|Students - early in Beis Yaakov's history (Lehrhaus)|
Let me begin with full disclosure. I’ve known Dr. Leslie Ginsparg Klein for a long time. She is brilliant young woman who is unafraid to tell the truth. No matter where it lands. She also happens to be my daughter’s sister in law.
Dr. Ginsparg Klein has written an article in Lehrhaus that explodes some of the myths surrounding Sara Schenirer and the Beis Yaakov Movement she founded. She does so armed with indisputable facts.
Most Orthodox Jews know that Sarah Schenirer pioneered Jewish education for women in the early 20th century. Prior to her efforts there were few if any schools for girls and young women in Orthodox circles. Women were mostly educated in the home. And that was mostly about how to perform the Mitzvos relevant to women and how to perform their domestic duties – which mostly involved raising children and home making.
Their observance of Halacha was learned entirely by what they saw in the home. When the enlightenment eventually breached the ghetto walls of Eastern European Jewry women started to get formally educated outside of the home. Being exposed to streams of thought outside what they learned in their homes and experiencing the inviting nature of a secular lifestyle led many of them to assimilate and go OTD.
Sarah Schenirer saw this happening and realized that without a formal Jewish education for women there would be serious damage to our future as observant Jews. The resistance to changes in tradition was then, just as strong as it is now. But Sarah Schenirer was not deterred. She began a mission to change tradition by creating Beis Yaakov - school system of formal education for women. That eventually mushroomed into what we have today. There is hardly any girl in the Charedi world that has not attended a Bais Yaakov or similar girls school. All with the full blessing of the vast majority of the rabbinic leaders of our day. It is now an established and well respected fact.
Today’s Orthodox Jewish Feminists often cite her as an example – and even role model for further advancement of women in our day. The retort form the right in rejecting their argument is that Schenirer did not move without the explicit endorsement of ‘Daas Torah’ as expressed by the Gedolei HaDor of her time.
This is the narrative one constantly hears. It is based on many biographies of Sarah Schenirer that reports of her loyalty first to the Gedolim and only after consulting with many of them (the most famous among them being the Chafetz Chaim) did she proceed. This version says Ginsparg Klein is the account given by two prominent Orthodox Jewish writers, Rabbis Chanoch Teller and Peysach Krohn.
But as Ginsparg Klein documents, this is a false account. Sarah Schenirer began her movement without the approval of any on the Gedolim of her day. She saw a need and began filling it. It grew at a grass roots level. The only rabbinic leader that said anything positive at all about it was the Belzer Rebbe, from whom her brother, a Belzer Chasid, urged her to get approval.
After her brother’ s plea to the Rebbe on her behalf about the need for change, she heard the Rebbe utter two words: Bracha V’Hatzlacha. (Blessings and good luck). The Belzer Rebbe did not, however, send any of his daughters to these new schools and never made any public endorsement of it. She nevertheless began her mission to formally educate women immediately after hearing those two words. There was no other rabbinic endorsement beyond that when she began her quest for formal education of women.
What about the famous endorsement of the Chafetz Chaim? Is that a lie? No. He did endorse this new school system in a famously published letter. As did other Gedolim of that era. But as Ginsparg Klein makes clear this did not happen until well after the fact. Until that time the rabbinic establishment including the Chafetz Chaim was firmly opposed to it. There was no epiphany of Hora’as Shah – where the rabbis on their own thought that it would be a good idea to initiate women’s formal education. Approbations came well after the Bais Yaakov system was established and running successfully.
Ginsparg Klein excerpts the written words of Shenirer’s successor, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Orlean who wrote the following about what really happened:
The matzav of chinuch habanos that Sarah Schenirer encountered in Poland was like a rocky, uncultivated field. Although she was about to attempt something that had never been done before, that had no model in our Mesorah, she knew it was crucial. And so she began to build from scratch, transforming her movement from its modest beginnings to a powerful empire ... the people she turned to for assistance, especially in the beginning, turned her away. They had no idea what was happening in the streets. They had no concept of the catastrophe befalling our nation. But Sarah Schenirer was determined, and again and again she persuaded, cajoled, explained and clarified, awakening the slumbering leaders from their blissful dreams and begging them to accept the only solution that could divert disaster.
Eventually Agudah whose rabbinc leaders were some of the Gedolei HaDor of that era (including the Chafetz Chaim) did support the Beis Yaakov movement. But Agudah only sought rabbinic approval to ‘silence the critics’.
Letters of approbation often used to show that she had support before she began were written well after the movement was established - as the dates on those letters show. The Chafetz Chaim’s letter of approbation (often cited as proof that she consulted the Gedolim first - was actually written over 10 year after the movement’s founding in 1933!). R’ Zalman Sorotzkin wrote his approbation six months after her death!
This clearly contradicts the contemporary Charedi notion that Daas Torah must always be consulted before attempting to change tradition. And that it has always been that way. Clearly that was not the case with the biggest and most innovative change in tradition of the 20th century. Change was initiated at a grass roots level by a single individual that saw what ‘Daas Torah’ did not quite see.
Does that make the claim of today’s Orthodox Jewish feminists that Sarah Schenirer is indeed their progenitor? Is she the quintessential Orthodox Jewish feminist? I think it is fair to say that she was the Orthodox Jewish version of Susan B. Anthony . She ‘bucked’ the system and succeeded.
At the same time, I don’t think it justifies in any way the kind of egalitarian goals that are sought today. There is a huge difference between what motivated Sarah Schenirer and what motivates today’s feminists. In Sara Shenerir’s case she saw a legitimate existential threat – before the rabbis of her time did. She went ahead with he mission without their support. Her success opened the eyes of the rabbinic leaders of her day and they eventually came around.
Today’s feminists are not motivated by an existential threat. Even if their motivation is sincere, They are clearly not motivated by an existential threat. Nor is it likely that the changes in tradition they seek - such as the ordination of women - will ever receive the approbation of any of today’s rabbinic leaders. Even after the fact the way the Beis Ya’akov movement did. Not even the more moderate Centrist rabbinic leaders have done so even well after a school for women's ordination (Yeshivat Maharat) was established. If anything opposition has increased!
So while it’s true that Sarah Schenirer is a pioneer and role model for successful grass roots change that did not initially involve ‘Daas Torah’. She is not a role model for the kind of egalitarian change modern day Orthodox feminists seek. I don’t think there can be any doubt about that.