What’s Wrong With Women Studying Talmud, Rabbi Willig?
Dear Rabbi Willig,
We don’t know each other, and in many ways, I am outside of your target constituency. You, after all, are a , an institution I have never attended. In fact, I would assume that there is little we agree on, other than the binding nature of halakha or Jewish law. However, last week, your d’var Torah for Parshat Eikev was all over my Facebook newsfeed, and since reading what you wrote about women’s Talmud learning, I have not been able to stop thinking about it. You claimed that women’s learning represents a slippery slope, leading to feminism, egalitarianism, and the totally undermining of the foundations of Jewish law. As a woman who learns and teaches Talmud full-time, I cannot remain silent as you assault my livelihood, and one of the most central ways I serve God.
You yourself admit that despite the Rabbis’ initial hesitations about women learning Torah, in the modern world, there is halakhic justification for teaching women a myriad of subjects, including Talmud. However, since Talmud learning has the potential to lead to feminism and women seeking leadership roles in their communities, “the inclusion of Talmud in curricula for all women in Modern Orthodox schools needs to be reevaluated. While the gedolim [great scholars] of the twentieth century saw Torah study to be a way to keep women close to our mesorah [tradition], an egalitarian attitude has colored some women’s study of Talmud and led them to embrace and advocate egalitarian ideas and practices which are unacceptable to those very gedolim.”
Rabbi Willig, your words make me angry, but more than that, they make me sad. I will be upfront about my background. I grew up with feminism, but not Talmud. I was taught to learn at Drisha, not at Stern College. I am pursuing a doctorate in Rabbinic Literature at an academic institution and teach co-ed Talmud classes. I am sure that the Partnership Minyan of which I am an active member is, for you, an example of the insidious dangers of feminism. I represent what happens when women are encouraged to take an active role in their communities. However, I would argue that rather than undermining the foundation of the Orthodox community, opportunities for women to learn in a real and serious way are strengthening it.
Suggesting that women who want to take an active role in their communities lack the proper fear of God is demeaning, but more importantly, it is inaccurate. My mentors, colleagues, and students come from all different backgrounds and places, but what they share is a desire to better understand their heritage and tradition. They do not learn because it is controversial or to prove something. They learn because that is part of what it means to live an active Jewish life. And it is true, learning changes them. They become more confident and empowered. Some of them begin giving classes at their Hillels or their synagogues. Some of them become Jewish Studies teachers in yeshivas. Some of them begin learning daf yomi, studying a page of Talmud each day. All of them become more thoughtful about what it means for them to live a Jewish life. How can that be anything other than a tremendously positive sign of their commitment God and community?
Because ultimately, the Jewish community you are advocating for is built on fear and ignorance. If women do not learn, then they will not know enough to advocate for an active place in their communities. If they are kept ignorant of their tradition, they will not know what they are missing. Whereas, if they are given access to Torah, they might—God forbid!—seek meaningful ways to become leaders. However, apart from the fact that a community built on fear is sad, it is unlikely to work. We are lucky enough to live in a time when women can be anything — doctors, artists, lawyers, bankers, teachers, or astronauts. If we tell them that they cannot engage with their religion on the same level that they engage with everything else, they are not going accept that. They are going to protest, or they are going to leave. And I assume, Rabbi Willig, that we can agree that a mass exodus of smart, educated and engaged women from the observant Jewish community is not in anyone’s best interest.
So instead, let’s built a community based on creativity and openness. Let’s not keep half of the population in the dark in hopes that it will keep them in their place. Rabbi Willig, if your Judaism can only survive by keeping women uneducated, then I’m not sure I want it to survive at all. Instead, let’s encourage our daughters, sisters and mothers to engross themselves in serious Torah study, both for their own sakes and for the sake of Torah itself. Let’s be open to innovation, instead of being afraid of everything that has never been done before. Let’s see feminism as reflecting a deep desire that women have to be real, active members of their communities, rather than a subversive force reflecting a desire to undermine those communities. Let’s open the doors of the Beit Midrash, in order that Judaism can grow and thrive.