Women's learning is a vital link in the chain of tradition


I walk into a shiur, and the 12 students open their Gemara Gittin. An internet connection allows us to include two more students, a Londoner and a Bostonian, in the learning experience. Asked to read, one student begins with the Gemara and continues with a flawless reading and explanation of Rashi. The argument between the sages Rabbah and Rava comes to life in this third-floor classroom in the Bronx as the students inject questions and comments into the discussion.

Before long, we are swimming in the sea of the Talmud, shifting our focus between our page, a mishnah at the end of Gittin, and a Gemara in tractate Baba Batra. While I still use the traditional bound volumes of the Talmud, many of the students are participating through the virtual pages of Gemara that appear on their computer screens.

The shiur that I have described takes place not in a men-only yeshivah like the one I attended almost four decades ago. Rather, it is a women's yeshivah in which women study traditional texts in a style reminiscent of the yeshivot of old as they prepare for an ordination granted by three Orthodox rabbis and rabbinic sages.

The chain of tradition has been extended for yet another generation, albeit through a technology and language that is much more 2015 than 1981, and one that is more accessible and understandable to a new generation of Talmud scholars.

Although there is debate today about the value and appropriateness of Orthodox semichah for women, the programmes in Israel, America and around the globe that teach traditional texts to women on a level comparable to the level taught in men's yeshivot are a vital link in the narrative of Talmud study that began in the batei midrash of Abaye and Rava, Ravina and Rav Ashi.

Women study traditional texts in the style of the yeshivot of old

God instructs Abraham at the beginning of his journey to leave his land, his birthplace, the home of his father "to the land that I will show you". Ramban comments that God intentionally did not identify the destination as Abraham had to find the ultimate resting place on his own. The destination of women's learning has not yet been determined. Will it be as rabbis of synagogues, leaders of schools and campus Hillels, or expert consultants in areas of Jewish law? Or, perhaps, a combination of these roles? The destination remains a mystery but the excitement of the journey is crystal clear.

Recently, a photograph circulated on social media showing Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik, scion of the Lithuanian rabbinic family and rosh yeshivah at Yeshiva University for over 50 years, teaching the first Talmud class at Stern College for Women in 1977.

He is flanked by the president of Yeshiva University Dr Norman Lamm, Karen Bacon, dean of Stern College, and Rabbis Saul Berman and Mordechai Willig, two of Rabbi Soloveitchik's students who have taught for many years at Yeshiva University and Stern College.

In 1977, none of these leading Jewish educators could have imagined the variety of women's programmes available today, and the thought of women leading synagogues or other Jewish educational institutions would not have been taken seriously.

Just like Avraham Avinu, the challenge of identifying the final destination creates both challenges and opportunities. The students, the teachers and the entire community are richer for having been given the chance to participate in this journey.

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