Women's Siyum HaShas in Jerusalem

By Yochanan Gordon

For all the controversy surrounding the significance or lack thereof of the secular New Year, with the Siyum HaShas having taken place on New Year’s Day, there is a certain holy energy in the atmosphere right now, mimicking on some level the holiness of Tishrei. Naturally, with new beginnings and all the excitement surrounding the recent siyum and the long road ahead towards the next one, many people who started last cycle and did not finish, and even those who did not start, have jumped on the Daf Yomi bandwagon. This would be the perfect opportunity to wish them well, myself among them.

If there was a Gemara that captures the excitement and joyousness of these days, it would be the one where the guard at the entrance to the beis midrash in Bavel was removed. The Gemara in Berachos relates that when Rabban Gamliel was the rosh yeshiva, he established that anyone who was not a genuine Torah scholar, whose heart and outward expressions were not aligned, could not enter the beis ha’midrash. At a certain point, Rav Elazar ben Azaryah replaced Rabban Gamliel and he democratized Torah, allowing anyone who wished to enter. The Gemara relates that on that day many benches were added to the study hall. As it is with every democracy, many who took the opportunity to enter perhaps didn’t truly belong there, which is the reason, according to some later commentators, that the Gemara stated that many benches were added as opposed to the more direct term, many people.

Speaking of democratizing Torah, an event took place on Sunday of this past week, in Binyanei HaUma in Jerusalem that is the first of its kind in the history of our nation: a Siyum HaShas for women. Upwards of 3,000 women of all ages packed the hall in Israel, paying homage and giving respect to the Torah and to the women who, over the last seven and a half years, took the arduous journey through the 2,711 dapim of Gemara.

I have broached this topic with a number of my peers before embarking on writing about it, and because the responses were generally as I would have predicted them to be, I deemed this an important topic to address.

What makes this such an uncomfortable and perhaps controversial topic for some is the broader feminist movement that is not so new, but has continued to gain steam and break new ground as time progresses. I can’t say with certainty that there isn’t an element of that on the periphery of this movement for women to get involved in the sea of the Talmud, yet there is certainly an air of authenticity and genuineness fueling this. As Esti Rosenberg, founder of the Migdal Oz seminary, daughter of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt’l, and granddaughter of the Rav, zt’l, both of whom were proponents of women’s advanced learning, put it, “I think it was not so much what they thought about women. It’s what they thought about Torah study. I think they could not imagine that there could be people in the service of Hashem who were not involved in the study of Torah.”

This was a very telling statement, indicative of the fact that for some of these women, it’s more about an opportunity to express their Judaism and to add a dimension to their avodas Hashem than it is to promote equal rights among men and women.

As important as it is to ascertain that the women’s Talmud movement is not driven by the spirit of egalitarianism, it is just as pertinent that the movement to oppose women’s advanced learning is not driven by what is viewed as a social norm. As frum Yidden, the only thing that should be directing us is the ratzon Hashem, which is determined through the Torah itself. When presenting a she’eilah to a rav or when two disputants enter a Jewish court of law, it is completely within the rights of the involved parties to know how the decision was reached. In Talmudic parlance, the term used is “heichan dantani,” what sources were used towards arriving at the respective decisions?

If your initial reaction in reading of the women’s Siyum HaShas was one of cautious concern or complete opposition, the question you need to ask yourself is where that feeling is emanating from. If it is condoned by Torah, then as students of the Torah our joy and celebration for the women’s siyum should be equal to the men’s Siyum HaShas in Met Life stadium for the sole reason that it is increasing limud HaTorah and k’vod Shamayim.

On the word “v’samtem,” Chazal derive that the Torah is an elixir of both life and death depending on the person who is learning it. Perhaps the term “zachah bah,” in whom the Torah is an elixir of life, refers to someone who Torah subsumes as opposed to someone who learns and gives his own opinion as he sees it in Torah. To become purified through the study of Torah is to lose one’s identity as an autonomous existence—one through whom the Torah flows as opposed to someone else whose feelings and opinions are theirs despite being shaped through the lens of Torah.

Another leader who was known as a proponent of women’s study, aside from the Rav and his son-in-law, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, was the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Some people like to characterize his as a liberal stance with regard to women’s learning, which I think is a mischaracterization. The Rebbe was not progressive or liberal. He was someone who strove to uncover the divine truth in every area upon which he tread. This was true with regard to his stance on women’s learning, which, as you will see, is condoned through a careful analysis of this sugya in Gemara and halachah.

In a 1970 sichah that the Rebbe delivered on Parshas Eikev, which is printed in the fourteenth volume of Likkutei Sichos, in a lengthy and scholarly analysis of the Shulchan Aruch HaRav’s Hilchos Talmud Torah, the Rebbe concludes that the permissibility of women to learn Torah in order that they become knowledgeable in the mitzvos that they are commanded in, by extension allows them to assert themselves without limit in all areas of limud haTorah. Briefly, the Rebbe quotes the halachah, which states, “Women are not included in the mitzvah of Talmud Torah” and then continues, “However, if she assists her husband and sons, facilitating them in fulfilling their obligation to learn, she shares in their reward. Alternatively, because women are obligated in specific mitzvos they are able to learn those areas, which are relevant in order for them to know how to perform the mitzvos that pertain to them.”

The Rebbe asks why the Alter Rebbe cited the reason behind the reward for women who assist their husbands and sons in their study of Torah before their obligation to learn the material that pertains to them. Not every woman has a husband and son who are obligated to learn Torah, whereas every woman is obligated in certain areas of Torah that would require them to learn.

Furthermore, despite what would outwardly seem to be at the very least a limited injunction to learn Torah, curiously, women are obligated to recite birkas HaTorah. If their obligation to learn is not perpetual like that of their husbands, why would they need to recite the blessing on learning? What’s more, in a situation where a woman is an expert in all the areas of performance in which she is commanded, there would be no need for her to learn and still she is obligated in reciting the blessing on limud HaTorah.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin poses the question: from where can we derive that a gentile who learns Torah is like a kohen gadol? The verse states, “That a person performs them and lives by them.” The fact that the verse states “adam” as opposed to kohen, Levi, or Yisrael includes the gentiles in this injunction.

When a person gives tzedakah to an indigent person who then takes the money and performs a mitzvah with it, the donor has no portion in the mitzvah. However, despite this, we contend that a woman who assists her husband and son in fulfilling their obligation to learn Torah shares in their reward as someone who fulfilled a mitzvah they were commanded in.

The Rebbe continues: this is similar to the mitzvah of procreation in which a woman is not obligated but is a necessary component without whom the mitzvah could not be performed. Because she is needed in order to perform the mitzvah, she is credited as having fulfilled the mitzvah. Similarly, in the case of a woman who assists her husband and son in learning Torah, because she was an instrumental element in their performance of the mitzvah, she gets rewarded on the level of someone who has performed a mitzvah they were obligated to do.

There are many more details in this sichah and footnotes of an astounding scope that is worthy of being learned in its entirety.

There have been, throughout history, a number of revolutions with regard to Torah that were regarded as highly controversial in their time, but which in hindsight represent a step in the progression towards the perfected messianic age that we so intensely long for. One of those revolutions was the committal of the oral Torah to text. Before R’ Yehuda HaNasi ordered the oral Torah to be written down, there was a proscription against doing so. However, due to the length and effect of the exile, it was deemed as one of those situations that warranted the prohibition null in an attempt to preserve the Torah for posterity. The nullification of Torah in this instance was a fulfillment of the Torah for millennia to come. As Chazal put it: “Bittulah zo hi kiyumah.

Another one of these revolutions is teaching Torah to women or women’s study groups. Chassidic works often quote the verse: “Eishes chayal ateres ba’alah” and interpret it to mean that ultimately in the messianic age the woman will be the crown of her husband. A symbolism of this is the fact that the kallah circles around her husband seven times under the chuppah, as the verse states, “Nekeivah tesovev gever,” which means that the woman will in the future envelop the man, similar to the crown that envelops the head and lies at the highest point atop the head.

The absence of this phenomenon in previous generations is not indicative of anything one way or another. The rise of women into various leadership roles in many different areas may have given rise to the realization or the need for them to express themselves in the arena of academia and Talmudic analysis. This should not be perceived as a descent in holiness as many would like to suggest, or the breaking down of the walls of tznius or the like, but rather another step in the evolution from the stage of “kol kvudah bas melech penimah,” a verse that has always been employed to indicate that women should remain reserved and involved behind the scenes, to the future reality of “nekeivah tesovev gever,” which I believe this development of women engaging in the study of Torah is a step towards.

Due to the sensitivity of this topic, however, it’s important for me to state that nothing of the core idea that I have written is my own opinion, but hashkafos that have been culled from the Rebbe, whom I cited, as well as HaRav Yitzchak Ginsburgh from the Gal Einai movement in Israel. It cannot be overstated that our lives are to be directed by the Torah, and as long as something is condoned through the sources, regardless of how radical it might seem, and is increasing chochmas Hashem and Toras Hashem, then it is a venture that should find unanimous support.

In the merit of increased Torah study and a spirit of mutual respect and understanding, we should be zocheh to the coming of Mashiach soon in our days.

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