Women’s learning is no longer lonely territory

Camaraderie, soulful debate, knowledge and the embrace of a truly supportive network are on offer at the upcoming Ma’aleh programme

July 13, 2023 15:29

If I could travel back in time to meet a Talmudic personality, it would be the female scholar Yalta. But I would be even more curious to bring her forward in time and hear her thoughts on the burgeoning learning opportunities for women here in the UK.

One of the most-mentioned woman in the Babylonian Talmud, Yalta’s wisdom was clearly valued by the sages of the time, around 250CE. I imagine it was a somewhat lonely experience, without women peers on the same page (either literally or figuratively).

Yalta is perhaps most famous for an unfortunate altercation, when a guest refused to pass her the wine cup at the end of grace after meals, contending that it was unnecessary for her to partake.

The anger and frustration from being deprived of a custom dear to her, and her own understanding of the practice being belittled, led her to smash 400 bottles of wine in the cellar.

The irony is that her reaction did not impact the one she had been slighted by. Nor did it rectify the situation. The lonely wine cellar was essentially a vacuum and an outlet for her to release her pain.

I was blessed to be raised in a home where we were encouraged to learn about our heritage with a thirst, through accessing primary texts. But it was often lonely territory.

The emotion I recall when arriving to study in Israel was one of relief and exhilaration, generated by a novel feeling — being surrounded by a learning community of women.

Fast forward to the present and it is magnificent to see how opportunities have blossomed.

A natural yearning for learning is filling the study halls and generating additional learning programmes in the UK and, most significantly, a new type of conversation is emerging.

The upcoming Ma’aleh programme is an exciting outgrowth of this. A programme of this calibre does not just arrive overnight. Each partner involved in the programme has invested over time in women’s education, both in Israel and the UK.

In particular, the active support the Chief Rabbi has given to high-level learning programmes for women is really significant and one of the many standout features of his tenure.

The Ma’aleh programme has three main areas of focus: Tanach (Bible), Talmud and Halachah (Jewish law). Each one of these pillars is significant.

We hope that rigorous learning of Tanach will generate great teachers of Tanach, and as we are the “People of the Book”, Tanach should be the staple diet of our future leaders.

The Bible studies will focus on historical context, topography and literary motifs, with a view to how these stories form our individual and collective identities.
Talmud is significant because, as the oral tradition, it transports the learner through Jewish history, jumping from one era to the next.

Listening to the debates of those times and climbing into the minutiae of various topics invites us into an intergenerational conversation that could be described as the heartbeat of Jewish life. Bernard-Henri Lévy’s description of the Talmud as the “Genius of Judaism” resonates.

The third pillar is Jewish law. However important philosophy is, Judaism is a ritualistic religion, where actions trump virtue ethics, driven by a philosophy that “God is in the details”.

A thorough knowledge of not just the dos and don’ts, but the thinking behind the rules, the Jewish legal system and how to solve cutting-edge issues using ancient methodology and values is an exciting and empowering exercise.

It forms a cornerstone of the Ma’aleh programme, both because of the significance of ritual to Orthodox Jews, but also because the more women learn and share, the more knowledgeable, committed and curious a community we become.

I would like to think that if Yalta was catapulted in time to the “Ma’aleh Beit Midrash”, she would find the opposite of what the wine cellar represented: camaraderie, soulful debate, knowledge and the embrace of a truly supportive network.

Rebbetzin Lauren Levin is teaching on the United Synagogue’s Ma’aleh Women’s Advanced Torah programme

July 13, 2023 15:29

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