In what was thought to be a battle already won, Rabbi Mordechai Willig, an influential scholar at Yeshiva University, is questioning the widespread practice of women learning Talmud, a program that YU has expanded with pride in recent years.
In an article published last week, Rabbi Willig, at rosh yeshiva at YU since 1973, suggested that the “inclusion of Talmud in curricula for all women in Modern Orthodox schools” be re-evaluated.
“While the gedolim [outstanding rabbis] of the 20th century saw Torah study to be a way to keep women close to our mesorah [tradition], an egalitarian attitude has colored some women’s study of Talmud and led them to embrace and advocate egalitarian ideas and practices which are unacceptable to those very gedolim,” he wrote.
He cited the rise of women’s ordination and egalitarian services as causes to re-evaluate, implying a kind of slippery slope from women’s learning to more liberal forms of Jewish practice.
The article, first posted on a Torah website, struck a nerve in many quarters of an Orthodox community that has touted the advances of and increasing opportunities for serious Talmud study among women. A number of community leaders, educators and students responded swiftly and sharply to Rabbi Willig’s article, mainly on social media.
“This is the type of article that would make me leave YU,” posted one student on Facebook, followed by a chain of more than 100 comments.
The principal of a large Orthodox girl’s high school in Teaneck, N.J., responded with a public Facebook statement defending the study of Talmud for women. “Far from being a subversive force, the movement to advance women’s Talmud Torah continually deepens the avodat Hashem [service of God] of individuals and our community,” wrote Rivka Kahan, principal of Ma’ayanot high school.
Rabbi David Silber, founder and dean of Drisha Institute, which offers advanced studies in Jewish learning for women, told The Jewish Week: “I find it troubling that a Rosh Yeshiva has so little faith in Torah that he imagines that Torah study can be a destructive force in Jewish life.”
Rabbi Willig’s article struck a particularly discordant note at YU in light of the school’s longstanding commitment to women’s Talmud study, even in the face of severe financial strain. Last August, the women’s Graduate Program for Advanced Torah Study (GPATS) was spared from program cuts after a handful of administrators and professors, including the university’s vice president, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, banded together to save the program.
According to a source close to the administration who requested anonymity because of the situation’s sensitive politics, part of the reluctance to continue funding GPATS stemmed from rosh yeshivas at YU who questioned the program’s aims.
Still, under Rabbi Brander’s direction, GPATS hired its first female director, Nechama Price, herself a graduate of the program. Eleven students are enrolled in 2015’s incoming class.
Few other communal leaders responded publicly, though many expressed exasperation in private. Some questioned whether other rabbis at RIETS (the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, YU’s rabbinical school) would publicly take issue with Rabbi Willig, a prominent and highly respected scholar.
Rabbi Willig was not available for comment and no leading figure at YU directly responded to his article. In response to a request for comment from The Jewish Week, a school spokesman offered a statement.
“Yeshiva University encourages and supports the advancement of women’s Torah study at all levels,” it said, “We are proud of the Torah and Talmud study at our Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls, Stern College for Women, Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and the Graduate Program in Advance Talmudic Studies. Our faculty embody a wide range of diverse opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of Yeshiva University.”
The incident was the latest among a number of flare-ups in recent years in which influential YU rabbis have made statements that underscored the cultural divide within Modern Orthodoxy.
Price, who directs GPATS, declined to respond directly to Rabbi Willig’s article. But several graduates of the program expressed frustration, citing their positive experiences learning Talmud as a means of increasing not only their knowledge base but their connection to Judaism.
“The Talmud and its commentaries are some of the most demanding and exhilarating study material that the Jewish tradition has to offer. It is good for the Jewish community and for the Torah, for the best minds (women and men) to be focused on it,” wrote GPATS graduate Lynn Kaye, who also completed a doctorate in Talmud at NYU and currently serves as an assistant professor of Near Eastern languages at Ohio State University.
The irony goes deeper than GPATS. The late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the pre-eminent Modern Orthodox rabbinic figure of his time and Rosh Yeshiva at YU, was a proponent of Jewish textual study for women. Rabbi Willig was a student of Rabbi Soloveitchik.
Jonathan Sarna, professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University, said Rabbi Willig seems to be attempting to “restore his image as a man of the Orthodox center” after his solution to the crisis of agunah — women chained in Orthodox marriages again their will — met with attacks from rabbis on his religious right. Rabbi Willig also was responsible for drafting the halachic prenuptial agreement, a document that de-incentivizes men from withholding a get (religious divorce document) by inflicting damaging personal costs if they choose to do so.
“As usual, women’s issues are a barometer of attitudes toward modernity, and the same was true years ago when the issue was mixed seating,” wrote Jonathan Sarna, professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University in an email. “Since he can hardly back down on the prenup that he created, he is displaying his Orthodox bona fides in a different way.”
Sarna concluded that, from a historical perspective, it is “fascinating” to see elder Jewish leaders questioning well-established positions of their movements because of “unanticipated consequences.”
In online discussions responding to Rabbi Willig’s article there was both anger and resentment from proponents of women’s Torah study and deep respect for his scholarship and stature in the Orthodox community. Rabbi Willig, aside from his position at the rabbinical seminary, is a leading figure on the Rabbinical Council of America’s court, the Beth Din of America. The Beth Din is responsible for adjudicating cases involving conversion, legal disputes and divorce.
Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), said she finds it “troubling” that so few Orthodox community leaders are speaking out against Rabbi Willig’s views. She recalled that she opened her first page of Talmud while an undergraduate at Stern College. “He [Rabbi Willig] is at odds with Modern Orthodoxy, with the university he represents, and with history,” she said. “It doesn’t take much to stand up and strongly say I disagree.”