Ignored by her Community

My Modern Orthodox daughter Daniele was recently ignored by her community in an important way.

I’m speaking about Daf Yomi.

Let me begin at the beginning. There are 2,711 folios (the front and back of an individual leaf of paper in a bound volume) in the Talmud. Learning one folio (daf in Hebrew) every day (yomi in Hebrew) results in finishing the entire Talmud in about 7.5 years.

In 1923, Rav Meir Shapiro, a Polish chasidic leader, suggested a new program doing just that; studying one daf of Talmud a day, every day. This program, popularly called Daf Yomi, has captured the imagination of many and allows its participants to find a Talmud study class or partner anywhere in the world.

At the end of those 7.5 years of daily study, a Siyum (conclusion) HaShas (of the Talmud) ceremony is held. The first one occurred in February, 1931; the 13th daf cycle concluded in early January of this year.

What had been relatively small siyum ceremonies for the earlier cycles has blossomed into larger ones, culminating in a January 1, 2020 siyum in the sold out Met Life Stadium, with worldwide live streaming, including to a sold-out Barclay Center. Later ceremonies in other large New Jersey venues also are planned.

The sponsors of these large-scale U.S. ceremonies are Agudath Israel of America and a similar-minded organization. Nonetheless, many Modern Orthodox Jews, wanting to participate in a siyum with tens of thousands of others, also attended. Sounds wonderful, and in many ways it was. But there’s a problem, and if you’ve been a careful reader of my columns, you might guess what it is.

What about women?

Well, with separate women’s sections set aside, women certainly were welcome in Met Life. Yet although thousands of them attended, they weren’t acknowledged as Daf Yomi students or teachers, since women actually learning Daf Yomi is “not an accepted thing” in the Agudah community. Rather, they were lauded as helpers of their husbands, or, as recently described in Mispacha magazine, as “daf yomi wives . . . [who] take on extra responsibilities . . . so that [their] husbands can be part of daf yomi.”

As I watched the livestream I wasn’t surprised not to see a woman on the speakers’ platform. But I admit it was jarring not to see a single shot of any of the many women who attended, or any in the numerous pre-recorded video segments.

Over past years, though, women learning Daf Yomi has become more accepted and popular in the MO community. These women, like my daughter, deserve to participate in a siyum where their true accomplishments as active participants, rather than helpers, is recognized. A ceremony where they truly exist.

Let me be clear. I’m not criticizing Agudah for not having done this at its siyum, which was geared to its community and ethos. While I disagree with its view of women’s roles in Torah learning and the public sphere, it’s not for me to impose my value system on Agudah and its events.

But what about my MO community? The answer is mixed. On the bright side, two large siyumim with a MO ethos and female scholars as speakers were held in Yerushalayim and livestreamed to international audiences: the Women’s Siyum HaShas, sponsored by Hadran, and the Mizrachi Siyum HaShas. Similarly, a siyum in Maryland inspired by Hadran and sponsored by JOFA and others highlighted the achievements in Talmud and other text-based study by local women, including Teaneck’s (and now Potomac’s) own Dita Ribner Cooper.

Yet in the New York metropolitan area, replete not only with MO Jews, shuls, and schools, but also the home of the three major MO organizations — Yeshiva University, the Orthodox Union, and the Rabbinical Council of America — MO leadership fell short. These institutions — which rightfully boast of their Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Study for Women (YU) and Women’s Initiative (OU) — failed to organize any significant siyum that included recognizing the women of their community who spent the last 7.5 years toiling in the gardens of the Talmud. I found a few shuls with low-key local gatherings and a number of events with only male speakers (two of them in Teaneck), but was unable to discover, for example, any RCBC county-wide, or even Teaneck-wide, siyum with women participants.

Very disappointing.

I’ve lived in the MO community my entire life, and I’ve seen numerous positive changes vis-à-vis women and their inclusion in ritual and Torah study. But each step was a battle, nothing came easily, and much was left uncorrected. For example, when I was growing up, bat mitzvah was not a rite of passage that was celebrated or acknowledged. Now it’s the norm. Yet in my shul, while bar mitzvah boys and their families are recognized and lauded from the pulpit by our rabbis, bat mitzvah girls and their families receive a simple mazel tov from our (first, and while it was too long in coming I’m happy one finally ascended to the office) female president. Steps forward, but more still to be taken.

Similarly, our day schools and yeshivot teach young women Talmud, which my childhood female friends were not privileged to study. But my current female friends are still not, as I recently wrote about in these pages, welcome to participate in Teaneck’s retiree beit midrash program. And so, while I and other male retirees recently were privileged to attend a superb series of lectures on halacha and fertility, abortion, and other similar health issues, nary a female voice joined in a discussion on topics about which women surely have something important, and possibly different, to add. Steps forward, but more still to be taken.

And one last example. I’m proud that my shul and rabbi, Congregation Rinat Yisrael and Rabbi Yosef Adler, took a leadership role in bringing a yoetzet halacha to our community, even though no other Orthodox shul or rabbi was willing, at first, to join in that endeavor. But although others finally have done so, they sadly still number fewer than half of Teaneck’s Orthodox shuls. (Women congregants from the nonparticipating shuls are, of course, welcome to use the yoetzet’s services and, not surprisingly, many do.) Steps forward, but more still to be taken.

So what did my daughter do? Israel and Maryland were not possible for logistical reasons. Luckily, though, there was a Daf Yomi siyum program in the New York area, sponsored not by our MO community but by the Hadar Institute, an egalitarian Torah learning community whose educational values align with ours and in which she feels comfortable and appreciated.

Accompanied by her wonderfully supportive sisters who live in New York, Daniele attended this siyum, whose program and speakers reflected and acknowledged the actual achievements of the women present. She was able to stand, together with other men and women who were completing Daf Yomi, and recite the hadran formula commemorating the completion of this momentous task. (Unfortunately, Sharon and I were unable to attend because of a conflicting wedding. But as we watched the video, I, not a crier, was close to tears.)

Perhaps in 2027, the MO community in New York and its leadership will do the right thing for Daf Yomi learning/teaching women who have absorbed and live up to the values they were taught in their schools and shuls and homes. Perhaps; it’s still 7.5 years away. Time enough to right some of the wrongs. Time enough to match our actions to our beliefs. Time enough to take more and larger steps.

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.
Related Topics
Related Posts