Wednesday, December 24, 2014

does the Mishna say it is assur for women to study gemara?

Daughter #2 recently asked me for some background on R’ Soloveitchik’s position viz a viz women learning gemara since her teacher was unfamiliar with that position.  In one of her classes in school they learned that learning gemara was assur, no exceptions, but she knew (I’m not exactly sure how) that there were other views and wanted some sources.

I didn’t present it this way to her, but since this is just a blog, let’s be bold about it: there is no source in the Mishna that says it is assur for women to study Talmud.
“What!?” you ask incredulously.  Did I forget the Mishna in Sotah (21), “R’ Eliezer omeir kol hamelamed es bito Torah k’ilu lomdah tiflus?”

Aderaba, I would say this very Mishna is proof to my assertion.  The Mishna one line earlier quotes the view of Ben Azai that “Chayav adam l’lamed es bito Torah…”  One would expect the opposite view to argue that, “Assur l’lamed es bito Torah…” Yet that’s not what Rabbi Eliezer says.  The Mishna, quoting Rabbi Eliezer, never used the word “assur” – it is prohibited – but rather instead simply says as a matter of practical fact that if one teaches one’s daughter Torah it is tantamount to encouraging her foolishness.   One can make a very good argument that if the metziyus changes, if the social and educational facts on the ground change so that women are as educated as men, then even Rabbi Eliezer would withdraw his objection. 
Puk chazei that even in the times of Chazal (e.g. Bruriah) and throughout Jewish history there have been women who have learned in depth.  Were we dealing with a prohibition, how can there be exceptions?  However, if we are dealing with a metziyus, then there is latitude to adjust the curriculum to the individual and to the circumstances at hand.

My son argued in response to my diyuk that the Mishna is telling us a kol she’kein: not only is teaching Torah to one’s daughter assur, but worse than that -- it causes stupidity and foolishness.   I like his thinking: what’s worse than doing something that’s assur?  Doing something that’s stupid!  I can’t argue with that.  I just don’t know if that’s really pshat in the Mishna.
Secondly, he argued that R’ Eliezer’s view is not based on circumstance, but is based on an assessment of immutable differences that exist between men and women’s thinking and ontology.  R’ Soloveitchik himself argued that umdenot and chazakot of Chazal never change, even if societal circumstances do.  Why should this case be any different?  Gender differences are innate, not socially conditioned. 

The answer, as I alluded to above, is that we know this case is different because historically there have always been exceptions.  It must be that the Mishna is simply is a description (not a prescription!) of the state of most women’s education.  Most, but not all, being the key word.
Is everything or anything I’ve written here correct?  I don’t know.  Nor do I know if R’ Soloveitchik would have agreed with my formulation.  I don’t pretend to be offering a final answer -- I'm being deliberately provocative to ellicit debate.  That's because I believe that debating the question is perhaps more important than the final answer, because it's through grappling with the text of a Mishna (and I haven’t even gotten to the Rambam’s formulation of this din, which raises other questions), in testing different formulations of a din, in unpacking assumptions and thinking critically, the Torah becomes alive and a person becomes engaged.   (Isn't that what learning torah sheba'al peh ultimately is about -- not just knowing that on daf X Abaye holds A and Rava holds B?)The Chofetz Chaim already in his time encouraged exposing women to more learning because he knew that producing engaged Jews is the only way to combat assimilation and ensure committment.  Are we doing that in women's education?  Are we doing that in young men's education?


  1. Since the overwhelming thrust of baalei mesorah understand the mishnah's conclusion as disdaining girls learning more than necessary, I think your analysis is of little lemaaseh import.

    As for the Rav's position, he didn't propose a new theory, but rather said the old theory evolves with the new metzi'us. We always held girls had to learn enough to grow up to become observant women. Before mandatory secular education, the needs were minimal -- a mimetic background, some grounding in halakhah lemaaseh, just enough Taanakh and aggadita to provide inspiration and motivation. Then, when secular education did become mandatory, the Chafeitz Chaim and Belzer Rebbe gave their endorsement to Beis Yaakov, and girls studying more -- because more Jewish knowledge was necessary to keep girls attached to Torah rather than the other ideas they are now exposed to. And so, the Rav applies the same notion to a world where most of our daughters attend college; when exposed to the glory of systemic secular knowledge, Judaism without studying gemara is simply insufficient to produce many women who are inspired to remain good Jews.

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe's position was similar, with one major difference. He only recommended studying gemara to those women who were exposed enough to life outside the chassidic subculture for the need to exist. RMMS didn't believe this one prescription was right for everyone, and not for those who did live the more culturally insulated life of a chassidishe woman from early childhood onward.

    1. I don't know who you mean by "ba'alei mesorah." That is a loaded term that just sugggests an appeal to authority in the absence of any real argument.
      As far as I know RYBS never publicly explained his position.
      The "disdain" you speak of may simply have been a function of circumstance. Absent those same circumstances, a change in attitude may be called for. The massive growth in women's learning programs and opportuninites across all segments of Orthodoxy (the thought of an 18 year old girl taking a year off to study torah full time in a place like BJJ would have been inconceivable in earlier times) proves that such an attitudinal change, albeit slowly, is occurring.

    2. Yes, halakhah does include appeal to authority. Beis Hillel had the numbers, so they were more authoritative. The bas qol eliminates the argument that Beis Hillel was more right than Beis Shammai.

      As for RYBS's position, my understanding is that he did explain it in a teshuvah found on the wall of Ramaz (whose leadership was the sho'el). See also R. Mayer Twersky, "A Glimpse of the Rav" in R. Menachem Genack ed., Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Man of Halacha, Man of Faith, p. 113, which R Gil Student quoted at

      "The halakha prohibiting Torah study for women is not indiscriminate or all-encompassing. There is complete unanimity that women are obligated to study halakhot pertaining to mitsvot which are incumbent upon them... The prohibition of teaching Torah she-Ba'al Pe to women relates to optional study. If ever circumstances dictate that study of Torah sh-Ba'al Pe is necessary to provide a firm foundation for faith, such study becomes obligatory and obviously lies beyond the pale of any prohibition. Undoubtedly, the Rav's prescription was more far-reaching that that of the Hafets Hayim and others. But the difference in magnitude should not obscure their fundamental agreement..."

    3. You rely on rov when there is a safeik. If one is convinced that one's reasoning is correct, then there is no safeik. Were this not the case, how could any da'as yachid exist or be relied upon?

    4. Still, it's a rule of pesaq that assigns authority for reasons other than logic.

      And it's not really a safeiq, it's choosing between two valid positions. It's not like we don't know which is right, it's a means of choosing which right answer is lemaaseh.

      Arguably, an acharon is someone who has to prove his case if he wants to contradict the greater Shulchan Arukh; whereas a rishon is someone he can cite as proof. (Unless we're talking Bal'adi Teimanim, where the Rambam serves that role.) Kind of like what the Rambam says about sha"s in his introduction to the Yad -- "nispasheit bekhol Yisrael". The fact that semichah centers on Beis Yoseif through Shach, Taz et al on the sides of the SA page, does actually lend it legal authority.

    5. I've never heard of such a rule before. Nor did the Shach, otherwise he could never argue on the Taz, no matter how convinced he was that he was right. Nor did the Nesivos, or how could he start up with the great Ketzos haChoshen?

    6. I could argue the rule's reality in practice, what exceptions would exist, the slow application until the SA became THE SA, but that's tangential. Are you quibbling, or do you believe that there is no difference in the authority we accord a position between those found in rishonim and those first found in acharonim by virtue of one being deemed a rishon and the other an acharon -- regardless of how I would have stated the details of that rule? (Or tannaim and amoraim, amoraim and rishonim [but not ge'onim and rishonim]?)

      Another example of authority of an shitah for reasons other than logical strength: The pesaq the masses are already following -- even if perhaps by accident (eg AhS on community eruvin, where he clearly supports the logic of not considering them valid, but clearly supports pasqening lequlah).

  2. Im not understanding what you mean by woman learning. Is it stam gemara, psak, or iyun? If psak I can understand cause you can't mix emotion with psak. But if it's stam learning Why can't they learn? They can learn everything else except gemara?! What about gemara can't they learn if not cause of psak or iyun??

    1. learning mishna/gemara is the issue

  3. I recall hearing that RYBS brought a sevara that since women have a chiyuv to know the halachos that are germane to them, they can only do this in the optimal manner if they learn the halachos from the ground up, shas um'farshim. And the only way to understand, e.g., Shabbos properly is by learning kol haTorah kula in this fashion.

    I don't understand RMB's distinction between RYBS and RMMS. Is their only difference in the metzius of their respective communities?

    1. I'm not sure if the difference is only in metzi'us, or also in whether the metzi'us needs fighting. It is likely that RYBS would want those chassidishe in-qehillah women to get both the college education and the gemara that would consequently be necessary. (My guess, but given his emphasis on secular education as an inherent value, I think it's a strong guess.) RMMS preferred they stay insulated.