I have expressed both publicly and privately my intense sadness and mourning over the recent loss of my teacher, my rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Kahn z”l. That sense of loss unfortunately is now extended to the state of affairs at my alma mater, Stern College. I refer of course to the decision to cancel the beginner and intermediate Talmud classes, putatively due to low enrollment. I have always been grateful for my time at Stern College, which is why this saddens and disappoints me on many levels.
I’m sad for those students who are losing an opportunity to study — those who want to build the skills necessary to enter the world of Talmud study. Stern College is where the world of Gemara learning was opened to me. There, I gained the skills and proficiency that have shaped my adult life and have led me to where I am today in teaching and Talmud scholarship. It saddens me that the memory of my rebbe can be extolled one month and trampled upon the next. It disappoints me to see how Stern disvalues this aspect of Torah learning among its students. But most disappointing of all is how an institution that shapes Modern Orthodoxy can act as if this is all a simple administrative issue, when it reflects something much more profound.
A search for the larger forces at work?
Yeshiva University administrators have attributed the decision to cancel these classes to low enrollment, which reflects larger trends in the communities that YU serves, and over which they have little control. No doubt there are systemic communal issues that contribute to the low enrollment in courses that have “Talmud” in their titles . However, the perennially low enrollment also directly results from institutional policies at Stern College.
As Rabbi Yosef Blau, the mashgiach ruchani of RIETS (YU’s rabbinical seminary), has carefully laid out in a recent letter (published in Yeshiva University’s Commentator), there are systemic structural issues that for years have deprioritized and made it difficult for students at Stern College to study Gemara. Not having Judaic Studies (limudei kodesh) blocked out for mornings, as it is in the men’s Yeshiva College, continues to cause many conflicts that prevent women who would like to take courses in Talmud from doing so.
That is, required secular courses are often scheduled during the same time as Talmud classes. From my own experience, I was unable to officially enroll in Talmud my first year at Stern, since it conflicted with a core requirement course (I got Introduction to Biology notes from a friend and attended Gemara instead, but that’s an unfair choice to have to make, and not one I recommend). That was more than 20 years ago, and to this day, students who would like to take Talmud still are often unable to do so because of scheduling issues that the college has refused to adequately address.
I have taught many gap-year students in Israel who then went on to attend Stern, and over and over again, I heard from students that the requirements for their majors meant scheduling conflicts that precluded them from enrolling in Talmud classes despite their strong desire to do so. To claim, therefore, that Stern is merely responding to conditions that it has no control over is misleading. Students have been raising these issues for decades — to no avail.
Even so, the opportunities for those who could adjust their schedules (or attend Intro to Bio in absentia) were always there — regardless of the number of students enrolled. The importance of having beginner- and intermediate-level Talmud classes available should not be underestimated. The students are unable to commit to a course that meets every day, making the semi-weekly beginners or intermediate classes more realistic options. Moreover, many students in Stern College, as was true for me, enter Stern with limited prior experience learning Gemara. They need the opportunity to become familiar with these texts and build their skills. Over the course of time, many will move up to the advanced track, but without these entryways, the number of students who enroll in Advanced Talmud would eventually also drop to the point that it too would be cut on the basis of “inadequate enrollment.”
And a word on enrollment. This is not a mere class. This is a shiur devoted to Torah study. And it is one of the few opportunities for Orthodox women in the US to engage in Gemara learning in this way. Anyone who during her time at Stern wants to be in a Talmud class — one whose establishment was supported by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l, no less — should be able to do so. Even if just one student wants to learn, she should be supported. For the reasons I mentioned before and others, enrollment in the Talmud classes at Stern has often been lower than the typical required Judaic Studies (limudei kodesh) classes. But until now, that was never considered a sufficient reason to cancel them.
A legacy spurned
Rabbi Kahn z”l, whose recent passing was a devastating blow, believed deeply that if someone wants to learn Torah, she should have the opportunity to be taught, and so he taught, year in and year out, with no fanfare, bearing many institutional slights with his usual anava (humility), and without regard to the number of enrollees. In the wake of his passing, there were several beautiful tributes and days of learning sponsored by YU in his memory. That was lovely, but anyone who knew him would tell you that he would gladly have forgone any and all posthumous honors and asked only that Torah learning at Stern not be diminished after his passing.
“Small in your own eyes”
Not only does the cancellation of Talmud classes disrespect the legacy of Rabbi Kahn z”l and his commitment to talmud Torah (Torah study), it undercuts the belief in Yeshiva University’s unique communal role. The university does not exist simply to reflect the prevailing trends (though doing so no doubt aids in attracting students), but exemplifies a set of values, including those espoused by Rabbi Soloveitchik, who felt that Talmud study at Stern was vital. Yes, Stern attracts a broad range of students, many of whom have no interest in Talmud. Yes, it would be ill-considered to make it a requirement. But that isn’t the issue. The issue is that this move signals to the students at Stern and to the broader constituent communities from which they come that opportunities for Talmud study for women don’t matter all that much. It’s just another class, one that may be there one semester and gone the next, depending on the vagaries of students’ schedules and interests. This is capitulation to short-term trends, to a lack of ideological commitment, and to a faction that thinks that the entire move toward women studying Talmud is threatening.