Women’s Torah Education Part IV – Sarah Schenirer, The Chafeitz Chaim, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, & Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein 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. For parts I, II, and III, please visit koltorah.org.

“And we stay at home, the wives, daughters, and the little ones. We have an empty festival. It is bare of Jewish intellectual content. The women have never learned anything about the spiritual meaning that is concentrated within a Jewish festival. The mother goes to the synagogue, but the services echo faintly into the fenced and boarded-off women’s galleries. There is much crying by elderly women. The young girls look at them as though they belong to a different century. Youth and the desire to live a full life shoot up violently in the strong-willed young personalities. Outside the synagogues, the young girls stay chattering; they walk away from the synagogue where their mothers pour out their vague and heavy feelings. They leave behind them the wailing of the older generation and follow the urge for freedom and self-expression. Further and further from the synagogue they go, further away, to the dancing, tempting light of a fleeting joy.”   - Sarah Schenirer[1]

The Bais Ya’akov Movement & the Chafeitz Chaim

In the years immediately following World War I, Torah knowledge was in a state of disrepair. Since the Mesorah was greatly weakened, the level of women’s Torah education within the Orthodox world had to be recalibrated. The development of the Bais Ya’akov movement in the early 20th century reflects this shift in perspective. Among Jewish young women, assimilation was rising at an unprecedented rate; in Poland in 1917, Sarah Schenirer founded the first Bais Ya’akov girls’ school to combat these assimilative forces. Reasoning that the primary cause of assimilation was the attendance of secular schools and a lack of religious education, Schenirer took it upon herself to establish a large number of new religious schools for young Jewish women.

Schenirer sought out the support of the Chafeitz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, 1839-1933, Poland). The Chafeitz Chaim (Likutei Halachot, Sotah Perek 3, 21-22) argued that in light of the diminishing of the Jewish tradition following World War I, the prohibition of teaching women Torah Shel Ba’al Peh had to be reanalyzed to strengthen individual women’s commitment to Yahadut. The changing economic and social conditions, particularly the fact that women were becoming increasingly educated in secular matters, necessitated a change in women’s Torah curriculum and intensity of study. As such, the Chafeitz Chaim declared, “BeVadai Mitzvah Rabbah LeLamdam Chumash, VeGam Nevi’im, U’Ketuvim, U’Musarei Chazal”, “It is certainly a great Mitzvah to teach them [women] Chumash, Nevi’im, Ketuvim, and the teachings of Chazal” (ibid.). According to the Chafeitz Chaim, in order to strengthen their individual belief in God, it is not only permitted, but it is a Mitzvah to teach women these areas of Torah. (He elaborates within the same paragraph that “Musarei Chazal” means Pirkei Avot and other similar topics; Pirkei Avot is part of Torah SheBa’al Peh, and thus the Chafeitz Chaim encouraged an educational system that would teach women Tanach and parts of Torah SheBa’al Peh.) The Chafeitz Chaim based his position on the Rambam’s requirement for teaching a conversion candidate foundational theological ideas; if a convert is educated in religious matters, then certainly a woman who grew up in the Jewish community should be educated in them as well.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt’l

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt’l (“The Rav”, 1903-1993, United States) was deeply involved in women’s Torah education. In 1937, he founded the Maimonides School in Boston, where boys and girls were taught both Torah She’Ba’al Peh (including Talmud) and Torah SheBichtav on an intensive level. Additionally, the Rav helped develop the Talmud program at the Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University in 1978[2][3]. Clearly, the Rav viewed women’s Torah education as a productive endeavor.  

Rabbi Aharon Lichteinstein zt’l

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt’l (1933-2015, United States and Israel) viewed women’s Torah education as a desirable and necessary undertaking. He writes[4] (translated):

“In my opinion, it is desirable and necessary, and not only permitted, to educate young women intensively also from Torah SheBa’al Peh sources, whether it be because of the argument that women are involved in all types of professions, or because of the Chafeitz Chaim’s words (in regards to the founding of Bais Ya’akov), ‘for if the Rambam said that it is necessary to teach a convert the foundations of the religion, how much more so for a person who was raised within the framework of Judaism…’ Young women today receive a general secular education, and a majority attend university, and there (and not only there, but in society in general), they come into contact with different philosophies. So the knowledge and values of the Torah are absolutely necessary for a young woman… This is how I teach my daughter, and how my wife [the Rav’s daughter] was educated, and this appears to be the advisable path for the community of the young women in our generation.”

Rav Lichtenstein formulated a more ambitious argument in his address at the opening of the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in 1996 [5][6],:

“The Torah demands of us observance that is infused with full kavvanah, with total commitment, with passion, with the engagement of the whole of one’s personality. We are bidden to take the Lulav not only with the hand, but with the heart, with the mind. That requires an engagement, requires a meeting of the whole of one’s personality with the world of mitzvot. And in this sense, too, serious study is significant.


The pasuk, of course, speaks of “LeDovkah Bo”, “to cleave onto Him”, to bond with the Ribbono Shel Olam through His Torah. The Sifrei (Piska 33) further addresses our issue in its comments to the Pasuk of “Ve’Ahavta Et Hashem Elokecha” (“And you shall love Hashem, your God”). How, asks the Sifri, do you attain the love of the Ribbono Shel Olam? So, of course, there are various avenues, but one of them, the Sifrei says, referring to the following pasuk in Keri’at Shema, “VeHayu HaDevarim HaElleh Asher Anochi Metzavecha HaYom Al Levavecha”, “And these matters which I commanded to you this day shall be engraved upon your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6), [is]: “Tein HaDevarim Ha’Eileh Al Libecha, Shemitoch Kach Atah Makir Et Mi She’Amar VeHaya Ha’Olam UMeDabeik BiDerachav”, “Place these matters upon your heart, learning Torah. Through that you attain love for the Ribbono Shel Olam and you cleave unto His ways.”

If we speak, then, of the Mitzvah of Ahavat Hashem: was that given only to men? It is a universal Mitzvah and a prime and cardinal Mitzvah, likened to the heart, the very central organ of the human being upon which experience and Jewish experience particularly rests. If we appreciate that Torah is a prime vehicle for attaining Ahavah (leaving aside for the moment the independent Mitzvah of Talmud Torah as a separate test), that the Mitzvah of Ahavat Hashem, one of the ultimate goals, is achieved through this prime vehicle. Should we let that rust and sit idle with respect to our daughters and employ it only with our sons?

What we need to bear in mind, practically speaking, is that this process of bonding, so critical, so crucial to the molding of our daughters as servants of the Ribbono Shel Olam, requires that their learning be not only comprehensive, but above all serious. Learning must be approached seriously. The halachic basis for this seriousness is the Pasuk in Va’Etchanan (Deuteronomy 4:9): “Rak HiShameir Lecha UShmor Nafshecha Me’od Pen TiShkach Et HaDevarim Asher Ra’u Einecha UPhen YaSuru MiLevavecha Kol Yemei Chayecha”,“Take care, guard your soul very much, lest you forget anything of what your eyes have seen and lest these somehow escape from your heart.”

Essentially,  Rav Aharon Lichtenstein contends that since Ahavat Hashem is best accomplished through Talmud Torah, and women are also obligated in the Mitzvah of Ahavat Hashem, it is therefore incumbent upon society to teach women Torah on an intensive level to inculcate within them a sense of Ahavat Hashem.

Conclusion

Throughout this series, we have analyzed the positions of the Tanna’im, Amora’im, Rishonim, Acharonim, and modern day Poskim. As mentioned in the beginning of this series, the institution of women’s Torah education within our communities is not unprecedented, and as we have developed, it is to be encouraged. It is my hope that this series has successfully demonstrated the Halachic and Hashkafic merits of women’s Torah education.

_____________________

[1] Chizhik-Goldschmidt, Avital (October 22, 2013) "The Ultra-Orthodox Seamstress Who Determined the Fate of Jewish Women", Haaretz

[2] Rav Soloveitchik is famous for having delivered the inaugural Shiur in this program.  A picture of this event has become iconic.   

[3] Soloveitchik, Rabbi Joseph Dov, and Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot. Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications. Published for the Toras HoRav Foundation by Ktav Pub. House, 2005.

[4]  R. Aharon Lichtenstein, "Ba'ayot HaYesod BeChinucha Shel Ha’Isha," Ha’Isha VeChinuchah, ed. Ben Zion Rosenfeld (Israel, 1980)

[5] I am deeply grateful to the editors of the Lehrhaus, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein, and the administration at Ma’ayanot, for allowing me to reprint Rav Lichtenstein’s timeless words.

[6]  Lichtenstein, R. Aharon. “Women, Talmud Study, and Avodat Hashem.” The Lehrhaus, 30 Oct. 2017, www.thelehrhaus.com/commentary/women-talmud-study-and-avodat-hashem/.

 

Eruv Through the Storm by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Women’s Torah Education Part III – “Chayevet Lilmod Dinim HaShaichim Le’Ishah”: A Broad Scope and Purpose of Learning by Ned Krasnopolsky (Editor –in- Chief Emeritus ‘19)