Battle of the sexes reaches Talmudic teachings — why can’t girls learn Gemara?

When Sharon Stein Merkin attended a Modern Orthodox religious day school in Los Angeles, she didn’t learn Mishna or Gemara, the Oral law, because her school, like most in the 1980s and ’90s, didn’t teach women Talmud.

But it was only when she attended seminary in Israel after high school and started studying Talmud that this fact began to bother her.

“I wasn’t as disturbed that I didn’t learn Gemara, but as I was that I didn’t have a historical background,” she said.

“My friends who graduated with me didn’t even know the difference between a Mishna and Gemara,” she said, referring to the two components that make up the Oral Law:

The Mishna, the rabbinic interpretations of the Torah compiled in 200 C.E., and the Gemara, which over the next three centuries explicated it in Aramaic. Together they make up the Talmud, which serves as the primary source of halacha, or Jewish law.

After she returned from Israel, Merkin went back to her school to talk with the rabbis. “If they don’t agree to teach Gemara, they should explain at least the historical context and give girls some education in it. It’s part of our heritage and it’s part of Jewish learning,” she told them. Although they listened, they didn’t make any changes.

The question of whether Talmud is indeed part of Jewish learning for girls and women in traditional Orthodox education has come under debate in the last two decades in Orthodox circles. It also will be one of the topics on the agenda at a Nov. 5 conference, “Teaching Our Daughters: What Should We Expect From Their Orthodox Day School Education?” sponsored by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), a New York-based organization whose mission is “to expand the spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities for women within the framework of halakha.”

The study of Talmud isn’t the only item on the agenda, said Merkin, who hopes that the conversation can be productive and positive.

Merkin is one of the dozen or so organizers of this first local conference, which is open to both women and men and is co-sponsored by B’nai David-Judea Congregation, Congregation Beth Jacob, Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley, Shalhevet School and the Westwood Village Synagogue.

The conference will focus on enriching girls’ education in day schools through curricula that put more focus on women’s contributions, as well as a more balanced approach from administrators in developing comprehensive programs, both in and out of the classroom, for boys and girls, organizers say.

The centerpiece of the conference will be a presentation of a curriculum, developed by JOFA for Orthodox classrooms, that encourages students and teachers to more thoroughly analyze the role of the imahot, the foremothers, in the stories in Genesis. It also looks at issues such as modesty and brit milah (circumcision) and the different forms of convenants with God.

But for many who want their daughters to have a complete Jewish education, the study of the Talmud is at the center of the debate.

Traditionally, and for many centuries, women did not study Talmud, since it is written there “Nashim Datan Kalot,” a text that has many interpretations, but at its most literal means that women have simple minds.

“We view it more as: not prone to in-depth logical exercises as much as men are,” said Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin, the Rosh Kehilla, spiritual adviser, of Yavneh, an elementary day school in Hancock Park.

Although he declined to speak in particular about his school’s curriculum, in which the boys learn Mishna and Talmud and the girls focus more on Jewish law, Bible and prophets, he said his school follows the tradition of the community. “It’s been a long-standing tradition that boys have a different thinking pattern from women: not superior, not inferior, just different. The kinds of logical exercises one finds in the Talmud is more appropriate to a male mind than a women’s mind,” he said. But, he said, the Talmud does not prohibit it, it only discourages it as “not the most productive use of a women’s time.”

At Korobkin’s own adult shiurim, or classes, he welcomes women.

“Everyone is welcome because the Talmud speaks in generalities, and not in specifics,” he said, explaining why in his classes he does not abide the idea that women’s minds aren’t made for Talmud study. “If a woman feels her mind is more inclined to logic and concreteness, she should study Talmud,” he said.

While Modern Orthodox schools on the East Coast for many years have been teaching Talmud to girls, schools in Los Angeles have been slow to do so. Although in recent years, some Los Angeles Orthodox schools –Shalhevet School and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy — have put Talmud into the girls’ programs. (At Shalhevet, unlike at all the other schools, boys and girls are not separated by gender for their classes.)

“When we were reviewing our curriculum and program goals three years ago, we wanted to make sure that we were giving a quality level of education to all of our students, and to be able to give everyone a product that would stimulate them and challenge them and increase their own fulfillment in having access to Torah learning,” said Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, headmaster of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, an elementary school in Beverly Hills.

Sufrin will speak on a panel at the JOFA conference, with a representative from Shalhevet School and others, to be moderated by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Jewish Journal education editor.

Two years ago, Hillel began teaching Mishna to girls as well as boys in fourth through sixth grades and now girls in seventh and eight grades are learning Gemara.

“As our students are exposed to so much more in their lives and as Jewish education encompasses both genders and so many of our current generation are professionally involved in Jewish life and Torah learning at all levels, there’s no reason why both genders should not be exposed to girls learning all aspects of Torah. It gives them a very important key,” Sufrin said, adding that that such study helps women understand Bible commentaries and understand areas where everyone agrees they should be involved.

“It also gives them a sense that they have a connection to the entire Torah, and in today’s society that’s important,” he said. “It’s not an issue of being equal — it’s an issue of giving them what they deserve.”

We Must Condemn Heartless Bilge

“It is not in our hands to explain the prosperity of the wicked or even the sufferings of the righteous.” So said Rabbi Yannai in the Mishna some 2,000 years ago. The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) insists “there is no reward for mitzvot in this world.” We have had a long time to read and understand the Book of Job, and we know that the calculus of reward and punishment is more perplexing and agonizing than we can know.

Than we can know, but not, apparently, than Rav Ovadiah Yosef, a former chief rabbi of Israel, can know. Rav Ovadiah is an ilui, a genius of halacha.

His memory is astonishing, his range remarkable. Unfortunately, his theology is appalling.

American citizens died in the hurricane, according to Rav Ovadiah, because President Bush supported the pullout from Gush Katif. Just in case there was a corner of decency that was left unoffended, Rav Ovadiah went on to say that the devastation of Katrina was also punishment for lack of Torah study, since after all, kushim, that is black people, don’t study Torah. To hope that he would revise his opinion of even that egregious statement in light of the Ethiopian population of Israel is apparently too much to expect.

If this were the isolated opinion of an older man, whose crotchets are overcoming his considered judgments, it would not merit comment. But such pronouncements are not new for Rav Ovadiah, and other rabbis have astonishingly concurred in this opinion. His influence is great, and so must be the reaction against such theological thuggery.

It is painful to contemplate that a learned rabbi could be so parochial, so narrow, so besotted with our tiny people alone that he chooses to pour rhetorical venom on the victims of a hurricane half a world away. I yearn to hear repudiations, not from secular Jews, but from those who look to Rav Ovadiah as a guide and a mentor.

This is the worst kind of cruel speech in the name of God, a religious racism that forgets the words of Amos, “Are you not as the children of the Ethiopians to me, O children of Israel?” (Amos ch. 9). Apparently Rav Ovadiah knows something Amos does not, for in his remarks he used the same Hebrew word, kushim, as did the great prophet.

There is no more poisonous strain in contemporary religious life than leaders declaring “deserved” death.

Hurricanes are weapons in the hands of an angry or disappointed God? When Christian fundamentalist preachers offer up such justifications, we rise to condemn them, and ask decent Christians to do the same. It is our turn.

Imagine the victims who lost home, possessions, family — the mother bereaved of her children and the child mourning his father — who would not blanche at the callousness that attributes their anguish to the displacement of 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip? The heavens weep for that part of our tradition that could persuade a leader, a venerated rabbi, to spout this heartless bilge.

No one who quotes Rav Ovadiah as an authority or who treats his name with respect ought to be permitted to sidestep this issue. It is imperative that these statements be condemned not by those who are outside his circle, but by the community of those who learn from him and venerate him.

It strikes to the heart of our tradition to believe that God drowned citizens in New Orleans because of Divine ire over Israel’s policy of disengagement from Gaza. Where are the rabbis to rise up and say, “This is cruel, this is wrong, this must not be permitted?”

About a year ago, I received an appeal. Rav Ovadiah, whose discourses were carried on the web, had lost funding, and they were to be discontinued. Would I contribute to keep this Torah scholar’s teachings available to all? I sent in a contribution.

I wish I had it back. I’d send it to the victims of New Orleans. Judaism is not about finding reasons why God is making people suffer. Judaism is about finding ways to help them.

David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple in Westwood and the author of several books, including “Floating Takes Faith: Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World” (Behrman House, 2004).


Eulogies:Nathan Pollak

The passing of Nathan Pollak on Oct. 26 sent shock waves throughout the Jewish community. Nathan was a dynamic worker for many Jewish causes, and his sudden demise left an enormous spiritual and physical vacuum.

Nathan was born in Sighet, Hungary in 1930. He was a descendent of forebear was Lipman Heller, a great rabbinic figure in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, well-known for his commentary on the Mishna called Tosphot Yom Tov. His maternal grandfather was Rabbi Shlomo Heller, the Rosh Bet Din of Sighet.

At 14, Nathan was transported to Auschwitz with his family. As a Holocaust survivor, he immigrated to the United States in 1947. He excelled in his studies at George Washington High School in upper Manhattan and completed the four-year course in two and a half years. He continued his higher education at City College of New York.

The Army drafted Nathan to serve in the Korean War and assigned him to the Judge Advocate section. During his service Nathan married Lorraine Bick; they were married for almost 50 years.

Nathan retired from the restaurant consulting business in 1981 due to illness. A longtime member of the Young Israel of Los Angeles, Nathan introduced many innovations and served as their president for six years.

In 1991, Nathan volunteered to assist Rabbi Rubin Huttler at Perutz Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy and became their executive director. His dynamic leadership put the school on the map. Nathan was active in every aspect of the school’s administration.

His memory will be cherished by his dear family and the multitudes of children he helped to receive a Torah education. Nathan Pollak is survived by his beloved wife, Lorraine; daughters, Honey (Isaac) Schulman and Barbara (Mark) Bovit; and 10 grandchildren. — Eva Yelloz