Jonathan Muskat

Appreciating Women’s Gemara Learning in the Modern Orthodox Community

I truly am excited to visit my daughter next week in Israel.  Currently, she is studying at Migdal Oz Seminary.  She happens to love learning Gemara so she felt that this was the right seminary for her.  We have had extensive discussions about the fact that Orthodox women have been studying Gemara in many yeshiva high schools and in Israeli seminaries for over 30 years, but there still seems to be a stigma against attending these types of seminaries within our broader YU community.  For men, the highest form of learning is Gemara learning, so I would have thought that by now the number of young women who go through the Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school system studying Gemara in seminary would be greater.  Yet, there are only a handful of young women attending seminaries like Migdal Oz that offer Gemara in a way that even approaches the amount of Gemara learning that exists in yeshivot for young men.

I’m sure many of us have thought of and continue to think of many reasons why this is so.  First, the amount of time spent on Gemara in yeshiva high schools for girls is much less than the amount of time spent on Gemara in yeshiva high schools for boys.  We then can debate whether the boys are getting enough of a well-rounded Jewish education if they are spending so much time on Gemara learning.  We also can debate whether yeshiva high schools for girls should tack on an additional daily period so that they can have the same amount of school time as boys and perhaps learn Gemara during that extra period.

However, I think that there is another factor at play.  I think that even after 30-plus years of women learning Gemara in yeshiva high schools and seminaries, there still exists a perception that women’s study of Gemara is associated with those who are not in line with the hashkafa of mainstream Modern Orthodoxy.

I do not agree with that assessment. At the same time, I understand perhaps why this perception exists.  Recently, Yeshiva University celebrated a Chag Ha’Semicha which, to my mind, is a very joyous event.  I believe that, on a whole, Yeshiva University musmachim are most qualified to serve and guide our communities as to how to best embrace the modern world through the prism of Torah and Torah values.  I was reading some Facebook posts which celebrated this event, and I read some of the comments to these posts by individuals who were upset that the musmachim were not sitting with their wives at this event, or who felt that images of all these men and no women getting semicha simply is alienating to women.  I’ve similarly read posts about people being upset that the OU sponsors certain Talmud Torah programs that are offered to men and not to women.

The more that women learn Gemara, the more that they will see inequities in certain Talmud Torah opportunities offered to men versus women and these inequities may not necessarily result from any halachic opposition, but based on some other considerations.  For example, perhaps we should change the schedule at Stern College to have an option for women who want to learn Judaic studies from 9 am – 3 pm like the men at Yeshiva College do and then have college classes beginning at 3 pm?  Additionally, the OU sponsored Semichat Chaver program, an engaging halacha learning program, currently is offered only to men and maybe different people have different opinions as to whether there should be a co-ed option where it’s offered to both men and women together, as opposed to whether we want to create a beit midrash atmosphere similar to our days in yeshiva in this program where the learning was not co-ed.  And we can debate and discuss how to balance these different values.  And the key is to debate and discuss.

I have read the tone in some social media posts where women are questioned for their motivation to study Gemara and I have read the tone in other such posts where identification with YU or the OU is ridiculed for its sexism and narrow-mindedness.  The issues that are at stake are very important ones.  The way that we move forward on these issues is to have open respectful conversations and to realize that people who have different opinions aren’t necessarily pushing their own anti-Torah or misogynist agendas, but for the most part they just have different perspectives based on their experiences.  I want to feel comfortable openly celebrating the YU musmachim for their accomplishments and at the same time feel comfortable openly celebrating those women who are engaged in Torah and Gemara study at the highest level.  With some of the discourse that I read online, it almost seems like I have to choose between these two options, and I would rather not do so.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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