The Women Who Made Talmud Study Less Intimidating
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The Women Who Made Talmud Study Less Intimidating

Courtesy of the author
Courtesy of the author

They have made it less intimidating.

The women who have been learning a page of Talmud a day since 2012, when the last seven and a half year Daf Yomi cycle have created a new reality with their study. Daf Yomi is an effort to cover all of the Babylonian Talmud page by page  created by Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin in 1923; the fourteenth cycle is now in progress. Not only did these women cover the entirety of the Talmud, they decided to make it possible for others.  They helped create more points of access so that more Jews would be encouraged and able to make regular study a part of their lives.  

The global women’s siyum showcased both the love of Torah and the fact that this is knowledge not reserved for particular classes of Jews.  Women and men are able to access Jewish learning; in 2020, we all have a clear vision, and a way forward.  

Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber, an alum of the yeshiva of Flatbush and Barnard College, according to her Facebook page, has been teaching Talmud to a group of women at her home in Ra’anana, Israel and decided to organize a global celebration for those women who have completed the cycle of study. Well over 3000 men and women of all ages and from around the world attended the event at at Binyanei Haumah  in Jerusalem on January 5, 2020, the day when the cycle of learning is both finished and started again.  The organization Farber founded, Hadran, exists
to make Talmud study accessible to Jewish women at all levels. It does so in a unique way: by providing a wide range of resources – daily Talmud study support, commentary, topical shiurim, insights – in the voice of women teachers.”

         I first heard about this Siyum HaShas — the global Talmud completion event — while visiting my daughter in Jerusalem back in May when I met Ilana Kurshan, a Lilith writer, whose book If All the Seas were Ink, has done as much as anyone to publicize what  Talmud study can do for a woman and why it can be personally meaningful.  Kurshan’s account of how she studied her page a day first after a wrenching divorce and then through a new marriage and new motherhood enables readers to see what incorporating Jewish wisdom into one’s daily life can mean.  As I wrote in my own review of the book when it was first published in 2017, she allows the text into her daily life, and lets her life unfold in rhythm with the words of the text. 

         There have been other women too, who have made possible the study for women now.  Rabbi Dr Judith Hauptman, E Billi Ivry Professor Emerita of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was the  first woman to earn a PhD in Talmud, in 1982. The current Talmud department at JTS includes Dr. Marjorie Lehman and Dr. Sarah Wolf as well as Rabbi Dr Gail Labovitz at  American Jewish University; many universities all over the world have women teaching Talmud, Dr. Christine Hayes at Yale, Dr. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert at Stanford, Dr. Elizabeth Shanks Alexander at the University of Virginia, Dr. Beth Berkowitz at Barnard. Dr. Ruth Calderon, a PhD in Talmud and former Knesset member, spoke about the Talmud in her opening address  to the Knesset and wrote a book discussing selected Talmudic stories and reimagining them, A Bride for One Night, translated to English by Ilana Kurshan.  

The event in Jerusalem which I watched on Facebook livestream while my daughter attended, was full of excitement and spirit, teen girls cheering their schools and teachers as they would at a concert. This clip from Israeli TV news  showcases the palpable excitement, which even non- Hebrew speakers will grasp.

The event in Jerusalem which I watched on Facebook livestream while my daughter attended, was full of excitement and spirit, teen girls cheering their schools and teachers as they would at a concert. This clip from Israeli TV news  showcases the palpable excitement, which even non- Hebrew speakers will grasp. The event ended with a song, both the Israeli national anthem Hatikva and one that the audience sang and performed with the help of Koolulam.  Emcee Rachelle Sprecher Frankel explained that, based on Deuteronomy 31: 19 that Torah is song, a description that  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks  applies to the Torah as a whole being “song,” so the notion of using a song to culminate a session of Torah study is a highly appropriate way of concretizing and embodying Torah teachings. 

At the same time, in Rockville, MD the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance sponsored a siyyum featuring 14 teachers and 150 participants, one of the only forums to celebrate women’s learning in the US that day. All of them, those in Israel and those who started studying Talmud years back,  have opened up the world of Talmud study to more and more women, as well as more and more men. 

           In the past few days, I have loved seeing the thoughts about the daf on my Facebook pages from a gay Reform rabbi, a daughter of a former Soviet refusenik, a high school classmate who is an Israeli citizen and proud Jew but fairly secular, in addition to our own hometown Daf Yomi Pittsburgh.  At the siyum Esti Rosenberg spoke of her father and grandfather, Rabbis Aharon Lichtenstein and Joseph Soloveitchik respectively, wanting to open Torah study to women because of love of Torah, to make sure all Jews could access it.  The global women’s siyum showcased both the love of Torah and the fact that this is knowledge not reserved for particular classes of Jews.  Women and men are able to access Jewish learning; in 2020, we all have a clear vision, and a way forward.  

Beth Kissileff is author of the novel Questioning Return and editor of the anthology Reading Genesis: Beginnings.  She wrote on the parsha last year for 929 and is at work on a book about coping with trauma, based on events in her Pittsburgh community.  Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.

 

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