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In Jerusalem, Haredi women venture into Talmud

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL — The scene: A classroom in a building next to Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue. About twenty women in headscarves and wigs sit poring over texts. One, in the back row, is nursing an infant under a cover.

At the front of the room sits Rabbi Refoel Kreuzer, looking more like an absent-minded professor than a revolutionary, with a black beard, long peyos behind his ears, frameless glasses. He is fully focused on the text, a complex legal discussion of the punishment to be doled out to what the text calls “plotting witnesses”.

“This Gemara demands work,” Kreuzer began. “Who will read?”

Midreshet Otot

Rabbi Refoel Kreuzer teaching at Midreshet Otot Image by Midreshet Otot

A young woman in a waved wig volunteered, and read the Aramaic carefully. Kreuzer, the 38-year old founder of a Haredi rabbinic training program ‘Lemaan Daat’, holds his book like a child holds a beloved toy, as if he sleeps with it under his pillow. “Can there be such a thing as an accidental plotting witness?” he asked.

The women offered various scenarios, their native Hebrew allowing them to parse the text with agility. The infant grew fussy; the mother moved further back and rocked him while listening. An older woman in a blue snood sighed, leaning forward on her book.

I thought of the Midrashic adage: “There is no Torah like that of the Land of Israel.” Indeed, it was nearly impossible to imagine the same scene back home in the Orthodox communities of Monsey, N.Y., Long Island’s Five Towns, or the shtiebels of Manhattan — fluency in Hebrew is key.

Of course, Haredi women studying Talmud in such a structured and serious way is also extremely rare and controversial here in Israel; this program, called Midreshet Otot (which translates to “The Academy Of Letters”) has only twenty-two students.

It started, as so many interesting things do, underground. In 2016, Rabbi Kreuzer led a modest, informal weekly Talmud discussion for Haredi women in his Jerusalem home. Back then, he rebuffed my request to attend.

“The situation in the community is very sensitive,” he wrote to me when I first reached out to him, in 2017. “For the women and for us, and we won’t want to damage this progress.”

There is an oft-cited rabbinic opinion that says, “One who teaches his daughter [oral] Torah is as if he taught her frivolity.” While Gemara study for women is gaining popularity in modern Orthodox circles — known in Israel as “national religious” — in Haredi communities in the United States and in Israel, it remains almost exclusively the province of men.

Which is why I was so intrigued when I heard about Rabbi Kreuzer’s secret class. I kept emailing him asking if I could sit in, and finally, when I visited Israel in December, he relented, inviting me to observe the Wednesday evening session at Midreshet Otot, based in Herzog College’s Jerusalem campus.

I was whisked into the room by Vardit Rosenblum, a lawyer, rabbinical court advocate and the director of Midreshet Otot. She wore an auburn wig and a long skirt, and had the soft yet determined gestures of a teacher in an ultra-Orthodox Bais Yaakov girls’ school. I didn’t know where she lived or who she was married to and where she had studied, but within ten minutes, we were debating the legal logic of the Talmud with the intimacy of lifelong study partners.

“Do all plotting witnesses deserve equal punishment,” Rabbi Kreuzer asked the group, “whether their testimony succeeds or fails in incriminating someone?”

The room erupted, the women speaking over one another. The focus was exclusively on the text; not a cell phone was in sight for the entire ninety minutes I was in the class.

Midreshet Otot

Women at Midreshet Otot Image by Midreshet Otot

“Don’t rush ahead, let us make sure we really understand this,” Kreuzer warned his flock. Later, he told me that while some women want to start Talmud study with Daf Yomi — the practice of studying a page each day for seven-plus years to get through the entire thing — he does not think this is ideal.

“Learning should be deep,” Kreuzer says. “I throw my students into the sea of Talmud. It’s like learning a language — it’s all about immersion.”

I found myself almost drowning in that sea. I had grown up in a modern Orthodox milieu, shaped by Haredi teachers and principals — I had studied Bible and Jewish law in a New Jersey yeshiva girls’ high school and then at Stern College, and spoke an advanced Hebrew, yet I could hardly follow Kreuzer’s class. Gemara, yeshiva-style: it was like its own language, and the words shot over my head like rapid-fire missiles. It took me a half hour to even understand the relevance of the questions.

“Let’s say someone is brought in for an alleged murder on King George Street,” Kreuzer said at one point, offering a modern example to illustrate the ancient rabbis’ point. “And then two witnesses come and say, it wasn’t so because we were with him that night in Bnei Brak.”

He wound his thumb in a circular motion, directing his students back to the text: “Now, I want you to go to the next step with this thought.”

Knowledge Is Power

Talmud study for women has long been a rallying cry for Orthodox feminists. In a society where knowledge is power, the study of the rabbinic text seemed the only possible path to gender parity.

Starting in 1977, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, famously taught women in Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. “Without the Torah She-Ba’al Peh, there is no Judaism,” he said in his inaugural lecture, referring to the Oral Law. “Any talk about Judaism minus Oral Law is just meaningless and absurd,” he added. “It’s important that not only boys should be acquainted, but girls, as well.”

Since then, women’s study of Talmud has grown exponentially. Today, institutions like Nishmat and Migdal Oz teach hundreds of post-high school women to study Talmud in a beit midrash. At Yeshiva University, a master’s degree is offered to women in advanced Talmudic studies; twelve women are studying in this program this academic year. Some graduates go on to serve as yoatzot (halakhic advisors on ritual purity) or toanot rabbaniot (rabbinical court advocates).

Eight years ago, Michelle Cohen Farber, a Raanana-based educator, started a popular Talmud-study podcast aimed at the national-religious community. “I called it ‘Daf Yomi for Women’ because I wanted women to find me,” she told me. “Most women who have never learned before, to listen to a ‘yeshivish’ podcast, one meant for men, is a foreign language.”

This Sunday, four days after the much-publicized Siyum Hashas that drew 90,000 people to Met Life stadium in New Jersey to celebrate the completion of a Daf Yomi cycle, Farber will be among 3,000 women expected in Jerusalem’s Binyanei Hauma, in the first-ever such celebration for women who have completed the cycle.

“There was a very good ‘PR job’ that convinced women that Gemara is not for them,” Farber said in an interview. “But these days, even rabbis to the right, they’re cognizant that highly-educated professional women need to learn texts at a high level.”

Daf Yomi, Farber said, can give spiritual structure to Orthodox women, who generally do not go to synagogue daily, like their husbands, brothers and sons. “It’s what men like about shul: You start your day feeling like you did something good,” she said. “It frames your day, and it gives people food for thought throughout the day.”

But this sort of study is all but nonexistent for Haredi women, whether they be long-wig-wearing-fashionista in the Five Towns or the ascetic rebbetzin in Lakewood. It’s not that studying these texts is outright forbidden, but it’s what is known as pasht nisht — just “not done.” Though religious women often work as professionals, entrepreneurs, and even occasionally pursue doctorates in Jewish or secular subjects — the books of the Talmud still serve as a red line here, a social faux pas. They are often told it isn’t for them — there are just so many other things one can study, or the logic is so difficult, or there are other priorities that come first for a mother.

Which is what makes the experiment of Midreshet Otot quite remarkable.

For Kreuzer, a graduate of the elite Hebron Yeshiva, it started with his marriage to Sari, a computer engineer. “We began to study Gemara together, and she started writing her own thoughts down,” he recalled. “And I was shocked, I wasn’t raised to think that women could learn, and could learn in a ‘yeshivish’ way — the way of the study hall.”

In 2016, a group of mostly single young Haredi women eager to study approached Kreuzer, and he agreed to arrange a weekly gathering in their home in Ramot, a largely Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem.

“These women no longer had the structure of the seminary, and they wanted to connect with the Torah,” he explained. “In general, our women who study in universities and pursue high-level careers — they are not happy with just the parsha anymore,” he said, referring to the weekly Torah portion. “As a community, we must respect and support mothers with children to leave the house to study, just like we do for men.”

But the Haredi establishment still heralds women’s connection to the Talmud mainly through their husbands. A recent Siyum Hashas video, produced by Agudath Israel of America, celebrated the women who enable their husbands to study (without actually featuring them) — these women will often work outside the home to support the family and shoulder the bulk of household chores. Many of the Midreshet Otot students are products of that cultural system.

“At one point, they ask, ‘Where is my connection?’ They realize it can’t just be through their husband. This isn’t feminism,” he said. “This is Torah.”

A pause. “Though I’m not sure it’s for the masses,” he added.

Rosenblum, a granddaughter of a rabbinic judge in Israel, is a graduate of Bais Yaakov, the Haredi girls’ school network. “In school, they drilled into us, from a very real place, a deep love, a desire to build a home of Torah,” she told me. “I believe in the concept of mosifim bakodesh, that we must work to increase our spirituality. In Bais Yaakov, they would encourage us to grow in modesty, or in mitzvos observance. And if I want to be loyal to that value — what else can I add to my religious commitment? I wanted to commit more to my ‘Harediness’, in a meaningful way.”

Rosenblum, inspired by a childhood of watching her grandfather at work, started studying Talmud, to become a rabbinical court advocate — they were, in her words, “the happiest two years of her life.”

She opened Midreshet Otot in October 2018; now in its second year, the class has doubled in size. “It attracts those Haredi women who are searching for depth,” she said. “Those who knock on our doors are very serious about study.”

Midreshet Otot

Midreshet Otot Image by Midreshet Otot

For both Rosenblum and Kreuzer, the matter of teaching the next generation of Haredi women is an existential one. “If we don’t teach Haredi women Talmud,” Kreuzer said, “We are both going to lose that talent in the world of Torah thought, and their connection to Torah study.”

A New Tractate

Several weeks later, back home in New York, I went with my husband to the Siyum Hashas at MetLife — it is hard not to be moved by the experience of being in such a huge place filled to the rafters with Orthodox Jews.

But it is a men’s event. The women were there to cheer the men who had done the studying; many wiped away tears, proud of the study they had enabled, by holding down the fort at home while their husbands went out to the beit midrash.

Sitting there in the women’s section, I sense I am an observer, a supporter — but not a participant.

We stood, in our furs, taking pictures for our Instagram stories and our WhatsApp chats, watching our men dancing below — but most of us had barely any idea what Talmud study really means, beyond a photocopied sheet here and there in our high school and seminary classes, beyond watching our husbands and fathers.

I came home that night and stared at our family set of Shas — the Talmud — the heavy volumes, impenetrable behind their leather binding and foreign Aramaic.

It seemed masculine. In other words: Not for me.

In college, I never took classes in Talmud because it seemed like a statement — it branded you as a feminist and thus called into question your religious commitment. Only the bright, very progressive-thinking women took it — those who planned to go into education or pastoral work. But I was an ordinary, thinking frum woman; no Torah educator. I had no business on those shelves.

Now, I asked myself: How could I read another book on Jewish thought, when I have still not tasted a most central text to my Torah observance?

I picked up a volume of the Koren Talmud, the tractate of Berakhot, with an English translation.

I thought back to that Jerusalem night, to that makeshift study hall, to those women who look just like me, to the way they lovingly held their books, the passion which they have found in the depths of their own traditions.

I envied them.

Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the life editor at the Forward. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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