Camp was over, the children were being picked up by their anxious parents, and we, the exhausted staff, were finally relaxing a little.
“So what are you up to now?” asked my fellow madrikh (counselor) We had been so busy running after restless teens that we had not discussed our future projects.
“I’m going to a yeshiva in New York City,” I answered genuinely.
“What do you study there?” he asked, puzzled.
“Well you know, the same old, same old: Gemara, halakhah, a bit of Tanakh. and some hassidut if we’re lucky.”
“But weren’t you doing that last year too?” worried my young colleague.
I had no intention of worsening my case by correcting him. I had actually spent the past two years studying Torah lishmah—Torah for its own sake.
His anxiety for my future worsened. “Do they at least give you a diploma?” My answer would not appease his anguish.
“Then what are you supposed to do with all those studies?” he asked.
My Journey Causes Distress
Since I’ve embarked on this blessed journey of Torah studies, many a conversation with a stranger has turned into a weird replay of earlier talks with my necessarily worried mother. I am very sorry for the distress my learning choices cause my community, but whenever the description of my occupation comes up and sparks well-meaning worries and interrogations, I cannot help but wonder: Would that conversation be identical if I could grow a beard?
Would my young Orthodox colleague at camp have asked me, “What do you study in yeshiva?” I had to bite my tongue not to answer, “P’shita”—the answer is obvious—the Gemara’s favorite response to seemingly unnecessary questions.
The answer is not p’shita for this young man because he cannot truly believe that the place where I study is actually a yeshiva. I must either be misusing the term or the institution must be trying to pretend to be something it cannot be, because I, a woman, attend.
His second question was even more revealing. Most people, when they find out that I have been lingering on the benches of various yeshivot for more than a year, have a similar reaction. It seems clear that, in their eyes, I have overstayed my welcome. In an Orthodox context, one year spent in a women’s seminary can only be positive; young women thereby affirm their commitment to Torah and generally deepen their connection to Israel by spending a year in Jerusalem’s religious suburbs. However, even though taking one year “off” is acceptable, three years cannot but denote laziness. Among my male friends, to the contrary, one is deemed serious about Torah learning when he stays on for a second year at his yeshiva.
A man deciding to stay on at his yeshiva for a few more years than originally planned testifies that he has found the right path for himself. For a woman, on the other hand, staying on for too long makes her look as if she is running away from her responsibilities.
These diametrically opposite responses spring from a simple assumption: Torah study for men is an end goal, a sacred obligation, whereas for women, it is at best a means to stricter halakhic observance, if not merely an enjoyable, innocuous “gap year,” or some time off for oneself. Hence the recurring question, which I believe does not have an equivalent query for my male friends: “Are you getting a diploma?”
The Question of Diplomas vs. Lishmah
If Torah study is a valuable end in itself, there should be no need for a diploma to acknowledge my learning. A diploma is a piece a paper that, through society’s common belief, translates knowledge into market value. This evaluation is quite at odds with the values of Torah lishmah, Torah for its own sake.
There is no denying that the question of diplomas and titles is crucial, because women need to be able to turn their years of studies into a source of social and professional recognition. I have observed that people from more liberal backgrounds are more willing to ask me whether I am becoming a rabbi rather than “Will you get a diploma for it?” However, these two questions, coming from different religious sensibilities, spring from the same source. While the Orthodox-leaning streams of the community recognize and value Torah lishmah, they do so only for men or apply a double standard for women, as illustrated above. At the more progressive fringes, women’s learning is encouraged, but confined to professional training, and Torah lishmah for either men or women is uncommon.
While the number of places offering Torah study for women has increased over the past decade, what is striking is the percentage of those institutions that deliver diplomas or semikhah of some sort. It is still incredibly difficult for a woman to study Torah without committing to becoming some sort of communal leader of a specific denomination or movement.
My experience as a young European Jewish woman illustrates this lack: There was simply not one institution on the continent that would allow me to study Torah without having to commit to becoming a rabbi. Why would I not accept the rules of the game, and simply become a rabbi?
Why I Don’t Seek the Title “Rabbi”
For women not a part of the Reform or Conservative denominations, the very choice of a title is not a straightforward one, and few feel they have the liberty to just be “a rabbi.” When their male peers receive semikhah, they do not need to ponder what title they will choose, weighing the social and professional implications of being recognized for what they are. They will become rabbis, regardless of the rabbinical school they attended or the denomination or movement they identify with. Whereas rabbi is a generic term for a learned male Jew, the mere use of the title by a woman is perceived either as a feminist statement or at least affiliating its owner with a given denomination.
In the community I come from, a man who claims to be a rabbi is automatically assumed to be a strictly observant Jew, more so than if he were a layperson. However, if a woman makes a similar claim, she is paradoxically challenged and questioned on her halakhic observance. The assumption is that, if she is willing to depart from the tradition vis-à-vis role definition, she probably equally takes some liberties with halakhic practices. In this context, using the title of “rabbi” might, paradoxically, be the greatest obstacle to the propagation of one’s Torah.
There’s another, more personal reason for why I am reluctant to attend rabbinical school. I admire the achievements of previous generations and value the fight women have waged to take on roles and titles reserved for men. The earlier stages of feminism have pushed women to claim equal capability in exercising masculine roles. Women needed to prove that they could do it too. Many members of my generation believe that the point has been well made; women have shown that they can lead, teach, and nourish communities spiritually and intellectually just as well as their male counterparts do.
I believe that it is now time to show that we collectively—people of all genders—can function not just as well as men, but better. It is now time to move past this masculine model of leadership in which titles and a clear vertical hierarchy are central in establishing authority. Women have been successful in making a breach in the masculine monopoly on knowledge and leadership in Jewish communities, but it’s the very monopoly of authority and thirst for symbols of power that should be questioned.
True Gender Equality = Torah Lishmah for Women
I understand the need to create institutions that will advance women within their communities; by delivering both high-quality training and ordination, they have opened a much-needed discussion about women’s leadership roles in our praying and learning spaces and trained women who have served as role models for my generation.
However, my personal belief is that we will reach true gender equality only when women are also offered the possibility to study Torah for its own sake, without demanding of them that they make it their profession.
We know that double standards are at the core of every form of discrimination. By offering women few possibilities to learn and grow without having to take on the responsibility of guiding a community as a religious leader, are we not holding women to double standards and levying an expensive entry tax on women’s Torah study?
Sophie Bigot-Goldblum holds an M.A. from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, and an M.A. in Jewish studies from the Hebrew University. She is an alumna of Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, Pardes, and the Conservative Yeshiva, and currently studies at Yeshivat Hadar in New York City.
My personal belief is that we will reach true gender equality only when women are also offered the possibility to study Torah for its own sake, without demanding of them that they make it their profession.
Members of my generation believe that the point has been well made; women have shown that they can lead, teach, and nourish communities spiritually and intellectually just as well as their male counterparts do.