American Orthodoxy

Forty Years Later: The Rav’s Opening Shiur at the Stern College for Women Beit Midrash

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Saul J. Berman

In late 1976, Dr. Haym Soloveitchik and I met to discuss Jewish Studies at Stern College for Women. Dr. Soloveitchik told me that he never understood why Talmud was not being more systematically taught at Stern College. He had been raised with the impression that it was natural for women to study Talmud. As a child, Dr. Soloveitchik had studied with his father, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, together with his older sisters, Atarah and Tovah. When he began, at the age of ten, studying Talmud with the Rav, Dr. Soloveitchik joined as a junior participant in their class. The same culture was manifest at Maimonides School in Boston, which his father and mother, Dr. Tonya Soloveitchik, had founded, and where boys and girls studied Talmud in the same classes.

By this time, many of Stern’s Jewish Studies courses made use of Mishnah, Talmud, and its commentaries. The undergraduate women used these texts, engaging with them as primary sources to study Jewish Law, Jewish History, and Biblical Exegesis. Yet, Stern College did not make room in the schedule for its students to acquire the skills to develop competence in independent text study. This is how the movement to introduce intensive Talmud study at Stern College was born.

The Background
Dr. Soloveitchik and I believed that the time was ripe for introducing advanced Talmud to the Midtown campus. Much of this had to do with personnel. In the fall of 1976, Rabbi Norman Lamm assumed the presidency of Yeshiva University. He made several exciting appointments to set the tone for Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women. President Lamm appointed Dr. Karen Bacon as Dean of Stern College and Rabbi Jacob Rabinowitz as Dean of the Division of Undergraduate Jewish Studies. Earlier, President Samuel Belkin had tapped Dr. Haym Soloveitchik as Dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School and engaged me as Chairman of the Department of Jewish Studies at Stern College. Torah Studies at Stern College had always had areas of great strength and outstanding faculty members. However, there was little emphasis on the systematic acquisition of text skills. Stern’s previous Dean—Rabbi David Mirsky—and I worked very hard to improve that. Still, there was more work to be done.

My meeting with Dr. Soloveitchik encouraged me to pursue the matter with great vigor. Several years earlier, I had published a lengthy and much-discussed article on the “Status of Women in Halakhic Judaism” in Tradition, the journal of the Rabbinical Council of America. There, I explored a lot, including the early Talmudic diversity of opinion as to whether women are obligated in the mitzvah of Torah study. However, it did not occur to me then that Talmud study might be added to my action agenda for Stern College. Now, four years later, I was intent on effecting change. I consulted with Dean Rabinowitz, Dean Bacon and numerous faculty members and students to develop a practical approach to enable as many students as possible to experience the distinctive mode of Talmudic study, combining lecture time and havruta time, which supports the growth of competence in independent study skills.

I kept Dr. Soloveitchik abreast of our progress. He, in turn, made frequent detailed suggestions to refine our thinking in areas such as level distinctions, time allocations, and skill building. He also kept his father, Rabbi Soloveitchik, in touch with our planning. The Rav was deeply encouraging of our plans. He also offered guidance. For example, the Rav suggested that for the first year we should begin with the study of the tenth chapter of Pesahim because of its natural interest to students, dealing as it does with the order of the Passover Seder.

Sometime in the Spring 1977 semester, the academic planning was completed and Dean Bacon announced the creation of the Beit Midrash courses to be offered in the ensuing Fall. We had created two sections: one for beginners and one intermediate level for students who had previously studied some Talmud in high school or in their “Year in Israel.” The course required nine hours a week of participation: three hours devoted to lecture and six hours devoted to havruta study. Registration exceeded our expectations. In all, about sixty students signed up. We recruited Rabbi Mordechai Willig to teach the more advanced women. By then, Rabbi Willig had emerged as a popular and brilliant young Torah scholar. The fullness and excitement of his own engagement in the process of teaching Talmud to women was a vital element in the general acceptance of the project within the walls of RIETS and Stern College.

We also needed an appropriate space for our Beit Midrash. Dean Bacon chose the most elegant room on campus, a wood paneled room on the first floor of Stern’s Lexington Avenue and East 35 Street building. The room’s high windows flooded the Beit Midrash with natural light. It was also appropriately furnished with library-style tables and chairs. In addition, students were very excited for the new initiative. Here are the eager comments of the campus newspaper:

It was inevitable that the revolutionary spirit should lead to careful reevaluation of the academic construction within Stern, meticulously accomplished by the Presidential Planning Commission delegated by President Norman Lamm. The PPC’s observations concerning the status of the Judaic Studies program at Stern found a dire need for expansion within the department. Thus necessity became the mother of invention. As a result of the extensive evaluation of the PPC, new and innovative changes have been introduced to extend the boundaries and disintegrate some of the limitations. The new Judaic Studies proposal, as formulated by Rabbi Saul Berman, Dean Jacob Rabinowitz and Dean Chaim [sic] Soloveitchik recognizes the necessity for intensive Jewish learning to be open to young women on a college level. It is a daring venture, for it opens new options to women that have never before been approached by normative halakha. The proposal is commendable in every respect, and the general reaction among the student body has been a mixture of surprise and delight.

We were in good shape to launch the Talmud program in the Fall 1977.

The Rav Comes to Stern
We were nearly set to begin. Then, Dr. Soloveitchik informed me that he felt strongly that the initiation of this learning experience required the strongest possible confirmation of halakhic legitimacy. He was also eager to provide the most exciting intellectual and spiritual experience for the Stern students. He therefore asked his father, the Rav, to travel downtown to Stern College and personally deliver the opening lecture. The Rav agreed.

At Stern College, both the Jewish studies and the general studies faculties were excited about the presence of Rav Soloveitchik and the inauguration of the Beit Midrash. The Jewish Studies faculty had been consulted throughout the planning process and were deeply supportive of the introduction of the Beit Midrash Program. Faculty members in all areas of Jewish Studies used primary sources as much as possible in their teaching and understood that this program would enhance their ability to teach their own courses at a higher and deeper level. Many other faculty members saw this step as a hopeful indication of the openness of the new university administration under Rabbi Lamm, and with the leadership of Dean Bacon, to plan and execute innovative improvements in the entire educational experience at Stern College.

By and large, the Stern College students were thrilled by the recognition of the importance of their study of Talmud. Some, no doubt, were frightened that they might be called upon by the Rav. They were aware of his reputation as a demanding teacher. Many students were relative beginners in Jewish Studies and were in no position for systematic exposure to Talmud study. But, they aspired to reach that level and felt inspired that the Rav took part in the pioneering project.

The Shiur
It was a Monday, October 11, 1977. The Rav entered the Beit Midrash, accompanied by Dr. Lamm and Dean Bacon. The room fell utterly silent, the sense of awe was palpable as all stood until the Rav took his seat at the front table, next to a large Talmud folio. The students had already begun studying the tenth chapter of Pesahim. However, the Rav had decided that he would lecture on the opening Mishnah of the tractate, to introduce some of the fundamental ideas of the tractate. He started the shiur in his unique manner, weaving a web of intellectual excitement and spiritual engagement which enmeshed the students present into the world of the Rav’s own mind and soul. 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.

I knew, however, the Rav would somehow mark the occasion. As he concluded the shiur, Rabbi Soloveitchik reflected on the experience of Talmud study. He remarked on being in the presence of his predecessors—the sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud, the Rishonimlike the Rambam, the Vilna Gaon and, of course, his grandfather Reb Hayyim—as he struggled to penetrate to the deepest will of God as expressed in the Halakhah. This is how he closed the lecture:

They are all right here in the room. When a Jew recites kiddush levanah, so he proclaims “David the king of Israel is alive.” He [King David] is right here. This exactly applies not only to “Dovid Melekh Yisrael hai vi-kayam”—it applies to every rishon, every scholar and every member of the community of the Mesorah which formulated Torah She-Ba’al Peh, which lived Torah She-Ba’al Peh and experienced Torah She-ba’al Peh, who remembers the past and who has uncompromised hope for the future. That’s why I am very glad that you invited me to come to give your first shiur and I hope actually a year later to see that you’ve displayed interest in Torah She-Ba’al Peh. Without Torah She-Ba’al Peh, there is no Judaism. Any talk about Judaism minus Torah She-Ba’al Peh is just meaningless and absurd. Like if one never studied physics and writes the philosophy of nature. It’s ridiculous, you can’t write the philosophy of nature before you are acquainted with physics, so you cannot write about Judaism if you are not acquainted with Torah She-Ba’al Peh. It’s important that not only boys should be acquainted, but girls, as well. I’ll support you as far as education is concerned. If you have problems come to me, I’ll fight your battles. I wish you success, brakhah ve-hatzlahah. I hope that next year you’ll know a lot, lot more.

The Aftermath
As the Rav concluded, the students stood in silence. They were overwhelmed by his presence and by his encouragement. Before the Rav departed, he said to me: “Tell them that if their fathers or brothers say to them, ‘what are you doing learning gemarabist duch nor a maidel (you’re just a girl)?!’—tell them not to answer them. They should refer the fathers and brothers to me. I will answer for them.”

There was some skepticism and consternation. But it did not emerge out of YU. I was aware of a certain buzz about the matter amongst students at the uptown men’s campus. Yet, the RIETS faculty did not protest too loudly, not with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s support of our initiative.

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The Rav could not hold others in check, however. Newspapers covered the Rav’s Stern College lecture. The appearance of the story and the iconic picture on the front page of several weeklies set off an extraordinary course of events which has never, to my knowledge, been reported publicly. Soon after the shiur, I was informed that an attempt was underway by a group of leaders of the so-called Yeshiva World to place Stern College and Rabbi Soloveitchik in “herem” for this supposedly outrageous breach of the standards of Halakhah. Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and Rabbi Shimon Schwab of Kahal Adath Jeshurun spearheaded the effort. In haste, they had gathered eight signatories for this official decree.

However, they were reluctant to issue the ban without the signature of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, whom they had yet to persuade to join the campaign. Still, influential people had told Reb Moshe that this was the first step in YU’s broader plan to ordain women. I feared that such false rumors would be viewed as credible, since the Reform Movement had recently agreed to ordain women (1972) and Conservative exponents had just appointed a Special Commission to study the controversial issue (which practice they subsequently adopted in 1983).

I and a few others took action, believing it essential for Rabbi Feinstein to understand the parameters of the Stern College Beit Midrash Program, under the guidelines supported by the Rav. We therefore arranged a meeting with Rabbi Feinstein. There, Reb Moshe insisted that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s educational decision on this matter did not need validation by him. He was gladdened to meet faculty members involved in the Beit Midrash, as well as a student who was a participant in one of the Beit Midrash classes. Soon after, I learned that the herem campaign was abandoned.

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The Legacy
The Rav’s support of women’s Talmud was not new. Decades earlier, he had directed similar policies at the Maimonides School. In subsequent years, Orthodox educators corresponded with him to discuss how to implement women’s Talmud in day schools. What is more, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s son-in-law, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein had, in 1976, published a halakhic argument in favor of women’s Talmud study. The Stern College lecture, though, demonstrated the dramatic force of the Rav’s position.

The very public character of that moment lent a level of energy to this position which set further educational opportunities in motion. The Rav’s presence at Stern College on that occasion, the clarity with which he spoke on the importance of Talmud study for women, essentially closed down the debate on the issue within the Modern Orthodox community. I believe that many later steps in the direction of intensification of the role of women in service to the community based on their expertise in Talmud and Halakhah, initiated over the course of the following twenty-five years were fueled by this precise moment, much to the credit of the Rav and Dr. Haym Soloveitchik.

Saul J. Berman is a leading Orthodox teacher and thinker. As a Rabbi, a scholar, and an educator, he has made extensive contributions to the intensification of women's Jewish education, to the role of social ethics in Synagogue life, and to the understanding of the applicability of Jewish Law to contemporary society. Rabbi Berman was ordained at Yeshiva University, from which he also received his B.A. and his M.H.L. He completed a degree in law, a J.D., at New York University, and an M.A. in Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley.