Women’s Torah Education Part I - The Positions of the Tanna’im, Amora’im, & Rishonim by Ned Krasnopolsky (Editor-in-Chief Emeritus ‘19)

Editors’ Note: The following four part series by Ned Krasnopolsky (‘19) on the topic of women’s Torah education is based on a set of Shiurim given by Rabbi Daniel Fridman to the Y18C Gemara shiur at TABC in the spring of 2018.

Introduction

Women’s involvement in Torah learning in our times is not an unprecedented development. In each generation, the leaders of the Jewish Halachic world evaluate and carefully assess the need for, and appropriate level of, women’s Torah education in our schools and homes. This series will focus on the development of women’s Torah education throughout the ages, starting with Sefer Devarim, and ending with the positions of the Chafeitz Chaim, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. With the increased development of women’s secular education throughout the world, it is important to note the maturation of women’s Torah instruction in our own history. As Ben Bag Bag states in Pirkei Avot (5:22), “Hafoch Bah VaHafoch Bah, DeCholah Bah”, “Search in it and search in it, since everything is in it.” Every possible issue and development is addressed in the Torah.

Some statements made by early sources presented in this series may appear to be in conflict with modern day thought. It is important to analyze sources within their greater historical contexts. Attitudes towards women’s involvement in society have not always been what they are today. It is beneficial to read and analyze the progression of ideas presented in this series with this caveat in mind. That being said, I have attempted to provide the reader with parenthetical notes that place each source into its respective time period.

On the other hand, one must ascribe profound wisdom to the words of Chazal. Halacha must bear this delicate balance in mind. As the reader will soon see, the institution of women’s Torah education is supported by a plethora of rabbinic literature. While often perceived as a deviation from the Mesorah, it is important to note the Halachic and Hashkafic merit of women’s involvement in Torah study.

In the spring of 2018, Rabbi Daniel Fridman presented the ideas found throughout this series to his Gemara class at the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, New Jersey. Rabbi Fridman, in a series of lectures, masterfully and chronologically presented the Halachic sources relevant to the topic of women’s Torah education. Beginning with Torah SheBichtav, and ending with the timeless words of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ZT’L at the Chanukat HaBayit of the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, Rabbi Fridman’s indelible approach was both thorough and engaging. It is my hope that this series provides the community with a substantial presentation of the relevant Halachic literature, and serves as a record of the stellar shi’urim given by Rabbi Daniel Fridman.

A Lack of Chiyuv

Devarim 11:19 (which we famously recite in the Shema) states, “VeLimadetem Otam Et Beneichem LeDabeir Bam”, “And you shall teach them [Torah] to your sons to speak with them."  This is the source for the biblical commandment to teach Torah to one’s male children. The Gemara (Kiddushin 29b, c. 500 CE) derives from this Pasuk that there is no obligation to teach women Torah. The Gemara then reasons that if no one is obligated to teach you, then you do not have to learn by yourself. As the Gemara had already established that women do not need to be taught, it therefore also establishes that women themselves are not obligated in Talmud Torah.[1] However, the Mishnah in Masechet Sotah presents a very different argument on this subject.

Limmud Torah LeNashim as a “Zechut”

The Mishnah (Sotah 20a, c. 200 CE) discusses the various levels of merit an adulteress who goes through the Sotah process can have which can prevent her from suffering from the miraculous Sotah water for a period of time. There are merits which delay the effects of the Sotah waters by a year, two years, and so on. Ben Azai infers from this that a man is obligated to teach his daughter Torah, as in the event that she drinks from the Sotah waters, “Teida SheHaZechut Toleh Lah”, “she will know that some merit that she has delayed it [the punishment] for her."

It is not clear whether the purpose of this Talmud Torah is solely to generate a merit for the Sotah.[2] From a literal perspective, Ben Azai’s charge means that her Torah knowledge can act as a Zechut, and her education will act as a protective force.[3] The purpose of the Talmud Torah is therefore of a protective nature— there is no ancillary motivation. Speaking less metaphysically, this could mean that her Torah knowledge would prevent her from going into Yichud with a man other than her husband (admittedly a novel, loose reading of the Mishnah’s text), and she would subsequently pass the test of the Sotah waters. (However, unfortunately, Torah knowledge does not always generate Torah-centric action.) Alternatively, her Talmud Torah acts in tandem with some other meritorious factor; it is only an additional benefit. In the absence of Sotah, the Talmud Torah remains justified; irrelevant of the occasion, Ben Azai obligates the father in the teaching his daughter Torah ab initio. As we will see, not everyone agrees with the productivity of such an endeavor.

(Ke’Ilu) Lomdah Tiflut

Immediately following Ben Azai’s declaration, R. Eliezer ben Hurkanos states, “Kol HaMelameid Bito Torah Lomda Tiflut”, “Anyone who teaches their daughter Torah has taught her Tiflut." There is a variant text of the Mishnah which records R. Eliezer as saying, “Ke’Ilu Lomda Tiflut”, “it is as if he taught her Tiflut." “Teaching someone something” and “as if teaching someone something” are two very different actions. R. Yehoshua supports R. Eliezer’s proclamation:

“A woman desires to receive the amount of a kav of food and Tiflut rather than to receive nine kav of food and Perishut. He would say: A foolish man of piety, and a conniving wicked person, and a Perushah, and those who injure themselves out of false abstinence; all these are people who erode the world.”[4]

R. Eliezer ben Hurkanos’s and R. Yehoshua’s statements are difficult to understand without the Gemara and later commentaries of the Rishonim. Perishut refers to separation, while Tiflut relates to promiscuity; indeed, the parallelism of R. Yehoshua’s statement suggests that Tiflut and Perishut are polar opposites. Rashi (1040-1105 CE, s.v “Melamda” and “R. Yehoshua”) points to the Gemara on Sotah 21b for further clarification. There, the Gemara adds on “Ke’Ilu” to Ben Azai’s original edict.[5] Additionally, it cites R. Abahu, who explains the reasoning of R. Eliezer ben Hurkonos: Mishlei 8:21 establishes that “Ani Chochmah, Shachanti Ormah”, “I, wisdom [i.e. Torah], dwell with cunning.” Therefore, the teaching of Torah can result in the development of “Armimut”, cunning, which ostensibly leads to a lifestyle of Tiflut.

The way in which this Armimut actualizes itself is subject to a Machloket between the Me'iri (1249-1306 CE) and Rav Ovadiah MiBartenura (1445-1515 CE).

The Me'iri (Sotah 20a) initially explains Ben Azai’s mandate as follows: the impetus for teaching one’s daughter Torah is to ensure that she (and everyone else) would know that the Torah is true, and that the Sotah water she drank was not defective or fraudulent. It was a Zechut that prevented the water from causing her immediate bodily harm. The Me'iri explains that R. Eliezer ben Hurkanos was concerned with her inability to fully grasp the concepts being taught to her, which would cause her to be “Mitkashkeshet KePa’amon”, “[To] ring like a bell." Tiflut means that her Torah education would cause her to develop a certain deceptive acuity, Armimut, but she would not fully grasp everything correctly. She would try to display her newfound wisdom, and in the process would circulate false ideas. R. Eliezer ben Hurkanos was concerned with the misrepresentation of Torah, and the dissemination of incorrect Torah knowledge. In fact, the Me'iri explains that R. Eliezer ben Hurkanos held that it would better to burn the Torah than to turn it over to women who would treat it worse. According to the Me'iri’s presentation of the Mishnah, the Nekudat HaMachloket (point of contention) between Ben Azai and R. Eliezer ben Hurkanos is the effect women’s Torah education has on the reputation of the Torah. Ben Azai was of the opinion that teaching women Torah would result in its validation, while R. Eliezer felt that it would lead to a situation worse than its destruction. Finally, the Me'iri clarifies R. Yehoshua’s Perishut/Kav support: there is a lack of seriousness. She may have the capability to learn Torah, but her uninspired attitude (i.e. her preference for Tiflut over Kav, the insubstantial over the substantial) would ensure that her Torah knowledge would be only partially developed. (We will attempt to further elaborate R. Yehoshua’s concern in the next section in light of Rambam’s position on Limmud Torah LeNashim.)

Rav Ovadiah MeBartenura (Mishnah Sotah 3:4) interprets the Mishnah to mean that teaching her Torah will lead her to be deceptive and wily (Armimut), causing her to be sexually promiscuous, a literal interpretation of Tiflut. Essentially, according to the Bartenura’s interpretation, R. Eliezer ben Hurkanos vehemently disagreed with Ben Azai: her Torah education would not save her if she became a Sotah, but would instead turn her into one. The training of her mental faculties would result in increased deception and promiscuity. Fittingly, the Bartenura also interprets Perishut to mean abstinence from marital relations. (It is worthwhile to note that the Bartenura draws inspiration from Rashi’s approach found on Sotah 21b. See Rashi s.v. “Rotzeh.") The Bartenura’s exact language is significant: like R. Eliezer ben Hurkanos and R. Yehoshua, he never explicitly stated that it was assur (forbidden) to teach Torah to one’s daughter. Instead, like Rashi, he felt that “Ein Tov SheTilmod Torah”, “it is not good that she learn Torah.”

Spinning Wheels and Lost Sponsors

Tosafot (Sotah 21b. s.v. “Ben Azai”) cite a fascinating anecdote concerning R. Eliezer ben Hurkanos, his son Hurkanos, and a noblewoman. The noblewoman asked R. Eliezer why the single sin of the Golden Calf resulted in three different deaths. Instead of answering her, he said that “Ein Ishah Chachamah Ela BePelech”, “A woman is wise only by the spinning wheel." Hurkanos, his son, was upset, as he lost a significant sum of money due to his father’s rather obtuse answer. In response to his son’s concerns, R. Eliezer explained that it would be better to burn the words of Torah than to teach them to women. Tosafot’s motivation, it seems, is to impart that teaching women Torah is Assur. And yet, Tosafot do not use such explicit language. However, the Ran (1320-1376 CE) points out that a Lo Ta’aseh, a negative commandment, requires one to sacrifice any amount of money to avoid its violation. R. Eliezer ben Hurkanos caused his son to lose 300 Kor of Ma’aser annually (which the noblewoman ostensibly would have to give him, since he was a Levi). This certainly was a significant sum. Thus, R. Eliezer ben Hurkanos may have been of the opinion that teaching Torah to women is formally assur.

Tosafot also note that although women are obligated in hearing the Torah at Hakheil, according to R. Eliezer ben Azariah,[6] this is only so they will know how to perform the Mitzvot, and is not reflective of the greater obligation of Talmud Torah. Thus, R. Eliezer ben Azariah disagrees with Ben Azai on the role of women’s Torah education: it is not a function of Talmud Torah, and has absolutely nothing to do with the delay of the Sotah’s punishment; it is purely pragmatic and instructional.

Conclusion

So far, we have established that the Tannaim, Amoraim, and various Rishonim do not explicitly prohibit women’s Torah education. While some have strong reservations towards the practice, none have unequivocally forbidden it.[7] In next week’s issue of Kol Torah, we will continue with Rambam’s analysis of this important issue, including his interpretation of Tiflut and his application of the Mishnah in Sotah.


[1]  It is worthwhile to note at this point that a lack of chiyuv, obligation, is in no way a prohibition. This point will be developed in greater depth at a later point.

[2] We will initially interpret the line to mean that Talmud Torah serves as a Zechut for her, although the Me’iri renders the Mishnah differently.

[3]  A Mezuzah acts in a similar manner, and women benefit from Mezuzah as well. Rabbi Fridman developed the following interpretation of Ben Azai’s statement: Sotah is the only Mitzvah which relies upon a miracle. The waters cause an unnatural effect to occur, and Limmud Torah has the ability to stop them from working. Therefore, Limmud Torah has the capability to forestall miracles. Ben Azai’s statement is a testament to the power of Torah; even when the Sotah is guilty, her Limmud Torah has the ability to delay her punishment.  

[4] Translation courtesy of Sefaria.org.

[5] The Gemara uses a scandalous tone in its elaboration— “Tifult Salka Daitach?! Ela Aima Ke’Ilu Lamdah Tiflut”, “Would you really have thought [Torah was] Tiflut?! Rather, I might say it means ‘as if he teaches her Tiflut.”  The insinuation that Divrei Torah can be literal Tiflut shocked the Gemara. As we will later see, this clarification may support the Me'iri’s approach.

 

[6] Not to be confused with R. Eliezer ben Hurkanos.

[7] Although the statement of the Ran mentioned above implies that R. Eliezer Ben Hurkanos does regard women’s Torah education as forbidden, it should be noted that this is not necessarily the opinion of the Ran himself.

Women’s Torah Education Part II - Rambam's Position by Ned Krasnopolsky (Editor–in-Chief Emeritus ‘19)

Kashering Glass Part II by Rabbi Chaim Jachter