The vision of Torah study for women

​​​​​​​In principle, there is no impediment for women to engage in any field of Torah.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed ,

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
PR photo

Q: Is it possible for women to study Torah at a high level, and be appointed to positions of spiritual leadership, Torah teachers, and halachic ruling as rabbis and judges?

A: A distinction should be made between two areas: principle, and practical. In principle, it is possible, and even desirable, for women to be talmidot chachamot (Torah scholars), to study Torah and halakha, and the appropriate ones be engaged in education to Torah observance and middot (good virtues), thereby increasing wisdom in Israel (it should be noted that the traditional role of ‘Rabbanit’ (Rebbetzin) as accepted in previous generations, included in it spiritual influence and even leadership, albeit covert, but nevertheless, often with great impact. This is not the place to expand on that).

In addition, in principle there is no field in Torah that is closed to women. And even if there is an impediment, such as areas exist where according to halakha there should be male judges, if the public wants, it may decide that learned and righteous women be appointed to positions of spiritual leadership and halakhic jurisprudence, and men will assist them and carry out what needs to be done specifically by men. Similar to the case of Deborah the prophetess, whom Israel accepted as a judge (see, Tosefot, Bava Kama 15a), and according to the Midrash, her husband was Barak ben Avinoam, and he went out according to her prophetic instruction to fight Sisera.

However, in practice, there are difficulties that hinder, as will be explained below.

Are There Differences between Men and Women

As a rule, men and women are equal in the laws of the Torah, as it is written (Exodus 21: 1): “These are the laws that you must set before [the Israelites],” and our Sages expounded (Baba Kama 15a): “Scripture has thus made woman and man equal regarding all the penalties of the Law.” In conjunction with this rule we have learned in the Torah that there are certain differences between men and women, which are expressed in the obligations of some of the mitzvot.

But since in the vast majority of areas men and women are equal and similar, the differences between them are not profound and decisive, nor do they encompass everyone equally. In addition, free choice is one of the most important foundations, and its power is immense to effect processes that change reality for better or worse. Consequently, each and every man and woman has the ability to decide to act to enhance their personality with additional and acquired traits and behaviors. All the more so is society able to act for changes in the manifestation of character traits and behavioral traditions of men and women. This is reflected, for example, in mitzvot aseh sh’ha’zman garman (positive, time-bound mitzvot), in which women fulfill a mitzvah, but are not obligated.

Parity and Differences in the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah

There are two parts in the mitzvah of Talmud Torah. One, to know the teachings of the Torah in order to live a full life, and this is the part where men and women are equally obligated. To this end, every man and woman need to study halakha, emunah (faith) and mussar (ethics) according to the level and depth needed to elevate their emunah and moral aspirations, and guide their lives. The second part is the one inclined to iyun (in-depth study), pilpul (argumentation) and mechkar (research), in which men are obligated, and women are not. The main explanation for this, is because women have a role that only they can fulfill, in childbirth and nurturing the family.

This difference caused a difference between yeshivot for men – in which the study of Gemara, in which the theoretical side is emphasized, and ulpanot and midrashot for girls – in which the study of halakha and emunah which are necessary studies for the guidance of one’s life, come first.

As the years go by, the gap between the obligations of men and those of women, has narrowed. Knowledge and wisdom has become open to all, and the challenges of life demand a higher Torah level. Consequently, women’s obligation to deepen Torah study, in halakha, emunah, and mussar is constantly expanding, to the point where even in men’s educational institutions, due to the emphasis on Gemara study which does not reach the conclusions of halakha, and the foundations of emunah and mussar they find it hard to even accomplish all the study women are obligated to learn, let alone in ulpanot.

The Enriching Differences

Although the difference between women’s obligations and those of men has narrowed, it remains the same in the field of theoretical study, in which men are obligated and women have a mitzvah, but not an obligation. This difference creates the diversity and completion between the obligatory side and volunteering. Thanks to this, we approach the great vision, as it is written (Jeremiah 31: 32-33): “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” And it is written (Isaiah 11: 9): “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

And as explained in Rambam (Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 4: 13), that there is a mitzvah for every person to reach complete emunah, and love God and fear him. And the way to do this by studying Torah, first in the ‘debates of Abaye and Rava’ in the Gemara, in knowing the permissible and forbidden in all the mitzvot, and afterwards, in the “maasei Bereshit” (“work of Creation”) and “maasei Merkava” (“work of the Chariot”) [the esoteric doctrine of the universe], “which are the great good which the Holy One, blessed be He, has granted, to allow for stable living within this world and the acquisition of the life of the world to come. They can be known in their totality by the great and the small, man or woman, whether granted expansive knowledge or limited knowledge.” It emerges then that the ideal is that women too should study Torah in-depth of their own free will, and reach complete love and fear of Hashem.

In light of this, it is reasonable to believe that the more women enter the field of Torah education and the teaching of halakha, in the correct and desired way, the more Torah, wisdom and morality will increase in Israel and around the world.

The Difficulties in Realizing the Vision

Nonetheless, there are four difficulties hindering advancement of the vision. The more we become aware of them, the better we can progress, and in the process, we can also find good ideas for the benefit of Torah study among men as well.

1 – Talmudic Experience

The men’s beit midrash (yeshiva learning hall) have accumulated generations of experience in the way a Talmid Chacham is reared. The simplistic idea that anyone who studies Gemara will reach the same results, is wrong. In the beitei midrash, students are educated from an early age the way in which Torah is studied, in all its nuances and paths. The way rabbis are related to, and the way questions are asked. What significance is ascribed to the opinion of the Tanaim, Amoraim, Rishonim and Achronim, and how the weight of the majority and the minority is estimated. The difference between Torah law, rabbinic ordinances and guidance accepted among Israel and written in the Talmud, or the guidance or ordinances adopted in the period of the Rishonim. What is the significance of a minhag (custom) prevalent throughout all of Israel, or only in one ethnic community, or only in various communities. Which opinions carry decisive halakhic weight, and which opinions are insubstantial. The difference between shaat dachak (time of distress), be’diavad (acceptable after the fact), l’chatchila (optimal), and hidur (to adorn a mitzvah). All of these considerations, and many more like them, are taught in the beit midrash through shimush talmidei chachamim (serving Torah scholars), and for one who has not studied in the beit midrash, it is difficult to understand all this.

Because of the value of modesty and its halakhic boundaries – women cannot be admitted to yeshivot. And creating batei midrash for women at the level of the yeshivot is a complex challenge that requires many years of effort.

2 – Educational Experience

While studying in the beit midrash, the students learn from their rabbis how a Talmid Chacham behaves in his learning and prayer, in the observance of mitzvoth, and in his conversation with people. How his behavior will serve as an example to his students. And as our Sages have said, that there are things that a Talmid Chacham should not do since he represents the Torah, and is necessitated beyond what is required for others. This also includes appropriate clothing for a Talmid Chacham. And although it varies from one society to another, in general, there is a dress code and a code of behavior that when someone transgresses it, many people feel it incompatible, even though they themselves are not particular about it.

There is still no female beit midrash that educates towards this. For example, since clothing is conspicuous and noticeable to all, it is imperative that a rabbanit or teacher adhere to modest dress as is accepted by the majority of recent poskim. And although there are lenient opinions, and the rabbis instruct that one who wishes to rely upon them may do so, for themselves they are stringent, since they should serve as an example of love of the Torah, and hidur and exactness in the mitzvoth, somewhat like Kohanim who were commanded about additional warnings regarding matters of purity, intimate relations, and dress.

3 – Conditions for Diligence

There has been a tradition among the Jewish nation of devoting themselves for the sake of the diligence of Talmidei Chachamim over their Torah studies day and night for numerous years, with their righteous wives greatly devoting themselves to assisting them, in taking care of household matters, and in recent generations, even the burden of earning a living. Nevertheless, a family that would like the woman to devote herself in learning similar to the men, will have to pave its way for itself and future generations, without having anyone to learn from, or someone to emulate. True, in academia we find top female researchers, but they also admit that it is difficult to have a brilliant academic career alongside raising a family. In addition, in academia, outstanding scholars, both men and women, are rewarded with substantial scholarships, whereas in the Torah world, such scholarships do not yet exist even for men, and thus, families of Talmidei Chachamim are required to make many concessions.

4 – Conservatism

A religious society is fundamentally conservative, and consequently, it fears revolutions, because there is always the fear that while striving for a positive goal, institutions and traditions of immense value will be destroyed. Therefore every process, even a positive one, occurs carefully and gradually, with debate, criticism, and constant examination of the pros and cons at each and every stage. And sometimes, when found out that a particular change has caused harm, it is withdrawn from. Therefore, naturally the growth of rabbinical women leaders will be moderate and gradual, in a way acceptable to the various communities.

Although naturally, there will always be people and communities to whom this value will be more central, and consequently, will try to accelerate the processes in a way that is unacceptable to most of the public and rabbis, and provokes heated debates. However, the main path for the public to advance is in moderation and gradually.

It appears that the first practical step before us is in instituting ‘morot halakha’ (teachers of halakha) to women, who will be proficient in halakha, and know how to answer most current questions. The more blessing this brings in the fulfilment of Torah and mitzvot, the more those observant of Torah and mitzvot will want women to further participate in the leadership of Torah in the communities.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.



top