The Glueck Beit Midrash: A View From the Outside
I’ve only been to the Wilf Campus about four times in my first year in Stern, but each time I go I always make the same stop. I walk up to the big glass windows that line the Glueck Beit Midrash and look inside. Peeking through the blinds, I take in the handsome, massive room, the grand aron kodesh, the towering shelves stuffed with sefarim. I try to count the clustered tables and the students that hunch over them, beside hills of more sefarim and notebooks.
My friends usually have the same reaction to my pit stop: frustration. They can’t understand why I like to look at the beit midrash so much. From 8:15 till 9:00 am every morning of the school week, I sit with my chavruta and prepare for my Gemara class in the Stern Beit Midrash, a beautiful but undeniably small room on the seventh floor of 245 Lexington. “Don’t you resent this enormous hall?” they wonder. “Doesn’t it make you feel upset, jealous, inadequate?”
“Of course it does,” I always say.
But it also makes me feel something very different. Something that took a long time to understand.
It makes me happy.
Not because I’ve deluded myself into thinking I’ll ever get a chance to learn in a place like that, at least not any time soon. Looking through into the Glueck Beit Midrash makes me feel optimistic for the Jewish future, even though it makes me sad about my own present experience.
A few months ago I was talking to a boy in YU at some event or other and as the conversation began to dwindle, he asked me what Jewish classes I was taking. I said Shoftim and Gemara. His face screwed up as he processed, and after a moment he said,
“You’re taking Gemara? Why would you ever want to?”
“I enjoy it,” I said simply.
“But Gemara is so dull,” he pushed.
“I’m sorry you feel that way, but I think it’s really fun.”
Since I started taking my Gemara learning (and women’s learning in general) more seriously last year, I have had tons of conversations that start just like that one. I’ve been approached by handfuls of men and women, boy and girls, who all want to know why I do this or think that. I try not to get into disputations with people about women’s learning. The returns are always almost nonexistent, and I always walk away with a ball in my throat.
But that hasn’t stopped people from trying to argue. Many people choose to challenge women like me, even though all we want to do is end the interrogations so we can focus on actually learning. Our sincerity, our intellectual capability, and even our yirat shamayim have been brought into question more times than I like to think about. Of course these comments hurt, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be numb to their sting. But it’s comments like the one from that boy from YU that bring me the most sadness.
People who challenge women’s learning for all the other reasons do so because they sincerely care about Torah and want desperately to protect it. They fear the rising tides of feminism or egalitarianism; they gaze at the rapidly changing world with horror and suspect women who learn Gemara of hiding in a Trojan horse. They are afraid to share their treasure with us because they think we will spoil its purity with an agenda. That we will taint it, subvert it, crush it. They want to guard their precious treasure from bandits.
But this boy wasn’t trying to protect Torah from some bra-burning interloper. Because people like this boy don’t really understand why anyone would want to protect it all.
And, for me, that is much sadder than some misguided opinion on women’s learning.
I know that Gemara learning isn’t for everyone, boys or girls. Not everyone connects to that sort of logic and nitpicking that I, and many others, find so thrilling. Chanoch l’naar al pi darko.
But I’ve heard too many boys say that they just don’t understand why I would want to learn, or why I even care, for me to think it’s only about al pi darko here.
What I see is a lot of young men disenchanted with fundamental texts of our faith, ones that they have been staring at since elementary school. Boys that just can’t understand why a girl would fight to learn Gemara when all they want is to escape it. And many of them have escaped.
That is why I love peering through the windows of Glueck. Sure, I wish with all the stardust from every fairytale that I could learn in a room just like that one. That I could sit at a table like those, surrounded by all the wonderful, passionate women of the Stern Beit Midrash, and debate a sugyah with my lovely chavruta. That I could run to shelves sagging with sefarim and pull one off, bring it to our table, and prove my point with the words of an acharon’s commentary.
But at least there are enough young men who really do feel the passion of Torah, who value it and want to protect it, to fill this massive room. Sitting there is a huge number of men who see the treasure of Torah. Who think learning is fun. Who enjoy it. Who have sat through yeshiva day school, yeshiva high school, one or two years in Israel, and now Yeshiva University and haven’t let that treasure dull its shine.
And that makes me optimistic about our future, as the Jewish People.
Maybe some of these men would like to protect the treasure from “bandits” like me. But at least we all see it for what it is. A treasure. Worth treasuring.
We share that passion. We love the same thing. We would protect it with our everything. I see that when I look into Glueck.
So even as the stardust grows stale around me, how can I not be happy? At least a little.