The lobby of the Jerusalem Convention Center on Sunday looked like a strange combination of field trip and high school reunion. The space was filled with high school and religious college girls wearing hoodies and carrying stuffed backpacks alongside older women who looked excited. The age range was broad and so was the range of head coverings, skirt lengths and pants.
But they had all come to celebrate one event: the end of the cycle of women reading a page of Talmud every day. The end of the cycle is considered a high point in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Talmud students all over the world. There are 2,711 pages in the 37 volumes of the Talmud, and over the past century Jews have read it at the pace of a page a day. Thus the cycle covers seven and a half years. Immediately thereafter, the cycle begins again.
Last week, some 10,000 people gathered at the Arena Hall in Jerusalem for the celebration of the conclusion of the cycle, sponsored by the El Hama’ayan movement of the Shas party. At the Jerusalem Convention Center a similar celebration was held by the Hasidic community. Other Jewish communities celebrated with one common denominator – men only.
But on Sunday, 3,000 women came to celebrate the revolution in women’s Torah study, along with a few men, such as Rabbi Benny Lau, among the prominent liberal voices in Orthodox Judaism, and the husbands of some of the women students.
According to the organizers from the group Hadran, only a few hundred of the thousands of women who attended the celebration had fully completed the cycle. But from their point of view, the fact that the event was being held was confirmation that the women students are no passing curiosity.
These women were part of an ever-growing circle of women taking an active part in the world of the beit midrash, the study hall: women teachers of Gemara in girls’ schools or women’s colleges, students in those institutions and women who study in their free time.
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For generations the Talmud was kept out of reach of women, even when they were able to be educated and delve into other Jewish books. “Men didn’t want to share their sole authority with women,” Prof. Rachel Elior told Haaretz in the past. “The study of Gemara grants power, it allows one to obtain the authority of a rabbi and a judge.”
A study of responses to questions in Jewish law in recent years shows that this is still a common attitude. In 2012, Rabbi Ya’akov Ariel said: “Studying Gemara, with all its difficulties, is not necessarily proper nourishment for them [women] and the damage can be greater than the benefit.”
In the 1990s, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner wrote: “The study of Gemara does not belong to the soul of a woman and the sages very much objected to a man teaching his daughter Torah, that is, the hairsplitting of the Gemara.”
No one can deny that the Gemara is full of difficulties. First because of its language – mainly Aramaic, without vowel points or punctuation. This is an associative text, with an internal language of its own, and almost impossible to read and understand without help. For years the study of Gemara was an obligation for men, and women were kept away from it. Girls studied the Mishnah, a simpler text, written in Hebrew, or they studied Jewish law without the minutiae of the Gemara.
The seeds of the revolution started in the 1970s, when, in a small apartment in Jerusalem, Midreshet Bruria – named after a woman in the Talmud famed for her learning – began the first women’s counterpart to a high-level yeshiva. The first students were young women from the United States who had come to Israel for their gap year.
From there the trend caught on. Such frameworks were established for women before or after army service or civilian national service. The religious girls’ school Pelech was the first where girls could sit for a matriculation exam in the subject. Today, according to the Education Ministry, there are about 1,000 girls taking the matriculation exam in Gemara.
But even today, mainstream Orthodoxy continues to believe that the study of the Gemara is for men only. The religious education administration in the Education Ministry, headed today by a woman, held a ceremony marking the end of the reading cycle, in the presence of rabbis and students – all male.
Feminism wasn’t mentioned at the convention center event on Sunday; instead organizers emphasized that this was the natural result of the chain of Torah study in Jewish history. The audience stood and applauded the main organizer, Michelle Cohen-Farber.
“In my home,” she said, “are three sets of the Talmud. One was my grandfather’s, when it was clear that only the man studied. The second, my husband and I received as a wedding gift, and the third is of the future, the Talmud that we gave our daughter last year.”