I recently read a heartbreaking article in The Lehrhaus by Ayelet Wenger titled “Hokmat Nashim.“ It is hard to summarize the love, pain and frustration that the author’s words express, but they describe a Modern Orthodoxy that has failed women. The article articulates how today, though there are many programs that teach Talmud to women, opportunities for true Torah mastery and careers in Torah are still but dreams for half the population. The author concludes the article by challenging our community to realize that if this status quo continues, one day when our daughters will ask us what happened to the talmidot hakhamim of our generation, we will be forced to tell them that “they fled to medicine and law and basic education and academia and anywhere that would believe in them.”
This beautifully written but distressing article resonated as true and stuck with me for days. As a student of Stern College, it also made me want to scream in frustration. Yeshiva University is not the focus of the article. It is mentioned as just one of the many institutions that fails to teach women the way they teach men. The author also explains why she did not attend Stern; she illustrates how after a conversation with the Dean of Admissions she understood how the Torah learning options it offers were not what she sought. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel, “you didn’t even come; you didn’t even try.”
Eventually, I realized this wasn’t the true root of my frustration. What really stung was admitting that I am one of the women she describes, flocking from Torah to medicine, where I can just be accepted as me.
The author recalls how she once dreamed of going into hinukh. In midrasha I shared a similar dream. As I wondered how close I would ever come to learning all the books that surrounded me, I imagined that I would learn for the rest of my life, coming up with new hiddushim, and teaching the sweet words of Torah to others. I came to Stern inspired and excited to enroll in Advanced Talmud, a course that I quickly discovered was the only serious Talmud class in a school of almost one thousand women. The class was important to me; it pushed me to improve my Talmud skills and provided me with a community of women who believed in the same visions of Judaism that I held dear. But the class also had an undercurrent of anger and resentment towards the limited opportunities for learning that YU provides. Often, sitting in it somehow felt like we were fighting for something. And learning somehow felt like an act of feminism, though all we wanted was to simply learn.
I took Advanced Talmud for three semesters. I took it because I love learning and wanted Torah to be an integral part of my day. But also because I wanted the class to be full and to make the statement that women should learn Talmud and seize this crucially vital moment in Jewish history. But the price for this was that I could never really just learn. It was too tainted by the desire to make this statement, until it was a statement that I no longer wanted to make. With time, I just wanted to be a college student who takes literature, music theory, and science courses, finding God in a myriad of places. I fled to Jewish studies courses free of associations with feminism, so I could just explore ideas without fighting. Of course, this is not to say that this is the only, or even main reason, for the transformation of my interests and goals, but to completely ignore it would be naïve and irresponsible.
So I don’t resent those who didn’t come to Stern. After all, I came, and in many ways, gave up. But as a Stern College student I also can’t help but wish more women would come. I have spoken to many peers who claim that they would come to Stern if it would only grant them the same opportunities available to the men at Yeshiva College. But how can we create change if not enough people are fighting for it? When I started Stern, GPATS seemed like it might die. The two years masters program was comprised of only one class that was to graduate in the Spring. Today, it is comprised of two classes. My friends who are in this program are my role models who did not give up. Some are going to law school or medical school, and are devoting two years of their life to learning Talmud, even though it is unrelated to their career; a decision that was once only respected for men. Others are braving the unknown and hope to create new Torah leadership careers for women. Similarly, after much persistence and work by students, for the first time, there are two Advanced Talmud courses being offered at Stern. And though this was before my time, I’ve heard the stories of women who came to town hall meetings and demanded a beautiful beit midrash until one was built.
These examples give me a glimmer of hope. Of course, they are far from enough, and it is painful that each of them is not a given but has to be fought for. Yet, they remind me that institutions are made of people, and that people can bring change. They make me dream of what it would be like if all those who shared the vision of a new generation of talmidot hakhamim would come to Stern and further change the status quo.
My words feel too naïve. After all, how can I tell people to come when, in some ways, Stern has failed me. But I don’t want to believe that there is nothing left to do, or that the heroic work Jewish women are devoted to is futile. So I dream of what we can accomplish if more women who are committed to studying Talmud and creating a future where all sexes can achieve true Torah mastery would come to Stern. I know realistically that the answer is not much, and that the challenge “Hokmat Nashim” puts forward might still become reality. Yet, in my dream there is an alternative ending. Instead of asking what happened to the talmidot hakhamim of our generation, our daughters will ask why there were so few talmidot hakhamim. And we will tell them that most women fled to medicine and law, but a few brave souls didn’t, and that thanks to their patience and belief in slow progress, you can learn the same way as your brothers do today.