An uptick in women’s Talmud study – courtesy of Zoom, podcasts and online tools
It is just after 5 a.m. in Perth, Western Australia, when Debbie Posner logs on to the All Daf App to begin her day by studying Talmud.
Despite the distance and remoteness of her location – some 11,000 miles from New York City – Posner has no trouble accessing resources to help her study one of Judaism’s most ancient texts. Throughout her day she will also join two additional Talmud lectures, in different countries and time zones to her own.
Advances in technology and a growing interest among women to study Talmud has resulted in the creation of a multitude of podcasts, online lessons, Zoom lectures, apps and Facebook groups.
One of the main sources for online Talmud study was established in 2011, with the founding of the Sefaria website by former Google project manager Brett Lockspeiser and journalist-author Joshua Foer. With just the click of a button, anyone can access thousands of Jewish texts for free – with additional tools like source sheets, translations and commentaries.
“Sefaria has a mission to democratize access to all Jewish texts,” said Rabbanit Sara Wolkenfeld, the Chief Learning Officer at Sefaria and the site’s first employee. Sefaria attracts more than a million page views each month for its online Talmud with some months inching closer to two million views.
Wolkenfeld laughed when she recalled that, prior to Sefaria, “the only easily available online copy of the Talmud in English was hosted on an antisemitic website that had illegally – without copyright permission – uploaded images of the Soncino translation of the Talmud. Jewish educators from around the world would have to visit this website in order to access an online version of the Talmud in English.”
There are still challenges for women wanting to study Talmud in other languages. Myriam Ackerman-Sommer is a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Maharat and the co-director of Kol-Elles, the first Orthodox women’s kollel in France. With only some of the Talmud translated into French from the original Aramaic, Ackerman-Sommer records a daily French-language podcast aimed at helping women study Talmud.
“It feels less lonely when you have a podcast and there is someone else who is struggling along learning the text with you,” she said. Her Daf Yummy Talmud podcast – the only French language Talmudic podcast in a woman’s voice – has recorded more than 200 episodes.
Celebrating International Women’s Talmud Day
As accessibility has grown, so has the number of women wanting to learn Talmud. Shayna Abramson, a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har’el in Jerusalem, decided to create International Women’s Talmud Day, which this year will be held on April 25.
In the past, the annual event has attracted thousands of participants from around the world. This year, there will be gatherings hosted in various countries – including in Israel, the United States, England, France and Australia – “the goal is for International Women’s Talmud Day to act as a gateway, for women who haven’t learned Talmud before” and “don’t have access to regular Talmud classes in their communities,” said Abramson.
As part of this push, she notes that “all the classes will be taught by women, in order to promote the female scholars who are dedicating themselves to learning and reinterpreting this foundational Jewish text, which was the province of men for most of Jewish history.”
Rabbi Heather Miller of Los Angeles hosts daily Talmud classes and is not surprised about the growing trend in women’s engagement with Talmud in light of current events. “The #MeToo movement lifted up women’s empowerment and affirmed our ability to do things for ourselves and go places previously restricted, especially the places restricted due to our gender,” she said.
Miller believes that for people wanting to access this most sacred and ancient text, there is one important thing to consider. “Remember that the magic happens when the words on the page describing the approaches to life situations inform your reflections about your own life,” she said. “Seeing the relevance of the ancient words of the sages breathes new life into the texts.”