Why I Learn Gemara
I was in love with Feminism in college. Protests, marches, sit-ins- I was there. Somehow along the way I met an Orthodox Rabbi and my whole paradigm of feminism as the “ultimate truth” was called into question. His contagious positivity and wisdom intrigued me. Feminism was not giving me the emotional and spiritual depth that I was searching for, so I dove into Jewish learning with a passion. Over the course of a semester and after a trip to Israel, I developed a budding interest in connecting to G-d, unearthing my almost completely unknown heritage and finding pleasure and meaning in Jewish rituals. I wondered if I could separate the “women’s issue” from these things since at the time, the Jewish approach ran contrary to many of my beliefs. The next summer I decided to go on a free kiruv trip to Israel to find some clarity.
The Rabbi who ran the organization had prepared a class based on sources in the Talmud for the night of Shavuos. By 3 am the only people who had not gone back to the hotel to sleep were three boys and me. I remember it was an Aggadic section describing Moshe’s ascent to Mt. Sinai. When he reaches the top he sees G-d tying crowns on the the letters of the Torah. G-d asks him, ‘Don’t they give Shalom in your city?’ We spent the rest of the class unpacking this perplexing question using our own creative interpretations alongside the traditional commentators. I craved this type of learning. It incorporated the complex logic and debate that I loved in my Feminist Theory classes but it dealt with the ethical and spiritual dimension that had drawn me deeper into Judaism.
However, I quickly learned that it was not common for women to learn Talmud, whether in a serious way or even to sit in on a class. At least not in the Orthodox community I was part of at the time. My excitement that night of Shavuos faded and I was left with a bit of confusion. How could it be in the 21st century that an intellectually-driven, university educated woman like myself should be denied entry into a major part of the Jewish canon? A concern started eating away at me that perhaps I was giving up too much, perhaps I was getting involved with something that really was misogynistic at its core. Although my secular friends had warned me that Orthodox Judaism is archaic and patriarchal, I found it to be incredibly relevant, dynamic and fulfilling. I did not want to give those things up. On the other hand, could I really accept that the Talmud, such a fascinating and stimulating work, was off limits to me as a woman?
My search for the truth compelled me to dig deeper. After graduating college I went to learn in seminary in Israel. After three failed attempts at finding the right place, I escaped to Tzfat to do some soul searching. I got involved with the Chabad community there and found myself in a seminary called Machon Alte.
It was there that I Iearned of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s perspective on women’s Talmud study. In a lecture in 1990, the Rebbe spoke about the role of women in Jewish education and a woman’s relationship with Torah study. These two things actually go hand in hand. In Rabbinic and Halakhic sources we learn that a woman does not have the positive mitzvah of Torah study that a man has; therefore she receives the reward for Torah study by aiding her husband and sons to learn. Practically, their mitzvah is fulfilled through her hands. One might think this means that by her preparing food, doing their laundry and even financially supporting them, she helps them to learn. However, the Rebbe takes a different approach. Since the woman is the foundation of the home, she is the parent who primarily helps her children with their studies. Therefore, the “aid” she receives reward for is her own breadth and depth of Torah knowledge. Due to this, the Rebbe called for the need to increase women’s Torah learning, including the study of the Oral Torah.
Aside from this powerful innovation, what struck me most about this talk was the deeper shift in society that it was addressing.
We live in an era of paradox, where on the one hand, the whole world seems to be tumbling further into darkness and, yet, from this place the light of redemption will radiate in the most brilliant way. At first, it seems that women learning the Oral Torah is due to the descent of the generation. Our desperate state has forced us to allow women to learn Talmud in order to remain within the fold. On a deeper level, however, the Torah study of women is an advancement towards the time of redemption when the knowledge of G-d will fill all the earth.
Woven into the fabric of women’s Torah study is the importance of educating the next generation. It might not seem as empowering that she does not just learn for her own benefit or pleasure. However, to me, it is beautiful that building one’s self in order to give is an ideal. Granted, women also have their own obligations to learn regardless of their familial obligations; however, in highlighting the woman’s role as the pillar of education and Jewish continuity, her learning actually gains much more epic and eternal significance.
I have come a long way since that Shavuos night in the Old City. Then I bristled at any indication of differences between men and women because they seemed to create barriers for my spiritual growth. I did not believe that my gender affected my ability to absorb and internalize the teachings of the Oral Torah. Now I have come to appreciate that it is precisely these differences that give my Torah study a richness of meaning and purpose. A woman’s Torah study is a central piece in the education of her family and community. Her knowledge provides direction, stability and clarity for those she influences. Her unique ability to learn and teach with warmth and sensitivity is a powerful skill. So now, I learn for myself, for my future children and, as grand as this may sound, for the redemption of the world.