Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What Does it Mean to Get a Doctorate in Talmud?

I have long advocated that women should have the right to study any holy text that Judaism has to offer. This includes Gemarah. All that should be required for them to do that is their own desire. And any accomplishment by a woman in doing so ought to be recognized. So it is with that in mind that I wish to offer Ms. Shana Strauch Schick my heartfelt congratulations on being so recognized. She is the first woman to receive a doctorate in Talmud from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

But as sure as I sit here offering congratulations there are still those who believe that it is forbidden for a woman to study advanced Jewish texts. They base their views on the famous Mishna in Sotah (20a)that quotes R’ Eliezer who says, ‘Whoever teaches their daughter Torah – teaches her Tiflus - immorality. The Shulchan Aruch (YD 246: 6) deals with this Halacha and the Poskim differ as to how it is to be applied. In some cases like Satmar, women do not learn even Rashi on Chumash because Gemaros are cited therein. On the other hand in Beis Yaakovs all over the world women learn Chumash and Navi with not only Rashi but with other complicated Meforshim including Rishonim like the Ramban and Achronim like Oznayim LaTorah (Rav Zalman Sorotzkin).

The bottom line is that women do learn Torah in our day – even though about a century ago it was pretty rare and frowned upon by the Torah world.

The issue was resolved by two of the greatest minds of the 20th century. First by the Chafetz Chaim and then by Rav Soloveitchik. The Rav famously said something to the effect that it is ridiculous to close off Gemarah to a woman who can master the most difficult concepts in universities - earning doctorates in all manner of subjects. So when YU’s Stern College for woman initiated the first Talmud course for women, Rav Soloveitchik gave the first Shiur.

Although there is still controversy in certain circles about women learning Gemara, it is clear to me that in our day, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it provided it is undertaken in a serious vein. A woman who is motivated to learn Torah ought to be given the opportunity to do so. And if she succeeds in achieving great heights in learning - she ought to be recognized.

Those who still consider it immoral to teach women Torah should take it up the Chafetz Chaim and Rav Soloveitchik.

The problem is that there are no real opportunities for women to fulfill such goals in the same way as there is for men. There is no Yeshiva for women. At best there are a few institutes like Drisha that have programs that are similar to a Yeshiva but have nowhere near the intense atmosphere that is almost a requirement for real depth in Torah learning. I do not believe that the ameilus – hard work and dedication at Drisha is the same as it is in a good Yeshiva.

I don’t know if there ever will be such Yeshivos for women. I wonder if there even can be. Even though there is absolutely nothing wrong with it - it is the nature of our system that prevents it. And more importantly there is a real lack of financial resources to support it. There is no segment of Orthodoxy - no matter how left wing – that has a Mir or Lakewood for women. I don’t think there ever will be. If a woman is going to achieve greatness in Torah learning on par with a man – she is probably going to have to do it alone.

Which brings me back to a doctorate in Talmud. Obvioulsy Bernard Revel Graduate School is not a Yeshiva. I do not mean to minimize Ms. Schick’s achievement. I'm sure she worked very hard and that it is well deserved. But I have to wonder - does getting a doctorate in Talmud mean that one is on par with the top tier of Lomdei Torah in Yeshivos? I honestly don’t know but my gut feeling is that it is not the same thing at all.

What are the requirements for getting a doctorate in Talmud? Do candidates have to learn Shas? Bekius? Iyun? Do they have to learn all the Rishonim? Most of them? Some of them? Rashi and Tosephos? Achronim? Do they have to write Chidushim and get them published? And what are legitimate topics for a dissertation? Indeed – what did Ms. Schick write her dissertation on?

I get a sense that a doctorate in Talmud might just mean something other than great proficiency in learning Gemarah – although it might include that. On the other hand for all I know it might mean something entirely different that does not include learning it in any great depth. I say this because of the following experience.

At a wedding I attended - I once sat next to a professor who had a PhD in Talmud - a man who was probably in his mid fifties. He taught the subject at a university in Israel. He also sat next to a young Talmid Chacham who had been learning in one of the great Charedi Yeshivos for many years and at the time was in an advanced Kollel.

Knowing that the professor was a PhD in Talmud he tried engaging him in a discussion about a topic often discussed in the Gemarah. In Yeshivishe vernacular this is called ‘speaking in learning’. The professor looked at him like a deer on a mountain road in the middle of the night looking into the headlights of an oncoming car. He had no clue what the young Talmid Chacham was talking about. Obviously the conversation ended rather quickly.

After witnessing that, I have always wondered what it means to get a doctorate in Talmud. And I still do.