Over the summer, The Lehrhaus published four pieces about women’s learning. The first, by Rabbi Dr. Judah Goldberg, laid out a “programmatic agenda for [women’s] advanced Torah study” which he believed would “maximize their learning opportunities.” The second, by Professor Chaim Saiman, argued that discomfort and uncertainty around the role of learned women underly the deficiencies in our community’s program. The third, by Sharona Halickman, rejoined that some communities, including Riverdale, in which she served at one point as Madrikhah Ruhanit, had no such discomfort. The fourth, again by Rabbi Dr. Goldberg, agreed with Professor Saiman as to the sociological reality, but reiterated that it was nonetheless imperative to make it possible for women to excel. A fifth piece, by Dr. Malka Simkovich, was published in October; in it, Dr. Simkovich argued that mentorship, networking, and including women in public conversations should be the focus of our communal efforts, since she believes there are women who are qualified “to lead congregations and give basic pesak… to attain positions of halakhic leadership.”
I am honored to participate in a discussion which has engaged so many eminent scholars and talmidei chachamim, especially because some of those scholars are my teachers. I am further heartened to see that our community is finally beginning to have a more honest conversation about women’s learning. Core to the process of improving our community in this regard, however, is listening to those women who are affected.
I am sure that Rabbi Dr. Goldberg cares a great deal for his students and has deep concern for their futures. But his assertion that women who learn “lag terribly behind their male counterparts” insults those women who do not fit his description, whether or not they are his students. Furthermore, his claims that “if a yeshiva would overlook their gender, they would still not be qualified to join” and that “true expertise is never really in their reach” falsely absolve men’s yeshivas of any obligation to admit women.
Rabbi Dr. Goldberg teaches young women who learn, but he is not one of them. I am.
I am a woman who has been qualified to join the yeshivas of my male peers at every stage of my life, in high school and after. I know this to be true because, after women’s advanced learning programs refused to let me in after high school due to my age, I ended up livestreaming a men’s shiur for two and a half years during college. As I first drafted this article, I was in a summer kollel with men my age and older who had attended elite men’s yeshivas, and I was not behind.
I do not think that I am unique, but even if I am, I do exist, and it is partly because there are so few women like me that Rabbi Dr. Goldberg’s solution would not work for me.
Rabbi Dr. Goldberg acknowledges that those he wishes to serve are a “narrow population,” potentially the “six or ten women” that current graduate programs get. But as few women as that is, there are far fewer like me. There is unlikely to be a critical mass of us in the near future. The simplest way – indeed, the only way – to offer women like me education at our level is to let us into the existing men’s programs.
Women like me are women who have devoted our lives to learning since childhood. We have striven to learn and to teach, to guard and to do – and in return for our efforts, we have been faced with our community’s refusal to support the very commitments it urged. Like seeds beneath a clod of earth, we have sprouted – but we have been trampled.
I cannot count the number of young women who have told me that this is why they do not learn more in college. Disappointed by their time in seminary, knowing they have few options (if any) for learning while in college, they decide that they will wait until graduate school to start their serious learning. They know that they want to learn, and many of them want to devote their lives to learning, yet they choose to wait, because if they do not wait, there will be nothing for them.
Women’s learning undeniably suffers from being made separate from men’s. Rabbi Dr. Goldberg seems to believe that men’s learning would suffer from an influx of women. But if we are willing to sacrifice women’s higher learning entirely for the sake of men’s, but unwilling to risk reducing the level of men’s learning at all for the sake of women, can we really say that we value women’s Torah learning, let alone that we are willing to “offer determined young women our best efforts?” Rabbi Dr. Goldberg’s apparently unironic reference to “separate but equal” as an unachievably high standard should make us think about whether we really ought to be so willing to sacrifice equality for the sake of separation.
Moreover, in Rabbi Dr. Goldberg’s romanticized yeshivas, men “cannot show up to a semikhah program with only mild proficiency in Gemara.” While this may be true in Israel (I am less familiar with the institutions there), I know men with limited gemara knowledge and proficiency who were allowed into American semikhah programs. Sometimes they are asked to spend a year in a program specifically designed to bring their level up, but never (as Rabbi Dr. Goldberg seemingly expects of women) to sadly admit defeat, since after all, “their best years are already behind them.” I applaud our community’s willingness to include and educate highly motivated people who have not had the educational opportunities available to men educated in our mainstream institutions. Shouldn’t we make the same opportunities available to highly motivated women?
Rabbi Dr. Goldberg ends his most recent piece with a call to our community to listen to its young women when we tell it what we need. I can ask only that.