by Phyllis Shapiro
Astranger walking into the auditorium of Bais Abraham Congregation on a Tuesday evening might be surprised to see some two dozen women of all ages sitting together deeply engaged with a text of Gemara. Most of these women have encountered the actual daf (page) of the Talmud for the first time in this program.
Despite the fact that Talmud is among the foundational texts of Judaism, women to this day encounter controversy when seeking to learn Gemara. However, the Shalhevet Women’s Kollel of St. Louis, hosted at Bais Abraham Congregation, aims to make the Talmud accessible to all women, no matter what their background.
The focus of Shalhevet is on intensive, text-centered learning. One need not come with years of Talmud study, competency in Aramaic, or even exposure to Hebrew to be able to engage fully with these texts. With all the resources available today—including dictionaries, resource guides, and the new Koren Talmud Bavli—the gatekeepers have been removed and the doors of the beit midrash have been thrown open, allowing all students permission to enter.
Women learning in hevruta in the Shalhevet Women’s Kollel.
Rather than beginning with basic skills or handpicked sugiyot (segments), Shalhevet takes a pedagogical approach of beginning at the start of a masekhet (tractate) and struggling with the text as it unfolds. This means studying the simpler pieces together with the more complex, the popular sections together with the lesser known. Throughout it all, students find themselves learning more about the evolution of halakhah, the intricacies of rabbinic thinking, and the underlying basis of modern-day Judaism.
Shalhevet, funded in part by Targum Shlishi (the Aryeh and Raquel Rubin Foundation), meets every other week for an hour and a half. Each session is divided into havruta (partnership) study followed by a shiur (formal class) led by Bais Abraham’s maharat, Rori Picker Neiss. The initial 45 minutes of study in small groups allows each woman to grapple with the text and develop a personal relationship with the rabbis, the discourse, and the tradition. The class that follows allows everyone the opportunity to share their insights, questions, and thoughts to enable all to learn from one another and to add their voices to the discussion. The results have been astounding. Even those who had little experience with Jewish learning in any context fi nd themselves fully absorbed in the rabbinic discourse, joining the conversation with those who lived centuries before.
Talmud learning by women is the new reality within Judaism—not only for our daughters, but for our mothers, our sisters, and ourselves. Even though the logic and rigor of Talmud learning may not appeal to all sensibilities— some might prefer the poetry of Kohelet or the history of Tanakh—it is imperative that all observant Jews today have the freedom of choice to become acquainted with the seminal texts of rabbinic Judaism. Being an Orthodox Jew demands a level of Jewish literacy, of which familiarity with Talmud is an important element.
Shalhevet invites all women to join us in our learning, to join us in the rabbinic discourse and in removing the gatekeepers who previously stood guard at the doors of the yeshiva—join us in forming the Shalhevet Women’s Kollel Network.
Phyllis Shapiro is the past president of Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis and a member of the JOFA Board.