I was taught that girls can’t learn Gemara. Not just “shouldn’t,” but literally “can’t.” The female brain is wired in such a way that they are incapable of grasping the nuanced, intricate logic required to fully understand what the Gemara is meant to teach. That’s just how Hashem created us. And I’ve heard extremely intelligent and educated women back up this claim. I’ve been told things like:
“I once tried to read an Artscroll Gemara. I figured, I’m educated. I can think critically. And it’s in English! What’s not to understand? But after ten minutes, my head started to hurt, and I understood why they say women can’t learn Gemara.”
“I can’t imagine learning all day like my husband does. I do not have that kind of concentration. They learn for five hours straight, then take a short break for lunch, and keep going till dinner! I don’t think women can do that. But that’s why learning Torah is not our mitzvah.”
These women have Beis Yaakov educations, where text-based learning is strongly emphasized. There is nothing missing from their skill set that would preclude them from being able to study Gemara, except practice. The only thing stopping them is the propagation of a myth.
Fortunately, some girls are mythbusters.
A Yoetzet Grows in Brooklyn
Hindy Cooper Ginsberg, born and bred in Boro Park, attended Beis Yaakov institutions for the vast majority of her schooling career. In her constant search for satisfying answers, she found her queries most often met with angry dismissal.
“In 8th grade, my teacher told us that if a girl gets raped, she must marry her rapist. So I raised my hand and asked the teacher why, after having suffered such a trauma, would a girl be forced to marry the person who inflicted her with that suffering. I was asking out of pure innocence and curiosity. But, in front of the whole class, the teacher called me an apikores (heretic) and said, ‘We don’t ask those kinds of questions.’
“Years later, I found the answer. It’s brought down in a Gemara that talks about how a woman who is raped has the option of marrying her rapist (because she may otherwise not be able to marry), and if she so chooses, her attacker is obligated to comply. However, both the father and the daughter have the power to choose not to let the marriage go forward…It’s not like it was in some obscure Shu”t from the 16th century. It’s right there, in the Gemara. But there’s a high value placed on accepting what our Sages say without asking why…plus, the teacher probably just didn’t know the answer.”
But Hindy managed to separate the wheat from the chaff, and took the strong textual skills she acquired in Beis Yaakov to learn in the post high school program at Midreshet HaRova, where she was introduced to Mishna and Gemara for the first time in her life. After HaRova, she attended Bar Ilan University where she studied Education and Talmud, and it was then that she decided that she wanted to be a yoetzet halacha. A yoetzet is a woman who has studied the laws of taharat hamishpacha (family purity) in depth, and is capable of answering halachic questions on the subject, brought to her by other Jewish women. Unfortunately, at the time, Nishmat, the only organization to run a program to train yoatzot, was looking for older and more experienced women to take part in their program, so her first application was rejected. After a few years, during which she started a family of her own, and continued to satiate her thirst for knowledge in MATAN, a women’s beit medrash in Jerusalem, she was accepted into Nishmat’s yoetzet program.
After a grueling two years of intensive studying, and frequent tests to prove her proficiency, she now serves as a yoetzet halacha in Efrat, where she and her family reside. Her job includes answering questions related to taharat hamishpacha, helping to determine a woman’s status based on ma’arot, and counseling women who suffer from infertility. Ninety percent of the questions she receives do not need to be “paskened,” she explained. It’s simply a matter of being familiar with the halacha.
“When there are only men available to ask these sorts of questions to, women tend to leave out details. And because the answer to a shailah always depends on a person’s individual circumstance, details are extremely important. A woman might give me important information, like that she suffers from postpartum depression, or that she experiences discomfort during intercourse, or that she recently started to nurse her baby more or less—information she may hesitate to tell a rabbi. Or she might just send her husband, who will only have whatever information she gave him, to talk to the rabbi instead. But knowing all the information surrounding her situation can drastically change the answer she’ll receive.”
When asked if she felt the limmudei kodesh curricula for girls needs to be changed, she responded by saying that she is happy, so far, with what she sees is being taught in her daughter’s school, and she hopes it continues that way. In reference to her own education, filled with restrictions on what questions can be asked, and doubts about a girl’s capacity to understand certain texts, she said, “I don’t think telling a child that he or she is incapable of achieving something is ever a good idea.”
Taking Ownership Over Her Torah
Growing up in Chicago, her father the rabbi of a Modern Orthodox congregation, it never even crossed the mind of the young Ruth Balinsky Friedman that she may one day choose a similar career to that of her father. “A woman as clergy in an Orthodox institution was just not a concept that existed. There was nothing to talk about.” While the schools she attended were progressive enough to offer a Gemara class to the female students, it was optional, and Ruth chose to take a class in Jewish Thought instead.
It was not until after she graduated Barnard College, with degrees in Psychology and Jewish Studies, that she delved more deeply into traditional Jewish texts. A non-denominational Jewish institution, called Drisha Institute, located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was her next stop for the pursuit of knowledge. Her first year there was spent honing her skills in reading and understanding the texts, and by the following year, she was able to hold her own in the highest learning track. Up until this point, Ruth knew she was interested in religious leadership studies, but there was no institution that offered a relevant program. As soon as Rabbi Avi Weiss opened the revolutionary Yeshivat Maharat, enrolling in the program seemed like the obvious next step.
After four years of full-time learning, covering a similar curriculum to that of a semicha program for men, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, along with Rachel Kohl Feingold and Abby Brown Schier, made history as the first Orthodox women to be ordained as clergy, and bestowed with the title “Maharat.” When asked why she didn’t choose to do something less controversial, she simply said, “In my community it’s not controversial. I know it’s not universally accepted by all streams of Orthodoxy, and I respect that, but it’s not relevant to my current position. Where I am, it’s not an issue.”
Her job includes “a little bit of everything,” from spiritual guidance and life-cycle events to teaching and working with children. At the time of this interview, she had most recently presided over a memorial service, a simchat bat and an unveiling, and read the ketuba at a wedding. Having women in the clergy is vital, she explained, because “clergy exist to connect people to their religion. If we want to engage as many people as possible, then both sexes should be represented.”
When asked how she felt about limmudei kodesh curricula for Orthodox girls, she gave an answer that rang extremely true to me. “It’s less about what is studied, and more about girls having a voice in that study,” she explained. “Women need to have confidence to share their voice in discussions of Jewish texts.”
So what can be done? How can we give girls that voice? How can we normalize the idea of women in clergy positions in Orthodox institutions?
Ruth answers: “Encourage girls to take ownership over their Torah.”
Ownership. A voice. And the encouragement from their teachers and parents that no pursuit is beyond their ability. This is what our girls need. Let’s educate our children to know that the Torah is not something that is beyond their grasp. It is theirs to explore, and no subject is off-limits. As Jews, we are meant to live and breathe Torah, every second of every day of our lives. Let us nurture, and never limit, that life-force for any Jewish child, boy or girl.