American Orthodoxy

Torah u-Madda for All?

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The notion of Torah u-Madda—that Torah and secular studies can enrich each other—has been a byword in the Modern Orthodox community for decades. Yet some have claimed it is in decline. Lehrhaus is proud to present a symposium grappling with Torah u-Madda: how we got here, the challenges that have arisen, and how its meaning continues to evolve over time.

Symposium Contributions: Editors’ Introduction, Elana Stein Hain, Stuart Halpern, Yisroel Ben-Porat, Sarah Rindner, Erica Brown, Shalom Carmy, Leah Sarna, Tzvi Sinensky, Yaakov Bieler, Moshe Kurtz, Elinatan Kupferberg, Olivia Friedman, Margueya Poupko, Noah Marlowe; Letters to the Editor: 1 | 2


The “Torah” in such Torah Umadda must be real, intensive, and rooted in the Jewish sources. It dare not be superficial, lest it suffer by comparison with the high level of secular learning attained by most Jews today. Such Jewish learning should not be confused with preparation for specifically Jewish vocations. It is the pride of Jewry that its religion has obligated study for all its communicants, not reserving it for a special professional class of priests or scholars alone. Torah Umadda requires that the Torah be studied at least as seriously as Madda. (Norman Lamm, Torah Umadda, 3rd ed. [Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2010], 171)[1]

When Rabbi Norman Lamm ztz”l wrote about “obligated study for all” of Judaism’s “communicants,” the reader is left to wonder: did Rabbi Lamm truly believe that women and men have equally pressing obligation in Torah study? The possibility is certainly tempting.

Unfortunately, this dream of Torah u-Madda for all is far from fulfilled today.

For the first quarter century of my life, I would have insisted that with a certain level of commitment, women too can fulfill the lofty Torah u-Madda goal. This was certainly the message I received loud and clear at the Maimonides School. There, I learned that biology class led perfectly to Talmud shiur and then back to history or literature followed by a class in Rav Soloveitchik’s thought. The perfected life of the Jewish mind was to be fully engaged in conversation with the heights of Torah and the best of science and culture, for the two brought out the greatest depths in each other.

When it came time to plan a future outside of the structures of day school, I would have told you that I sought admission to Yale University specifically to pursue the best possible Torah u-Madda education. While there, I crammed in deep Torah study between the cracks of my coursework as well as summer and winter breaks of full-time learning. To balance out my four years of university, I spent five years studying Talmud and Halakhah full-time in batei midrash before and after. I studied Torah as seriously as I studied madda―maybe even more so.

Torah u-Madda isn’t just about bringing madda into conversation with Torah; it’s also about exposing the world around us to the Torah’s most beautiful and important ideas. There is a class taught at Yale every year called “The Life Worth Living.” The course asks its students to consider basic questions about the lives they want to lead: what will make them worthwhile? I took the course in 2014, in its very first iteration. From my years of Torah education, I knew that the most orienting question of all is one of hiyyuv: obligation and responsibility. In its first year, the shapers of the course, including world-renowned theologians, overlooked this facet. I brought it to the seminar table so relentlessly that responsibility is now a permanent cornerstone of the course. It is not only the case that culture enriches Torah―Torah enriches culture too. Indeed, Rabbi Sacks’s life work shows this to be the case, but it can be true on a much smaller, more individual level as well. Learned Jews engaged with culture can bring insights from Torah to improve the world around us in our neighborhoods, classrooms, and workplaces. This is the Torah u-Madda promise.

But then my education was over. After five years in American and Israeli batei midrash, there was nowhere I could continue to learn. I watched as men my age carried on in various kollels, paid by our community to learn areas of Halakhah not taught to women anywhere. I, hungry for that same learning, found nowhere left to go but the workforce. I am among the fortunate few to have found work that is wonderfully fulfilling. Like anyone who is paid to teach Torah, I am also paid to study Torah, but the learning is different―it is rushed, and it is lonely. It is pressured by the demands and interests of the marketplace. While my madda education could still find extensive possibilities of time and irrelevance, I would never again find the perfect balance that, at the age of 25, I had so lovingly achieved. If I continued on with my madda education, it would be impossible to fulfill the requirement quoted above: “that the Torah be studied at least as seriously as Madda.”

This is not a unique story. Torah u-Madda has a gender problem with regard to both professionals and lay people.

Before I continue, I must say that this essay has been hard to write. Some of the greatest lights of Torah u-Madda have also been the champions of Torah education for women: Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Lichtenstein, Rabbi Lamm zikhronam le-vrakhah―just to begin the list. But when it comes down to it, all three luminaries primarily spent their days teaching men. Their main students (to the minute exception of their own daughters and granddaughters) are men. These great figures were foundational in women’s Torah education, but upon those foundations, the buildings were left to be constructed by others.

The champions of Torah u-Madda crafted and nurtured institutions that modeled a lifestyle most suitable for men. As a student, devote at least as many hours to Torah as you do to the rest of your coursework, easily accomplished at Yeshiva College. If you pursue the rabbinate, make sure to continue reading or even pursue higher education in a field outside of Torah. Weave it into the Torah that you teach, modeling for your congregants how the two can enrich each other. For laymen: carve out time from your professional pursuits to learn Torah. Learn with your (likely YU-trained) community rabbi, learn at a nearby kollel, learn during your lunch break, learn before daily minyan, learn with your children, and learn on Sundays before you visit a museum. Read the newspaper, read a great work of literature or philosophy, watch a high-quality movie, and learn Torah.

They did not do the same for women after high school. Even at the undergraduate level, Stern College does not hold up. Students at Stern do not share in the Torah study requirements of their Yeshiva College peers―and in fact, many of them are required to forgo Talmud classes altogether in order simply to complete the demands of their major. Such a setup would never fly in a world that required “that the Torah be studied at least as seriously as Madda.” As I pointed out earlier, the situation only gets worse after college, when the structures that encourage Torah study for working people are so often geared toward men only―or when they do exist for women, they are either taught by men or non-expert women.

These issues are obvious, and they are pressing. I have the great privilege of serving as director of an intensive summer beit midrash experience for young women in high school run by Drisha. One of my students from last summer asked to speak with me a few weeks ago. She is still a student in a yeshiva high school where she studies Talmud in school, learns the daf daily, and studies with her parents on weekends. During the call she asked: “How are we supposed to do it in the real world? At Drisha, my Torah learning was supported and celebrated. Where I live, I see opportunity after opportunity for boys and men who are in school and who work to learn Torah on the side in a deep way. Torah u-Madda is truly available to them. But what about me? How are you even supposed to be a Torah-learning woman in the world?”

She knows it already, and she’s a teenager in yeshiva day school. She hasn’t even gotten to the hard part yet.

If Torah u-Madda were honestly meant to be for everybody, then no Modern Orthodox leaders or lay people would let this stand. Our community must rally urgently around advanced, serious Torah education for all women, modeled and inspired by women Torah leaders who have achieved the highest levels of learning and whose lifelong scholarship and teaching are supported by communal funds.

This hasn’t happened yet, though there are a tiny number of organizations like my own, Drisha, that are doing their part to make sure that Rabbi Lamm’s picture of Torah u-Madda can be the reality for everybody.

To illustrate the possibilities of what can be done, I want to share a little bit about my work. As I mentioned previously, I now direct the Dr. Beth Samuels Drisha Summer High School Program. Due to covid, in 2021 our program could not safely happen in New York City where it had run since 1988. Instead, we rented out a lodge in the backwoods of New Jersey and then turned to a big programmatic question: how do we replace the cultural opportunities of New York City? Previously, program participants spent Sundays, afternoons, and weekends immersing in the city’s tremendous offerings of museums and plays and culture. This had been integral to the vision of Dr. Beth Samuels z”l, one of the program’s previous directors and a true paragon herself of Torah u-Madda. The city provided a madda component to a mostly Torah program.

Upon reflection, the answer became clear to us: instead of stressing about the madda, we could add more Torah. Because for women, the madda part is easy: it’s the Torah that we have to fight for. Our summer program serves as an identity-building boot camp for young women, where they could experience a bubbled, alternative universe where nobody doubts that the Torah is theirs to learn and master. Ideally, it will sink deep into their bones that Torah study is an essential part of the Jewish good life, that they need Torah and Torah needs them, that they will always return to each other again and again because they developed an identity as a yoshevet beit ha-midrash in their most formative years. Although the world will try to close doors to them and tell them that their learning comes second―support your husband, this class is only for men, etc.―nobody will ever truly dissuade them from the knowledge that the Torah is truly theirs and that their learning is crucial. The 2021 program was so massively successful that this summer, in 2022, we are keeping the program at camp and―with the support of Micah Philanthropies―we are expanding to middle school, because this identity formation must begin right when Talmud education does.

By intention, the Drisha pipeline continues through middle school, to high school, to yeshiva in Israel. Yeshivat Drisha is led by women talmidot hakhamot of the highest caliber, and the beit midrash is packed not only with eighteen-year-olds but also with full-time adult women learners who stay as long as they can to continue their learning without boundaries or ceilings. This is a place where women can train to become rashei yeshiva and achieve true expertise, not only by sitting alone―perhaps listening to recordings of shiurim delivered live in male-only yeshivot―but in a buzzing beit midrash with peers. And for those who choose not to stay in the yeshiva on a full-time basis? Drisha’s collegiate kollels provide Torah balance during summer and winter breaks, and once you enter the workforce, our top-level online shiurim can fill lunch breaks and evenings. I am proud that Drisha offers a vision of Torah u-Madda for everybody, at all stages of life.

Many elements of our programming have peer institutions: our Shana Alef program at Yeshivat Drisha recruits alongside other excellent programs at Migdal Oz, Lindenbaum, and Nishmat. College students looking to learn deep Torah over the summer can choose to learn in our Kollel, or they can spend their summers at either Rabbi Aryeh Klapper’s Center for Modern Torah Leadership Summer Beit Midrash or at some of the coed beit midrash programs at Moshava camps. Yeshivat Drisha’s advanced learning program places at the heart of its program Talmud study, similar in ways to Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies or the Migdal Oz Advanced Program. In other ways, Yeshivat Drisha’s orientation toward creating talmidot hakhamot is similar to the semikhah programs at Midreshet Lindenbaum, Yeshivat Maharat, Matan’s advanced Halakhah program, or Nishmat’s Yoatzot Halakhah. Drisha’s adult-education online shiurim find parallels in the Toronto-based Torah In Motion, in addition of course to learning opportunities offered locally by left-leaning synagogues whose adult education is coed. Many of these institutions have opened their doors only in the past fifteen years: a wonderful, perhaps miraculous signal of well-directed communal energies.

But we can do more, and we can do better, because at the end of the day no one institution or another will create the deep cultural change that a true, universal vision of Torah u-Madda demands. It will begin with each family refusing to offer their daughters any lesser of a Torah education than their sons. This refusal must begin at the earliest ages and continue throughout their children’s educations, expecting their daughters to learn Torah from ages three through 23 in the same ways as their sons. When an opportunity only exists for boys, create an identical parallel track or organize communal pressure until the learning session is coed. How often do we see a “mishmar” for boys and cooking or arts projects for girls? There’s nothing wrong with cooking or arts, but those should be for boys too, and mishmar must be offered to girls equally. Parents need to model lifelong learning by mothers matching the learning hours of fathers minute for minute―while the kids are awake, so that they see it. “Where is Imma?” “She is learning Torah” should be a regular refrain in every Jewish household so that all Jewish children learn by example that Torah study is for everybody.

And who teaches that Torah? Qualified, talented female and male Torah educators who teach complex, beautiful, and exciting Torah to all Jews of all ages, modeling through their lives and beings that the Torah is for everyone, that it is infinitely interesting and important. And of course, who pays for it? Everybody. Because if people are going to fight for their daughters’ Torah educations, then they are going to fight for those daughters to have high-level Torah role models, and that means investing in higher Torah education for women and then creating jobs for graduates of those institutions in every Jewish community around the globe. Then, and only then, will we have a world where “the Torah [can] be studied at least as seriously as Madda” for women too.


[1] Italics added for consistency with the rest of the piece.


To see the rest of the symposium, click here.

Leah Sarna is faculty and Director of Teen Programs at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. She previously served as Director of Religious Engagement at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago, a leading urban Orthodox congregation. Ordained at Yeshivat Maharat in 2018, she holds a BA from Yale University in Philosophy & Psychology and also trained at Migdal Oz and the Center for Modern Torah Leadership. Sarna is a recipient of a Covenant Foundation Pomegranate Prize and a Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and she is now a member of the Sefaria Word-By-Word Jewish Women's Writing Fellowship. Her published works have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Lehrhaus and The Jewish Review of Books and she has lectured in Orthodox synagogues and Jewish communal settings around the world. She loves spreading her warm, energetic love for Torah and Mitzvot with Jews in all stages of life. She can be reached by email at Sarna@drisha.org.