We have all read about the recent vibrant (and often even nasty) discussion of women studying Talmud. I would like to avoid the polemics and elucidate the core issues, hopeful that it can dispel some misunderstanding and provide a sense of appreciation for the issues at hand.
Rabbi Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, zt”l, was the force behind contemporary Talmud study for women. Although the Rav did not comprehensively explicate his position, there is some (minimal) direct narrative about his motivation and goals.
Rabbi Meyer Twersky, grandson of the Rav, explained as follows:
…If ever circumstances dictate that study of Torah Sheba’al Peh (the Oral Law—Talmud) is necessary to provide a firm foundation for faith, such study becomes obligatory and obviously lies beyond the pale of any prohibition. Undoubtedly, the Rav’s prescription was more far-reaching than that of the Chafetz Chayim and others. But the difference in magnitude should not obscure their fundamental agreement... (R. Mayer Twersky, “A Glimpse of the Rav” in R. Menachem Genack ed., Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Man of Halacha, Man of Faith, p. 113—quoted in Torah Musings, August 2, 2005, http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2005/08/women-learning-gemara.html).
The Chofetz Chayim, along with the Belzer and Gerer Rebbes and other leading rabbis, gave his full support to Sarah Schenirer to launch the Bais Yaakov school movement in Poland in 1917, as a response to the religious challenges of the day. Rabbi Twersky’s presentation is that the Rav followed that same logic in introducing and encouraging Talmud study for women.
My own rebbeim at RIETS, who were close and advanced students of the Rav while he was in his prime, described to me similarly in the name of the Rav, along two apparently differing but fundamentally uniform lines of reasoning, consistent with Rabbi Twersky’s words:
1. Orthodox women in modern society were pursuing advanced academic degrees, and the Rav felt that should these women encounter or view Torah as on a less-advanced level, it could cause them to lack respect and appreciation for Torah.. Hence, apprehending the sublime complexity and sophistication of Torah, as embodied by the Talmud, was the antidote.
2. Orthodox women in modern society, as Orthodox men, need engagement in Torah that matches the lofty level of their secular academic studies, for such is what will be resonate and be impactful. This role is fulfilled by Talmud study for all.
Rabbi Walter Wurzburger disagreed somewhat with Rabbi Twersky and explained more broadly that the Rav instituted Talmud study for girls at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA, so as “to assure that girls acquire a thorough knowledge of Halacha in order that they might be able to obtain a ‘genuinely Jewish perspective.’ The purpose of study was to develop a ‘real understating of the halachic process’ and to transmit ‘theoretical underpinnings of the Halacha’ to women. Rabbi Wurzburger believed that Talmud study would help women to confront modernity and the future, while Rabbi Twersky believed that it would help conserve the past. ” (Dr. Seth Farber, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Bonton’s Maimonides School, pp. 82-83)
These approaches all share a common denominator, which is that the Rav’s agenda of Talmud study for women was in essence one of pragmatics, for there are Talmudic adages that discourage Torah/Talmud study for women, and furthermore, women are exempt from the mitzvah of Torah study. Thus, women would not study Talmud “for its own sake,” but rather to achieve certain practical religious objectives. This notion is also evidenced by various anecdotal narratives, in which it was clear that the Rav approached Talmud study for women from a utilitarian perspective, as holy, lofty and noble as the Torah learning experience is.
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a son-in-law of the Rav, noted in a monograph that he did not have a detailed sense of the Rav’s motivation for supporting women’s Talmud study, and that the Rav did not make it a centerpiece of discussion or campaign comprehensively for it, beyond introducing it at Maimonides School and Stern College. Although the Rav endorsed Talmud study for women when asked by Rabbi Leonard Rosenfeld about it in 1953, the Rav’s advice needed to be solicited and was not proactive or forthcoming. (See Ilan Fuchs, Jewish Women’s Torah Study, p. 198.)
This information is essential and critical, as it dispels the perception that Talmud study for women, in the eyes of Rav Soloveitchik, was a hands-down requirement or an inherent and mandatory religious duty, as important a function as he believed it served. Furthermore, it is obvious that Talmud study for women differs greatly from Talmud study for men; Stern College, under the guidance of the Rav, did not make Talmud study part of its compulsory Jewish Studies curriculum, nor did it hire dozens of roshei yeshiva and rebbeim to teach Talmud at countless strata, as is the case at Yeshiva College. To equate the nature and expected scope of Talmud study for men and women is to deny the facts on the ground.
There are two major factors to consider today when dealing with Talmud study for women; these factors were largely absent when Talmud study for women was introduced, and they may be quite dispositive to the discussion.
Firstly, women’s Torah education, even in the most traditional Orthodox circles, is exponentially more advanced and sophisticated than ever before. Orthodox high school girls, and certainly Orthodox seminary women, from those enrolled in Bais Yaakov-type schools to those enrolled in more liberal schools, are exposed to Halacha, hashkafa (Jewish philosophy), Tanach (Bible) with analysis of in-depth commentaries, and all else on a profoundly high plane. Any of us who has high school daughters enrolled in Orthodox schools can attest to the towering and highly complex lessons and assignments in these many areas of Torah. I would venture to say with great confidence that the majority of this material is exceedingly more difficult and challenging than the level at which Talmud is taught and studied by identical age groups.
What this means is that no one should deride or question the profundity and expanse of Torah knowledge on the part of those women who do not study Talmud. In fact, the intellectual achievement and spiritual satisfaction on the part of women from intensive and in-depth study of Tanach with midrashim and meforshim (commentaries), or most other Torah texts, in all likelihood surpasses the actual religious fruits that are gleaned from Talmud study. I would state this for most men as well, if not for the fact that study of Torah Sheba’al Peh (Oral Law) is an inherent requirement for them.
As far as halachic knowledge is concerned, it is eminently clear that someone who studies half an hour of Hilchos Shabbos (the Laws of Shabbos) with Mishnah Berurah, or from any other authoritative sefer (religious book), will gain a mastery of the material incomparably better than someone studying Maseches Shabbos (the Talmudic Tractate Shabbos) for half an hour a day. If one is looking for comprehensive, extraordinarily high-level, inspiring and enriching Torah study, she (or he!) should look no further these days than the classroom of an Orthodox girls Jewish Studies class in high school or seminary—without a doubt.
There is a second, quite concerning consideration. Those who ordain women as Orthodox rabbis—contravening the position of the greatest of halachic authorities—point to Talmud study programs for women as the precedent for their actions. These individuals have taken license from Talmud study programs for women and used them as the basis for their controversial and problematic innovations. (See, for example, Sara Hurwitz, The Maharat Moment: Why Yeshivat Maharat’s Ordination Matters, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) Journal, Fall 2013; Blu Greenberg, Will There Be Orthodox Women Rabbis?, Judaism-American Jewish Congress, reprinted https://jofa.org/sites/default/files/uploaded_files/10002_u/00031_0.pdf; Amanda Borschel-Dan, At Orthodox women’s ordination, preaching a halacha of compassion, Times of Israel, June 11, 2015, http://www.timesofisrael.com/at-orthodox-womens-ordination-preaching-a-halacha-of-compassion/.)
Additional testimonials of female Orthodox rabbinical ordainees likewise point to Talmud study programs for women as these women’s gate of entrance toward the rabbinate, irrespective of the intentions of those in charge of the Talmud study programs.
Is it possible for women to excel and profoundly master major parts of Torah by sticking with the traditional non-Talmudic curricula, now taught at levels that are incomparably more advanced, sophisticated and comprehensive than ever before? Yes, without question. Do the overall Torah knowledge and religious inspiration of these women surpass their counterparts who instead devote some large chunks of time to Talmud study? This is very difficult to answer, but in some cases, arguably yes. Do Talmud study programs for women place their students on a trajectory toward the rabbinate or other controversial, problematic destinations in the eyes of normative Orthodoxy? Not necessarily. However, a detailed study is the only way to analyze this point. Do female Orthodox rabbis and those who ordain them point to Talmud study programs for women as precedent for their controversial actions? For sure.
The only way to ultimately resolve the issue at hand is to seek guidance from preeminent rabbinic authorities, who can weigh the factors and subject them to deliberation and decision from the lens of Torah wisdom, values and standards. From our perspective, let us be thankful for the availability of advanced Torah study for women, which has enabled our mothers, sisters, daughters and selves to come close to God and observe His Torah with knowledge, passion and incredible insight.
By Avrohom Gordimer