Women Learning Talmud

Rabbanit Pnina Neuwirth TeachingWomen’s Talmud study has long become a part of our lives, a “non-issue.” What began two decades ago in only small, select circles has become a widespread phenomenon in only half a generation. This development is multifaceted. There has been a boom in numbers – the quantity of women who are exposed today to basic Talmud skills is very large; and we no longer speak in terms of a bizarre phenomenon of small groups of hyper-motivated women or beginners. Concurrently, women have also become proficient on an in-depth level, in a wide range of Torah disciplines. At the same time, the topic of Women’s Talmud study has moved from a side-issue to center stage. Ever-growing sections of Modern Orthodoxy have internalized that the Torah belongs also to women.

The suspicions expressed early in the process by Torah leaders have been pushed to a corner over the years. Concerns of “turning Torah into nonsense,” or that women would not be able to devote their primary hours to learning, dooming their efforts to ultimate frustration, have faded away. This is all to the credit of the many women who dedicated themselves to Torah, and devoted their time, energy and ability to develop in their Torah-scholastic skills, out of great love for the word of God, our rich tradition, and an unquenchable thirst. As a result, the phenomenon of women who “speak Gemara” is becoming more and more widespread in the Jewish world.

The Effect of Learned Women – At Home and at School

In parallel to the growth of women learning, in terms of extent, numbers and acceptance of the process, the fruit of this labor has already been harvested. One difference is occurring in the Jewish home and how it is run. In many homes in Israel, the role of Torah leadership is assumed in partnership by the parents. Fundamental choices regarding Halachic and educational policy are made upon informed decisions, and as a result of joint learning and study. Children are raised in houses where the mother is an Halachic authority – not only the father. This creates an environment where the world of Torah surrounds the house and is integral in its development. An added value is that the Beit Midrash atmosphere, where every voice and opinion is heard, permeates the home and provides tools for dealing with daily issues.

An additional change is the integration of women into Jewish education in all subjects, especially as Gemara teachers. Women act as Gemara teachers in elementary schools, high schools and in women’s seminaries. While in the past men taught women, today it is possible to bestow upon women meaningful positions teaching other women and girls Gemara. There is no doubt that this is a significant and appropriate transformation. There is no substitute for the positive impact of a female role model who represents both Torah and Yir’at Shamayim, for young girls at the stage that they are developing their personalities Another product of employing this path is the emergence of women talmidot hachamim (Torah Scholars).

A Female Halachic Adjudicator (Poseket)?!

The rule we find in Kohelet Rabba 7:28 regarding Torah scholarship for men is equally true for women: a thousand enter the study of the Bible; a hundred proceed to the study of Mishna; ten proceed to the study of Talmud; one proceeds to become a Halachic adjudicator. Not all the women who have become familiar with the language of the Sages have reached the level of extensive knowledge and learned Halachic discourse.

However, there are already a select few women who definitely fit this criterion. These women have become rabbaniot in every manner of speaking. They are capable of answering answer Halachic questions from “Orah Hayim”, “Yoreh De’ah”, “Even Ha’ezer” and even “Hoshen Mishpat”, and are regarded as leaders amongst their students.Notwithstanding all this, there was the feeling that at this stage women had reached the “glass ceiling”. Even after it was clear that there are women who are capable of contributing high level Torah written materials, participating in Halachic discourse, and write Torah novella, this did not necessarily bring a change in the public’s attitude toward them.

Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling

Male Female DeliberationsFor a while, there was no fruitful rabbinical discussion or interchange which included Torah-educated women. While in every other field of study, it is clear that women function as equals, in the Torah world this did not naturally occur. This was due either to the fact that the environments in which Torah learning takes place are separate for men and women; or because the world of Halacha is fundamentally conservative and suspicion accompanies religious attitude towards changes in reality. Shared paths started in a few institutions, mainly in midrashot (seminars) and batei midrash where male and female teachers work together as colleagues, rabbis and rabbaniyot; and discreet discussions were held.

Women also began to publish scholarly articles on Talmud and Halacha in various journals, and the exposure to their Torah aroused curiosity, and sometimes criticism. Last year a new Rabbinical Organization was formed, Beit Hillel. This body of Rabbis incorporated in their constitution the inclusion of women rabbaniyot. The basis of this decision was the belief that women are worthy of this, and that the inclusion of women expresses their status. In the Beit Midrash Hilchati of Beit Hillel, rabbis and rabbaniyot sit together on equal terms and discuss questions of current concern, and the challenges of the generation. The Beit Midrash has thus far dealt in-depth with a couple of relevant issues.

These discussions require the ability to deal with Halachic sources at a level beyond the basic processing of the material. They require taking responsibility on the public level. They require broad perception, an ability to “read the map,” and understand the subtle processes taking place in society, in the context of Halachic questions. It would seem that this cooperation constitutes the next and decisive level in women’s Gemara learning: women participating as equals in the discourse to set Halachic policy in the public sector. In the final analysis, this progress is not just a graph which describes the empowerment of women in our generation; it would seem that experience has shown that the Torah is indeed enriched and magnified through this partnership.

Rabbanit Michal Tikochinsky
Rabbanit attorney Michal Tikochinsky is the head of the Beit Morasha Beit Midrash for Women, a board member of Beit Hillel, and member of the Beit Hillel Beit Midrash Hilchati.


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