Friday, September 23, 2022

Of Torah Study for Women and Motherhood

 Nehama Leibowitz - a role model for women in Torah study(Wikipedia)
I received an email from Rabbi Nanthaniel (Nati) Helfgot about an article he wrote in Jewish Link entitled Roles and Role Models. He thought it would make for an interesting discussion on my blog. indeed it does. 

His bio at the bottom of the article notes the following: 

Rabbi Helfgot is chair of the Department of Torah SheBaal Peh at SAR (a coed) High School, serves as Rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, and is an adjunct faculty member at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT). 

As a faculty member of YCT he can surely be categorized as belonging to the most left wing segment of Orthodoxy. My opposition to a lot of what goes on at YCT has not changed. That said, I have in the past agreed with what he says on a variety of issues. However, his current article  gets a mixed review from me. 

First let me say that I am appalled by the following experience he described in his opening paragraph: 

(About 30 years ago at a NCSY regional convention) I was asked to hold a Q&A session on Jewish topics alongside another young educator. Midway through the session, a sincere young woman asked to discuss the issue of women learning Gemara. As I began sharing some sources and perspectives, a number of young men raucously chanted “she-lo asani isha” in the immature fashion that kids sometimes display. 

That disgusting behavior was inexcusable. It showed a complete lack of caring for the feelings of fellow human beings. Sadly, I think this attitude is more common than I would have thought. I have seen similar things like that myself.  

Like Rabbi Helfgot, I have no problem with women studying any Torah subject as deeply as they wish. Including Gemara and its commentaries.  This has never been an issue for me. It is one of his main points with which I agree. Torah study is always a positive thing.

But I absolutely disagree with the idea of coed high school. As I have said many times I believe it is counter-productive to put teenage boys and girls in the same classroom. They are at an age where raging hormones can easily lead them astray – or at the very least be a distraction from their studies. 

It’s true that a coed school provides a good learning experience for proper socialization between the sexes.  But I know of too many instances where male female relationships in high school led to Halachicly inappropriate behavior. The gain of learning how to properly interact with the opposite sex is not worth the pain of what can all too easily become serious violations of Halacha. 

That being said, I understand the need for coed schools. If there were none - there would be many parents that would end up sending their children to public high schools. Without any further Jewish education or religious guidance about interaction between the sexes.

Which brings me to what might be the inevitable consequences of teenagers studying Torah in a coed environment: The idea of male/female Chavrusos (study partners). I don’t know if this actually happens. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it does. 

Learning with a Chavrusa is the cornerstone of Torah study. The give and take between 2 people studying Torah together enhances their understanding of what they are learning.  But when Chavrusos are members of the opposite sex it can easily create an emotional bond that goes well beyond the intent of their Torah study. A bond that they are surely not mature enough to handle during their teenage years. 

I’m not saying it will always happen. I’m sure in many - perhaps even most cases – the boy/girl Chavrusa does what it’s supposed to do. Which is to learn Torah in an enhanced fashion.  But all too often there is something else going on in their brains. They may not act on it. But I would be very surprised if they don’t think about it. I just don’t think it’s emotionally healthy for a boy and girl in high school to pair up in Torah study. 

I do not have a problem with woman teaching men Torah or men teaching women Torah. I think we can all learn  from each other – each brining perspectives we would otherwise not experience from teachers of the same sex. I agree with Rabbi Helfgot about that. This is especially true when the students are well beyond high school and mature adults. 

A word about female role models. I think that women have a lot more to offer than just being role models for Torah study. For those women that want to do that, it is surely a good thing to have women that are successful in their Torah study as role models. But I never thought that Torah study was the only area where a woman – or a man for that matter should be a role model.  What about being a good role model as a parent? What is more important than a man or woman fulfilling those roles and being role models in this regard? 

By talking only about women as role models for Torah study, I think Rabbi Helfgot short changes that very important aspect of a woman’s life. Not that a woman must be a mother to be fulfilled. But surely that is at least as important as succeeding in Torah study or any other field. 

Unfortunately in the world of the left, being a mother is no longer as highly valued as it once was. It seems that the culture is such that only women that achieve success in business, academia, the arts, the professions... and if they are observant Jews, Torah study are considered valuable.  In fact talking about motherhood as a value seems to be almost insulting in more progressive circles. Which is a  sad commentary on the cultural values of our day.