Featured Post

39 problems in Modern Orthodox women’s Torah learning

The world is not ready for your desire to excel: 39 problems in Modern Orthodox Torah learning for women
Illustrative: Books of the Talmud. (iStock)
Illustrative: Books of the Talmud. (iStock)

So many women have been told that we are the problem. “But my friend/wife/daughter/etc. is happy!” So many of us have passed through program after program dissatisfied, desperately wanting more, but finding no one really interested in providing it. So many of us, in one way or another, have felt alone.

Some of us have already passed the point where there is anything that could help — we have graduated, or we have moved, or we have had children, or any number of other things. For those women, who have suffered and who have no recourse and no hope, I offer the only thing I can: a list of the problems that affect us.

Your suffering is real. Your problems are real. You are not alone.

  1. Most laypeople (including funders and community organizers) have no sense of the extent to which current options for women’s learning are inadequate.
  2. The broader community is largely apathetic about women’s learning, but hugely invested in women’s titles and communal leadership.
  3. There is a persistent refusal by those who support smicha (ordination) for women to acknowledge the low level at which the existing programs are taught and the educational deficits of most students who enter.
  4. There is a persistent refusal by those who criticize the existing programs for women’s smicha (as distinct from those who oppose women’s smicha ideologically) to attempt to fix them or to acknowledge the good that they do.
  5. Women’s smicha has become so tied up in liberal politics that it has become nearly impossible to support it without supporting an array of other issues, some of which are more reasonably the subject of halachic dispute.
  6. There is a group of male rabbis who are eager to pounce on every error made by a woman and use it against all women who learn. This mostly (though certainly not completely) overlaps with the group who attack women for being feminists.
  7. The politics around women’s learning mean that men tend to praise whichever women align with them politically and denigrate whichever ones do not. This further polarizes the conversation.
  8. For men, the highest level learning is almost always in Orthodox institutions. That is often not the case for women, and even when it is, the differences are smaller. This contributes to the general issue of women leaving Orthodoxy for more liberal movements. This is then taken by the usual commentators as an indication that those women were never Orthodox to begin with and that it is pointless to accommodate them.
  9. Constant attacks on the motivations of women who learn are demoralizing for women and make communal support more difficult.
  10. In America, there are few opportunities to interact with adult women who learn. This is partly because so many of these women have made aliyah.
  11. Unlike Israeli boys, Israeli girls generally have little to no Gemara in high school. This significantly affects the level and priorities of gap year programs.
  12. Girls go into gap year programs like Migdal Oz having chosen to learn Gemara. Boys go in knowing all of their peers are doing it too. Since boys are comparing themselves to a higher base line, they are more incentivized to spend all of their time learning.
  13. More boys than girls stay for a second year at gap year programs, and those programs are robust. Not only is this an advantage for those boys, it contributes to making the general level of the program higher. Girls who do stay often have difficulty finding learning that challenges them.
  14. Many people, both boys and girls, come back from Israel inspired and wanting to go into positions of Jewish leadership. Many of those go on to Yeshiva University. While the boys find a supportive environment for serious learning, the girls do not. Some of them decide to leave learning as a result.
  15. Modern Orthodox day schools and shuls often hire right-wing men to teach, and those men often either explicitly or implicitly exclude girls from learning.
  16. Some day schools which claim to be Modern Orthodox separate boys and girls for Torah and teach the girls less.
  17. The existing programs across the board are taught on a lower level than comparable programs for men. This is partly because the women coming in are less educated.
  18. In America, most programming for women’s learning is mostly administered and taught by men. This means that there are few full-time female role models present, and those who are can feel like tokens rather than leaders in their own right.
  19. Up until the highest levels, and sometimes even there, learning programs for women assume their students don’t know how to learn, which is very frustrating for those who do.
  20. Unlike men’s programs, women’s programs are afraid to tell their students that they ought to stay another year.
  21. Women are rarely part of the conversation about their own roles in the community, and when they are, it’s usually understood that they have no real power over them.
  22. Hopeful people want to believe that women are more learned than they really are. This doesn’t help the perception that women can’t learn, because when you’re told over and over again that women are incredible scholars, and they’re not, you start doubting that any woman really is.
  23. Hopeful people like to pretend that there is no gender gap in education. This makes it harder to offer or implement solutions.
  24. So much of the communal discourse around women’s learning by its left wing supporters focuses on flashy gestures and demonstrations rather than on constructive improvements.
  25. Unlike men’s yeshivos, which have some communication on neutral ground, there is virtually no interaction between the faculty of left-wing and right-wing Modern Orthodox women’s yeshivos.
  26. There are very few women who learn, so those who do are often roped into teaching before they’re really ready.
  27. There is a constant pressure to produce published content, again often before women are really ready.
  28. Because there is so much pressure to teach and to publish, women spend a lot of time developing those skills at formative parts of their education at the cost of gaining broader content knowledge or better textual skills.
  29. Almost all learning programs for women are for those who have already finished college or for those who have not yet started. There is little support for women learning in high school or college. Not only does this mean that these women lose out on a lot of learning that their male counterparts have access to, it sends the message that serious learning is something that is only done in a special environment full time.
  30. There is no room in the system for the exceptionally knowledgeable or skilled. Boys who are advanced beyond their years are allowed into shiurim which can educate them. Girls are not.
  31. Male beginners (e.g., many baalei teshuvah and converts) have many yeshivas they can go to, both in America and in Israel. Female beginners have only a few in Israel, most of which do not teach Gemara.
  32. Women are not allowed into most batei midrash (study halls). This deprives them of a sense of community with other learners and denies them physical access to books.
  33. Most male rabbis, whether or not they support women’s smicha, see no issue with excluding them from important communal conversations because they’re not rabbis.
  34. There are few career options for women who learn in the Jewish community. This is a disincentive for women who might otherwise love to go to yeshiva — they cannot afford to spend four years on anything if they will be unemployable afterwards.
  35. Women’s learning is not viewed as a communal priority, and is funded accordingly.
  36. Programs which accept women who learn tend to be either from a liberal cultural milieu which generally has lower expectations of Torah education or from a conservative cultural milieu which has lower expectations of women’s Torah education.
  37. Unmarried women are afraid of going to controversial programs lest it affect their dating prospects. Married women often have children (which means they have less time, even if programs provided day care, which they don’t) and are tied to another person’s career. These factors severely limit the number of women who can go to yeshiva.
  38. Women married to male rabbis are expected to be involved and supportive in their husbands’ careers, and to make that the most important thing in their lives. There is no comparable expectation of men, which makes it more difficult for women to go to yeshiva and especially difficult for them to spend the time there that men do. (My husband is of course an exception to this.)
  39. The cultural milieus which produce women’s learning tend to be preoccupied with spirituality, which tends to take time from teaching textual skills and essential content knowledge.

Some of us have no power to change these. None of us could individually change more than a few. But our first step as a community needs to be to confront the issues with our educational system. Only then can we move on to finding the solutions which will ensure that no future girl need suffer as we have.

About the Author
Tzipporah Machlah Klapper is an experienced learner and teacher of Torah. Originally from Boston, MA, she currently lives in New Jersey with her husband. This coming year she will be studying for an MA in Jewish Studies at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Related Topics
Related Posts