By: Shayna Herszage
The campuses of Yeshiva University have multiple rooms that, at the skeleton of their being, look similar to each other – rooms filled with rows of bookshelves, hundreds of books, tables intended for people to read and learn. However, while some rooms go by the name “libraries,” others are considered “batei midrash,” and the names distinguish two completely different species. While libraries are places of quiet reading and solitude, batei midrash are places in which learning is best done with others as chavrutas (learning in pairs), arguing and shouting and proving and disproving. In addition, libraries have remained essentially the same since they were first created, whereas batei midrash have been changing and evolving constantly since their beginning, shaping to meet the needs of the society. Batei midrash are spaces not made for an individual experience, but for people to come together to contribute to a millennia-long search for information and answers to age-old questions, all the while participating in the story of an ever-changing form of institution.
Since their establishment in Mishnaic times, batei midrash have been spaces not only for Torah-fueled arguments, but also for Torah-fueled interpersonal relationships, friendships that are rooted in spiritual and intellectual growth. The tractate Bava Metzia (84a) relates the story of a strong friendship that was born through a beit midrash environment: One day, Rabbi Yochanan went to bathe in the river, and a robber named Reish Lakish thought he was a beautiful woman and approached him. Soon after, Rabbi Yochanan convinced Reish Lakish to learn Torah with him, and the unlikely pair became an inseparable one. Through their partnership, Reish Lakish changed from a robber to a holy and learned person, and Rabbi Yochanan’s learning experience was heightened by having a chavruta with whom he could argue and be challenged. Every conflict in opinion with Reish Lakish helped him to grow.
Unfortunately, in a discussion about a law regarding manufacturing weapons, Rabbi Yochanan referenced Reish Lakish’s former bandit lifestyle, and insulted him. The hurt feelings escalated, and the two no longer spoke to each other. Distraught, Reish Lakish fell ill, and he passed away. The death of his friend threw Rabbi Yochanan into a deep depression. Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat visited him, hoping to help him by learning with him. For every point Rabbi Yochanan made, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat could think of sources to support him. Rabbi Yochanan was dissatisfied with the dynamic, and said, “Are you comparable to Reish Lakish? In our discussions, when I would raise an argument, he would raise twenty-four counter-arguments, and I would argue against the counter-arguments, and the law would have been clarified by our arguments.” Rabbi Yochanan was looking for a chavruta to oppose him, rather than supporting him in everything he said. Rabbi Yochanan knew he was correct – otherwise, he would not have stated his opinion. With Reish Lakish, he was shown the flaws in his statements, and he could refine his own ideas.
While Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan developed a powerful connection in which they were able to make progress in their halakhah study as a pair, it is important to note the nuances that turn chavruta learning pairs into productive arguments, rather than turning a beit midrash into a verbal fight club – which would decrease productivity. The ideal dynamic is highlighted well through the most famous halakhic opponents in history: Hillel and Shammai. The followers of both sides constantly disagreed on topics throughout Jewish law, and yet they maintained a level of respect for each other. In the tractate Eiruvin (13b), it is said that Hillel’s opinions were given stronger preferences because he showed more respect and tolerance toward Shammai. A beit midrash is a place of disagreement, but also simultaneously acknowledging and respecting each others’ differences and using them to strengthen the work that is done.
As batei midrash have grown in size and number, it has become clear that not all Torah scholars are created the same way, and different people need different denominational, cultural, or structural details in order to thrive. The most common forms of batei midrash today are seminaries and yeshhivot intended for post-high school gap-year programs. The first semester of twelfth grade for many Jewish high school students is a time of stress as they struggle to decipher the information they receive about yeshivot and seminaries. A student may be considering two batei midrash, but is torn due to seemingly minute differences, such as frequency of organized trips, or whether or not night classes are mandatory. However, these small differences, in a society filled with diverse institutions made to suit the equally diverse selection of students, contribute to the essence of the institution. The nuances that make the individual beit midrash also make what is the ideal learning environment for some, and less so for others. For example, an institution that requires night classes may be stressful for one student, but their classmate may want mandatory night classes in order to prevent them from “slacking off.” Different people require different environments in order to achieve their goal of learning Torah, but the growing range of batei midrash is working to accommodate the diversity of Torah scholars.
In the tractate Berakhot (48a), a comparison of two different Torah scholars is derived from an anecdote. Abaye and Rava, two people who grew up to be well-known amoraim, sat before Raba as children. He asked them, “To whom do we recite blessings?” The two replied that they pray to God, to which Raba asked, “And where does God reside?” Here, Abaye and Rava replied with slightly different answers. Rava pointed up to the rafters on the ceiling, but Abaye ran outside, and he pointed to the heavens without a building to act as a barrier. Raba then said, “You will both grow up to be great scholars.” Which, as is evident throughout the Talmud, was a true statement.
While Rava opted to demonstrate information by staying seated in the beit midrash and simply pointing upward, Abaye saw value in moving, in even leaving the beit midrash for a moment, for the purpose of enhancing his learning experience. This momentary glimpse into a beit midrash shows two equally valid approaches to learning and understanding, and, by extension, two equally valid students. The growing range of batei midrash and yeshivot help people who harbor different beliefs or take varying approaches, such as half-learning, half-volunteering programs, to be able to access learning in a format that is not one-size-fits-all.
In addition to different methods and demographics, batei midrash are evolving to include a group of people who previously were allowed very little involvement with the beit midrash experience – women. Batei midrash that are women-only or women-inclusive are on the rise in multiple denominations. While high school boys flip through men’s yeshiva pamphlets, their female classmates look at the websites of women’s seminaries, which also are growing to accommodate students’ needs and preferences. For example, while some seminaries put focus on a rigorous Talmud curriculum, others make Talmud optional, and some do not offer Talmud classes at all, preferring to put more emphasis on Tanakh or philosophy courses. Additionally, co-ed batei midrash, such as the Drisha Kollel Program, are growing in popularity among Modern Orthodox communities, granting men and women the opportunity to listen to each other’s opinions, thoughts, and ideas in an organized beit midrash setting.
The inclusion of women in batei midrash, whether in mixed company or in single-gender environments, deeply alters the beit midrash experience. The addition of women’s voices to the beit midrash allows a myriad of new perspectives and ideas. Additionally, having the opportunity to argue and learn the way they used to watch their fathers and brothers do is an empowering experience for women. After generations of women being confined to the home, the beit midrash is finally giving women a chance to argue, to shout and point at the footnotes of books, to prove and disprove and learn together like women before them seldom could.
Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies, as well as other post-undergraduate women’s beit midrash initiatives, has affected the tone of Stern College for Women. Women are now able to see a future for themselves in the Talmud and Torah world that is different from that of the women they saw growing up. Before the current rise of women in the Torah world, women primarily only were seen as authority figures because they married men with authority, thus granting the women the term “rebbetzin.” Now, it has become common for women to be seen as great in the Torah world on their own. In turn, the ability for women to have futures in the beit midrash increases their drive to be in batei midrash at younger ages. Through increasing opportunities for post-undergraduate women’s beit midrash learning, women’s batei midrash across all ages and levels are strengthened and improved. The beit midrash is an integral part of Jewish life, culture, and development as a society. It is a place of interactive learning that not only advances the learning and the discovery of information, but also strengthens the connections between people by interacting together on a high spiritual and intellectual level. Through batei midrash, people find new understandings of the world around them by working together and contributing ideas to their quests for knowledge. Batei midrash are ever-changing creatures, evolving with the times to create a space to welcome people across multiple spectrums of being into the world of Jewish learning. What once was a uniform, men’s-only environment is now a diverse place for people to grow in their spiritual experience and their connection to Jewish law.
Shayna Herszage is a sophomore at Stern College studying Psychology.