By: Menucha (Quint) Chwat  | 

Letter to the Editor: What History Can Teach us About the Stern Talmud Controversy

Reading the discussion about Talmud in Stern College — spanning all the way from the Rav's opening shiur in the Stern beit midrash to the current controversy — has brought a flood of memories and mixed emotions. Mildly amused that this event was being debated by two rabbis, I felt that I should bring the perspective of one who was there when it all started.

I remember when I first heard about the new beit midrash program at SCW, which allowed for the first Talmud classes for women. I immediately changed my plans and went on early admissions. The "advanced level" shiur was given by Rabbi Mordechai Willig. The first lists of sources to prepare were tantalizingly full, and I knew that this would be the opportunity for women to learn Gemara on a high level.

However, this vision was short-lived. Fewer and fewer women were really preparing the sources, and it showed. The level of the class drastically dropped, the lists of sources diminished and it was apparent from many frivolous questions that very few women wanted to put in the effort necessary to properly learn Gemara.

The second semester that year began with the shocking announcement that the "intermediate" and "advanced" shiurim would be merged into one class taught by Baruch Lanner. That was in effect the end of the “new era in women's learning at YU.” More than 40 years later, reading The Commentator, it seems as though history is repeating itself: an exciting new program followed by diminishing enrollment and its eventual termination by the administration.

This phenomenon is in accordance with what is explicitly stated in the Rambam (Talmud Torah 1:13), namely, that most women's minds are not attuned to being taught Torah. With this in mind, it is quite reasonable that the enrollment for Talmud classes at Stern has shrunk. Ideologically — if not economically — this should be seen as an ideal. Programs should be geared for the minority of women who can and will learn Talmud seriously, not use it as a source of frivolity, and this is exactly what the current state of Talmud enrollment reflects. 

Do I regret my time in the Stern beit midrash? Not at all. For one brief and shining moment, I experienced the best that YU had to offer. It is because of those shiurim back then that I can experience the best that YU has to offer today. I can sit in my home on a relatively isolated settlement in the Judean Hills, thousands of miles away from Washington Heights and hear YUTorah shiurim on any tractate, chapter or page in the Talmud from a dazzling variety of roshei yeshiva. And for this, I am eternally grateful to Stern. More importantly, I have no doubt that my studies at Stern have made me a better Jewish woman, mother, grandmother and teacher. 

But, that is not to say that Talmud is or should be for every woman at Stern. As the Rambam and history tell us, we should not expect this of everyone, and it might even be beneficial to discourage it in some cases. 

Regardless of what the future holds for Stern Talmud studies, as I sit in my house in the Judean hills, the very least I can do is reflect upon the positive experiences I had at Stern and give thanks that my lot is among those who sit in the “virtual” beit hamidrash

Menucha (Quint) Chwat graduated from SCW in 1981.