Volume 8 Number 56

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

Modern Intelligent Orthodox Women
         [Leora Morgenstern]
Women's Tephila
         [Janice Gelb]


From: <leora@...> (Leora Morgenstern)
Date: Mon, 26 Jul 93 01:51:03 EDT
Subject: RE:  Modern Intelligent Orthodox Women

This is in response to parts of Esther Posen's (July 21) letter on
Modern Intelligent Orthodox Women.

I am addressing two points.  First, the discussion of the rates of
intelligent women leaving Orthodoxy.  Second, the old argument that
women don't need to study Gemara to pursue their Jewish education,
because they haven't plumbed the depths of Tanach.  I don't agree with
other points in her letter, as well, but many of these arguments have
already been anticipated and responded to by previous letters to

Esther Posen writes:

>First off, are there any statistics that show that in the last 50 or so
>odd year since the start of the Bais Yaakov movement intelligent women
>have left orthodoxy at a greater rate that intelligent men.  ...
>Secondly, has anyone ever asked Nechama Leibowitz if she would have left
>orthodoxy if she could not have pursued her religous education.

Questions that ask whether intelligent women have left Orthodoxy
at a greater rate than intelligent men in the last 50 years
(incidentally, it is a lot longer since Sara Schenirer started
the Beis Yaakov movement) are meaningless.  Presumably, the
answer to this question is no --  I would imagine that thirty or
forty years ago, it was more tempting and at the same time easier
for men to leave Orthodoxy because of their greater financial
oppportunities and  independence -- but what does that show?

If one is concerned about the rates of women leaving Orthodoxy,
the questions to ask are:
Would intelligent women have left Orthodoxy at a greater rate
than they do now if there had not been a Beis Yaakov movement?
(I'm using this term to include all Orthodox education for women.)
That is, has the Beis Yaakov movement been effective?
Would intelligent women leave Orthodoxy at a lesser rate if
the Beis Yaakov movement were expanded to include a more
challenging and fulfilling curriculum?  That is, could the
Beis Yaakov movement, including post-high school education, be improved?

I would suspect that the answer to both these questions is yes -- but I
would suggest, as have other contributors to Mail.Jewish, that the
problem of leaving Orthodoxy is not nearly as prevalent as the problem
of alienation from Orthodoxy.  (This point is addressed both to Leah
Reingold and to Esther Posen.)  I agree with Esther Posen that Nechama
Leibowitz would not have left Orthodoxy if she could not have pursued
her religious education.  But there are many, many intelligent Orthodox
women who grow up studying the restricted curriculum that is standard
for girls, who wish to learn in greater depth and breadth, and who are
refused.  These women, for the most part, do not leave Orthodoxy; they
remain devout in belief and practice.  But they cannot find intellectual
fulfillment in Orthodoxy and are forced to find it only in the secular
world.  As they progress in the secular world, there is an increasing
disparity between their general sophistication and knowledge and the
simplistic mental models of Orthodox Judaism that they retain from
childhood.  Many find it hard to relate to their Orthodox practices on
any but the simplest gut level.  Sadly, many stop caring.  And they miss
the joy of learning, and the increased Ahavat Hashem (love of G_d) to
which learning leads.

Esther Posen suggests that the number of such alientated women is small;
she doubts that there are ``scores.''  Unfortunately, I alone know
scores of alienated women such as the ones I've described.

This issue should be of primary importance in the education of Orthodox
Jewish girls and women.  Every Orthodox Jewish woman has the right to
develop spiritually as much as she can.

II:  Esther Posen continues:

>How many women (or men) out there have plumbed the entire depths of all
>of TANACH and have exhausted all its material so that if they did not
>study Gemarrah or Talmud their Jewish education would be over.

This is one of the oldest arguments used by those who object to women
learning Gemara (or Jewish philosophy, for that matter.)  It is flawed
in several respects, enumerated below.

(1) You cannot deny a person the right to study in a certain area simply
because he has not completed another area of study.  (The exception is
if this area is a prerequisite; this is clearly not the case here, since
most boys start learning Gemara with a very limited knowledge of
Tanach.)  Who would deny a math student the right to study calculus
because he had not finished all 13 books of Euclid's Elements?  Such a
move would be pedagogically unsound.  In fact, studying several fields
at the same time often enhances the quality of the knowledge in all
these areas.  The best math students that I knew in college and graduate
school had studied algebra and calculus concurrently (in Russian high
schools).  This is at least as true of Gemara and Tanach.  For example,
learning the ways in which Mitzvot Aseh (positive commandments) and
Mitzvot Lo Ta'aseh (negative commandments) are learned from the subtle
differences in various P'sukim in the Torah makes a person more
sensitive to the nuances of expression in the Torah.

There is also a subtle and unfair implication in the
But-you-haven't-learned-all-of-Tanach-yet argument.  The implication is
that if women could completely study all of Tanach, they would somehow
earn the right to argue for the right to learn Gemara.  But as we all
know, the study of Tanach is endless, so no-one (man or woman) would
ever be able to make that claim.  I am aware that the central point of
this argument is that Tanach is endless --- but then the argument should
be presented as such.  There is something distasteful about the
structure of an argument which presents women with an impossible and
irrelevant challenge.

(2) In a very real sense, an Orthodox Jewish woman's education does stop
if she is not allowed to learn Gemara.  In fact, a major part of her
education has never begun.  Halacha is an integral part of daily Jewish
life.  Learning Gemara -- along with the Rishonim and Acharonim --
enhances one's appreciation of Halacha in two important ways:

First, studying the development of Halacha from Talmudic to modern times
gives meaning to what might otherwise be just rote observances.  There
is a real difference between being told a reason in class and studying
the Amoraim as they work to find a reason for some Mitzvah.  There is a
real difference between being told that some seemingly small details in
the observance of some Mitzvah are important, and seeing the care and
attention with which the Rishonim and Acharonim apply themselves to make
sure that they get the details right (see, e.g, Succah, 32b, the Ran
there, Rambam, Hilchot Lulav 8:5, Shulchan Aruch 646:3-4,8 (and Rama and
Mishnah B'rurah), Rav Soloveitchik, notes edited by H. Reichman, pp.
154-157, on what happens if some of the leaves of the Hadas do not grow
in triplicate).

Second, studying Halacha in detail and in its halachic and historical
context enhances one's practical observance.  Most halachot have many
subtleties that are almost impossible to memorize by rote -- or even to
be aware of -- if one does not understand the underlying issues
involved.  For example, most girls graduate from Beis Yaakov high
schools and seminaries with only the vaguest notion of how Yom Tov
differs from Shabbat with regard to the preparation of food.  They would
not be able to explain, e.g, why cooking food is permissible, why
grinding spices is permitted only with a shinui (small change) and why
hunting is forbidden.  Understanding all of these issues requires
understanding the underlying principles (Could the activity be done
before Yom Tov?  Is it typically done for many days?  Is it part of a
restricted set of the 39 Melachot?).  The point of this example is that
making sure one observes Yom Tov properly requires the proper vocabulary
and ontology.  It is doubtless true that one can be taught all these
distinctions outside of the texts (though not as well); but once one is
already doing that, why not teach the Gemara (and Rishonim and
Acharonim) as well?

Studying Gemara also enhances one's appreciation for the moral values
underlying Judaism.  In the interest of (relative) brevity, I'll just
say that one sees in practice what the Tannaim talked about in Pirkei

(3) Some women (and men) have a particularly analytic bent, and would
rather study Gemara than Tanach.  The fact that some people have a
preference for one mode of study is surely not a novel concept for
Orthodox Judaism.  Rambam did most of his work on Halacha (and Jewish
philosophy) and relatively little on Tanach.  Ramban wrote books on
Halacha and on Tanach.  Abarbanel concentrated on Tanach. The fact that
different individuals have different proclivities has never been a
problem before.  Why should this be a problem specifically for women?

There are two other arguments in favor of women learning Gemara, though
they are not direct rebuttals to the
But-you-haven't-learned-all-of-Tanach-yet argument.

(4) The importance of keeping women involved, and preventing alienation,
discussed above.

(5) Women may have much to contribute to this area.  The discussion on
Nechama Leibowitz in Mail.Jewish has virtually ignored the fact that her
commentary has greatly enhanced the level of Parshanut in our
generation.  By excluding women for generations, we have lost a valuable
resource.  We are constantly bemoaning the low level of Torah knowledge
in our generation.  How can we afford to throw away half of our

One final point.
Esther Posen concludes by saying:

>Believe me, the way this world is changing, any orthodox religous jew
>will be hopelessly old-fashioned in many more ways than his or her
>attitude toward feminism.  We are bound for the old-people home before
>we are born....

Her view of the Orthodox world as a holdout against change in a world
that is changing increasingly for the worse is a popular one in Orthodox
Judaism.  But it is hardly one of the 13 Ikarim (fundamental principles
of belief).  It is equally valid to view Orthodox Judaism as a model of
enlightenment, and to believe that our role is not to shirk from the
changes in the world, but to embrace what is good.  Specifically, in
this case, the realization that women are capable of learning at a
sophisticated level.


From: <Janice.Gelb@...> (Janice Gelb)
Date: Mon, 26 Jul 93 14:46:09 -0400
Subject: Re: Women's Tephila

In mail.jewish Vol. 8 #48 Digest, Steve Ehrlich said:

> There is a certain reality here that I'm surprised no one has mentioned.
> It is that in fact relatively little tephila altogether takes place
> among many women who otherwise classify themselves as Orthodox.[...]This
> is certainly true once children are in the picture, but even with the
> younger set there is serious neglect. [...]
> Somehow we have a situation in which many young girls think it doesn't
> matter much if they daven or not. Davening is not "for them". I see the
> women's Tephila groups as growing out of that feeling. I use the word
> "feeling" unapolgetically. The reality is that masses of Jewish females
> do not sense an imperative to daven on a regular basis. I am aware of
> the Halachic discussions about exactly what the extent of a woman's
> obligation to daven may be. But to my mind, that is beside the point.
> IMHO, if I raise my daughter to think it doesn't matter if she davens
> mincha or not, I have not done my job.

This is an excellent point. Despite the counterargument that davening
is communication between the davener and HaShem and that it shouldn't
matter whether it is done with the community or not, people by and
large do need the reinforcement of community. Most ezrot nashim are not
set up to encourage serious davening. Bad acoustics, separation from
what's going on in the men's section by a wall or large distance mean
it is very difficult to follow when one does attend synagogue, which
often results in miscellaneous chatter (the unavoidable interruptions
necessitated by child-tending don't help a whole lot either). I'm not 
surprised that girls pick up on this feeling, and certainly not surprised 
that women, even if they had at one time a feeling that davening was an 
obligation, lose it over time.

And a larger point: if the obligation for davening is taken away 
from women *regardless* of their marital or maternal status (that is, 
the ostensible reason for releasing women from their obligation, 
child-tending, doesn't apply and still the release applies), this 
also tends to take away from the feeling that davening by a woman 
matters. And the other argument usually made, that women have a 
more spiritual nature that doesn't require set prayers, also takes 
away from that feeling of obligation.

-- Janice Gelb


End of Volume 8 Issue 56