By: Rabbi Zev Eleff  | 

Letter To The Editor: The Myth, the History and the Lesson of the Rav's Stern Talmud Shiur

I write with some reservation, since it’s untoward, so says the unofficial rule, for a college president to weigh in on decisions made at another school. In that spirit, I hope my note will be read as a comment by an American Jewish historian about the past and present of Orthodox Judaism and not a critique of my alma mater.

I read Rabbi Yosef Blau’s letter on the need to reimagine the Torah curriculum at Stern College. The impetus for his call for change was the recent reports of canceled Talmud courses at the midtown campus. But based on a historical point Rabbi Blau had raised, we might widen the scope of the problem and find complementary solutions.

Rabbi Blau refers to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s 1977 inaugural Talmud lecture, a watershed for women’s Talmud. The Rav’s shiur was certainly a pivotal moment that many draw upon. However, since Rabbi Blau cited it in the context of canceled courses and low enrollment, we ought to demythologize it.

Rabbi Soloveitchik did not irrevocably transform Talmud at Stern College. In the aftermath of the Rav’s lecture, Talmud study at Stern College languished and in a few short years was, reportedly, “eventually dissolved.” The program reopened but in the autumn of 1984, “only six women joined the Stern Beit Midrash under the tutelage of Rabbi Moshe Kahn.” It took longer than a decade before Stern College’s Talmud curriculum was solidified due to Rabbi Kahn’s indefatigable spirit and the concurrent advancement of women’s Talmud in Israel. Rabbi Soloveitchik was a pioneer but the false starts that hindered women’s Talmud at Stern College suggest a different type of investment than Rabbi Blau suggests. 

The dearth of women’s learning at the high school level did much to hinder Talmud at Stern College in the immediate years after the Rav’s inaugural lecture. Back then, a day school principal questioned the investment of resources, predicting that the whole women’s Talmud effort “will almost certainly disappear.” In another high school, administrators replaced a “double period of girls Gemara” (save for the honors track) with a period of Jewish law and another period of dance.

Since then, some Orthodox day schools have improved the situation. Yet the rise of women’s Talmud within American Orthodoxy, I think, is in larger part the result of intensive gap year study in seminaries and other sites in Israel.

To ensure sufficient enrollment at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, we must incentivize our day schools to fortify girls’ Talmud literacy and learning. Along these lines, we can deepen our philanthropic support of extracurricular Talmud learning for girls in summer camps and elsewhere.

Colleges and graduate programs can only do so much. If there isn’t sufficient interest among students, history suggests that it may be a deeper pipeline problem.