Women and Torah Study by Miriam Biber
Women and Torah Study by Miriam Biber

Volume 3 , Issue 1

Perhaps one of the areas of Jewish life which women have not pursued to the fullest, is that of learning Torah. All too often, women's secular knowledge exceeds their Jewish knowledge. Many women tend to focus their intellectual pursuits on obtaining advanced secular degrees, rather than on furthering their Jewish education. This pattern is somewhat ironic since it exists simultaneously with the perception that Jewish law does not afford equal opportunities to men and women with respect to Torah study. In recent years, as the feminist movement extended itself into the Jewish communities, there has been a considerable outcry against the perceived inequalities regarding Jewish learning. Although the goal of increased Torah study for women is certainly a praiseworthy goal, this ongoing debate about what the Torah ?permits? women to learn has generated some confusion and misconceptions. This has contributed to the current situation in which many women unknowingly neglect the basic obligations they have with respect to Torah study, while simultaneously demanding to be given more opportunities to learn. With this dilemma in mind, this article will try to clarify what responsibilities the Torah places on women regarding Torah study.

Broadly speaking, the codifiers of Jewish law describe two mitzvot (commandments) concerning Torah study. The first mitzvah consists of the study of Torah for its own sake. There is a specific commandment to learn Torah, above and beyond whatever knowledge one might gain from that Torah study. The mitzvah is to occupy oneself with God's Torah, regardless of its perceived relevance to daily life. The second mitzvah consists of learning Torah for the purpose of preparing oneself for the proper observance of the mitzvot. In order to properly fulfill the 613 commandments, the laws and their significance must be learned and internalized. Our sages teach us that women are not obligated in the mitzvah of Torah study for its own sake, but are obligated to learn the areas of Torah ?that pertain to them? (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 246:6; Shulchan Aruch HaRav Hilchot Talmud Torah).

What does this phrase ?the areas of Torah that pertain to them? refer to? This includes all of the mitzvot that women are obligated to keep, specifically, all of the negative commandments and all of the positive commandments which do not have a ?time‑bound? requirement. Negative commandments are all of the mitzvot involving a prohibition. Non‑time‑ bound positive mitzvot include commandments such as keeping kosher, eating matzah on Pesach, observing the Sabbath, etc. (For a deliniation of the 613 mitzvot the reader is directed to the Sefer HaChinuch or the Rambam's Sefer Hamitzvot).

Misconceptions Arise

Perhaps this is where some of the misconceptions arise. Preparation for all of the mitzvot outlined above is quite extensive. Observance of all of the positive mitzvot also includes several broader, but extremely fundamental mitzvot pertaining to a Jew's relationship to God. The Sefer HaChinuch outlines some of these including: 1)belief in God; 2)belief in the unity of God; 3)love of God; 4)fear of God; 5)worship of God; and 6)cleaving to God.

It is obvious that in order to develop a true belief in God or a deep love or fear of God, a person, man or woman, must study aspects of the Oral and Written Torah other than those parts discussing specific observance of mitzvot. Within this broader context, then, women should learn those parts of the Written and Oral Torah which will enhance their belief in God. This could conceivably include Chumash (Five Books of Moses) and its commentary, works pertaining to Jewish ethics, Chasidut, halakha (Jewish Law), and works pertaining to prayer. It also seems to suggest that a woman would not be prohibited from learning sections of the Talmud, if that were considered to be necessary to enhance her belief in God.

Thus we see that the Torah has always set forth the obligation for women to learn. However, in recent times, the need for Jewish knowledge has become even greater. In earlier generations, e.g., prior to 150 years ago, having a rudimentary knowledge of how to run a Jewish home and how to recite psalms, combined with an understanding of the wisdom of the Sages (?Chazal?), was an adequate education for women. Educated by their mothers, they had internalized a deeper, perhaps purer faith than both the men and women of our own generation. Hence, the need for more formal education was not necessary. As discussed above, Torah study for women is for the purpose of enhancing one's observance of the commandments, including the love and fear of God. They certainly possessed this deep belief.

The Luxury of an Education

However, as with the technological changes of the 19th and 20th centuries, women became more exposed to non‑Jewish ideas and philosophies. With the help of the Industrial Revolution, the job of rearing a family and maintaining a Jewish home was no longer a full‑time occupation. This enabled women, both in the Jewish and secular worlds, to pursue the luxury of an education. University education became available to women in the twentieth century. This meant even greater exposure to the secular world and secular ideas. A tremendous demographic change also occurred. Along with the flight from persecution in Europe, came the waves of immigration to America, and its associated assimilation. With the greater exposure to the ?outside? world as well as the burgeoning of antireligious philosophies, e.g., Marxism, came crises of faith which plagued both men and women. However, since women were receiving less of a formal Jewish education, the threat these changes posed to their belief system was even greater.

The Torah, being a Torat Chaim, a living Torah, certainly responds to the crises of each generation. Perhaps in that vein, rabbinic authorities and women leaders began calling for greater Torah learning among all Jewish women. For example, the Chofetz Chaim, who lived at the turn of the century, wrote, ?Nowadays, women must be taught the Written Torah and Jewish ethical works, so that our holy faith may be clarified for them.? (Chomath Hadath, cited in Halichos Bas Yisrael by Rav Y. Fuchs). Similarly, it was in the early 1900's when the Bais Yaacov school system for women was instituted. Thus, within the Torah community, the need for women to develop a more advanced Jewish education was recognized.

With this information as background, let us now reexamine the current debate regarding women and Torah study. First, the argument has often been expressed along the lines of, ?Why aren't women afforded the same opportunities to learn as men?? As illustrated above, the recognition that a Jewish education is necessary for women certainly preceded the recent ?feminist? demands for Jewish education. The realization that the education of women was critical for the maintenance of Jewish life in future generations guided the development of a complete Torah education system for women. Today, young Jewish women are given the opportunity to learn. Seminary level education for women is the norm in most established Jewish communities.

Women's Standards

Second, the debate has focused on whether women may learn all of the same topics as men. Are they permitted to learn Gemara, for example, is a common question. There is certainly a difference of opinion on this matter, but regardless, using the halakhic obligations of men to determine the standard for women is erroneous. Why measure the criteria for women's learning by a man's obligation? Women have their own unique role and corresponding standards. Once again, the responsibilities with respect to women and learning are distinct from those of men, but certainly not inferior. By now it should be clear that the standard the Torah sets forth for women's Torah study is quite high, and certainly exceeds the level obtained by most women. Few women can honestly say that they have mastered learning all of the Written and Oral Torah ?which pertains? to them, since as pointed out above, this includes learning for the purpose of developing a love and fear of God, This is an infinite, never ending process.

Last, the tendency to discuss the issue of women and Torah study in gender terms has clouded an even deeper, more serious issue. In our times, Jewish illiteracy, on the part of both men and women is so pervasive and extensive that describing women's lack of education as a feminist issue, misses the point. It is not a question of why women do not know more about Judaism, but why Jews, both male and female, are so lacking in Jewish knowledge. It seems that a higher priority should be placed on emphasizing the need for a Jewish education for both men and women, rather than focusing on whether the educations should be identical. The future of Jewish life in America will be jeopardized if the rate of Jewish illiteracy among men continues unabated. Perhaps the analogy can be made to two individuals on board a sinking boat who are arguing over who should get to eat the remaining leftovers in the refrigerator once they get to shore. If they both don't get out and swim, neither will make it to shore. In the midst of their crisis, concern about the leftovers is irrelevant.

The Torah states, ?Deed is the essential thing.? Regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, take a course, join one of the many chavrusa programs organized by shuls and communities to provide an informal learning environment. Learn.

Dr. Miriam Biber is a psychologist at the Maimonides Hospital Developmental Center.

All Rights Reserved(c) The Jewish Review, Inc., 1987-2011