Women learn Torah too

State funding is crafted to ensure that only the male religious studies frameworks get public backing

It’s not news to anybody, women also learn Torah. For quite some time now, Torah learning isn’t exclusively a men’s domain. For more than twenty five years women have been learning Torah “Lishma”, for Hashem’s sake, in Batei Midrash and in other places: investigating, learning in depth, delving into the Torah. Teaching and raising a generation of boys and girls, students full of knowledge. There are even some women who are halachic figures, answering halachic questions. The women’s learning, though it is lengthy and difficult like the men’s learning differs from male learning in the respect that it is not well known or valued. As such, it does not receive government funding, unlike male learning.

In the state of Israel, most Women’s Beis Midrash are funding by external parties, mostly by the affluent Jews from around the world. Whether it is via philanthropic work, estates, or families who have made it a goal to further the institutions who are training women in the world of knowledge, wisdom and the acts of Torah and Halacha. Without an annual fundraising trip to the wealthy Jews of the diaspora, maintaining these institutions would be nearly impossible.

From my first days in the Knesset I have been working to enhance women’s learning and the involvement of the state in it so that the government will recognize those women and will fund them financially. Indeed, through these efforts and with the help of the Education Ministry, this past September the government recognized the right to fund women’s learning. Despite the action by the government, it came with a caveat, only institutions that teach and women who learn more than 24 hour a week can receive funding. As it stands today, most institutions only amount to 20 hours a week and as such, do not fit the criteria for funding.

There is clearly a discrepancy between the statute and what actually is taking place around the country. On the one hand, the government and the Education Ministry, want the amount of hours to increase but to do so would require more funding which isn’t available without the help from the government.

It should be noted that this was the first time I was able to act on the matter which I have been entrusted with for years. Thanks to Education Minister, Shai Piron, I was able to add the subject to the agenda for discussion and already in the next Knesset we will be able to thoroughly deal with this issue. Another discrepancy we found between men and women is that when men are learning in pre-army institutions they are exempt from paying the Bituach Leumi national insurance tax, while girls who are learning pre-army or pre-national service are not exempt.

Does the voice of Judaism in Israel always have to be that of a male? Is there no room for a female voice? In recent years we have seen the emergence of a generation of religious women who are opinionated, traditional and educated — all at the same time. Religious Zionism, the traditional and reserved part of it, excluded from its ranks — and continues to exclude — thousands of women who have reached the pinnacle of academia and law, society and science, education and research. Despite this, in the public sphere the voice heard is mostly that of the Rabbis and teachers.

Cases such as these spurred me to lead a gender budget. The state budget dislikes women, which is why one of the many things I accomplished over the past 18 months has been to pass the budget while looking through gender equality glasses. This year was supposed to be the inaugural year. This would have required the Education Ministry to show how a very small percentage of funding is going to women and the rest to men. In today’s reality, women fall between the cracks. An injustice has been created and it is only through irresponsibility that affixes the inequality for generations. We cannot continue to depend on donations; the state must recognize and fund Women’s Torah Learning. There is room to rework the clauses which grant funding to women Torah learners, changes that will empower and lead to welcome action.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those whose generous contributions have helped to build and maintain this groundbreaking endeavor. I hope that we can all continue to benefit from the good faith and generosity of these donations and to further the learning of women in Israel and around the world.

About the Author
Dr. Aliza Lavie served as a member of the Knesset for Yesh Atid between 2013 and 2019, serving as chair of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. She is a senior lecturer at the School of Communication at Bar-Ilan University.