Gender and Education In Judaism
Article by: Shifra Baronofsky

Gender and Education is a very sensitive topic within Judaism. From the time of the Talmud in the early first millennium until only a few decades ago women were discouraged from learning Torah related topics. One of the main sources for this inequality in education comes from the Talmud itself. Rabbi Eliezer is quoted in Tractate Sotah: ?If a man teaches his daughter Torah, it?s as if he?s teaching her foolishness. ? What Rabbi Eliezer meant by foolishness is that women aren?t on the same intellectual level as men. They are unable to understand the intricacies of the Torah and Talmud. These rabbis believe that if they teach their daughters Torah it would be as if they?re teaching them cunningness.

During the middle of the 11th century lived the most famous commentator on Torah and Talmud. Rashi learned Torah as part of his living, and he ran a yeshiva (Jewish school of study) where boys would study Torah and Talmud every day. Although there are no sources to prove it, many modern Jewish authorities say that Rashi taught his daughters Torah and Talmud. Maimonides, a medieval philosopher and commentator on the Torah said women should not be taught Torah since they don?t have the knowledge to comprehend it. The Tur a contemporary of Maimonides agreed that women are not as smart as men, but if they ask to learn Torah then they are on a higher intellectual level then other women and are allowed to be taught Torah. The Chafetz Chaim (1838-1933) added that if your daughters are going to secular schools then they must learn Torah so that they don?t become too involved with secular activities. You need to teach them how to keep the Jewish culture alive, and to keep the faith.

One of the most famous beginnings of women?s education of Torah was by Sarah Schenirer. This was called the Bais Yaakov movement. In response to the high percentage of assimilating women this gave them the opportunity to learn to love their religion. In the Bais Yaakov system, the women primarily learn Torah, and will also learn some halacha (Jewish law), but they will never learn Talmud. Women that learn in Bais Yaakov receive a very ultra-orthodox education. This means that they are not only taught Torah but are also taught the lifestyle of being a homemaker, and supporting their husbands who want to learn in yeshiva all day.

Modern Jewish philosophers have had many debates over the issue of women learning Torah and Talmud. Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik the founder of Maimonides School in Brookline, MA was a pioneer in women?s education of Torah. Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote in a letter to Rabbi Leonard Rosenfeld of NY ?not only is the teaching of Torah She-be-al peh (Talmud) to girls permissible but it is nowadays an absolute imperative. ? The main difference between Sarah Schenirer?s thoughts on women and Torah education, and Rabbi Soloveitchik?s thoughts, is that Rabbi Soloveitchik allowed women to not only learn Talmud, but to learn Talmud in a co-educational school. Sarah Schenirer didn?t allow teaching of Talmud in Bais Yaakov schools.

As a girl growing up in the Brookline, MA community, and having attended Rabbi Soloveitchik?s school for 12 years, it has always been normal for girls to learn Torah and Talmud. From the time I started learning how to read Hebrew when I was five my dad always took great joy in learning Torah with me, whether it was the weekly portion read on Sabbath, or helping with my homework. Coming from an orthodox Jewish home, my life has been centered on Jewish values which sets precedence over secular values. When faced with a situation in which myself as a Jew and myself as an American conflict the Jewish part of me will always win. Since Judaism is a religion which is dying due to assimilation I find it extra important to keep faith and to teach non-religious Jews about our heritage and what it means to be a Jew.

Works Cited
Helfgot, Nathaniel (Ed.). (2005). Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected letters and communication. New York, NY: Ktav Publishing House.