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Sense And Sensibilities

Women And Talmud Torah

Tevet 5780 | January 2020

There is a quiet revolution taking place today in classrooms and halls of study, in synagogues and homes, in Israel, in America, and throughout the world. Far from the hue and cry of the sometimes acrimonious debate about the involvement of women in public Jewish life, the study of Torah is changing the way Jewish women view themselves and their connection to Jewish tradition.


In the early years of women’s Torah education, women were offered a basic school curriculum stressing practical halakhic knowledge and other morally edifying studies.[1] This itself was a concession to the changing times. Fearing that women would leave the religious fold, the Hafetz Hayim rendered his famous pesak that women should learn Scripture and ethics.[2] This  ruling served as the basis of Orthodox Jewish women’s schooling, starting a process which has continued unabated to this day.


Today, in many circles, the initial limits on the scope of women’s Torah learning have faded. Recent years have seen the inclusion of Talmud and other subjects which were hitherto considered to be the exclusive province of men’s Torah study. However, the major change is that now women have the opportunity to study Torah on a high level, not only in practical preparation for a career in teaching, but as Torah Lishmah.


While women’s precise halakhic obligation vis a vis Torah study is a complex question,[3] it was not the desire to technically address this particular issue which led to the establishment of Batei Midrash for women. The recent surge in the involvement of women in serious Torah learning may have begun in some quarters as a statement of feminism. However, the constant growth in this important trend comes not from contentious motives, but rather from women’s deep desire to achieve spiritual fulfillment through Talmud Torah.


This profoundly positive development has yielded interesting fruit. In the course of seeking quantitative parity in the study of Torah, women have discovered that there is a qualitative difference in the way they learn Torah. In a very short time, we have progressed from imitation to innovation – innovation in search of tradition.


Today women are talking Torah. We are finding our voices, conversing with other women in a new spiritual dialogue, one whose point of departure is the halakhic way of life. We are discovering that the emotional and intellectual themes which animate texts of Torah resonate deeply within our own lives.


This realization has found expression across the entire range of Torah learning. It appears in the world of Aggadah – in which the emotional undertones of a tale or a parable may be uniquely perceived by ears sensitized to human emotion through years of nurturing and care-giving. It appears in the perception of a halakhic distinction – one which might seem to the male reader to be purely formalistic, but is revealed to a woman’s inspection to be deeply rooted in psychological subtleties which bring new meaning to a familiar law.


Allow me to describe to you this dynamic meshing of text with life. The following vignettes are telling indicators of the power of Scripture and tradition to strike responsive chords in their readers. They illustrate the experience of Talmud Torah for women students and teachers, and demonstrate that women today have the potential of effecting an important new development in the spiritual life of the Jewish People.


All of the episodes described here are true. They are experiences which I have shared with my students at Matan (Machon Torani LeNashim), where women of all ages and all walks of life come to actively engage in Talmud Torah. Here the women of Jerusalem leave politics behind, seeking to uphold the blessing of la’asok bedivrei Torah – to immerse themselves in study to enable them to live enriched Torah lives.


The following are but a few journal entries in the life of one privileged to teach in such an institution.



It is a few days before Rosh Hashanah in the city of Jerusalem. The room is overflowing with women who have come to prepare themselves for the Days of Awe. Together, we begin our study of the opening section of the Book of Samuel, which we women will hear recited as a Haftarah on Rosh Hashanah. Today we will read it ourselves.


We read of Hannah’s childlessness, and how she is taunted by the jealous Peninah. Hannah grows used to her rival’s harsh words. Paradoxically, it is her husband Elkanah who causes her grief. He says, compassionately: “Hannah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?”[4]


One of the women in the class points out that even Elkanah’s expressed concern for his wife demonstrates his lack of understanding of her pain: There is no substitute for the children she does not have; she lacks not only children, but motherhood.


Another student adds that there is an additional dimension present in the dialogue. What Hannah suddenly realizes is that Elkanah is resigned to her childlessness.[5] Her despair at being utterly alone in her hope of deliverance pushes her to make a bold move.[6] She will go alone to the House of the Lord. There she will pour out her heart. She will say out loud what has been left unspoken. She will express what is in every woman’s heart:


Master of the Universe! All that you have created in woman is purposeful. You have created eyes with which to see, ears with which to hear, a nose for smelling, a mouth for speech, hands for toil, legs for walking. These breasts which you have given me – are they not for nursing? Give me a son so that I may nurse him!” ( b. Berakhot 31b)


I propose to the class that the thrust of this midrash is that motherhood for Hannah is the ultimate expression of spiritual self-actualization. It is through her physical being that her spirit will find expression. She longs not only for a child, but for purpose and fulfillment.[7]


As I make this statement I weigh each word carefully. I stand before a group of women both like and unlike myself, teaching about childbirth, motherhood and self-actualization, through the agency of a biblical text. I empathize with the pain of our heroine, and delight in her joy. But there are women in the class who identify with her even more closely than I.


I look up from my books and I see two sisters, whom I know personally: the elder, childless; the younger, pregnant with her fifth child. I wonder how they relate to this chapter. It is a story which they have read and re-read. How, I wonder, are they reading it now? I ask myself how they relate to each other. They are not rival wives vying for the love of one husband, but the fulfillment of the one and emptiness of the other are very real parts of their lives. It must be difficult for them to relate to each other; so much must remain unsaid between them.


I have known these sisters for years, yet not well enough to get close to their wounds. I would like to share words of encouragement, yet I fear to say that which might offend or hurt. However, by learning the story of Hannah together with them, I can offer hope and comfort. I know, too, that other women in the class are thinking of and silently praying for their childless classmate, and for other friends and relatives who have not been blessed with children. Scripture gives expression to things which they dare not say.


As I close my Tanakh, I ponder the awesome responsibility inherent in teaching words of Torah which touch souls so deeply. I recall the teacher’s prayer of  R. Nehuniah b. Hakannah ( b. Berakhot 28b)[8] – “May it be Thy will, My Lord, that no mishap be caused by my teaching…”. This classroom session has made me realize the relevance of this prayer beyond the realm of halakhic ruling. We have studied a chapter of Tanakh, and I pray that my friends shall find joy, comfort and hope in the words which the biblical text directs me to say. This Rosh Hashanah we will sing Hannah’s song in our hearts, transformed, as prophecy for all those not yet blessed with motherhood.



Another class draws to a close. The women file out. As I put my books away I am approached by a woman in her mid-fifties. She, too, is on her way out, but first she says: “I must thank you – your class was a great comfort to me”.


I think to myself: What kind of comfort? I had just finished teaching “vehei ahikha ‘imakh” –  a biblical injunction,[9] which the Rabbis apply to a fascinating moral dilemma:


Two men are traveling in the desert. They have only one canteen between them. If they share it, they will both die. If one drinks, he will survive, but his companion will not. What are they to do? Ben Peturah contends that they should share their water, so that neither will witness the death of his fellow. R. Akiva argues that the owner of the canteen shall drink, in accordance with this biblical ordinance: “Let him live by your side,” – with you, not instead of you. Your life takes precedence over that of your fellow.[10]


We had considered and debated the divergent views. Whose life takes precedence? What if one is a child and the other an adult? What if one is a person of greater religious stature? What if the travelers are a man and a woman? How do we measure the relative value of life?[11]


Our discussion was animated and, no doubt, intellectually stimulating, but this woman found it comforting. Before I can consider what she meant, she provides the explanation.


“You see, I work for Yad Sarah, a volunteer organization which lends medical equipment. Of course, we never have enough to go around.  Should this respirator go to an 8-month old baby or to an 80-year old woman? After consulting with rabbinic authorities, my job is to distribute the equipment. A part of me dies every day. I know that the halakhic rendering is the objective one but I live with the pain which comes from the knowledge that there is a patient still in need. Our study of the sources has taught me that Hazal grappled with these decisions as well and achieved resolution. I find comfort in that.”

I am stunned by the passion in her words. I had taught the various midrashim, gemarot, and teshuvot bearing on the verse as a theoretical study; here was a woman who was living the Halakhah every day. By reading the texts in the light of her experiences, she has revealed a new facet of the Torah.



On another day we begin our class elsewhere. We find ourselves in Poland in the late 16th century. The following case is under consideration:


A Jew and his driver took to the road. The young coachman rode ahead on the horses pulling the wagon; his master sat in the carriage. He passed the time by cleaning his pistol. Although he intended to empty the barrel and shoot into the air, his hand slipped and he killed his faithful servant. He immediately made his way to the town sage, asking how to atone for his tragic error. Eventually he found his way to the Rema in Cracow, who ruled that he was to go into exile for a full year, never sleeping in the same place for two consecutive nights, in addition to fasting, making confession, and observing the anniversary of the death every year as if it were the anniversary of his own father’s death.[12]


We consider similar cases in the responsa of  R. Abraham b. Isaac of Narbonne,[13] R. Jacob b. Judah Weil,[14] R. Yair Hayim Bakhrakh,[15] R. Joseph Hayim of Bagdad,[16] and R. Isaac Jacob Weiss.[17] I brought these sources to our classroom in an effort to gain some understanding of the biblical and rabbinic philosophy of Halakhah regarding ‘Arei Miklat, the cities of refuge, the institution designed to deal with accidental homicide. Are these cities of refuge simply safe-havens from relatives thirsty for blood-vengeance? Are they a form of punishment, a type of exile? Perhaps they are a method of atonement.[18] As we turn the pages, we traverse the globe and travel through time. The women of the class are struck by the recurrence of the issue throughout Jewish history: accidental homicide, in a world with no biblical cities of refuge. What operative principles for such cases can be derived from the Torah and the teachings of Hazal?


The women concur that of the above-mentioned approaches to the problem, the opportunity for atonement offered by the Cities of Refuge is of paramount importance. This process is linked by rabbis of later times to other practices, so that a person responsible for accidental homicide might make amends.


As class ends, students leave our hall of study with much food for thought. One of them approaches me. “Thank you so much!” she says as she hugs me, and leaves without another word. She has left the interpretation of her words up to me.


What was it that moved her so? I pause to think; then, it all becomes clear. Her husband, a building contractor, was involved in a renovation project. A terrible mishap took the life of a child – a case of accidental homicide. For her, there was nothing theoretical about our discussion. It was a live issue, a raw nerve. For this student our class was a form of atonement, resolution, closure.



As they kept on walking and talking, a fiery chariot with fiery horses suddenly appeared and separated one from the other; and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” (2 Kings 2:21) –  What were they talking about?…Eliyahu took leave of Elisha with words of Torah…they were reciting the Shema…”.(y. Ber. 5:1).


It is Eliyahu’s final hour on this earth. He must pass his mantle on to Elisha, his disciple. They walk together engrossed in discussion. What was it that they were discussing? Keriyat Shema.


What possessed the rabbis to offer this suggestion? A student surmises that this opinion is simply a function of the final hour; the recitation of the Shema is the final religious act performed before death. Another student points out how the rabbis cleverly interpret the phrase “ve-shinantem le-vanekha ve-dibarta bam….u-ve-lekhtikha va-derekh.” Yet another woman looks for a deeper meaning, unpacking the fundamentals of religious dogma contained in the Shema, which Eliyahu the Master reviews with his student before his final departure. But our discussion has not ended. Another voice is heard:


“You know, Bryna, I haven’t thought about it in years… I was only a child…It was the summer of 1944. My mother and I had fled from Poland to Czechoslovakia, from there to Hungary, and then we found ourselves in Rumania. It was in Rumania that we managed to obtain British certificates allowing us to leave for Palestine, by way of Turkey. Three ships were waiting at the port. Although my mother and I were booked on the second ship, my mother bribed an official to let us on the first, to be with our only surviving family, for fear that we would once again be separated. The ships set sail and we felt as if we were finally on our way to some sort of secure destination. Suddenly we were attacked by a German submarine. Two of the three ships sank, leaving no survivors. Ours was next. The captain jumped ship. We all got together on the deck, held hands, and said: ‘Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Ehad.’ We were preparing to die…Miraculously, we sailed along unmolested and reached our destination.”


She glanced at the Tanakh before her, and then up at me, and continued. “It has been over 50 years…suddenly our study of the final journey of Eliyahu and Elisha, of Keriyat Shema, of the fiery chariot which separated them, unearthed a memory which time had long since buried…”


What was it about our story that awakened this long-suppressed memory?


Was it a yearning of an orphan of the Holocaust for the immortality of Eliyahu that stirred her? Perhaps it was the continuity embodied by Elisha, by his ability to pick up the mantle of his father and start again, without turning back to search for a past he knew he could not retrieve.[19] What is clear is that this biblical episode had leapt twenty-eight hundred years into the future, enabling one woman to experience a catharsis of spirit that had been denied her for most of her life.


I turn away from the class, knowing now that the midrashic account of Eliyahu’s parting from Elisha poses another question as well: With what does a teacher leave a pupil?


The rabbis have enriched me with their insight, and as a teacher I have passed it on to this student. How moving it is that she has in turn offered me an additional dimension of this lesson which I had never imagined.



As our class begins, the women open to the thirty-ninth chapter of Genesis. Joseph is pursued by the wife of Potiphar. Although the Bible fully describes the external events, the rabbis suggest what was going on at the time in Joseph’s heart.


Joseph, finding himself alone with Potiphar’s wife, is about to fall into the alluring clutches of sin when he is halted in his tracks by the image of Jacob his father, his mentor, his conscience. He sees his father’s face; he hears his voice:


At that moment, he beheld his father’s countenance through the window. “Joseph, your brothers’ names will be inscribed on the stones of the Ephod. It is your choice: Will you be inscribed among them, or will your name be erased and you remembered as a companion of harlots?” (b. Sotah 36b)


Joseph’s father suddenly appears in the window, in the opening in the wall that has separated Joseph from his family, and that might separate him forever from the destiny of Benei Yisrael. His actions now will determine his place in the roster of Shivtei Kah. Will he become one of the stones of the Ephod, engraved forever on the mantle of holiness?


A woman sitting on the left explicates this midrashic text.


“My brother and I were taken from Belgium to Auschwitz. Just before we were parted my brother said, ‘We will never see each other again, so let me teach you one midrash about Joseph and Jacob. Whenever life will present you with moral dilemmas, see my face and you will know what to do.’ It is this midrash that served to guide me through many lonely and difficult ordeals,” the student explains.


I find myself amazed by the power which this midrash has given to this woman. Joseph for her was a survivor, one whose world was held together through his moral resolve which he transported from his father’s house. It is tempting to view this midrashic text as classic example of Freudian superego, but in fact it goes far deeper. Jacob was the moral anchor that neither temptation, loneliness nor evil could destroy.


In the silence which envelopes our classroom following this moving recollection, we realize that our friend has captured the power of Torah. This midrash served as her anchor, her link with her brother who was taken from her, with her forebears, perhaps; but it was also her bridge into the future, a future which, in Auschwitz, could only be considered a wild dream. It was Joseph the slave who left Europe with her; Joseph the dreamer who accompanied her to her new life; but Joseph the stone in the Ephod who sits in our shiur today.



The midrashic prayer of the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, is our point of departure. The midwives – women who bring life into the world – find themselves commanded by Pharaoh to be the agents of death. They are caught between a rock and a hard place. The death of innocent babies, or their own. Their recourse is to prayer.


And they gave life to the babies…They stood in prayer and said to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, “Master of the Universe, give them their lives!” (Shemot Rabbah 1:15)


The silence of the classroom is shattered by a sudden outburst of tears. What was it I said?  I have taught this midrash dozens of times. It is most certainly poignant, but I had never thought of it as painful. The student explains about her baby with a congenital heart defect, and as she does we witness her becoming an inseparable part of the text. She cries as she utters the prayer of the midwives, “Master of the Universe, give them their lives!”


After class the student comes to seek advice to help her through her ordeal. I immediately realize that I have nothing to add. In our Beit Midrash she has already found what she needs. The spiritual fortitude of Shifrah and Puah described by the Sages has inspired her to find strength, to shoulder her burden and to go forward in life.



I am haunted by the silent stare of the woman still mourning the death of her first child. We are studying 2 Samuel 12: Batsheva gives birth to a son who, as the fruit of David’s iniquity, will not survive. The Bible describes the weeping and penitence of David, yet the mourning and pain of Batsheva, twice the victim of David’s tragic weakness, is not portrayed. Did she not mourn?[20]


The silence of the student fills the vacuum in the text.



A key chapter in the tale of the downfall of the House of David is the story of Amnon’s rape of Tamar. This is indeed a “text of terror”[21]; women readers are deeply affected by Tamar’s fear, pain and anguish. We are gripped by Tamar’s desperate and masterful attempts to ward off Amnon’s advances. In her last pathetic plea she says: “Please speak to the king; he will not refuse me to you.” Tamar has tried all else; her final attempt is to appeal to Amnon suggesting that she will marry him and that King David will approve!


Hazal have great difficulty understanding the logic of this appeal. If Tamar was Amnon’s half-sister, as the text maintains, how could such a union be approved?[22]


The rabbis claim that Tamar was the daughter of a captive woman (yefat toar) and therefore halakhically not Amnon’s sister.[23] In this attempt to avoid the horrifying conclusion that Amnon’s sin entailed incest in addition to rape, the rabbis adduce Tamar’s very own statement, “Please speak to the king; he will not refuse me to you,” as a proof text.


As women of Jerusalem, we read the annals of the Davidic dynasty in our Beit Midrash, located near the City of David. We share the pain and humiliation of our sister of generations ago; we might walk on the same stones which long ago were wet with her tears. The ingenuity of Hazal’s interpretation is clear, but we continue to discuss the passage, straining to hear Tamar’s own voice, pleading, across the chasm of the ages.


“It’s clear,” suggests one student, “that Tamar’s statement is her final attempt to ward off Amnon’s heinous attack. Rape is a fear that women live with. Don’t many of us envision that if we ever found ourselves in such a position, we would negotiate with the rapist, that we would offer ourselves in some other way, to avert his violence? Tamar’s proposal has nothing to do with her halakhic status vis a vis Amnon; She’s just grasping at her last straw!”[24]


Glances are exchanged among the students; we all feel that Tamar’s voice has been heard in our classroom. We reread the verse, and her words cry out to us from across the generations. The rabbis seek a halakhic solution to the halakhic problem; Tamar’s problem is survival. There is no deeper ‘omek peshuto shel mikra than that.



“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test.”


I have so much to say about the ‘Akedah, but my class has been taken over by one of my students. Her questions are probing; her comments rich in insight. This woman and her husband, like many other Israeli parents, have walked the long and lonely road to their own personal ‘Akedah – and returned without their son. I have spent years studying this biblical text, yet nothing I can say approaches the depth of this woman’s understanding. Her Yitzhak, a soldier in the Israeli army, fell in Lebanon – he will never laugh again. Her husband reads this Torah portion in shul every Rosh Hashanah; today she teaches it to us all.



“And the matter greatly troubled Abraham for it concerned his son”


We learn about yet another trial of Abraham, this time a domestic conflict affecting the greater good of the family. Sarah is certain that Ishmael must go. His negative influence on her son Isaac is clear. Abraham, a father at long last, is terribly pained by the thought of banishing his son.[25] The decision to heed Sarah’s demand is rendered by the Almighty. Only He has the perspective and objectivity necessary to make this judgment. Was this the only resolution possible?


A lively discussion ensues. I am attacked with angry and difficult questions: not textual, but moral. They are being asked by a woman with a retarded son. The expulsion of Ishmael is a test case for her. She and her husband are grappling with the question of  whether they should institutionalize their son or keep him at home. They fear the effect of his behavior on their other child. They have not been privileged to receive the word from on high: the story of Genesis 21 is the closest they will come to revelation.



These stories are moving, but women’s Torah learning is not composed only of such moments. We also spend long hours poring over Midrash Tanhuma and reading a teshuvah of Radbaz, in our efforts to understand the basic meanings of the texts. These accounts, however, demonstrate a striking and somewhat radical point: it is precisely the subjective, emotional, “feminine” cognitive style, which for years was asserted to be a barrier to women learning Torah properly, that has yielded such deep and moving insights into the Word of God. We have only now begun to discover the contribution we can make to each other and to all those who love Torah and seek its inspiration.


All of the women I have described here – and countless others – have found their way to the Beit Midrash. It is here that they become part of a new generation of Talmidot Hakhamim, women who are the students of the rabbis, who are mastering the wisdom of Torah not only by analyzing the sources but by engaging them; by apprenticing themselves to the Sages.


There are serious questions regarding the role of Jewish women in the public arena. Issues of Halakhah, tzeniut, and tradition need to be considered in redefining the place of women in the Torah community today.[26] But one thing has become clear: our sacred space is in the Beit Midrash. There is no mehitzah between women and divrei Torah. Women are incapable of spiritual passivity in the world of learning. We may listen to the haftarot or the parshiot passively in shul before we have studied them, but not after. This remarkable transformation is the legacy of all those women who don Keter Torah, which is available to all those who seek it.[27] There are many realms of mitzvot and ritual in which Jewish women may find inspiration and fulfillment and Talmud Torah has become one of them.


What about those of us who are blessed “she-sam helkenu bein yoshvei beit ha-midrash” – women who teach Torah to other women? We have been entrusted with the role of explicating divine commands, elucidating the “omnisignificance” of sacred literature, and of interpreting the eternal prophecies so that they continue to offer perspective to our lives. The responsibility is overwhelming; the spiritual challenge – formidable.


And yet for me, as for every teacher of Torah, nothing could be more fulfilling. How can I explain the spiritual exaltation which I experience every Rosh Hashanah hearing Shirat Hannah, as I look around the ‘Ezrat Nashim, recollecting the classroom scene I described above, holding the hand of my little one sitting beside me; or every Yom Kippur when we say “Hashem Hu HaElokim,” knowing how many students have stood with me on Mount Carmel; or how I sit down to the Seder every year, exhausted like every other Jewish homemaker, but bolstered by the knowledge that students to whom I have taught Sefer Shemot over the last twenty years will read the Haggadah and explain it to their families in a way their mothers and grandmothers could not?


I am strengthened in my labors by the knowledge that with each passing year there are more and more learned women who join the ranks of Torah teaching.[28] I can think of no nobler occupation.


I have argued that women learning Torah are making a unique contribution to the way Torah unfolds in our generation – to the peshatot hamithadshim bekhol yom.[29] Perhaps women, using their special sensitivities, will best be able to reveal the hitherto hidden spiritual valences of Torah still awaiting discovery.[30] This power of innovation is captured beautifully by a derashah in Pesikta de-Rav Kahanah:


On this day they arrived at Sinai‘ (Exodus 19:1). Was it on this day? Rather, when you study My teachings let them not seem worn in your eyes; let them be as fresh as the day they were given. It does not say ‘on that day;’ it says ‘On this day’ (ba-yom hazeh), since in this world only a few engage in Torah study, but on that day – in the days to come – I will teach it to all of Israel and they will study and shall not forget it, as it says: ‘But such is the covenant I will make with the House of Israel after these days – declares the Lord; I will put My teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts. Then I will be their God, and they shall be My people (Jer 31:33). (Pesikta deRav Kahana. 12:21).


When Torah is learned by all of Israel – men and women alike – then it will be a Torah which enters our innermost being and will be inscribed deeply upon our hearts.


[1] Deborah Weisman, Hinukh Banot Datiot beYerushalayim beTekufat haShilton haBriti: Hitmasdutan ve-Hitgabshutan shel Hamesh Idiologiot Hinukhiot, (Jerusalem 1994); Shoshana Zolty, And All Your Children Shall be Learned: Women and the Study of Torah in Jewish Law and History (NJ, 1993).

[2] R. Israel Meir HaKohen (Kagan), Likkutei Halakhot, Sotah 20b: “It seems that all of this [prohibition against women learning Torah] applies only to times past when all daughters lived in their fathers’ home and tradition was very strong, assuring that children would pursue their parents’ path, as it says, “Ask your father and he shall tell you.” On that basis, we could claim that a daughter needn’t learn Torah, but merely rely on proper parental guidance. But nowadays, in our iniquity, as parental tradition has been seriously weakened and women, moreover, regularly study secular subjects, it is certainly a great mitzvah to teach them Humash, Prophets and Writings, and rabbinic ethics, such as Pirke Avot, Menorat HaMaor, and the like, so as to validate our sacred belief; otherwise they may stray totally from God’s path and transgress the basic tenets of religion, God forbid.”

[3] See R. Moshe Meiselman, “Torah Knowledge for Women,” Jewish Woman in Jewish Law (New York, 1978) 34-43;  Naomi Cohen, “Women and the Study of Talmud,” Tradition 24(1), (Fall 1988), 28-37; “Symposium on Women and Jewish Education,” Tradition, 28(3), (Spring 1994); see Don Seeman,”The Silence of Rayna Batya: Torah, Suffering and Rabbi Barukh Epstein’s ‘Wisdom of Women,'” Torah U- Madda Journal 6 (1995-1996), 91-128, particularly n. 21 and n. 26; Susan Handelman, “Women and the Study of Torah in the Thought of the Lubavitcher Rebbe: A Halakhic Analysis,” Jewish Legal Writings by Women (Israel, 1998); Eliakim Ellinson, Bein HaIsha LeYotzrah: HaIsha VeHaMitzvot, Sefer Rishon (Jerusalem, 1987), 143-163; R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Ba’ayot HaYesod BeHinukha Shel HaIsha,” HaIsha VeHinukhah, ed. Ben Zion Rosenfeld, (Israel, 1980), 157-165;R. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Likkutei Sihot, (NY, 1978), vol. 14, 37-44.

[4] NJPS translation. An alternate reading might be: “I am more valuable to you than ten sons.”

[5] Uriel Simon, “Sippur Holadat Shemuel – HaMivneh, HaSug, VeHaMashmaut,” ‘Iyyunei Mikra u-Parshanut (Ramat Gan, 1968), 57-110; Avraham Walfish, “Hannah: Tefillat Ta’aromet VeAnavah,” Megadim 20 (1993), 55-75.

[6]  This powerful idea is expressed in Shemot Rabbah 19:1: “The heart alone knows its bitterness” (Pr. 14:10). She alone. Hannah was remembered by God — She alone, as it says: “and no outsider can share in its joy” (ibid.), as it says: “My heart exults in the Lord, I rejoice in Your deliverance.” (I Sam. 2:1). I alone rejoice; no other rejoices with me.

[7] The rabbinic expression  found in b. Nedarim 64b is, “He who is childless is considered as dead.”  The example cited by the Gemara with regard to barrenness being equivalent to death is Rachel, who explicitly declares, “Give me children, or I  shall die!”

[8] b. Berakhot 28b: “On entering, what does a man say? May it be Thy will, O Lord my God, that no offense may occur through me, and that I may not err in a matter of Halakhah, and that my colleagues may rejoice in me, and that I may not call pure impure or impure, pure and that my colleagues may not err in a matter of Halakhah, and that I may rejoice in them.” Note that the standard translation of this passage is based on Rashi, who connects the phrase ‘yesmehu bi haverei’  with ‘lo akashel bedevar halakhah,’ thereby interpreting it: “So that my colleagues may rejoice over me, i.e., over my discomfiture, and so bring sin upon themselves.” I suspect (as my translation shows) that these two phrases are a request that the Torah one teaches and learns should bring only joy to speakers and hearers alike.

[9] Leviticus 25:37. The literal sense of the text is about loans: “Do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live by your side as your kinsman.”

[10] b. Bava Batra 62b.

[11] m. Horiyot 3:7-8; Rambam, Perush HaMishnayot ad loc.; Minhat Hinukh, 396; y. Terumot 8:4; Rambam, Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 5:5; Shulhan ‘Arukh, Yoreh Deah 157:1; Tiferet Mosheh ad loc.; Hazon Ish, Yoreh Deah 69; Hazon Ish, Sanhedrin, Likkutim 26;  R. I. Y. Unterman, Shevet MiYehudah, I:8; R. A. M. Feivelson, Sefer Pikuah Nefesh, 5:170; Yisrael Shahor, “Seder ‘Adifuyot BaTerempiadah,” Tehumin 4, 397-402.

[12] R. Moses Isserles of Cracow, Shut HaRema (Jerusalem,1967), Responsum 37

[13] R. Abraham b. Isaac of Narbonne, Sifran shel Rishonim (Jerusalem, 1935), Responsum 42.

[14] R. Jacob b. Judah Weil, She’elot u-Teshuvot VeHilkhot Shehitah u-Bedikah VeHiddushei Dinin (Jerusalem, 1988), Responsum 123.

[15]  R. Yair Hayim Bakhrakh, Shut Havot Yair, (Ramat Gan, 1987), Responsum 170.

[16] R. Joseph Hayim MiBagdad, Sefer Rav Pealim: She’elot u-Teshuvot Be’Inyan Halakhah (Jerusalem, 1980), Orakh Hayim 3:36.

[17] R. Isaac Jacob Weiss, Likkutei Teshuvot Minhat Yitzhak (1996), Responsum 104.

[18] Rambam, Moreh Nevukhim, III: 40; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Rotzeah u-Shmirat HaNefesh 7:3,8,13; Tosafot Makkot 11b “Miyad Galut Mikhaperet”; Shadal Num. 35:12; R. D. Z. Hoffman, Dt. 19, 369; Sefer HaHinukh, 410.

[19] Elisha calls Eliyahu his father in 2 Kings 2:12.

[20] Although most commentators explain David’s grief as an authentic expression of pain, remorse, penitence and even prayer, Abravanel is the lone dissenting voice: “I am of the opinion that David did this to cover up the matter from Batsheva and his men. He therefore did not explain to them that this was part of his punishment. After the death of the baby he went to the house of the Lord to accept his sentence. (Abravanel to II Sam. 12:20, 349).

[21] Such is the name of Phyllis Trible’s well known volume of biblical studies, Text of Terror: Literary – Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia, 1984), in which Tamar is one of the women discussed.

[22] b.  Sanhedrin 21a; Rambam, Hilkhot Melakhim 8:8.

[23] Tosafot ibid.

[24] Indeed, Abravanel is of this opinion: “That which Tamar said, “Please, speak to the king; he will not refuse me to you.” (II Sam. 13:13), was simply an attempt to save herself from his clutches, lip service, to ward him off. Yet in her words, “Such things are not done in Israel! Don’t do such a vile thing!” (II Sam. 13:12), she implied incest (Abravanel, II Sam. 13:1, 51).

[25] The two classic explanations are supplied by Rashi: “On account of his son. Because he heard that he had taken to degenerate ways. The real meaning however is because she (Sarah) had told him to send him away.” But a most poignant explanation is that of Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg, in his commentary HaKetav VeHaKabbalah to Gen. 21:11: “…for this very reason Abraham thought it preferable to let him remain in his home, so that he could reprimand, and direct him properly that he might repent.” His despair was great since no one was more capable than Abraham to counsel a wayward son, yet as his parent he was unable to do so.

[26] Joel Wolowelsky, Women, Jewish Law, and Modernity (Hoboken, 1997); R. Dovid Orbach, Sefer Halikhot Beitah (Jerusalem, 1983), 388 ff.

[27] Rambam, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:1. An enlightening discussion of the position of the Rambam on women and Talmud Torah is Marvin Fox’s “Torah Study for Women: Prohibited, Permitted, Commanded.” Lecture taped by Maayan (Boston, 1996).

[28] A great Torah teacher of our times who was an inspiration for thousands of women involved in Torah learning was Nechama Leibowitz z”l. First and foremost, Nechama taught us how to learn and how to teach. Perhaps more than any other figure of this century, she engendered a renaissance in the study of Tanakh and classical commentaries.
As an indefatigable teacher, she traversed the Land of Israel, teaching all who thirsted for words of Torah: observant and non-observant, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, young and old, soldiers, rabbis, kibbutzniks and moshavniks, new immigrants in development towns, university professors and laymen alike – truly Kehal ‘Adat Bnei Yisrael. Every shiur with Nechama was a moving experience. There was rarely a lesson which did not include a story – a slice of life – which breathed new meaning into ancient sources. In interpreting the eternal words of Torah, Nechama saw the life experiences of all those in the classroom as being relevant to the text in the same way that the text was relevant to their lives.
Her hiddushei Torah and inimitable methodology are preserved for posterity in her Studies which have appeared in dozens of editions and many languages. Yet, above and beyond her scholarship and creativity, Nechama was a towering example of Torah ve-yirat Shamayim. Though relentlessly critical in her pursuit of peshuto shel mikra, she was a woman of genuine humility and deep spirituality. She was and will always be a magnificent role model for all women who aspire to become Talmidot Hakhamim.

[29] This is the phrase used by Rashbam in Genesis 37:2, quoting his grandfather Rashi about the commentary he wished to compose, if only he had the time.

[30] See the commentary of R. Meir Leibush Malbim, Nahal Eshkol, Lamentations 3:23.and most recently a modern treatment of the issue in: Tamar Ross and Yehudah Gellman, “Hashlakhot HaFeminism ‘Al Teologiah Yehudit Ortodoxit,” Sefer Zikaron LeAriel Rozen-Zvi, (Tel Aviv, 1998).

Dr. Bryna Jocheved Levy

is the Rector of Matan’s Bellows Eshkolot Educators Institute for Tanakh and Jewish Studies.  She is founder and chair of the Bible and Biblical Exegesis program at Matan and has been teaching Tanakh at Matan for over 25 years.  Dr. Levy is one of the most esteemed Bible teachers in Israel and throughout the world.  She is also a leader in the movement for women’s Torah studies and was the first woman awarded a doctoral degree in Biblical Studies by Yeshiva University.  She has created four Torah websites which serve as creative educational tools for learning and teaching the Tanakh (  Dr. Levy also runs “Matan Toratenu”, a unique Beit Midrash program focusing upon Tanakh and the arts.  Her book Waiting for Rain: Reflections at the Turning of the Year has recently been published in Hebrew.