Coed Torah Learning: A Necessary Revolution

By: Adina Bruce  |  August 31, 2020

By Adina Bruce, Website Manager

This summer, I was involved in organizing the Summer Daf Yomi (daily study of the Talmud) Chabura — a group of college students and recent graduates who met nightly to learn Masechtot Moed Katan and Chagiga. This chabura (Torah learning group) was a highlight of my summer as it provided me with a sense of structure, gave me something to look forward to, guaranteed Torah learning for me every day, and created a place to see old friends and make new ones. While reflecting on this community that we created, I realized that part of the reason why this opportunity has been so special is because of the unlikelihood of this being a YU program. 

Masechet Chagiga discusses the obligation to make a pilgrimage to the Temple and associated sacrifices, it also features many mystical stories touching on the experience of interacting with God as well as laws of ritual purity and impurity. The first perek (chapter) of Masechet Chagiga devotes much time to specifying who is or is not obligated to take the pilgrimage to the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) on the three pilgrimage festivals. The obligation of women to come to the Temple and give offerings is debated. It felt uncomfortable for me to simultaneously learn about this poignant and spiritual occasion while also reading discussions by men that debate whether or not I would even be included in this auspicious event. 

The Talmud delves into discussions about every aspect of my life and my body; ultimately the halachic life that I live today is dictated by those discussions — without a representation of my perspective as a woman. The historical context for when the Talmud was written excuses the lack of female representation within the text, but the opening of opportunities for women in high level Torah learning means that the conversation is no longer single gendered. As we took turns in the chabura teaching the daf (Talmud page) and spending time discussing the interpretations of difficult lines, my voice and the voices of my female peers were given the same status as the men who learned this text alongside us. Through this dialogue between the religious texts and ourselves, we created a space within our rich and complex tradition for the female experience. 

While it is understandable that a large portion of one’s experience at YU would be separated by gender, there are plenty of opportunities throughout the year for coed interaction. Women are on the student council, are club heads or on club boards, and run The Seforim Sale — in all these situations, they are considered peers and equals to their male fellow students. However, specifically when it comes to coed Torah learning, there are too few opportunities for men and women to learn from one another and view each other as peers. There is a void on our campus that should be filled, whether with a club that creates Torah learning events, informal chaburot (multiple Torah learning groups), or coed mishmarot (nightly Torah learning).

This scarcity of coed Torah learning at YU goes further than just the lack of learning between undergraduates. On the Beren Campus, flyers promoting Torah learning events often feature male speakers outnumbering female speakers. On the Wilf Campus, out of the numerous classes offered as part of UTS (Undergraduate Torah Studies), only Hebrew and Jewish History have female professors. With the Bible Torah education world being dominated by female scholars such as Dr. Yael Ziegler, Rabbanit Shani Taragin, and Dr. Erica Brown, is it not a disservice to the male undergraduate students to not offer them courses taught by the best? Furthermore, without the opportunity to learn from women, men lose out on learning Torah from unique perspectives and teaching styles. 

As students, it is uniquely within our power to create spaces to rectify this disconnect. I encourage students to foster spaces around them to discuss and learn Torah from a multitude of people and perspectives.

Without coed Torah learning events or classes taught by women, men are not given the opportunity to see women as intellectual equals, whose voices and unique perspective are essential when it comes to interpreting Torah. A frequently quoted phrase from Bamidbar Rabbah (rabbinic text) states that there are “shivim panim letorah — 70 faces of the Torah.” I truly hope that some of these faces are female.