Torah Study for Women

  • by: Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein

Reprinted from Ten Da’at Vol. III No. 3 pp.7-8
Taking into account the place of Torah study in the Jewish weltanschauung, the outstanding issue representing a substantial difference between men and women is constituted by the exemption ofwomen from Torah study. The halakhic attitude is that all that falls under the broad rubric of intellectual striving, the becoming conversant with Torah, is more of a masculine pursuit, one from which a woman is exempt, although she is allowedto learn.
To my mind it is desirable and necessary, not only possible, to provide intensive education for women even from Torah She’b’al Peh sources, whether resorting to the argument that since women are engaged in all professions, whyshould they be specifically limited regarding Torah, or because of the words of the Chofetz Chaim (when Beit Yaakov was founded), that if the Rambam can say that it is necessary to teach a convert the essentials of Judaism, an individual who grows up in a Jewish context should all the more so be afforded such an education. That is to say that it is clear that it is necessary to provide a woman with the education and knowledge that make it possible for her to realize a strong androoted faith and to face reality with dignity. Women today receive a broad general education and many attend universities, and there – as well as within society in general – they come into contact with diverse worldviews and philosophies, to the point that the knowledge and values of Torah are urgently required by women. I completely accept the position of the Beit Halevi that a woman needs to study Torah so that, pragmatically, she will know what to do. He said that there are two aspects of Torah study: a) For its own sake, pure knowledge; b) Preparation for the life of Torah and the fulfillment of the commandments.
It is possible to add slightly to this delineation and say that there are two fulfillments of this mitzvah: a) Torah study for its own sake – an intellectual emphasis; b) Torah study for the sake of a mitzvah; this is also a part of the mitzvah itself.
In my opinion, what is necessary in order for women to be adequately prepared from a Torah perspective for practical living is far more than what she is being taught today. Torah education for women must be strengthened, both quantitatively as well as qualitatively, including the teaching of all aspects of Torah. Even so we will not be violating the framework that was outlined above.
Regarding Torah study for women, there is an additional aspect, i.e., the obligation to ensure the continuity of Jewish tradition, as is described in the Torah: “And you will make known to your children and children’s children the day upon which you stood before the Lord your G-d at Sinai..” The woman who is to serve as the educator of the coming generation needs something to pass on, and therefore she needs the knowledge as well as a personal commitment to encourage the transmission of tradition. For this purpose it is desirable that the learning be intensified, because in this way she deepens her own commitment, her sense of responsibility. When something is well learned, it creates personal commitment. There are things that can be known in a general way, but they are not felt existentially, and therefore they do not penetrate one’s consciousness. For example, one should learn the mitzvot that are dependent upon the land of Israel. A woman ought to know, from a practical point of view, how to tithe trumot and maasrot. But one should not be satisfied with this. The same revulsion felt when confronted with eating pork should be elicited by the thought of eating tevel, and this is not presently the case. The prohibition against consuming tevel Mid’Oraita is more stringent a transgression than eating pork, yet there isn’t a comparable revulsion. Why? A lack of knowledge. Simply, these laws were not properly studied and, therefore, a deep impression has been made neither on the intellect nor on the soul. Therefore, the study of Torah She’b’al Peh must be intensified.
From a practical pointof view, it is appropriate to teach the Sedarim of Zeraim, Moed, and Nezikin and the small amount of applicable material in Nashim, Kodashim and Taharot. And when these areas are taught, they must be taught in depth. For example, when one teaches Vayikra, it must be taught properly. This includes of course Rashi, and Rashi cites sources from Torah She’b’al Peh. It is impossible to decide to teach women Rashi but not Mishna when Rashi himself cites Mishnayot. The fact that a particular Mishna filters down to a woman via her studying Rashi does not change its status of being a Mishna. It is impossible to teach “at the tip of a fork.” Either the material is to be studied or it’s not to be studied.
In the same vein, I am not opposed to teaching women Talmud. From a practical point of view, this is somewhat difficult because many women seem to lack the motivation, a societal support is missing and, more importantly, there is lacking a desire to be unconditionally committed to such learning in the future. It is necessary to understand that in Talmud study, the first steps are difficult and they do not naturally engage one’s intense interest. This is acceptable to someone who views these steps as preparation for intensive future study, but for one who may remain at a beginner’s level, the study is difficult. Since one should not be blind to present societal realities, it is clear that it is improbable that women will develop the same level of intensity as that of men. I am also not convinced that it is desirable to press women to study Talmud in such an intensive form. After all, halakha does differentiate between men and women in this matter, and their respective life roles are also different. But when one speaks about the ability to study a page of Talmud, to understand it and enjoy it, I see no reason to deny these teachings to women. And it is even necessary to establish this as an integral part of the school curriculum, an actual shiur. 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.
Intensive study contributes a great deal to women’s education in terms of religious awe and Torah life. It helps halakha become a living entity, encourages a woman to seek halakhic guidance from a Rav, to ask a she’elah and the like. But learning isn’t everything. There are additional things that contribute to education: discussions are extremely important, the atmosphere within the school contributes, there is a need to create an attachment to the values of Torah, as embodied in a Torah personality, what Chazal called a “Gavrah Rabbah” (a great person), a living personality, so that a woman would be able to see before her eyes an individual for whom Torah is part of his very essence, a person with whom one can relate and identify. All of these must be combined. Learning is not only cognitive awareness of Torah and halakha, or personal ethics and faith. All of these need to be symbiotically intertwined.
RABBI LICHTENSTEIN is Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel and serves as Educational Director of Yeshiva University’s Gruss Institute in Jerusalem.
The above is excerpted from an article entitled “Fundamental Problems Regarding the Education of the Woman” published in Halacha V’Chinukha. Edited by Ben Zion Rosenfeld, published by Emunah, Ulpanot Bnei Akiva, Kfar Saba, 1980.