The Female Learning Curve

On first reading, the ruling by the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, legitimizing women’s prayer groups, seems to be an important step forward for large numbers of orthodox women. He has acknowledged the growing demand from Jewish women for a more authentic framework for spiritual expression. It is also abundantly clear from his consensual statement that the move has been resisted by many vested interests within the religious leadership of Anglo-Jewry.

The small print of the ruling, however, formally authorizes the banishment of women’s prayer groups from the synagogue—unless the rabbi is sympathetic—to the wasteland of occasional private meetings, thereby rendering such public recognition meaningless in practice. This is yet further evidence that such interests are incapable of facing the harsh reality of a disintegrating community. The ruling will, in all probability, make it far more difficult to gain access to sifrei Torah for private meetings from even sympathetic rabbis. The outcome will be a further alienation of committed Jews and a realization that religious leadership is too insular to reclaim many of the brightest and the best. It is easier and safer to allow such valuable communal assets to wither spiritually and die—for there is indeed no halakhic reason why women’s prayer groups should not find an honoured place in synagogal life.

One senior lay leader privately suggested that the women were “politically motivated”—and from that mode of thinking, it naturally follows that symbolically exiling them from the kehilla is a rational course of action. Yet as history has shown in many other instances, the “intolerable confusion” which women’s services in the synagogue would cause could only come about if such seeds were malevolently sown amongst congregants by those whose intention is to misrepresent and to distort.

For those outside mainstream orthodoxy, such a legitimization, however limited, will appear to be both self-evident and inadequate. Not even a small step for womankind. Yet such an attitude conveys a misunderstanding of orthodox culture and the broad movement of Jewish women to learn more about their religious heritage—a movement which asks questions about the most common practices of Jewish ritual behaviour and demands comprehensible answers; a movement which refuses to be content with lack of knowledge as an intellectual approach to Judaism.

There has also been a generational reaction against huge cathedral-like synagogues on an Anglican model, in favour of the intimacy of a shtiebel. Enthusiastic alternative minyanim are displacing the wooden pomp of the acceptable face of mainstream orthodoxy. The knitted kipa instead of the top hat and the bowler. There has also been a gradual understanding—amongst men—of the indignity suffered by women. Being either physically suspended mid-way between Man and God in many synagogues or made invisible behind an opaque but diaphanous mechitsa in the remotest corner of a prayer room has not encouraged real participation. Indeed, it has probably estranged a large number of Jewish women who have resisted the embrace of the fashion parade and the chatter of the satisfied classes during many a Jewish festival.

Other factors have underlined the urgency of the women’s issue. There is an apocalyptic quality to our times. Rising unemployment and increasing homelessness, recreational violence and designer drugs, child abuse and commonplace rape, racism and resurgent antisemitism—all coloured by junk TV and tabloid triumphalism—are just some of the ingredients which suggest that the recession is more than purely economic. It can be argued that previous generations have also had to deal with far worse societal ills, but the fragility of a hitherto seemingly safe existence is impinging on the consciousness of a growing number of Jews. Against a background of economic decline, an AIDS pandemic, war and famine, and a global inability to find remedies—there is a growing sense of unease and a feeling of instability in the air.

It is an understatement to point out that Jewish sensitivity towards societal fragmentation or dramatic change is well-developed. And such fears inevitably become directed towards questions about the shape of Jews to come. How can the next generation be protected from the rising chaos outside? How can Jewish-ness—in the widest interpretation—be transmitted to them? The two questions are intimately related since many have come to believe that the reclaiming and deepening of Jewish identity is the best means of protection for the future. Not a retreat from reality nor a return to religion, but an investment in ethnicity as an insurance policy.

Above all, it is Jewish women who have been confronted by the reality of their offspring growing up in the 1990s. For some, Jewishness is a one-generational decision and children, they argue, should be allowed a free choice to define themselves. Others believe that the continuity of Jewish identity as almost a value system is all-important in this day and age. The issue of Jewish education has thus steadily risen to the top of the communal agenda. The Worms Report which was released last year is an important testimony to the tremendous identification problems facing a shrinking community. An unthinking, amorphous solidarity with Israel as the sole means of ensuring the future has proved to be totally inadequate. The Diaspora and Anglo-Jewry will have to be re-in-vented—and the huge sums which now pass to Israel will eventually have to pay for that educational process.

In seizing the initiative to explore the Jewish world with their children, Jewish women have discovered that, compared to Jewish men, their knowledge of Judaism is severely limited through no fault of their own. And with that understanding has come the realization that they have been deprived of educational opportunities for many centuries.

The origin of this disastrous state of affairs stretches back nearly two thousand years. It states in the Mishna that “whoever teaches his daughter Torah, teaches her tiflut”. “Tiflut” means “foolishness”, but it can also be read as “licentiousness” or even “immorality”. These words are attributed to the second-century sage, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, and they form the basis for rabbinical attitudes which have lasted until contemporary times. The Jerusalem Talmud reports Rabbi Eliezer’s belief that “better the words of the Torah be burned than that they be transmitted to women”.

And yet, Jews throughout the generations who have read the Shema twice a day have recited the verse “and you shall teach them to your children”. As early as the fourth century, the narrower interpretation of “b’neichem”—”your sons” was deemed to be more acceptable. Chief Rabbi Hertz, the religious leader of Anglo-Jewry in the earlier part of this century, edited the Soncino Chumash as the definitive edition of the Pentateuch and added a further note there about past attitudes: “Though it was never intended that women become learned in the Torah, a clear understanding of the fundamentals of Jewish faith and duty was required of the Jewish woman.”

He further illustrated the problem by quoting M. Joseph that “the Jewish woman vied with her husband in an admiration for a religious culture in which she was not permitted to share; her greatest pride was to have sons learned in the Torah. She was, above everything, modest and chaste, and could immolate herself as a martyr if the need arose.”

In 1936, such commentary on the past passed without a murmur, even when published in tens of thousands of copies of the Pentateuch. Today, this kind of sentiment causes both ridicule and anger. Yet this is a legacy which encompasses the teachings of most of the greatest Jewish scholars. Even so, it appears that long ago there existed a tradition to teach girls as well as boys. Some like Ben Azai certainly advocated this. The Hebrew University’s Debbie Weissman has pointed out that “between the Bible and the Talmud, however, women may have gained in legal status, particularly in terms of marriage, divorce and inheritance laws, but lost in social status, as a ‘leadership of learning’ emerged—partly under Hellenistic influence”.

There are references down the ages to self-educated women, from Bruria to Glueckel of Hamelyn, who also aroused the ire of men through their wit and their intelligence. Yet it was the Haskalah and the French Revolution which catalysed awareness amongst women, and this produced numerous courageous female pioneers of women’s learning during the nineteenth century. Women were often the breadwinners in large families because they handled business and commerce transactions while the men learned. In eastern Europe in the 1930s,a host of discriminatory measures were imposed which were designed to restrict Jewish economic prowess. This sometimes meant effective exclusion from the state school system. Jewish religious educational institutions for women thereby flourished not simply because there was an innate belief that women’s education was a good thing and necessary, but also because it was perceived as a pellicle for ensuring the economic base of the male learning community.

In modern times, technological advance and a measured prosperity has freed Jewish women from the mindless drudgery of domestic chores. The drive towards equality between the sexes has allowed large numbers of women to enter a chosen career. One effect of these far-reaching changes has been a quest for intellectual and spiritual expression in an increasingly empty society, a desire for the sharing of kavanah, not only through the vehicle of alternative minyanim, but also within the space of women’s prayer groups.

Today’s society promotes a public retreat away from the questioning autonomous individual towards a conformist managerial collective. This has, in one sense, made the concept of family more relevant. In the 1990 Reith Lectures, Jonathan Sacks commented: “De Tocqueville once wrote that ‘as long as family feeling is kept alive, the opponent of oppression is never alone’. By which he meant that the family is the great protection of the individual against the state. It is no coincidence that totalitarian regimes have often attacked the family.” (The Third Reith Lecture, “The Fragile Family”.)

Yet today, there are different definitions of the family. The breakdown of marriages and/or relationships has led to different family structures, such as one-parent households where quite often the mother has the responsibility for the day-to-day Jewish education of the children. It therefore makes no sense to restrict or extinguish the spirit of exploration of Jewish women if it provides the means of our survival and intellectual enrichment. The rapid growth of Rosh Chodesh groups, unofficial women-only services, the desire to acquire “leyning” skills so as to read from the Torah scroll, and the sense of equality between bar- and bat-mitzvah are all indicative of the deep desire on the part of Jewish women to embrace Judaism and not simply to co-exist with it. Closing the doors of the synagogue to women’s prayer groups is not an argument for the rejuvenation of Jewish life or Jewish renewal but a catalyst to the assimilation of future generations. As it says in the Gemara: “As those who came before me planted for me, so do I plant for my children.” Our religious leaders would do well to consider its meaning in 1993.

Jewish Quarterly Spring 1993




Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.