Friday, August 19, 2011

The Rav and Teaching Gemarah to Women

Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer who is familiar with the works of Rav Soloveitchik (hereafter called the Rav) contacted me about what he felt was an error in one of my recent posts. It is an error that is sure to stir controversy.

In a post about PhDs in Talmud, I mentioned the more or less famous view of the Rav that he permitted and even encouraged women to study all manner of Torah – both SheB’Ksav and SheBal Peh – written and oral.

Even though women have historically been denied the opportunity to learn Gemarah based on the Mishna in Sotah (20a) which says teaching women Torah equals Tiflus – he felt that it was an Eis Laasos - a time act and change that paradigm. He had a precedent for such change when back in the early part of 2oth century Rav Yisroel Meir Kagan, the Chafetz Chaim, approved of the new Beis Yaakov movement. For the first time women were formally taught Chumash with Meforshim – as many are today in Beis Yaakovs all over the world.

The Rav took this one step further. He had been quoted to the effect that it would be wrong to deny women the opportunity to study Gemarah in an era where they earn PhDs in all manner of study. And to prove his dedication to that idea he gave the inaugural Shiur in Talmud at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women.

But the truth of the matter is that there seems to be a dispute about just how far this permit went.

In all the literature that I had seen heretofore I was pretty convinced that his permit was complete. That he did not mean to in any way limit women being taught Torah. That may be the case. But there is evidence to the contrary.

Rabbi Bechhofer informed me of a passage in ‘An American Dreamer’. This is a book written by Rabbi Dr. Seth Farber( based on his doctoral dissertation) that focused on the Maimonides School in Boston - founded by the Rav . Therein he quotes the views of the Rav’s illustrious grandson Rabbi Mayer Twersky. Rabbi Twersky asserts that the Rav’s views on teaching women Gemarah were not that they could be taught all of it in the same manner as men were taught.

Here is how Rabbi Farber puts it.

(The Rav felt that) the teaching of Talmud to women was not an innovation at all but rather an expression of what might be called ‘Torah intuition’. According to his approach the drive for women to study Torah arose from a breakdown in the system of the Jewish community. Only optional study, in Rabbi Twersky’s view, was prohibited by the Talmudic injunction. Since Torah study, particularly the oral tradition, is essential to provide a firm foundation for faith in the modern period, the Talmudic prohibition was rendered inapplicable.

The strength of Rabbi Twersky’s position is that it accounts for the nontraditional curriculum instituted at the school (Maimonides). The Talmud curriculum instituted by Rabbi Soloveitchik was composed exclusively of practical tractates such as Shabbat, Chullin and Pesachim, a clear deviation from European norms. Rabbi Twersky explained that women were only permitted to study texts that were practiced.

Rabbi Farber asserts that it is difficult to accept that the classes at Maimonides were not innovative. He references Rabbi Walter Wurzburger’s disagreement with Rabbi Twersky. Rabbi Wurzburger felt that the Talmud curriculum for girls was for the purpose of ensuring that the girls would acquire a thorough knowledge of Halacha and that they develop a ‘genuinely Jewish perspective’ …and to show that the curriculum for both boys and girls was the same.

To bolster Rabbi Twersky’s position I was pointed in the direction of the author of ‘Shu’t Bnei Banim’, Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin. He is the Rav and Halachic advisor of Nishmat - a woman’s Yeshiva in Israel founded by his wife, Rebbetzin Chana Henkin. Rav Henkin seems to
corroborate Rabbi Twersky’s view of the Rav’s position:

R. Joseph B.Soloveichik z"l recommended teaching them sections that pertain to everyday life, such as parts of Mo'ed...

Rabbi Henkin then expanded the permit to the level of equalizing men and women’s Torah learning in all areas.

As I see it there is ample room for interpreting the Rav’s words with respect to teaching women Gemarah as being on the same high level as teaching top male Yeshiva students in the major Yeshivos. But I will admit that it remains unclear. One has to acknowledge that Rabbi Twersky is a legitimate interpreter of his grandfather’s Hashkafos. As well one has to admire Rabbi Henkin’s intellectual honesty in interpreting the Rav the same way.

What is clear is that the Rav’s view of teaching Torah to women even as Rabbi Twersky interpreted it is unheard of prior to the Rav. It is also clear - at least to me - that a woman is certainly permitted to learn any Gemarah she wishes at any level she wishes on he own or with other women. The only question is whether it is permitted to set up Yeshivos for women on par with – say a Lakewood, Mir, or Brisk.

In my view that is a moot question. There simply is not a critical mass of women that can be found that are willing to devote years of their lives sitting in a Beis HaMedrash poring over Gemarah, Rashi, Tosephos, Rishonim, and the many Achronim on Shas. Whether that is because of societal roles, Torah roles, or their own temperament is beside the point. It is just never going to happen on any mass basis. But individually, it may very possible for a woman to rise to very high level of Torah learning.

Rabbi Bechhofer had a final comment:

One of the greatest tragedies in male education is the universal skewing of the system towards Gemara b'iyun. The typical Bais Yaakov curriculum is the ideal for the overwhelming majority of people. The immersion in Lomdus was never, ever meant by Hashem or Chazal for more than the creme de la creme, the shufra d'shufra.

The tragic skewing is why girls who finish a Bais Yaakov HS are more often than not accomplished human beings and Orthodox Jews. Whereas boys who finish most yeshiva high schools have very imperfect middos and very imperfect knowledge of Judaism.

That is something to definitely think about.

Update - 12:11 PM CDT:
I have modified the post and identified the Talmid Chacham I had communicated with on this issue. I was unsure if he wanted to be identified so I held back his name. He has subsequently given his permission.