My previous post listed 39 problems in Modern Orthodox women’s learning. In this post, I hope to illustrate how many of those problems play out in women’s lives through four fictional profiles of women who learn. Each of them represents a significant constituency of that population. While they are all in their twenties by the end of their stories, and they all love Torah, each of them takes a different path and illustrates different issues with our system.
Meet Modern Orthodox Molly. Like many Modern Orthodox girls, Molly went to a fully coed high school. She learned secular and Judaic studies along with boys, and rarely encountered gender inequality in Torah education.
As a senior, Molly decides to go to Israel for a year after high school and then attend Stern College. She values Torah and a Jewish environment, and she intends to make the most of her Israel experience. She loves learning and dreams of being a great talmidah chachamah.
Molly is friends with Modern Orthodox Moshe. They’ve been chavrusas in Talmud class since ninth grade, and always had roughly equal Talmud skills. Moshe also decides to learn in Israel for a year, and plans to attend Yeshiva College. Moshe also values Torah and a Jewish environment and intends to make the most of his Israel experience.
Molly and Moshe go to the men’s and women’s programs of a Dati Leumi yeshiva in Israel. They both learn Talmud, but her schedule has less Talmud and more Tanach. His program is full of men who are in their second or third year, while her program is almost entirely women in their first year. His program expects him to spend longer hours learning and has advanced students available as night seder chavrusas. When Moshe and Molly meet up to learn, as they do regularly, she sees that his Talmud skills are improving faster than hers. By the end of the year, his vocabulary is significantly larger, he knows a lot more, and he is more able to learn independently.
They return home and start college. Molly is in Advanced Talmud at Stern, the top of three levels, where she has six hours of class time a week and no specified time allotted to seder. She is at the top of the class and struggles to motivate herself to improve. Outside of class, she engages in the few Talmud opportunities available to her, but it’s hard to have night seder in a nearly empty beis midrash. Moshe, meanwhile, is in one of the top shiurim uptown, which includes highly motivated students who are older and more advanced than he is. He has seven hours of shiur per week as well as 13 hours allotted to seder. He goes to night seder every night and takes advantage of numerous learning opportunities over the weekend. His beis midrash is often crowded and always has other men in it, usually including older students and rebbeim that he can ask questions to and test his chiddushim on.
By the end of the year, Molly is bitter. She is now hopelessly behind Moshe in her Talmud skills, and she realizes that the gap will only increase. She chose Stern because she valued Torah and a Jewish environment, but seeing how much less valued women’s learning is, by Stern and by the broader web of Orthodox institutions, has made her abandon her ambitions. Ultimately, she switches her major and joins her friends as pre-med. She wants women’s learning to improve, and believes it can, but finds learning too painful as things currently stand.
Meet Centrist Orthodox Chana. Like many Modern Orthodox girls, Chana attended a partially or fully gender-segregated high school. Her Talmud classes were fewer in number and lower in quality than her male peers’. After a year in Israel at a program which teaches gemara, but does not prioritize it, she decides to go to Stern College, where she enters the Intermediate Talmud class. She falls in love with gemara there and really enjoys her time at Stern, advancing to the Advanced Talmud class and joining all available Talmud-related activities.
One summer, Chana goes to a coed learning program which includes some Yeshiva College students. Seeing how much more advanced her male peers’ skills are, she realizes that she wants to be able to learn as well as they can. When Chana returns to college, she continues to enjoy her time there, but she begins to chafe at the limitations of Stern’s Talmud classes. She is only spending 8-12 hours a week on Talmud, when she knows from the summer that she would prefer 15-25, which is what her male peers have. She wishes the Stern beit midrash had more people in it, and she dislikes how high up it is – seven flights of stairs is a lot to climb up to get to the sfarim on Shabbos. She also finds that even the Advanced Talmud class does not assume or demand the amount of knowledge that she actually has, especially after the summer. And she wishes she had more than one choice – she is starting to get bored of the style of the class.
Despite these growing frustrations, Chana still loves her time at Stern. She decides to go to GPATS after she graduates, although she is unsure what she can do afterwards – she knows that she does not want to be a high school teacher. At GPATS, Chana learns kashrus and niddah in addition to a daily Talmud seder. By the end of her time there, learning gemara and halacha feels natural.
Some of Chana’s friends at GPATS marry and go on to the Yoetzet program, but Chana hasn’t met her beshert yet, even if she were interested in focusing almost exclusively on niddah for the rest of her life. She decides to go to law school after GPATS, along with many of her peers.
Meet Academic Ariella. Ariella grew up in a liberal Modern Orthodox community where women’s leadership in Torah was taken for granted. Her role models growing up were Jewish studies professors, and she’s always known she wants to go into Jewish studies. As a high school student, she loved learning at Drisha in the summer, and was inspired by her madrichot there.
Ariella disdains Stern for its segregation and inequality, and besides, she’s gotten into the Ivy League school of her dreams. Ariella majors in Jewish studies in college and spends some time learning outside of class, but she rarely spends more than 8 hours a week on serious text study. Because of her day school education, her skills are already better than those of her classmates in her Jewish studies classes. She goes to a coed summer learning program and is in the top level offered in its daily Talmud class.
Ariella continues on to a prestigious Jewish studies PhD program, where she continues her study of academic Talmud. By the end of her time there, she has a good working vocabulary for texts in her area of research and knows a lot about it. Outside of her area of research, her traditional text knowledge is mainly limited to some gemara learning she does for fun and to some everyday halacha.
Meet Baalas Teshuvah Baila. Like many who become Orthodox as adults, Baila didn’t attend a Jewish school growing up. She becomes Orthodox in college and begins to learn as much about Judaism as she can. She starts to really love Talmud: the intellectual exercise, the language, the rhythm, the complexity, the depth, the breadth, the tradition…
Baila decides to go to Israel after college and learn. She doesn’t have much vocabulary yet and hasn’t spent a lot of time learning texts in the original; most of her learning was in Judaic studies classes which didn’t require it. By the end of her year in Israel, she has much more exposure to Talmud and a much richer vocabulary, as well as a better idea of how to learn independently. She still has trouble reading a page of gemara without translation and has very little idea of how to study halacha independently. She really wants to improve her skills and is pretty sure she wants to pursue learning as a career path.
Baila goes on to an Orthodox smicha program where she learns gemara and halacha. She is constantly learning new things and stretching herself, and she can see how much she is improving. She deeply admires the other women there, especially her teachers, and she wants to be like them someday. She is constantly pushed to teach and learn and is very excited about her capacity to give back to the Jewish people. By the end of her time there, her vocabulary is significantly improved, and she knows much more. She can prepare a sugya with minimal use of a dictionary and knows the areas of halacha that her program covered.
Molly and Chana know that the system has failed them – they feel its failures viscerally when they learn with their male counterparts. Ariella and Baila, by contrast, have stayed outside of the mainstream Modern Orthodox educational establishment. As a result, they cannot see the issues affecting them as clearly, even though they are just as far behind the top men their age.
Molly, Chana, Ariella, and Baila are all passionate and dedicated learners who really love Judaism. They all want to learn as much as possible. The point of these profiles is to show how the system has failed to educate them. It is not to mock or criticize them as people or as learners, nor is it to criticize their teachers, many of whom have sacrificed far more prestigious careers to teach them. But acknowledging the issues is an essential step toward helping them and improving our community.
Our community needs all of these women, as many as possible as Torah professionals. We need them for their passion and their knowledge and their role-modeling, and we need them to be the best and most learned Torah professionals they can possibly be. But we lose many Mollys and Chanas to other professions, and just about every Molly, Chana, Ariella and Baila is less knowledgeable and skilled than she could have been – or would have been, had she been male. We can better serve these women, and our community as a whole, by providing them with the learning they both want and need.