Friday, August 12, 2011

Can a Woman Understand Torah Same as a Man?

What can one say about a magazine that sees women as unable to learn Torah on the level of men?

First let me say that I am a fan of Mishpacha Magazine. They have published many articles about issues that many would rather be kept silent. They have also written some very nice articles on Torah personalities outside of their own Charedi sphere. They famously published a cover story on Rav Hershel Shachter, something that generated criticism from some of their Charedi readers.

In many instances they have expressed views not unlike my own about important issues of the day. That did not earn them any brownie points either among some of their own. In short they have a courageous editor in the person of Rabbi Moshe Grylak. So I am a fan in spite of the fact that I disagree with their policy of not publishing any pictures of women no matter how Tzanua (modestly dressed) they are.

The good in Mishpacha far outweighs the bad. But there is one thing that they did recently that in my view truly defines the Charedi attitude about women. This is not to say that they do not respect them and treat them well. But it does clearly indicate their attitude about a woman’s fitness to study Torah.

A post on DovBear highlights this.

A recent article in Mishpacha Magazine written by a woman named Miriam Kosman was based on the Torah writings of Rav Moshe Shapiro, a well respected Talmid Chacham in Israel. At the end of the article Mishpacha has a blurb about Ms. Kosman that describes a bit about her. She works for an outreach organization and teaches Torah to secular Israeli students. So far so good. But then in an inexplicable disclaimer they said the following:

Clearly, she is only able to give over what she has understood from his ideas.

I doubt very much if they ever made a similar statement about a man who had written such an article.

Like I said. I am a fan of this magazine and am willing to give them a pass on this too. But what does this statement really say about the Charedi attitude toward women? Do they mean that a woman’s intelligence is not sufficient enough to understand a sophisticated Sefer on Torah?

That can certainly not be true. There are as many brilliant women in the world as there are men. I probably know more women with PhDs then I do men.

Or perhaps they think that a woman’s temperament prevents her from developing in that way …that their mode of thinking may give them greater wisdom then men in certain areas - Binah Yeseirah - but in the realm of Torah study they are missing a certain element that only a man has.

They might respond by saying that women may be smart but they are not ‘Yeshiva’ smart. A Yeshiva student that is immersed in Torah studies all of his life has developed the unique skills and abilities to understand Torah that a woman cannot possibly achieve without the same sustained Torah learning experience. That a woman can get the same PhD as a man just means that they have equal ability and training to do it. But when it comes to Torah study - without a long term Yeshiva training that would be impossible – even for a man.

Even though I’m sure they did not mean to insult women, I can’t help but to see a disclaimer like that as insulting. What possible reason would they have to say it even if they didn’t believe it? Perhaps it was said just be to appease the element among Charedim that truly feel that women are not capable of understanding advanced Torah teachings. Or they maybe they actually believe that because she is a woman she might not fully understand and misrepresent Rabbi Shapiro’s views.

Though I am willing to give them a pass, I am in profound disagreement with this attitude. I am 100% convinced that if the motivation is there, then there is no intellectual obstacle for a woman to learn and fully understand complicated pieces of Torah - same as a man. That there are few woman who can do this is just a reflection of societal values. The reality is that women are not indoctrinated to learn Torah in the same way as a man. There is far less opportunity therefore for a motivated woman to do so.

Men go to Yeshiva and the vast majority of their time is spent trying to master Torah knowledge. Women’s education does not do that – even in those schools that teach Gemarah to women. There is no comparison between the two situations. So of course that reality is reflected in the general population. Most women simply are not raised to learn Torah in same way as a man - and would have a hard time finding a program where they could do so if they wanted to.

However when a respected educator – a man or a woman - writes an article based on something they studied it presupposes that they know what they studied. There are women who are determined to overcome the educational limitations and obstacles placed upon them in Orthodoxy and eventually learn Torah on the same level as a man. I am thoroughly convinced of that. It is all about having the will and determination to do it.

I would in the future hope that Mishpacha would reconsider making this kind of disclaimer about their female contributors - unless they do it for a male contributors as well.