Drisha Institute graduates its first female Talmud scholars
On August 18, 1996, Devorah Zlochower, Leora Bednarsh, and Laura Steiner were recognized for completing a three-year program of Talmud study at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York City. They made up the first class of women to graduate from the program.
The Drisha Institute was founded in 1979 by Rabbi David Silber as the world's first center dedicated specifically to women's study of classical Jewish texts. Although women studying for rabbinic ordination at Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative seminaries study Talmud as part of their curriculum, until recently most non-Orthodox Jews rarely engaged with Talmud. Conversely, in the Orthodox community where regular Talmud study is standard, women were until recently generally precluded—tacitly or overtly—from studying Talmud even as they received a strong Jewish education in other areas. Rabbi Silber included it in Drisha's curriculum from the beginning, because he considered it part of a "well-rounded Jewish education."
Drisha, then, is part of two related trends. One group of students at the Institute is made up of non-Orthodox women seeking deeper Jewish knowledge. The growth of these women's interest in serious Jewish text study echoes the rush of women to secular higher education and professional programs as they opened to women earlier in the century. A second group is made up of Orthodox women seeking to supplement their learning with a solid course of Talmud study. The influx of these women mirrors a larger trend of increased opportunities for women's participation in traditional Judaism. Many Drisha graduates are now teaching Talmud in a variety of Jewish contexts. Some of the Orthodox students and graduates anticipate that pathways to Orthodox female rabbinic leadership will open in the near future.
The program from which three women graduated in 1996 is now known as the Drisha Scholar's Circle and enrolls dozens of women each year. Drisha also offers less intensive programs, including part-time and summer courses. Although Drisha is not a formally accredited institution, participants in the Circle receive a Certificate in Talmud and Jewish Law after three years of study. Students are expected to "serve the Jewish community in an educational capacity" after graduation. Until June 2008, the Drisha faculty included Devorah Zlochower, one of the three original participants. Zlochower taught Talmud and Halakha (Jewish law) and oversaw the Beit Midrash, a full-time one year program of intensive study in biblical and rabbinic texts.
Sources:New York Times, August 2, 1992, August 18, 1996; www.drisha.org.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Drisha Institute graduates its first female Talmud scholars." (Viewed on September 25, 2021) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/aug/18/1996/dije>.