Consider our Daughters
My wife has attended three educational institutions in her adult life. All three institutions taught both Torah Shebichtav and Torah Sheb’al Peh in single-gender settings. The first two offered women nearly equal access to Gemara learning with respect to time and resources allotted. The third institution offered her less than 20% of the time allotted to her male peers. Sadly, the institution that shortchanged my wife was not a school near the fringe of Orthodoxy, but the flagship institution of Modern Orthodox female education, Stern College for Women.
I wish to preface my arguments by insisting that as an Orthodox Jew, my commitment to Halacha remains unquestionable. I am not a proponent of total religious egalitarianism, or any other –ism which considers its own values a more powerful normative force than the words of the Shulchan Aruch and Rama.
A master of any discipline, be it art, athletics, or academics, will tell you that time and practice are the keys to proficiency and mastery. No matter how innately talented an individual may be, without time dedicated to a craft, true mastery can never be achieved. Mastery of Torah is no different. Spiritual mentors both inside and outside YU consistently stress the importance of dedicating time every day to studying Torah. Our daily birkat haTorah reminds us that we are commanded not only to learn, but to be osek, to busy ourselves, with Torah. And when it comes to the difference between Torah learning on the Wilf campus and on the Beren campus, time again proves its importance.
The Mazer Yeshiva Program (MYP) on the Wilf campus ensures its participants more than 21 hours (seder and shiur time combined) of intensive study of Torah sheB’al Peh each week. Stern College’s Advanced Gemara shiur is in session for a total of under six hours per week (including seder time, of which SCW students are afforded only 1.5 hours a week compared to three hours a day in MYP). A Stern woman who wishes to devote additional time to preparing or reviewing for shiur must carve time out of her own evening schedule. This time must be found among hours taken up by classes, labs, and coursework for the coming days. There is only one way to change the unequal reality our community finds itself in: Stern College must offer an MYP, or MYP-style program, affording similar amounts of time for accelerated Torah study during which no secular studies classes can be offered.
Those who would oppose such a program on ideological grounds presumably disapprove of the existing Gemara shiurim offered in Stern, and I harbor little hope of convincing these people that the hours women spend learning Gemara should increase. But I remind them that YU, an institution which looks to personalities such as Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein as heroes, has already firmly accepted the importance of women’s Gemara study. The change I advocate for is simply one of degree, an adjustment that will fully realize the institution’s commitment to the highlest level of Torah study for all. This change should not offend any member of the YU community on an ideological level. I am not suggesting, explicitly or implicitly, any shift in normative practice or ideology. All I push for is more of something that our institution and community has already decided is a value worth pursuing.
Many may respond that such a drastic change is not warranted, as the number of women who would be interested in such a program could be very small—20 women would be a very optimistic estimate. I would respond that these 20 women are worth the change. Looking towards the future, I dream of a Stern College in which 200 women would participate in such a program, but that dream can never be realized if we do not take the first step. If we do not send the message that we value the Talmud Torah of women as much as we do that of men, a generation in which as many women are learning Torah as men will remain a fever dream. I shudder to think that my future daughters may find themselves in an institution that caps their potential, a potential that would be more easily realized had they been born sons.
The only true obstacle to such a change is a logistical one, and although it may present a large hurdle, it is one with which the institution must grapple. The installation of such a program would likely mean that classes would run until later in the evening, a change that many women at Stern may find unwelcome. Why should the educational aspirations of 20 women force a pre-med student to be in lab until 8:45 PM?
I do not come to table carrying a torch and pitchfork; I realize that there are intense practical and ideological issues that must be addressed in ensuring educational equality at Yeshiva University. But the failure of Yeshiva University to offer programing that even resembles equality is magnified by its centrality in the Modern Orthodox world. We often quip “Nowhere but Here,” but I would ask “If not here, then where?” The current educational set-up sends a clear message to our community: It is acceptable that women at the pinnacle of their Torah education be offered less than their male peers.
If one day I am blessed with daughters, I would hope that they choose to spend their college years at Yeshiva University. But I am greatly distressed that from the moment of their birth, our flagship institution has fated that they will not receive equal opportunity and access to the texts and traditions that define our practice of Judaism. Even if a fully equal option cannot exist for practical reasons, I hope that a new Yeshiva University administration will strongly consider implementing a change long overdue, one that will hopefully reverberate in the batei midrash of not only our current YU students, but in the batei midrash of our future daughters.