When I was in college, my family would go away for Rosh Hashana to a retreat center for older adults. One day my father asked me a halachic question, and I told him I needed to look up the answer. I knew how to search and where to look; all I needed was the right masechet (tractate). While skimming through the pages of the Gemara, an older woman came over and asked what I was doing. When I told her, she looked at me in shock and said, “When I was little, I sang a song in Hebrew and my grandfather slapped me, saying that Lashon HaKodesh (the Holy Language) is not for women and girls to use.”
I wanted to make sense of the page that looked so organized, so beautiful, yet so different than every other page I had ever read.
My childhood was a very different from that. I was spoken to in Hebrew as a kid. I was handed a Chumash in the second grade. In the fifth grade we started to learn Mishnah, and in the sixth we started to learn Gemara (which was exactly the same as the boys). Throughout middle and high school, Gemara was one of my favorite subjects. Honestly, I’m not sure what it was that drew me in, but there was something that just sucked me into those pages. I wanted to read every line. I wanted to make sense of the page that looked so organized, so beautiful, yet so different than every other page I had ever read.
I wanted to continue learning and exploring. I would argue with my teachers and classmates, wanting to prove a new point or just not accepting what was being said. Studying was no longer a passive activity, where I was being told information; I was made into an active participant, encouraged to think, encouraged to disagree, encouraged to find connections. I know that I drove my teachers crazy – and only sometimes was that on purpose.
I would describe the rabbis of the Talmud as good friends, those friends with whom you don’t need to speak to in full sentences.
Talmud classes would excite me, but also give me a sense of comfort that I was in the right space. I would describe the rabbis of the Talmud as good friends, those friends with whom you don’t need to speak to in full sentences because you know that they will understand. Rashi and Tosafot are even better friends – they are able to answer the questions that you didn’t even know to ask yet. And I kept at learning, or at least tried to. Yes, my high school taught Talmud and wanted me to be at a high level – but where was there to go after high school?
I did go to Midrasha for a year, and it was my choice to go to an Israeli program where we did sherut leumi, national service, for part of our day, but I was shocked when I was the only one from my program who had opened up a Gemara.
“You know too much, we can’t help you.”
And then I started to look for what I could do when I got college. When I called an organization that advertised bringing people together to form chevrutas, I was told “You know too much, we can’t help you.” I remember being in shock. How could I, a 19 year old, know too much Torah?! Is such a thing even possible, even if I was 109 years old? I guess I am proud of my childhood precociousness, because it gave me the gumption to decide that if no one would learn with me, I would just have to create my own learning and start teaching. So I created multiple learning initiatives at college, be that parsha study, a Beit Midrash evening, and even some weekly chevrutas studying Talmud.
I remember being in a Beit Midrash program when I studied abroad in Hebrew University and being the only female chevruta in the room learning Gemara. I remember the weird looks I would get or the comments like, “Why would you want to learn that?” Even though I was told that I am allowed to be part of the study of Gemara, it was as if I was only really allowed a tiny piece; anything more would be absurd to dream of.
All of a sudden I had to fight for my right to learn.
All of a sudden I had to fight for my right to learn. I had to fight for my right to know. I had to prove my worthiness of my knowledge, because if I am not “smart enough” then there is no room for me at the table of discussion.
Honestly, I can’t imagine not having Talmud (and Torah study) be part of my life. The text of the Talmud is running through my head. I think that sometimes my friends and coworkers wish it would not. When something happens, the first thing I usually think of is, “Well, there is this idea/story/saying in the Talmud…” It is the basis of what I spent the last 7 years of my life doing, through the years that I was studying at Pardes and through my years studying for smicha. It has been the way I start my day since 2012, as I am work my way through Daf Yomi.
I regularly have conversations with women who want to study Talmud at an intermediate or advanced level, but are not interested in studying full time or getting semicha. Each of us is more and more discouraged, because there are virtually no places for women to go to.
Each of us is more and more discouraged, because there are virtually no places for women to go to.
We are no longer living in a time that slaps girls and women when they speak Lashon Hakodesh, but we might be in a worse time, where we dangle Talmud and Torah before the eyes of women, and only let them advance so far. I hope that we are able to find a way, not only to continue opening the pages of the Talmud to girls and women, but to open real avenues for them to continue delving into the daphim of the Gemara, to build their skills, learn more, understand more, make it a regular practice. I hope that we can create spaces where they are able to excel, just for the love of Talmud and the love of Torah.
Rabba Eryn London grew up in Randolph NJ. She made Aliyah in 2010, but currently is living in New York. She went to Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, studied at Tochnit Ayelet Hashachar post high school, received her BA at Goucher College (2008), MA at Goldsmiths, University of London (2009), and smicha from Yeshivat Maharat (2017). She is a chaplain resident at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
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