Equal and not separate

For the past year, there’s been a wonderful new Torah learning opportunity in Teaneck — Beit Midrash of Teaneck (BMT) — that’s open to retirees and those with flexible schedules. There are four sessions two mornings a week at Heichal HaTorah/The Jewish Center: preparation/review in classic beit midrash/chavruta style, Talmud (Rav Ronen Dvash), Jewish Law/Thought (a rotating roster of prominent rabbinic leaders and scholars), and Prophets (Rabbi Hayyim Angel). Participants may attend any or all of the classes tuition free; many attend all four, others fewer, depending on personal preference.

Unfortunately, however, my opening paragraph, while accurate, doesn’t tell the entire story because of the omission of one word — male. Thus, while BMT truly is a wonderful new Torah learning opportunity, it has, I believe, an important flaw in that it is open only to male retirees — women are not invited.

(Language digression. I grappled with exactly how to phrase that last clause: Women are not invited? Not welcome? Barred? Excluded? I opted for “not invited” because it is both accurate and the most benign to my ears. But it’s important to remember that the other, less benign, possibilities also may be accurate, since those not invited often are not welcome, barred, and excluded.)

So why have women not been invited to participate in BMT? Why in 2019 in Teaneck — a bastion of the Modern Orthodox community where it’s not unusual for women to participate in Daf Yomi and other shiurim at all levels; whose shuls hire yo’atzot halacha and women scholars in residence (even without their husbands); which strongly supports high-level Jewish education for women in both our day and high schools as well as in college and graduate programs like Stern College, GPATS, Nishmat, and Drisha; whose young women regularly spend a year or two devoted solely to serious Torah study in Israel after high school; and where women teaching Torah on a high level is commonplace, so much so that they have taught some BMT Jewish Law/Thought classes — why in this type of Modern Orthodox Teaneck is the female half of the community not invited to participate as students in this new and exciting Torah educational enterprise?

And that’s not just my question. Shortly after BMT opened, I bumped into a longtime Teaneck congregational rabbi at one of our local eateries one afternoon. We ended up on a serendipitous lunch date, during which I told him about BMT. He had heard of it. But when I mentioned that women were not invited, which he did not know, his reaction was not simply disagreement (though he did and does, in fact, disagree). It was shock. “In Teaneck? Really? Why?” And when shortly thereafter I had a similar conversation with an important non-Teaneck non-rabbinic leader in the Modern Orthodox community, his reaction was exactly the same.

I’ve discussed this issue numerous times with various leaders of BMT since before its first class was held, arguing for a more inclusive program. In those conversations (which proved unsuccessful — hence this column) as well as in discussions with other attendees, I also tried to get an answer to the “why” question. As best as I can determine, the answers (there are more than one) and my responses include the following:

1. If it were open to women, certain of the men now attending would stop.

My first reaction was “too bad; I don’t care.” But upon further reflection I realized that wasn’t true. I really do care. It would bother me seriously if good friends and others with whom I’ve studied over the past year would drop out and thus miss out on such wonderful learning. Nonetheless, bottom line, I care more about those who have no choice about missing out because they are not provided the opportunity than about those who are afforded the opportunity and choose not to partake of it of their own volition.

Moreover, this response really begs, rather than answers, the why question. Why is it so important to them that they would rather leave than learn?
So I explored further.

2. Content/style/delivery might be different in a mixed environment, where presenters might feel compelled to lower the level of learning that has been established.

This is, of course, a factual issue, and I don’t think the learning level in fact would be lowered. Indeed, I specifically asked this of two presenters, and both said it certainly would not be true for their classes. Moreover, in a recent article about BMT in the Orthodox Union’s magazine Jewish Action, the administrator of the program (interestingly a woman) was quoted as saying that despite the intellectually challenging environment, “limited skills are not a barrier to the BMT setting.” If participation by males with limited skills has not lowered the intellectually challenging environment, why would participation by women, even those with limited skills, do so?

3. The decision to hold single-sex classes reflects the desires, and respects the sensitivities, of people in the Orthodox community — both men and women — whose comfort level, age, and cultural experience tend toward single-sex classes.

I’m sure that’s true for some. But in light of the many coed classes in our community and my own personal sense (no scientific survey, just almost 35 years of living in Teaneck), it’s not true for many. And, when making decisions of inviting and not inviting I believe you need a supermajority to opt for not inviting. (See also my discussion in paragraph 6 below.)

4. The men attending, now retired after spending decades in work environments, are looking for what they once had; to relive in some way the wonderful days they spent in the all-male yeshiva of their youth. And BMT seeks to recreate this warmly remembered haven. Indeed, men from different backgrounds and social and sociological groups with different interests and different political, and perhaps even religious, ideologies, have put all those differences aside in order to form a wonderful multifaceted community with one united joint deep interest — learning Torah. Why not provide them what they once had without the danger of upsetting that fragile community?

I’m sure that’s true about some, though certainly not all, of the attendees. And I hear that. I’d like to be 20 again too. But one of the many many reasons that I can’t is that I have 52 years of additional living under my belt; 52 years of growing, maturing, and interacting with all sorts of people, including women, unlike when I was 20 and in an ideologically homogeneous all-male yeshiva. We can’t go home again; no yeshiva we create for ourselves today will be the yeshiva of our youth. Indeed, as one of BMT’s leaders noted in the Jewish Action article, “our aggregate life experience means we bring very different perspectives to learning than, say, eighteen-year old boys who are in Israel for the year.”

So if it’s going to be new, let it be open even more widely. Let’s add different genders to all the other differences in this multifaceted community that I mentioned in the preceding paragraph — as long as they are united by a sincere interest in learning Torah seriously.

5. BMT might lose certain maggidei shiur (teachers) if it invites women.

Perhaps; this too is a factual question. Personally, with the possible exception of one teacher who I simply don’t know enough about, I can’t think of any who would not teach in a mixed environment, since most, if not all, have done so many times in other contexts. But if I’m wrong in this case, unlike that of the possibility of losing attendees, it really doesn’t matter that much. There are many wonderful teachers out there, the vast majority of whom would have no problem teaching men and women together. We’ll do just fine.

6. Men and women have different learning styles, and women often do not do as well in coed educational environments as in single-sex ones. I was pointed over and over again to studies that demonstrated how, especially in STEM courses, women do better when the classes are not coed. Inviting women therefore will not only negatively impact on their learning but also may upset the strongly interactive dynamic the men at BMT have established.

Interestingly, no one ever cited studies to me that concluded that adult men did not learn as well in a coed group. Nor did they cite the equally large number of studies that demonstrate that coed classes are better for all. (So much for studies.) Nonetheless, if there are women who feel uncomfortable in coed environments, they can, and I’m sure some would, vote with their feet and not attend, though others might. And those many who are perfectly comfortable surely might attend. So why not invite those who might say yes just because some might say no? Indeed, these different styles might, as has been my experience with adults in learning environments, enhance rather than diminish the overall class dynamic.

A related argument made in connection with this issue is the fact that same-sex study groups are common, as shown by the numerous all-women’s shiurim in Teaneck. While I can’t do justice to this issue in this column (which in any event is running very long), I’ll note that providing separate classes for women, many of whom in my generation were not offered a full Jewish education when they were young, is not the same as privileging those who, in the main, were blessed with a more extensive education.

In addition, while I respect the need to grandfather (oops, grandmother) existing all-women classes, I also think new public all-female classes or programs should not be started now without very careful thought and specific reasons. They should be, at most, exceptions, not the default.

And please, don’t point me, as many have done, to Lamdeinu, a magnificent learning venture, some of whose classes I’ve attended, benefitted from, and loved. It’s simply irrelevant to this issue, since the vast majority of Lamdeinu’s classes are coed — which is, as I argue here, exactly as it should be.

7. One friend minimized the issue by noting that “it’s not that women are losing out on business opportunities by being excluded.”

True, they’re not. They’re just losing out on a unique Torah learning opportunity.

8. I’ve also been told that BMT does care about women learning Torah and therefore will begin a women’s program which will solve the issue. (Interestingly, a number of leaders said that they personally did not oppose, or even supported, the idea of coed classes. But [see preceding seven reasons]).

But will a separate women’s program adequately resolve this issue? First, I note that in an October 18, 2018 article in the Jewish Standard, “Talmud Club for Retirees,” the leaders spoke about including programming for women. Almost a full year has passed, and still no such programming has been announced.

Second, in discussions about such programming that I’ve heard recently, parts may be coed. So I guess it’s okay for women’s programs to be coed, just not men’s programs. More importantly, certain programs that I’ve heard discussed will not be as diverse, rich, and exciting as that provided to the men. Which brings me to the famous letter Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote to Rabbi Leonard Rosenfeld in 1953 about coed Jewish studies education. (For more on R. Rosenfeld, see my May 31, 2017 column “Two Roads Diverged”).

In answering R. Rosenfeld’s question about the Hebrew curriculum in a coeducational elementary and high school, the Rav wrote:

“[I]t would be a very regrettable oversight on our part if we were to arrange separate Hebrew classes for girls. Not only is the teaching of Torah She-be-al Peh to girls permissible but it is nowadays an absolute imperative. The policy of discrimination between the sexes as to subject matter and method of instruction which is still advocated by certain groups within our Orthodox community has contributed greatly to the deterioration and downfall of traditional Judaism. Boys and girls alike should be introduced into the inner halls of Torah She-be-al Peh.

“I hope to prepare in the near future an Halachic brief on the problem which will exhaust the various aspects of the same. In the meantime I heartily endorse a uniform program for the entire student body.”

— “Community, Covenant, and Commitment; Selected Letters and Communications,” ed. Nathaniel Helfgot (The Toras HaRav Foundation, 2005), p.83. (I have in my possession a copy of this letter on the Rav’s letterhead with his handwritten signature (copy below). The original is in the files of Ezra Rosenfeld.)

Unfortunately, the Rav never prepared the halachic brief he referred to. But in addition to this letter, we have his own actions. Thus, the elementary and high school that he and his wife founded and led (the Maimonides School in Brookline, MA) was and continues to be coed in every grade and in every course, as were his weekly Motza’ei Shabbat Parsha and Sunday morning Talmud shiurim given in Brookline. (Although the Rav opposed coed Jewish studies courses at YU’s Morningside Heights campus, that was based, as I understand it, on his concept of RIETS as a yeshiva.) Thus, my conclusion from the Rav’s written statements, as well as his actions, is that the better course for BMT to follow would be to invite women or at least provide them with a program identical to that provided to the men.

Let me make clear what I’m saying here and what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that the Rav would agree with me about how BMT should be run. Neither I nor anyone else knows what the Rav, a brilliant and complex thinker, would conclude about a 2019 issue, and it would be the height of arrogance to state, as unfortunately some do say about specific current issues, that such and such is the Rav’s position. What I am saying is that my understanding of what the Rav wrote and did during his lifetime are factors in my reaching the above conclusion — and only I, and not the Rav, bear full responsibility for this conclusion.

On a positive note, I’ve also been told that there is discussion about flipping BMT’s third and fourth courses for men and women; that is, having separate programs for men and women where, when the men will be studying Jewish Law/Thought, women will be studying Prophets, and vice versa — all with the same teachers. While that’s not a perfect solution, it would be a good compromise, and I don’t believe in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Thus, if that program is ever implemented, I would deem the flaw ameliorated.

9. And finally, I’ve been asked how I have the chutzpah, since this is a privately funded operation, to tell people how they should spend their money? If I want a coed program, I’ve been told, I’m perfectly free to start one if I can raise the financial support for it.

Fair question. Before I answer it, though, it’s important for me to express my hakarat hatov to those wonderful philanthropists who conceived of, provided the initial start-up costs for, and continue to fund this program. It’s clear to anyone who attends that nothing is done on the cheap, and that this first-rate operation (which even provides yummy Costco cookies and rugalach) costs a great deal of money, which comes mainly out of the pockets of a few dedicated individuals. For this they merit the eternal gratitude of all who attend, and, indeed, of the entire community, for their very real and concrete devotion to community and Torah study.

Nonetheless, the program certainly is a de facto, though possibly not de jure, community project. It’s not a private class given in an individual’s house to a few carefully selected invitees. Rather, it’s open to the entire community (with the single exception discussed in this column), and listed as a community activity in our shul bulletins and community email groups. Moreover, the names of leading Modern Orthodox, and, indeed, non-denominational, institutions, including the OU, Yeshiva University, and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, are plastered on the covers of many of the source sheets, further cementing the communal nature of this endeavor. Thus, as a member of the community that BMT has been organized to serve, I believe I have the right to express, together with my extreme gratitude, a disagreement with one aspect of an otherwise magnificent program.

So that’s why I think the reasons for not inviting women are not convincing. Why, however, do I think it’s so important to correct this flaw? Parts of my answer to that question are contained in my responses above. But let me note three others that I believe are significant.

First, it delivers the wrong message to our young women — and, perhaps even more important, to our young men. Our schools teach them and our rabbis preach to them (and to us) of the overwhelming importance of Torah study in our lives, and how we have to dedicate ourselves to being the People of the Book in action as well as in name. And then we begin a new outstanding communal Torah program that’s open only to men — men who, for generations, have already been given preference in Torah study. I think that in our generation where we have, at least in our religious community, begun to turn this around by teaching and actualizing the importance of investing in Torah study for all, an all-male BMT is the wrong lesson to impart.

Second, we’ve been told that other groups are looking to BMT as a template for starting similar programs in their communities. Wonderful. But it’s less wonderful if they would repeat the error of not inviting half the community to learn and benefit.

Similarly, it also impacts on the general attitude of Torah study for all in our Teaneck community. For example, BMT students were invited to participate in other Torah study opportunities during the summer, when BMT was in intersession. Not a BMT student? No BMT invitation. Or a shul announcing that another summer Kollel program is “designed to meet the Torah study needs of the entire community” when it was open only to men. Interesting definition of “entire community.” Or, when there was an otherwise magnificent community wide “Three Weeks of Shiurim” during, well during the Three Weeks, and out of 29 shiurim only three were presented by women. Setting the right tone and creating the right template is important.

And third, it’s simply not fair. I could write two or three paragraphs explaining why it’s not fair, but if you don’t see that by now, I don’t think there’s very much more I can say that will convince you. To me, it’s obvious that providing men with a free opportunity to learn Torah under magnificent teachers (and here let me give a special shout out to R. Angel, who is very simply the best Nach teacher I have ever been privileged to study with), while telling women, in effect, “sorry, we know you’d also benefit but you’re not invited,” just isn’t fair. You either see that and agree or you don’t. Res ipsa loquitor — the thing speaks for itself (as I learned in law school so many years ago).

One final point before I conclude. (Finally!) I know many of the founders, funders, leaders, and attendees of BMT — some are decades-long friends — and I cherish my relationship with them, which I trust will continue notwithstanding any disagreement we may have over this issue. I know them, I like them, and I respect them. Deeply.

So I know that BMT is not — is NOT — a selfish effort by a bunch of closed-minded, misogynist men attempting to create an old boys club. Indeed, there’s no doubt that they respect women in general and as Torah scholars in particular, since, as I noted earlier, they invited women to teach in the Jewish Law/Thought slot (and, as also noted, hired a woman as BMT’s administrator). I know these men have created BMT leshem shamayin, for the sake of Heaven, in an attempt to build a program that provides men an environment where they can optimize their learning. But for all the reasons I’ve laid out, I believe that allowing women to also benefit from this program will only improve Torah study in Teaneck, not detract from it one whit.

What I don’t know is whether this column will have the practical effect that I hope for. And while an optimist by nature, I’m quite frankly not that optimistic here. So why write it? First, I may very well be wrong, and I may have the positive effect I desire. Second, perhaps, at the very least, these ideas will trickle down into the discussions among BMT leaders as they move forward in expanding this program and that others who start similar programs in other locales will take these thoughts into consideration before making final decisions of how Torah learning will look in their communities as we enter the 2020s.

And third, that’s what I do in this column; I write about ideas and events that I care about passionately, ranging from, for example, the necessity of civil discourse in society to my adorable grandchildren to Modern Orthodoxy to my mizinka’s wedding to the importance of kindness. And I care passionately about improving the role of women in Orthodox Judaism and allowing them to fully participate in Torah study.

Ki hem chayenu ve-orech yamenu uvamhem nehgeh yomam valayla — for Your Torah and commandments are our life and the length of our days, and on them will we meditate day and night. In the spirit of the upcoming Yomim Nora’im season, let us therefore continue to do that together as a community, old and young, men and women, with the prayer on our lips ve-ahavatcha al tasir mimenu le-olamim — May You never take away Your love for us.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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