Thursday, August 20, 2015

Talmud for Women (Redux)

Rabbi Mordechai Willig recently suggested that it might be time to reevaluate the inclusion of Talmud (and, by extension, Poskim) in the curriculum offered to women in Orthodox Jewish Schools. His remarks have, not surprisingly, engendered (no pun intended) intense' mostly negative, reactions. Initially, and predictably, these first appeared on Facebook and Twitter (and only now are appearing on various Jewish news sites). Also, predictably, the speed and intensity that so typify the world of social media prevented any type of calm discussion of Rabbi Willig's article. This is very unfortunate. It bespeaks lack of respect for Rabbi Willig (who is a tremendous תלמיד חכם, a compassionate and principled Rav, a wonderful mensch and the courageous leader who created the RCA Pre-Nuptial agreement, for those who might have forgotten). It also speaks poorly of many of those who chose to voice their disagreement in a manner that generated more heat than light . 

A careful reading of Rabbi Willig's article reveals that he is actually addressing two separate issues. The first is Torah Study for Women. The second is Ideological Challenge. He has chosen to combine the two. Upon reflection, however, it appears to me that the two are not mutually dependent. 

1. The case for providing women with a full Torah education, should they so desire it, certainly does not require my endorsement. It was set forth emphatically, by my rebbe (and Rabbi Willig's), the Rav זצ"ל. 

From: Community, Covenant and Commitment,
ed. N. Helfgot, New Jersey 2005

The Rav's reasoning for instituting full Talmud Study for girls at the Maimonides School, and for both supporting and delivering the opening shiur in the Stern Bet Midrash was consistent.

 Inaugural Shiur by Rav Soloveitchik at the
Stern College Bet Midrash (1976)

He maintained that women's educational attainments in Torah must not behind those in the multi-fold secular pursuits they undertake. In addition, as Rabbi Saul Berman stated in the Biographical Documentary The Lonely Man of Faith, Jewish women may be formally exempted from the formal requirement to study Torah. However, they are obligated to study Torah at the highest level in order to cultivate the Love of God that Torah Study engenders. As Rambam put it, (Hilkhot Teshuvah 10, 6):
ועל פי הדעה תהיה האהבה אם מעט מעט ואם הרבה הרבה, to wit: The Love of God is directly proportionate to the Knowledge one acquires of Him. That knowledge and encounter with God is achieved solely through Torah Study (in, as the Rav זצ"ל, used to put it, the broadest sense of the term). [The Rav's most accessible, and moving, discussion of this point is here.] 

It has, albeit, been suggested that the Rav's enthusiasm and support for Talmud study for women was more nuanced, and far more restrained, than has been thought. Personally, I find such a position difficult to accept, especially in light of the explicit statements of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein זצ"ל, the חתנא דבי נשיא. In his conversations with Rabbi Chaim Sabato (מבקשי פניך, תל אביב 2011, 165-178), Rav Lichtenstein reiterated the Rav's belief in providing women with a full Torah education. In his telling, the Rav believed that women require Torah Study no less than men, given that they are exposed to the same spiritual and intellectual challenges as men (170). Rav Lichtenstein was firmly in favor of Women's Torah Literacy, and explicitly viewed himself as being faithful to his father in law's heritage, in that regard (as in so many others). He himself founded the Migdal Oz Bet Midrash for Women, at the head of which stands his daughter Rabbanit Esti Rosenberg, and in which he taught.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein זצ

I submit that with this, it is possible to put to rest the question as to the contemporary Halakhic propriety of women's study of Gemara, Rishonim, Aharonim and Poskim. The shoulders of the גדולי הדור, the Rav זצ"ל and Rav Lichtenstein זצ"ל are certainly wide enough to rely upon. Or, as Reb Moshe Feinstein זצ"ל reputedly told someone who asked about the opening of the Stern Bet Midrash: 'Your Rebbe does not require support or הסכמה from anyone.'

2. With all of the focus on Women's Talmud study, Rabbi Willig's other point (or points) have not received the attentiion that they deserve. These are, it seems to me, (1) the Goal of Torah Study and (2) the Autonomy (and Integrity) of Jewish Tradition.  

Both the Rav זצ"ל and Rav Lichtenstein זצ"ל emphasized that Talmud Torah is not only a mandated intellectual activity. It is, indeed it must be, an overwhelming encounter with God. It is a moment of intimacy with the Giver of the Torah; a moment enveloped in יראת שמים, in the Fear and Awe of Heaven. It is not, and it must not, be approached in the same manner as one might approach any other intellectual endeavor. When we studied Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim in my last year in the shiur, the Rav זצ"ל laid special emphasis on the the Talmud's statement (Baba Metzia 85a-b): 

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: מאי דכתיב מי האיש החכם ויבן את זאת ואשר דבר פי ה' אליו ויגדה על מה אבדה הארץ, דבר זה אמרו חכמים ולא פירשוהו, אמרו נביאים ולא פירשוהו, עד שפירשו הקדוש ברוך הוא בעצמו. שנאמר ויאמר ה' על עזבם את תורתי אשר נתתי לפניהם. אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: שלא ברכו בתורה תחילה.  
Rab Judah said in Rab's name: What is meant by (Jer. 9, 11): 'Who is the wise man, that may understand this? and who is he to whom the mouth of the Lord hath spoken, that he may declare it, why the land perished?' This question was put by the Sages, but they could not answer it; by the prophets, but they [too] could not answer it, until the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself resolved as it is written, And the Lord said, Because they have forsaken my law which I set before them. Rab Judah said in Rab's name: [That means] that they did not first utter a benediction over the Torah [before studying it]. 

The obligation to recite a blessing before Torah study, transforms it from a purely intellectual gesture, to a profoundly spiritual one. The absence of that dimension endangers the Torah and its observance; threatening it with arid, detached intellectualism. That danger is very real, and Gedole Torah and Ba'ale Mussar strove against it throughout history; from the Court of R. Bahya Ibn Paquda in Saragossa to the Bet Midrash of R. Eleazar in Metz; from Regensburg of R, Judah He-Hassid to Prague of the Maharal and to Safed of R. Moshe Cordovero. The concern with preserving the deeply spiritual encounter with God was central to the teachings of those who are most identified with its intellectual side: R. Tam, Rambam, Ramban, GRA, R. Hayyim of Volozhin, and in our generation, the Maran the Rav זצ"ל.    

However one might look at it, the Rav and Rav Lichtenstein both predicated their strong support and advocacy of higher Torah studies for women on the importance (nay, the critical role) of that study for their Service of God, for Avodat HaShem. Prayer and Torah Study are, the Rav taught us, two complementary elements in the Worship and Service of HaQadosh Barukh Hu. Rambam himself, in defining the commandment of Avodat HaShem (Pos. 5), cites the Sifre that equates the two: והמצוה החמישית היא שצונו לעבדו יתעלה...ואעפ"י שזה הצווי הוא גם כן מן הציוויים הכוללים כמו שביארנו בשרש הרביעי הנה יש בו יחוד שהוא צוה בתפילה. ולשון ספרי ולעבדו זו תפילה. ואמרו גם כן ולעבדו זה תלמוד. It is in that connection that Rav Lichtenstein, in the above discussion with Rav Sabato, emphasizes how the atmosphere that reigns in the Woman''s Bet Midrash must be that of the Yeshiva and not that of the Seminar Room.[I strongly suggest that the reader download the chapter and read it very carefully.] 

3. Learning in a modality of Yirat Shamayim, by definition means entering into a dialectical stance of intellectual daring, on the one hand, and intellectual humility, on the other. The Rambam (Hil. Yesode ha-Torah 2, 1-2), identifies this ying and yang with the mitzvot to Love and be in Awe of God (a subject that I had the occasion to discuss here). 

Contemporary society lionizes intellectual daring, as it idolizes the individual and worships at the altar of human autonomy. It is, perforce, far less appreciative or understanding of humility. And yet, it was none other than Maimonides who demanded that in the search for rationales for the mitzvot, one must not (God Forbid) judge the Torah, nor offer half baked explanations for its commandments (Cf. Hil. Me'ilah 8, 8). One is better served living with a question, struggling with one's doubts, than facilely dismissing either the Torah or the accumulated wisdom of the Sages of the Oral Tradition. Now, that does not mean that the questions are not real or the struggles. However, in marked contrast to the present age, Torah is always seen sub specie aeternitatis. Simultaneous Daring and Deference, Creativity and Humility, are the hallmarks and watchwords of Torah Study.

This, of course, does not mean that the Torah freezes in time or that it doesn't engage any and all challenges. The Rav זצ"ל used to emphasize that there should be a Fourteenth Statement of Faith added to the Thirteen proposed by Maimonides, viz. that the Torah can deal with any challenge in any age. 

The critical word here, however, is 'engage.' Despite the fact that such a position is unfashionable in contemporary culture, Orthodox Judaism is 'essentialist.' It possesses its own integrity, and its Law and Lore possess an autonomy that transcends time and circumstance. Torah engages the world. It responds, and must respond, to challenge and need. It does so, however, by its own rules and its own integrated system of values. 
Changing circumstances do impact upon Torah. Such a process is very nuanced, text dependent and very much subject to patterns of evaluating outside culture that are a permanent moment in the history of Judaism. (Here I defer to important remarks made by Rabbi Professor David Berger on the subject). Assuming, as some of my colleagues do, that Judaism is nothing more than a reactive reflection of any given time or cultural nexus makes for problematic scholarship and certainly is unacceptable in terms of Orthodox Jewish discourse. By extension, subjugating the Torah to an external ideology and coercing it to conform thereto is absolutely beyond the Pale of any type of Orthodox or Traditional Judaism that I have encountered. It would constitute, to radically invert an image created by Shaul Tchernikhovsky, placing Tefillin on a statue of Apollo and calling it Judaism. 

If I read him correctly, it is precisely against that type of misuse of Torah learning that Rabbi Willig is inveighing in his article. If that is the case, then I think that he is absolutely correct. It is important, nay critical, to face and combat the deeply problematic methodological and philosophic undercurrents that appear in discussions of Torah and Halakhah within the Orthodox community.

Where, with all due respect, I beg to differ is his placing the onus on the study of Talmud by women. The type of surrender to intellectual and cultural fashion that he describes is found as much among men as among women (and perhaps more). At the same time, many of the most profoundly God-fearing and inspiring Jews I've encountered have been תלמידות חכמים who are products of Migdal Oz and Nishmat (all of whom, in their personal lives embody traditional Jewish Family roles, by the way). The Jewish People cannot afford to lose the contribution of such dedicated and remarkable women to Avodat HaShem and Harbatzat Ha-Torah. True, as Rav Lichtenstein זצ"ל noted at the end of his discussion with Rav Sabato, the birth of a generation of deeply learned and deeply pious women creates unparalleled challenges for Torah. There are also dangers, and there is a slope which irresponsibility can render slippery. In fact, I will leave the last word to him:

 And the last word? 'What will be in the future? I don't know. But what I do know is that today it is important that Jewish woman should know Torah, that they be devekot to the Torah. As to the rest, I can't say exactly. I can't know what God has in mind.'


Rabbi Daniel Korobkin said...

This is a brilliant and inspiring post, Rabbi Woolf. Yishar koach; respectful and reasoned using both intellect and spirit. said...

Ironically, the picture of the Rav ztl teaching the inaugural Talmud shiur at
Stern College (included in the above article) shows Rav Willig in attendance as well.

tzviklugerman said...

Nicely nuanced

Anonymous said...

It's not ironic. The point of his piece was that we should re-evaluate and reconsider.