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.
Rabbi Benay Lappe instructed us in the traditional method of Talmud study, employing a famous passage from tractate Bava Kamma dealing with laws of damages. We began by memorizing the Mishnah, and then moved on to the Gemara (this time in the original Aramaic text). We were expected to obtain an Aramaic dictionary, and prepare our translation prior to class without consulting an English version.
If I thought Talmud study was difficult before, this was nearly impossible. The Hebrew and English translations I’d used while studying tractate Berakhot had added punctuation, vowels, and enough additional words to make a sentence understandable. But the Talmud is written in an Aramaic shorthand where many of the words are missing and speakers are often called “he” rather than by their actual names. When we shared our translations in class, none of us had come up with the same one.
Thus the first thing I learned from Rabbi Lappe was how fluid the Talmud text was, how open to interpretation. I saw that if not for Rashi’s commentary, which cleared up much confusion, the Talmud truly would be a closed book. Eventually, I became familiar with common expressions the rabbis employed in their arguments, as well as the limited vocabulary used in discussing damages.
With translation no longer so onerous, I came to realize that the rabbis had done something revolutionary. They had taken the Torah verse “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24) and proved that it doesn’t mean actual physical retaliation by an injured party. Rather, the person responsible must pay monetary compensation. The Talmud demonstrated how the rabbis uprooted a problematic Torah text and gave it a new meaning that kept Torah relevant in their changed society.
The next year Rabbi Aaron Katz arrived at our synagogue. Personal problems had forced him to leave Israel, where he had over thirty years of Orthodox yeshiva experience, plus rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate. I was heavily involved in writing Rashi’s Daughters, and he graciously agreed to help me study sections of Talmud that dealt with women. He also insisted that I learn those passages most Talmud scholars knew. If my work was going to be taken seriously, I had to “walk the walk and talk the talk.”
During the seven years Rabbi Katz lived in Los Angeles, we studied Talmud together once a week, him using the Hebrew and Aramaic versions, and me the new Schottenstein English/Hebrew interlinear translation (a boon for American Talmud students). We delved into the Tosafot, medieval commentators—including Rashi’s grandsons—who disagreed with Rashi, and had terrific arguments over whose interpretation was correct. We chose our texts by subject, which meant we jumped from chapter to chapter, eventually criss-crossing the entire Talmud. I learned that Rashi, and even more so his grandson Rabbenu Tam, held quite “liberal” opinions when it came to Jewish laws concerning women.
I completed my Rashi’s Daughters trilogy shortly after Rabbi Katz obtained a position in Florida. I started researching my new series, Rav Hisda’s Daughter, by reading about the history of Jews in Babylonia, which relied almost completely on the Talmud. My publisher urged me to hire a research assistant. Just when I thought I’d never find anyone with the qualifications I needed, Henry showed up at Torah study class. He had just graduated with a bachelor’s in Jewish Studies, had several years of Talmud study in a Jerusalem yeshiva, and was fluent in Hebrew and Aramaic.
We started working together, beginning with tractate Berakhot and continuing through each tractate in turn, finding passages of Talmud that mentioned Rav Hisda, his daughter, and the two rabbis who ultimately married her. It took over a year, and by then I realized sorcery was going to be an integral part of the new series. So we went through the entire Talmud again, tractate by tractate, searching for every mention of demons, magic, and enchantresses. We found far more than I expected, some stories were quite fantastic, but that will be the subject of another blog post. Our third trip through the Gemara focused on the people who populated the Talmud, their daily lives and their community.
I learned how this small group of beleaguered rabbis struggled to establish new Jewish practices after the destruction of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. It took centuries, but the Talmud they created became the source of Jewish law and tradition for the last 1200 years. This was a story I had to tell. And, as a feminist, I was determined to write it from a woman’s perspective. That she turned out to be a learned, powerful enchantress made it even more compelling.
Readers often ask: How did a girl raised in a secular socialist family in Los Angeles come to be a Talmud scholar? A good question. But my background didn’t mean I lacked a Jewish education. I attended kindershul, run by Workman’s Circle, instead of religious school. I also learned a great deal about Judaism from books. For example: holidays, rituals, and the immigrant experience from All-of-a-Kind Family; the Holocaust and founding of the State of Israel from Exodus; Talmud and the yeshiva world from The Chosen. From this last book, it was apparent that only males studied Talmud.
Flash forward five years. My husband and I, newlyweds, had moved to Glendale, California, home to one small synagogue, which had just hired a new young rabbi. Seeing a Jewish community with many other young couples, we joined and started attending services as well as adult education classes.
Fifteen years later, I continued to study Torah in English, for my Hebrew skills had not improved much beyond being able to follow along in the prayer book. It was 1992. I heard about a new women’s Talmud class being taught by the feminist theologian Rachel Adler. She had started this class because, despite Southern California having the second-largest Jewish population in the world, there was no place where a woman could study Talmud. Whether one called it excluded, prevented, or prohibited—women didn’t study Talmud.
I confess that I signed up for this class for two reasons. 1. Rachel Adler had such a great reputation that I wanted to study with her no matter what the subject was. 2. I wanted to see why this Jewish text was forbidden to women. After all, as soon as something is banned, it immediately becomes more attractive.
The first class no sooner started than I knew I was way out of my depth. We met around Rachel’s dining table and nearly every other woman there was a Jewish professional, or studying to become one. We used the Steinsaltz Hebrew version of tractate Berakhot. I could barely keep my place, never mind reading aloud. Thankfully our discussions were in English. It took hours of agonizing preparation each week merely to keep my head above water. To my relief, our progress was sufficiently slow so that as time passed, I was better able to not only learn, but to participate.
I discovered that my forte was in rating the proof texts the Talmudic rabbis used to support their arguments. One would think that with the vast number of Torah passages available, the sages would have no trouble finding one to prove any position. Yet some were clearly better than others, and some were surprisingly lame. I learned that the first argument in a halakhic, or Jewish law, debate is a straw man, so obviously wrong that refuting it is easy. The second argument is only slightly better, and if the subject were simple, the third proof would be accepted. A complicated debate might have many more arguments, each supported by a proof text, until the matter is decided.
But not all arguments were resolved in one rabbi’s favor. Sometimes the debate ended with “teiku,” [let it stand], where each sage maintained his position. In other words, they were both right and Jews could legally follow either one. To my amazement, and delight, I saw that Jewish Law in the Talmud encompassed a diversity of opinions.
Talmud became my passion. Every Wednesday night for five years I sat with other dedicated Jewish women as we worked our way through tractate Berakhot. Here I learned the origin of the Judaism we practice today—synagogues, rabbis, observing holidays, our liturgy—things not even mentioned in the Torah where Jewish rituals primarily involve priests, sacrifices, and the Holy Temple.
The class ended when we completed that first tractate. Bereft, it took me some time to accept that my Talmud studies were over. We moved to a new synagogue, and on Rosh Hashana they introduced a woman rabbi who loved Talmud and wanted to teach it to us. My journey, apparently, had only just begun.