Some time ago, as I meandered through the streets of Paris and the historic Jewish district of Le Marais, I chanced upon the splendid synagogue on Rue Pavée (see photo). The verse “How goodly are thy dwellings, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5) naturally came to mind. It was interesting, I then reflected, that I had used the words of a non-Jew, Bilaam, to describe the beauty of this place and what it inspired in me. I was, like Bilaam, essentially an outsider trying to look in. Almost instantly, I thought of my male friends and cousins who could be studying inside at this very moment, sitting in the beit midrash with their havrutot (study partners), poring over volumes of Talmud and tomes of commentaries, benefiting from the guidance and spiritual aura of prominent rabbis, and enjoying the holy atmosphere of this unique place, where only wars of the mind are fought. A heavenly place, indeed! If, as Mo’ed Katan 29a suggests, the sages would never relinquish Torah study—not even in the world to come—then this is definitely what the world to come looks like to me.
So, as Jewish women, what will olam haba (the world to come) look like to us?
I never actually walked into the beit midrash on Rue Pavée. There had been no such place in the small town in the south of France where I was born and raised by very mildly observant parents, who gave me as much love as a child could hope for, but almost no taste of Jewish study. (For example, we kept kosher at home, but I had no idea why.) Then, I did enter a few Orthodox batei midrash in France—mostly in Strasbourg, Alsace—but I was almost immediately asked where my husband was and gently told to leave (because “the women’s section is upstairs”). There were a few exceptions—for instance, a beit midrash I went to in Lyons, where an older friend of mine allowed me to come in and introduced me to some of his study partners. But that was exceptional. What I could not do was simply walk into a beit midrash without having been introduced by an insider and study Torah or Talmud alone or with my husband, as I had tried to do in Strasbourg, without being told that I had to leave. It was always implied that I was distracting the men at this specific time, in contrast to any other daily life setting, during which it would be considered acceptable for men and women to intermingle, even in Orthodox circles.
Looking for a Beit Midrash for Women
At the time I was extremely thirsty for Torah, and I looked for a place where women might come and study at any time—a beit midrash for women. I did not find it.
I was eighteen when I first came to Paris to finish my B.A. after studying in Lyons for two years. At the time I was extremely thirsty for Torah, and I looked for a place where women might come and study at any time—a beit midrash for women. I did not find it. Although there were, and still are, programs that call themselves “Beit Midrash for Women” in Paris and Strasbourg, to the best of my knowledge, they offer only lectures (shiurim) on a daily or weekly basis. This was not what I was looking for; I sought a space that would truly be ours to study in throughout the day, unsupervised, in pairs, whenever we might have some time to spare. (For what better way could there be to spend one’s spare time?) I tried to describe it this way to my non-Jewish friends from college: a library of sorts, but with the boisterous, loud, and passionate atmosphere that characterizes our batei midrash and are the pride and joy of our people.
Why, then, did it not already exist? Because, as some of my Orthodox friends told me, women do not study, because they do not have to. They have other priorities and responsibilities. Those who do study do so at home, as female hareidi friends of mine have pointed out. And those who champion an egalitarian access to Jewish texts (as do most non-Orthodox Jews) do not always imply that they are willing to invest several hours every day in the study of Torah or even study on a weekly basis. Some French Reform and Conservative Jews I know study at home and go to shiurim several times a week, but do not express a need to create a beit midrash that is available all day long, and I do not think that there exists a coeducational beit midrash among the Reform and Conservative kehillot in France.
Because, as some of my Orthodox friends told me, women do not study, because they do not have to. They have other priorities and responsibilities. Those who do study do so at home, as female hareidi friends of mine have pointed out.
When I realized how hard it would be for me to study in a proper beit midrash, which I consider to be a nexus of Jewish life (and perhaps the one I, a notorious bookworm, love the most), I turned to the United States for help and guidance. America’s amazingly dynamic and committed Jewry has long been an inspiration to me.
My husband wanted to be a rabbi (and is currently studying at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah), and I was looking for an Orthodox school that would offer a similar orientation. I found Yeshivat Maharat. When I flew to New York City for the first time to meet the students and staff, I was thrilled to discover that I was not alone. What I had dreamt of, they had created and were using every single day—a beit midrash for observant, Torah-loving women to study all day long! Men could come in and study too, even though this was mainly a sanctified safe space for women. This became my ideal representation of a beit midrash, and I wished to create a similar “room of one’s own” in France, emulating my American friends. It would be a place where free access to women was prioritized but men would be just as welcome, as they usually are.
A Solution to the Problem
This, I thought, was the solution to the problem that I had witnessed in France, and to the lack that I had experienced and deplored. But was it a problem per se? Was I fighting only for a place for me to study? I thought so at first, but it now seems to me that the segregation in batei midrash is part of the feeling of rejection that has turned several brilliant young women I know away from the Torah and Judaism. They have looked for a more egalitarian context in which to study and have turned to the realm of academia, where they excelled, or have turned their energies toward fighting for feminism in society at large (where they are supported, rather than derided, for their actions and struggles). Every time I have heard one of their stories, I am deeply hurt..
As I realized how hurtful turning women away from Torah study could be, I kept my hopes high and decided that I would try to do something about this phenomenon: that I would find a place where I could study with my sisters and brothers in order to have a more meaningful Jewish life.
As I realized how hurtful turning women away from Torah study could be, I kept my hopes high and decided that I would try to do something about this phenomenon: that I would find a place where I could study with my sisters and brothers in order to have a more meaningful Jewish life. Being a student at Yeshivat Maharat helped me realize that there are other women who would gladly to come and study in a place where they feel welcome, that many of us are longing to know more about our tradition and our texts, but cannot or will not ask for it because they fear rejection.
I am now twenty-two years old. I received my M.A. in American Jewish literature a year ago and passed a competitive test that enables me to apply for a position as assistant professor in France. I was offered a position at the Sorbonne, but I decided to decline—for now. I have other plans: My husband, Emile, and I have moved to New York City to complete our rabbinical studies at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat.
We believe that the purpose of our calling is to bring Jews closer to our heritage and to the mysteries and joys of Torah and Talmud study. We have tried to do so since we got married by giving weekly coeducational shiurim introducing young men and women to the joys of havruta learning through the association that we created together—Ayeka. We strongly believe that “study is greater [than deeds], for it leads to action” (Kiddushin 40b) and that men and women should have an equal share in text study, no matter what their level of halakhic obligation is.
We believe that this is one of the greatest challenges that Judaism must face in our time—the growing yearning for study that Jewish women express and that must be answered. In keeping with this ideal, we dream of coming home to Paris in three years and creating an Orthodox community that is inclusive and welcoming. In this community, there will be a coeducational beit midrash where all will be able to study lishmah (for the sake of Torah itself) and will feel free to speak up and eager to explore our shared legacy. This beit midrash will be one of a kind and will constitute our answer to the thirst for study. This, we believe, is the key to the preservation of our treasured Torah. And we will work as hard as necessary to get there. In Robert Frost’s words, “I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep.”
Myriam Ackermann-Sommer, born and raised in France, is currently a first-year student at Yeshivat Maharat. She is completing a Ph.D. in American Jewish literature at the Sorbonne and the Ecole Normale Supérieure. She and her husband, Emile, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, co-founded the association Ayeka, a co-ed study group for Parisian students and young professionals.
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