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The Evolution of Women’s Learning—and My Own
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JOFA Blog

The Evolution of Women’s Learning—and My Own

From Our President, Pam Scheininger

As international women’s Jewish learning and scholarship have evolved in previously unimaginable ways, so has my own relationship with Jewish text. When I think of myself as a learner, I remember that during high school, I routinely lost my Humash and Navi books during the first week of school, never to find them again. I diligently listened to what my teachers said, wrote down their words verbatim, and memorized the information for my tests. I did not think much about, nor did I miss, the actual texts—the words and the p’sukim (verses). I also had no exposure to Torah she’be’al peh (oral law). Girls didn’t learn Mishna or Gemara in my high school.

In my last year of high school in Toronto, my principal learned that I, along with two other girls, was planning to go to Midreshet Lindenbaum the following year. He took the very generous step of offering to start teaching us Talmud during our free periods so that we would begin school with some familiarity with Gemara. I still owe him a debt of thanks for his actions. And in these sessions, I began to understand why opening a text and learning from it directly actually matter.

The following fall, I arrived at Midreshet Lindenbaum full of trepidation—for good reason. My fellow students were talented and intelligent, and they had been learning Torah and Torah she’be’al peh at a high level for many years. But I dove right in and found a home in the texts.  I loved being surrounded by sefarim and absorbing their contents. For the first time, I learned from books instead of notes. I got to know my Gemara, turned to Rashi and Tosafot to understand what I was reading, discovered the distinction between the Shulhan Arukh and the Arukh Ha’Shulhan, and found in the Rambam’s philosophy a vision of God that resonated with me. I spent hours in the beit midrash and felt at home and at peace there.

My fellow students were talented and intelligent, and they had been learning Torah and Torah she’be’al peh at a high level for many years. But I dove right in and found a home in the texts.  I loved being surrounded by sefarim and absorbing their contents. For the first time, I learned from books instead of notes.

Yet even during that year, the environment for women’s learning had its challenges. I heard about the girls at other seminaries who were “more malleable” and so seen as more likely to get married. On more than one occasion, I was asked where my tzitzis were. In a particularly unpleasant experience, a line from Masekhet Nedarim was misquoted to me to suggest that women should be treated as meat (the phrase “mashal l’basar” meaning “a comparison to meat”). I was not quite as amused as the individual who shared the thought.

Returning home was even harder. I had started to learn daf yomi (a page of Talmud a day) while in Israel, and as one of the only women in my community to be doing so, my participation drew some attention.  There were few, if any, higher-level learning opportunities for women at that time; as a result, I found no one suitable to learn with.  

And so it went until I moved to New York and discovered Drisha. At Drisha, with Rabbi David Silber and Rabbi Kenny Wachsman, I found my place again. During my last year of law school, I had the privilege of joining the then-Scholar’s Circle for their Gemara shiur.  I was once again surrounded by exceptionally talented and intelligent women who (as before) knew much more than I did, but I embraced every minute of the experience.  Instead of taking a part-time job in a law firm, I took a subway to Drisha every morning to learn Gemara.  

With work, marriage, and children, time became more and more scarce, but my learning remained deeply important to me. I learned a masekhet of Gemara while pregnant with each of my children and have relearned it again with each of them as they prepared to become b’nei mitzvah.  When a good friend became ill, I learned Mishna for his recovery, and after his death, I finished Tanakh in his memory.  Right now, I am in a learning lull—life has gotten in the way. I feel the loss and am committed to begin learning again soon.  But today, fortunately, I am far from alone. Thousands of women will be celebrating the Siyum HaShas (the completion of the daf yomi cycle) in January.  They are inspirational, and they have changed the landscape of women’s learning for myself and my daughters. 

I love watching my daughters learn Gemara. I love that they take the opportunities to do so for granted—that they do not, for one minute, question whether it is their right or whether they are differently entitled to learn than the boys around them.

And the world of women’s learning continues to evolve. I love watching my daughters learn Gemara. I love that they take the opportunities to do so for granted—that they do not, for one minute, question whether it is their right or whether they are differently entitled to learn than the boys around them. And I love that my son learns Gemara with girls around him, and they are just as likely to challenge him about his thoughts and conclusions as their male counterparts. They are so far from having to crowd around a benevolent principal’s desk that I can barely comprehend the contrast.

I am so thrilled to be writing for this edition of the JOFA Journal.  Although there is still so much for us to accomplish—so many barriers and so many challenges to overcome—there is also much to celebrate. Please join me in doing so.

 

Pam Scheininger is the JOFA President and serves on the editorial committee for the JOFA Journal and on the Governance Committee. Pam has a B.A. in political science from the University of Toronto and a Juris Doctor from Columbia University School of Law. She has also studied at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a 2011-2013 Northern NJ Berrie Leadership Program Fellow. Pam lives in Teaneck with her four children.

Posts are contributed by third parties. The opinions and facts in them are presented solely by the authors and JOFA assumes no responsibility for them.

If you’re interested in writing for JOFA’s blog contact dani@jofa.org. For more about JOFA like us on Facebook or visit our website.

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