A few weeks ago, a Stern College student named Lilly Gelman accepted an invitation to give a dvar Torah (sermon) after davening at a Yeshiva College student minyan called Klein@9. Yeshiva’s administration subsequently issued a rule forbidding women from giving such divrei Torah, saying that “the gap of time between davening and the dvar Torah is small and does not give male students a chance to leave, should they desire to not be present for a speech given by a female.“ Ms. Gelman wrote a powerful article about her reaction. More than one Yeshiva College undergraduate has told me that this is an internal Yeshiva matter that should not concern the community at large. I strongly disagree. Here’s why.
My son and son in-law attend Yeshiva College, and my daughter attends Stern College for Women. Some of their classmates will become Torah scholars and halakhic authorities who decide what God says my community may and may not do. Some of their classmates will be presidents of our shuls, principals of our schools, and chairs of our boards. Most of their classmates will be members of our shuls, parents and teachers in our schools, and members of our boards. These young men and women represent our communal future. Everything about their education and development is the business of our entire community.
I want my children and grandchildren to live in a world where women giving public divrei Torah is a religious ideal. I want them to see women’s presence in public Torah discourse as necessary and wonderful. I want them to see women talking about Torah as an ideal situation (lekhatchilah), not compensatory behavior that is tolerated (bedi’eved) outside of Yeshiva, because, sadly, there are people in the world who need such concessions. I want my daughters’ and my granddaughters’ Torah to be thought of as…Torah. Just Torah. With no thought of it being inappropriate or provocative because a woman is delivering it.
What happens now in Yeshiva College, Stern College for Women, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), and the Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Studies for Women (GPATS) will determine whether that future comes to pass. If our children’s generation comes out of college, RIETS, and GPATS believing that fewer women’s voices and more gender separation represent the Modern Orthodox ideal, then our future holds more gender segregation, more assuming that women are only and always sexual beings, less women’s Torah, and a more impoverished understanding of God’s will in the world.
Yeshiva College must make clear to our young adults that Torah and Halachah value the voices of women teaching Torah. Forbidding women to teach at Yeshiva minyanim sends exactly the opposite message.
I grant that Yeshiva College’s student body includes young men who wish to avoid hearing women. I understand that Yeshiva may have a practical need to accommodate such young men, even if that desire makes some of us uncomfortable and even though a panel of roshei yeshiva have publicly stated that it is not required by Halachah. But
- There are plenty of minyanim in which that can happen. Not every minyan needs to be comfortable for every student, but every student — including every student at Stern College — needs a minyan he or she can be comfortable in.
- It should be clear that the minyanim that exclude women’s voices do not represent the ethos of the institution. To that end, the overall curriculum of the university and yeshiva should be set up so that both male and female students frequently hear high-level Torah of all sorts from female teachers.
Thirteen months ago, five Yeshiva University roshei yeshiva were among the authors of a document on women’s leadership commissioned by the OU. The subsequent OU summary summarized their position as follows:
As articulated by the Rabbinic Panel, women can and should teach Torah, including at advanced and sophisticated levels; give shiurim and divrei torah; assume communally significant roles in pastoral counseling, in bikkur cholim, in community outreach to the affiliated and unaffiliated, in youth and teen programming; and in advising on issues of taharas hamishpacha, in conjunction with local rabbinic authority, when found by a community’s local rabbinic and lay leadership to be appropriate.
“Do as I say, not as I do” does not work. The attitudes of Yeshiva College students toward women are shaped by the environment and policies of Yeshiva College, which they reasonably believe express the Torah of their rebbeim. Right now, that environment and those policies are teaching our young people that women teaching Torah to men cannot be a legitimate part of Jewish communal life. It is imperative that Yeshiva College and its roshei yeshiva create a culture in which students are expected to respect and seek out women’s Torah, especially in public and communal spaces.
This is my business. This is your business. This is our future. Let’s insist on a voice in how our children are educated. Let’s respectfully demand that our sons, daughters, friends, and future leaders be educated to value women’s voices and women’s ideas in Torah discourse.