Jewish Education for Women

  • by: Rabbi Moshe Kahn

Reprinted from Ten Daat Vol. III No. 3 pp. 9-11
Formal Jewish education for women is a twentieth century phenomenon initiated by the courageous, dedicated, and tireless efforts of Sara Schnirer. Since her founding of the Beth Jacob Movement in Poland, institutionalized Jewish education for women has expanded and intensified.
The following is an attempt to examine the historical and halakhic evolution of formal Torah study for women and the halakhic considerations in the light of today’s challenges.
Women are obligated to know the halakhot that they are mandated to observe.1 However, the Talmud2 extrapolates from the verse, “And you shall teach them to your sons,3” that sons, but not daughters, are obligated to study Torah. This exemption is twofold. Firstly, women are exempted from studying those parts of the Torah that they need not observe. Secondly, they are exempt from a thorough and intensive study of Torah. They are obligated to study only what is necessary to insure a proper fulfillment of the mitzvot. The above derivation is an exemption, not a prohibition. If women wish to study they may. However, Rabbi Eliezer, in a Mishna in Sota, sanctioned against teaching women Torah. Rabbi Eliezer formulated his position as follows: “Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah [it is as if] he is teaching her tiflut.4″
Rashi and the Rambam disagree on the meaning of the word tiflut. Rashi says it means immorality5. In other words, Rabbi Eliezer was concerned that women with improper spiritual motives would study the Torah and use its knowledge to undermine and violate its precepts. The Rambam understood tiflut to mean triviality:
A woman who studies Torah will be recompensed, but not in the same measure as a man, for study was not imposed on her as a duty, and one who performs a meritorious act which is not obligatory will not receive the same reward as one upon whom it is incumbent and who fulfills it as a duty, but only a lesser reward. And notwithstanding that she is recompensed, yet the Sages have warned us that a man shall not teach his daughter Torah, as the majority of women have not a mind adequate for its study but, because of their limitations, will turn the words of the Torah into trivialities. The Sages said ‘He who teaches his daughter Torah it is as if he taught her tiflut. This stricture refers only to instruction in the Oral Law. With regard to the Written Law, he ought not to teach it to her; but if he has done so, it is not regarded as teaching her tiflut.6
According to the Rambam, Rabbi Eliezer understood that a thorough comprehension of the Oral Law can only be achieved by persons who possess advanced textual and analytical skills. Rabbi Eliezer felt that most women did not possess these skills. Therefore, women who studied would only understand it superficially and eventually trivialize it. However, such sharpened skills were not indispensable for the study of the Written Law. Thus, its study is not to be equated with tiflut. There seems to be an inner contradiction in this passage since the Rambam says that women who learn Torah do receive a reward. This would indicate that it is a noble and worthwhile activity. But the Rambam concludes, a father should not teach his daughter Torah because it is asif he is teaching her tiflut.
It is important to note that the Rambam says most women, but not all, are not intellectually capable of learning Torah. Apparently, the Rambam agrees that there are women who do possess the necessary skills for Torah study.
The Prisha resolves this inconsistency by noting that if a woman were to independently study Torah successfully, she would not be grouped with the majority of women. Consequently, the prohibition of our Sages would not apply to her and her father would, indeed, be allowed to teach her. However, as long as her skills remained unknown, her father would be enjoined from teaching her.7
The Rambam, in this passage, also prohibited a father from teaching his daughter Torah She’bikhtav, the Written Law. Although it is not compared with tiflut, it is still forbidden. The Taz qualifies this prohibition to refer only to an intensive and analytical study of Tanakh, but a simple and unsophisticated reading of the text is permitted.8
Tosummarize, Rambam prohibits a father from teaching Torah She’b’al Peh, the Oral Law, to his daughter as long as he is unaware of her capabilities. If, however, her abilities are known and proven to be advanced then he may teach her. Concerning Torah She’bikhtav, the Rambam only prohibits an in-depth study.
The reasoning of the Prisha, although clearly presented to explicate the opinion of the Rambam, would logically apply even according to Rashi’s definition of tiflut. If a woman’s motives and dedication to Torah were suspect then a father would be enjoined from teaching her. But if she demonstrated a sincere devotion to Judaism then the prohibition would not apply. The Rama does seem to support this contention. Rabbi Yosef Caro codified verbatim the opinion of the Rambam; and the Rama, in his comments on Rabbi Caro’s ruling, interpreted the word tiflut to mean l’dvar aveirah, immorality. This would be in consonance with Rashi’s opinion. Therefore, the Rama would be applying Rashi’s interpretation of tiflut within the Rambam’s halakhic framework.9
Based on the above analysis of the Rambam and Rashi, the prohibition for a father to teach his daughter Torah is not applicable to the woman who demonstrates intellectual skills and a sincere devotion to Torah and its precepts. The Chida concurs with the Prisha and permits a father to teach his daughter Torah if he recognizes that she has skills and love for learning.10
In light of the above, what was, and what should be, the scope, parameters and intensity of Jewish education for women?
Prior to Sara Schnirer there was really no formal Jewish education for women.11 Women learned basic Jewish concepts and halakha informally, from parents and family. This education was unsophisticated and its purpose was purely pragmatic. There were, however, instances where scholarly women learned Torah intensively, including Torah She’b’al Peh, thus supporting the contention of the Prisha and Chida that Rabbi Eliezer’s prohibition was not absolute for all women. For example, the Talmud in Pesachim records that Bruria, Rabbi Meir’s wife, was a scholar with outstanding capabilities.12
Rabbi Baruch Epstein, in his work Mekor Barukh, lists the following outstanding women scholars:
A woman named Redel, the daughter-in-law of Rabbi Isserlin, learned Torah as diligently as a man.
In his Halakhic Questions and Decisions the Tashbez (chapter 78) responds to the Tosafot in the name of a Rabbi’s wife. The Tashbez mentions that she was a Torah scholar and that she had explained other difficulties in the Talmud.
In the book The Travels of Rabbi Perahya of Regensburg, it is noted that the head of the Yeshiva in Bagdad had an only daughter who was learned in the Tanakh and Talmud. She taught Torah to yeshiva students from within a closed room. Her students did not see her; they only heard her voice through the window.
In the same vein, the Maharshal, in a halakhic answer at the end of chapter 29, relates that his mother, Rabanit Miriam, taught at the Yeshiva for several years. She sat in front of a screen and expounded halakha to the outstanding boys.13
The above list seems to support the contention of the Prisha and Chida that Rabbi Eliezer’s prohibition was not absolute. Women who were spiritually motivated and intellectually skilled could, and did, learn and were praised for it. But the cited examples record only individual efforts.
What prompted Sara Schnirer to expand the effort and found a yeshiva designed for masses of girls? Why did the Gedolim support it since it was a stark deviation from the norm? Was it not a clear violation of Rabbi Eliezer’s ruling, since it was now mandating a specific curriculum of study for all Jewish women?
Sara Shnirer realized that the young Jewish women of her time were facing a spiritual crisis. The Polish government introduced compulsory public education and these young women, who were ignorant Jewishly, were now receiving a secular education. A vast and exciting world began to unfold and they felt estranged from their parents and their life style. Sara Schnirer knew that the only way to combat these environmental forces was through Torah. She sought, and received, the support and encouragement of the Gedolim, including the Chofetz Chaim who wrote:
When I heard that religious Jews volunteered to found a Beth Jacob school to teach Torah, the fear of G-d, and ethical behavior to girls, I wanted to strengthen their hands. This is a great matter in our days; especially since the stream of apostasy is rampant, and the free-thinkers steal the souls of our brothers and all who are G-d fearing. It is rewarding to enroll one’s daughter in this school. All the doubts about the prohibition of teaching one’s daughter Torah are baseless in our days because our generation is different from previous generations where every Jewish home followed the path of Torah and the precepts and read Tsena u’rena every Sabbath. Today it is different. We must therefore try to increase the number of such schools and to save whatever we can.14
Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski also issued a similar statement:
In former times, when the masses were religious and every Jewish home was a sanctuary; when the Jewish daughters grew up under the guidance of the parents then, it was not so necessary to have such schools. Today, then the atmosphere is full of apostasy and lack of faith, the Beth Jacob is a life necessity not only for the education of our daughters,but for the education of the entire future generations which lie in the hands of the future mothers.15
The Gedolim acknowledged that, in today’s times, Rabbi Eliezer’s approach could not succeed for it depended on an adequate support system within an insulated environment. But this was no longer the reality. The influences of the outside world were too great and the support systems could no longer protect. Thus, ironically, the only way to save these Jewish souls was through a Torah education.
The curriculum of the Beth Jacob schools consisted of Chumash with the commentaries of Rashi and S.R. Hirsch, portions of the prophets, and ethical teachings from Pirkei Avot. Most yeshivot today provide a more extensive education than the Beth Jacob schools of Poland. The stricture of teaching Tanakh in depth is no longer in effect for the ruling of the Chofetz Chaim provided an unqualified license for in-depth textual study. There is one area of study, however, which has stirred much controversy within the Orthodox community–the study of Talmud. Some schools teach it, others don’t. Why the controversy?
Talmudic study demands rigorous analysis and a sophisticated understanding of language and text. A successful student of Talmud must be highly motivated and skilled intellectually and linguistically. Since it is therefore clear that Talmud is not for everyone, it has been argued that yeshivot need not, and perhaps should not, teach Talmud to women. They should continue to receive the balanced, inspiring Torah education based on Tanakh, the moral teachings of our Sages, and halakhot.
This position, however, ignores reality and oversimplifies the issue. Talmud is central to serious Torah study. Certainly, one can learn halakhot without ever studying a page of Talmud. There are many books available today, in Hebrew and/or English, which present halakhot in a simple and concise manner. However, this method of learning, although valuable from a pragmatic perspective, is unrewarding, superficial, and can even be misleading. At the very least, it is quite clear that one cannot comprehend the halakhic system and appreciate its centrality in Torah without studying Talmud.
This should not be taken as a suggestion that high school yeshivot should mandate the study of Talmud, but it should be offered, and talented students should be encouraged to pursue it. Today, more than ever, there is an urgency for such a program. Women are advancing in all intellectual and academic spheres. They are attending college, graduate and post graduate schools and are successfully pursuing careers in diverse disciplines. Such women want and need a comprehensive and intensive Torah education. How can we justifiably deny them an area of study that is sobasic to Judaism? Why should women, who are acquiring an expertise in the secular fields, be forced to remain relatively ignorant in their knowledge of Torah? Yeshivot are producing G-d fearing young women who are dedicated to Torah values and who truly want to learn and understand Torah. They certainly have the necessary skills and should be encouraged. They will gain immensely from it. Not only will it enrich their comprehension of Torah but it will add a new dimension to their religious observance and commitment.
There are those who argue that encouraging women to study Talmud would run counter to the traditional roles and values women should be striving to achieve. A woman’s primary role, it is said, is to marry and raise a family, not to immerse herself in Torah study. Instead of emphasizing learning we should concentrate on her role in life.
This line of thinking is, in my view, misguided and the fears unwarranted. A priority of life, for both men and women, should be marriage and children. Contemporary societal pressures, with its emphasis on equality and self-fulfillment, may seem to conflict with traditional Jewish values and must be addressed openly and honestly. However, an intensive Torah education for women is not a betrayal of traditional priorities nor does it conflict with home and marriage. On the contrary, it can enhance relationships by adding a dimension of mutual respect and support, and a healthy acceptance of halakha.
Rather than being viewed as a threat, women’s learning should be seen as the fulfillment of honest need and a quest to meet modern challenges by enhanced spiritual growth and knowledge.
RABBI KAHN is on the faculties of the James Striar School of Jewish Studies and Stern College for Women, both of Yeshiva University and the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, New York.
1 Rama, Yoreh Deah, 246:6
2 Kidushin 29b
3 Devorim 11:19
4 Sota 20a
5 Sota 21b
6 Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah, trans. Moses Hyamson, Chap. 1:13
7 Prisha, Tur Yoreh Deah, 246:6
8 Taz, Yoreh Deah, 246:4
9 Rama, Yoreh Deah, 246:6
10 Eliezer Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 9, sec. 3:2
11 Rabbi S. R. Hirsch did establish a school for girls in Frankfurt in the 19th century to combat the influences of the Reform movement and to stem the tide of assimilation. However, this was an isolated case.
12 Pesachim 62b
13 Baruch Epstein, Mekor Barukh, trans. Malka Bina, chap. 46, part B
14 Abraham Atkin, The Beth Jacob Movement in Poland, (Ph.D. Dissertation), p. 65
15 Ibid, p. 52