American Orthodoxy

Building Upon the Rav’s Legacy in Women’s Learning

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Ezra Schwartz

The recently published account of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s inaugural shiur at Stern College has rightfully generated much conversation about women and Gemara study. In light of this appropriate benchmark of forty years, many have considered where our community stands regarding advanced Talmud Torah for women forty years after the Rav zt”l’s initial shiur. In this article I will (re)evaluate the current state of women’s learning and consider how we might build upon the Rav’s important advances with the goal of optimizing advanced women’s learning in our community.

This semester I began teaching a class in Advanced Talmud at Stern, my first experience teaching in a women’s educational institution. (Over the past decade I have also taught the women in my shul alongside the men and founded a nationwide High School Bekiut Program for boys and girls). My goal in this new role is to build upon and improve the institution of women’s learning, one of the most essential phenomena to the Modern Orthodox community.

While there have been many opportunities for women to learn, my sense is that opportunities for advanced study, including rigorous study that incorporates Lomdus, have been limited, as I will elaborate. In my new role teaching Talmud at Stern, I hope to extend the same type of rigorous analysis that talmidim in my RIETS shiurim utilize to the Stern College students as well.

As a genuine newcomer to teaching women Torah on a high level, the commitment of my students at Stern College has made a real impression on me. Their level of engagement and sincere desire to understand devar Hashem is certainly inspiring. Without a doubt, the passion these women bring to the Beit Midrash rivals that of my talmidim at RIETS. The opportunities afforded them, however, might not quite be on the same level as those of their male peers.

My students have explained to me that they had not previously been exposed to the analytical methods of Lomdus, which stand at the core of classical yeshiva Talmud study. (Lomdus, both a mode of analysis and a presentation style, is difficult to define—in fact, an entire volume is devoted to that question of definition—but it generally refers to approaches that utilize conceptual analysis to study the Talmud and its commentators on a level that goes beyond the textual.)

While other women studying Gemara might have had different experiences, nonetheless my general impression of the state of the field is that there are unfortunately few places where women can find deep, rigorous, analytical, and conceptual learning. Generally speaking, women’s Gemara education in the United States has focused largely on the proverbial nuts and bolts, on developing reading skills essential for growth in Torah, but it has largely stayed away from advanced study and Lomdus. In my shul, the Mount Sinai Jewish Center, where we are blessed with many women regularly delving into the questions of Abaye and Rava, the women’s Gemara shiur (when it meets) has of necessity always been entry-level, focusing on skills, reading the text, and appreciating the flow of a sugya.

Other women pursue the study of daf yomi, which is certainly laudable, but which in no way resembles yeshiva style Lomdus. As far as I can tell, my impressions from Mount Sinai and Stern College are for the most part representative, and classical Lomdus is hard to find in women’s learning programs.

This might seem surprising—if women’s Talmud study at Stern College has existed for forty years, and is now present at many Modern Orthodox high schools and seminaries, why is there such a limited demand for advanced classes in Talmud? Undoubtedly there are many factors at play, but a primary factor relates to the number of hours devoted to Talmud study weekly at Stern College. For the fraction (under 10 percent) of students at Stern College who choose to take a Talmud class, the courses generally meet for 8 hours a week (6 hours of seder preparation and two hours of shiur).

Contrast this to Talmud shiur at YU’s Yeshiva Program (MYP), attended by almost half of the male undergraduate population, where there are nearly 24 hours of week committed to seder and shiur (in varying proportions)—a ratio of nearly three to one!

Having all of these hours at one’s disposal at MYP both provides the opportunity to invest more time and excel in their learning generally, and also to spend time moving beyond the textual analysis of the sugya and getting at some of the conceptual issues and Lomdus at hand. It should thus be no surprise that at Stern, with the limited hours at the student’s (and instructor’s) disposal, fewer students have reached the point where advanced classes are appropriate and it is also difficult to offer truly advanced material, given the dearth of hours.

In many cases, if one is to cover any material, focusing on the basic textual issues exhausts the weekly time allotted. This may explain why several women have complained to me about the limited opportunities for advanced, rigorous Talmud study and Lomdus.

It is very telling that the type of shiur Rabbi Soloveitchik chose to present Stern students at his inaugural shiur, all neophytes in Gemara, was a classical, “Lomdish” shiur. Nothing was held back. As one account of the Rav’s inaugural shiur has it, he wove “a web of intellectual excitement and spiritual engagement which enmeshed the students present into the world of the Rav’s own mind and soul,” offering profound, rigorous analysis.

Furthermore, there was “no fundamental difference between the Rav’s Stern College Talmud lecture and any other shiur that he might have delivered at YU or elsewhere.” Rabbi Soloveitchik expected the same rigor of his talmidim in Yeshiva as from his talmidotin Stern College. While teaching skills is of critical importance, it is also important that women interested in advanced Torah study should be able to advance beyond skills. While the great wellsprings of Lomdus are available online, too many have lamented that the great enjoyment of Lomdus is too often not available to a community of women, including at Stern College.

Studying Lomdus is important not only because it can be deeply enjoyable and assist one in internalizing the Talmud, but also because it is fundamental to properly understanding the Halakhah on any given topic. Some women choose to follow their passion for advanced Torah study by pursuing the study of Halakhah.

The growth of the Yoetzet Halacha program in both the United States and Israel is certainly the result of this. However, as is well known to all halakhists, pursuit of Halakhahas an independent discipline, disconnected from the richness of the Talmudic sugya and its Lomdus, can often feel stifling. Without taking in a pleasant hakirah (dialectical analysis) or a good diyyuk (textual inference) in a Rambam or Rashba, one often finds her or his study of Halakhah is limiting rather than broadening. As one says in yeshivish, it is simply ‘not geshmak.’

Moreover, without Lomdus and conceptual analysis it is far more difficult to appreciate the attainments of great Talmud scholars and decisors, the gedolei ha-dor. If one merely studies the sources without delving deeply into the conceptual realm, it is impossible to realize the brilliance of a gadol who resolves a local question by invoking a distant sugya, and thus to appreciate the greatest utilization of the halakhic process. As a major goal of Talmud Torahis to appreciate the halakhic process and genuinely respect halachic masters, the lack of this opportunity is problematic.

The role of appreciating the halakhic process within women’s learning may be even more pronounced. Teaching women Torah She-Be’al Peh, in my opinion, is based on an extension of the approbation that the Hafetz Hayyim and Gerrer Rebbe gave to Sarah Schenirer for setting up Bais Yaakov. Their goal was conservative, to maintain communal structure amid the gale-force winds of change. The Rav zt”l felt that, in contemporary America, study of Torah She-Be’al Peh, and specifically a deep rigorous appreciation of Lomdus, was essential to maintain communal structure. But if the structure of women’s learning doesn’t allow for advanced, rigorous study of Lomdus, it makes it difficult to accomplish the intended goal.

There is an additional challenge facing women’s learning at this juncture. In my first- and second-hand experience, women’s battei midrash too often do not have the same energy that one feels in a yeshiva for comparably aged men. This may relate to the challenges facing those who wish to pursue advanced study, as above. Probably the clearest reason for the lower-energy nature of these battei midrash may be that women’s battei midrash often lack a critical mass of learners to create a kol Torah, that buzz of people learning Torah with one another that can fill a room.

While the Glueck Beit Midrash has hundreds of men learning morning and night sedertogether daily, the Stern Beit Midrash’s numbers are much smaller, making it so much harder to have that buzz and excitement in the room. Whatever the reason, this awe-inspiring aspect of Beit Midrash learning, where one is swept up with the noise of dozens of havrutas learning together, is too often lacking.

One additional point is perhaps connected to all this: There is a deep relationship between bekiut (one’s wide base of knowledge) and genuine Lomdus (rigorous, conceptual analysis). Without a mastery of a broad swath of Shas, any sevara one presents, in the famous words of Reb Hayyim, zt”l, is merely a boykh sevara, offered by the gut rather than the mind. It has been observed that women who deeply engage in Talmud Torah often lack the bekiut that their male counterparts possess. In my experience administering the High School Bekiut exams, I have noticed that girls consistently score lower than boys, even among students attending co-ed schools and even where boys and girls have been studying Gemara together since elementary school.

There are many reasons that can be suggested for this discrepancy: Girls may simply lack role models with complete mastery of the Talmudic corpus for them to emulate. Furthermore, the culture of hatmadah (constant Talmud study) and night seder has made only limited inroads in the world of women’s Talmud Torah. Moreover, the realities of life too often make it impossible to invest the proverbial ten-thousand hours necessary to master any discipline.

But whatever the reason, despite forty years of women’s Talmud study in the Modern Orthodox community, top-tier Torah mastery has yet to find its way into the circle of women’s learning. Perhaps providing more opportunities for Talmud study at an advanced level throughout women’s institutions would shift the culture and inspire women to raise their level of learning. This greater commitment could also inspire greater retention of content and mastery of devar Hashem.

The next frontier of women’s study of Torah She-Be’al Peh should be the integration of classical-style shiurim and Lomdus, rigorous, conceptual analysis, into the women’s Beit Midrash. If we want women to grow to be serious learners and educators who appreciate the halakhic process, how can we not afford them the option of a full learning seder and robust options in studying Lomdus?

If we are to build upon the Rav’s legacy, we must provide women opportunities to grow, to allow them to advance and achieve proficiency in their Talmud study. There should be a vibrant kol Torah in women’s battei midrash, and we need to provide classes similar in style and presentation to what men receive. To succeed, women’s Gemara learning must go full-throttle and, just like the Rav, hold back nothing of the depth and richness of Torah from its talmidot. What greater tribute could we offer the Rav than to build upon his efforts and offer more women greater opportunities for advanced Gemara and Lomdus!

Ezra Y. Schwartz is a Rosh Yeshiva and Associate Director of the Semikha Program at RIETS where he holds the Harry Rabin Chair of Talmud and Jewish Law. He also teaches Halacha at GPATS. From 2009 through 2019 he served as rabbi of Mt. Sinai Jewish Center in Washington Heights.