Breaking the Talmud glass ceiling

A new course at LSJS is offering women in-depth study of classic rabbinic literature


We British Jews often overlook causes for optimism.  We fail to see our revolutionary impact until much later. One such change has been gradually taking place that I believe that has now reached a tipping point: women have been learning Talmud. Over the past 25 years, Orthodox women have been applying themselves to a discipline previously inaccessible to them.

They have been studying on gap-year programmes in midrashot that have introduced them to Talmud. They have been inspired by the Israeli Hadran and women’s Siyum Hashas movements, learning the daily daf (page of Talmud) and coming together in their thousands to celebrate the completion of the seven-and-a-half-year cycle of text.

They have been picking up their Gemaras, studying mostly unaided, and struggling without much framework or support, apart from online tools and the explanations and annotations in the wonderful new Koren Talmud (Noé edition).

This revolution in women’s Torah literacy started with Sara Schenirer and the Beis Yaakov movement in the early 20th century. She gained the endorsement of the Chafetz Chaim on the basis that women were leaving Jewish life, without the traditional family ties previously relied upon, finding more meaning in loftier pursuits outside the home and the faith.

This movement gained momentum in the late 70s when Rav Soloveitchik wrote that women learning Torah sheb’aal peh (Oral law) was “not only permissible but an absolute imperative” as “a policy of discrimination as to matter and method of instruction… contributes greatly to the deterioration and downfall of traditional Judaism”.

It has, however, taken time for this change to become embedded in our community’s culture. So, when LSJS indicated plans to start our new high-level Iyun programme, which would explore halachah in depth from Gemara through the subsequent sources, we were surprised and pleased to be overwhelmed by interest.

A group of women, over 20 strong, now meet weekly in the LSJS beit midrash, learning the laws of kashrut. They are part of a group of like-minded women with some of the most sophisticated learning abilities and skills in the community and a real desire to take this to the next level.

Some are young women who have benefited from recent immersion in gap-year learning programmes, while some older women are completely self-taught, having had no formal opportunity for Talmud study. While all would self-define as Orthodox, they vary in their outlook. They include university students as well as community rebbetzins.

The programme is led by Rabbanit Surale Rosen of Matan in Jerusalem, a teacher with decades of experience. It is a privilege to be taught by a woman steeped in Torah sheba’al peh.

Such initiatives are beginning to flourish in the UK and I believe their impact will be hugely significant. Torah lishma (learning Torah for its own sake) is a commandment and a way of life, cultivating wisdom and a closeness with our texts and traditions.

Learned women act as much-needed role models within their families and communities, encouraging others to aspire and to treat Judaism as deep and rich, particularly vis-a-vis secular knowledge.

We shouldn’t underestimate the complexity of becoming versed in Talmud and halachah. The texts are written in both Aramaic and ancient Hebrew and have their own internal non-linear logic, which is difficult to access and to comprehend. To acquire fluency requires hard work and dedication.

I’m proud of the women on the Iyun programme taking time to learn and prepare. I’m also proud of the girls aged 11 to 13 in our Sunday morning Bet Limmud programme (in partnership with Mizrachi UK) who learn Talmud alongside their male counterparts, acquiring access and skills that I have had to start learning much later in life.

But these developments must not be taken for granted. Talmud learning for women is not established across our Jewish education system and even for many women, it is not part of their agenda.

Moreover, seminary gap-year programmes are reporting drops in applications, no doubt at least partly due to the financial squeeze (their average cost is more than £20,000). This will have a knock-on effect on women’s subsequent learning journey, as the seminary post-18 year of study at a formative age is a huge opportunity to establish skills for the long term. These women are often the pipeline for higher-level programmes.

When writing about leadership in the book of Shemot, Rabbi Sacks pointed out that women were “historically excluded from two areas. One was the ‘crown of priesthood’, which went to Aaron and his sons. The other was the ‘crown of kingship’, which went to David and his sons… From the third crown, the ‘crown of Torah’, however, women were not excluded.”

Let’s not take the opportunities we have in 2022 for granted and let’s keep encouraging those who wish to deepen their knowledge to ensure real inclusion. The community as a whole will reap the benefits.

Joanne Greenaway is chief executive of the London School of Jewish Studies

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