Adapted from deracheha.org
What is the mitzva of learning Torah? Does it apply to women? What Torah does a woman have to learn? How and why did text study open up to women? What texts should women study, why, and how?
What is the mitzva of talmud Torah?
The formal mitzva of learning Torah is only one element of the broader concept of talmud Torah. At minimum, the mitzva entails studying a few passages of Written and Oral Torah each day. At maximum, it is all-encompassing.
Where does the mitzva come from?
The Torah: “And you will teach them [words of Torah to] your children [beneichem]” (Devarim 11:19).
Why are women exempt?
The midrash on this verse reads the word “beneichem” as “your sons,” to the exclusion of daughters, meaning that a parent has no Torah-level obligation to teach daughters Torah. The Talmud quotes the midrash and concludes that, since a female need not be taught Torah, she is not obligated in the Torah-level mitzva to teach or learn it.
Does the exemption exclude women from talmud Torah?
No. The broader concept of talmud Torah still applies to women. Women have an exemption specifically from the obligation of formal Torah study.
Where does exemption from the mitzva of talmud Torah leave women?
The Mishna presents two rabbinic perspectives on women’s Torah study, Ben Azzai’s and Rabbi Eliezer’s.
Ben Azzai says a father has an obligation to teach his daughter Torah, and that her Torah study can be beneficial.
Rabbi Eliezer strongly disagrees. He likens a father teaching his daughter Torah to teaching her tiflut (lewdness, or nonsense). It’s hard to know exactly what Rabbi Eliezer means by this and why he says it. But it is clear that he is not in favor of women learning Torah.
Rabbi Eliezer’s position becomes widely accepted as halacha.
If a woman can’t learn Torah, how is she supposed to know how to observe Halacha?
Presumably even Rabbi Eliezer never meant to exclude women from Torah study for the purpose of learning practical Halacha. Even if he was opposed to text study, he would have at least supported women’s Torah study through informal cultural transmission.
Is learning Torah exclusively through informal cultural transmission enough, or should everyone have access to texts?
Early halachic authorities disagree on this question. As early as the thirteenth century, Rav Yitzchak of Corbeil addresses his mitzva compendium to women and men.
What position does Rambam take on women’s Torah study?
Rambam codifies Rabbi Eliezer’s position, that a father is not supposed to teach his daughter Torah. But Rambam leaves room for women’s Torah study in a number of ways:
Rambam limits the restriction to Oral Torah. That allows for women to learn Written Torah.
His choice of language may indicate that there is no clear prohibition even on women learning Oral Torah.
The restrictions on teaching a female may apply only to a father teaching his daughter.
His concerns about women’s talmud Torah do not seem to apply to a woman learning on her own. Women’s independent study is praiseworthy.
Rambam does not deny that women have the capacity to pursue Torah study properly. Women have to in order to achieve the highest levels of faith.
What other openings develop?
In the nineteenth century, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch establishes a day school for girls. He writes that formal education is an extension of the informal study women have always engaged in.
What is the modern turning point in women’s Torah study?
In 1917, Sarah Schenirer observes educated women moving away from religious life. She perceives that their souls ‘hunger for Torah.’ Inspired by Rav Hirsch’s educational approach, she founds the Bais Yaakov network of girls’ schools.
What support does Bais Yaakov receive and why?
Chafetz Chayim supports Bais Yaakov. He argues that historical shifts away from traditional communities and toward textual transmission of Jewish tradition mean that learning through imitation can no longer meet women’s educational needs. Rabbi Eliezer’s reservations no longer apply. Women now must turn to texts to learn Torah.
What happens once Chafetz Chayim gives his approbation to Bais Yaakov?
Calls to restrict access to Written Torah and its commentaries never regain traction.Teaching Oral Torah to women remains contentious, though, because of different understandings of how much has the world changed and what Torah women need in light of that change.
What are the opinions on Oral Torah for women?
Opinions range from limited approbation (e.g., Rav Moshe Feinstein), to saying there is no halachic constraint (e.g., Rav Mordechai Eliyahu), to considering it an imperative (e.g., Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik).
Is there common ground among the different opinions?
Yes, widespread acknowledgement that:
Women have a portion in Torah and textual access to that portion must expand from what it was historically.
Nowadays, if someone doesn’t learn Torah, chances are that that will lead to frivolity.
The halachic justification for women to study independently goes back long before Bais Yaakov, so any debate should center more around school policy than individuals.
What do supporters of women learning Oral Torah advocate?
Rav Soloveitchik advocated teaching girls Torah just as we teach boys.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein was less certain of pressing all women to learn Talmud intensively, but believed that we must teach women all areas of Torah seriously and well, out of respect for Torah and out of respect for women.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson, agreed that women must learn Written and Oral Torah, and added that women’s learning is a positive sign of approaching redemption.
What is the goal of women’s Torah study?
Anyone’s study of Torah should contribute to halachic observance, building moral character, and faith. Engagement with Torah can be transformative, enhancing the avodat Hashem of the individual and community.
Go to Deracheha.org to see sources and further analysis: