Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Nashim Melumados- On The Natural Progression of Women's Learning

Take a look at this picture. What do you see? Are you able to tell the importance of the moment it captures? A young woman, holding a text is speaking in a shul or beis midrash. What is she saying? A devar Torah perhaps? If so, it is a nice but commonplace occurrence. It hardly seems momentous. Perhaps if we watch what's going on, with open ears and hearts, we begin to see that this picture holds a glimpse of the future.

It was not so long ago that formal Jewish education for women was anything but a given. For reasons both religious and sociological, the texts which inform so much of our lives as Jews, were inaccessible to almost all women. Although we take it as a given, Beis Yaakov was a revolutionary concept when it began. Even with the founding of these schools for young women, there was a limit on what was taught. For the most part, Torah Sh'B'al Peh, the oral law, remained an exclusively male domain. It is only in the last 40 years, for reasons both religious and sociological, that women have had the opportunity to learn gemara.

For some within the Orthodox world, women's learning is seen as a threat. Inherently, as a break with tradition, it is taken to be problematic. Even if this view is correct, and I personally think it is not, the phenomena of serious women's learning can not and will not be turned back. Trying to block it, is like trying to hold up a dam, as the flowing water, produces more and more cracks. Neither prohibitions or insults will do anything. We are in an era where Nashim Melumados, women well educated in all areas of Torah is becoming more commonplace and familiar.

For others, the progress is not happening fast enough. It is not enough for women to have serious opportunities for learning. Rabbinic ordination for women is the goal, and it needs to happen now. To me, this push for Orthodox women rabbis, threatens to diminish the opportunities for serious learning for women. It feeds fuel to the fire of those who claim that women's learning is agenda driven, rather than a natural expression of a desire to learn Toras HaShem. For good and for bad, for change to take place in the Orthodox world, it needs to happen slowly and imperceptibly, giving the impression of things remaining as they've always been. The ancient Greeks discussed the Ship of Theseus. If the boards of a ship are replaced as they rot, when there are no more original boards, does it remain the same ship? It might be perceived as the same ship, but only if the change happens slowly over time. In the Orthodox world, the connection to tradition, both real and imagined, calls for slow movement (I than Elli Fischer for both introducing me to this concept and its application to the world of Orthodoxy). If women's learning is allowed to progress naturally and organically, it will not be many years before there are women with the knowledge to be serious posekim. Whether that will lead to a formal title, remains to be seen.

Take a look at the picture again. Elisheva Finkelman, a young high school student from Israel is standing in the beis midrash of Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin. Rebbe Meir, of course, was the founder of Daf Yomi, a modest and innovative concept in its time, that today has taken over the world of Orthodoxy. Elisheva is one of those who, following Rav Meir's program, learns a daf of gemara each day. On a recent trip to Eastern Europe, she and her classmates visited Lublin. As luck or fate would have it, they arrived there when it was time to be mesayem Maseches Sukkah. When Rav Meir Shapiro started the daf yomi program, did he ever imagine that women would be taking part? Almost certainly not. Would he approve? Again, I doubt it, but here's the thing, it doesn't really matter. Daf yomi succeeded, despite being a new approach to gemara learning. Just as Beis Yaakov and daf yomi succeeded due to support of some gedolim, women's learning will succeed for the very same reason. Change is here. It can not be stopped and it should not be forced. I hope that we can all answer “amen” to Elisheva, as she completes the Hadran, asking for continued success in learning other masechtos.

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