For ultra-Orthodox men, it’s a well-known ritual: After completing a tractate in the Gemara, they hold a special ceremony known as a siyum (the Hebrew word for “end”) to celebrate their achievement.
What made this particular siyum in Jerusalem extraordinary was that the celebrants were all ultra-Orthodox women. After studying together for nearly four years, these women — close to a dozen of them — had just completed the tractate of Kiddushin, devoted to the Jewish laws of betrothal and marriage. They were gathered at a home in the Ramot neighborhood to mark the occasion with special prayers, a festive meal and a guest lecture by a prominent Orthodox feminist. Next time they meet, they will begin studying the tractate of Shabbat, which covers the laws related to the Jewish day of rest.
In ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) society, it is common for men to spend their entire lives in yeshivas studying Gemara (the part of the Talmud devoted to rabbinical interpretations and analysis of Jewish law) while their wives support them. For women in ultra-Orthodox society, though, Gemara study is strongly discouraged and considered socially unacceptable, if not downright prohibited. (Gemara and the Mishna together make up the Talmud, with the Gemara essentially serving as a discussion of the Mishna.)
When they started out, these women were the first in Israeli ultra-Orthodox society to study Gemara together as a group. Since then, several similar initiatives have come and gone, but this one has lasted the longest. They call their group “Torah,” which has a double meaning: Gemara is part of the oral Torah handed down over the generations and later put into writing, but it also means “her turn” in Hebrew.
The initiative was the brainchild of Pnina Pfeuffer, a prominent Haredi social activist who has been hosting the group once a week at her Jerusalem home. “I didn’t do this because I was trying to make a political statement, but because I really wanted to learn Gemara,” says the 40-year-old mother of two. A self-described feminist, Pfeuffer has been active in various initiatives in recent years aimed at fostering Jewish-Arab shared society.
Learning for learning’s sake
To get things started, she needed to find a Haredi rabbi willing to teach this group of trailblazing women. Not an easy assignment, to say the least, in light of prevailing attitudes in Haredi society about what women should and should not do. But then she happened to sit in on a lecture delivered by the brilliant talmudic scholar Rabbi Menachem Nabet, which included his views on the status of women. “I realized he’d be a great partner,” she recounts.
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When she approached him, Pfeuffer understood immediately that she was pushing through an open door. The 32-year-old rabbi, a graduate of the distinguished Ponevezh yeshiva in Bnei Brak, had long thought the time was ripe to bring Haredi women into the world of Talmud, but hadn’t yet found a way to put his beliefs into action.
His main request from Pfeuffer, he says, was that their new initiative focus on learning for the sake of learning and not be used to promote other political and social agendas. “It was important for me that this be about learning Gemara just as it is learned in the yeshiva world,” he says.
Nabet says he didn’t “advertise what I was doing on billboards,” but neither did he attempt to hide it.
Naturally, many of his Haredi peers tried to talk him out of the initiative, but Nabet wouldn’t budge. “That’s the type of person I am,” he says. “I don’t care what others say — I do what interests me.”
Pfeuffer began approaching female acquaintances who she thought might be interested in the initiative, and posting information about it on Haredi social media sites. The responses were mixed. “Some women were quite excited, but others said it was an odd idea and some told me they would have liked to join but their husbands were against it,” she relays.
Some women dropped out, but new participants came in their place. As many as 15 women showed up for some sessions, for others no more than a handful. The core group was comprised of eight women, ranging in age from mid-20s to mid-40s. But no matter how few showed up, the group met once a week at Pfeuffer’s home. Only once did they have to change the day of their weekly gathering — and that was because Nabet’s wife had just given birth.
“It was the commitment of Pnina and the rabbi that made such a huge difference and explains the success of this project,” says Estee Rieder Indursky, one of the core group members.
At the outset, Nabet offered the women several different options for Gemara tractates, and it was they who ultimately chose Kiddushin. “It’s difficult but not the most difficult tractate, and since this was the first time these women had ever studied Gemara, it was important to start with something they could handle,” he says. “I also think it appealed to them because it addresses the status of women.”
Rieder Indursky, 46, joined the group not long after it was launched. For her, it presented an opportunity not only to study Gemara for the first time in her life, but also to gain firsthand knowledge of the subject of her academic work: She is currently a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University writing her dissertation in gender studies on Haredi women who study Gemara.
“When I first started doing my research, I thought I’d have maybe eight women to interview,” she says. “By now, I’ve already done 30 interviews — and there may still be more. This is a growing phenomenon.”
The Haredi women participating in Pfeuffer’s group, as well as in other groups, have different motivations for studying Gemara, says Rieder Indursky. “Some come from a feminist approach. They don’t want to be left behind, and if men can do it, they say, so can they. There are others for whom this has nothing to do with feminism — they see it as a way of becoming closer to God,” adds Rieder Indursky. “They feel it’s unfair that they’re Orthodox and yet have no contact with the main corpus of Jewish texts. There are others who see it as part of their struggle to fight against the exclusion of women. These women feel that it’s not fair their 8-year-old son is allowed to study Gemara, but they’re not.”
What sets Pfeuffer’s group apart from similar initiatives, she says, is the insistence of all the participants involved that they study Gemara “just like yeshiva boys” — in other words, with no shortcuts. That also explains why they insisted on a male teacher, she adds.
Among Modern Orthodox women, the taboo against studying Gemara was broken nearly 30 years ago. And today, as Rieder Indursky points out, there are Modern Orthodox schools that train women to teach the subject.
This recent interest in studying Talmud among ultra-Orthodox women, she says, needs to be seen within the context of the growing numbers pursuing higher education. “Many are asking themselves how can it be that they attend university where they are allowed to read any book they want, and yet this most important of Jewish texts, they can’t touch,” she explains.
‘Gemara is power’
Ruth Eitam Pachtowitz, a member of the Gemara study group, holds a master’s degree in translation and works as an art dealer in Jerusalem. “I’ve always known that knowledge is power, but it turns out that the type of knowledge I have doesn’t really give you power in ultra-Orthodox society,” says the 29-year-old. “In ultra-Orthodox society, Gemara is power. This was very frustrating for me because at family gatherings, even though I was more educated than everyone else, anything I said was dismissed out of hand simply because I didn’t study Gemara.”
Her husband, she says, has been very supportive of her decision to join the study group, but that doesn’t necessarily hold true of her broader milieu. “A lot of people are quite put off by what I’m doing,” she says. Some of her detractors have gone so far as to label her “a Reform Jew” — a terrible insult when it comes from ultra-Orthodox quarters.
Rieder Indursky isn’t surprised. “As a Haredi woman involved in political activism, I’m used to people seeing me as a weird species,” she says. “But what I’ve found is that people who can accept a Haredi woman who wants to go into politics can’t accept the fact that she would want to learn Gemara. So if people thought I was crazy before — now they think I’m really crazy. A woman wanting to learn Gemara is the weirdest thing possible in their eyes.”
Nabet says teaching his first group of women was a unique experience. “First of all, the Gemara is written in Aramaic, and this is a completely new language for them,” he notes. “The men I teach are already accustomed to it. We’re also talking about women who are starting to study Gemara at a relatively late age, and as a result they approach it with a greater level of maturity. Finally — and I don’t know if this necessarily has to do with them being women — but I found that they were more interested in focusing on the psychological and sociological significance of what they were learning and less on the technical aspects, like men.”
Although she has a good ear for languages and speaks seven fluently, Rieder Indursky says she struggled with Aramaic. “All I can say is how much easier this would have been for me had I started learning it a younger age,” she notes.
Somewhat surprisingly, there hasn’t been much pushback in the ultra-Orthodox community against the women’s study group. But Pfeuffer says that is to be expected. “Right now, we’re just a small private initiative that hasn’t gained much attention,” she says. “If we were to start pressuring Haredi schools to introduce Gemara studies for girls, that would be an entirely different story.”
Does Rieder Indursky see a day in her lifetime when Haredi girls will start studying Gemara in school, like their male counterparts?
“Unfortunately, not,” she says. “But I think that, regardless, it’s important that we start because what we are doing now will influence the future of our daughters and our granddaughters.”
Besides that, she adds: “It’s important that my son and his friends take note of what we’re doing. There’s a lesson in this for them, too.”