Jewish Women as Learning Different

  • by: Chana Tannenbaum

Chana Tannenbaum has taught Tanakh, Education and Psychology at the High School and University levels in Israel and the U.S. Mrs. Tannenbaum served as the founding Dean and Director of Shaalvim for Women, and received the Baumel Award as Yeshiva University’s outstanding faculty member in 1993. Currently, she lives in Israel and teaches Tanakh. Read the accompanying article, A Vision For Leadership, here.

“Abram took his wife Sarai… and the souls that they made in Haran” (Genesis 12:5)

“Let [the verse] say [the souls] ‘that he made’ why does [the verse] say ‘that they made’? Said Rav Huna: [We see from here that] Abraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women”. (Genesis Rabbah 39:14)

From this Midrash, it emerges that our earliest ancestors were educators. Separate classes, gender-specific teachers, the legitimacy of women’s study are some of the salient features which Abraham and Sarah included in their educational model. At the heart of their approach is the recognition that women have distinct educational needs. By identifying women as “learning different”, Abraham and Sarah were able to develop a learning program geared specifically for both women and men that would optimize the abilities of all concerned.

Over the past century, a confluence of circumstances has caused many Jewish educators to reevaluate their approach to educating women. The most significant of these major changes are the redefined role of the Jewish woman and the acknowledgement that females differ from males in the way that they learn. This paper examines some of the ways women can be considered learning different and the specific challenges educating the Jewish woman present.

Women as “Learning Different”

A person or group of people is considered to be “learning different” if the manner in which he/she processes and absorbs educational materials differs substantially from the rest of the group. In reality, every individual is “learning different”; no two people comprehend, hear, see, observe, perceive, or interpret information in the same manner. By its very nature, however, classroom instruction unfortunately cannot be individualized. Any student who does not conform to the majority is at risk for learning issues.

In American society, the educational system is geared to the way men (and boys) learn. For example, it is well known that Piaget and Kohlberg, two pillars of modern psychology and highly influential in the field of educational psychology, used male subjects for their studies. Their theories regarding educational and moral development, therefore, are pinned to a male model. Only relatively recently has basic psychological research been conducted regarding moral reasoning in girls and women, yielding dramatically different results, and suggesting a significantly different mindset in females. Women can therefore be classified as “learning different” as compared to the male majority.

Male and female differences are apparent in many fields. These differences both reflect, and in turn affect, how each gender perceives the world, makes sense out of their experiences, and influences the way that they learn.

Academics and Intelligence

Do males and females differ with regard to academic performance and raw intelligence? Thousands of journal articles and books have been published using a wide variety of experimental methods reaching different conclusions to the same question. The literature on sex differences in cognitive abilities encompasses inconsistent findings, contradictory theories and emotional claims that are unsupported by the research. Despite all the noise in the data, a clear and consistent message is evident – there are real and measurable sex differences with respect to certain cognitive abilities (Halpern, 1994).

Maccoby and Jacklin (1974), in the first major review of the literature on this issue, concluded that females have an advantage in verbal ability, quantitative comparisons and visual spatial reasoning. Hyde and Linn (1988) concluded that the females’ advantage is smaller than the previous review maintained. More recently, Kimura (1999) concludes that “contrary to popular opinion, adult women are not superior on all or most verbal tasks”.

While the gap between the sexes in verbal aptitude has narrowed, in tests of mathematical ability, males consistently scored higher (Hyde et al., 1990). This was also found to be true in tests of quantitative and spatial abilities (Maccoby and Jacklin, 1974). Nonetheless, gender differences in general mental ability are very small and seem to be vanishing (Feingold, 1988).

Results of Differential Aptitude Tests from 1947-1980 and standardized Scholastic Aptitude Tests from 1960-1980 reveal that girls scored higher than boys on scales of grammar, spelling and perceptual speed, while boys had higher means on measures of spatial visualization, high school mathematics, and mechanical aptitude. No gender differences were found on tests of verbal reasoning, basic arithmetic, and figural reasoning. In all disciplines, gender differences declined precipitously over the years studied. The important exception to the vanishing gender differences is the well documented gender gap at the upper levels of performance on high school mathematics, that has remained constant (Feingold, 1988).

Throughout elementary, middle and high school, girls earn higher grades than boys in all major subjects, including math and science (American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 1998). In most colleges and in most subjects, women continue to outperform men (Mau and Lynn, 2001). However, girls do not have higher IQs, and they score lower on some (but not all) standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT, and AP exams (AAUWEF, 1998).

In short, the differences in educational achievement of males and females in late adolescence depends on the extent to which the assessments are based on cognitive tests and on coursework. Assessments based on cognitive tests yield a male advantage, while those based on coursework yield a female advantage (Mau and Lynn, 2001).

Understanding the Differences

Many theories have been proposed to account for these discrepancies. Socialization practices are undoubtedly important, but there is also evidence that biological differences play a role in establishing and maintaining cognitive differences (Halpern, 1994). Others argue that cultural expectations and norms have a far greater impact on gender variation than innate intelligence (Cushner et al., 1992).

Some researchers maintain that girls earn higher grades in school, at least in part, because they are more self-disciplined (Duckworth and Seligman, 2006). Others suggest that females tend to have a stronger work ethic than males (Farmer, 1983). This is likely to be expressed in more conscientious attention to course work, on which grades are normally based. Also, since females tend to do better on essay writing and spelling, their grades are likely to be higher (Hyde and Linn, 1988).

Another possibility is based on the fact that girls tend to be more concerned than boys with pleasing adults. Such concern among girls may heighten their motivation to do well in school and thereby impact on their scholastic performance (Pomerantz et al., 2002).

There seems to be a clear distinction in the way male and females learn and process information. Given these studies of the general population, it is reasonable to assume that it is true of the Jewish community as well. In fact, in light of the distinct roles for Jewish women in traditional environments (within Jewish culture, synagogue, and religion), socialization theories should account all the more for the learning differences among males and females in Jewish education.

Psychological Perspectives

In the past twenty-five years, increased attention has been directed at women’s unique psychological make-up. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to consider the psychological differences between males and females exhaustively, some of the important research conducted by Harvard professor Carol Gilligan is worthy of mention.

Gilligan contends that there is a significant difference between the genders with regard to identity development and moral reasoning. Males and females socialized in Western culture differ in their notions of self and morality. Males growing to adulthood come to see maturity as equivalent to autonomy; the self establishes certain rights vis-à-vis others in society. When a moral question arises, the “male” solution lies in a logical and almost mathematical manipulation of the rights or laws governing the situation. Morality is defined as respect for rights. One’s duty is to refrain from interfering with others and to expect that they will reciprocate by not interfering with you. Men assume, in a sense, that all the players should play fairly and by the rules. The concepts of separation from others and individuation, which are seen as developmental goals for men, are supported by this ethic of rights. The individual stands autonomous, armed with rights and rules that all logical people should accept and abide by (Gilligan, 1982).

Women, however, see a world “comprised of relationships rather than of people standing alone, a world that coheres through human connections rather than through systems of rules” (Gilligan, 1982). Women generate an ethic of care and responsibility premised on the ideal of nonviolence and the assumption that no one should be injured. These values are based on the concept of equality and the recognition of differences in need. Morality becomes a problem of the inclusion of everyone’s needs rather than a problem of balancing claims. This code of responsibility recognizes the fundamental human condition of attachment to one another. Attachment creates and sustains human community. Moral dilemmas are to be approached in such a way that the preservation of human relationships is primary (Gilligan 1982).

For boys and men, separation and individuation are critically tied to gender identity, since separation from the mother is essential for the development of masculinity. For girls and women, issues of femininity or feminine identity do not depend on the achievement of separation from the mother or on the progress of individuation. Since masculinity is defined through separation while femininity is defined through attachment, male gender identity is threatened by intimacy while female gender identity is threatened by separation. Males have difficulty with relationships and females have difficulties with individuation (Gilligan, 1982).

Women’s identity development is therefore tied to interpersonal connections, as they establish ties with others, while men’s development is associated more strongly with intrapersonal issues and assertions of independence and autonomy (Pastorino et al., 1995). This gender difference has broad ramifications. For example, occupational identity achievement for men has been related to a competitive attitude about work and striving for materialistic goals. Women’s achievement of occupational identity has been shown to relate to gaining acceptance and approval from others.

Religious Differences

Once we acknowledge that there are gender differences in academics, personality and identity development, it is not surprising to find differences in relation to religion as well. While religious belief was found to be a vital component in the formation of the identity of religious female adolescents, no significant relationship was found between religious beliefs and general identity development in boys (Fisherman, 2004).

Women are more religious than men on virtually every measure (Argyle and Beit Hallahmi, 1996). This fact appears to be true over the life course and regardless of the type of religious organization or belief system (Miller and Hoffman, 1995). Moreover, the claim is so widely accepted that at this point, it is regarded as axiomatic; many researchers even begin with this assumption.

Men and women differ considerably in their religious affiliation, behaviors and beliefs. Women pray privately and attend church with greater frequency than men and are more likely to be involved in church-run groups (Feltey and Poloma, 1991). Women also read the Bible more often than do men (Harrison, 1983), tend to be more religiously conservative in their beliefs (Argyle and Beit Hallahmi, 1975), and more orthodox in their acceptance of the Bible (Feltey and Poloma, 1991). Females are more likely than males to express a belief in God (Francis, 1997), in life-after-death, and tend to hold more traditional beliefs in general (DeVaus and McAllister, 1987).

Interestingly, the most notable difference between men and women is seen in private devotion (i.e., prayer and Bible reading) (Argyle and Beit Hallahmi, 1996). If the dominant image is of God as being male, then it is only natural that men and women relate to Him differently and develop different attitudes and images of God (Krejci, 1996). Females are more likely to describe God as loving, comforting and forgiving, while males tend to view him as a supreme power, driving force and planner or controller (Nelsen, Cheek, Au, 1985, Foster and Babcock, 2001). Women also feel closer to G-d. (Feltey and Poloma, 1991) While women are more likely to view God as a healer, both men and women equally view God as king and as relational (Nelson, Cheek, Au, 1977). Women were more likely than men to see God as immanent as opposed to transcendent, and were more likely to see God as a friend and confidant than as lord or master (Walter and Davie, 1998). The difference in description seems to reflect male and female ideals and motivations (Argyle and Beit Hallahmi, 1975).
Although these studies were done primarily with Christians, the fact that men and women differ in their approach to religion, God, and spirituality is a finding that should remain consistent for all religions.

Educating the Jewish Woman

Whether men and women are the same or different (indeed they are both), female students in Orthodox Jewish day schools are learning different not only because they are girls, but because they are Jewish girls. Changing lifestyles for women and alternating attitudes in society at large demand responses from within the Jewish education community.

The world has becoming far more accepting of the presence of women in higher education. In 1873, Dr. Edward Clarke, a Harvard Medical School professor, published a book entitled Sex in Education. In it, he argued vigorously against the admission of women to universities, claiming that the assiduous study required of the college student would diminish women’s “limited energy,” which, in turn, would damage their “female apparatus,” and impact negatively on their child-bearing capabilities. This was only one of arguments used by those who opposed the admission for women to colleges.

Similarly, some traditional Jewish educators argue against women studying classical Jewish texts. In a 1994 article in the Orthodox Jewish journal, Tradition, Rabbi Heshy Grossman wrote:

While the success of the man is measured by the extent to which his mind is occupied with Torah, the success of the woman is measured by the extent to which she gives material life to the Torah. Certainly a woman’s mind is capable of comprehending Talmudic analysis. This is not the issue. The issue is that Talmud study – torah sheb’al peh – symbolizes un-actualized ideas – and is not congruent with the woman’s role as actualizer-on –this-earth.

For this reason the current call for greater exposure of women to classical texts strikes an artificial note – not because women should be barred from texts or because they cannot absorb them. The texts are not the issue. Those calls not only echo secularists concerns; they also reveal an oversight of the most basic aspects of Torah itself, which is that the differing roles of men and women in creation result in differing roles in the study of Torah which is the blueprint of creation. The most esoteric and advanced of rabbinic texts will not truly educate women unless this basic concept is understood.

Despite the perplexing objections of the aforementioned authors, the world has seen a monumental upheaval in women’s education, both in the secular and the Jewish realms. (See article on page ??) In the early 21st century, nearly 60% of U.S. college students are female. Similarly, in the early 21st century, an overwhelming majority of female Jewish Orthodox high school graduates devote themselves to at least one year of post-high school study of classical Jewish texts.

The Jewish Woman as Learning Different

There are several important differences regarding the modern Jewish woman that have a direct impact on her education.

Changing Role

The redefined role, as a result of changes in Jewish society, necessitates a fresh examination of the goals that educators and administrators strive to achieve. For today’s young woman, it is generally assumed that her position in her home and community will be radically different than that of her mother’s or grandmother’s. Her academic and career expectations currently exceed those of the traditional Jewish community for her, as established over the centuries. It is tempting to suggest that the Jewish woman is simply carving a niche similar to her male counterpart, but this notion is not accurate. The modern Jewish Orthodox woman both plunges deeply into the academic world in pursuit of a successful career, and simultaneously wants to fulfill her traditional role in the family. To meet these needs, the Jewish educator is challenged with the task of providing an academic experience wherein the modern and traditional roles are both addressed. The educational challenge is less pronounced with young Jewish males, I believe, since their roles have not been transformed so radically. The teachers of young males can maintain similar goals to those of these boys’ fathers’ teachers (i.e., focusing on academics, career and self improvement).


Of paramount importance to young Orthodox Jewish women is finding a mate and establishing a family. There is great concern that any misstep may jeopardize the young woman’s opportunity to find a suitable mate. While their male counterparts are strongly encouraged to pursue serious Jewish textual learning, women who do so risk being branded in ways that may limit their matrimonial opportunities. Educators need to take a balanced approach where Jewish academic achievement and social concerns are taken into account.

Conflict and Confusion

The lack of consensus among Jewish leaders and educators regarding the direction women are expected to take has lead to confusion. Paradoxically, many women who delve deeply into traditional Jewish texts are often considered to be less serious about their Judaism! This confusion echoes throughout the classroom and forces us to deal with some students where a clear, defined role exists (boys) and other students where the goal is more nebulous (girls). Furthermore, it is important to note that within the group, there are women who find Jewish fulfillment without studying Jewish texts. Women studying in Orthodox post-high school religious seminaries hear conflicting different messages from different faculty members and from friends studying in parallel institutions. This only adds to the confusion and complexity regarding how best we are to educate these young women.


Women in general, and Jewish women in particular, can be classified as “learning different.” Identifying the characteristics that distinguish women learners – and specifically Jewish women as compared to their male counterparts – is critical to designing an educational paradigm that will lead to maximum success. Such preparatory study prior will help unlock the considerable talents and abilities of young Jewish women. It should be noted that (due to space limitations) critical issues such as different fields of interest between genders as well as body image, vitally important in the lives of adolescents, were not discussed here.

Further investigation is necessary regarding the educational needs of Jewish women. Is it important that women have female role models as teachers? Are females more receptive to halakha when it is taught by rabbis? More receptive to “life messages” when taught by a woman? Do co-ed yeshivot show the same gender discrepancies as non-Jewish co-ed schools? Do teachers in single sex schools for males have different expectations than those for females? How do the curriculum standards and skills development compare? Why have so few women assumed leadership roles in the Jewish community? Do Jewish educators know how to develop the skills necessary to produce Jewish women leaders? These are just a few of the questions that have important ramifications for our yeshiva day schools and demand further attention.

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