Why Women’s Learning and Leadership Are Separate Issues

Advocates for women’s learning frequently make the following argument:

  1. There are Jewish leadership tasks for which it is more appropriate to have women lead.
  2. These tasks are generally done by men with advanced Torah educations.
  3. Therefore, in order to have women perform these tasks, they must also have advanced Torah educations.

This argument is dangerous — not only does it reduce the purpose of women’s advanced learning to leadership training, implicitly devaluing the learning of laywomen, its logic is fatally flawed. While it is true that the men who perform these tasks generally have advanced Torah educations, advanced Torah educations are not necessary for their performance. To argue for women’s learning effectively, we need to value it for its own sake, not as a stepping stone to another goal.

Torah learning and Jewish leadership are, obviously, connected. Knowledge of the Divine Will — through books or through revelation — has always been both a prerequisite and a justification for Jewish leadership. But the nature of the relationship changes with time and culture — leadership which requires superb Torah knowledge in one context may require only basic knowledge in another. Effective Jewish leadership requires the leader to know more than those they lead, not to reach any objective standard of knowledge. Midrashically, Noach in his generation was as great as Avraham in his, even though only the latter kept the Torah.

To see this in the present day, one has only to look at the wildly divergent curricula of Orthodox rabbinical schools. Orthodox rabbinical schools generally require some knowledge of tefillah, kashrus, niddah, Shabbos, aveilus, geirus, and various contemporary issues. They often provide training in teaching, speaking, and pastoral care. They expect their students to be able to read both Talmud and halachic codes. But regardless of whether a school focuses heavily on practical skills for the communal rabbinate or on the mastery of theoretical halakhic minutiae, no matter how many years of study required, however in-depth the curriculum, the degree is the same, and the newly minted rabbi can be hired to a wide variety of positions.

What tasks does a rabbi do with their Torah knowledge? Some rabbis work in shuls and are expected (among other things) to teach, speak, and answer shailas. Some rabbis work as administrators. Some rabbis teach Torah subjects, and the Torah knowledge required rises with the level they teach.

But many of these things do not require the knowledge and skills a typical Orthodox rabbinical school imparts. Sermons and community shiurim, for instance, require deep thought, artistry, and the capacity to make Torah both accessible and exciting. To the extent that they also require specialized knowledge, this can be acquired by borrowing the sources from other knowledgeable people — a strategy made simpler every day through the proliferation of source sheets on the Internet. Classical rebbetzins, who have far less training, frequently do these things exceptionally well.

This brings us to the relationship between women’s Torah learning and Jewish leadership. These are often treated as the same subject. Two recent Lehrhaus articles, for instance, conflated the two. Professor Chaim Saiman argued that it was impossible to understand the community’s refusal to create high-level learning opportunities for women without understanding the community’s fundamental uncertainty about the ends of their creation, and Sharona Halickman responded by asserting that in many communities, including the one in which she served as a madrikhah ruhanit, this is not an issue.

Ms. Halickman’s essay in particular exposes the major weakness of this conflation; in her description of the work she did while a madrikhah ruhanit, she says that “there are numerous brides, converts, bat mitzvah students, and community members who would not have had a clergy member to whom to turn to discuss personal matters if I had not been there.” While this work is both laudable and an excellent outcome of female leadership, it does not require advanced Torah knowledge.

Ms. Halickman is far from the only one to have made this conflation. Ruthie Braffman Shulman, a former JLIC educator, described her own “educational Torah leadership” as follows:

I have had the privilege of energizing the women’s side of the mechitzah and making sure all women feel welcome in shul, grabbing a bride’s hands and leading the women’s dancing as her groom was danced around the bimah at his aufruf, leading discussion groups for women to share and discuss their personal spiritual experiences and religious challenges, consoling and counseling women through the upheaval of relationships and difficult lifecycle events while liaising with the rabbis most suited to address the situation, and helping women through the emotional and spiritual challenges of family purity laws and infertility — incredibly important experiences for the women of the community that no man could possibly do in a halachically appropriate way.

Again, while this work is important, nothing on this long list requires advanced Torah knowledge or involves Torah education.

All this is certainly not to argue that women’s advanced Torah education is not necessary — it is essential. But if, when it comes to what people want out of women’s Jewish leadership, the education doesn’t actually matter — if the desired role is some combination of therapist and big sister, a rebbetzin but without a husband — then in what way is this a justification of women’s learning? What point would there then be in any advanced education in gemara or halacha?

The Orthodox community has no reason to care about the level of women’s education if the only reason that education is provided is to facilitate leadership. The only way we can improve the level of women’s learning is by caring about it for its own sake — seeing women as human beings and as Jews, and treating them as the Beis Yaakov to whom the Torah was first addressed.

About the Author
Tzipporah Machlah Klapper is the founder of Midreshet Avigayil, a summer Talmud program for girls. Originally from Boston, MA, she currently lives in Washington Heights, where she tutors and teaches in the local community.
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