The “Jewish Women Question”: Can Women Learn Gemara?
My classmate’s face turned red with laughter. “You can’t learn Talmud! You’re a girl!” He spat out the last word as if it were an insult and I turned away, mortified. Initially, I’d been proud to share the concept I’d mastered in class, but now I felt ashamed. How could I have made such a horrible mistake? Why did my school offer Talmud classes to women if this was a field that women were meant to be excluded from?
In my tenth grade Talmud class, we spent an entire unit on the “Jewish women question”: can women learn Gemara? Rabbi Eliezer, a scholar of the Tannaitic period, said he would rather see the Torah burn than allow women to learn it. Spanning the centuries, most rabbis didn’t take quite as extreme a stance as Rabbi Eliezer, but many maintained the same sentiment that women should not learn Talmud. A large part of this mentality came from the historical portrayal of women as simple-minded; this worldview seems to have trickled into Judaism, supporting the belief that women couldn’t possibly be intelligent enough to learn Talmud, an extraordinarily complex and nuanced text.
However, in more recent times, this belief seems to have faded among many others. Rav Soloveitchik, a twentieth century intellectual who influenced Modern Orthodoxy greatly, strongly supported Talmud learning for women. He even went so far as to establish a school in which co-ed Talmud learning took place. After this, many mainstream groups allowed women to learn Talmud.
When I learned about this history, I finally felt justified in my own learning. It had taken centuries, but through persistence and patience, women had persevered and earned the right they’d been denied for centuries. Once I discovered that there was no legitimate problem with learning Talmud as a woman, I had a new question: why did people think there was?
While Talmud may seem uninteresting to some, and perhaps like a worthless acquisition to others, it’s a huge deal that women are now included in this major aspect of Judaism. Thousands of men dedicate their entire lives purely to the study of Talmud. In order to become a rabbi, one must spend several years becoming proficient in the laws taught in Talmud. In addition, the learning initiative daf yomi instructs people all across the world to learn a page of Talmud a day, ultimately finishing the entire series in six and a half years. Talmud is an integral part of Jewish life and inviting women into this world is a step towards intellectual equality.
Unfortunately, not everyone is comfortable with this shift. Some people fear the blurring of lines between men and women’s traditional roles. While these people claim their position is solely based on the text, I think it stems more from sexism than Jewish law.
As a Jewish woman, it can be easy to feel marginalized. Judaism seems to have set roles for men and women, and not conforming feels like you’re doing something wrong. Yet, I don’t think it’s impossible to be a feminist and a Jew. I believe that these two identities don’t inherently conflict and don’t need to. I’m very fortunate to live in an open-minded community where I have the opportunity to pray, learn, and participate wholeheartedly in Judaism. While things are certainly not the same for people of all genders, my experience with Talmud shows that steps are being taken in the right direction. Even though the lines seem to be so strictly drawn, we can work to change the norms, just like we did with Talmud study. Observing that my study of Talmud isn’t based on some loophole, but a thoughtful decision made by many important figures, I have found inspiration. Not only is my learning substantially more meaningful as a result, but it also shows that, despite how extreme the differences between men and women’s roles seem in Judaism, there is always room for change. Nonetheless, I recognize that my Talmud learning is considered by many to not be a right, but rather a hard-won privilege. My experience with Talmud taught me that when it seems like there is no place for women in Judaism, we must fight for it. I know that if I want to see change happen in Judaism, I have to take an active role to obtain it. I don’t see this as a burden; yes, it can be tiresome and seem futile, but I have to believe that ultimately my actions will result in the betterment of my community.
Social justice movements—civil rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights—are deeply important causes that have been taken up by millions throughout history and have achieved so much. Yet it can be hard to remember all the progress that has been made when the current state of the world is so disappointing. It sometimes feels like we are fighting against a system that refuses to change. It sometimes seems like, no matter how many times we march in the streets, petition politicians, and lobby for all we’re worth, change will not come. Despite this, I’ve learned the value of endurance in activism through my experience with Talmud learning. After all, if you’d told a Jewish woman a hundred years ago that one day she would be allowed to learn Talmud, her face would have turned red with laughter.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.