Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Beis Yaakov and Sara Schenirer - Yesterday and Today

A Bais Yaakov classroom in 1939 - an immodest photo? (Forward)
Rabbi Yosef Bechhofer once told me that in the world of Charedi education, girls get a much better Jewish education than  boys do.  As a Talmid Chacham and member of the Charedi world, that’s quite a statement.  But as always, Emes is one of Rabbi Bechhofer’s defining characteristics. He is not afraid to speak truth to power and always tells it like it is.

I could not agree with him more. But one might ask, ‘How could that be?’ - considering the massive amount of time boys spend in Torah study daily … far more than girls typically do. The answer should be obvious to those of us that have experienced this educational system. Boys spend their time almost exclusively on learning Gemarah and its commentaries. Commentaries of which there are an almost infinite amount of material. Starting with medieval commmentators (Rishonim) like Rashi and the Rambam and the later commentators (Achronim) like R’ Chaim Soloveichik. A single individual studying day and night all of his life would not be able to cover it all..

This focus by men on Gemarah and nothing else has therefore become the sine qua non of the Yeshiva world.

This is not the case for girls. Except for the relatively recent  phenomenon of Gemarah study for women (mostly in modern Orthodox schools) Gemarah is not studied at all in Beis Yaakov schools. And certainly not its commentaries. Instead they get a much broader variety of Jewish studies . Which are vital in my view to understanding Judaism better. Studies that include Jewish history, Jewish thought, Jewish philosophy, in depth study of Chumash and Tanach; and a decent secular studies curriculum.  Women graduating from Beis Yaakov have a far more balanced and well rounded  education than do their male counterparts in a Yeshiva.

Making matters worse is the current trend among many right wing Yeshivas away from secular studies as much as possible if not entirely. This works out quite well for them since women have replaced men as the primary breadwinners of their families. Men spend just about all their time learning Gemarah. So  there is no time – nor need anymore - to prepare themselves to make a living. Their wives mostly do that. And they are better prepared to do it.

These are some of the thoughts that came to mind as I read Naomi Seidman’s Forward article on the Beis Yaakov Movement. A movement pioneered by a woman named Sara Schenirer  This revolutionary woman saw a need and set out to fill it. But she realized that she would never succeed without the support of religious leaders. Long story short – after a shaky start with few rabbinic backers, eventually the leading rabbis of her day were on board. and the rest is history.

What is fascinating about this story is the whitewashing it has undergone since its inception. Beis Yaakov is not only about academics. It’s about instilling Jewish values into women who will someday be mothers and be able to transmit those values to their children.  Sara Schenirer has been set up as the role model for these values.

But the way she is described by Beis Yaakov teachers now was not her reality. At least not entirely. She was not just a simple seamstress  Some of her values might even be described as anti Torah by Beis Yaakov teachers these days.  Consider the following: 

…many perspectives on Bais Yaakov that would likely have no place within the ultra-Orthodox world today. Bais Yaakov students are taught the history of the school, but only in carefully curated ways that highlight what was most pious about Bais Yaakov. The official history emphasizes the ways that the male rabbinic leadership controlled it, and censors aspects of the story that don’t fit into what Bais Yaakov is today. For example, Schenirer’s status as a divorced woman, for much of the time she led the movement, is generally unmentioned. 

Even those who are interested in learning more than the legends of rabbis and other pious Jewish figures are stymied by the chasms that separate interwar Poland and the present centers in North America and Israel. While the Bais Yaakov curriculum makes do with stories of Schenirer as “a simple seamstress,” her Polish-language diary, which recently came to light, reveals another side of her. 

Reporting on that diary at the conference, Joanna Degler, of the University of Wroclaw, described Schenirer’s regular attendance at the bohemian Polish theater and public lectures on women’s rights and “hygiene” — a term that encompassed family planning. 

So even with all that’s right with this movement as described above, presenting a revisionist history does a disservice to both the movement and its founder.  A revisionist history that fits with an increasingly extremist mentality and paints a false picture of the past. A picture where women are portrayed as virtual icons of the values they now consider normative. 

Modesty standards have become more extreme in our time than they were in Sara Schenirers time. A time that included the Chafetz Chaim. Images of women - regardless of how covered up they are - are considered immodest and no longer published in any of the Charedi publications. Compare that with the class pictures of  Beis Yaakov students in their early years. 

Rabbinic advisors in Charedi publications like Mishpacha Magazine would never allow those pictures to be published.  Even a distorted version of them.  When Mishpacha published a distorted cover picture of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign, I recall Hamodia publicly castigating them for violating Charedi modesty standards.  

Nor can I imagine mentioning Sara Schenirer attendance at theaters. Or her discussions about woman’s rights or  hygiene. That would not fit with their current more extreme norms.

What a different world it would be if we could go back to a time where living an Orthodox Jewish life was more religiously normal.

Please understand.  I’m glad  Beis Yaakov schools do a much better job educating women overall than Yeshivos do for men. But it comes with the price of an increased religious extremism projected as a norm that always has been. 

The sad reality is that both men and women are being short changed with respect to their education albeit each in different ways. And I don’t see positive change coming any time soon - to the fastest growing segment of Orthodox Jewry. Changes that would be modeled on the real past rather than the one they pretend always existed.