“Oh, but you went to a modern school: how do you know so much halacha?”
My roommate’s guest is sitting at our kitchen table, adjusting her skirt to cover her calves, already cloaked in tights. She asserts my upbringing and hashkafic identity simply by assessing my choice of pajamas. Her wide eyes are so genuine that I immediately understand that my go-to snarky comment would be too harsh.
“The ‘modern’ community I grew up in found it essential to teach Halacha since it is one of the cornerstones of Judaism,” I answer with a smile. I am still confused by her question and even more so by the implications of it. Modern. Does she think that means I skipped Halacha lectures and went straight to Evolution Theory 101? Does she not recognize how much the talmudic literature and legal codes are analyzed specifically in the community she negatively shrugs off as ‘modern’?
After a few more minutes of conversation, she tells me how impressive it is that I am “passionate about my Judaism,” considering where my father attends synagogue. My dedication to the texts, traditions, and the general community throws her off. I almost want to ask her for a lollipop and dinosaur sticker for having behaved so nicely. She then tells me how her favorite mitzvah is tznius. Despite the fact that it is not a commandment, I don’t bother correcting her.
All at once, I am thrown back to the Yemei Iyun I used to attend, when educators would drill the famous statements of the sages into my still developing brain. I learned how to analyze Rashi on any topic. I knew how to find issues with the text and where to find the right answers. I was even taught to contend with the commentaries―so long as I found an appropriate commentary to support my stance. Yet with all of this transmission of words, the analysis was limited to
Biblical text, lacking any exposure to religious legal writings.
How important was it to learn about the passing of the Oral Torah through the generations in a sing-song form without ever teaching me the the content of what was passed down? Is it so great that I know Rav Saadya Gaon completed his works in the year 500 when the actual texts he compiled were conveniently excluded from the curriculum I was taught? I was told who the great sages of a certain period were, but I was never shown their great works. To me, the rabbis of our time, the ones I was told to look up to, remained characters defined by facts I had heard about their lives. I know their mothers dressed modestly. I know how they never left their yeshivot and how their wives brought them food there. But, when I raised my hand to ask about their decisions and contributions which we are taught to praise, my intrigue was greeted with severe hesitation, with concern. Where could she be heading, they thought.
When we have a passion-driven education, we encourage people to follow along obediently as they find their meaning, but we leave behind the rationale, the very logic that the sages laboriously worked over. While the opportunities for women’s studying has increased tremendously over the past fifteen years, (enter: online sources such as Sefaria as well as programs at Stern and Nishmat, etc.) they are still restricted to much of the frum community. Ironically, such pursuits are negatively associated with being less religious when these very studies, of our laws allow for a better understanding of our systems and the evolution of the Jewish people. While the Modern Orthodox education system highlights Talmudic courses as being essential to the Jewish educational experience, including those of female students, these courses are still dismissed as simply “too modern” to teach their daughters by a large segment of the frum community.
The resources that are available are targeted towards the sector of women who either have a background in Talmudic studies and wish to expand their knowledge or for those who never had exposure and wish to fill the gaps in their education. Running programs that attempt to help women who never had a talmudic based education is of course crucial, but why is the system set up to fail women until they leave and have to search beyond the walls of their high schools? Most of the women receiving little to no halachic education have been taught such studies are irrelevant, that they should be interested in the go-to “Tehilim sessions” or “Hafrashat challah groups.” Let the men take care of what is and isn’t allowed.
And this is not limited to the ultra-right as might be assumed: a plethora of modern schools face the same problems. Girls schools tend to skip over the textual analysis and ‘simplify’ lessons by teaching the final stances and decisions sages and current rabbis make. It is not enough to assign “The Shabbos Kitchen” as a reading, because it covers “all the practical laws women need to learn.” Such books and assumptions imply that women need not understand the halachic development and process. The practicality of the law applyies equally to men and women as both genders are obligated in essentially the same day to day practices.
Later, my new friend confesses to me, “I don’t really know Halacha. I never had the chance to study it.” This is why tznius is the only accessible mitzvah to appreciate.
But she assures me her husband will learn in kollel. For them both.