Women’s Learning: Educational Goals and Practice

BY: Fran Tanner

In recent times, women’s Torah learning has taken great strides and reached a level that our grandmothers or even mothers never imagined. Modern Orthodox middle schools and high schools have introduced Torah she-be-Al Peh into the girls’ curriculum. Battei Midrash for women have sprung up across Israel and the Diaspora. Closer to home, Stern offers Gemara shiurim and numerous advanced Tanakh courses, and the Stern Beit Midrash is the home to GPATS, Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies. Furthermore, this past year at Stern has seen the startup of Night Seder in the Beit Midrash every weeknight, and Bavli Baboker, a daf yomi program that meets every morning. These developments are easy to get excited about and we certainly should. We should rejoice in the opportunities we have been given, as women of the 21st century.

Nevertheless, to become complacent would be a grave error. It is an obligation for Jews who strive to be true yir’ei Shamayim, to be constantly evaluating where they are standing and where they are headed on the lifelong journey towards deveikut ba-Shem. I would suggest that to this end, it is incumbent upon us as a community to think critically about where women’s learning is today and where it is headed. The Modern Orthodox community must be able to articulate a clear blueprint of its goals for women’s learning. Its vision should go well beyond asserting the fact that women should be learning, and should address specific issues and formulate clear goals. Educational programs should reflect these goals and facilitate their fulfillment.

This is an issue that is of importance, not just to women, but to the community at large. Our goal is to create a community of learned women and men, who are committed ovedei Hashem. Together, we strive le-hagdil Torah u-le-ha’adirah (to expand and glorify Torah). Thus a detailed plan of how to include women in this speaks to larger communal goals.

The issue is of course complex, and a full analysis, difficult; however, a full look at the situation should be undertaken. This assessment should include two key components: an evaluation of what our ideal vision of women’s learning is and an analysis of whether we are living up to that ideal. In his article, “Spiritual Accounting of Centrist Orthodoxy,” R. Aharon Lichtenstein outlines the process of heshbon ha-nefesh and identifies two key elements. He quotes Bishop Wilson: “‘First, never go against the best light you have; second, take care that your light be not darkness’. Heshbon ha-nefesh does indeed entail an examination of the light by which we walk, and, concomitantly, an analysis of just how well, just how persistently, we do indeed walk by the light which we profess to be guiding us.”[i] In other words, there are two questions we need to ask: do we have proper goals, and if so, are we meeting them?

Indeed, a full heshbon ha-nefesh may be beyond the scope of this article, but I would like to begin to touch on some of the key considerations. If we are to follow R. Lichtenstein’s outline, we must attempt, first and foremost, to define “the light by which we walk,” namely, the ideal by which we are guided. Afterwards, a look at the current programs available for women and the level of learning will reveal “how persistently” we walk by that light.

Defining the light by which we walk, in and of itself may pose the biggest challenge. What is our mission statement for women’s learning? What exactly are we striving to achieve and how? The overall goal is a Jewish community of committed individuals, both men and women alike, no doubt, but how exactly do we propose to get there? What role do we suggest women’s Torah study play in this regard?

I would like to start with the basic premise that women should be engaged in Torah study, as R. Soleveitchik and others advocated. R. Soloveitchik began paving this path for women, instituting Gemara at the Maimonides School and later establishing the first Gemara shi’ur for women in Stern College.[ii] Many Modern Orthodox institutions contend that they promote this notion, and offer women many different shi’urim, classes, and other learning opportunities.

However, providing a shi’ur for women, while a nice gesture, is not enough. It allows an institution to say, “We teach women,” but the vision cannot stop at that alone. Any educator will attest to the importance of overall educational goals. As educator Dr. Lawrence J. Peters once said: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you will probably end up somewhere else.” Offering a shi’ur here and there is not enough in terms of promoting women’s education. There needs to be some kind of overarching vision. The shi’urim should be organized around, and built according to some overarching goal. We need to first be clear about our goals for women’s learning and then offer shi’urim that reflect the actualization of those goals.

It often seems that we are not always clear about the direction we want to take in the larger goals of women’s learning. Our community’s vision remains hazy, and women often receive mixed messages, and articulate mantra that state one thing and an educational system that promotes another. Although our community seems to say we promote women’s learning, many practical differences and constraints still do exist. Are we striving to produce women who are talmidot hakhamim? If so, are we doing enough to enable this? Do our programs reflect this goal?[iii]

The educational goals the community establishes for women’s learning, like educational goals of any program, must develop ideals and answer questions about specifics – for example, the time and style of the learning program: how and when will they learn, and how much – and also the end goal of the program: where do we want women to be when they come out and what do we want them to do with this learning experience they have gained? How will we help them continue learning later in life? Only once such goals have been established and clarified can a maximally effective women’s learning program exist.

The kinds of goals we establish for women’s learning will significantly impact “how we walk by the light,” in other words the nature of the women’s learning program we will set up. The following are some of the key issues and how they will impact the program.

The first question is that of time invested in learning. Our community says that women should be learning, but has not answered clearly and definitively “how much?”. I recognize that even for men, too, this is always somewhat of a question.[iv] For women, who are not explicitly obligated in talmud Torah, this question is even more complex. On one hand, it may be that since they are not obligated, they need fewer hours of talmud Torah; the concept of bittul zeman may be less of a concern. On the other hand, once our community has declared that talmud Torah is indeed a value for women as it promotes spiritual growth and deveikut ba-Shem, is it not logical that women should be striving for as much Torah learning as possible? Furthermore, to truly master Jewish texts, is not a most intensive and rigorous commitment necessary? As it says in many places in Shas, ein ha-Torah mitkayyemet ella be-mi she-memit atsmo aleha: only those who “kill” themselves for Torah can establish themselves in it.[v]

To date, I am aware of very few programs in which women spend as much time learning as their male counterparts – and I ask: does it stem from part of our ideal vision of what women’s learning should be, or is this merely an oversight, a be-di-avad reality, which is perhaps a function of the fact that the mentality regarding women’s learning has advanced but not yet fully changed? Is it a reflection of our goals or does it reflect a lack of clarity in our goals?

A related issue is the style or setting for women’s learning. What is the most effective educational program we can offer women to get them where we want them to be? What kind of program will be the most enriching, and enable them to grow the most as talmidot hakhamim and as ovedei Hashem? I have already suggested that shi’urim should, at the very least be organized around set goals. Furthermore, perhaps we need to consider learning models that go beyond shi’urim.[vi] Arguably, the environment most conducive to serious learning is a yeshivah modality consisting of sedarim. This allows for large blocks of time to be dedicated to Torah study, without conflicts from secular courses or other engagements. Furthermore, this creates not just individual learners but a learning environment and community in which its members can engage in dialogue and study together at set times. Again, are our educational programs and the way they are set up a reflection of our goal for women’s learning and are they meeting these goals?

Finally, there is the longsighted question of: “What are we aiming for?” Where do we want women to end up? What are these learned women to do, after completing their undergraduate and post-graduate studies? How will we continue to provide them learning opportunities?

An analysis of these issues and other issues in women’s education must be undertaken. Clarifying “the light by which we walk” and “how persistently we walk by it” is critical for furthering the education and torah commitment of women in our community.

By way of conclusion, I would like to move from theory to practical application and look at two specific issues regarding where we are today.

Firstly, there is the puzzling issue of numbers of women taking advantages of these opportunities today. As Shani Taragin noted in a recent interview with Kol Hamevaser,

“I am somewhat disillusioned with what I have seen.  About 20 years ago, when women’s learning really took off, with the opening of institutions such as Midreshet Lindenbaum, MaTaN, Nishmat, the Stern Talmud Program (GPATS), Migdal Oz, and Drisha, I thought that there would be a significant demographic growth in women’s learning. Yet, sadly, we have not seen the number of students in these institutions grow proportionally. If there were 15 women in MaTaN’s advanced learning program 20 years ago, then there are 15 women in that program today.  The numbers have not significantly increased as I expected they would.”[vii]

The question that must be asked is why have these programs not seen significant growth? Why are there not more women taking advantage of these learning opportunities? Perhaps, it is too early to expect that kind of change. Looking at the greater picture of history women’s learning is relatively revolutionary and people are still getting used to the idea. However, twenty years is a long time and one cannot help but wonder where the multitudes of women scholars are.

Secondly, there is the question of Yeshiva University and its significant role in leading this change. Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women stands at the forefront of advanced studies for women. It has offered and continues to offer unprecedented opportunities to today’s Jewish women. Yet, currently, in Yeshiva University, the women as a whole do not spend nearly as much time learning as the men, nor is a morning seder option even provided in the schedule. At Stern, instead of a morning seder structure, providing time designated toward only Torah study with time spent in the beit midrash with havruta preparation, the Judaic Studies courses are integrated into the course schedule, along with everything else. While for some this creates a certain flexibility not afforded to the men, a less intensive schedule and more choice, oftentimes this creates conflicts between secular courses that students need for their majors and otherwise, and serious Torah courses. Students sometimes may be forced to choose between the two. Furthermore, the fact that Judaic Studies are peppered throughout the day detracts from the yeshivah aspect of Yeshiva University, compromising on the blocks of time devoted to learning and on the beit midrash environment of the entire student body engaging in Torah study together.

I ask the same question I posed earlier. Is this an ideal position, or does the current situation exist because the mentality regarding women’s learning still has to catch up? If the latter is true, I then ask: as a community, what are we doing to help this process along?

Fran Tanner is a graduate of Stern College for Women and is pursuing a degree in Jewish Education from Machon Herzog.

[i] R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Centrist Orthodoxy: A Spiritual Accounting,” trans. Reuven Ziegler, Torah on the Web – Virtual Beit Midrash. Available at: http://vbm-torah.org/archive/develop/12develop.htm.

[ii] Some would argue that he was in fact just continuing a process that began long before him with Sarah Schenirer’s establishment of the Bais Yaakov school system.

[iii] If not, what is it that we are going for? It seems to be unclear.

[iv] See, for example, Avot 2:2, Berakhot 35b, and Kiddushin 82a.

[v] See, for example, Berakhot 63b.

[vi] Rabbi Yosef Yitshak Schneersohn of Lubavitch distinguishes between two groups of people, the learned and the simple. “The lettered, or learned, group are those individuals knowledgeable both in the exoteric and esoteric parts of the Torah. They are referred to with the words “the king led me into His chambers” [i.e. they are privy to G-d’s innermost secret the Torah]. The second category is that of the simple Jews who pray, recite Tehillim and listen to Torah lessons” (http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/73716/jewish/Chapter-III.htm). If we want women to be learned and not just simple, their learning needs to go well beyond listening to Torah lessons.

[vii] Staff, “An Interview with Shani Taragin: Part One,” Kol Hamevaser 3,2 (November 2009): 14-17.