My first thorough exposure to in-depth Torah learning occurred when I was around 18 years old, attending a seminary in Israel. I was excited about gaining a deep understanding of Chassidic thought and embracing the implications of that knowledge. It was indeed an eye-opening experience that exposed me to an enticing world of ideas that had been previously unknown to me. At the same time, I noticed an implicit understanding amongst the students that we would remain passive recipients of our teachers’ knowledge, rather than active participants in the learning process. As young women, we felt that by studying Torah in depth, we were invading a foreign territory, and as a consequence, we should be content to lurk around the edges, silently observing, without conspicuously breaching the invisible borders.
Fast-forward a couple of years and I found echoes of this experience while sitting at a Shabbos meal with a friend’s family. My friend’s father and brothers were animately discussing a concept connected to the parsha among themselves and my curiosity was piqued. I turned to my friend and asked her to fill me in on the beginning of the conversation. She paused for a moment and said that she never really follows their conversations because they tend to use jargon she doesn’t understand. As I listened more closely, I realized that they were debating a philosophical point about which I had recently done some reading. I briefly entertained the possibility of interjecting my own thoughts on the subject, but in that moment, it felt strangely inconceivable. So instead, I relegated myself to the expected role of passive observer of the discussion.
This scene replayed itself in various forms in different communities. I began to reflect on those experiences. I gradually realized that I did not feel disenfranchised, disrespected or even ignored. Instead, I felt frustrated by the inevitable resistance within our communal psyche to embrace the change that the women of the modern age desperately need. The root of the problem lay less with unfair treatment from others and more with a self-perception amongst women that they were interlopers to the “Beis Midrash” and to the lifestyle it demanded.
The need to change this self-perception became increasingly apparent as I continued to encounter the struggles, doubts, and questions of today’s teenage and adult women. I noticed an underlying sense of estrangement from the source of our tradition -- the sacred texts. For some, their unfamiliarity with the evolutionary process of halacha led them to the conception that modern day halachah is merely a list of rules a couple of rabbis pulled out of a streimel. For others, the lack of expectation for rigorous scholarship and academic mastery within their Torah learning led them to seek intellectual satisfaction elsewhere. For many, the absence of knowledgeable female educators and leaders to look up to led them to believe that as a Jewish woman, they could not have intellectual ambitions when it came to Torah. Finally, even those who had immersed themselves in the world of Torah learning felt so anomalous that they began to doubt themselves and their own proficiency....
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