Silence That Was Met with Silence

By: Miriam Pearl Klahr  |  March 15, 2018

Last month I was pained to read Lily Gelman’s account of being silenced after giving the dvar Torah at a Wilf campus minyan. She had been the first woman to give a dvar torah at that minyan, and in the aftermath of her words, a decision prohibiting women from giving divrei torah at Wilf campus minyanim was made. In the days following her article’s release, conversations about this reality buzzed throughout both campuses. Some students were outraged, and many expressed their shock; there were those who questioned the creation of this policy, which stands in opposition to the Orthodox Union’s official statement, which encourages women’s participation in the community through “giving shiurim and divrei torah,” while others posited that perhaps this was an appropriate rule for a men’s campus. As I partook in these conversations, I was also waiting. I was waiting for some sort of response from the administration that would protest, or at least clarify, this policy and affirm the importance of women’s voices at Yeshiva University. But my waiting was met with silence.

This second silence was even more upsetting than reading about the silencing of women. I had believed in my university; I had trusted, and expected, YU to make a statement both protesting this policy and validating the importance of women sharing words of Torah with both sexes. But instead I, and all the women of YU, were met with the stinging silence of apathy, conveying to us that our pain and voices are insignificant, not even worthy of a response.  

In the past, when I have been frustrated by the inequality, especially regarding women’s Torah learning, that can be found at our University, I took comfort in my belief that YU is trying to accommodate the different needs of its diverse range of orthodox students, and that this desire sometimes requires sacrifice on everyone’s part. I also took pride in the strides YU has made and believed the administration when they spoke about the importance of programs like GPATS to the YU community. But now I’m not so sure. What am I to make of the administration’s words in praise of the way GPATS empowers women to be educators in synagogues and college campuses across the US, when I now know that these very women can not give a dvar torah on the Wilf campus. How can I still trust that they really believe in us, the women of YU, and our Torah?

This decision to prohibit women from giving a dvar torah after davening has no parallel. In a school with a separate men’s and women’s campuses we expect YU to preserve certain spaces for only one gender, and respect that this is empowering and desirable to many students. For example, many Beren campus shabbatot have multiple activities that men who come to make a minyan are not invited to, in order to preserve the women’s-only atmosphere that many students appreciate.  However, in the spaces where these men are invited, such as minyan, their voices are heard, and they not only daven, but often give the dvar torah at co-ed shabbatot; silencing them would be unthinkable. Similarly, if women are encouraged to attend a community minyan, as they are at Klein @9, and it is halakhically permissible for them to speak, how can the university sit back as they are silenced? While it is important to ensure that every male at YU is comfortable, there are so many minyanim on the Wilf campus, making it impossible to imagine that there is no way to negotiate for at least one where women’s voices can be heard.

President Berman began his presidency with a written response to the anti-Semitism that took place in Charlottesville. Though his words could not change what had happened, they were empowering nonetheless. They reminded us that our University has values it stands for. The response signaled that in the face of injustice, silence is not an appropriate response.

President Berman, it is not enough to protest events that happen off campus. Here too, when women on our campus are being silenced, silence is an inappropriate response. Especially when your words can do more than provide hope and inspiration; they can make a real and operative difference.

I know that conversations about this policy have died down, and people have accepted that the silencing of women’s divrei torah is now the status quo. But I’m writing this article because I’m still awaiting a response and don’t want the conversations about this policy to end until the silence is broken. So students, please keep speaking, debating, protesting, and working to transform our university into a respectful environment where all students feel that they have a place and voice.  And administration, your silence tells us you don’t care. Prove to us that we are wrong; end the silence and make YU a place where the words of Torah from both men and women are valued, respected, and heard.