In these days of introspection we need to reflect on the upsurge of women learning Torah and ask ourselves some serious questions. It is a fact that thousands of women in Israel are taking part in a renaissance of Torah learning. These steps are of course to be welcomed and encouraged.
Moreover, women have also taken it upon themselves to learn Talmud. Only recently, did more than 3,000 women congregate to celebrate the summation of groups of women completing seven years of studying the whole Talmud. Learning centers such as Matan attract hundreds of women from all over Israel. As far as women learning Torah, all these steps are positive strides in Jewish learning.
However, during these times of deeper contemplation we surely must ask ourselves: is this good enough? Listening to a lesson on the Torah is often a time for self-reflection, meditation and spiritual nourishment. While this is worthy, it is mainly self-centered. Perhaps now is the time to elevate ourselves and seriously address whether self-reflection is indeed enough.
Surely the time has come for women to strive for higher Torah values that suggest the doing of mitzvot: the collective engagement of helping the needs of the community at large. Elevation of women’s Torah learning means each place of Torah learning links up to particular projects in the neighborhood.
The idea implies that we should not be learning for ourselves alone but that we are collectively taking on a communal project. We are thereby not learning simply for our self-gratification, but we also commit to taking on an active participation by helping in a collective way.
As we look at Passover this year in the shadow of darkness facing the world right now, we are reminded of the idea of Passover and herut (freedom). If we look more deeply at this word, we realize that it was a collective suffering of the Israelites in Egypt and it was a collective freedom from slavery that we are remembering.
At this time of striving for elevation in how to fulfill Torah values, I strongly recommend for women who learn Torah to elevate their goals and not to learn Torah just for the sake of learning but to take a leap forward and be directly involved in helping the community in a collective rather than individual way.
Women in the Torah have inspired us to take part in major decisions in our community. They were spiritual but they were committed to the world outside to make a difference. Surely now is the time to embrace their communal activities and focus more on what they did and not on their inner beauty.
The seven prophetesses each reveal that we women can elevate ourselves way beyond the realms of self-reflection and learning for itself. Sarah or Sarai means not only princess but also superior for her understanding of things her husband Avraham didn’t always grasp, and also for the hospitality she showed the “visitors” who spoke of her impending pregnancy. She was not just seen and admired for her inner beauty but for her actual doing of good deeds.
Miriam was innovative and inspirational when she led the women to song and dance after the Israelites left Egypt and crossed to the Red Sea.
Deborah the judge, also known as Lapidot - the woman of flames not only was a spiritual guide but she committed to guide the community. The Midrash tells us that Deborah judged the people in the plain sight of all the people because she was nervous of being left alone with men. Her courageousness and strength, I believe, in an obviously “man’s world,” is incredible.
Miriam, like the other prophetesses, may have spent time in self-reflection but it was with the needs of the community that she truly made her mark.
The barren, passionate, spiritual Hannah is an example of real sacrifice. Too often she is remembered for her silent prayer to the Lord begging for a child. Rarely do we think of the deal she forged with Him: She put away her “self” and her needs and gave up her son-to-be to serve the Lord and thereby serve the community at large.
The wise Abigail used proofs from Jewish law to try to convince King David not to kill her husband, Nabal. She used her learning to try to save a person’s life and therefore thought beyond her own needs.
Surely women’s persuasion and good influence must be seen in the case of the prophetess Huldah, who encouraged King Josiah to continue renovating the Temple in Jerusalem and reintroducing serving the Lord. Huldah herself gave the king a poignant lesson to the King of Judah from the Lord: “Because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before the Lord… and wept before Me, I heard you.”
Huldah, according to the Midrash, had a school for women in Jerusalem, whom she taught the laws that Jewish women, mothers and daughters needed to learn. I believe there is much to learn from the proactive Huldah.
Finally, we must learn from Esther how to be extraordinary; to stand up and face possible death in order to save Her people and expose the evil Haman.
The time has surely come in these dark hours of a plague unknown to humankind, for women, in particular those that learn and teach Torah and in particular to adults, to elevate our learning. From the examples of our seven prophetesses and our four mothers - Sara, Rachel, Rivka and Leah - we must definitely and clearly learn Torah because it is a very worthy deed,.
However, that is not enough. Let us elevate our goals and also instill in our students the obligation to commit at the same time to take collective action and help in projects for the needy in our neighborhood.
May we all be worthy to receive the Lord’s compassion, and as was said by the Lord through the prophetess Hulda, “You humbled yourself before the Lord… and wept before Me. I heard you.”
The writer has a doctorate in education, is a university lecturer in English and is the author of many books on education.