
Talmud study also offered a source of enjoyment and an analytical challenge. But after several years of studying Talmud, I wanted more. All my best teachers had invested more than a decade of intensive study in these texts, and it was clear to me that I was still at the threshold.
For me, the years at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York were not the end goal but rather the springboard for further learning – though clearly the years I had invested would already have equipped me with the necessary background to teach Oral Law in high schools and even to teach Talmud in a post-high school midrasha (institute of Jewish learning for women). A similar educational and career trajectory typifies many of my colleagues at Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership. They were also driven to further learning after completing the Matan Institute for Advanced Talmud, Nishmat’s program for yoatzot halacha (women qualified to give halachic advice to other women regarding the laws of family purity), or Lindenbaum’s own training for dayanim (rabbinic court judges) – all of these frameworks enabling women to explore various areas of Jewish tradition, ancient, medieval and modern.
In my opinion, just as in houses of prayer there must be windows – so too, a house of study, a beit midrash, must be an open space – and not just with an opening heavenward. As distinct from my academic study of Talmud, wherein I was required to track down the various manuscripts of a text in musty basement libraries, aided by microfiche technology – my training in applied rabbinic rulings meant dealing with, and on behalf of people, with an awareness of them as holy vessels.
The voices from the outside that come into the beit midrash of halachic learning are not viewed as intrusions, as they might be in a silent library, nor are they an intellectual threat. Rather, they are perceived as an invitation to further conversation – to a connection between the texts and the street, between the Torah and the marketplace. It is in this connective window space where Torah achieves its greatest relevance and vibrancy.
At first, the obstacles to study of halacha are technical: Aramaic, decoding acronyms and abbreviations, broad knowledge of Talmudic concepts and terms, reading between the lines in texts that take for granted numerous unstated assumptions, and deciphering texts that often express themselves in purposely cryptic or laconic language. Though the zoom-in to detail in every clause and paragraph (siman and se’if) is wearying and painstaking, it is impossible without this to subsequently zoom out to a glorious landscape wherein one can see the intricate fabric of halachic discourse and the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate spheres of halachic writing. After being exposed to this broad and systemic study of halacha, one also becomes aware of how artificial a confined study of the laws of nida (family purity) or any other “tunnel visioned” area of law can be. The narrow study of one area to the exclusion of a broader curriculum will not allow for a deep understanding of the factors, possibilities and tools that are available to a posek (decisor of halacha).
I can't point to a specific moment when this occurs, but there is a time when the challenges of halachic study shift from the technical to the essential and the personal, and the student of halacha moves from a passive recipient to an active participant. In similar fashion to the way in which an artist or a parent moves from mere involvement to utter identification, so too, the seeker of Torah moves to a place where the Torah begins to demand responsibility on the part of its disciples. One asks relentless questions, the way one would allow oneself to demand of a close relative: why is there a ritual vacuum here? How could he say this? The difficulty is no longer textual; it is substantive. The tear is not a contradiction between two sources but rather a rip in the textured fabric of a cherished cloth that I myself have participated in weaving.
In thinking about Torah study, we speak in terms of revelation, and we use metaphors like “the hammer splitting a rock.” Basic assumptions are constantly getting shattered and rebuilt in a slow and reflective process not unlike labor contractions that lead to birth.
For me, this is the meaning of Torah becoming my own, of owning it – that remarkable process in which ownership leads to a sense of responsibility to respond to the ethical challenges of the time, while remaining attentive to the doubts and questions of the generations of students who came before us – who endeavored to clarify the elusive Divine will.
As distinct from the written tests that often typify those of the chief rabbinate for smicha ordination, our written tests do not just demand a retention and expulsion of the material. I am expected to have internalized the material and to add my own thinking; my study was supposed to be transformative. Even though the heads of the program say that the five years of study are required in order to make allowance for mothers who want to be at home when their children return from school, I think the five years are a necessary gestation period for the processes I’m describing. Even in the age of fast Internet, there are some things that need to slow cook, to percolate.
I actually understand the concerns of rabbis like Rabbi Ya’acov Ariel, who are worried about the lack of a “nigun shel masoret” (music of tradition) in women’s Torah learning. But I also think this may be an advantage.
As a woman, at least sociologically I am an outsider to the discourse. But this is precisely what gives me empathy for, and sensitivity toward the others who need to carve out a route of entry – like converts and the newly observant. There are also certain things that can only be perceived from the outside, or from the other side of the mechitza (partition separating between men and women). Coming from the outside provides new perspective.
Just as the chief rabbinate refused to let a 14-year-old prodigy take the tests for the rabbinate because there is no substitute for life experience in training a rabbinic leader for the mediation between text and life, so too there are areas of human experience that being a woman allows myself and my colleagues to experience differently. We bring a fuller spectrum of life experience into halachic leadership. The fact that my colleagues also come from various prior academic and career backgrounds, ranging from social work to theater to advocacy and mediation, only amplifies our potential contributions to halachic discourse.
A friend recently shared her insight with me that the issue is not so much a glass ceiling as it is of obstacles on the path and an unequal point of departure.
The fact that the present rabbinate does not recognize our learning toward smicha impacts on our ability to serve communities and institutions in various capacities. The impediments are social and political rather than halachic. The forward vision of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and of the Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership to train women for positions that don’t yet exist is a testimony to the power of dreams. The passion, commitment and deep religiosity of the women and the inexorable forces of rapid social change promise to combine in furthering the realization of that dream.
The writer is in her fifth and final year in the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halachic Leadership at Ohr Torah Stone’s Midreshet Lindenbaum.