When I was young, I was drawn to the study of Torah as a way to get closer to God and as an answer to questions that arose in the formation of my identity as an observant Jew. Talmudic dialectics demanded of me not to leave my own intellectual integrity on the outskirts of my spiritual explorations. Talmud study also offered a source of enjoyment and an analytic challenge. But after several years of studying Talmud, I wanted more. All my best teachers had invested more than a decade of intensive study in these texts and it was clear to me that I was still at the threshold.
For me, the years at the Drisha Institute in New York were not the end goal but rather, the springboard for further learning—though clearly the years I had invested would already have equipped me with the necessary background to teach Oral Law in high schools and even to teach Talmud in a post high school midrasha, seminary. A similar educational and career trajectory typifies many of my colleagues at Midreshet Lindenbaum’s Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership. They were also driven to further learning after completing the Matan Institute for Advanced Talmud, Nishmat’s program for Yoatzot Halakha, or Lindenbaum’s own training for Rabbinic Court Advocates—all of these frameworks enabling women to explore in depth various areas of Jewish tradition, ancient, medieval and modern.
In my opinion, just as in houses of prayer there must be windows—so too, houses of study, the beit midrash, must be an open space, and not just open towards heaven. As distinct from my academic study of Talmud, wherein I was required to track the various manuscripts of a text in musty basement libraries aided by microfiche technology—my training in applied Rabbinic rulings meant dealing with people and on behalf of people with an awareness of them as holy vessels. The voices from the outside that enter the beit midrash of halakhic learning are not viewed as intrusions into the turf of a silent library, nor are they an intellectual threat of anachronistic data suspect of disturbing the sterility of an historical context. Rather, they are perceived as an invitation to further conversation—to a connection between the texts and the street, between the Torah and the marketplace. It is in this connective window space where Torah achieves its greatest relevance and vibrancy.
Obstacles to Study
At first, the obstacles to the study of halakha are technical: Aramaic, decoding acronyms and abbreviations, broad knowledge of Talmudic concepts and terms, reading between the lines in texts that take for granted numerous unstated assumptions, and texts that often express themselves in purposely cryptic or laconic language. Though the process of zooming in to minutiae in every clause and paragraph is wearying and painstaking, it allows us to subsequently zoom out to a glorious landscape wherein one can see the intricate fabric of halakhic discourse and the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate spheres of halakhic writing. After being exposed to this broad and systemic study of halakha, one also becomes aware of how artificial a confined study of the laws of Niddah, family purity, or any other “tunnel visioned” area of law can be. The narrow study of one area to the exclusion of a broader curriculum will not allow for a deep understanding of the factors, possibilities, and tools that are available to a posek, decisor of halakha.
I can’t point to a specific moment when this occurs, but there is a time when the challenges of halakhic study shift from the technical to the essential and the personal, and the student of halakha moves from a passive recipient to an active participant. In similar fashion to the way in which an artist or a parent moves from mere involvement to utter identification, so too, the seeker of Torah moves to a place where the Torah begins to demand responsibility on the part of her disciples. One asks relentless questions, the way one would allow one’s self to demand of a close relative: Why is there a ritual vacuum here? How could he say this? The difficulty is no longer textual; it is substantive. The tear is not a contradiction between two sources but rather a rip in the textured fabric of a cherished cloth that I myself have participated in weaving.
In thinking about Torah study, we speak in terms of revelation, and we use metaphors like “the hammer splitting a rock.” Basic assumptions are constantly getting shattered and rebuilt in a slow and reflective process not unlike labor contractions that lead to birth.
For me, this is the meaning of Torah becoming my own, of owning it—that remarkable process in which ownership leads to a sense of responsibility to respond to the ethical challenges of the time while remaining attentive to the doubts and questions of the generations of students who came before us—who endeavored to clarify the illusive Divine will.
Semicha for Women
As distinct from the written tests that often typify those of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for semicha, rabbinic ordination, our written tests do not just demand a retention and expulsion of the material. I am expected to have internalized the material and to add my own thinking; my study was supposed to be transformative. Even though the heads of the program say that the five years of study are required in order to make allowance for mothers who want to be at home when their children return from school, I think the five years are a necessary gestation period for the processes I’m describing. Even in the age of fast internet, there are some things that need to slow cook, to percolate.
I actually understand the concerns of rabbis like Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, who are worried about the lack of a “nigun shel masoret,” music of tradition, in women’s Torah learning. But I also think this may be an advantage. As a woman, at least sociologically, I am an outsider to the discourse. But this is precisely what gives me empathy for and sensitivity toward the others who need to carve out a route of entry—like converts and the newly observant. There are also certain things that can only be perceived from the outside, or from the other side of the mechitza. Coming from the outside provides new perspective.
Just as the Chief Rabbinate refused to let a fourteen year old prodigy take the tests for the rabbinate because there is no substitute for life experience in training a rabbinic leader for the mediation between text and life, so too, there are areas of human experience that being a woman allows myself and my colleagues to experience differently. We bring a fuller spectrum of life experience into halakhic leadership. The fact that my colleagues also come from various academic and career backgrounds—ranging from social work to theatre to advocacy and mediation—only amplifies our potential contributions to halakhic discourse.
A friend recently shared her insight with me that the issue is not so much a glass ceiling as it is that of obstacles on the path and an unequal point of departure. The fact that the present Israeli Chief Rabbinate does not recognize our learning toward semicha and that of our musmachot, graduates, toward dayanut, impacts on our ability to serve communities and institutions in various capacities. The impediments are social and political rather than halakhic. The forward vision of Rabbi Riskin and of the Women’s Institute for Halakhic Leadership to train women for positions that don’t yet exist is a testimony to the power of dreams. The passion, commitment, and deep religiosity of the women and the inexorable forces of rapid social change promise to combine in furthering the realization of that dream.
This article was originally published in Hebrew in Makor Rishon. It has been translated and reprinted with the author’s permission.