Follow by Email

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Rabbi Soloveitchik on Torah study for women, as recalled by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein

The following is an excerpt from R. Chaim Sabbato's Mevakshei Panekha - Conversations with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (Tel Aviv, 2011), pp. 167ff. (my translation; for clarity, I have made some additions, in parentheses):

. . . the Rav ZL did indeed try to advance the issue of Torah study for women, but primarily within his "four amot" (four cubits, i.e., his private domain). First, within his literal four amot, i.e., at home.  The Rav had a son and two daughters.  He studied with all of them together and he also studied (separately) with his son.

A different four amot -- which, to some extent, was also his own -- was the founding of the Maimonides School in Boston.  His activities there drew attention and also generated some excitement, especially among those who sought to advance the issue.  They would point to him: "Look at Rabbi Soloveitchik, his policy (is co-education)" -- but that statement is both correct and incorrect.

When the Rav opened the school in Boston, it was originally a boys' school.  After a few years, (the community realized that) there weren't enough students (to support the school).  The Boston of that time was unlike the Boston of today.  It was spiritually and educationally desolate; they were simply unable to hold classes.  (Co-education) began from necessity.  Some will say, "Perhaps it was indeed so (that co-education began from necessity).  But unlike other places where co-education was permitted only in extenuating circumstances, and as soon the school expanded, the classes were split -- this was never done in Boston."

I never discussed the matter with the Rav.  I do not know whether or not he would have negated this view.

He would have completely negated the approach that girls should not study Gemara at all.  Of this, there is no doubt.  But as an "a priori of an a priori," would he also have been comfortable with the idea of a co-ed school?  I do not know.  There are many individuals today in the U.S., each of whom pretends to know exactly what he had in mind.  I truly do not know.  And I believe my wife also does not know . . .

I repeat, the Rav did not approach the issue (of Torah study for women) from a desire to be at the vanguard of a movement, nor did he view this as a cause around which to rally.  He did not approach it in the same manner as he approached Torah study, or in the same manner as he waged his struggle against Reform and Conservative Judaism in the 1950s.  He believed it was proper for women to study Torah.

At one point, the Rav wanted to advance the matter somewhat.  It was at Stern College, which is Yeshiva University's college for women.  I taught there early in my career, and they too were at the start of their journey.  The students would joke that while teaching English Literature, I inserted a good deal of Torah learning. In that way I actually had a certain measure of influence.  But the subject of Talmud study for women was not a pressing one for them.  I would not say that had (the administration) pushed for it from the top, that it would not have had an impact.  It is possible that it would have but, in practice, it was not a burning issue.  And there was no one willing to push for it. The feminist movement caught on in the U.S. (only) in the 1960s.

In 1976, the college launched a Talmud program.  The Rav was invited, and he agreed to come; he said that he would come to deliver the opening shiur (lecture).  He came; a photogropher arrived, and the event was publicized.  As a consequence of this shiur, the Rav received harsh criticism from certain circles.  In this particular case, he did indeed (intend to) make a statement.  They sent a group of Ramim (advanced Talmud teachers) there for a time.  Whoever organized this group -- it was a fairly small one -- (selected) from the most outstanding and experienced Ramim.  Rabbi Mordechai Willig spent several years there.  An institute was formed around this group (the Graduate Program in Advanced Talmud Studies, or GPATS), which today runs a Torah study program providing substantial stipends -- a "kollel" of sorts.

On the few occasions I was there in recent years, I sensed, as much as a guest is able to, that the environment was not one of a yeshiva.  In this respect, the situation remains different from that of the Michlalah Jerusalem College, or from our own Migdal Oz, or from Midreshet Nishmat.  In these places there is more of an atmosphere of Torah-study fellowship.

I would like to return to the Rav's thinking on this subject.  He related to women respectfully.  Maimonides' statement (Ishut 15:20) that a husband should be viewed by his wife as a prince or a king -- that he did not emphasize.  He also did not behave that way.  Closer to the forefront of his mind was Maimonides' statement in the same chapter (15:19), that a man should speak calmly in his home, as stated in the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat (34a).

Here were combined, from the Rav's perspective, two things: First, respect for women; an assumption that they were capable of study, and that there was no reason to hesitate in this regard.  All of the pressure surrounding this matter that arose primarily from outside circles was, at that time, not so intense.  Second, the Rav greatly emphasized the reason to encourage Torah study for women.  The Rav valued Torah study out of truth and integrity -- not as a slogan.  He truly believed, "I created the evil inclination; I also created the Torah as a remedy" (Kiddushin 30b).  He believed that the evil inclination was active within women no less than in men.  So, if you do not send them to university, you remove them from the intellectual and cultural sphere.  But if you do send them, they will not be prepared with the remedy of Torah to protect them.

Since he was in favor of women acquiring a broad education and that they be part of the culture, he truly believed that it was important -- very important -- that they study Torah.  Despite all the cultural dangers and risks, he encouraged them to study.

I recall a meeting of Ramim that took place at our yeshiva, about twenty years ago; I don't recall if it was prior to our opening the women's study program at Migdal Oz, or perhaps after that.  Rabbi Yaakov Medan struck the table with his hand and said: "It is inconceivable that a young woman should be prohibited from studying Torah, but permitted to read some women's magazine!"  The Rav would have endorsed such a statement in a heartbeat.

From this standpoint, the Rav's position was rooted in ideology, but did not in itself become his ideology.  He encouraged Torah study for women, but it was not a cause for which he fought.

As I recall, there were some people who came from Israel to the U.S. for a visit, among them Shlomo Marzel ZL, who was for many years principal of the Chorev girls' school.  At that time they did not teach Talmud; (girls) hardly even studied Mishnah.  We have six children, all of whom studied at Chorev for elementary school.  I recall that the boys began to study Mishnah in second grade, and the girls in sixth; such was the environment . . .

This Shlomo Marzel once came to the U.S. and went to see the Rav in Boston.  He asked the Rav about Talmud study for girls.

The Rav told him that when they wanted to open "Bais Yaakov," this too was a revolution.  Sarah Schneirer went to the Chaftez Chaim to solicit his opinion.  The Chaftez Chaim replied: Maimonides writes that when a convert decides to accept the mitzvot, they teach him some easy and some difficult mitzvot, as is written in the Gemara.  Maimonides, with his emphasis on ideology, adds that they also teach (the convert) the fundamental principles of Judaism.

Is it possible, the Chafetz Chaim said, that a woman who seeks to convert would study the fundamentals of Judaism, but a woman who was born to a Jewish mother in a Jewish home, would not?  Why should her portion fall short?

The Rav encouraged Shlomo Marzel and provided full support for his desire to teach Talmud to girls. To what extent did (the Chorev school) implement this?  I do not know.  My girls graduated from there quite a while ago.  In any event, the Rav's position on such questions was very clear.

1 comment: