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Do you love your teacher?

Until qualified women repopulate a system inundated with men, male educators must guard against any intimation of impropriety
Illustrative. Female students seen studying at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, February 16, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative. Female students seen studying at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem, February 16, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Many years ago, my wife was teaching at a seminary in Jerusalem. She overheard a young woman under her tutelage professing that she “loved Rabbi X.” My wife interjected and suggested, “You admire Rabbi X, you enjoy the classes of Rabbi X, you are inspired by Rabbi X, but you don’t love Rabbi X!” Whereupon the young lady looked straight at my wife and said, “NO! I Love Rabbi X!!”

The dynamic of men teaching women is an interesting one. Though the reverse arrangement is discouraged in some circles due to tzniyus (modesty) considerations, there isn’t much discussion of the efficacy of women having male teachers. My daughter recently began studying in a Beis Yaakov type middle school and I noticed that she has absolutely no male teachers. Upon inquiry, I was informed there are maybe three male teachers within the entire institution grades 1-12.

I once asked the Torah great (gadol) and thinker Rav Moshe Shapiro zt’l the following question. How come so many of his prime students were teaching in Jerusalem seminaries? I was curious if he considered this an ideal or rather a secondary choice. His retort was that many do it for parnassah (livelihood) and that it wasn’t their primary focus. Rather it was secondary after either authoring seforim (books) or teaching in yeshivos in the mornings.

This issue is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, many men have spent years learning in yeshivas and have a unique depth and breadth of Torah knowledge. Their sharpness in learning and analytical ability is special. There are of course exceptional women in various Torah disciplines, but this tends to be more the exception than the rule at this point in time. So on the one hand, we’d like women exposed to the highest levels of Torah learning to facilitate high motivation, inspiration and transformation.

However, this exposure comes at a cost. The young student of my wife (referenced above) was presumably joking. However, there is no doubt that some young students can be mesmerized, particularly by very charismatic teachers. Sadly, there have been occasional incidents of vulnerable women, both students and adults, falling prey to unhealthy and improperly motivated male teachers and mentors. Conversely, there have also been rare incidents of innocent well-meaning rabbis, having careers derailed due to being exposed to women of a nefarious agenda.

Just as some hesitate to place women in front of men, we should be thinking twice about the reverse dynamic as well. Human beings have various frailties, even rabbinic leaders of great stature. It is important that we not turn a blind eye to the natural attraction that Hashem has created and instilled between the two genders. It is important that we guard that it only be acted upon within the most appropriate and mandated contexts. Regular learning interaction and private consultation with the opposite gender can be fraught with danger.

There is a principle of “gadol shemusho yoser melimudo,” that being close to a Torah teacher and learning from their actions is a higher ideal than actual Torah study. It is based on the concept of learning being meant to motivate action, so the highest form of learning is through observing the actions of a learned individual.

The ideal teacher/student dynamic involves closeness. The mentor revealing the inner workings of his or her mind and heart and the student close by to imbibe and inculcate the wisdom. The Talmud records how students would sleep under the beds of their masters to understand even the inner most sanctums of their lives.

With this backdrop as an ideal, it is difficult to encourage men to teach women or women to teach men for that matter on an ongoing permanent basis. Even if the relationships are managed with all the appropriate fences and precautions, there will still be a barrier to entry into the depths of the ideal student/teacher Torah relationship. The closeness is by definition limited by halachos of Yichud and the need to be cautious about growing too close.

Students of Torah must be careful not to project upon their teachers. The one teaching a class generally has his or her own spouse and children and an array of interpersonal challenges and issues. Just because someone has insight into a particular area, does not guarantee that they have mastered what they teach.

Students must be careful to not lose sight that the teacher is a “basar ve-dam” (flesh and blood) at the end of the day, not that different from the people in the audience. Not putting teachers on a pedestal is a delicate balance. The Torah deserves reverence and respect and by extension the teacher but within the dictates of logic and reason.

Teachers and mentors must be very careful to guard against any intimation of impropriety. One should ensure the presence of one’s spouse nearby if meeting alone with the opposite sex. If in an office setting, the door should have a big window and the meeting conducted with other’s around. There is also great value in having a camera placed in the office to record all interactions and to ensure that both parties are cognizant that others can ultimately access what is happening inside.

There has been much discussion in recent years within the various streams of Orthodoxy regarding the role of women in religious practice and spiritual life. Although some may frown upon some of the innovations of the more liberal sects of Orthodoxy, there is no doubt momentum in our communities, for additional space for women to be active and meaningfully contribute to spiritual life.

The world of 2019 is not the world of Jewry post-World Wars I and II. Women are dynamic leaders in a variety of professions and will continue to strengthen themselves as Torah teachers and spiritual guides. We can look forward in the days and years ahead to stronger Torah development and Torah presentations from more women of the highest levels of character, modesty, wisdom and fear of Heaven. The bridge and gap between the genders in learning will surely evolve, maybe even be almost eradicated as our communities continue to evolve.

These same women will by extension become the addresses as models and guides to speak with other bnos yisroel and nishei chayil looking for inspiration and hadracha. As more women grow up inspired to become teachers and role models, there will be less of a need for female educational systems to be inundated with men. This might create a parnassah problem for some, but it will alleviate some of the often unspoken tensions we have described above.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l commented that in the initial phrase of the Kedusha prayer, we have the practice to look to the right, left and center when reciting the words, “ve-kara zeh el zeh ve-amar.” Immediately after, we elevate and proclaim, “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh.” He explained to reach kedusha, higher levels of sanctity; we must always be cognizant of all the challenges that surround us.

As we introspect and assess communal needs and realities moving forward, it is integral that we are realistically in touch with the various challenges that surround us, even when embedded within the holy framework of Torah study and mentorship.

At the same time, we can look forward to the day when female scholarship is rampant and female teachers and mentors are transforming the communal landscape even more than today.

At that point, there will be more opportunity for study and mentorship from those of the same gender, enabling closer bonds between teachers and students at all levels of study.

About the Author
Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen has served as a communal Rabbi for decades, serving Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, NJ, Young Israel of the West Side in Manhattan and Congregation Ohr Torah in North Woodmere, NY. Rabbi Cohen appreciates knowledge of all types, earning a law degree from Columbia Law School and a Masters degree in Family Therapy from the University of North Texas with a concentration in couple dynamics. He has also done course work at the Columbia Business School, Yad Vashem and the Tikvah Fund. He served for many years as a rabbinical judge on the Beis Din of America, affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America. He is the author of the book “We’re Almost There: Living with Patience, Perseverance and Purpose,” published by Mosaica Press in 2016, presenting a pathway for confronting challenges. His most recent book “Together Again: Reimagining the Relationships that Anchor Our Lives,” an exploration of critical relationships post the pandemic was published in 2022. The Rabbi is the host of the popular Jewish Philanthropy Podcast (“The JPP”) with thousands of listeners and a skilled fundraiser as a Senior Relationship Officer at the Orthodox Union’s Yachad division. He is the proud father of six children and lives with his wife & family in North Woodmere, NY.
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