American Orthodoxy

The Next Women’s Siyum ha-Shas

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Channa Lockshin Bob

EDITORS’ NOTE: We are featuring a series of reflections on the recent Daf Yomi celebrations. First Elli Fischer looked back at 30 years of Daf Yomi celebrations. Second, Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld offered a reflection on the role of imagination in bringing about the recent women’s Siyyum ha-Shas. Third, Zev Eleff offered a historical overview of the daf yomi revolution. Now, Channa Lockshin Bob wonders: What do we want the next Women’s Siyum ha-Shas to look like? 

Like most people at the Hadran Siyum ha-Shas for women on January 6 in Jerusalem, I hadn’t actually finished Shas myself. But it didn’t matter. Aside from celebrating the accomplishments of those who had learned all 2,711 pages of Talmud, one page each day, over a seven-and-a-half year course of study, I had come to celebrate a different process, one that had lasted much longer than seven-and-a-half years. In fact, we were all celebrating the process that began around the year I was born, at a dining room table in Jerusalem, in an upstairs room of a shul in Manhattan, or maybe even a hundred years ago in an apartment building in Krakow. For me personally, it was a process that began in my own backyard in Toronto, when I began learning Mishnah with my parents at age nine.

A Siyum, of course, is a celebration of the completion of learning. The Hadran Siyum, by contrast, was not just a celebration of women’s learning, but itself a stage in the advancement of women’s learning. Women’s Torah study, first a radical anomaly, then rare and controversial, has now become a fact in our communities. When three thousand unite to celebrate women’s Talmud study, we know that we are no longer alone; women’s learning has become the norm and is here to stay. As a friend said of her middle school students who attended the Siyum: “They will never, ever say that Gemara is for boys again!”

Accordingly, while some of the speakers at the Siyum reflected beautifully on their personal experiences of learning and teaching Daf Yomi, many others who spoke had not completed the Talmud; they had come, like me, to celebrate women’s learning. The dialogue between Torah scholars Michal Tikochinsky and Esti Rosenberg about women’s Torah study was placed at the heart of the lineup of speakers, and the frame of the evening was provided by the inimitable educator Racheli Sprecher Fraenkel’s words about women playfully, joyfully, and bravely teaching, learning, and sharing Torah. When it came time to recite the hadran, the formula recited by those who had finished the text, the women who were called to the stage to recite the first paragraph were not only those who had completed Shas. They were young women and adults who learn and study Talmud; even the hadran itself marked not only the completion of Shas, but the arrival of women’s Torah study. There was a feeling that although once we were disconnected from Torah, now we are connected. Once we were isolated and lacking confidence in our right to learn Torah, and now we are part of a giant, vibrant community. In the words of the Siyum ceremony, lo nitnashei minakh Talmud Bavli ve-lo titneshei minan – we will not forget the Talmud, and the Talmud will not forget us.

For me as an individual, I saw my own personal life story as a Talmud learner and teacher flashing before my eyes, as so many people who are and have been part of my learning and teaching converged in one place. I saw teachers and mentors from my days as a student at Midreshet Lindenbaum and Drisha, the principal who hired me for my first job as a Gemara teacher, havrutot from my student days and adult life, and colleagues and students from all the schools where I have taught Gemara. At the ceremony I sat between a young woman who is currently a student in my Gemara shiur at Midreshet Amudim, and my father, who was my first Torah she-Ba’al Peh teacher. I was a link in a chain.

As most of the speakers noted, a Siyum is both an ending and a beginning, which raises the question: When we celebrate the completion of Masekhet Niddah and the Talmud Bavli, it is obvious that the next step is to begin again with the first words of the Talmud, “From when do we recite Shema in the evenings?” But if we are celebrating the arrival of women’s Torah study, what is our next step?

I’d like to suggest three possible achievements we might hope to celebrate at the next Siyum ha-Shas in seven-and-a-half years.

  1. More Women’s Learning

While the Hadran Siyum ha-Shas gave us a powerful feeling of strength in numbers, three thousand people is still tiny compared to the Jewish population in Israel. For the next Siyum, let’s aim to fill an auditorium twice as large! Let us hope to see the midrashot grow in size and number, and hope to see twice as many women’s Daf Yomi groups represented. Qualitatively, perhaps next cycle’s women scholars will already be widely recognized halakhic authorities, authors of works of Torah scholarship that appear in every beit midrash

  1. Decentralizing Women’s Learning

In general, Daf Yomi is not associated with great Torah scholarship—studying such a large quantity of material requires a fairly superficial approach. Serious Torah scholars delve into their study in depth; lay people who are familiar with Talmud study but who are not Jewish professionals often use Daf Yomi to stay connected to that study each day before or after work. At the women’s Siyum ha-Shas, ironically, the Daf Yomi symbolized Torah scholarship even though it has typically been the opposite. But this is no coincidence. While the women’s learning revolution has produced top-notch women scholars, Yoatzot Halakhah, and Gemara teachers in schools and midrashot, it has not yet produced a critical mass of educated lay people. Most women who learn Gemara for significant amounts of time are preparing for careers as scholars and educators. 

The gap between elite women scholars and the Talmud education of the average woman is especially wide in Israel, where it’s not unusual for a girl to graduate from a mainstream Ulpana (religious Zionist girls high school) having never laid eyes on a page of Talmud. Religious Zionist young Israeli women who attend a midrasha for a year after high school are still a small elite. So most religious Zionist adult women in Israel have no direct connection to Talmud study. 

The organizers of the Hadran Siyum were interested in spreading Talmud study to a broader audience. They assigned a page of Talmud to every person who signed up for the Siyum. Together with groups who joined from abroad and also took on Talmud pages, the Siyum attendees collectively finished 3,600 pages of Talmud, the whole Talmud one and a half times over. Many of the women who took this on had never learned a page of Talmud before, and some were inspired to make Talmud study a bigger part of their lives.

Perhaps the midrashot that attend the next Hadran Siyum ha-Shas will be joined by Ulpanot (girls’ high schools) that have included Talmud study in their curriculum. Perhaps reflections on finishing the daf will be shared not only by scholars and Jewish professionals but also by dentists and programmers who have completed the Daf Yomi as well.  

  1. Less “Women’s Learning”

We’ll know that women’s learning has truly succeeded when it is normalized, replaced with something we just call “learning.”

While this is partly just a mental shift, we could also expect the Dati Leumi community, which is the main community the Siyum participants come from, to give more recognition to the learning and scholarship of women. And on that note, I believe our community should be asking some hard questions of our Torah institutions.

Historically, women who wished to learn Torah have asked nothing from mainstream Torah institutions. With the possible exception of Migdal Oz’s connection to Yeshivat Har Etzion, women have generally opened our own schools, midrashot, and institutes, hoping only that the existing yeshivot for men would refrain from criticizing us too much. But it’s time we start asking for more. How can men’s yeshivot justify not having even one female educator on staff? And while there are reasons why yeshivot are single sex, are they strong enough to justify denying young women educational opportunities? 

Our expectations are shaped by our reality, but we should not let lack of imagination stop us from questioning whether our current reality in fact makes sense. It’s actually not so hard to imagine a day when our grandchildren hear that Yeshivat Har Etzion did not always admit women, and they are just as baffled as we were when we learned that Yale University did not always admit women as students or hire them as professors.

Perhaps in seven-and-a-half years the Hadran event will no longer be a women’s Siyum ha-Shas, any more than any other event this year was called a “men’s Siyum ha-Shas.” It will simply be a celebration of learning Torah, in which most of the scholars who take center stage happen to be women. 

The Hadran Siyum ha-Shas both marked the growth and change of women’s learning over the past decades and also was itself a part of the change. Women’s learning is different now than it was before the Siyum, and the next Hadran Siyum ha-Shas, in seven-and-and-half years, will definitely be different from the one we just experienced. I look forward to another beautiful celebration, and I am curious to see where we will be and what we will be celebrating.