Women Studying Torah: Facts On The Ground


Sixteen years ago I was asked to stop learning Talmud because I am female. Here’s what happened: I was 25 and decided to try my hand at daf yomi, the practice of studying a folio of Talmud each day.

To keep myself on pace, I joined an early morning shiur at a local shul. I have fond memories of the first few months of attending the shiur; as the only female I was somewhat of a curiosity to the rest of the attendees, but I was made to feel welcome. When I arrived each morning there was always a seat and a hot cup of coffee waiting for me at the table.

Then summer arrived, and the shul official who organized the shiur pulled me aside, and very apologetically informed me I would no longer be able to attend the shiur on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, because the summer instructor on those days did not approve of women learning Talmud. I needed to understand, stressed the official gently, that the shul supported women learning Torah, but could not alienate the instructor. I was welcome to attend the shiur on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When I pointed out, also gently, that daf yomi is a daily endeavor, he again apologized. My attempt to study Talmud was laudable, he said, but he felt I should sympathize with the desire of the shul to avoid controversy.

I did not sympathize. And perhaps because the experience of being denied Torah was wrapped in kindness and good intentions, it was all the more painful. The invalidation of my personal desire to learn in the name of tradition and inclusivity stung deeply. Until last year.

Fast-forward 15 years. It is summer again, and I am preparing for the Talmud shiur I give at the co-ed Modern Orthodox high school at which I have taught for over a decade. I check the roster of students who will be in my shiur and am quite surprised to find that among them is the teenage son of the shul official who asked me to stop learning Talmud. He was a delightful student — thoughtful, hard working and gentle. As I sat across from his father at parent-teacher conferences describing his son’s strengths as a Talmud student, it occurred to me that while our encounter all those years ago had made a lasting impact on me, his father did not in any way recall that he had once disinvited me from the daily Talmud class. It also occurred to me that I had no need or desire to remind him of this; the 15 years that passed had created facts on the ground in terms of women’s Torah learning. I was now, simply, his son’s Talmud teacher.

The Rabbinical Council of America, with its recent resolution banning the bestowing of rabbinic titles upon women, is trying to erase facts on the ground. It is trying to erase the years of Torah learning that Orthodox women have accomplished through hard work and perseverance. It is trying to erase the professional success Orthodox women have achieved in their jobs as teachers, halachic advisors, and yes, rabbis. And perhaps worst of all, it is trying to erase the personal desire of these women to affect the Jewish world through their Torah learning.

The RCA will say: We wholeheartedly support the Torah learning of women, we just don’t support the granting of titles. And my response is that such an approach is akin to supporting study of daf yomi only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If we support the Torah study of women, then women who study Torah should be granted the same respect as their male counterparts. There is no logical reason to distinguish between a woman who serves as a “community scholar” and a woman who serves as a “rabbi” when they are both doing the same job. It is a communal denial of Torah disguised as support. 

So here is my advice to all of us Orthodox women involved in the learning and teaching of Torah. Let us keep learning, keep teaching, and keep creating facts on the ground. Let us pay no attention to those who want to deny us Torah. Their children need us.

Lisa Schlaff is the director of Judaic studies at SAR High School in Riverdale.