Why Are There Empty Chairs in the Beit Midrash?: Updating the Communal Agenda

By Tova Warburg Sinensky

During my time teaching at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School, on a few occasions we discussed whether or not we should continue to include the topic of “Women and Talmud Torah” in the curriculum. The relevant material traces the development of serious Torah She-Be’al Peh study for women from Talmudic texts to the statements of more contemporary halachic decisors. Some teachers suggested that learning about this development fosters an appreciation for the opportunity women now have to deepen a connection with God through directly encountering Devar Hashem. Others responded that that ship seems to have sailed. Serious Torah study for women is an established reality, in no need of strengthening. Or is it?

These discussions reemerged in my mind when Ma’ayanot’s principal Rivka Kahan, a Torah scholar and my mentor and friend, penned an incisive article for Lehrhaus on women and Talmud study reflecting on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s vision. I take this opportunity to continue these conversations at Ma’ayanot, begun a decade ago.

Kahan proposed a number of suggestions to fulfill the Rav’s vision of intensive Torah She-Be’al Peh study for women. The common theme among her recommendations, upon which I will expand, is redressing the dichotomy between women’s and men’s Torah She-Ba’al Peh education, whether in homes, day schools, post high school institutions, or adult educational settings.

This is not a new criticism. Kahan’s concerns echo the Rav’s. In May 1953, Rabbi Soloveitchik argued that if “Boys and girls alike should be introduced into the inner halls of Torah She-Be’al Peh,” then we must end “this policy of discrimination between the sexes as to subject matter and method of instruction which is still advocated by certain groups within our Orthodox community.” The Rav observed that this bias “has contributed greatly to the deterioration and downfall of traditional Judaism.”

Despite great progress toward the Rav’s vision, it remains unrealized. Women with a desire to learn Gemara intensively are not afforded the communal culture and infrastructure to facilitate their maximal growth in its study, do not feel fully embraced as insiders to the Mesorah, and are still relatively few and far between. It is time to put increasing opportunities for women who wish to serve God through intensive Torah She-Be’al Peh study back on the communal agenda.

To provide women with the desire, skills, and comfort to engage in intensive Gemara learning, it is time for communities that honor the Rav’s values to rethink how they communicate them. It “takes a village”parents, educators, leaders, and students of both gendersto cultivate, inculcate, and perpetuate values.

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