In an op-ed published in these pages two weeks ago, Rabbi Chananya Weissman disparages the practice of women learning Gemara and Daf Yomi. It reminded me of the time my daughter wanted to attend a seminary not exactly in line with her parents’ hashkafa. My wife and I consulted with a relatively right-wing rabbi, who responded to our objections, “Your daughter wants to learn Torah and you are concerned?”
“The Orthodox woman has awakened from long, lethargic sleep and has begun to organize…the powerful voice of the religious Jewish woman rings out on the world stage. The intellectual Jewish woman is no longer isolated. In every corner of the world she is closely bound to her sisters!”
This provocative statement was not made by a 21st century woman celebrating the broadcast of her Daf Yomi class over the Internet. It was made by Sarah Schenirer herself, the founder of the Bais Yaakov movement, in 1929! There is no doubt that her introduction of Jewish education for all young women was a much greater halachic innovation than the study of Gemara today by a relatively small minority of Jewish women.
My wife Sarah, who recently began her third round of Shas and is now in charge of the women’s Daf Yomi program at MaTan, is proud of the fact that her grandmother was privileged to be one of Sarah Schenirer’s first students.
My wife’s learning has not transformed us into rabid feminists. Quite the contrary. Over the past 15 years, our home has become a place filled with Torah learning and discussion day and night. The more my wife learns, the more she – like most of the other 25 women in her Daf Yomi class – comes to humbly appreciate and venerate the giant stature of our rabbis down through the ages.
Just last week, my wife went into a store in Geula and discovered while talking with the charedi lady running the store that they had both finished Shas twice. Her husband, a rosh kollel, learns the daf every evening with her.
There have been female giants in Torah in almost every generation. This, for example, is what the Lubavitcher Rebbe writes about the Maharal’s wife, Perl, “Every day she had a lesson with her husband, and not only did they study Talmud and halacha together, but also ethics and metaphysics…not a day went by that she didn’t study for at least five hours…. She arranged and edited all of the Maharal’s literary works. It is told that in at least eight places she found errors in her husband’s writings!”
It is clear that the much-quoted injunction against female Gemara study refers to requiring women to study Gemara (like we demand of men). Over 400 years ago, Rabbi Yehoshua Falk offers this explanation in his commentary Prisha on the Tur (Yoreh De’ah 246) and says there is no problem with women who are exceptions to the rule becoming learned in Gemara. His wife Baila, was also a celebrated Talmudist.
In his article, Rabbi Weissman writes, “The halachic authorities of our time did not convene and issue rulings to clarify the authentic Torah position on this and guide any change from previously accepted norms.”
Did the halachic authorities convene to allow the opening of Bais Yaakov by Sarah Schenirer – opposed at the time by much of the Hungarian chassidic world?
Did they convene to cancel the Rambam’s prohibition on taking money to learn Torah – the basis of the entire yeshiva world today?
Did they convene to allow unmarried rebbes to teach in Meah Shearim cheders – a common custom today that stands in direct opposition to the Shulchan Aruch?
As far as women studying Gemara: There is no real change here in accepted halachic norms. What there has been is a surge in the popularity of Daf Yomi in general and a buzz surrounding it generated by social media.
At the MaTan Siyum HaShas, Rabbi Shabtai Rappaport, a descendant of the Avnei Nezer and the editor of several volumes of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s Igrot Moshe, gave the closing shiur to the assembled women. At the end of Shas, the Gemara discusses a chumra that women accepted upon themselves and then suddenly notes that one should study halachot daily based on a passage in Chavakuk describing Hashem’s manipulation of the forces of nature: “‘Halichot olam lo – The ways of the world are His.’ Say not ‘halichot,’ but ‘halachot.’”
What’s the connection between these two topics? In a beautiful explanation, Rabbi Rappaport quoted a discussion in his great grandfather-in-law’s Dibrot Moshe. In it, Rav Moshe Feinstein tries to calm us regarding the development of halacha. For many halachic practices, we can’t find a clear source or understand the chain of development that led to it. But he says we shouldn’t worry. Just as Hashem guides the forces of nature, He guides the sometimes inexplicable development of halacha. A little faith and trust in Hashem is in order.
There is one thing we must all heed – men and women alike. The Torah should be studied lishma – for its own sake. It should not be misused as a “kardom lachpor bo” – to serve extraneous agendas of power and prestige. The unfortunate fact that some women do so does not negate the importance of Torah study any more than the many more men who are guilty of this behavior.
Let us all remember what Rabbi Meir, who was married to Bruria, a very learned women, taught us in Pirkei Avot: “Whoever occupies himself with the Torah for its own sake, merits many things…the Torah clothes him in humility and reverence and equips him to be righteous, pious, upright and trustworthy; it keeps him far from sin…he becomes modest, long-suffering and forgiving of insult.”