Thursday, February 24, 2011

Women’s Sense, Study and Status in Torah

This is not an exploration of the truth about women’s intelligence. As one Chasidic woman stated “I was born into a Chabad-Lubavitch family that never questioned the intellect or ability of a woman[1]”. This is about grappling with traditions that challenge me and my quest to live by the highest standards of modern morality and remain true to the Torah. My other interest in this is that the treatment of women in life and text is often used to put down the other[2].
Exhibit A. “A wise woman asked R. Eliezer. Since, the acts of sinning with the golden calf were equally forbidden, why were the death penalties different? (Some being slaughtered with the sword, some dying by water, or by a plague?[3] He answered) There is no wisdom to the woman but the spindle, as it is written "All the wise women spun with their hands"[4] [5].
Taken at face value he refused to answer her question because she is a woman and his belief that women are meant to restrict their wisdom to domestic responsibilities. An alternative explanation is that he was simply being evasive because he had no tradition about this issue from his teachers [6]. The context seems to support this interpretation because it follows a series of other questions that R. Eliezer deflected [7], eg. He is asked, “What about plastering one’s home?”  he replies, “What about plastering a grave?”  His response is explained in the Talmud as being “only because he would not say anything that he never heard from his teacher”.
In the Jerusalem Talmud, we have the same story but with the following addition; Hurkanus, his son said to him (R. Eliezer), “so as not to tell her one matter from the Torah you have caused me to lose 300 Kor of tithes every year!” (R. Eliezer) said to him, “let the words of the Torah be burned and let it not be given over to women[8]”.   This supports a more problematic explanation.
A third  interpretation is that Rabbi Eliezer was saying “why is she bothering us with these questions, she should just occupy herself with her spindle and dough and that she will be enough for her[9]. It is not proper for the wisdom of a woman to be directed to anything but spinning, the needs of her house and the honor of her husband and therefore our sages forbade the teaching of Torah to daughters[10]. This is consistent with R. Eliezer’s view that is opposed to teaching Torah to daughters. Ben Azai, holds the opposing view, that it is an obligation to teach Torah to one’s daughters[11].  
Exhibit B. “Women’s minds are light[12]”. This phrase appears in the thinking of a fugitive Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who had dared speak out against the Roman occupation.
“Rabbis, Judah, Josi and Shimon were sitting, Judah son of converts was sitting by them. R. Judah opened with “how pleasant are the actions of this nation (Rome), they established marketplaces, bridges and bathhouses”. R. Josi was silent. R. Shimon Bar Yochai answered, “all that they established  they did for their own needs. The markets for Harlots to sit in, bathhouses for their own pleasure and bridges for tolls”. Judah son of converts [13]  went and told their words and they were heard by the government. They said, “Judah who talked us up, will be elevated, Josi who was silent should be exiled to Zipori and Shimon who denigrated should be killed”. He and his son hid in the house of study and their wives brought them bread...When the decree intensified, Shimon said to his  son, “Women their mind is light on them, perhaps she will be tortured and they will reveal our hiding place”. So they hid in a cave.”
Shoshana Pantel Zolty, notes that one might object to R. Shimon's assumption[14], about how women respond to intense pressure. However, the phrase “Women's minds are light”was never used in the Talmud in reference either to intellectual abilities of moral character[15].
Zolty draws attention to statements that speak in glowing terms of women's intellectual capacities, citing the statement “Additional understanding was given to women more than to the man[16]”. This is based on a play on words in the verse “and God built the woman[17]”, the word for built is Vayeeven, which is related to the word for understanding “Bina”. To be consistent  this must also be considered in its original narrower context, which relates to the laws of Vows and that females are considered mature a year earlier than males. Commentaries are clear that this is about timing, that a girl is earlier with acquiring understanding[18]. Still, I think the original context has lost significance in more recent thinking among scholars and in recent times this phrase is understood more generally to be referring to women’s superior insight.
It has been said in relation to Islam, 'Islam is as Islam does'. I think this is a useful formula for grappling with clashes between ancient sacred texts and modern sensibilities. The current status of women is key in this discussion. The question of teaching Torah to daughters has taken on additional urgency and gained wide acceptance in the last century. Problems began to arise with the classic formula of teaching daughters “the laws, in order to do and be careful with Mitzvot (to know) what to do and what not to do, but not the depth of the Talmud or the reasons of Mitzvot and secrets of Torah[19]”. Pioneer of girls education, Sarah Schnirer, became concerned in the early 1900's when she saw her father and brother in religious rapture after returning from the court of their Rebbe, her mother reading the pretty basic “Tzena Ure-enah” Yiddish version of bible stories and her sister tuned out with a Polish Novel. This prompted the ruling by the Chafetz Chaim  that women should learn Scripture and ethics[20].
The trend toward increased Torah study for women, while far from parity with the study undertaken by men, is strong and broadly seen in various streams of Orthodox Judaism[21]. The Lubavitcher Rebbe “exhorts women to increase their study and teaching, and asks for the community at large to support this endeavor. He asks: why has this increase in Torah learning for women occurred specifically in the recent era?” The Rebbe makes two points “1) each generation further from the Divine revelation at Sinai is on a "lower" level; and so there is an increasingly greater need to bolster it. 2) Nevertheless, he continues, the result has been a great good, an increase in Torah study; and this increase in Torah study by women he emphatically describes as one of the "positive innovations of the later generations.[22]"
Broadly, women have continued to be viewed as having a primary role as the “mainstay of the house” with responsibility to their families, although increasingly this is not to the exclusion of work outside the home, or a role in the community and even regarding the role within the home, the spiritual content of this is more emphasized. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, turns the following phrase on it's head, “Who is a Kosher woman? One who does her husbands will[23]”. The word for does, Oseh, can also mean makes, so the Rebbe renders it, Who is a Kosher woman? One who makes, influences and shapes, her husbands will, toward Torah study and good deeds.
To those of us imbued with equality as the highest value, this is jarring. One response is that the valuing of the public over the private relates to a western perspective that values fame, which acts as “an ethnocentric filter” at odds with the value of the private in a Jewish value system[24]. In the ideal world, men and women could be equally dedicated to their children and put their careers second. That is not likely to happen, instead the choices in families with children are usually between both parents fully joining the 'rat race” or the woman putting her children first. I admire and am grateful for the fact that many women, some religious, make the sacrifice of career for the nurturing of children. 
Perhaps most important are the voices of Jewish women themselves and the degree to which “Torah-observant women (are) struggling to reconcile two aspirations which are not easily joined. One is the longing for marriage and children, the other a passion for study and more active participation in communal life [25].

Rivka Slonim, in whose home I spent a delightful Simchat Torah some years ago, wrote; As I was growing up, there was nothing I felt was beyond my reach, except perhaps synagogue life as enjoyed by the men. This often seemed unfair, but there was an understanding that this was just the way it was... Yes, there were things I wished I could do. But I lived in a world of absolutes, the Torah world. I loved that world and I knew it to be true. If in a world of absolutes there were certain things a woman didn't do... I just wouldn't do them even if I wanted to. They never loomed all-important. The joy and potential for fulfillment in the Chassidic-Jewish lifestyle, coming from knowing who you are and having a sense of direction and purpose in life, was far more significant… I know that after all of the arguments, refutations and debate, something must speak to the soul[26].

Coming to a similar conclusion via a very different route was the story of Mickey Hirshberg. She was probably the first to establish the radical idea of a women only Minyan (public prayer) in 1971 and pushed many other boundaries, she describes her journey…  “A key transitional experience…a group of Americans would study Chassidut (mystical teachings) one evening a week with a Chassidic rabbi in Mean Shearim. If he had an address we didn’t know it; we knew only which courtyards to cross. He spoke no English and taught quietly and patiently in the simplest Hebrew. One warm evening a friend and I stayed after class to ask questions. His wife appeared with a glass of water which she handed me with a smile. Suddenly I was riveted to the floor. There was something intensely spiritual about the way that woman gave the glass of water. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to grab her and shake her and beg to tell what the secret was, to say that I had been waiting for years and had to understand. ….I could no longer afford the luxury of alienating Torah-observant and Chasidic women who might bear the keys to locked doors I desired to open[27].  

Clearly there is a disconnect between the simple reading of sacred text and the lived experiences of observant Jewish women today, some of which a reportedly very positive. As a male, is it really my place to argue?

[2] Aly, W (2007) People Like Us. How Arrogance is Dividing Islam and the West. Picador-Pan Macmillan, Australia
[3] Rashi’s explanation
[4] Exodus 35:25
[5] Talmud Yoma 66b, translation is from with modifications where I thought the flavor of the original Aramaic can be better conveyed
[6] Rav Sherira Gaon, cited by Maharatz Chayes, brought in the commentary to Yoma p. 66b3, Schottenstein Edition/Artscroll (1998), Brooklyn NY,
[7] R. Eliezer was asked: When the he-goat had become sick, might he be taken on the shoulders? He replied: The he-goat was so healthy that it could bear away you and me together. They asked him again: When the conductor had become sick, may another be appointed? He replied: Let us be healthy; do not ask us about a case of sickness. They asked him again: If after having been pushed down he did not die, shall he go down and kill him? He gave them as answer the verse in Judges v. 31: "Thus may perish all Thy enemies, O Lord."… R. Eliezer was asked whether a certain man would enjoy the world to come. He replied: You inquire of me concerning that man (he named a different man). They asked of him again: May a shepherd rescue a sheep carried away by a lion? He replied: Do you ask me of a sheep? They asked him again: May the shepherd be rescued from the lion's mouth? He answered again: You ask me only of the shepherd. They asked him again: May a bastard be heir of his father? He asked them: May he espouse his dead and childless brother's wife? They asked him: If he possesses a house, must a memorial of the Temple's destruction be left, when his house is whitewashed (an ell is left bare)? He answered: I think you ask me whether his grave is to be whitewashed? His replies are explained by his unwillingness to speak on matters for which he did have not a tradition, this is followed by the incident with the woman. If the same reason applies to all the cases, it would see that putting the explanation at the very end would be the logical place. Putting the explanation before the case with the woman suggests to me that the reason for this last case might be different.
[8] Jerusalem Talmud Yoma chapter 3:4, Bamidbar Rabba 9
[9] Meiri, Beit Habechira Vol. 4, p 166, Kedem (1978) Jerusalem
[10] Rabbenu Chananel, on Yoma
[11] Jerusalem Talmud, ibid
[12] Talmud Shabbat 33b
[13] A fuller study of the portrayal of converts would be useful. The Torah repeatedly forbids discrimination and mistreatment, of converts or strangers, even verbally, Yet the portrayal of converts while at times glowing and affirming is sometimes quite negative. The attribution of the Golden Calf to the “mixed multitude” that Moses converted is one example. I wonder why we need to the know the name and ancestry of the person responsible for the “leak” from this conversation . 
[14] Perhaps also worth taking into account that he made this assessment in a situation where he was in fear for his life.
[15] Zolty, S. P, (1993), And all your children Shall Be learned, Jason Aronson, Northvale NJ, cited in a review by Frankiel, T., in Wellsprings, Winter 1994
[16] Talmud Nida 45b, Bereshit Rabba 18:1
[17] Genesis 2:22
[18] Tosafot Harash on Nida 45b, Etz Yosef on Bereshit Rabba
[19] Sefer Chasidim 313, brought in Torah Shlaima, Vol 23 p. 25 note 90.
[20] R. Israel Meir HaKohen (Kagan), Likkutei Halachot, Sotah 20b: Cited in Levy, B. J., Transforming Women's Torah Learning- A New Wave in Educating Jewish Women, "It seems that all of this [prohibition against women learning Torah] applies only to times past when all daughters lived in their fathers' home and tradition was very strong, assuring that children would pursue their parents' path, as it says, ‘Ask your father and he shall tell you.’ On that basis we could claim that a daughter needn't learn Torah but merely rely on proper parental guidance. But nowadays, in our iniquity, as parental tradition has been seriously weakened and women, moreover, regularly study secular subjects, it is certainly a great mitzvah to teach them Chumash, Prophets and Writings, and rabbinic ethics, such as Pirkei AvotMenorat Hamaor, and the like, so as to validate our sacred belief; otherwise they may stray totally from God's path and transgress the basic tenets of religion, God forbid."
[21] Prominent in their pursuit of this path is centrist orthodoxy. For fuller explorations of this, see “Torah Study for Women- Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein”  Reprinted from Ten Da’at Vol. III No. 3 pp.7-8,
[22] "Al Devar Chiyuv Neshei Yisrael B'Chinukh u-veLimmud ha-Torah 5750 [1990]." Sefer haSichot, Vol. 2 (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Kehot, 1992), pp. 455-459. Cited in Handelman, S. Putting Women in the Picture, adapted from The Chabad Movement in the Twentieth Century, eds.Yitzhak Kraus and MosheHallamish (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 2005) with permission of the editors.
[23] Tana Dbei Eliyahu Rabba 9, Remah, Even Ezer end 69
[24] Krengel, S. (1990) Exploring the Hidden, Wellsprings, February-March, p.4 Lubavitch Youth Organization Brooklyn New York
[26] Slonim, ibid
[27] Hirshberg, M, (1989), From Feminism to Chasidism, Wellsprings, Av-Elul 5649, August-September, p.17, Lubavitch Youth Organization Brooklyn New York.

(The large image at the top is a re-imagining of a classic painting that shows a group of male scholars in heated Talmudic debate (smaller image). Hopefully the image and arguments about whether or not it is appropriate will add to the discussion)


  1. who painted the picture of the women learning talmud?

    1. I have to admit I did it. It is an adaptation of the better known painting of men discussing Talmud shown below it.

  2. Hi. I just came across your blog from a Google image search ("women learning Talmud"), and I love your painting. I'm working on a flier for my women's Gemara shiur - can I use the image?
    (I also hope to get back to your writings when I have more time to read them properly - very interested in what I saw so far!)
    I was supposed to make this flier tonight, so the sooner you can let me know, the better... :)
    Thank you!

    1. hi, Sarah, certainly happy for you to use the image. Hatzlacha with the women's Gemara Shiur. Love the name of your blog, Shivim Panim. Thanks for your positive feedback.

  3. First of all let me tell you, you have got a great blog .I am interested in looking for more of such topics and would like to have further information. Hope to see the next blog soon.

    1. thank you very much Shawn for your kind feedback. I have just put up another post. :)