Looking Backward: Mainstreaming the Revolution

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Looking Backward: Mainstreaming the Revolution
Beverly Gribetz

[“Looking Backward” is an occasional feature on TraditionOnline.org in which we ask our authors to re-explore classic essays from our pages and their ongoing contributions to religious thought.] 

In 1994 TRADITION asked a group of educators to consider several questions related to the state of women and Jewish education (28:3, Spring 1994), a situation which had already changed dramatically since my high school graduation in 1969. We had seen a sea change in the proliferation of frameworks in which Orthodox women could pursue advanced learning in limmudei kodesh—in all subjects, including Talmud, which until the 1970s had been unimaginable.

In the TRADITION symposium I answered the question, “Is learning affected by gender?” I began by reviewing my own background. Educated in a co-ed Orthodox day school where girls and boys studied exactly the same curriculum, in college I took high-level Talmud classes at a nearby Jewish institution. I cited anecdotal evidence from my eight years teaching Talmud to 11th and 12th graders at an all-girls religious high school in Jerusalem. I claimed that learning was an area in which Orthodox women could be integrated religiously, even if they could not participate in many public rituals. I stressed that more female role models were necessary so that, although the texts originated in a male-oriented society, girls (and boys) could begin to identify with women as sources of scholarship and interpretation.

Although I stated from experience that girls and boys have exactly the same innate abilities and therefore can, and should, study exactly the same materials, I allowed for differences—not only in gender—in learning styles, interests, and webs of association, which might lead to diverse insights and understandings. It was clear that the tradition could only be enriched by expanding the pool of advanced students of classical Jewish texts.

Twenty-five years have passed, and the Orthodox world has changed dramatically. Post-high school learning frameworks exist in Israel for every subdivision of hashkafic orientation and for almost every language and country of origin. Some even integrate army or national service and give college credit. In recent years women have become limmudei kodesh teachers (in some cases even teaching boys), to’anot rabbaniyot, yo’atzot nidda, mashgihot kashrut, school leaders, lay synagogue leaders, and even Orthodox Union board members. Earlier this week 3,300 women filled the Jerusalem Convention Center to celebrate their own completion of Shas. And, though still on the fringes of Orthodoxy, women who study the syllabus for semikha have been dubbed Maharat or other titles parallel to that of “rabbi.” The titles may be controversial, but the level of learning is incontrovertible.

And my own greatest source of pride—“Nitzhuni benotai, nitzhuni benotai!” (to paraphrase God Himself; Bava Metzia 59b). Some of my students from that pioneering period of single-gender Talmud-teaching have become the sages and visionaries of today’s Orthodox women’s education and practice, as they raise up generations of their own students.

So what are the issues that confront young Orthodox women today in the world of learning? Where do we need to remain watchful? When we reassess how far we have come, can we envision where we might be going?

When we began studying and teaching Talmud to girls, we wanted separate but equal. We sought to teach the same syllabus in the same style that boys were taught. We were apprehensive of what American minority groups had experienced—that separate was never really equal; so we were “on the watch.” But over time, in addition to addressing the unique learning styles and needs of girls, educators began to realize that the typical intellectual Litvak or Brisker method of Talmudic learning was not speaking to our young people. Boys, as well as girls, were seeking spiritual and personal meaning in the texts they studied; and guidance in their emotional as well as intellectual development from their limmudei kodesh teachers.

Arguments around these issues ensued in teachers’ rooms on every continent, and remain unresolved until today. Some have proposed integrating the arts with the texts—art, music, dance, theater, creative writing. Others suggest that hours spent studying Talmud should be somewhat reduced in favor of exposure to more halakha or Mahshevet Yisrael. Subjects once considered curriculum for girls in the state religious schools (Jewish thought, more Tanakh, Jewish literature including Aggada, the arts) have been requested by boys (and their parents) as well.

Today, progressive educators talk about gender-responsive pedagogy. Where once our Orthodox leaders may have assumed that they were being gender-responsive by not teaching Talmud to girls, today we know that “personalized learning” requires strategies that take into account the learning styles, needs, interests, and background of every student individually, with gender being an important component, but not a boundary, on a spectrum of concerns.

And something else has happened in the past twenty-five years. The internet makes all information accessible in the palm of one’s hand. This development requires a new conceptualization of the traditional teaching-learning paradigm. Governments are rethinking curricula to emphasize thinking skills rather than information-gathering, and inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary curricula rather than discrete disciplines. Project-based and cooperative learning are preferred methods of pedagogy in elementary as well as high schools. Those who have grown up with an intensive education in classical Jewish texts may very well be better-prepared than others for this shift. In the traditional beit midrash havruta system, students research and analyze material using skills built up progressively over time. The teacher’s role is not to provide the basics, which are accessible, but to generate new knowledge in a shiur, raising the students to a higher level. A model such as this is going to be necessary for creating life-long learners in every field in the next generation.

Within Modern Orthodoxy, the lively debate about co-education vs. single-gender schooling continues unabated, buttressed by research from the world of general education. In Jerusalem, a girls-only school for secular families has opened its doors while a newly-formed steering committee is exploring models for religious co-education that appear to work in New York but not yet in Jerusalem. Single-gender schools seem to have done well for girls but not for boys; and yet, in Israel single-gender schools for both are still widely regarded as the “elite” option.

The more that women immerse themselves in higher-level learning, as well as enter professions in the public sphere, the more that questions of tzniut will arise. While Modern Orthodoxy eschews the exclusion of women, we do have to maintain an atmosphere of kedusha in everything that we do. Recently I attended a Shabbat gathering at which a man’s devar Torah treated issues that should not have been discussed in a mixed group of marrieds and singles. The discomfort among some of us was palpable. All of us educators need to be sensitive to the sexual overtones of our discourse. It would not hurt to allow the concerns of #MeToo to enter our consciousness.

As feminism began to penetrate liberal ideology in the America of the 1960s, and women could demand equal pay for equal work, Reform, then Conservative, and then Orthodox women began demanding greater roles in the public ritual. Orthodox women who did not want to cross a perceived halakhic barrier, emphasized learning as the arena in which they could increase and deepen their participation. This movement “made Aliya” to Israel where it expanded beyond what anyone could have imagined a quarter-century ago.

And now, in what may be the next iteration in a natural evolutionary process, Haredi women are pushing for enhanced participation within their own society. Malki Rotner, a member of the Belz Hasidic sect and self-styled feminist, was recently interviewed on a television documentary. “The most important thing,” she said, “is Torah learning for women. Essentially, women have no access to the beit midrash. As long as Haredi women are not part of it, the hierarchy won’t change. We are not working towards revolution but rather towards evolution….Women need to maintain their traditional role, but they need to expand their knowledge and to understand that the classical texts belong to them as well; they need to be included in halakhic discussions… Today Haredi women don’t learn Gemara, but I believe that this too will change. Girls are studying law and the gap will shrink. You can’t say ‘I will study secular wisdom but not that which is culturally mine’.”

To show how far we’ve come, let me conclude with this anecdote. A year ago, at the Open House for recruiting sixth grade families to our secondary school, a parent raised a hand and asked me if I was a feminist. After forty-five years of being on the front line of every advance for Orthodox women both in America and in Israel, I might have said to myself, “I’ve been forgotten; nobody knows who I am anymore.” But my immediate thought was actually, “What a success we’ve been! We’ve made the revolution mainstream!”

Dr. Beverly Gribetz recently retired from the principalship of the Evelina de Rothschild—Tehilla Secondary School for Religious Girls in Jerusalem. She is the 2019 Nefesh BNefesh Bonei Zion Prize laureate for her contributions to the field of education in Israel.

[Published on January 7, 2020]

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