From NISHMA UPDATE September 1992

Dvar Torah

Women and Judaism: The Question of Learning

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, North York, Ontario

Of all the issues that must be investigated withinthe realm of women and Judaism, the one that I believe is most significant concerns the question of learning. okuf sdbf vruw sunkw, the study of Torah is equal to all (Mishna Peah 1:1), yet women are excluded from this command (T.B. Kiddushin 29b). How we understand this exclusion must present important insight, not only into the role of women within Judaism, but also into the very nature of the mitzvah of talmud Torah.

The investigation could begin with the simple question: why are women not commanded to learn Torah? The issue is, however, further complicated because women are not just excluded from the command but, at least on the surface, seem to be instructed not to study Torah. See, as the primary source, Mishna Sotah 3:4, and, as a most definitive and powerful statement in this regard, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:13. Unlike a mitzvah such as lulav and etrog or listening to the shofar, where women can choose to act if they so wish, the Halacha seems to decry a necessary difference in behaviour, demanding men to learn and women to refrain. Unlike a command such as pru u'rvu, to have children, where the distinction between men and women in the command is mostly of theoretical interest (although of great importance to the entire subject of women and Torah), the distinction in studying Torah is of ultimate practical import affecting, obviously, no less than our very approach to Torah education. This powerful distinction in behaviour in what is considered the most important of mitzvot is most perplexing. The question is not only why women are excluded from the mitzvah but how could there even be a distinction in this command? The concern is not only what this law says about the Torah view of women but also what this law says about limud haTorah.

The very value of Torah study would seem to be challenged. How can half of the Jewish nation be excluded from the pursuit of Torah knowledge? To say that they can be, ultimately, is to declare that the information to be gained is not really necessary for the maintenance of a Torah life-style. To say that they cannot be, however, contests the statements that declare that women should not learn. How do these two apparently conflicting positions merge?

The answer must lie in an examination of the limiting statements and a determination of what they really are declaring in regard to women and Torah study. For specific approaches and answers one may wish to see such works as Rabbi Elinson's HaIsha v'HaMitzvot, chapter 13 or Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's Jewish Women in Jewish Law, chapter 7. In general terms, the commentators discern two poles. On one hand, women must be able to learn and must learn those matters which she must know to maintain her practice as a Jew. The limiting statements never applied to these areas of study. On the other hand, they do recognize that there must be a restriction of some nature which must be defined. The issue, however, is the extent of one pole in connection to the other. It is here that the commentators disagree and the complexity of this law continues.

One viewpoint is based on the limiting of the former pole, defining narrowly the subject matter that the woman must know and defining broadly the restriction. Proponents of this conviction argue that the language of the limiting statements is extremely broad and must have a strong application. The history of Torah study for women would tend to support this conclusion. The Torah is, obviously, distinguishing between men and women.

Explanations within this realm may build on innate differences, such as the concept that women have a vrhwh vbhc, an additional understanding (Bereishit Rabbah 18:1)), or on the pragmatic, that the woman's involvement with family has precedence. There is also speculation on a tie between masculinity and limud haTorah. As with all attempts to explain the distinction between men and women, these theories must be investigated, sharply but with an open mind. This, in itself, in our world, is difficult. The general society that surrounds us emphatically attacks any attempt to distinguish between the personalities of men and women (except in the most obvious). This has affected us, as many of us, now, approach any theory that separates the sexes with hesitation, often only asserting the Torah's obvious differentiation between male and female with timidity. On the other hand, classic understandings of the distinction have been successfully challenged and we must not ignore all critiques and settle with insufficient apologetics. Yet, my greater concern, in this specific case, is what is being presented regarding Torah study. Are we stating, have we been historically declaring, that Talmud study is not necessary for one's practice as a Jew (aside from the action of mitzvah in itself)? Afterall, women have refrained from such study.

The other viewpoint is based on the attempt to limit the restriction. Proponents of this side argue that it is impossible to distinguish between learning that presents necessary information and study that is just theoretical. All involvement and information gained from Torah study, they argue, has practical significance. Even Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 4:13 specifically includes women in the obligation to gain knowledge of G-d which is built, at least for the development of the processes of thought, on the "discussions of Abaye and Rava". What about the limitation? Some explanations within this view, especially given the history of female Torah study, attempt to explain it within sociological parameters, declaring that the issue is not women per se, but women as they existed within their unfortunate historical social setting. It is that category of individual to which Torah study is restricted (for their lack of involvement in any intellectual pursuit will only lead to Torah study becoming folly). Others view the restriction as a matter of process, not of ultimate education. The result, in the extremities of this view, is a total lack of distinction between the Torah education of men and women. Given the broad language of the limitation, however, just as we approached the positions expressed within the first viewpoint, we must also consider these theories sharply but with an open mind.

There is, though, a different concern that bothers me within this viewpoint. Even if one concludes that women can learn exactly the same matters as men, that the restriction itself can be limited, that male and female education should be exactly parallel, there is still the theoretical distinction that women are not commanded in limud haTorah. The issue is not just the restrictive clause of Rambam. Even if one fully explains that women are permitted to learn Talmud in the same manner as men, the reality is that the latter is a vaugu vuumn, one commanded and performs, and the latter is an vaugu vuumn vbht, one not commanded who performs. Any investigation of this subject must also consider this.

On one hand, any limitation on Torah study may limit its importance. On the other hand, there is an obvious distinction in this law between men and women. How do we reconcile this tension? There may actually be a third approach. Rav Moshe Hochman once said to me that even with the restrictions, there is enough Torah that a woman must learn to fill three lives let alone one. No one can learn kol haTorah kulah, all of Torah. The distinction, therefore, may not lie in a yes or no approach to learning Torah but rather in the areas of focus. Since it is impossible to study everything, perhaps the differentiation between the sexes may lie in, at least, where they are to begin their studies and where they are to develop expertise.

In a certain way, this is already developing. Women study much more nach (books from the Prophets and Writings) than men. This distinction, though, was not developed intentionally, with thought regarding this potential explanation of the difference. Unfortunately, also, the study is not considered to be of equal importance with the study of nach, perhaps, even losing in stature because 'it is what women study'. Yet, a unique challenge to the development of our educational goals has been placed before us. It may be through the very tension that exists in the exclusion of women from the command to learn Torah that we find the key to the very nature of this most important mitzvah.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


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2002 NISHMA