Something special happened in Israel last Shabbat.
Twenty-seven communities — from large cities in the center of Israel like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, to smaller cities like Yeruham in the South and Sde Eliyahu in the North — hosted female scholars-in-residence who delivered the weekly sermon and other classes instead of the Orthodox synagogues’ male rabbis.
This was, no doubt, a great step forward in the process of women ascending to more prominent roles in religious life and religious teaching in Israel.
Now there are those who often quote a source seemingly expressing disapproval of women studying and teaching Torah in an in-depth manner. “Rabbi Eliezer said that he who teaches his daughter Torah is as if he had taught her ‘tiflut.'” The word “tiflut” is translated and explained in different ways, with Maimonides interpreting the meaning as “trivial and irrelevant.” (Laws of Torah Study 1:13) He explains that women are not generally prepared to dedicate themselves completely to Torah study, and as a result, their knowledge will be superficial; and because the knowledge will be on a superficial level she will come to consider it irrelevant and trivial.
It is clear then, from this explanation, that the issue holding women back from becoming Torah scholars is societal, and subject to change. In an age and place where women can properly dedicate themselves to Torah study, nothing should hold them back from doing so. The “Chida” (Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, 18th century) points out that the Talmud praises women who were great Torah scholars — such as Bruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir (Eruvin 53), and the daughter of Rabbi Hananiah ben Tradion (Pesachim 62) — as proof that the Sages were merely warning against teaching Torah to women who were not engaged in serious academic pursuits. Sure enough, the Talmud itself relates (Sanhedrin 94) that during the reign of King Hezekiah, “they searched from Dan to Beersheba and did not find an ignoramus, from Gevat to Antiproth and could not find a young boy or girl, man or woman, who was not completely conversant with the detailed laws of ritual cleanliness.”
Given that in our time women are motivated and free to explore academic and intellectual pursuits on the highest of levels, the time was ripe for a Shabbat where we celebrate the study and teaching of Torah by women. But aside from the inherent significance of 27 communities being visited by female scholars-in-residence, this Shabbat taught me that giving women the platform to study and share Torah will unleash a whole new approach and way of thinking to the Torah.
Our community in Bet Shemesh hosted Dr. Orit Avnery, a biblical researcher and teacher. In her lecture, Dr. Avnery quoted the teaching that the exodus from Egypt should be seen as the birth of our nation. She demonstrated how we see this from the actual story itself: the role blood and water played in the exodus are symbols related to the childbirth experience, and the water splitting at the Red Sea creating a channel for the people of Israel to walk through is symbolic of our passage through the birth canal.
Dr. Avnery strengthened her argument by asking a fundamental question about our eating of matzah on Passover: we are taught that we eat this food because the Jews had to quickly leave Egypt, and there wasn’t enough time for the dough to rise. How is it possible, she asked, that we did not have time to properly plan for the Exodus — the story was well known in advance, foretold to Abraham 400 years beforehand! So why didn’t they plan for it?
There is one aspect of life that no one can naturally plan for, explained Dr. Avnery: childbirth. No matter how much preparation one organizes for this event, when it actually happens it is sudden, chaotic and rushed. That is why the Jews could not plan, and that is what the matzah symbolizes. This was the childbirth of our nation, and everything surrounding it resembles the birth of a child.
Furthermore, she explained, the book of Shemot (Exodus) describes the nation in its infancy, and this is why when they complain and cry for water and food, God simply provides them with water and food. That is how we parent babies. But the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) already shifts to the nation’s adolescent stage, where they are not simply handed everything they ask for — there are lessons needed to be learned to prepare the nation for its adult life.
Dr. Avnery also spoke about the weekly Torah portion (Chukat), where Moshe and Aharon hit the rock instead of speaking to it. She said that this mistake could very well have been the result of their sister, Miriam, having just passed away, and their not being given the proper time to mourn, because the nation immediately began complaining about their need for water. Moshe and Aharon were also human beings, and, without the proper time and space to mourn, their minds were clearly elsewhere and they could have easily had anger and pain burning within as well.
This is a perspective coming from a mother and a wife — and a scholar. More women studying and teaching Torah does not simply mean that a greater number of people are contributing to the development and understanding of Torah. It means that additional approaches to Torah, some entirely new, with unique perspectives and fresh insights, are being unleashed.
Thank you to the organizers of this special Shabbat – Kolech along with Matan, Midreshet Lindenbaum, Midreshet Ein Hanatziv and Bet Hillel. Building off the success of this Shabbat, there is no doubt that more and more women will study Torah and feel comfortable and inspired to teach Torah, thereby exposing their wisdom to Jews throughout Israel and the world who are thirsty for knowledge and inspiration.