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The Rightful Heirs of Sarah Schenirer
Levi Cooper      Email This Article

Levi Cooper is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah and teaches Jewish Studies at Machon Pardes and other university level programs in Jerusalem.

<p class="MsoNormal" style="MARGIN: 0pt; DIRECTION: ltr; LINE-HEIGHT: normal; unicode-bidi: embed; TEXT-ALIGN: left" align="left"><span style="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">&hellip; in the twentieth century titanic changes have occurred, altering the landscape of women&rsquo;s Jewish education, even in traditional circles<!--?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /--><o:p></o:p></span></p>

Over the ages, education has largely been a male domain.  Jewish education too, while exhibiting many unique features, has been primarily a male pursuit.  The many dicta we have in the Jewish bookcase exhorting people to study the hallowed texts of our tradition generally do not address the female population.  Not only were there sociological barriers to women studying Torah, but objections existed on halakhic grounds too.[1]  Yet in the twentieth century titanic changes have occurred, altering the landscape of women’s Jewish education, even in traditional circles. 

 

Today, in many institutions there is no discernable difference between the curriculum of female students and that of their male counterparts.  Women entering the talmudic fray – as students and as teachers – have also precipitated a reevaluation of subject material and classroom methodology.  In many ways we are still in the midst of these developments and therefore it is difficult to fully appraise their impact and lasting repercussions.  Nevertheless, the efforts of those instrumental in leading the revolution need to be recognized and understood.

 

One of the early pioneers in the field of women’s education was Sarah Schenirer, a modest Kraków seamstress living during the inter-war period.[2]  Following WWI, new ideas reverberated through the streets of Europe.  While boys and men were still somewhat sheltered from the winds of change, girls and women were exposed to the excitement and lure of new movements, new modes and new opportunities.[3]  With little formal Jewish schooling, female access to the books of our tradition was severely limited.  Polish law required schooling until the seventh grade and the choice was often between non-Jewish public school and new Jewish schools that were often anathema to traditional values (for instance, offering instruction in non-Torah disciplines). 

 

In Western Europe, attitudes towards women’s formal Jewish education were already changing and new institutions had been established.  Towards the east, voices advocating women’s formal education were being heard.[4]  Proposed innovations had yet to make significant inroads into the traditional Eastern European Jewish community, and only the most privileged families were able to provide formal Jewish education for their daughters.[5] 

A gulf between the male Jewish experience and the female Jewish experience was widening.  Thus, in a telling passage Sarah Schenirer described the Festival norm during the inter-war period:[6]

 

And we pass through the Elul days.  The trains which run to the little ‘Shtedtlach’ (towns) where the Rebbes live are crowded.  Thousands of Hassidim are on their way to them to spend the Yamim Noraim (Solemn Holy Days) with the Rebbe.  Every day sees new crowds of old men and young men in the hassidic garb, eager to secure a place in the train, eager to spend the holiest days in the year in the atmosphere of their Rebbe, to be able to extract from it as much holiness as possible.  Fathers and sons travel … Thus they are drawn to Ger, to Belz, to Alexander, to Bobo[v], to all these places that had been made citadels of concerted religious life, dominated by the leading figure of a Rebbe’s personality.

And we stay home, the wives, the daughters with the little ones.  We have an empty Yomtov.  It is bare of Jewish intellectual concentration.  The women have never learned anything about the spiritual content that is concentrated within a Jewish festival. The mother goes to Shul.  The service rings faintly into the fenced and boarded-off women’s gallery.  There is much crying by the elderly women.  The young girls look at them as beings of a different century.  Youth and desire to live a full life shoot up violently in the strong-willed young personalities.  Outside the Shul, the young girls stand chattering; they walk away from Shul where their mothers pour out their vague and heavy feelings.  They leave behind them the wailing of the older generation and follow the urge for freedom and self-expression. Further and further away from Shul they go, further away to the dancing, tempting light of a fleeting joy.

 

And when the father comes home from the Rebbe, he is too dazzled to see what will come out in day in the glaring light, revealing the breach that has gone beyond repair.  While the men bend and sway in the rhythm that tradition has created, and their heads are held aloft into almost visionary heights, the girls go dancing, skipping, dreaming on in their own way, along the path of a world which is wide open, unfenced and pitiless.  Their paths and parents’ paths may never meet.

 

Sensing that the fortress of the Jewish home was breached, Sarah Schenirer set her mind to remedying this dire situation, and the solution was formal Jewish schooling for girls:[7] 

Only schools for girls that are faithful to the Torah and to the Tradition, where your daughters will receive their authentic Jewish education from their earliest youth – that is the only life preserver!

 

Sarah Schenirer was born in 1883 into a hasidic family and at the age of thirteen, poverty prevented her from continuing her schooling.  Self-motivated, she continued to study, though was limited in her ability to access books that did not have Yiddish translations or commentaries.  After a Friday night visit with friends to a youth club where one girl turned on a light, Sarah Schenirer wrote:[8]

 

At that time her father was most certainly sitting with the Talmud, and her mother with Tzenah Ure’enah.

At that moment the idea was born inside of me, that if those girls would have a proper environment, then matters would be entirely different …

 

The idea of establishing a school was hatched during Sarah Schenirer’s sojourn in Vienna during WWI.[9]  Upon returning to Kraków in 1917, Sarah Schenirer gathered some young girls and began to teach them the mishnaic volume Avot.  At first the class went well, until Sarah Schenirer began to expound on the rabbinic dictum to make a precautionary fence around Torah precepts.  The girls ridiculed this young visionary and promptly left.  Throughout her writings, Sarah Schenirer mentions how her own piety and her initial efforts were scorned.

 

Sarah Schenirer persisted, deciding to focus her efforts on a younger generation of girls who were yet to be intoxicated by European culture.[10]  Soon she rented two rooms – one served as a tailor shop and the other where she sewed “clothes” for the young souls of her pupils.  Her first group of twenty-five girls were children of her customers and quickly the parents were impressed with the results.  Sarah Schenirer’s dream was coming to fruition, as she wrote towards the end of 1917:[11]

 

Who is able to understand my feelings? Who can compare himself to me and who is like me now? O how the faces of my beloved girls glowed and shone!  O how their eyes sparkle when I explained to them the meaning of the blessing.  And with joy they asked one another: “Will we also hear such pleasant things tomorrow?”

 

In truth, the idea of women’s Torah education had been voiced already in 1911 in the writings of the esteemed Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (Hafetz Hayyim, 1838-1933) who wrote that it was a great mitzvah to teach women Torah.[12]  Nevertheless, Sarah Schenirer operated initially without formal rabbinic sanction.  Later she received the approbation for her work from prominent rabbinic figures, such as the leader of the conservative Belz Hasidim, Rabbi Yissakhar Dov Rokeaḥ (1854-1926).[13]  Though this paved the way for broad acceptance, the subsequent popularization of her vision was thanks to the influential leader of the Ger Hasidim, Rabbi Avraham Mordekhai Alter (1864-1948) who endorsed the Bais Yaakov schools, significantly furthering the cause and opening the door for the first formal class.[14] 

 

To be sure, the innovative idea of women’s Torah education was not accepted by all and much resistance came from conservative Orthodox leaders.  A public letter penned by the Hafetz Hayyim helped silence many of the detractors,[15] though opposition continued and continues until this day in some circles.[16] 

 

Despite the opposition, within a short time her pupils multiplied manifold.  After two years of independent functioning and with a student body of 280 girls, Bais Yaakov was adopted by the Agudat Israel movement and became a constant feature on the Jewish educational panorama.[17]  Soon Bais Yaakov schools were opened in many European cities and over the years other rabbinic leaders added their endorsement.[18]

 

The significance of rabbinic sanction and support for the acceptance and popularization of the Bais Yaakov idea should not be underestimated.  Nevertheless, Sarah Schenirer must be credited and lauded for the realization of the idea.[19]

 

Bais Yaakov was never just a forum for transmitting information; a strong emphasis was placed on the refinement of personality traits and Sarah Schenirer’s concern for the inner-self guided her throughout her life:[20]

Sara Schenierer told me that she was indeed a dressmaker – that she had many customers, but that when they came to her for fittings she found herself philosophizing about them.  She watched them as they looked critically into the mirror.  As to dress, they knew what they wanted.  They were very particular as to every little detail of fashion or workmanship.  But, the little dressmaker mused, after the fittings were over and the ladies departed, did they know what they really needed?  She envisioned them beautifully dressed in body but spiritually in rags and tatters.  If she could only help them to see where their real happiness lay!

 

Though her work concentrated on Europe, Sarah Schenirer desired to move to the Land of Israel.  In a letter to a student who apparently intended moving to the Land of Israel, Sarah Schenirer intimated that she also had such plans:[21]

 

With regard to my journey to the Land of Israel, unfortunately, I still don’t know what will be.  First, the Seminar still greatly needs me.  Second, I do not have the necessary funds for the expenses of the journey.  For the time-being I have yet to begin actual preparations.  Please, write to me, [and tell me] how to plan to travel and how much money it will cost you.

 

This dream was never realized as Sarah Schenirer passed away in 1935 at the age of 52.  At her funeral hundreds of girls followed her bier to Kraków’s Abraham Street cemetery where she was interned.[22]  In two decades, Sarah Schenirer managed to change the face of women’s Jewish education: her initial work in a small Kraków apartment left an indelible mark on Torah education for women.

 

Sarah Schenirer died childless,[23] yet she saw her students as her progeny and it was to them that she addressed her ethical will written as she lay on her deathbed:[24]

I want to single out the two dangers that threaten my daughters; the most serious of dangers.  First of all, beware and guarded against a feeling of haughtiness.  Conceit and arrogance persuade a person to think she is lofty and deserving of honor.  Second, one should keep away from the other extreme, from the feeling of inferiority that whispers to a person: You are naught, without any value.  This exaggerated humility induces sadness in the person, and causes doubts to penetrate her heart regarding whether her work will succeed.

 

While the impact of Sarah Schenirer’s pioneering efforts cannot be disputed, it may be intriguing to ponder the legacy of this great educator.  Who today, may lay claim to the mantle of Sarah Schenirer?  Who continues the legacy of this educational leader?  Who are her true heirs?

 

Undisputedly, the plethora of Bais Yaakov schools is a testament to the lasting impact of her pioneering efforts.[25]  Today thousands of girls are enrolled in Bais Yaakov schools in Israel and thousands more in the Diaspora.  But do these institutions continue the bold spirit of Sarah Schenirer, tackling the gap between our hallowed traditional modes and changing modern realities?

 

Could her legacy perhaps be in the hands of those who have bravely moved to the Land of Israel, realizing the dream that Sarah Schenirer was only able to pine for?

 

Perhaps Sarah Schenirer’s concern for the soul, her disdain for overemphasis on external appearances and her ethical will warning against haughtiness but calling for positive self esteem reflect the values that this woman with integrity tried to bequeath to her daughters.  Yet this document is hardly well-known and not considered a canonical text even in the Bais Yaakov milieu.[26]

 

Perhaps Sarah Schenirer’s spiritual descendants are far more radical:[27] Those who continue to transform and broaden the landscape of advanced women’s Torah education in all disciplines; those who seek to equip women with the tools to spiritually confront contemporary challenges while retaining fidelity to tradition.  Indeed, in 1953 Rabbi Josef B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) wrote:[28] 

 

I expressed my opinion to you long ago that it would be a very regrettable oversight on our part if we were to arrange separate Hebrew courses for girls. Not only is the teaching of Torah she-beal peh to girls permissible but it is nowadays an absolute imperative. This policy of discrimination between the sexes as to subject matter and method of instruction which is still advocated by certain groups within our Orthodox community has contributed greatly to the deterioration and downfall of traditional Judaism. Boys and girls alike should be introduced into the inner halls of Torah she-be-al peh.

 

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s ground-breaking position was the key to making the once male-only province of Talmud study accessible to women.[29]

 

Doors to the esoteric tradition have also been opened to women through the medium of Hassidut.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) who sought to enfranchise women in the venture of spreading Yiddishkeit, advocated women studying Hassidut.[30]  In the same year as Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote the above letter, the Lubavitcher Rebbe penned the following:[31]

 

In our days when the knowledge of the masses and particularly of the youth, regarding the foundations of the religion has been weakened … Learning is necessary, particularly for the young girls upon whom, in a few years, all the conduct of the house will be dependant … and therefore, nowadays it is impossible without the young girls also knowing at least the main themes of the Torah of Hassidut that inculcates a greater inner sense with regards to matters between People and the Omnipresent 

 

Who, then, are Sarah Schenirer’s true spiritual progeny?  Are they women who speak Yiddish in today’s shtetls of the Diaspora, or those who speak Modern Hebrew in the State of Israel?  Are they women studying in schools bearing the Bais Yaakov name, or perhaps they are those studying in new institutions that further open the tomes of our Heritage before women?

 

Perhaps Sarah Schenirer was giant enough to include and inspire all of them.



[1] A presentation of the halakhic material dealing with women and Torah study is beyond the scope of this article.  For a discussion of some of the contemporary issues, see, for example: Joel B. Wolowelsky (editor), Women and the Study of Torah – Essays from the Pages of Tradition, New Jersey 1992, 2001 (herein: “Wolowelsky, Women”).

[2] A number of scholarly and hagiographic works have been dedicated to Sarah Schenirer.  A good historical summary that incorporates many earlier works can be found in: Shoshana Pantel Zolty, “And All your Children Shall Be Learned” – Women and the Study of Torah in Jewish Law and History, Northvale, NJ 1993 (herein: “Zolty”), pp. 263-300.

[3] Sarah Schenirer attributed the problems to the lure of modernity, and did not relate to economic and political factors that also played a part in the changing nature of the Jewish community generally, and the new roles of women specifically (see Zolty, p. 268-271).

Boys and young men were also prone to defect from the traditional society, which in turn affected the women.  A fuller discussion of this aspect is, however, beyond this article.

[4] At a conference in Kraków in 1903, the Rebbe of Zawiercie, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Landau, called for the establishment of girls’ schools to remedy the neglect in female education.  His suggestion was roundly rejected.  See also the quote from the Hafetz Hayyim, below note 12.

[5] Zolty, pp. 264-274 offers an overview of the educational options that existed at the time.

[6] Judith Grunfeld-Rosenbaum, “Sarah Schenierer” in: Leo Jung (editor), Jewish Leaders: 1750-1940, Jerusalem 1953, 1964 (herein: “Grunfeld-Rosenbaum”), pp. 405-432 (= Judith Grunfeld-Rosenbaum, Sarah Schenierer, New York 1968, 1974), at pp. 410-411.  Grunfeld-Rosenbaum was a younger colleague of Sarah Schenirer and a teacher in Beis Yaakov.  In this passage she recounts the words of Sarah Schenirer.

[7] Sarah Schenirer’s writings appeared in Hebrew translation from the original Yiddish in three volumes entitled: אֵם בישראל: כתבי שרה שנירר, תל-אביב תשט"ו (herein: “Eim BeYisrael”, translations into English are mine).  The work has been reprinted in two volumes with minor changes: Tel-Aviv 1975 and Bnei Braq 1984.  Eim BeYisrael includes appraisals of her achievements written by Agudah leaders (though they are excised from the 1984 edition), reminiscences by students, selections from her diary, her own writings on Beis Yaakov and on the youth movement Bnos Agudas Yisrael, other pieces on Jewish subjects, letters she penned, stories about her and plays she wrote.  At the front of the first volume (p. 10 unnumbered pages) a list of sources is given, all of them in Yiddish. 

This particular quote appears at: Eim BeYisrael, vol 1, p. 45. 

Zolty highlights the absurdity of the situation: “Ironically, in many Orthodox circles it was more acceptable for girls to study in public Catholic schools than to be formally taught traditional Judaism in a school.  Though the hasidim were unyielding in their opposition to Haskalah and no secular subject was allowed to penetrate the walls of the yeshivah, they were more lenient with their daughters, who read whatever they wished. … The idea of formal Jewish education for girls, however, was regarded as being not in consonance with Jewish tradition… [W]ith Orthodox girls’ increasing attendance at Polish gymnasiums in the early twentieth century – institutions devoid of meaningful religious experience – and with their brothers immersed in yeshivot or hasidic institutions, an incongruous situation developed in which boys and girls from the same family were growing up living in totally different worlds.” (Zolty, pp. 265-266, 272-273).

Besides formal Jewish education for women, Sarah Schenirer also founded a youth movement for girls called “Bnos Agudas Yisrael” or simply “Bnos”.  For Sarah Schenirer’s thoughts on the importance of Bnos, see Eim BeYisrael, vol 1, pp. 51-57.   

[8] Eim BeYisrael, vol 1, p. 23.

[9] Sarah Schenirer writes that she was inspired after hearing a discourse from Rabbi Dr. Moshe Flesch about the Hanuka heroine, Yehudit (Eim BeYisrael, vol 1, pp. 23-24):

לבסוף הצלחתי להשיג דירה באחד הרחובות.  אולם דעתי לא היתה נוחה כלל מן המקום הזה, מאחר שלא היתה זו סביבה יהודית ולא ידעתי היכן אוכל להתפלל במנין. בית-הכנסת הגדול היה רחוק מאתנו מרחק של שעה הליכה.  אולם עד מהרה שמעתי את הבשורה הטובה מפי בעלת-הבית, כי ברחוב סמוך קיים בית-כנסת חרדי.  זהו בית-הכנסת אשר בו עמדה עריסתה של תנועת בית-יעקב העולמית... זה היה בשבת חנוכה, כאשר הרב ד"ר פלש, רבו של בית-הכנסת, נשא הרצאה נלהבת ונרגשת על הגיבורה הגדולה יהודית, וקרא לבנות ישראל של דורנו ללכת בעקבותיה של אשה אמיצת-רוח זו.  חבל מאד, שלא אוכל למסור בזה את כל אותה הרצאה מקיפה ומעניינת, כי כבר עבר זמן רב ופרטי הדברים כבר יצאו מזכרוני.  ברם, דבר אחד זכור לי היטב, כי כאשר שמעתי את הדברים הללו על יהודית הגדולה, הרהרתי אל נפשי: אח!  מי יתן והיו כל נשי ובנות קראקא נמצאות עתה כאן ושומעות את כל זה, למען תדענה מה אנו ומה גדול הוא ייחוסנו... נתברר לי אז כי הליקוי העיקרי נעוץ בזה, שבנותינו יודעות מעט מאד על עברנו המפואר, וזה מרחיק אותן מן העם וממסורתו.  אילו היה לה מושג ראוי ורחב, על גבורתם העילאית של אישי ונשי האומה הגדולה – כי אז היו פני הדברים אחרים לגמרי.

See also Grunfeld-Rosenbaum, pp. 412-413 for her account of this episode. 

It is intriguing to ponder in what way did Sarah Schenirer hope that Jewish girls would emulate Yehudit.  Sarah Schenirer’s Yehudit is given voice in her play of the same title (Eim BeYisrael, vol 3, pp. 33-65).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, details of any sexual suggestion are glossed over.  Thus she announces her plan to the masses in a hushed voice (ibid, p. 50):

שמעו נא ואגיד לכם את אשר החלטתי לפעול \ לו אך ישמרני הא-ל ויצילני מכל פגע ומכשול.  אלך אל מחנה-האויב, אל אֶלִיפוֹרְנִי בתוך אהלו \ ושם, בעזרת האלקים, אדע את אשר אעשה לו.  ואתם פה, צומו נא ושאו תפלה לשוכן-מרום / שיצליח את דרכי כי אלך ואבא בשלום.

The closest Sarah Schenirer comes to a hint of impropriety are the various open and literary comparisons to Yael and Esther.

[10] Judith Grunfeld-Rosenbaum described Sarah Schenirer’s persistent efforts: “She assembled them, it is true, but failed to hold them.  Her words seemed to come back to her empty, and in spite of the growing determination to acquire a circle of listeners and pupils, she found herself alone for a very long time.  But with every failure her determination increased.  She kept her treasure close to her heart and her vision clearly before her eyes; she was certain that just as she had been granted the language to speak, so she would find the hearts to speak to.” (Grunfeld-Rosenbaum, p. 413-414).

[11]  Eim BeYisrael, vol 1, p. 29.

[12]  ר' ישראל מאיר הכהן מראדין, ליקוטי הלכות, סוטה, פיעטרקוב תרע"א, עמ' 21-22.  Following earlier sources, the Hafetz Hayyim offered a tempered guideline to the firm talmudic opinions against women learning Torah:

וכתבו רבוותא דהיינו [=הגינוי של לימוד תורה לנשים] דוקא תורה שבע"פ אבל תורה שבכתב אף שאין ללמדה לכתחלה מ"מ המלמדה אינו כמלמדה תפלות וגם מתורה שבע"פ הדינים השייכים לאשה מחוייבת ללמוד.

Significantly, the Hafetz Hayyim adds the following footnote (note 3 at pp. 21-22):

ונראה דכל זה [=ההגבלות על לימוד תורה לנשים המוזכרות בתלמוד] דוקא בזמנים שלפנינו שכל אחד היה דר במקום אבותיו וקבלת האבות היה חזק מאוד אצל כל אחד ואחד להתנהג בדרך שדרכו אבותיו וכמאמר שאל אביך ויגדך (דברים לב, ז) בזה היינו יכולים לומר שלא תלמוד תורה ותסמוך בהנהגה על אבותיה הישרים אבל כעת בעו"ה שקבלת האבות נתרופף מאוד מאוד וגם מצוי שאינו דר במקום אבותיו כלל ובפרט אותן שמרגילין עצמן ללמוד כתב ולשון העמים בודאי מצוה רבה ללמדם חומש וגם נביאים וכתובים ומוסרי חז"ל כגון מסכת אבות וספר מנורת המאור וכדומה כדי שיתאמת אצלם ענין אמונתינו הקדושה דאל"ה עלול שיסורו לגמרי מדרך ד' ויעברו על כל יסודי הדת ח"ו.

These words first appeared in 1911, but appear not to have reverberated until some time later. 

Zolty calls the Hafetz Hayyim’s position “The greatest single act of ideological support for women’s education” (Zolty, p. 278).  Indeed, the Hafetz Hayyim also addressed letters to numerous communities advocating the establishment of girls’ schools, see, for instance, the letter from 1933 printed in צבי שרפשטיין, גדולי חינוך בעמנו, ירושלים תשכ"ד, עמ' 109-110 (herein: “Scharfstein”).

Curiously, Zolty continuously refers to this footnote as a responsum (see, for instance,  Zolty, p. 66-67, 68, 278, 279, note 59 at 278-279).

[13] Sarah Schenirer shared her undertaking with her brother, a Belzer hassid living in Czechoslovakia, who initially scoffed at the idea.  At the suggestion of her brother, Sarah Schenirer traveled to Marienbad to present the idea to the Belzer Rebbe.  A note was passed to the Belzer Rebbe: “She wants to guide and educate the daughters of Israel in the spirit of Judaism and Torah”.  The Belzer Rebbe read the note and replied: “ברכה והצלחה” [=blessing and success].  Despite this approbation, the Belzer Rebbe did not encourage the girls of his followers to attend Beis Yaakov.

[14] Later Rabbi Alter would write: “It is a sacred duty to work nowadays for the Beis Yaakov movement. The future mothers of Israel are being educated in the true traditional spirit of the Torah and are receiving a sound all-round schooling.” (Quoted in Harry M. Rabinowicz, Hasidism: The Movement and Its Masters, Northvale NJ, 1988, p. 350).

[15] Sarah Schenirer referred to this letter when writing to a student in 1933 who was apparently having difficulties with the resident rabbinic authorities who were not supporting the local Bais Yaakov school, see: Eim BeYisrael, vol. 1, p. 65.

[16] Opposition to Bais Yaakov in some circles continued – and continues – to this day.  For an nuanced, though disturbing opposition, see the responsa of the Klausenberger Rebbe Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam (1905-1994) written in 1967 to Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg (1915-2006):

והנה תמה אני ולא אדע דמי הוא זה, יהיה מי שיהיה אף אם גובה ארזים גבהו ושיאו עד לשמים יעלה שיכול לסטות בככלשהו מפסק ברור בש"ס סוטה ... שלא ילמד אדם את בתו תורה מפני שרוב הנשים אין דעתן מכוונת להתלמד וכו', וכל המלמד את בתו תורה כאילו מלמדה תיפלות, ואיך אפשר לעשות ח"ו מתיפלות גדר לאמונה קדושה ופרישות ... ידוע שכמה גדולי ישראל מדורות שלפנינו חיברו ספרים מיוחדים לנשים ... ולא עלה על דעתם לעשות בתי"ס לבנות לתורה שבכתב ותורה שבע"פ וללמדם ספרי חז"ל כנתינתם, כי אם ספרים מיוחדים כנ"ל, להכניס בהם אמונה פשוטה בהשי"ת ותורתו, ושידעו הדרך ילכו בם והמעשה אשר יעשון.  וזו היתה דרך אבותינו ורבותינו הקדושים. ... ואם נאמר ח"ו שנוכל בסברא לומר שנשתנו הדורות והזמנים לעקור ח"ו דבר מחז"ל מי יודע עד היכן הדברים יגיעו.  והחכמים הזהרו בדבריכם. (ר' האדמו"ר מצאנז-קלויזנבורג ר' יקותיאל יהודה הלברשטאם, שו"ת דברי יציב, יורה דעה, סימן קלט).

In a further responsa written a few weeks later again to Rabbi Waldenberg, the Klausenberger Rebbe related openly to his apparent disregard for the Hafetz Hayyim’s approval:

ידעתי גודל ערכו ומעלתו [=של החפץ חיים], ואין החפץ חיים זקוק לאפטרופוס על גדלותו וקדושתו, ומי לא יחרד לגאונותו ופסקיו, אך תורה הוא ואמת כתיב בה והאמת ניתן לכל לומר דעתו באמת ודעת רבותינו ואבותינו הק' שלא רצו לזוז סטיה קלה ממה שמוסכם להלכה בשו"ע בהנ"ל לאיסור (שם, סימן קמ).

The Klausenberger Rebbe goes further attempting to reinterpret the words of the Hafetz Hayyim bringing them in line with his position.

For more on the position of the Klausenberger Rebbe, see: איריס בראון (הויזמן), "טומאת נידה ומעמד האשה – פסיקתו של האדמו"ר מצאנז-קלויזנבורג כמקרה מבחן", דעת 61 (קיץ תשס"ז), עמ' 113-134 בעמ' 124-128.

[17] On Sarah Schenirer’s reticence at the expansion and takeover of her school, and its consequent growth, see Zolty, p. 282ff. 

Much credit for the adoption of Beis Yaakov by Agudat Yisrael lies with Eliezer Gershon Friedensohn, an Agudah activist and editor of the Agudah mouthpiece.  Through his writings, he lobbied extensively on behalf of Beis Yaakov.  Friedensohn credited Sarah Schenirer and her idealism with the development of Beis Yaakov (Eim BeYisrael, vol 1, p. 17) though the impact of Friedensohn’s efforts is worth further investigation.

[18] Thus, for instance, the leader of the Lubavitch hasidim, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn (1880-1950), added his approbation in 1934, and later the Lithuanian authority, Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski (1863-1940) also offered his support.

[19] Zolty explores the question “How can one explain this phenomenal success?” and offers a number of answers, inter alia: “[T]he character and personality of Sarah Schenirer contributed in no small measure to her success.  Her pupils and all those who came into contact with her were moved by her piety, her simplicity, her disarming sincerity, and her integrity” (Zolty, p. 280, 281). 

I suggest that in addition to her charisma, her gumption must also be extolled.  Zolty, however, adds: “Sarah Schenirer’s success was, furthermore, due to the reality that she did not have to crusade single-handedly” (Zolty, p. 282).  While she did receive rabbinic support, the initial efforts were her own initiative and undoubtedly required much courage, foresight and resolve. 

See also Scharfstein, p. 234:

לידי השפעה זו הגיעה [=שרה שנירר – ל"ק] לא בידיעותיה, שהרי מצומצמות היו, ורבות היו הנשים בישראל שהיו גדולות ממנה בחכמה, אלא במסירות נפשה, באידיאל שהיה עצור בה ולא נתן לה מנוח, באהבתה הגדולה לא-להי ישראל ולתורתו. 

Grunfeld-Rosenbaum also credits Sarah Schenirer with opening the teachers’ training college: “So in the year 1923 Sara Schenierer started on her own initiative with her own meager means and in her own magic way to train teachers” (Grunfeld-Rosenbaum, p. 414).

[20] Grunfeld-Rosenbaum, p. 409.

In a short prologue to translated selections from Sarah Schenirer’s letters (Eim BeYisrael, vol 1, pp. 59-68), the compiler notes (ibid, p. 58-59):

שרה שנירר איננה נואמת כאן על צניעות. היא מדגימה, בצורה נפלאה, את משמעות המושג צניעות!

This is a strange assertion since in the first letter presented from 1925 (ibid, p. 59), Sarah Schenirer writes:

רב תודות לך בעבור התמונה, שגרמה לי שמחה רבה.  רק דבר אחד ציער אותי; היתה לי הרגשה של ילדה שנתפסה בקלקלתה.  סיפרתי לתלמידותי שאתן שם (במערב גרמניה – המתרגמת) מקפידות בעניני הצניעות בדיוק כמונו.  והנה רואות הן כי עדיין אין זה כל-כך בדיוק... אין ברצוני להטיף מוסר, אולם אין זה כדאי להרוס את כל הבנין בשל ענין פעוט כזה... אני מקווה שאת מבינה אותי.  בנסיעותי שמחתי מאד לראות, כי אותן הנשים שבפעם הראשונה באו ללא כסוי-ראש, באו הפעם בכסוי-ראש.  אבקש שנית לא לדון אותי לכף זכות חובה בגלל הערותי.

See also her letter from 9th Av 5686 = July 20, 1926 (ibid, p. 62):

אני מעוניית מאד לדעת באיזו מידה חדרה ההכרה בערכי הרוח גם אצלכן, ועד כמה הצליחו כבר להשיג וויתורים בשטח הצניעות?!  כמה מאושרת הייתי אילו הייתי שומעת, כי כבר אין אלה בגדר וויתורים או קרבנות, כי אם מסקנות הנובעות אך ורק מתוך הכרה והשקפה נכונה.

And in a letter from 1st Elul 5687 = August 29, 1927 (ibid, p. 62-63) she inquires again:

מה המצב בשטח הצניעות?  יש לי ספר קטן ונחמד, בקשר לצניעות.  מחירו זהוב אחד.  האם אשלח לך?

Writing to the first Bais Yaakov conference in Hungary in 1933, Sarah Schenirer again stressed modesty (ibid, p. 67):

צר לי מאד על אשר לא יכולתי להשתתף באופן אישי בועידתכן.  אבקש בעיקר להקפיד מאד על מלבושי צניעות של כל המשתתפות, מגדולה ועד קטנה.

It appears to me that it would be more appropriate to highlight Sarah Schenirer’s pleasant but firm stance on issues of modesty. 

[21] Eim BeYisrael, vol. 1, p. 65; the letter is dated 4th Av 5693 = July 27th, 1933, approximately a year and half before she passed away. 

See also the prologue of the compiler (ibid, p. 58):

אהבתה הגדולה לארץ-ישראל מוצאת את הדה וביטויה גם במכתביה.

[22] Following Sarah Schenirer’s death, her grave became a pilgrimage site for women. 

The Abraham street cemetery together with the neighboring Jerozolimska street cemetery were desecrated by the Nazis during World War II.  The cemetery grounds became part of the Płaszów concentration camp which operated until January 16th, 1945.  Recently, a memorial to Sarah Schenirer has been erected thanks to the efforts of Prof. S. Z. Leiman who located the area of the original grave. 

[23] On the hazy information regarding her married life, see Zolty, note 72 at 281.

[24] Eim BeYisrael, vol. 1, pp. 173-179.  The quoted words appear at p. 174.  The compiler notes:

בשכבה על ערש דוי, אשר ממנה לא קמה, ערכה שרה שנירר ע"ה אל תלמידותיה, את המאמר הבא, הנחשב כצוואתה הרוחנית המיועדת לתנועת "בית יעקב".

Grunfeld-Rosenbaum, p. 430-432 offers a translation of the will; the quoted passage is on p. 431.  I have not strictly followed her translation since she uses the masculine, even though the will is addressed to Sarah Schenirer’s pupils.

[25] An ancillary issue is whether only the Bais Yaakov schools that continue to use Yiddish as the language of instruction reflect Sarah Schenirer’s legacy, since Sarah Schenirer made a principled decision to use Yiddish as she saw language as an effective barrier to assimilation. 

Scharfstein concludes his presentation of Sarah Schenirer’s life by relating to this issue (pp. 241-242):

אחד החזיונות המעניינים בתנועה זו [=של בית יעקב – ל"ק] היה יחסה אל לשון יידיש.  האורתודוכסיה המאורגנת ה"אגודה" הוקירה את היידיש מתוך אינטימיות ולבביות, כי הלא בה חיו ובה מצאו רגשותיהם את ביטויים שבעל פה.  הם הוקירוה גם על כוחה החוצץ, שתשמש סייג ותריס בפני ההתבוללות, הפותחת בלשון ומסיימת בנפש.  משום כך השתדלו לקיימה בפי הדור הצעיר.

Zolty emphasis that “Yiddish was seen only as a tool to strengthen the girls’ sense of Jewishness.  It was not an end in itself…” (Zolty, p. 294.  See there p. 294-295 where Zolty relates to the development of this issue once Beis Yaakov schools were opened in Palestine). 

[26] It is worthy to note that Judith Grunfeld-Rosenbaum presents a translation of this will at end of her biography of Sarah Schenirer (Grunfeld-Rosenbaum, pp. 430-432) and Zevi Scharfstein presents a Hebrew translation (Scharfstein, pp. 236-238).  Moreover, when wording the memorial tombstone, Prof. Leiman chose to quote a passage from this will:

פ"ט האשה הצנועה והצדקנית \ מרת \ שרה בת ר' בצלאל שענירער \ אשת הרב ר' יצחק לאנדא \ אם בישראל \ מיסדת בתי ספר "בית יעקב" \ וזה לשונה בצוואתה: \ "איך ענדיג מיט מיינע אלטע ספוקים \ וועלכע זאלען אייך שטענדיג באגלייטען \ עבדו את ה' בשמחה \ שיויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד \ ראשית חכמה יראת ה' \ למנות ימינו כן הודע \ תורת ה' תמימה משיבת נפש" \ נפטרה ערב שבת \ כ"ו אדר ראשון תרצ"ה לפ"ק \ תנצב"ה \ המצבה נהרסה בשנות הזעם \ הוקמה מחדש בשנת תשס"ג לפ"ק

[27] Deborah Weissman, “Bais Yaaov: A Historical Model for Jewish Feminists” in: Elizabeth Koltun (editor), The Jewish Woman: New Perspectives, New York 1976, p. 139: “Few realize that this network of schools and youth organizations for girls and young women began as a rather radical innovation within the Polish Jewish community.”

[28] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Community, Covenant and Commitment – Selected Letters and Communications, edited by Nathaniel Helfgot, New Jersey 2005, p. 83.  The letter, dated May 27, 1953, is addressed to Rabbi Leonard Rosenfeld a former student of Rabbi Soloveitchik and the chairman of the education committee of the Hebrew Institute of Long Island and director of the Department of Yeshivot at the New York Board of Jewish Education.  Rabbi Soloveitchik was responding to a series of questions regarding teaching of Talmud to girls.  Rabbi Soloveitchik intended to relate to the issue in a broader halakhic exposition: “I hope to prepare in the near future a halakhic brief on the problem which will exhaust the various aspects of the same.”  This, however, did not hinder his unwavering support: “In the meantime I heartily endorse a uniform program for the entire student body.” 

[29] Prof. Lawrence  Kaplan has commented: “There can be no doubt the Rav’s stance on this issue [=women studying Talmud – LC] has been extraordinarily influential.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine that the teaching of Talmud to women in modern Orthodox high schools and midrashot would be as prevalent today as it is, given the still controversial nature of this issue, without the precedent set by Rav [sic]” (Lawrence Kaplan, “The Multi-Faceted Legacy of the Rav: A Critical Analysis of R. Hershel Schachter’s Nefesh ha-Rav”, BDD (Bekhol Derakhekha Da’ehu:  A Journal of Torah and Scholarship) 7 (Summer 1998), pp. 51-86, at 56-57).

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach can be seen earlier in the Maimonides Educational Institute, a private school he founded in Boston in 1937.  In this school boys and girls were given equal education in all disciplines, including Talmud.  Thus Seth Farber writes: “[T]he Maimonides School was the first to teach girls Talmud through all the grades. … The fact that girls studied Talmud alongside boys was unprecedented and innovative.” (Seth Farber, An American Orthodox Dreamer – Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Boston’s Maimonides School, New Hampshire 2004, p. 8).  Later in his book Farber again states: “Rabbi Soloveitchik’s school was, indeed, revolutionary in this area.” (p. 82, and see again in the epilogue on p. 152).  For more detail on girls learning Talmud in Maimonides School and various commentaries on and reactions to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s position, see there pp. 82-86.

Some years later, in 1978, Rabbi Soloveitchik delivered the inaugural Talmud shiur in the Stern College beit midrash.  A photograph from that lecture is reproduced in Joel B. Wolowelsky, Women at the Seder – A Passover Haggadah, New Jersey 2005, p 29 (see also the comment at pp. 28-30).   

The position of Rav Soloveitchik has been developed by his son-in-law, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, see: "בעיות יסוד בחינוכה של האשה", בתוך: בן-ציון רוזנפלד (עורך), האשה וחינוכה – אסופת מאמרים בהלכה ובמחשבה, כפר-סבא תש"ם, עמ' 157-163.  Excerpts from this article have been translated by Jack Bieler and appeared under the title: “Torah Study for Women”, Ten Da’at Vol. III, No 3 (Sivan 5749, Spring 1989), pp. 7-8 and also appear on the Lookstein website: http://www.lookstein.org/articles/torah_study_for_women.htm.  Interestingly, Rabbi Lichtenstein states: “This is the way I teach my daughter and so was my wife educated.  This seems to me to be the recommended approach regarding the women of our generation.” (p. 8 in the English; p. 159 in the Hebrew).

For more on Rabbi Soloveitchik’s position in context of other current positions, see: Wolowelsky, Women, pp. vii-x; for more on Rabbi Lichtenstein’s view see there, pp. xvi-xvii.

On the practical applications and limits of Rav Soloveitchik’s position, see the review of Helfgot’s volume by Moshe Meiselman published in Jewish Action, Fall 5766/2005, pp. 93-94.

[30] The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s position on the study of Torah by women has drawn interest, see, for example: Susan Handelman, “Women and the Study of the Torah in the Thought of the Lubavitcher Rebbe: A Halakhic Analysis”, in: Micah Halperin and Channah Safrai (editors), Jewish Legal Writings By Women, Jerusalem 1998, pp. 142-177.  Most studies have focused on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s relatively bold stance on women studying Oral Law.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s unique position regarding the study of Hassidut by women has yet to be given worthy attention; I hope to present a fuller study of this innovation in the not too distant future 

[31]  האדמו"ר מליובאוויטש ר' מנחם מענדל שניאורסאהן, אגרות קודש, ברוקלין תשמ"ט, כרך ז, עמ' רמז, אגרת ב'קז (translation mine).

 


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