Over 20 years later, I still remember exactly why I chose the seminary where I spent my gap year learning in Israel. I had spent the summer before 12th grade at Michlelet NCSY, then an all-day learning program in Israel, and left inspired. I hoped that the seminary I chose (which will remain unnamed), would instill a lifelong love of learning in me, as well as the skills to be that learner long after my formal Torah curriculum would end.
In the recent discussion about losing a track for Talmud study at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women (and then reinstating it) — which itself is a really crucial conversation in determining the place of Orthodox women within Torah scholarship — I can’t help but note the elephant in the room: many girls who come back from studying Torah for a year in Israel are warned against specific teachers and rabbis at Stern College – at least, that was the case in my day.
Most of the students in this seminary came from Modern Orthodox high schools, and my high school was more traditional and small-c conservative than most. We all knew that there would be “The Talk.” We girls headed to Stern joked about it, but it is no surprise that 18-year-old impressionable girls away from their families and at the educational behest of the institution for almost a year (and before smartphones!) were influenced by the teachers’ judgements, when the talk came at the end of the year.
I should note also that I thought myself immune to the dramatic changes that many seminary students undergo, the so-called “flipping out,” with a renouncement of Modern Orthodoxy and embracing of more Haredi values. I remember how seminary friends shared with me how wonderful it was to be able to forge close relationships with teachers, for example. I would smile and nod, telling myself how lucky I had been to have built close relationships with my high school teachers. I thought I was not susceptible to dramatic change.
I returned to seminary after my first year of study for an additional semester, and I experienced great disillusionment during that time, particularly regarding the expectations for our futures. The second year did the opposite of what the seminary had hoped it would do; it allowed me to see how I was being indoctrinated and to question the values that I had so eagerly absorbed the first year. By the time I left Israel for New York, I felt more than ready to distance myself from those teachers’ expectations, and dive back into secular subjects.
Nonetheless, I held onto a great deal of what had been taught, and with only one exception — because I already knew that instructor personally — I avoided the rabbis and professors I was warned to avoid. Of course, because The Talk took place decades ago, I can’t say with certainty that I would have taken Talmud at Stern had I not been swayed by it, but it would have been in the realm of reasonable possibility.
When the beloved Stern College Talmud instructor, Rabbi Moshe Kahn z”l passed away in January, so many women, including my daughters’ high school teachers, spoke in loving and reverent terms about how he had not only instilled Gemara knowledge in them, but that his classes also provided inspiration and empowerment. When I searched my memory for reflections of Rav Kahn, I was ashamed that I had none, especially because I considered myself a serious learner during seminary and at Stern.
That was the moment my anger reignited.
How could Rabbi Kahn z”l have been on the list of taboo rabbis? Theoretically, that’s an easy answer: he was teaching Talmud to women. Granting women access to rabbinic texts has long been a policy discussion for Modern Orthodox institutions, but enough do so that it can rightly be called an element of a Modern Orthodox world view. The seminary I attended, and many others, I suspect, are fully aware and even encourage this rejection of Modern Orthodox values by “cancelling” those who convey them. Over time, we girls either accept that rejection and shift our focus to more Haredi or “yeshivish” values or we distance ourselves from the seminaries’ attempted indoctrination and return to the Modern Orthodox approach.
But it’s such a long time ago, and I now squarely stand in the Modern Orthodox camp — how do those seminary influences have bearing on my life today?
Before Passover, I attended a local shiur with my husband that included preparation time before listening to a lecture. Despite my years of rigorous Jewish education, I stumbled and could barely understand the Gemara source sheet. My husband explained it to me before the rabbi proceeded to give an excellent lecture about bedikat chametz (searching for leavening).
I should repeat, perhaps, that I might not have taken Talmud at Stern without The Talk. And I realize I can still undertake to improve my Talmud education — maybe if I were motivated enough, I would learn Daf Yomi or train myself via the proliferation of resources for such study that have exploded in the past few years. I recognize that I may be unduly harsh in blaming my education of two decades ago, especially since I still feel that I must recognize all the good the institution did for me.
And indeed, I do still love learning. But how might things have been different if I hadn’t been steered away from the Talmud classes at Stern? How much richer would my experience of the world of Jewish text be if I also knew how to learn Gemara? I am so glad that the Modern Orthodox world continue to increase the opportunities for women to study Talmud, and that Stern College is not relinquishing its activity in that regard. But let’s pay more attention to the post-high school years of study in Israel at seminaries that actively dissuade young women like myself from pursuing Torah study at the highest level. What is their culpability for keeping Orthodox women from becoming Torah scholars?