Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Women's Learning and Women Rabbis

I surprised myself the other week by engaging in a passionate Feminist speech. I say surprised myself, because as I see it I have never held particularly Feminist views. I have certain problems with Shira Chadasha - the current cutting edge of Orthodox (?) Feminism - and I frequently find Feminist activism as petty, irritating and destabilising/anti-establishment.

So my harangue began as we raised the topic of the Maharat ordination (link1 link2). For the uninitiated, the Marahat is a title aimed at ordaining women as Rabbis in the Orthodox community. It has been instigated by Rav Avi Weiss of HIR in Riverdale and Yeshivat Chovevai Torah.

I guess a few comments are in order as a prelude:

1. I am a big believer in Limmud Torah for women. I believe that true depth in Jewish belief, practice and emotional experience is a function of the extent to which we have learned and absorbed classic Jewish texts into our consciousness. This can only happen through serious and extensive Talmud Torah. I see no difference between men and women in this regard.

2. I have many role models of wonderful women Talmidot Chachamim in my community (Alon Shevut). My neighbours include several women who are widely respected and consulted for their Halakhic knowledge as Yoatzot Halakha (link). Then there are my colleagues and friends - some of the finest and most sought after women Torah teachers in Jerusalem. Alon Shevut has a women's Daf Yomi that meets daily, and every day, I encounter committed, bright, halakhic, spiritually and religiously motivated women who are living exemplars of Torah and who are certainly learned by any definition of the term.

3. I have said for some time, in conversation with my students, that Rabbis serve four primary functions:
#1. psak halakha; #2. teaching; #3. Counseling and giving guidance/advice; #4. A synagogue function.
As for women, functions #1-3 they already do. Women DO pasken (Yoatzot Halakha), DO give guidance and advise, and DO teach men and women Torah (Nehama Leibowitz anyone?) All this is de rigeur in the Modern Orthodox community.

Function #4. is more problematic since we have seperate zones in shul. But effectively, ignoring that, what is wrong with a woman "Rabbi"?

... And having said all of that, I didn't see it important to push for a title, or a communal status. It just didn't seem that important!

So, back to my harangue. It is connected to my experience, and frustration, with my daughter's schooling. My daughter is an excellent student, thank God, and is generally at the top-end of her class. She frequently acts as if school just isn't that challenging.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that in her school, she has just started a Torah Shebal Peh program this year. Let us begin with the fact that this topic receives only 2 hours/week, and she is in 5th grade...not exactly reinforcing the importance of the topic. But OK, if we do accept that, what are they studying in these 2 hours? - A single Mishna from Pirkei Avot each week. ONE MISHNA! These are Israeli kids who can simply read it. They aren't doing mepharshim. What are they doing???!!! Let me add that I have already studied multiple massechtot of Mishna with my daughter including Massechet Shabbat (24 chapters!) She knows Mishna. Why is Avot the only Toshb"p that she is doing in school?

[Just to make things clear, they study 18 hours+ Tanach a week! It is a high-level seriously religious girls school]

So why are they doing so little? So many excuses were given. But two things stood clear to me after some investigation:

1. The school doesn't particularly see the great need to teach my daughter Torah shebAl Peh. Let me add that in a neighboring school, boys are given the opportunity to study 2 extra hours of Gemara after school (called Tigbur - strengthening!) and the girls simply go home. Apparently girls don't need strengthening! But also it is clear that even in Gush Etzion with so many learned women and the towering institute of Migdal Oz, women's Torah Shebal Peh is not taken nearly as seriously, and is far below the level of their male counterparts.

2. One of the problems was that there simply were no female teachers on the staff of this particular school who felt adequately trained to teach Mishna at the requisite level. After all, a great Mishna teacher has studied Mishna and Talmud for years. He or she knows the material at a very high level and can bring all his or her experience to bear when teaching even basic material (Mishna) thereby injecting interest and investing the subject matter with depth and relevance. No women on the faculty had this capability.

So how can I change things? How can I get the school to take my daughter's brain and soul seriously? How can I get the teachers who know Torah Shebal Peh into the school?

And so, I began to think: In the Western world, when High Schools failed to take girls' physics seriously, someone said: "Well, we need women physics teachers. Until the students see a female role model, they will never take it seriously. And to get women's physics teachers we need female University professors. Because unless we have women teaching physics in University, we will never have physics taken seriously for girls at High School. " And I guess that is Feminism. And maybe - just possibly - it applies to my frustration. Maybe what is true for physics is true for Torah, or in our case, Mishna.

And I suddenly thought, well maybe we DO need to have publicly recognised communal figureheads who are versed in Torah ShebAl Peh. Maybe we do need women Rabbis, or at least women Talmidei Chachamim with some hefty public recognition. Why? -So that someone will take 5th grade Mishna seriously for my daughter!

Now, .... I am still torn, still a little stuck on this one. Maybe I am just torn between innovation and traditionalism. Maybe I am wavering due to my inability to read the long-term implications of such a move. I know that I don't particularly like the Maharat title as such. To be honest, I would like to see the Yoetzet title develop as the prime title that recognises women as masters of Halakhic study, (even if it is in Hilchot Nidda... after all, traditional Semicha is just on Kashrut topics.) I also have no real clarity as to the precise role I want such a women to play in shul, if she were to be the sole spiritual leader of a congregation. And yet, let me reiterate that unless the community see women Talmidei Chachamim ( - It doesn't have to be a Rabbi, or a Maharat, or a Yoetzet - ) and recognise that role of scholar, teacher and religious guide as a valuable pursuit, as a noble status for women; until then, our daughters' Talmud Torah will be relegated to second-rate status. Always.


HWElad said...

Yes! That is exactly it! I have not been able to explain to my skeptical friends why it makes such a difference, seeing a role model who has been legitimized/accepted by the system and knowing that we too can strive for that, and this explains it perfectly!

Sara said...

I remember having this discussion at Midreshet Lindenbaum a few years
ago. It's not simply that women need a title so that women themselves will take their studying seriously. If you go back to the time of R' Yehuda HaNasi, as a punishment to Shmuel for leaving Israel he didn't give him smicha, whereas he did give it to Shmuel's counterpart, Rav. If it was just a title, and he held every other aspect of it (ie. well
he has the knowledge and the respect etc etc), it wouldn't matter that it wasn't given to him. The fact of the matter is that it is important and therefore it being withheld is seen as a punishment. The title gives women who are knowlegeable and who are at that level actually be listened to. It's easy to say that in Alon Shvut there are so many female Torah scholars. While this is true, it only helps if we
know them. In other words, that status of rabbi automatically lets a person know who he/she is talking to.
Another point is that it gives girls something to aspire to in the
religious world. Being a yoetzet halacha is amazing, but it's only
mono-faceted. As in, they only learn hilchot niddah.
I agree, femenism today has gotten petty, but in this respect I think
something has to be done.

Anonymous said...

It amazes me that an infuencial person in the Orthodox world can support "female rabbis". I assume you do laundry, cook, and have babies while your wife learns. What is wrong with a woman serving in her G-d-given role as an "aizer kenegdo" to her husband? Why must she do his job instead? And who will be the mothers of our children??

Alex Israel said...

You raise an interesting issue.

(I imagine you are writing tongue-in-cheek but I will take you seriously just for the fun of it.)

Maybe we should have very clearly defined roles in which men and women's lifestyles and roles are absolutely different from one another. Men should work and learn in the Beit Midrash, and women should be in the kitchen and raising kids.

I genuinely think that there are many virtues to this approach.

And yet, as modern people who have absorbed Modern lifestyle, both men and women want a career, or need to have one for financial reasons. Sometimes, men even want to cook beacuse they like it (or prefer their own cooking!) Even in the Haredi-Torah world, esp. here in Eretz Yisrael, Haredi women go out to work, frequently in non-Haredi environments. I wonder how this squares with the Eema looking after the kids. She is not around, because she needs to earn money so that "he" can learn. So "he" picks up the children from Kindergarten.

So in the Haredi world we can see a man looking after the kids and the woman working. Interesting.

So whereas I do sometimes wish that we could turn the clock back to an environment where gender roles were more defined, I don't think we are there esp. in the MO community. BTW, if gender roles were more pre-defined, so would be our career paths, and the identity of who we were to marry. Maybe we can return even to a time in which people dress in modest clothing in the streets! anyhow, that world that you seek is an era in which life was more pre-defined, rather than our world of endless choices, I do fear that we all live in a very different world. and we have to swing with that!

- Oh! and BTW, I thank God regularly that I didn't have to have the babies.

Rebecca M said...

I think feminism at it's most fundamental is working to increase the status of and opportunities available to women. People just have different ideas about what the end result should be and how to get there, of course.

While smicha for women (which I support) would further increase respect for (and therefore availability of)education for women, I can't imagine the school couldn't have found a good mishna teacher if they really wanted one. Even if they are only looking for a female teacher, seems there are plenty of women around who know a ton of toshb"p.

Unknown said...

You should be thankful you had the foresight to make aliya. Had you stayed in the UK and sent your daughter to a mainstream orthodox school in London, she'd probably not even be allowed near mishna. One of my own daughters was so turned off by her exposure to limmudei kodesh in that environment she could barely consider a year in sem.

Alex Israel said...


I AM delighted to be here in Israel. and my daughter studies Limmudei Kodesh at a very high level - 18 hours/week of Tanach, which she loves.

But Torah sheba'l Peh is so much a part of my Judaism that I simply cannot imagine being a Jew without a serious in-depth exposure.

Nu! Maybe in High school. she is, after all, in 6th Grade.

Unknown said...

and going along with changing our perspectives, changing our language: Talmidoth Hakhamoth...

Unknown said...

And perhaps, one more comment. Semikha is not what it once was. That piece of paper by a "rabbi" today giving someone else the title of "rabbi" is completely arbitrary. This isn't real qabbalah; the topics that are designated as the key determining topics: shehitah, kashruth...are arbitrary as well. Once we rightfully acknowledge that the title "rabbi" or "rav" is arbitrarily assigned to men, we won't be so uptight of granting it to women...it doesn't mean anything today anyway. A man can know all of shas, serve on a beith din, be a witness, posek halakhah...and still not have that slip of paper!

Sarah Robinson said...

I recently returned from a year of Torah study in Migdal Oz, an institution which teaches, promotes, and offers Tanach and Talmud classes of the highest stature. In fact, my morning seder teacher was a female -- Ayelet Schlesinger, a child of olim who seeped herself in the sea of Halacha, dedicating years of her life to learn in Matan's advanced gemara program before she came to teach in Migdal Oz.

Before you say that Gush Etzion does not offer Torah SheBaalPeh for women, please remember the institution down the road from you, Beit Midrash Gvoha L'Nashim -- Migdal Oz.

Alex Israel said...

You are, of course correct about Migdal Oz, but I was primarily referring to the Elementary and High School level.
Nonetheless, we still note a serious disparity between the hours the boys learn in say, Neve Shmuel, and say, Neve Channa - brother and sister schools - and i have children in each school. The boys do learn more hours of Torah, and a great deal of Talmud, and the girls may learn some Talmud of they so desire.
Even regarding Migdal OZ and Har Etzion, a year or even two at Migdal Oz isn't a 3 and half year stint in a Hesder Yeshiva.
Dont get me wrong. I want to see womens learning taken MORE seriously. There is a incredible number of serious world-class women Torah scholars in my community, a women's daf Yomi etc. I just feel that at the grass roots level there is much still to change.
All I'm saying is that