<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">… in the twentieth century titanic changes have occurred, altering the landscape of women’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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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:
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:
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:
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. 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. 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:
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. 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). 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.
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, though opposition continued and continues until this day in some circles.
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. Soon Bais Yaakov schools were opened in many European cities and over the years other rabbinic leaders added their endorsement.
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.
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:
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:
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. 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, 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:
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. 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.
Perhaps Sarah Schenirer’s spiritual descendants are far more radical: 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:
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.
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. In the same year as Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote the above letter, the Lubavitcher Rebbe penned the following:
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.