The past ten years have seen an explosion of high-level Talmud study opportunities for Orthodox women: From Nishmat and Lindenbaum in Jerusalem to Drisha and the Stern Talmud Program in New York. But there won’t be a mass of high-level opportunities until there is a mass of female students – and that won’t happen until we create a norm of basic Talmudic fluency for Orthodox women. Talmud study for girls is becoming increasingly popular at Modern Orthodox high-schools, but it still is not the standard the way that it is for boys. This leads to a situation where many one-year Torah study programs for Modern Orthodox women focus on an introduction to Talmud, even if they are not geared explicitly toward beginners: When enough of the students have had little exposure to Talmud, the teacher is forced to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Once women have reached the basic high-school or post-high-school Talmud, there are nearly no intermediate programs to help them up the next step. After basic Talmud, women are forced to make a choice: Either push through to a higher level that involves making Talmud one’s career, or satisfy yourself with the meager shiur and chevruta options for women that might exist in your community – and even if you choose the first option, most of the programs will want only women with extensive Talmud study background, forgetting the lack of programs to give women that background in the first place.
So basically we’ve opened a few Talmud Harvards for women, without opening the programs to give them the skills they need to score well on the SATs. This is leaving aside the paucity of women’s Talmud employment opportunities compared to men’s: Both the rabbinic path and the option of teaching Talmud to men are closed to Orthodox women, while remaining open to their male counterparts.
That is why it bothers me when I hear Orthodox men take an “If we build it they will come; we built it, they didn’t come, so we’ve exempted ourselves from our obligation to keep building” approach. You can’t blame us for not coming if you built a shoddy building with poor foundations and a glass ceiling.
The one exception I know of to the phenomenon I’m describing is Drisha, which offers women’s Talmud programs in the beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. I once heard Rabbi David Silber, the founder of Drisha, say that women’s Torah study is not a women’s issue – it is a kavod haTorah issue. I couldn’t agree more. Every time an intelligent, passionate, woman is driven away from Talmud study by the hurdle’s I’ve just mentioned, the Jewish people lose out on a potential Torah scholar. I’ve encountered many such women, and am confident that many more exist.
So let’s stop making this a feminist issue, and instead focus on increasing Torah scholarship, which is the real issue at stake.