If you would have asked me a few years ago, I would have told you, as feminist, that gender should be completely irrelevant to Torah study. The entire notion of “women’s Torah” made me bristle, evoking pink-covered books and talks about challah.
But Sunday, April 25 was International Women’s Talmud Day – and it completely changed my mind.
I spent 24 hours listening to Talmud classes by women from around the world. As I sat there listening, I was overwhelmed by a feeling that what I was hearing was uniquely women’s Torah. None of the classes was about issues directly related to gender. All were focused on Tractate Yoma, which deals with topics related to Yom Kippur. But it was precisely because I was hearing uniquely women’s voices related to more general topics that I found the experience so powerful.
The Hebrew-language classes, by Hannah Hashkes, Hila Naor, and Ravit Kalech, managed to take the esoteric topics of the worship of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, and the ritual purity and impurity laws, and relate them to our lives today. I wondered if, as Orthodox women, we’re used to finding relevance in rituals that at first glance seem unconnected to our lives, and to thinking deeply about matters of purity and impurity, which are intimately connected to the laws of niddah that we practice.
When I heard Rabbanit Leah Sarna’s class on whether or not the Patriarchs kept the commandments, she posited a powerful model for keeping commandments that one isn’t obligated in as a religious ideal, and related how that model could be relevant for many Orthodox women. As an Orthodox woman who grew up being told that many of my religious rituals were less valuable than those of men because men are commanded and I’m not, I found the class very moving. It also calls for a different type of religious engagement, based on choosing to opt in rather than being obligated to not opt out – a model that I think is much more relevant to those of us engaged in the work of Jewish continuity today.
When I heard Avigayil Halpern’s class about the experience of the officiant in charge of bringing the scapegoat to Mount Azazel for the Yom Kippur ceremony, I was struck by the sensitivity to the experience of the Other. I think that, in both Western and Orthodox societies, to be a woman is to be an Other. This is especially so when we approach the Talmudic text, which was written by and for men, and whose study by women is still disapproved of in some Orthodox circles. This Other-ness can give us an awareness of the text’s silenced voices, and when we help those voices to come to life, we enrich the universe of Torah by increasing the number of voices within it.
I also loved hearing the 3 different perspectives on Tractate Yoma from Ilana Kurshan, Dr. R. Avital Hochstein, and Rabbanit Nechama Goldman Barash. Ilana Kurshan talked about the ways that Talmud fits into her life and gives her strength during difficult times. Dr. R. Avital Hochstein used the topic of food to posit a relationship of mutual dependence between God and the Jewish people, rooted in the metaphor of the nursing mother. And Rabbanit Nechama Goldman Barash shared her take on different Talmudic scenarios related to safek pikuach nefesh – not when we know, for sure, that an act will save a life, but rather, when there is a situation of doubt.
Each of these speakers brought her unique viewpoint and set of experiences to the topic, and, for the first time, I wondered how the classes might have sounded different if they were given by men. Would the same sensitivity to the struggles between life and productivity have been there? What about the powerful nursing metaphor? What about the attention paid to places of doubt? This is the opposite of the process I often have as a student of Talmud, when I wonder: What if the text had been written by women?
Yael Smooha’s recounting of the tale of priests fighting over ritual as a metaphor for religious corruption raised issues about how to lead an ethical religious leadership today. I think that women are particularly attuned to this issue because the paradigm of Orthodox women’s religious leadership is still being built.
Hearing Eryn London interview the Sugya Sistas about their Talmud study, I was struck by how Talmud study, in addition to being serious, can also be fun and light-hearted. I wonder if some of that can be lost in Beit Midrash culture. I wondered if, in addition to bringing Beit Midrash culture to women and girls from a young age, we should also be bringing some of the delight that comes from discovering texts at a later point and from studying in an informal context into the Beit Midrash culture.
One of the reasons I founded International Women’s Talmud Day was to amplify women’s voices, in both teaching and learning Talmud. If there are 70 faces to the Torah (or the Talmud), surely not all of them are male faces, and when the female faces remain undiscovered, then, as Torah lovers, we lose out, because we are not seeing the Torah in its entirety. I hope that as women’s Torah study and Talmud study increases, our experience of Torah and Talmud will be enriched by the new faces we discover.
International Women’s Talmud Day is a day to promote women’s Talmud study around the world.