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?