This week around the world Jews celebrated the 13th Siyum HaShas of Daf Yomi, the event marking the completion of study of the 2,711 folio pages of the Talmud, one daily page at a time.
In contrast, on Sunday, Hadran hosts the first ever Women’s Siyum HaShas.
I am proud that students in Farber Hebrew Day School’s Girls Beit Midrash Program were the only US high school girls to accept Hadran’s invitation to attend the siyum. Our students attending the siyum completed the second perek of Masechet (Tractate) Sukkah as part of Hadran’s adopt-a-daf program. Over the last week, they have traveled around Israel learning from amazing women Torah scholars at several midrashot. On Sunday, they will cap off their trip by participating in Hadran’s Yom Iyun and Siyum program.
This is a big moment for women’s Torah learning and I’m thrilled my students will be there.
For me, however, as a kid, it never crossed my mind that learning Gemara was something specifically for men. In my school, Maimonides School in Brookline MA, boys and girls learned Gemara together. In shul, the Talner Rebbe zt”l, Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky, taught two Gemara shiurim a week, both of them coed. And it wasn’t really something we questioned.
Of course, over the last 30 years, I’ve encountered many people who have questioned it.
When I took my first teaching job out of semicha (rabbinic ordination), teaching Gemara to young women at Ma’ayanot in Teaneck, many people in my semicha class asked me why I would choose to teach girls Gemara. When I introduced the first-ever Gemara elective to the Goldie Margolin School for Girls in Memphis, many people asked me why I thought that was worthwhile.
Three years ago, I started our Girls Beit Midrash Program at Farber Hebrew Day School in Southfield, MI. Girls in the program learn Gemara and Rishonim at the same level as our boys in the corresponding program. They write articles for our Torah journal and they teach Gemara each year to the community at our Torah journal publication event. Once again, many people questioned whether this was the best focus for our girls’ Judaic studies program.
For me, even though I’ve formulated many answers to these questions and taught classes on the issue several times, the fundamental answer boils down to the attitude of my youth: Why wouldn’t I facilitate Gemara learning for our young women?
Or, perhaps more pointedly, how could I not?
At the various Siyumei HaShas around the world this past week, one theme has been repeated over and again. Serious, committed, sustained Gemara learning has a profound and powerful impact on a person’s life. Learning Torah shapes the way we think, reformulates the way we experience the world, directs our behavior and creates a pathway for our connection to Hashem.
How could we, why would we, deny any Jew that opportunity?
As I sat down this Friday night to learn the fourth chapter of Masechet Sukkah with my 14-year-old son and my 13-year-old daughter, I could not have imagined giving my son the gift of Gemara and telling my smart, thoughtful daughter it wasn’t for her.
This question of women’s Gemara learning is intertwined with some other complex questions about the role of women in Judaism, women’s leadership, and women in the shul. The answer to these questions do not seem simple to me at all.
But what does seem simple to me is that there will be no one better equipped to participate in finding answers to those questions than women steeped in Torah learning who learn Torah motivated by a love of Torah and a desire to get closer to Hashem.
Some have questioned whether opening up Gemara learning to women has caused problems in our community, rather than helped solve them.
But I have faith in the Torah and the powerful influence of Torah learning. I believe that learning Torah lishmah — for its own sake — will always have a positive impact. And I believe that exposing more people to more Torah will always be better for our community.
Sunday’s Women’s Siyum HaShas will inspire many Jews to engage in the study of Gemara. How could that possibly be anything other than a blessing?