Women Are Exempt From Learning Torah. So What?
Torah is the foundation of Jewish faith, the secret of Jewish continuity. It is what gives life meaning, it infuses one’s life with holiness, it is a source of pleasure, it sharpens one’s mind and most importantly, it is the ultimate path towards connection with God. Yes, studying Torah is one of the 613 mitzvot. Yet it is very clearly so much more. It is therefore very understandable that learning Torah is considered the most significant area of religious experience and the most valuable way to spend our time. It is why we as a community place so much emphasis on making time to learn in a serious and structured way, sacrificing for limmud hatorah regardless of the busyness of daily life. The immense weight we place on Torah study is motivated by so much more than the biblical commandment of talmud Torah; it is a result of the power that Torah contains and the profound effect it has on one who learns it.
The obvious question in light of this is: why, as a community, do we not extend this focus on and primacy of learning Torah to women? True, women are not commanded to study Torah. Yet the lack of women's formal obligation to learn should not affect the immense value placed on their experience of Torah, nor should the communal emphasis on the importance of spending time learning be any less. If Torah is chochmat Hashem, the wisdom of God, and learning Torah allows us to be intimately unified and connected with Him, then the value and primacy of limmud hatorah should hold in regard to women as well. While there are certainly women who admiringly view serious talmud Torah as a core value and driving force in their lives, as a community we sadly don’t seem to view this as a focus, and we don’t seem to think that the emphasis of serious and devoted Torah study should apply to women. If the primacy and importance of Torah study does not only stem from the mitzvah to do so, why should this be the case?
A classic response to such probing is generally along the lines of “women have to maintain the Jewish home, and therefore serious Torah study is not practical.” While historically this may have been the case, we no longer live in a reality in which that is a valid excuse. Even if one believes that the traditional Jewish view is for the upkeep of the home to fall solely on the mother and that that structure must be maintained, we live in an age in which young women are (generally) not getting married and rearing children in their mid-teens.
As such, young women have plenty of time to learn Torah in a serious and dedicated way before they have children to care for. Even if we were to completely write off the years in which a woman would be completely absorbed in raising children and would not be realistically expected to learn at a highly serious level, there is still a very significant amount of time before and after this period to engage in the serious study of Torah. And completely writing off those years may in itself be extreme; claiming that “household duties”' should take up every second of the day no longer holds much water, as the handling of day-to-day life is more efficient than ever before. Children are in school longer, we no longer milk our own cows, churn our own butter or hand wash laundry. It may not be easy; life may get busy; yet Torah should remain as a constant value, something worth making time for as much as possible. The fact that serious Torah study is more accessible than ever before, with endless high level shiurim available on the internet and a plethora of diverse learning opportunities, should only make this more of a reality.
This is not a halakhic issue. Regardless of one’s stance on women’s gemara learning, the serious study of Torah does not have to be gemara based. Torah is massive and can be studied in a serious, structured way in any of its areas, even if one is not comfortable with standardizing gemara learning for women. Any potential remaining halakhic hangups with women’s learning have long been done away with across the Orthodox spectrum through the Beis Yaakov movement.
The value and emphasis of women’s Torah study should not be an idea that is difficult to stand behind. It is purely calling for Torah learning to be treated with the importance that it deserves. If we have time in our day, why not fill it with Torah? It is not as if it would be replacing a more important value or a better use of time already in place. (I don’t think Netflix binging counts as a viable path to God.) These ideas should then be obvious and non-controversial, and women spending their time seriously learning should be encouraged, respected and expected.
Yet unfortunately, this is not the case. Not only is serious Torah learning for women often not encouraged, it is sometimes even mocked. The very beis medrash guy who places the utmost emphasis on talmud Torah and who sees firsthand the power it contains gives a condescending chuckle upon hearing about a woman learning in night seder. The same guy that spends hours upon hours every day delving into the depths of Torah rolls his eyes and quickly goes to the next resume if a potential shidduch option is described as “having tremendous hasmada, an intense motivation to learn Torah.” This should be shocking to us, and the fact that it is often not treated that way is concerning and demands serious reflection as to why.
Adopting these ideas in a real way would force many changes. The nature of women’s learning would probably have to be more independent or chavrusa-based across the spectrum. The focus would need to be on building skills for serious, life-long Torah study, not just the accumulation of whatever knowledge is contained in seminary classes. There would need to be a shift in the emphasis of the value of time spent learning. Similar to the way it is expressed in the Glueck beit midrash, limmud hatorah should be emphasized as a prime way to spend one’s free time throughout college, and any opportunity to maximize one’s learning time should ideally be taken advantage of. We would need to be able to build a community of learners (which does exist in some seminaries) where serious learning is seen as “the frum thing to do,” something that is expected. Night seder, which is just the concrete dedication of time in one’s day to serious Torah study, should be just as much of “a thing” on the Beren Campus.
Most importantly, a mentality shift would be necessary. Women’s limmud hatorah must be taken seriously on a communal level; we cannot trivialize women’s chelek in Torah. Talmud Torah is directly engaging in God and His thought. It is broadening one’s mind and infusing one’s life with meaning. It is the most real way of knowing God. It is one of the primary foci driving our daily religious experience. An exemption from the commandment to do so should not change that.
Photo Caption: The beit midrash on the Beren campus
Photo Credit: The Commentator