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Focus on Issues: Orthodox Women Learn That Knowledge is Power

Knowledge is power — and Orthodox women are applying the maxim to their lives in unprecedented numbers.

Across the Orthodox world, women are turning to Judaism’s most sacred texts to understand for themselves the foundations of their faith.

"It’s all over, like poppies pushing up in a winter field," said Rabbanit Chana Henkin, who is given the title "rabbanit" to acknowledge her status as a respected teacher.

Henkin founded Nishmat in Jerusalem, one of several institutes created in recent years to accommodate a burgeoning number of Orthodox women who want to learn Judaism’s primary texts — the Bible and its codified commentaries.

But while an explosion of Jewish learning among women has created a mini- revolution in the modern Orthodox world, the phenomenon is sparking a backlash in those Orthodox communities most sheltered from the secular world.

Leaders in the most fervently traditional part of the Orthodox world know that access to Jewish texts is a powerful thing. And they fear that such access might tempt their women to alter their time-honored roles as wives and as mothers.

But it’s a different story in the modern Orthodox world, where Jews try to mesh their traditional religious and secular lives.

Many modern Orthodox women are seeking the same level of sophistication in their Jewish learning that they are finding at universities, say observers of this trend.

Some 60 Orthodox women’s Torah institutes now exist in Israel, according to Rabbi Daniel Sperber, a professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.

He was among many speakers to address the issue of Jewish learning among women at the Second International Conference on Feminism & Orthodoxy, held Feb. 15 and 16 in New York City.

Several similar institutes exist in the United States as well, mostly in New York.

When Blu Greenberg, widely known as the mother of Orthodox feminism, said in a speech at the first Jewish feminist conference in 1973 that there should be places for women to study Torah full time — as there are for men — the idea seemed so far-fetched that people in the audience laughed, she recalled.

Just over a decade later, she began noticing "an explosion of women’s learning," she said.

Today, several thousand Orthodox women are learning Torah as a full- time pursuit.

But those women who pursue such a high level of scholarship find themselves facing a variety of vexing challenges — from finding appropriate jobs to finding husbands.

"The open question is, Where will these women go from here, what will they be doing?" said Greenberg.

While learned Orthodox men become interpreters and scholars of Jewish law, writers, teachers or pulpit rabbis, there has been no communally sanctioned place for women with similar levels of talent and knowledge.

Although there have been women in Jewish history recognized as great teachers – – from Beruriah, the most learned woman mentioned in the Talmud, to the late Nechama Leibowitz, a biblical commentator and Hebrew University professor who died last year — they are rare exceptions.

Today some parts of the Orthodox community are trying to find a place for new population of learned women.

Two Orthodox congregations in New York have hired female interns whose responsibilities include teaching and lecturing, and two more in other parts of the country appear to be on their way to doing so.

Scholarly women are also working in other types of settings — yeshiva high schools, Jewish community centers and at universities.

Still, there are fewer positions than there are women capable of filling them.

A lot of the women in the most advanced program offered by the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, "wonder how they’re ever going to get jobs," said one student who asked not to be named.

Meeting men who are undaunted by a learned woman or think at similarly sophisticated levels, isn’t easy, said others.

"Religiously educated girls have difficulty finding compatible partners," Shira Breuer, principal of the Pelech School, an Orthodox girls’ high school in Jerusalem, said in a workshop at the feminism conference.

She cited a former student, now 22, who told her, "You have to do something with boys’ education" to bring it up to the level that a growing number of girls are now receiving.

Learning at a sophisticated level remains controversial in many parts of the Orthodox community.

A set of 17-year-old twins attending the conference recalled how inviting classmates over to study Jewish literature on the night of Shavuot got them into trouble.

A teacher told them that only men learn on the night of Shavuot, said one twin, and that girls are "supposed to get their beauty rest so they look pretty for their husbands."

The twins, students at a girls’ yeshiva high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., attended the conference with an older sister and their mother, who asked that they not be identified for fear that they would "make waves" at the school.

"I never thought of myself as a feminist, but that’s what they’re calling us at school for asking questions about Gemarah, so maybe I am," one twin said, referring to the Talmud.

While it is a contentious matter in some parts of the Orthodox community, in others, learning Judaism’s sacred texts is totally off limits.

Satmar girls in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y., home of their Chasidic movement and a dozen or so affiliated sects, never study from a primary text in their 11 years of education.

Boys learn Hebrew texts from the age of 3; girls never do. Their prayer books are translated from Hebrew into Yiddish, the vernacular language in their homes and on the streets there.

The founder of the Satmar sect, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, who died in 1979, "prohibited girls learning straight from the text," said Surie Basch, assistant to the principal at the community’s high school for girls. "It’s a no-no."

"The purpose of the girls’ education is to be Chasidic housewives and mothers, pillars of the home," said Rabbi Hertz Frankel, dean of the Satmar girls’ school system, which has 4,500 students.

"Our girls don’t care about feminism, about reading the Torah, about getting an aliyah," Frankel said, referring to the honor of being called to bless the Torah before it is read.

"The people who are, aren’t real Orthodox," he said, adding they are "beyond the pale."

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