History Made in Jerusalem – Women’s Siyum HaShas

Three thousand three hundred women (with a good number of men) felt it. Thirty three hundred people witnessed it as it unfolded in front of their eyes. All in the center of Jewish history – Jerusalem. Thousands more around the globe watched it streamed in real-time.  The beauty of the emotions, alongside the intellectual recognition, of a historic laying of a foundational principle within Judaism was mesmerizing. It can be termed “The Unified Principle of Women Learning Torah”.

Sunday night, 9 Tevet, 5790 (January 5, 2020) has gone down in Jewish history as the significant date where the revolution — that began with Sara Schenirer one hundred years ago as she pioneered Jewish education for girls in Krakow — culminated in the Women’s Siyum HaShas inspired and organized by Hadran.org.il. Advanced study of the Talmud, day by day, a page a day, in which women participated as both teachers and students, for seven years and five months – signifies the equalization of women’s study to that of the traditional men’s study of the foundational text of the corpus of Jewish law. This is now established – even if not yet recognized by the general Jewish world.

Until that Sunday evening, women had dared to enter the world of Talmudic discourse individually, in small groups of two or five or, in the recent past, in classes spearheaded by “midrashot” – high level Torah study institutions for young women. Beginning in the 1970’s, I myself ploughed ahead studying many intricate primary sources along with the Talmud, aware that I was “bucking the system” and viewed strangely. In the beginning it was a lonely path I chose. Many a time I turned to the writing of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein for fortification – as his scholarly daughter Rabbanit Esty Lichtenstein Rosenbeg, Rosh Beit Midrash of Migdal Oz, described onstage at the gathering. In those early years, one needed validation from the rabbinic leaders even while knowing that a woman studying the Talmud and Jewish law was the answer to a deep inner calling. A full generation later my eyes filled with wondrous tears, witnessing the togetherness of thousands of learned women supported by the men in their lives! The congregation of so many Torah scholars of the highest possible level, lovingly revered by thousands of other women who were educated as a generation in the vast plethora of Torah studies as never before in Jewish history – filled each participant with joyous awe.

The roots for the first Women’s Siyum HaShas were planted by Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber in her Raanana home seven and a half years earlier, when she began teaching a small group of women the present cycle of the Daf Yomi – the daily folio page of Talmud studied traditionally by men the world-over since instituted by Rabbi Yehuda Meir Shapiro in 1923 Poland. Day after day, page by page, Rabbanit Michelle taught women 2,711 pages, in person and through podcasts — completing the entire corpus of six tractates in the thirteenth cycle on Shabbat, the day preceding the women’s Siyum HaShas. Sunday, she began once again.

One outstanding Torah scholar after the other spoke to the crowd, demonstrating in each one’s inclusiveness that every woman is worthy in and of herself. Gracing the stage the entire evening was Yoetzet Halacha and Torah teacher, Rabbanit Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel – a unifying role model for all Jews. Inspiration flowed throughout the great hall in ICC Jerusalem’s Binyanei Haumah. In fact the inspiration flows through the online screen at Hadran’s facebook page https://www.facebook.com/308070163199808/videos/1040671409604282/

“From Zion shall come forth Torah” is not a pithy saying nor only a joyous song. It is the prophecy of Isaiah (2:3) that has been realized by the thousands of women who celebrated their study of Torah, continuing with the end of the verse: “and the word of G-d from Jerusalem”.

About the Author
Rachel Levmore, PhD in Talmud and Jewish Law from Bar Ilan University, is the director of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency; one of the authors of the prenuptial "Agreement for Mutual Respect"; author of "Min'ee Einayich Medim'a" on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal; and the first female Rabbinical Court Advocate to serve on the Israel Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.
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