Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein’s Novel Position on Women’s Talmud Study

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Shlomo Zuckier

With the first publication of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein ztz”l’s remarks at the opening of Ma’ayanot in 1996, Lehrhaus has made available the only sustained treatment of the subject by Modern Orthodoxy’s leading thinker and Gadol of the past generation. A short snippet of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s additional thoughts on the matter appear in a short piece for Ten Da’at, selected from a longer, Hebrew-language article regarding girls’ education on the Israeli scene. However, the Ma’ayanot address, to be analyzed here, is both more comprehensive and relates more directly to the American Orthodox landscape.

Several novel points are offered by Rabbi Lichtenstein in this disquisition. Of course, in a certain sense, the entire endeavor of teaching Talmud to women was novel, even in 1996. But the basic path for that innovation had already been paved by, among others, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik—Rabbi Lichtenstein’s teacher and father-in-law—at both Maimonides School in Boston and Stern College in New York. In addition, as Rabbi Lichtenstein notes, both of his parents were proud supporters of advanced Jewish education for women before it was a mainstream proposition. Still, in several different ways, including both the reasons supplied for the importance of offering robust women’s Talmud study as well as the innovative readings of some relevant sources, Rabbi Lichtenstein’s Ma’ayanot talk offers something patently original.

The Standard Account

The standard account often given for women’s Talmud study, including the one attributedto Rabbi Soloveitchik, runs something like the following: in years past, it would suffice for women to have minimal to no formal Jewish education, as they assimilated the primary tenets of Judaism by osmosis and were able to grow into the role of matriarch, passing on the tradition to future generations. Now, with women pursuing advanced secular education and careers of great sophistication, to abstain from developing their Jewish education would be setting them up for failure, as they would experience only advanced secularism and unsophisticated Judaism. Thus, despite the Talmud’s injunction (Sotah 20a) against women’s Talmud study for fear that they will render it vacuous, it may be necessary to override that concern and teach them Talmud, for otherwise their Judaism may be compromised.

In addition to this rationale, at times one finds an explanation based on the fact that, although women lack the inherent obligation to study Torah, they do have an obligation to know the laws pertaining to them, in order to properly execute them. This is another commonly offered reason why it is permissible and appropriate for women to study Talmud, at least in some form.

The Ovedet Hashem

Rabbi Lichtenstein takes a different approach. First, he addresses education in general, averring that education as pre-professional training needs to take a backseat to the goal of molding a person’s character by training their “personality, intellectual ability.” And, for Jewish education, this means that training must be for the student to become “above all, of course, in religious terms … an oved Hashem.” This is the core expectation that “God asks from us” (Deut. 10); Halakhic observance, one’s chosen career, and everything else then flows from one’s self-formation as a servant of God.

The goal of a Jewish educational institution for Rabbi Lichtenstein is for one to invest in Torah study and immerse in the supportive, religiously suffused cocoon of the Jewish textual tradition, ideally in a yeshivah, in order to emerge as a servant of God, follow the Torah and form an observant Jewish community. This aim, Rabbi Lichtenstein emphasizes, is “posited equally to men and to women”—all Jews are expected to be ovedei Hashem. Women do not exist solely to facilitate men’s Torah study and the like, but are expected to undertake religiously meaningful lives of their own, and it is therefore necessary that educators have “respect for their abilities, their commitment, [and] their potential.”

The relevant question posed by the modern age, however, is not in the goal but in the means. While in years past the presumption was that women could achieve religious success with limited education—a proposition neither endorsed nor critiqued by Rabbi Lichtenstein in the talk—today’s world requires formal Torah education, both because there are greater religious hurdles for the ovedet Hashem to face and because universal education, and therefore universal Jewish education, is now a possibility.

Note that, although contemporary challenges are invoked by Rabbi Lichtenstein, they are not presented as an overriding religious crisis rendering impractical the prohibitions by necessity. Quite the contrary—the ideal principle that women are expected to be ovedei Hashem as much as men has always been true, enshrined as it is in Sefer Devarim! The only difference occasioned by the times is one of means, that nowadays the only method available to form a serious religious personality is through yeshiva education at a high level. On the whole, this development is not formulated as any less than ideal. In fact, from his robust account of education one gets the sense that Rabbi Lichtenstein would prefer this mode—if only feasible—in all circumstances, although so much is not stated explicitly. In any event, this point is quite divergent from the reluctant explanation justifying teaching women Talmud only on the basis of an overriding crisis.

Talmud Torah as Existential Obligation

There is similarly a departure from the other standard approach, the search for areas where women have some technical obligation of Torah study. To be sure, Rabbi Lichtenstein does invoke this relevant fact, asserting that “of course … there exists an obligation for a girl to study the halakhot of niddah and taharat ha-mishpaha, and also kashrut and shabbat because these impinge on her daily life.” But this is Rabbi Lichtenstein’s educational floor rather than his ceiling. If the goal of Torah study is to craft an individual within the crucible of Torah, to build them into the greatest servant of God possible, then there is no reason to stop at the halakhot that happen to be pragmatically applicable. In fact, argues Rabbi Lichtenstein, some women’s personal growth might necessitate the study of abstruse and emphatically inapplicable laws such as those of sacrifice! The operating principle here is not one of necessity but of aspiration, as are so many things for Rabbi Lichtenstein.

The goal of such study is to build a bond with Torah and with its Giver, to define oneself in relation to Torah, to become a bat or ben Torah, to involve one’s whole being in their Judaism. That, for both men and women, can only be accomplished by pursuing the study Torah at the highest levels, allowing one’s curiosity to flow limitlessly throughout the Jewish textual corpus as one assimilates the Torah into the very fiber of their being. And, Rabbi Lichtenstein reminds us, it is obligatory upon all Jews to guard the Torah, to ensure one’s relationship with Torah be true and deep. And, in most cases, that requires serious Torah study.

Tiflut and the Quality of Talmud Study

Rabbi Lichtenstein’s reframing of these two arguments—seeing not a reluctant response to unfortunate developments but a happy embrace of welcome opportunities; and not settling for technical legal advice but aspiring for robust identity formation—are important and novel contributions. But they pale in comparison to this third innovative point, a re-reading of the Talmud’s (Sotah 20a) and Rambam’s (Talmud Torah 1:13) prohibition. These two texts famously rule that teaching Torah to women is to be avoided because, given women’s limited intellectual development, they might transform Torah into tiflut, something vacuous. This prohibition is often invoked by opponents of women’s Talmud study. Even those who take a more sympathetic position to women studying Talmud have to grapple with this source, often by limiting the scope of cases where women might study Talmud out of deference to this prohibition.

Rabbi Lichtenstein, however, turns this source on its head. First of all, he notes, the source does not pose a contemporary problem for teaching women Talmud, for all the reasons noted above. There is also the implicit attribution of the prohibition to limited developmentrather than differential inherent capacity. But that does not mean that the prohibition is now irrelevant. In fact, the prohibition against teaching women superficial Torah is now more operable than ever! Any institution that teaches women Talmud has the obligation to do so at only the highest levels; it may settle for no less, lest it fall prey to tiflut. The Torah will not suffer having its women play softball, lehavdil, rather than baseball. In Rabbi Lichtenstein’s own words:

If Torah is to be taught at all, and be taught it must, certainly in our contexts, then it needs to be taught seriously, to assure that indeed Torah is understood and absorbed with the seriousness and with the earnestness, with the exhilaration, with the excitement, the passion that is coming to it.

With this, Rabbi Lichtenstein takes aim at schools that teach not Talmud per se but a more amorphous “Torah she-be’al peh curriculum.” While such a move might feel safer, for Rabbi Lichtenstein it is mandatory that girls, just like boys, “confron[t] the primary texts in a primary way.” Far from applying a limit or prohibition on women’s Talmud study, in today’s world the prohibition against teaching women tiflut morphs into an argument for greater rigor in Talmud study rather than its diminishment.

In one short speech, Rabbi Lichtenstein offers a novel view of women’s Talmud study. It doesn’t reluctantly acknowledge a need to teach women Talmud but eagerly and enthusiastically embraces these new educational opportunities. Nor is women’s study mandated in a merely technical way; it is required for the very formation of the Jew—woman as much as man—as a servant of God. The most essential Jewish act—Torah study—must be available to women as for men to meet the expectation that they form themselves into robust ovedei Hashem.

In this new reality, there is no greater sin than to teach in a half-baked way; once there is permission for women’s Talmud study, it must be conducted at the highest levels or else it insults both the Torah and its female students at once! With such a powerful and novel approach to women’s Talmud study, it is no surprise that Rabbi Lichtenstein championed these enterprises not only discursively but institutionally as well.

Shlomo Zuckier, a Founder of the Lehrhaus, is the Flegg Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at McGill University and a lecturer at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. He recently completed a PhD in Religious Studies at Yale University as well as studies in Yeshiva University's Kollel Elyon. Shlomo was formerly Director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University. An alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University (BA, MA, Semikhah), he has lectured widely across North America, and is excited to share Torah and Jewish scholarship on a broad range of issues. He has taught at Yale Divinity School, Yeshiva University, the Drisha Institute, Bnot Sinai, and Tikvah programs, and has held the Wexner and Tikvah Fellowships. Shlomo serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, is co-editor of Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, and is editing the forthcoming Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut.