A Feminist Mandate

Vayak-hel By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Apr 8, 1997 / 5757 | Torah Commentary | Gender

The recent conference in New York City on “Feminism and Orthodoxy” heralds a major escalation in the confrontation between Jewishly well-educated Orthodox feminists and a bitterly defensive rabbinic establishment. The word on the street in the weeks before the conference was that it would be a brief one, implying that the two topics had nothing in common. But reality proved the cynics wrong. Nearly a thousand Orthodox women of all stripes convened for two days of study, prayer and protest to challenge the gender inequities that abound in contemporary Orthodoxy. The plight of women stranded without benefit of a Jewish divorce from their husbands evoked an added measure of outrage.

The conference gave notice that a growing body of literate and learned Orthodox women would no longer accept the talmudic put-down that “the wisdom of women is restricted to the spindle.” On the basis of this alleged inferiority, women had always been systematically denied equal education by the traditional Jewish community. In his great codification of Jewish law, Maimonides softened the degree of exclusion ever so slightly. He distinguished between teaching girls Torah and Talmud. The former was permissible though not desirable. The latter, under no circumstances, because women, “given their intellectual impoverishment will turn the words of Torah (i.e. Talmud) into words of folly.”

Twenty years ago Maimonides’ formulation still governed the conduct of just about the entire Orthodox world. The study of Talmud remained beyond the reach of Orthodox women. The barrier was breached in Jerusalem when a woman doctoral student at the Seminary joined the faculty of Pelech, a highly regarded modern Orthodox high school for young women. Over the vociferous protests of the faculty, but with the strong backing of the principal, she introduced a course in Mishna and later even in Talmud. Today, Talmud is studied so widely by Orthodox women that Tradition, a journal of Orthodox Jewish thought put out by the Rabbinical Council of America, devoted a section of its Spring 1994 issue to a symposium on women and Jewish education.

Without this prior curricular revolution, the conference could never have been held. Education for a disenfranchised group is always an instrument of empowerment, a challenge to the way things are. Mastery of the corpus of rabbinic literature exposed Orthodox women to a culture where diversity of practice and belief is licit and the evolution of legal institutions amply documented. Rabbinic Judaism did not descend full-blown from Mount Sinai, nor are present norms the only pattern of observance yielded by the sources. The demand by the women in attendance for greater inclusion in the religious arena of the community is a direct and inevitable outgrowth of their new-found knowledge. In Judaism the ultimate goal of study has always been to enrich practice. Since historically women were expected to observe less (that is, freed from mitzvot that were time-bound), they were taught far less.

Our parasha this week is not unrelated to the role of women in Judaism. Moses is about to inform the people of God’s instructions for the building of the Tabernacle, for which purpose he assembles “the whole community (Exodus 35:1).” That this certainly includes also the women of Israel is affirmed by the subsequent narrative. Not only do the men contribute their personal belongings voluntarily and generously to the sacred task, but so do the women. We read: “And all the skilled women spun with their own hands, and brought what they had spun, in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen (35:25).” Later we are told that another group of women stationed at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting gave their mirrors (38:8). More generally, all the men and women inspired to get involved hastened to give, until the priests urged Moses to bring the campaign for the Tabernacle to a close (35:22, 36:5). No one was excluded on the basis of gender.

The Talmud chose to read these passages more restrictively. Why does the Torah single out woven cloth as the noteworthy contribution of women (35:25)? Because this is the only craft at which they excel. And hence the uncharitable generalization which I cited above: “The wisdom of women is restricted to the spindle.”

Elsewhere, the Talmud specifically removed girls from the realm of formal education. On the verse “and teach them to your children [literally sons’— Deuteronomy 11:19]” toward the end of the second paragraph of the Shema, the Talmud explicitly excluded daughters. Yet there is nothing inherent in the verse to dictate this narrow interpretation. The Rabbis could just as legitimately have understood the word “beneikhem” to mean “your children” (as does the JPS translation I quoted) as “your sons.” At work in this piece of exegesis is a cultural bias that would prevail deep into the twentieth century.

By way of illustration, I shall make reference to my favorite traditional commentator, Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein, the author of the incomparable Torah Temima. He died in 1941 at the age of 80, shortly after the Nazis had entered the largely Jewish city of Pinsk, where Epstein lived ever since his return from America. A prominent banker with a command of modern languages and culture, Epstein moved easily between the competing worlds of the Lithuanian rabbinic elite and the secular Zionists. Few in either camp could match his lucid, supple and graceful Hebrew prose.

And yet Epstein in his commentary on the above two talmudic passages gives no ground. He remains convinced that women lack the intellectual depth to grasp talmudic matter clearly and firmly. Its abstract principles elude their understanding, and hence their superior intellectual adroitness, which he concedes, goes to work on talmudic material ill conceived and hardly penetrated by them. Women are only facile, not deep.

The admission of women to the study of Talmud as equals is thus a recent departure from tradition of radical proportions. Even the most enlightened of Orthodox leaders but a few generations back would never have countenanced such a reform. The conference on “Feminism and Orthodoxy” marks the start of the campaign to carry egalitarianism from the beis midrash into the synagogue. Should these women be unwisely denied, will they not find themselves gravitating toward Conservative Judaism?

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of commentary on Parashat Va-yak·hel are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.