Anyone who has been to a shiur in a Modern Orthodox setting has seen source sheets. These packets of excerpted material are nearly ubiquitous. Because they are cheap and easy to produce, they’re a simple way of presenting sources without having to buy dozens of copies of the same books.
As a child, I went to the shiurim my parents gave to the local communities, usually about gemara or halacha. I liked to sit in the back and read the source sheets, trying to understand what they were saying. I didn’t always understand, but being in an environment focused on Torah made me feel fulfilled. I never doubted that I was where I belonged.
I didn’t understand exactly what the text said then, but I understood the format, and it was beautiful.
I especially loved my father’s source sheets. So many source sheets, like the books they were excerpted from, were intimidating, unpunctuated blocks of text. My father’s source sheets were different. He broke up lines and often used indents and highlights and colors to show the layers – psukim, Tannaitic statements, Amoraic statements, questions within commentary within questions. Often, he arranged the words into poetry and art, with sweeping columns of parallel items and sentences arranged in short, scattered blocks which showed what each part was doing. It was the sort of thing that would have been impractical, almost unimaginable, without a computer. I didn’t understand exactly what the text said then, but I understood the format, and it was beautiful.
Over the years, I’ve come to understand a lot more Talmud. The first thing I do in preparing any gemara (and most halachic texts) is break it up, as my father taught me, so that every level of indent can be read without the further-indented portions. This visually represents what is happening in the sugya – this proof is about the initial question, not about the answer to a challenge on a previous question; this answer has a lot of commentary, while the others do not; this is about the mishnah, and this is about the memra (amoraic halachic statement).
I learned off of source sheets like these every summer for six summers at the Summer Beit Midrash. We spent staggering amounts of time preparing enormous amounts of text, and it was mostly off of source sheets in which texts had been enhanced this way.
So many women do not even know what they are missing because of the segregation.
It is not insignificant that this also occurred within another innovation of my father’s – the Summer Beit Midrash, which as far as I know was the first fully coed summer kollel. Unlike other summer kollels which allow women, the shiur was always taught to the level of the most advanced student present, even though the women (due to the disadvantages I catalogued here) tended to have less experience. There was no translation, and everyone was expected to know the basic vocabulary and mechanics of halachic texts. At first this was intimidating, because everyone knew so much more than I did, but it was also very exciting. The enormous gap showed me how much I had to learn. By my sixth summer, I was at the top of the shiur – in my first, I had been at the bottom.
Coeducation is new. The first schools that taught women Torah were segregated, and most remain so, even within the Modern Orthodox community. Yet so many women do not even know what they are missing because of the segregation. Women’s-only programs mean that the top level of a shiur is necessarily limited because of the systemic issues with the availability and quality of programming for women at every level. Men’s-only programs exclude women from the environments most conducive to Torah greatness.
Innovations in Torah are valuable – they open new intellectual vistas to rabbinic insight and allow us to further explore the depths of our mesorah.
Innovations in Torah are valuable – they open new intellectual vistas to rabbinic insight and allow us to further explore the depths of our mesorah. All of them, of course, can be misused – source sheets can uproot texts from context and use inadequate translations, and coeducation can be used as an excuse to lower expectations for male and female students alike. But we should celebrate the opportunities that we have thanks to new technologies and ideas, even with their flaws.
Tzipporah Machlah Klapper is a tutor and teacher of gemara and halacha. She convenes popular in-depth “chaburot” (informal lectures) on halacha from her home in Washington Heights on topics ranging from civil marriage to synagogue design. She loves to write and think about improving Jewish education, especially for Modern Orthodox women.
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