Women Completing the Talmud along with Men

Thu, 10/04/2012 - 7:58pm -- JOFA

by JOFA Staff

If anyone is looking for proof that women’s advanced Talmud learning has come of age, the August 6 Modern Orthodox Siyum Hashas was it.  The packed crowd at Congregation Shearith Israel (The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue) in Manhattan was full of women and men from different backgrounds learning together in a colorful array of classes and sessions taught by both women and men. The celebration, which was coordinated by Rabbi Dov Linzer and proudly co-sponsored by JOFA along with many modern Orthodox institutions, marked the completion of the twelfth cycle of daf yomi, and arguably the first time that women were included as full and equal partners in the process. Daf yomi is the practice of learning a folio of Talmud each day so as to complete the entire Talmud in 7.5 years.

The event, which began with parallel classes including four or five options, had female teachers in every slot, something that entailed thoughtful planning and a sincere commitment to gender equity and women’s learning. Classes were on a range of topics – such as, Tractate Berakhot, approaches to learning Gemara, authority of the Babylonian Talmud, Talmudic methodology, and Talmud in a contemporary idiom.

“I was very moved by the inclusion of women as participants in the evening,” commented JOFA board member Belda Lindenbaum, “and by their role as a significant group of those who presented shiurim (classes).” Indeed, when the facilitators asked those who had learned the whole Talmud to stand, there was an inspiring mix of men and women, young and old. 

“The crowded classrooms and corridors, the superb teachers, the outstanding interchange and exchanges between student and teacher -- all of this made for a thrilling evening,” added JOFA board member Zelda Stern, who attended several classes with her husband, Stanley. “Perhaps for me the most astonishing aspect of the evening was that the prominence of women in all aspects of the programming seemed totally natural!  Learning from women and among women, women as teachers of Talmud -- has this really been such a recent phenomenon?  YES!  But it felt to me as if women had been misaymot (completing the Talmud) and magidei shiurium (Talmud teachers) for centuries.” "It was all so natural, no fuss," commented JOFA co-founder Blu Greenberg. "It feels great to have reached the stage where women's presence and participation is taken for granted as part of Jewish religious communal life."

Rabbi Hayyim Angel, the rabbi of the synagogue, called this a “historic event” for the community. Rabbi Linzer said that a commitment to daf yomi is about making Jewish learning the foundation of one’s life, and spoke of the importance of allowing both Torah and the wider world to engage each other in conversation rather than compartmentalizing them.  Yedidah Koren, a Torah scholar and student of Talmud at Matan, spoke about the powerful experience of daf yomi. “The Talmud is always there for you and there's always another daf (page),” she said. She added that learning daf yomi forces a person to combat the ego’s desire for perfectionism, as one needs to keep learning and keep going even when possibly falling behind. Several other speakers shared the significance of completing the cycle in their lives, including Dr. Charles Hall, a convert to Judaism for whom this was an important milestone in becoming part of the Jewish people. Indeed, Blu Greenberg said that "The most moving part of the evening was the testimony of three people who had finished the seven year cycle. Their assessment of the internal experience was a message to the rest of us and was nothing short of inspirational."

Other women scholars who spoke included Wendy Amsellem (Drisha faculty and JOFA Advisory Council member), Elana Stein Hain (Community Scholar at Lincoln Square Synagogue), Yardena Cope-Yossef (yo’etzet halakhah and director of the Advanced Talmudic  Institute at Matan), and Pnina Neuwirth (former Judaic Studies professor at Stern College). 

“The event was really great,” said JOFA President Judy Heicklen. “I loved the diversity of the learning, the exploration of style differences, and the meta-analysis of the texts. Elana Stein-Hain’s discussion of differences between Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud was brilliant. It was just great to be with so many like-minded people.”

“It was really nice to see how many people there are who are so deeply committed both to serious Torah learning and progressive thinking,” said JOFA board member Allie Alperovich. “It was a good moment.”

The speeches were followed by dancing with musical accompaniment by Greg Wall and Friends. 

“I love events where the women’s dancing is just as strong as the men’s dancing,” added JOFA Program Manager Rachel Lieberman. “To be dancing with all these amazing women who had finished the Talmud, and women who were teaching Talmud, and feminist leaders like JOFA’s founder Blu Greenberg, that was really nice.”

“I loved that women’s learning was the norm, that the facilitators referred to ‘misaymim’ and ‘misaymot’ (“completers” in male and female form),” Rachel added, “and that women were given equal respect. That felt very significant.”

The event left many people feeling a strong and renewed commitment to Jewish learning. There was a buzz of excitement that women teachers, learners, and facilitators were standing equally alongside men throughout the event. 

“The best moment for me was the realization that women are really sharing the space as equals –not as tokens or afterthoughts, but as equal participants in a community celebrating people's accomplishments,” Rachel reflected.

“I am very pleased that JOFA was one of the sponsors,” Belda Lindenbaum concluded.

Zelda Stern concurs. “All of us at JOFA can feel proud of what we have contributed to the spread of women's learning and teaching, and of what we will yet contribute.”

JOFA advances women’s Talmud learning through the publication of the Ta Shma Halakhic Source Guides, a series of scholarly source guides written by women on a variety of halakhic subjects, and the Shema Bekolah Divrei TorahRead more here.

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