The women’s Siyum HaShas event that took place in Eretz Yisrael on January 5, attended by over 3,000 women and men, has led some to question the legitimacy of the enterprise of advanced Talmud study by women and to challenge the motivation of women who learn Daf Yomi.
Let’s set out some preliminaries: I disagree as a general principle with questioning the motives of people who are moser nefesh by committing their time to talmud Torah and avodas Hashem. I will add my personal appreciation for having had the opportunity to teach women Gemara at various levels (high school and college/adult) and have seen their inspiring religious growth.
The gedolim of the Modern Orthodox community have embraced and championed women’s Talmud study. That said, there are many sources on women studying Torah that may be confusing to some. Although these matters have been written about extensively in the past, it is still helpful, and apparently necessary, to remind people of the relevant information.
The Gemara (Kiddushin 29b) asserts that fathers are obligated to teach their sons Torah, but mothers are not. The Gemara ties this exemption to the general exemption of women from studying Torah, which is derived from the verse “velimdatem osam es beneichem – you shall teach your sons” (Devarim 11:19). This verse mentions “sons,” not “daughters.”
Another source, the mishnah on Sotah 20a, takes this a step further. It records two opinions on whether one should teach one’s daughter Torah. Rabbi Eliezer, who is largely accepted as authoritative here, rules that “kol ha’melamed bito Torah k’ilu lomdah tiflus – teaching one’s daughter Torah is like teaching her tiflus,” which either means silliness or trickery/sexual impropriety.
Historically speaking, these sources were applied in societies where women generally did not receive any education and were not seen as having the capacity to understand. Pesachim 62b, however, indicates that Bruriah learned 300 teachings in one day from 300 rabbis, so even in Talmudic times, it wasn’t unheard of for at least some women to be well-versed in Torah.
Furthermore, if studying Torah was forbidden for women, how did Bruriah learn all this Torah and why were rabbis willing to teach her? The Talmudic picture is thus not fully clear.
The picture becomes even more complicated when we arrive at the Rishonim. The Rambam (Hilchos Talmud Torah 1:13) apparently rules like Kiddushin 29b and Sotah 20a that women are exempt from studying Torah and that teaching one’s daughter Torah is like teaching her tiflus.
However, he limits this ruling in two ways. First, he asserts that a woman who studies Torah receives reward for doing so, although she receives less than one who is commanded to study Torah. Additionally, the Rambam asserts that the Gemara’s ban on teaching one’s daughter Torah only applies to the Oral Torah, not to the Written Torah. As several commentators note, the basis of the Rambam’s distinction is not clear. It might simply have been unconscionable to him that Tanach couldn’t be studied by women.
Other Rishonim assert that teaching women Torah in some cases is not merely permissible; it’s actually obligatory. Sefer Chasidim (313), for example, writes that one is obligated to teach one’s daughters halachic rulings. The only prohibition is teaching the depths of Talmud, the reasons for the mitzvos, and the secrets of Torah.
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 246:6) codifies the rulings of both the Rambam and Sefer Chasidim, with R. Yosef Caro ruling like the Rambam that Tanach does not fall under the prohibition and the Rema ruling (presumably) like Sefer Chasidim and others that women should study practical halachos.
Yet another limitation presents itself in the Acharonim. Until this point, we have considered only what a father may teach his daughter. What about women learning of their own initiative? The Prisha (Yoreh De’ah 246) notes that there’s no prohibition for a woman to learn by herself; in fact, she receives reward for her study. Such an interpretation would explain why Bruria was allowed to study Torah.
The Chida (Tuv Ayin 4) argues similarly that there is no problem with teaching Torah to wise women since there is no fear that they will misuse their knowledge.
In the early 20th century Sarah Schenirer, a seamstress in Warsaw, sparked what became a veritable revolution in Torah study. Jewish girls’ schools were then unknown in Eastern Europe. Boys learned in cheder for a few years, while girls worked around the house and trained to be housewives. Perhaps they picked up a little Torah along the way, but the overwhelming majority of Jewish women were illiterate.
Enter Sarah Schenirer, who saw high rates of assimilation as girls went to Polish schools but remained unlearned in Judaism. In 1917, she asked the Belzer Rebbe, her communal leader, for support and started a Bais Yaakov school and ultimately the Bais Yaakov movement. The movement garnered approval from the Chafetz Chaim and others years later (in 1933), and has been very successful over the past century in the ultra-Orthodox world.
The justification presented by the Chafetz Chaim for the Bais Yaakov movement (Likkutei Halachos, Sukkah 3:21-22) is most interesting. He writes that the prohibition in Sotah 20a only applied in the past when people received tradition in the household and remained observant. Today, however, when people leave home and might not remain religious, they are welcome to study Tanach, Pirkei Avos, and other mussar teachings to ensure that they remain religious. Still, he argues that they should not study other areas of Torah Shebe’al Peh that do not have direct application to their lives.
In a responsum sent to Rav Elya Svei regarding the Bais Yaakov of Philadelphia, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah III:83) writes that girls’ education should be limited to Torah she’bichsav and Pirkei Avos. The Satmar Rav (Vayoel Moshe, p. 436) ruled even more stringently, asserting that women should not even study Rashi’s commentary on the Torah.
However, multiple non-charedi poskim have ruled differently, taking the Chafetz Chaim not as the outer limit of what is permitted, but as a starting point. These decisors include Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, mori ve’rabbi Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, all zt”l; I will focus on the views of the first two.
Rav Soloveitchik did not write too much on this topic, but he established co-education in Talmudic (and all other) studies at Maimonides High School in Boston and inaugurated the first Talmud class for women at Stern College in New York.
With regard to teaching girls Gemara in high school, Rav Soloveitchik wrote (Community, Covenant, and Commitment, p. 83), “Not only is the teaching of Torah she-be-al peh to girls permissible but it is nowadays an absolute imperative.” Having a “policy of discrimination” as to “matter and method of instruction,” he wrote, “contribut[es] greatly to the deterioration and downfall of traditional Judaism.”
There are two divergent views on the parameters and scope of Rav Soloveitchik’s opinion. Rav Mayer Twersky, a grandson of Rav Soloveitchik, believes it is essentially an extension of the Chafetz Chaim’s position. The prohibition against Talmud study in the mishnah only applies in societies and eras where it will lead women away from, rather than towards, observance. When women needed to learn Pirkei Avos to stay frum, the Chafetz Chaim allowed it. And in today’s world, if it’s necessary for them to study Talmud to remain observant, that is permitted. However, the permission should still be limited – in particular, women should only study practical masechtas, and even these should only be taught to the extent that they promote observance. (See “A Glimpse of the Rav,” Tradition 30:4.)
Rabbi Walter Wurzburger, a close student of Rav Soloveitchik, interpreted his teacher’s position differently (as presented in Seth Farber, An American Orthodox Dreamer, pp. 82-83). He didn’t see Rav Soloveitchik as setting any limitations on Talmud study for women. (Maimonides High School offered practical Talmudic masechtas because that was the ideal choice for both girls and boys.) According to him, Rav Soloveitchik felt that if women are going to college and getting advanced degrees, they should also be studying Talmud at the highest levels.
Support for this position can be found in Rav Soloveitchik inaugurating Talmud study at Stern College in 1977. (See Rabbi Saul Berman’s account at www.TheLehrhaus.com.) Rav Soloveitchik gave the school’s opening shiur in order to provide the project the strongest legitimacy. The students at this inaugural shiur were very excited, and the level of the shiur didn’t differ in quality from the Gemara shiurim Rav Soloveitchik gave elsewhere. He remarked that if anyone challenges the propriety of women studying Talmud, that person should be sent directly to him!
As it happened, there was significant opposition in the charedi world to the Talmud program at Stern College, and several rabbis prepared a cherem against the institution. Among them were Rav Yitzchok Hutner of Chaim Berlin and Rav Shimon Schwab of KAJ. They approached Rav Moshe Feinstein, but he refused to sign the cherem, and in the end it wasn’t made public.
The question of how to understand Rav Soloveitchik’s legacy remains: What if there were another way to maintain women’s religiosity without Talmud study – should it be followed? Is studying Talmud an ideal or a concession? In recent years, following Rabbi Twersky’s approach and wary of certain communal developments, some students of Rav Soloveitchik have questioned whether women’s Talmud study should still be supported.
Another student of Rav Soloveitchik who understood his position in a more expansive manner was his son-in-law, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. Rav Lichtenstein’s daughter, Rabbanit Esti Rosenberg, established the Beit Midrash in Migdal Oz under his auspices, and he allowed women to attend his shiurim at the Gruss Institute as well. He addressed this topic most extensively in a 1996 lecture marking the opening of Maayanot High School in Teaneck, an all-girls school that teaches advanced Talmud.
Rav Lichtenstein’s perspective on women’s Talmud study doesn’t derive from a position of weakness – i.e., as a reaction to the danger of assimilation; it rather derives from a position of strength. Education in general, he argues, is primarily about molding a person’s character by training his or her “personality [and] intellectual ability.” Jewish education, therefore, is about training a person to become “above all… an oved Hashem.”
This aim, Rabbi Lichtenstein emphasizes, is “posited equally to men and to women” – all Jews are expected to be ovdei Hashem. Women are expected to undertake religiously-meaningful lives of their own, and it is therefore necessary that educators have “respect for their abilities, their commitment, [and] their potential.”
The relevant question posed by the modern age does not concern the goal, but rather the means. While in years past the presumption was that women could achieve religious success with a limited education – a proposition neither endorsed nor critiqued by Rabbi Lichtenstein in his talk – today’s world requires that women receive a formal Torah education, both because an ovedes Hashem faces greater religious hurdles and because universal Jewish education is now possible.
Thus, women must study Torah, not in order to know how to follow Jewish law, but in order to become ovedos Hashem. As the Sifrei writes (Devarim 41), part of serving G-d – which is incumbent on men and women – is studying Torah: “‘U’le’avdo,’ zo Talmud.” If the goal of Torah study is to craft a Torah individual, one who is the greatest servant of G-d possible, there is no reason to limit women’s field of Torah study to pragmatic halachos.
The goal of learning is to build a bond with G-d, the nosen haTorah, and to define oneself squarely within a Torah lifestyle. That, for both men and women, can only be accomplished most of all by studying Torah at the highest level.
In a novel interpretation, Rav Lichtenstein also inverts the concept of “tiflus” – the concern that teaching girls Torah will lead them astray to silliness or even impropriety. Rav Lichtenstein argues that teaching Talmud in a non-serious way – e.g., teaching halacha with photocopies rather than a sefer – runs the risk of constituting tiflus. Girls and women must be taught Gemara, and it must be taught with the utmost seriousness.
At the women’s Siyum HaShas, Rabbanit Esti Rosenberg expressed the view of her father and grandfather as follows: “I think it was not so much what they thought about women. It’s what they thought about Torah study. I think they could not imagine that there could be people in the service of Hashem who don’t learn Torah.”
As with so many other issues, different communities will come to different conclusions on whether women should study advanced Talmud. Each has serious gedolim on whom to rely. At the very least, those within the broader YU and Modern Orthodox community should realize that their gedolim have been the greatest supporters of women’s study of Talmud at the highest levels.