Editor’s Note: Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, a Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS, responded to queries from a number of students and friends as to how he felt about the issue of women learning Talmud. His essay is being reprinted in the Jewish Link with permission.
A number of you have reached out to me about the dvar Torah on Parshat Ekev by Rav Mordechai Willig (http://www.torahweb.org/torah/2015/parsha/rwil_ekev.html). The article touches on a number of far-reaching issues that warrant separate consideration, but for the moment I wish to focus on the question of teaching Talmud to women. As many of you are aware, I share some of Rav Willig’s concerns regarding improper halachic innovations. At the same time, I disagree strongly with the proposed remedy.
We live in a world that has become increasingly egalitarian. While this move toward egalitarianism brings with it many blessings, it also confronts us, as Torah Jews bound by a Halacha that does not conform to contemporary norms and all ramifications of egalitarianism, with significant challenges. Some recent efforts to grapple with this challenge have privileged contemporary values over fealty to Halacha and proper halachic process; when this is the case they must be rejected. But it was with both puzzlement and consternation that I read Rav Willig’s recent suggestion that we should respond to these challenges by reevaluating the inclusion of Torah Sheba’al Peh in the standard curriculum for all women.
I am puzzled because the factors that impelled the introduction of Talmud into the standard curriculum for women not only continue to exist, but have become more acute. The gedolei Torah who introduced and supported formal Torah education for girls and women in the early 20th century did so in response to their own experience, that having women who obtained an advanced education in worldly matters but remained ignorant or unsophisticated in Torah led to rapid assimilation and abandonment of commitment to Torah and mitzvot. The situation that confronts us today is no less pressing. On the contrary, the challenges of contemporary culture are, if anything, even more powerful and compelling. If we are to achieve success in our mission of educating ovdei/ovdot Hashem in a world in which the challenge to dvar Hashem and to Halacha is couched in powerful and persuasive moral claims, some of which may even resonate with us, we must heed the words of Chazal: barati yetzer hara, barati Torah tavlin (I created the evil inclination, and I have created Torah as its antidote) (Kidd. 30b). The antidote to those claims is more Torah study, not less. Nature abhors a vacuum; the less that a sophisticated understanding of Torah forms and informs our communal worldview, the greater the opportunity for that view to be informed and distorted by other values.
There are, indeed, many avenues of Torah study, but it would be disingenuous and perilous to ignore Chazal’s comment: Ha’osek b’Mikra, midah v’ainah midah; b’Mishnah, midah v’notlin aleha sechar; b’Talmud, ain licha midah gedolah mizu. (They who occupy themselves with the Bible [alone] are but of indifferent merit; with Mishnah, are indeed meritorious, and are rewarded for it; with Gemara—there can be nothing more meritorious.) (Bava Metzia 33a). For us, the study of Torah Sheba’al Peh as practiced in the beit midrash remains the central enterprise of talmud Torah.
As glass ceilings in other aspects of women’s lives continue to be shattered (a positive phenomenon that we as ovdei Hashem can embrace and celebrate), the distance between the opportunities available to young women in the secular realm and the role distinctions demanded of them by Halacha increases, and the danger of rejecting Torah values is magnified. In my experience, it is only through a deep understanding of the way that Halacha operates that sophisticated women are led to accept limits mandated by Halacha that they might justifiably reject in any other aspect of their lives. More important, because talmud Torah enables proper observance of mitzvot and enhances yirat Shamayim, our entire community is strengthened when all of us study Torah. Ameilut baTorah does not create challenges to Halacha; it increases and enhances avodat Hashem for both men and women.
I have the privilege and pleasure of spending my days bein kotlei beit hamedrash (between the walls of the beit medrash). But even from that relatively insular perch I have become aware of the significant impact of powerful challenges to Torah that pervade contemporary culture. Chazal observed that Torah study can be either a sam chayim (elixir of life) or a sam mavet (elixir of death) (Yoma 72a). It may be that there are some (men as well as women) who study Torah who use their knowledge in problematic ways. But we withhold the life-giving power of Torah to our own detriment.
As a pragmatic matter, therefore, I am puzzled by a recommendation to decrease rather than increase the highest form of Torah study on the part of any Jew.
A Matter of Principle
On a more fundamental level, though, I am deeply troubled by the suggestion. The study of Torah is one of the greatest gifts that the Ribbono shel Olam has given to the Jewish people. Torah study on the highest level is one of the most powerful ways of encountering the Divine; understanding God’s Torah is how we come to know our Creator. As Moreinu HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l observed: The encounter with God as commander lies at the heart of Jewish existence; to the extent that it is realized through talmud Torah, the legal corpus, as developed within the oral tradition, is a prime vehicle for this encounter. (“The Nature and Value of Torah Study,” http://etzion.org.il/vbm/english/shavuot/shv66-ral.htm).
Historical circumstances may once have allowed the possibility (and even dictated) that young women receive no formal education in Torah. But the world has changed, and as Rav Willig points out, gedolei Torah have ruled that there are no technical halachic barriers to teaching women Torah as a response to this new reality. One of the benefits of this change is that women now have the opportunity to enjoy the munificence of the Ribbono shel Olam in having given us the Torah in whose study we toil. Failure to systematically facilitate for our children this encounter with the Divine virtually assures that they will never have the chance to benefit from that matanah (gift). How could we deny that gift to so many in klal Yisrael on account of the few who would not handle it properly? It would be far better to adopt the approach of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai: Ki yisharim darchei Hashem, v’tzadikim yailchu vam, uposhim yikashlu vam. (For the ways of the Lord are straight, and the righteous shall walk in them, and the rebellious shall stumble on them.) (Bava Batra 89b)
A Final Comment
While I share Rav Willig’s concern about the difficulties we face, I am hard pressed to see systematic study of Torah on anyone’s part as giving rise to or contributing to recent developments that are counter to Halacha. Our response should not advocate diminishing Torah study but rather intensifying it for all of us, and especially for our young men and young women.
Rabbi Jeremy Wieder is a Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS. He occupies the Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Chair in Talmud.
By Rabbi Jeremy Wieder