Access to Jewish education for women was debated in the Mishnah nearly 2,000 years ago. The argument recorded there may help us to understand last month’s clash between the London Beth Din and the members of Golders Green Synagogue, after they began carrying the Sefer Torah through the women’s section of their shul, as well as through the men’s section, before reading from it on Shabbat morning.
One commentator suggested that the issue, at its heart, related to authority and autonomy of local rabbis to determine local practice. But physical proximity to the Sefer Torah is more than just a matter of custom and practice. It symbolises and embodies the whole community’s engagement with Jewish learning. As such, the debate in the Mishnah about women’s education is central to last month’s events.
On one side stands Rabbi Eliezer, who declares that “teaching your daughter Torah teaches her to sleep around”. His soundbite is so offensive that the Talmud replies with an expression best-translated, “You’re off your head!” (Sotah 21b).
Rabbi Eliezer believes that women’s education is dangerous: it leads to sin. The Babylonian Talmud explains, referring to Eve in the Garden of Eden, “Because wisdom came to mankind, so did cunning”. In the Jerusalem Talmud’s version, Rabbi Eliezer declares, “A woman’s wisdom is solely in her spinning-wheel . . . let words of Torah burn rather than be transmitted to women” (Sotah, 3:4).
His colleague Ben Azzai takes the opposite view. A person is obliged to teach his daughter Torah, for Torah protects her. Rather than endangering women — leading women into sin — it guards them, by educating them about divine reward and punishment.
These early positions of Ben Azzai and Rabbi Eliezer are reflected in Orthodox Jewish communities of different stripes today.
Modern Orthodox girls in America learn Mishnah and Talmud at school. They follow Rabbi Soloveitchik, who ruled that the Maimonides school in Boston should teach Jewish studies to boys and girls together. Like Ben Azzai, he recognized that Torah study would protect its students, of either gender, more than endanger them.
Graduates of these schools progress to university and to more advanced Jewish studies; some of them teach Torah at an advanced level. The custom of carrying the Sefer through the women’s section of the synagogue began in their youth groups. It has now spread to many Orthodox synagogues in America and Israel.
In contrast, most schools supervised by rabbis from Charedi communities — like the members of the London Beth Din — appear to follow the spirit of Rabbi Eliezer in insulating girls from rabbinic learning. Neither Mishnah nor Talmud are part of their curriculum; nor are the classic rabbinic codes. And their Sefer Torah does not enter the women’s sections of their synagogue.
Could the United Synagogue follow Rabbi Eliezer today? Almost certainly not. Communities where Jewish learning is scarce cannot afford to ignore half their intellectual resources; members who have learned from teachers of both genders appreciate the value of diversity; and the possible contribution of women to an area that has traditionally been male-dominated cannot be underestimated.
Furthermore, our community’s ideals of universal human dignity and equal rights sit uncomfortably with Rabbi Eliezer's punchline, “Let words of Torah burn rather than be transmitted to women."
Ironically, these high ideals came into modern thought via Thomas Jefferson and John Locke from Jewish sources. Ben Azzai, in a different context, declares the key principle of the Torah to be the creation of every human being in the image of God. And the text he references views man and woman as equal, simultaneous creations.
If not Rabbi Eliezer, what about Ben Azzai? Should Torah be reduced to a tool that keeps its students free from sin? Is the prime purpose of the education that we give our girls to terrify them into obedience? My own experience of Talmud study is of joy and pleasure; neither joy nor pleasure figure in the words of Ben Azzai.
Perhaps Moses Maimonides, the supreme Jewish rationalist and universalist, might come to our aid. As an Aristotelian, his views on feminine intellectual capacity differ from the findings of modern science and psychology. And he quotes Rabbi Eliezer.
But his version is more nuanced than the Mishnah’s and he outlines key areas of knowledge that every Jew — both man and woman — must command. He then declares, transcending all the gender discrimination of his society, “Everyone can learn them: adult and child, man or woman, someone whose understanding is deep, and one whose understanding is limited” (Hilchot Yesodey Hatorah, 4:13).
Maimonides teaches us that Torah is universal and ubiquitous. It can even reach the women’s section of a shul. The community of Golders Green should be proud to embody his vision. Not just in the design of its educational programmes but in the custom and practice of its synagogue.