American Orthodoxy

How Can the Modern Orthodox Community Fulfill the Rav’s Vision for Women’s Talmud Study?

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Rivka Kahan

Rabbi Saul Berman’s illuminating essay, occasioned by the fortieth anniversary of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s historic shiur at Stern College for Women, offers an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which the Rav’s vision of talmud Torah for women has taken root and flowered. Rabbi Berman’s article on the background and impact of this event allows us to assess next steps in strengthening Torah education for girls and women.

The Rav’s hope that “next year you’ll know a lot, lot more” has, barukh Hashem, come to pass. Modern Orthodox girls are exposed to serious Talmud study in many high schools. Women have several options for post-high school and post-college study of Gemara, in addition to the opportunities available at Stern College.

Just as important, Modern Orthodox girls experience Talmud study as an integral part of their Torah education and Jewish identity. On an everyday basis, I observe how the thrill of Gemara study almost always goes hand-in-hand with a deepened dedication to tefillahmitzvot observance and religious reflection. Serious Talmud study has become one of the multiple paths that lead Modern Orthodox girls and women to stronger religious and halakhic commitment.

The State of the Conversation
The Rav’s articulation of the goals of talmud Torah for women, cited in Rabbi Berman’s article, remains a powerful, inspiring vision. It seems to me, though, that our communal conversation about talmud Torah for women continues to recapitulate the points made by the Rav. Too often, we speak on theoretical levels about the value of women’s Talmud study. We are well-positioned for deeper conversation about how best to support the achievement of the Rav’s goals on a practical level. This sort of conversation has the potential to refine communal educational priorities.

In my view, there are three overarching goals to be met in order to equip girls and women to develop the familiarity with and regard for Torah She-Ba’al Peh that the Rav envisioned.

First, Modern Orthodox girls should encounter a robust Gemara education at the high school level to provide them with an intellectual and personal appreciation of the character, vastness, and intricacies of Torah She-Ba’al Peh. It is important at this young age that girls gain a foothold into the textual and analytical skills to engage in adult-level Talmud study; anything less leaves the door to Gemara study closed.

Second, those women who choose to pursue advanced Talmud study as adults should be provided paths to do so through the existence of a variety of programs that offer multi-year options for high-level talmud Torah. Furnishing more opportunities for women to devote years of their adult lives to Talmud study enables talented women to choose talmud Torah as their life’s passion, ensuring that the Modern Orthodox community has the capacity to enrich girls’ and women’s Torah education at every level.

Third, our community should be welcoming of girls and women who have a passion for talmud Torah; it should encourage them, with the assumption that their intentions are li-shem shamayim. Conversely, when people devoted to Torah continually encounter suspicion of their motives, the effect is corrosive and degrading. It is most unfortunate that this dynamic still exists in some parts of the Modern Orthodox community.

To varying degrees, each of these goals has been fulfilled, at least partially. Yet, the Modern Orthodox community has room to grow.

The Bigger Challenge
In many ways, the challenges to girls’ Talmud study are equally relevant to boys. The most important task in strengthening Modern Orthodox girls’ Gemara education is to enhance Modern Orthodox Gemara education writ large. Perhaps the primary challenge that high school Gemara teachers face is to ensure that Gemara is experienced by students as a manifestation of Devar Hashem. In the Rav’s worldview, the encounter with the Ribbono Shel Olam that lies at the heart of talmud Torah was self-evident and palpable.

In our Modern Orthodox community—where intellectual achievement is near-universally and explicitly valued—we sometimes struggle to discuss spiritual aspirations and experiences. We must weave together the intellectual and spiritual elements of talmud Torah to convey an authentic experience of Torah study. Torah educators in all schools are dedicated to finding ways to inspire their students religiously and personally through serious limud ha-Torah, and continued collaboration will, be-ezrat Hashem, enrich our community.

The Continued Challenge for Women’s and Girl’s Talmud Study
Some of the challenges are specific to girls and women. I would like to offer two suggestions to address these.

Rabbi Berman’s essay underscores the importance of the Rav’s personal presence at Stern College, perhaps more than his halakhic imprimatur, per se. The Rav’s shiur made a deep religious impact on the people who participated. “The room fell utterly silent,” recalled Rabbi Berman, “the sense of awe was palpable as all stood until the Rav took his seat at the table, next to the large Talmud folio.” The Rav’s personal investment and emphatic support made a profound impression upon communal life and the opportunities available to women.

The Rav, like so many Gedolei Torah, inspired greatness. His listeners felt a part of a tradition, one vast and majestic. We are truly fortunate that, in America’s Modern Orthodox community, there are unprecedented opportunities for boys and men to learn from poskim and roshei yeshiva.

There are many outstanding Torah educators and thinkers who devote themselves to women’s talmud Torah. Yet, I submit that the time is ripe to create programs in which girls and women have more opportunity to learn from contemporary poskim of the greatest stature. No doubt, this would enrich their talmud Torah and religious experience.

Over the years, I have encountered a number of thoughtful, halakhically serious female students who wonder whether their presence in shul and communal life really matters. They want to feel a sense of belonging, but struggle to find it. I have often felt that deeper encounters with Torah leaders—and the sense of connection to talmud Torah that those relationships bring—would go a long way toward easing their sense of being a bystander to Jewish learning and life. Of course, the impact of such relationships would be equally valuable for women who do not experience that particular struggle. Learning from gedolei Torah creates the sense of being part of the chain of mesorah in a way that is unparalleled and personal.

Another form of integration which would, I believe, have a positive—although, perhaps narrower—impact has to do with boys’ education. Generally speaking, Modern Orthodox teenagers who attend all-boys high schools have virtually no opportunity to see women as religious personalities with the potential to contribute to Torah education. In my experience, this absence sometimes—unfortunately—leaves boys with little innate respect for girls’ and women’s talmud Torah.

Providing boys the opportunity to learn Torah from women as well as men is an important method to foster a talmud Torah community, a sacred enterprise in which women’s investment in learning is supported and respected. This is not a new suggestion. Still, it encounters resistance because of concern about preserving the rebbe-talmid relationship that is central to many boys’ experiences. However, there need not be a tension. Every school includes a wide range of teaching and learning opportunities. It should not be very difficult to identify ways for boys to encounter women who are Torah role models without undermining their experience of encountering male Torah role models.

The Rav’s vision of talmud Torah for women continues to inspire and provide direction for our community. Is his dream fulfilled? Sometimes, the goals of Torah education seem too vast and never fully attainable. Nonetheless, more conversation about practical educational and communal goals will help identify the next steps to enrich women’s Torah education and the talmud Torah of our community as a whole.

Rivka Kahan is the principal of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, where she has taught limudei kodesh and served in a variety of leadership roles since 2002.

Rivka Kahan is the principal of Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, where she has taught limudei kodesh and served in a variety of leadership roles since 2002.