What Do We Value in Jewish Education for Women?

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02 May 2018

With the OU Department of Women’s Initiatives challenge grant applications due this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about questions of women’s Torah study.

What do we value in Jewish education for women, and what are we willing and able to do to realize our values?

As a woman, a learner, a teacher, a mother, and a community member, I’ve been asking those questions for decades. I’m still asking.

In the beginning, I simply asked myself “What do I want to learn, and why?” and “What am I allowed to learn, and where is that learning available to me?” I was fortunate that, for the most part, I had opportunities that matched my drive. I was raised in an environment supportive of women’s Gemara study, and I have loved it since adolescence; I was deeply intrigued by philosophy; and I would get easily engrossed in Tanach. I learned to value all areas of Torah study, and I was encouraged to pursue them.

As an adult, as I shifted into teaching, I had to consider different questions: What do I want my students to gain, and how will I instill it? My goals for my students were multifaceted: I wanted them to gain Jewish knowledge, grow as ovdei Hashem, and develop the skills to continue learning as adults.

What I didn’t initially consider, however, was what I wanted them to learn as adults, or why or how or when. But then one day I got a call from a former student who was studying in Israel, who confessed with embarrassment that she wasn’t taking a Gemara class. She thought I would be disappointed, because I had taught her Gemara and tried to share my passion with my students– but I wasn’t. I responded without hesitation: “So? Are you learning? Are you growing? Are you finding what you love in Torah? Great! That’s what I want to hear.”

Torah study has always been a more fluid enterprise for women than for men.

Men begin with a clear obligation of Torah study. What, exactly, that obligation consists of, and how to go about it, is perhaps less clear – but there have always been guidelines, standards, expectations.

Women, on the other hand, were never obligated in formal Torah study for its own sake (Gemara Kiddushin 29b), and throughout our history have often been dissuaded from it. At the same time, however, there have always been women who did learn, and there have always been solid reasons to encourage it: to understand her own merits (Ben Azzai in the Mishna in Sotah 20a); to know how to fulfill her obligations as a Jew (Rema, Y”D 246,6; see also Sh”A O”Ch 47,14); to develop the love for G-d a woman is just as obligated to feel as a man (for instance, compare Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot, positive commandment #3, and Hilchot Teshuva chapter 10). In more recent years, further arguments have been offered, many stemming from a simple acknowledgment that women learn more about everything today than they did centuries ago, and it would be ridiculous and even dangerous to allow Torah to take a back seat to other intellectual pursuits. (See, for instance, Chafetz Chaim Sefer Likutei Halachot, Sotah daf 21).

I know a lot of people with a lot of different ideas about what areas of Torah women should be learning, and how we should go about it. But I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think it’s a value. Whether it’s academic Talmud, a shiur on women in Tanach, a practical halacha discussion, a mussar class – I can’t think of anyone I’ve spoken to who doesn’t see value in women learning.

Yet, even in the face of all those reasons for women to learn, the particulars remain fluid. So fluid, in fact, that often we allow women’s learning to trickle down to nothing, despite our very good reasons to encourage and promote it, because we also have very good reasons holding us back.

It’s relatively easy to immerse oneself in Torah while in a Jewish high school, for those who have that opportunity, that demands it for half the day. When studying full-time in Israel or elsewhere, for those who have that opportunity, it’s especially easy to get caught up in a Torah learning frenzy.

But then, real life sets in.

There is college, and a job, and family. For married women, even in the most egalitarian households, childbearing, and frequently feeding, fall upon the woman. These factors drain a woman’s Torah study more than they do a man’s – and they are excellent reasons to skip learning. Certainly, schooling and working and fathering can drain a man’s Torah study too, but biologically and socially different roles, coupled with the inherent fluidity in the whole enterprise of women’s Torah learning, tend to make a difference.

Absent a formal obligation or societal expectation to make it work, a woman’s Torah study will almost always take a back seat – whether or not she is married, whether or not she has children.

I hear it all, all the time. I hear from women who say they’d like to attend a program but can’t. And I’m the worst offender: I believe so strongly in Torah study for women that I teach Torah to women all the time – but I almost never go to a class myself. I tried, for a while, but my attendance trickled and dwindled to nothing for the same reasons as everyone else’s. Life got in the way. (I even wrote an article about it.)

These are all excellent reasons, and women don’t have the same formal obligation as men to learn for learning’s sake, so what’s the problem?

The problem emerges from the original questions above:

What do we value in Jewish education for women?

Is it important to develop a deep understanding of the Torah that guides our lives?

Is it important to take advantage of every opportunity to grow in our love for Hashem?

Is it important to be at least as sophisticated in our Torah as we are in our mada, our secular pursuits?

What are we willing and able to do to realize our values?

The problem when women’s learning perpetually takes a back seat is that we are not living up to our values. When we encourage, and even demand, increased Torah offerings from our shuls, but simultaneously say “but…I can’t come because…” – what do our demands achieve?

It’s hard. It takes creative finagling, it takes family and community support, it takes energy and time and sometimes money that we might not have. Sometimes we might have to put our learning on hold for a while, while the kids are young or the work schedule is especially rough. And then we have the biggest challenge of all: staying conscious of our values enough to recognize and grab opportunities when we can, without getting stuck in habits formed when we couldn’t.

And there’s another crucial question to consider:

Do I want my children to share my values?

Because the other problem when women’s learning perpetually takes a back seat is that it prevents our children from absorbing our values. How will my daughters learn to value their own Torah study, if they don’t see me do it? How will my sons learn to support their wives in prioritizing Torah study? I get to cheat here because my kids do see me learning all the time, but what if I were in a different profession? They would see me working during the week and relaxing on Shabbos; they would see me paying for them to learn Torah at school, but how would they know that I value learning beyond school?

For the same reasons that Sarah Schneirer felt formal Torah education was imperative for girls, we need to consider, as individuals and as communities, how we can go beyond formal schooling and engage in an ongoing process of learning, growing, and finding what we love in Torah.

It doesn’t have to look like men’s learning (though it might, for some), but we need to create ways to learn, and we need to show up, and we need to keep doing it.

It’s not easy; the challenges are real. Everyone’s reasons are good. But if we really value what I hear so many of us say we value, then we will have to find ways to make it work.

I hope the OU grant challenge will help our shuls and communities build momentum, and that we will all find ways – with or without the grant – to take that momentum and build a sustainable future of Torah learning and growth for us all.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.