Jonathan Muskat

Women’s Torah Study at Yeshiva University

The decision to cancel three Talmud courses on Yeshiva University’s Beren campus (for women) next year due to lack of interest has sparked discussion as to the state of Torah study for Jewish women at Yeshiva University and in the broader community that it represents. Rabbi Yosef Blau, mashgiach ruchani at RIETS, wrote a letter urging the leadership of Stern College to increase the Torah studies requirement for its students. Currently, students are only required to take two Jewish studies courses per semester and they can take secular studies courses throughout the day. This educational setup for female students is in stark contrast to the educational setup for male students at Yeshiva University who currently must spend their entire mornings engaged in Torah studies.

On the surface, the issue of canceling Talmud classes seems to be unrelated to the Torah studies curriculum for the female students of Yeshiva University. The first issue is about whether you cancel a Torah studies class with minimal interest and the second issue is about the broader vision of Torah study for women. However, these two issues are related.

Because female students are not required to take more than two Jewish studies classes per semester and because there is a lot of pressure to excel in college courses, there is little incentive for female students to perhaps explore newer classes like beginner’s or intermediate gemara (two of the courses which were canceled). As such, the minimal Jewish studies requirements indirectly correlate to the minimal interest and eventual cancellation of gemara classes.

I remember that when I studied at Yeshivat Shaalvim over thirty years ago, some of my peers were nervous about leaving Yeshiva and attending Yeshiva University out of a concern that we would lose the passion for talmud Torah when we are not fully immersed in it on a daily basis because now we would be forced to take college courses. I found that Yeshiva University was not a letdown at all. In fact, even though I had to balance my Torah study with secular classes, I continued to learn gemara on a high level with a full morning seder followed by a high-level shiur by Rav Michael Rosensweig. Additionally, I had the opportunity to learn gemara again with a chavruta during night seder with a beit midrash full of students. My older son attended both Yeshivat Shaalvim and Yeshiva University and he had a similar experience to me. There was no precipitous drop in the quality of learning upon leaving Yeshiva and entering Yeshiva University. We both continued to build on what we achieved in Yeshiva in Israel.

However, my youngest daughter returned this year from studying for a year and a half at Migdal Oz where she spent a significant part of her day learning in the beit midrash and she wanted to continue that experience after leaving seminary. However, that is not an option at Stern College. She enrolled in the advanced gemara shiur this semester, but there is only a shiur from 9:00 – 10:15 or 10:25 am. Some students prepare an average of one hour per day beforehand. This was a significant decline from the amount of time that she prepared for her shiur in seminary. As many of us who spend a lot of time learning Torah with a chavruta know, this type of study facilitates tremendous growth in skills and analysis of Torah texts. My daughter loved and wanted to build on her beit midrash study from Migdal Oz. Thankfully, next year she will enroll in Stern College’s Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Study (GPATS) during the morning as an undergraduate student so that she can have a full morning seder and shiur. She found a solution for herself but, as a Jewish studies major, she has the flexibility to create this schedule next year. She has friends who are not majoring in Jewish studies who would love to carve out a two-hour slot of seder followed by a shiur during the day, but they cannot be accommodated because of the required college courses that they must take that are offered only in the morning. Perhaps some professors are only available in the morning and there is a significant logistical challenge in rearranging the schedule for female students at Yeshiva University, but YU’s administration successfully arranges the curriculum so that the male students at YU can take their secular classes in the afternoon. It boils down to the question of how much our community cares about our expectations of growth in talmud Torah for the female students at YU and, by extension, the women of our community.

How can we realistically think about changing women’s Torah education at Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of our community? How can we realistically create more opportunities for high quality Torah learning and perhaps consider a more robust full morning learning program to facilitate this change? Do we try to make the change bottom up or top down? If we think that the change is going to happen from bottom up, then it will not happen. There just aren’t that many female students who care about this issue. Maybe many alumni who are concerned about the growth of high-level Torah study for women feel strongly about the need to change the curriculum for female students to require more time spent on Torah studies and to perhaps not begin secular courses until the afternoon. However, the reality is that most students are uninterested in taking more Torah studies courses. In theory, many probably value it. However, in reality, there is little desire on the part of female students to advocate for a change because of  the pressure to excel in college courses, the desire to take those courses in the morning and the normalization within the community that two Jewish studies courses per semester is sufficient for the female students. Generally speaking, a male student from a top-tier yeshiva in Israel would not be considered a “top-tier ben Torah” if he only enrolled in two Jewish studies courses per week, but a female student from a top-tier seminary in Israel would not be precluded from being considered a “top-tier bat Torah” if she did the same. As such, I don’t see any change happening bottom up.

The only feasible option is to make the change top down, for the rabbinic leadership of our community to say that we value high level Torah study for women and therefore the curriculum for female students should be changed such that they must enroll in a more robust curriculum of Torah study at Yeshiva University. They command the respect in our community to successfully effectuate change in our community. The hours and courses of study need not be identical for men and women, but the curriculum should be adjusted so that female students who want to major in, for example, biology, can also have a morning seder in the beit midrash followed by a shiur in Tanach, gemara or halacha, as the case may be, similar to what many of them experienced in seminary in Israel.

I believe that senior YU Roshei Yeshiva would applaud a more intensive Torah study requirement for female students at Yeshiva University that takes place in the morning. Some may disagree with how much gemara is studied, but I think that senior YU Roshei Yeshiva could be engaged in helping craft a more robust Torah studies program at Stern College for women that would build on what the female students experienced in seminary in Israel. I also understand the challenge in doing this. I understand that Stern College leadership may not want to engage with senior YU Roshei Yeshiva in this goal because the leadership may not want to lose their autonomy in deciding what’s best for its students. I understand that senior YU Roshei Yeshiva may not want to engage with helping direct the Stern College Torah studies program. They probably get enough aggravation and pushback from a variety of their halachic and/or hashkafic positions on the men’s campus on numerous issues, so they may not be that interested in dealing with another campus that will just create greater aggravation and pushback when they make suggestions that meet with opposition.

That being said, I think that we need to ask ourselves the following question. Do we care about furthering women’s Torah education on a high level in the flagship institution of our community following their seminary experience in Israel? If we do, then engaging senior YU Roshei Yeshiva to help effectuate this change seems to be the only realistic solution to this challenge.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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