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Women Learning Torah

On the Yahrzeit of my loving mother, Beatrice Kaplan, בתיה בת ישעיהו

Living in the 21st century, we like to think of ourselves as enlightened and progressive. We are breaking down the barriers of social discrimination that have permeated most societies. Judaism, its philosophy and religious practice, has been assailed as discriminatory by uninformed critics. One such example is the attitude people have of the law: מצות עשה שהזמן גרמה נשים פטורות, positive commands regulated by time women are exempt.

This legal principle is not discriminatory or demeaning of women. It is actually a kindness and based on a principle of justice to women. The principle specifically uses the term “exempt.” They are “not obligated” in certain time bound commands such as hearing the shofar, shaking the lulav, or living in a succah. The reason is because women, as a category of people, have a prior claim on their time at child birth. It would be unjust to also obligate them in time bound commands simultaneously. However, women are certainly permitted and encouraged to fulfill this category of mitzvot. Throughout our history and communities, Jewish women do so willingly and voluntarily whenever possible.

Judaism is also portrayed falsely particularly as it relates to women and education. An event recorded in this week’s Torah reading sheds light on the correct understanding we should have about our Jewish religion in this realm as well.

Moshe presents to the nation how the soon to be conquered land of Canaan is to be divided by the 12 Tribes of Israel and become ארץ ישראל. Immediately, the words barely out of Moshe’s mouth, the five daughters of Tzelophchod raise a significant legal question. The issue is one of inheritance. Their father died in the desert leaving no son to inherit his allotted portion of the land. In the announced division of the land by Moshe, to whom would their father’s portion go? Would it go to them or would their father’s portion be forever forfeited leaving his descendants without a portion in the land of Israel?  To resolve the issue Moshe in turn takes the case directly to God. It is God who pronounces the ruling in favor of the daughters. They will inherit their father’s assigned tract of land. The Torah concludes this event listing other laws pertaining to inheritance.

While the various details of inheritance are significant from a legal standpoint and fascinating from a purely academic pursuit, there is another insight we gain from this event. The account in the Torah says, “…and they (the daughters) stood before Moshe and before Elazar the Cohain and before the leaders and all the assembly at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting saying.” Rashi comments on this verse by quoting a Sifre (an Oral Law explanation of Chumash), “this teaches that they (the daughters) were sitting in the בית המדרש, in the study hall.” The expression “sitting in the בית המדרש” commonly refers to someone engaged in sophisticated Talmudic analysis in a yeshiva.

Were Moshe and the generation of the Children of Israel in the desert progressive and advanced for their time? Could it be, girls learning Talmud?! No doubt compared to all the other civilizations that existed at that time, they were advanced.  However, this approach to an educated and enlightened society has always been the hallmark of Judaism. High level instruction and learning open to everyone was inculcated into the Jewish culture, practice and philosophy from its inception.

Maimonides, in his introduction to his “Commentary on the Mishnah,” records the method of instruction used by Moshe to the people during the 40 years they lived in the desert. He writes, “Moshe, in person, taught each verse of the Torah to the assembly of Bnai Yisrael in the presence of Aaron and the Elders.” He quotes the Talmud Eiruvin, 54b which describes the process in detail concluding, “Then the people at large, all those seeking Hashem, would come and Moshe would present the verse to them so that they would hear it entirely from his own lips.”

We see from this account that every day the entire populous had the opportunity to learn directly with and from Moshe. There was no segregation of subject matter that men learn “X” and women learn “Y.”  We see they were all together at the same class at the same time. Everyone that wanted to attend Moshe’s discourse could. We also see from the record found in this week’s Torah portion that anyone could present questions, debate and offer alternative solutions to issues resulting from Moshe’s daily lesson. That was precisely what the daughters of Tzelophchod were doing. Not just the priests, not just the elders, and not just the men but every Jewish person is responsible to go and learn the system of Judaism on the highest level and from the greatest teacher they can.

In more recent times the great scion of Torah, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik of blessed memory, was asked a question about Talmud study for girls in elementary and high schools. In his response, May 1953, to Rabbi Leonard Rosenfeld, Director of the Dept. of Yeshivot at the New York Board of Jewish Education, he wrote, “I expressed my opinion to you long ago that it would be a very regrettable oversight on our part if we were to arrange separate Hebrew courses for girls. Not only is the teaching of Torah she-be-al-peh (Oral Law, Talmud) to girls permissible but it is nowadays an absolute imperative… Boys and girls alike should be introduced into the inner halls of Torah she-be-al- peh.” (Community, Covenant, and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, p. 83)

There can be no doubt that the modern world is making strides toward social progress. But as Jews we can take pride that in the realm of education, as well as many other areas of social concern, Judaism has been light years ahead, millennia at least, of any other civilization. Primary to Judaism’s core tenants is to produce an intelligent and enlightened community for all its adherents not just for its male population or its religious functionaries and priests. Not one of its adherents is ever expected to just blindly follow the leader.  Discrimination in education would be an anathema to this goal. From our formative history, recorded in this week’s Torah portion of the daughters of Tzelophchod, to the present day, educating all of its followers remains an integral part of the system of Judaism. No exceptions!

May Hashem continue to grant all of us the opportunity to advance our understanding of Judaism  which will hasten the conversion of these three weeks of mourning into a time of celebration when our Holy Temple is rebuilt.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan