There is a quiet revolution taking place today in classrooms and halls of study, in synagogues and homes, in Israel, in America, and throughout the world. Far from the hue and cry of the sometimes acrimonious debate about the involvement of women in public Jewish life, the study of Torah is changing the way Jewish women view themselves and their connection to Jewish tradition.

In the early years of women's Torah education, women were offered a basic school curriculum stressing practical halachic (legal) knowledge and other morally edifying studies.1 This itself was a concession to the changing times. Fearing that women would leave the religious fold, the Chafetz Chaim rendered his famous ruling that women should learn Scripture and ethics.2 This ruling served as the basis of Orthodox Jewish women's schooling, starting a process which has continued unabated to this day.

Women have a deep desire to achieve spiritual fulfillment through talmud Torah

Today, in many circles, the initial limits on the scope of women's Torah learning have faded. Recent years have seen the inclusion of Talmud and other subjects which were hitherto considered to be the exclusive province of men's Torah study. However, the major change is that now women have the opportunity to study Torah on a high level, not only in practical preparation for a career in teaching, but as Torah lishmah, learning Torah for its own sake.

While women's precise halachic obligation vis a vis Torah study is a complex question,3 it was not the desire to technically address this particular issue which led to the establishment of places of study for women. The recent surge in the involvement of women in serious Torah learning may have begun in some quarters as a statement of feminism. However, the constant growth in this important trend comes not from contentious motives, but rather from women's deep desire to achieve spiritual fulfillment through talmud Torah.

This profoundly positive development has yielded interesting fruit. In the course of seeking quantitative parity in the study of Torah, women have discovered that there is a qualitative difference in the way they learn Torah. In a very short time, we have progressed from imitation to innovation — innovation in search of tradition.

Today women are talking Torah. We are finding our voices, conversing with other women in a new spiritual dialogue, one whose point of departure is way of life which abides by Jewish law. We are discovering that the emotional and intellectual themes which animate texts of Torah resonate deeply within our own lives.

This realization has found expression across the entire range of Torah learning. It appears in the world of aggadah — in which the emotional undertones of a tale or a parable may be uniquely perceived by ears sensitized to human emotion through years of nurturing and care-giving. It appears in the perception of a halachic distinction — one which might seem to the male reader to be purely formalistic, but is revealed to a woman's inspection to be deeply rooted in psychological subtleties which bring new meaning to a familiar law.

We are finding our voices, conversing with other women in a new spiritual dialogue

Allow me to describe to you this dynamic meshing of text with life. The following vignettes are telling indicators of the power of Scripture and tradition to strike responsive chords in their readers. They illustrate the experience of talmud Torah for women students and teachers, and demonstrate that women today have the potential of effecting an important new development in the spiritual life of the Jewish People.

All of the episodes described here are true. They are experiences which I have shared with my students—women of all ages and all walks of life who have come to actively engage in talmud Torah. Here the women of Jerusalem leave politics behind, seeking to uphold the blessing of la'asok bedivrei Torah — to immerse themselves in study to enable them to live enriched Torah lives.

The following are but a few journal entries in the life of one privileged to teach such students.

It is a few days before Rosh Hashanah in the city of Jerusalem. The room is overflowing with women who have come to prepare themselves for the Days of Awe. Together, we begin our study of the opening section of the Book of Samuel, which we will hear recited as a haftorah on Rosh Hashanah. Today we will read it ourselves.

We read of Hannah's childlessness, and how she is taunted by the jealous Peninah. Hannah grows used to her rival's harsh words. Paradoxically, it is her husband Elkanah who causes her grief. He says, compassionately: "Hannah, why are you crying and why aren't you eating? Why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?"4

One of the women in the class points out that even Elkanah's expressed concern for his wife demonstrates his lack of understanding of her pain: There is no substitute for the children she does not have; she lacks not only children, but motherhood.

Another student adds that there is an additional dimension present in the dialogue. What Hannah suddenly realizes is that Elkanah is resigned to her childlessness.5 Her despair at being utterly alone in her hope of deliverance pushes her to make a bold move.6 She will go alone to the House of the L-rd. There she will pour out her heart. She will say out loud what has been left unspoken. She will express what is in every woman’s heart: "Master of the Universe! All that you have created in woman is purposeful. You have created eyes with which to see, ears with which to hear, a nose for smelling, a mouth for speech, hands for toil, legs for walking. These breasts which you have given me — are they not for nursing? Give me a son so that I may nurse him!" (Berachot 31b)

Women today have the potential of effecting an important new development in the spiritual life of the Jewish People

I propose to the class that the thrust of this midrash is that motherhood for Hannah is the ultimate expression of spiritual self-actualization. It is through her physical being that her spirit will find expression. She longs not only for a child, but for purpose and fulfillment.7

As I make this statement I weigh each word carefully. I look up from my books and I see two sisters, whom I know personally; the older — childless, the younger — pregnant with her fifth child. I wonder how they relate to this chapter. It is a story which they have read and re-read. How, I wonder, are they reading it now? I ask myself how they relate to each other.

I would like to share words of encouragement, yet I fear to say that which might offend or hurt. However, by learning the story of Hannah together with them, I can offer hope and comfort. I know, too, that other women in the class are thinking of and silently praying for their childless classmate, and for other friends and relatives who have not been blessed with children. Scripture gives expression to things which they dare not say.

As I close my Tanach, I ponder the awesome responsibility inherent in teaching words of Torah which touch souls so deeply. I recall the teacher's prayer of Rabi Nechuniah ben Hakannah — "May it be Thy will, My L-rd, that no mishap be caused by my teaching..."8 This classroom session has made me realize the relevance of this prayer beyond the realm of halachic ruling. We have studied a chapter of Tanach, and I pray that my friends shall find joy, comfort and hope in the words which the Biblical text directs me to say. This Rosh Hashanah we will sing Hannah's song in our hearts, transformed, as prophecy for all those not yet blessed with motherhood.

Another class draws to a close. The women file out. As I put my books away I am approached by a woman in her mid-fifties. She, too, is on her way out, but first she says: "I must thank you — your class was a great comfort to me."

I think to myself: What kind of comfort? I had just finished teaching "vehei achicha 'imach"-- a Biblical injunction (Leviticus 25:37. The literal sense of the text is about loans: "Do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your G‑d. Let him live by your side as your kinsman.") which the Rabbis apply to a fascinating moral dilemma: Two men are traveling in the desert. They have only one canteen between them. If they share it, they will both die. If one drinks, he will survive, but his companion will not. What are they to do? Ben Peturah contends that they should share their water, so that neither will witness the death of his fellow. Rabi Akiva argues that the owner of the canteen shall drink, in accordance with this Biblical ordinance: "Let him live by your side," — with you, not instead of you. Your life takes precedence over that of your fellow.9

We had considered and debated the divergent views. Whose life takes precedence? What if one is a child and the other an adult? How do we measure the relative value of life?10

Our discussion was animated and, no doubt, intellectually stimulating, but this woman found it comforting. Before I can consider what she meant, she provides the explanation. "You see, I work for Yad Sarah, a volunteer organization which lends medical equipment. Of course, we never have enough to go around. Should this respirator go to an 8-month old baby or to an 80-year old woman? After consulting with rabbinic authorities, my job is to distribute the equipment. A part of me dies every day. I know that the legal rendering is the objective one, but I live with the pain which comes from the knowledge that there is a patient still in need. Our study of the sources has taught me that the Sages grappled with these decisions as well and achieved resolution. I find comfort in that."

I am stunned by the passion in her words. I had taught the various texts bearing on the verse as a theoretical study; here was a woman who was living these laws every day. By reading the texts in the light of her experiences, she has revealed a new facet of the Torah.

As our class begins, the women open to the thirty-ninth chapter of Genesis. Joseph is pursued by the wife of Potiphar. Although the Bible fully describes the external events, the rabbis suggest what was going on at the time in Joseph's heart.

Joseph, finding himself alone with Potiphar's wife, is about to fall into the alluring clutches of sin when he is halted in his tracks by the image of Jacob his father, his mentor, his conscience. He sees his father's face; he hears his voice:

At that moment, he beheld his father's countenance through the window. "Joseph, your brothers' names will be inscribed on the stones of the Ephod. It is your choice: Will you be inscribed among them, or will your name be erased and you remembered as a companion of harlots?" (Talmud, Sotah 36b).

One of the women in the class explicates this midrashic text: "My brother and I were taken from Belgium to Auschwitz. Just before we were parted, my brother said, ‘We will never see each other again, so let me teach you one midrash about Joseph and Jacob. Whenever life will present you with moral dilemmas, see my face and you will know what to do.'" It is this midrash which served to guide me through many lonely and difficult ordeals," the student explains.

I find myself amazed by the power which this midrash has given to this woman. Joseph for her was a survivor, one whose world was held together through his moral resolve which he transported from his father's house. It is tempting to view this midrashic text as classic example of Freudian superego, but in fact it goes far deeper. Jacob was the moral anchor which neither temptation, loneliness nor evil could destroy.

By reading the texts in the light of her experiences, she has revealed a new facet of the Torah

In the silence which envelopes our classroom following this moving recollection, we realize that our friend has captured the power of Torah. This midrash served as her anchor, her link with her brother who was taken from her, with her forebears, perhaps; but it was also her bridge into the future, a future which, in Auschwitz, could only be considered a wild dream. It was Joseph the slave who left Europe with her; Joseph the dreamer who accompanied her to her new life; but Joseph the stone in the Ephod who sits in our lesson today.

These stories are moving, but women's Torah learning is not composed only of such moments. We also spend long hours poring over Midrash Tanchuma or reading an analytical answer of Radbaz, in our efforts to understand the basic meanings of the texts. These accounts, however, demonstrate a striking and somewhat radical point: it is precisely the subjective, emotional, "feminine" cognitive style, which for years was asserted to be a barrier to women learning Torah properly, which has yielded such deep and moving insights into the Word of G‑d. We have only now begun to discover the contribution which we can make to each other and to all those who love Torah and seek its inspiration.

All of the women I have described here — and countless others — have found their way to a place of study. It is here that they become part of a new generation of talmidot chachamim — women who are the students of the rabbis, who are mastering the wisdom of Torah not only by analyzing the sources but by engaging them; by apprenticing themselves to the Sages.

There are serious questions regarding the role of Jewish women in the public arena. Issues of Jewish law and tradition need to be considered in redefining the place of women in the Torah community today.11 But one thing has become clear: our sacred space is in the beit midrash, the house of study. There is no separation between women and the words of Torah. Women are incapable of spiritual passivity in the world of learning.

What about those of us who are blessed to teach Torah to other women? We have been entrusted with the role of explicating divine commands, elucidating the omnisignificance of sacred literature, and of interpreting the eternal prophecies so that they continue to offer perspective to our lives. The responsibility is overwhelming; the spiritual challenge — formidable.

And yet for me, as for every teacher of Torah, nothing could be more fulfilling.

I am strengthened in my labors by the knowledge that with each passing year there are more and more learned women who join the ranks of Torah teaching. I can think of no nobler occupation.

I have argued that women learning Torah are making a unique contribution to the way Torah unfolds in our generation. Perhaps women, using their special sensitivities, will best be able to reveal the hitherto hidden spiritual valences of Torah still awaiting discovery.12

When Torah is learned by all of Israel — men and women alike — then it will be a Torah which enters our innermost being and will be inscribed deeply upon our hearts.