Changing Roles: Changing Questions

Alert1 to the far-reaching role changes taking place around herself and within her own life, many a woman today is asking: “What is my place in Torah?” “Are there limits to the Torah subjects I should study?”

To begin at the beginning: When G‑d first told Moshe to prepare the Jews to receive the Torah, He commanded him,2 “This is what you shall say to the House of Yaakov and speak to the Children of Israel.” Our Sages explain3 that “the House of Yaakov” refers to Jewish women, and “the Children of Israel,” to the men; i.e., G‑d told Moshe to approach the women first.

This order implies a sense of priority: for the Torah to be perpetuated among the Jewish people, precedence must be given to Jewish women. This statement may appear questionable in view of several traditional attitudes. These attitudes, however, need to be examined by the objective standard of Torah law as applied to the Torah requirements of contemporary society.

The Practical And The Mystical Dimensions

For a start, the Halachah (Torah law)4 requires a woman to study all the laws and concepts needed to enable her to observe the mitzvos which she is obligated to fulfill. This encompasses a vast and varied curriculum, including the intricate laws of (for example): Shabbos, kashrus, and taharas hamishpachah (family purity); all the positive mitzvos that are not contingent on a specific time; and virtually all the prohibitive mitzvos, whether of Scriptural or Rabbinic authority. Indeed, many learned men would be happy if their Torah knowledge would be as complete.

Nevertheless, even those who do concede to the above curriculum for women often draw a line between (a) instruction in the bare Dos and Don’ts, and (b) “too much” education — such alleged luxuries, for example, as guidance towards a satisfying philosophy of life; an appreciation of the dynamics set in motion by the observance of a mitzvah; an understanding of how a Jew connects with his Creator by studying His Torah; and an informed sensitivity to the way in which all Jews are part of the same spiritual anatomy.

Indisputably, however, included among the many mitzvos which a woman is fully obligated to observe are the cardinal commandments of knowing G‑d, loving Him, fearing Him, and the like. (Indeed, these mitzvos5 “devolve upon us as a constant obligation, never ceasing [for either a man or a woman] for even a moment throughout his life.”) Obviously, one cannot wholeheartedly fulfill these ongoing obligations without a mastery of certain spiritual concepts. This is clearly spelled out in the verse,6 “Know the G‑d of your fathers and serve Him with a full heart.” In order to attain this knowledge, as well as all the above manifestations of informed sensitivity, both men and women need to study pnimiyus haTorah, the Torah’s mystic dimension. And this dimension is articulated and accessible in the teachings of Chassidus.7

For similar reasons, women would do well to focus their attention on the Aggadic aspects of the Torah as assembled in Ein Yaakov, since our Sages have noted the powerful impact of such study in cultivating one’s spiritual emotions.8

Precedents and Progress

Throughout the generations, there have been accounts of particular women with immense Torah knowledge. The Talmud9 mentions Beruriah, the daughter of R. Chaninah ben Teradyon and the wife of R. Meir. Throughout the Middle Ages, we find records of many women who proofread and corrected their husbands’ learned Torah discourses.10 In his memoirs, the Rebbe Rayatz describes how the Alter Rebbe’s family exemplified the ideal of advanced Torah scholarship for women, and the Rebbe Rayatz himself educated his own daughters in this spirit.

As a departure from this situation, where advanced learning was reserved for the privileged few, recent generations have witnessed the foundation of schools and institutions for the many. Previously, in the spirit of the principle that11 “All the glory of the king’s daughter is inward,” girls and young women would be educated by their parents and grandparents at home. Yet even when sociological conditions changed and young girls left the protective and supportive home environment, the first devoutly observant schools established for them faced well-meaning but vehement opposition. With time, however, recognizing the possible inroads which an open secular society could make, the initial opposition to the daring novelty soon fell away.

A Responsible Response To Native Curiosity

Today, this entire issue is no longer a debatable academic question. It is a fact of life that children and young people today ask questions and expect satisfying answers. Whatever questions they may not have initiated spontaneously, they are exposed to by the media or by their peers. In the secular studies taught at most Jewish schools, students are taught to probe, to question, to seek the reasons behind the facts.

The conclusion is simple: If children are seeking the rationale for what they are being taught in the world of Yiddishkeit, we must supply them with informed and authoritative answers. If not, answers will most certainly be sought elsewhere. It is neither wise nor possible to stifle a naturally curious mind. On the contrary: the answers to the key questions about a Jew’s life in this world — his Torah study, his mitzvah observance, his daily prayers, his interpersonal relations — are the staple diet needed to nourish and nurture the budding and groping inner life of every Jewish child.

For a simple example of this need: Suppose a young girl is faced on the one hand with the self-styled certainties presented by her science teacher, impressively buttressed by facts and explanations, and on the other hand, with the evasiveness of her religious teachers. Any resultant doubts can even affect the level of her actual observance for a lifetime.

Certainly it would be a fine thing if all secular subjects in religious schools were taught in accordance with the Torah view. But as things stand, the law of the land in many countries prescribes that the secular text books used must be approved by the education authorities. Various remedies have been tried to cope with the excess baggage in these textbooks. Offending pages have been removed, partially photostated copies have been put together, and so on. But these are all piecemeal solutions, and the time needed to implement the more lasting measures would jettison an entire generation. In the meantime, then, students should be told unequivocally that any theory which contradicts the Torah is false. At the same time, clear and informed answers are required, and only then will a child’s thirst for knowledge be sated.

Though the need to educate boys comprehensively is equally urgent, girls should receive a special emphasis, for as future mothers they will be chiefly responsible for the upbringing of their children, especially in the formative years. It is to them that their young children will run with questions from school, and it is they who must be intellectually equipped to guide their little ones in the right path.

All Children Are Our Children

There is a related area in which educators would do well to cultivate a responsive awareness to sociological change — and that is, the observance of the laws of family purity. Yet many rabbis consistently refuse to address their congregants on this most vital of subjects, because of a misplaced sense of modesty. It has sometimes been argued that with “our” children, there is no need to offset misinformed or unwholesome attitudes by appropriate instruction from the Torah of life. But all Jewish children are “our” children, and we must worry about them as much as our own.

Changing Questions: Changing Answers

There are those who even today oppose higher formal education for girls, on the grounds that it is not part of the legacy sanctified through centuries of usage by our pious forebears. The traditions of our fathers are indeed holy, but new problems demand fresh approaches. There are many phenomena universally accepted today in the most uncompromising circles, which were unheard of in earlier generations. Religious newspapers were first founded to counteract the ideas publicized by non-religious circles. As long as Jews did not read other newspapers, there was no need to publish a religious one. The same applies to today’s need for schools that are able to equip young women for life in the wide world.

The same principle also applies to the range of subjects that should be studied by women. In the past, women were generally not introduced to those aspects of Torah study, such as abstract concepts, which did not relate to the actual performance of the mitzvos.12 Today, women are commonly exposed to the sophisticated demands of professional involvement in contemporary society (not to speak of the professional training that precedes it); they obviously need to prepare themselves for this by developing their thinking processes within the conceptual realm of the Torah and within the value system of the Torah.13 This entails studying not only the practical application of the mitzvos, but also their conceptual underpinning.14

Sharing Knowledge

Women are characterized by warmth and a tendency to give. It is thus natural for women to share their newly-attained insights with others, beginning with the members of their families. The Book of Psalms15 refers to a woman as akeres habayis, a term which can be understood to mean “the mainstay of the house.” The woman determines the tone of the home environment: inspired by her own study, the encouragement she gives is crucial in motivating her husband and children to study further.

Moreover, the success of chinuch (education) depends on the development of a personal connection with the subject studied. This is stimulated by the love and positive approach generated by the teacher, and women have the natural gifts needed to build on this. Thus, in the typical situation, while a father contributes to a child’s education primarily through testing his grasp of his school subjects, a mother discusses them with her child and focuses on the aspects which are relevant to his life. Furthermore, being more in daily contact with the child and more attuned to his day-to-day feelings, she is commonly better placed to communicate those educational messages in terms which her child can relate to.

A Cycle Of Growth

By their very nature, such efforts at enlightening others rebound on the giver. When instructing adults to alert their children to the requirements of the mitzvos, the Sages16 use the expression, lehazhir. Literally, this verb means “to warn” — but the Rebbe Rayatz points out17 that it also shares a root with the word zohar, which means “radiance”. In other words, through educating children, one’s own knowledge is enhanced to a point at which the teacher or parent himself becomes radiant.

Here, then, we have a self-perpetuating cycle of growth. An increase in women’s Torah knowledge should stimulate their efforts to educate others, and this, in turn, will upgrade their own knowledge.

A Foretaste Of The Messianic Age

The Sages teach18 that on Friday, before the actual arrival of Shabbos, it is a mitzvah to taste the delicacies to be served on that day. At present, in the era directly before the coming of the Mashiach, on the very eve of19 “the day which is entirely Shabbos,” it is a mitzvah to enjoy a foretaste of the revelations of that age. The Messianic age will be characterized by an abundance of knowledge:20 “The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d. The Jews will therefore be great sages and know the hidden matters.” Hence, in eager anticipation of that time, the present age should also be characterized by an ever-widening availability of knowledge.21

An Urgent National Priority

Ultimately, the collective endeavors of Jewish women around the world to broaden and deepen their Torah learning, and to share it with others, will bring about a long-awaited change in the world at large. Our Sages remind us that22 “In the merit of the righteous women [of that generation], our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt.” In the same way, the merit of today’s women, who are raising and educating a generation of children prepared to greet Mashiach, will prepare the world for the age when23 “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed.”

Seen in this light, for women today to study Torah in depth is not merely a right or a privilege, but an urgent national priority.