Women And Talmud

A new generation of women is learning, and teaching, the intricate text.

Highlighter at hand, Gemara wide open, my hand raised high, I anxiously wait to answer the next question about the cities of refuge in the second perek (chapter) of Masechet Makot. I’ve felt this way once before, last year when I learned a similar piece of Gemara. I’ve never been so attached and so interested in any other Judaic text; I feel as if this book was designed specifically for me.

My Gemara teachers are highly educated and insightful women. The way they each have the ability to relate the text to modern day events is simply astonishing to me. What strikes me most is that there are pious Jews around the world who oppose such a panorama. To them, the idea of women and Gemara is absurd and in some cases even forbidden.

For centuries, men dominated the world of Torah study. The Talmud says explicitly that women are exempt from learning Torah. However, just because one is excused from doing something does not imply that one should not do it.

Throughout history there were many exceptional women who disregarded their exemption and became true Torah scholars. Not only did they learn Torah and Gemara as diligently as men, but a few of them also taught it to men. Rabanit Miriam is generally known as the mother of the Meharshal, a scholarly 16th century posek, or halachic decisor; however, she is also renowned for her profound knowledge of Torah. In fact, she taught a group of men at a yeshiva for several years. Since it was viewed as inappropriate for her to teach Torah directly to the men, she sat in front of a screen as she expounded the wonders of the Torah to them.

Formal Torah study for women began in the early 20th century by a woman named Sara Schenirer, the founder of the Bais Yaakov movement. Many important rabbis, such as the Chafetz Chaim, supported her movement. He explained that if we do not teach women Torah they may stray totally from God’s path and transgress the basic tenets of religion. Today women are allowed to learn Torah with no opposition; however, a deeper question remains, why are woman still discredited for learning and teaching Gemara?

“The controversy over women learning Gemara has been discussed for a few decades already and I think it’s fair to say that there aren’t too many people who think there is a halachic problem with women learning or teaching Gemara,” said Shira Hecht-Koller, Gemara teacher at the North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck. “There are certainly those who think it is a social problem, but on strictly halakhic grounds there really aren’t any objections.”

Since there is no halachic problem with woman learning Gemara, why are there so few female Gemara teachers?

“Up until recently, there wasn’t a generation of women who were educated enough to teach it yet,” said Lisa Septimus, Gemara teacher at the North Shore Hebrew Academy. “As women began to graduate from yeshivas and continued studies in Stern or in Israel, a qualified, female Gemara teacher-generation emerged.”  

Ramaz hired one of the first female Gemara teachers Leah Bruckheimer in the early 1990s; Frisch followed Ramaz’s trend by hiring Noah Jesselson. Both Ramaz and Frisch taught Gemara and all Judaic studies in coed classrooms. Schools such as Ma’ayanot, Central and Flatbush hired female Gemara teachers as well however, the classrooms are not coed.

In 2002 the North Shore Hebrew Academy High School hired Lisa Septimus to teach coed Gemara. This was the first time, since Noah Jesselson, that a woman taught Gemara in a coed setting. Subsequent to hiring Mrs. Septimus, North Shore hired Shira Hecht-Koller.

Today schools such as North Shore, Ramaz and SAR have coed Gemara classes taught by women. “The gender of my Gemara teacher doesn’t really make a difference to me personally,” said Scott Hercman, a senior at the North Shore Hebrew Academy. “However the one year I did have a woman Gemara teacher, I was overwhelmed with the intriguing life lessons and material she taught.”

Like other Jewish educators, Lisa Septimus and Shira Hecht-Koller spent years studying Jewish education, Torah and Talmud. Originally Septimus set out to be a Tanach teacher but she always found herself drawn back to the Gemara classes. “I believe that intellectual study of Torah is an important spiritual path for all Jews; my own religious identity would not be the same without the study of Gemara in my life,” she said.

Shira Hecht-Koller, who practiced corporate law before teaching Talmud, said that, “Judaism is in many fundamental ways a religion based on law. To understand where the law stems from, how it evolved, the values that it reflects and how the system creates a community, is to really understand the basis of our religion and leads to a truer and more committed observance of Torah and mitzvot.”

Hecht-Koller began studying Talmud as an elective at Yeshiva University’s High School for Girls and continued her Talmud study at Stern College for Women, Bernard Revel Graduate School and at Midreshet Lindenbaum in the Bruriah Scholars Program.

“The opportunity to be able to expose young men and women to modern legal thinking and analysis through the study of our ancient texts is both thrilling and tremendously rewarding,” she said.

Women are successful in the secular world. They are becoming CEOs, doctors and lawyers — professions that in the past women could only dream about.  Every morning Jewish women bless Hashem for “having made me according to his will.” When I recite those words I feel a sense of power and pride. I feel powerful because I have the opportunity to learn Talmud, something my ancestors only dreamed of doing. I feel proud because I see how far women have come in the secular and Jewish worlds.

Being a Modern Orthodox Jew, I believe that Jewish life should take in the best of the society in which it lives. Therefore, I, along with many Torah scholars, believe that not only is it permissible that women are immersing themselves in Torah and Gemara study, but it is a mitzvah.

Nicole Azulay is a senior at North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, L.I..

This article is reprinted from October 30, 2009.