Raising women’s voices in study

Raising women’s voices in study

Lamdeinu in Teaneck offers series of four scholars teaching high-level Torah

Rachel Friedman, left, Shuli Taubes, Miriam Krupka Berger, and Alisa Danon Kaplan
Rachel Friedman, left, Shuli Taubes, Miriam Krupka Berger, and Alisa Danon Kaplan

Rachel Friedman of Teaneck, the founder and dean of Lamdeinu, is devoting herself to creating an institution of learning that is as passionate as she is, as in love with text, with the intellectual and logical and spiritual engagement with words and the ideas that underlie them, as she is.

That is a tall order, but Ms. Friedman is making progress. She has committed her energies to creating a place that is a home for Jewish learning and a magnet for Jewish learners.

Both men and women teach its classes, and both men and women are welcome as learners, although some classes are for women only.

One of Ms. Friedman’s interests has been in the development of women as serious Torah scholars; the world of Jewish text study is changing, she said, as women have been given the opportunity to study more rigorously. Now they are teaching. On four Thursday mornings in July, Ms. Friedman and three other women — Shuli Taubes, Miriam Krupka Berger, and Alisa Danon Kaplan, will offer classes. (See box.)

These talks — Torat Nashim, Women’s Torah, as it is called — are both similar to and different from classes at other institutions in other historical periods, Ms. Friedman said. According to Lamdeinu’s flyer, “What we believe is unique about these women is that they represent a new brand of female Torah scholarship in the Orthodox world that is largely connected to their advanced Torah scholarship rather than to ritual or title.”

“The level of advanced Jewish education that these women had is different than what would have been available to them 20 years ago,” Ms. Friedman said. “I see this next generation of Torah scholars, who are teaching both men and women, who are playing roles not just in women’s schools but in the professions, are affecting the entire community in a certain sense, whether in an obvious way or in a more subtle way. They are reshaping those professions by virtue of their advanced Torah scholarship, their communications skills, their charisma, their dynamic natures — and also because the Orthodox community is open to the voices of women as it never was before.”

Women’s voices are not the same as men’s voices, she continued, although of course no one person’s voice is like another’s, gender notwithstanding. But beyond that, “women have a different way of engaging with text,” Ms. Friedman said. “They bring to it their own life experiences, a certain sensitivity, a certain way of learning.

“One thing I’ve noticed, and that’s maybe because women often end up learning Talmud later than men do — men often start very young, in first grade, so they read the text before they learn the language — women tend to be more focused on learning the language.

“Each of these women is having an impact in a different way — but without their scholarship and the community’s openness to hearing the voices of women, this wouldn’t be happening.”

Ms. Friedman will give the first talk. Although she often uses the word Torah broadly to encompass a range of ancient Jewish texts, here she will discuss a literal Torah text, from the book of Bamidbar — the book of Numbers. She’ll be describing the Israelites’ journey from enslavement to liberty, and their transformation from slaves to a goy kadosh, a holy people. She’s entwining that talk with the idea of a tent, which represents a home, and what happens when that holiness is violated.

But as involved as Ms. Friedman is with her own learning and teaching, she’s interested in providing the next generation of women scholars with a platform, and in giving her students and community the chance to learn from them.

The first speaker, Shuli Taubes, lives in Washington Heights with her husband; she’s chair of the Jewish philosophy department and teaches Tanach and comparative religion at SAR High School in Riverdale. But she grew up in Teaneck, the oldest of the five children of Rabbi Michael and Bassie Taubes.

Learning was “the centerpiece of everything we did in my home” when she was growing up, Ms. Taubes said. That came not only from her parents but from her grandparents too.

“I had a chevrutah” — a learning partnership — “with my grandfather, Chaim Shulman,” she said. “It started when I was 13. He died two years ago, so it lasted for almost 20 years. My being a girl didn’t affect it at all.” They learned Torah together.

And that wasn’t all. “My father’s father, Leo Taubes, and his mother, Rina Hyman Taubes, were among the founders of the Orthodox community in Teaneck,” Ms. Taubes said. “They moved there in the 1960s, and had a shul in their basement.” Her grandfather, who was a hidden child during the Holocaust, became a professor of English at Yeshiva University. Like her mother’s father, he also had a chevrutah with his granddaughter.

“Any time I was assigned a Shakespeare play, he would come over and we’d read it out loud together,” she said. “We’d read Milton together.

“I had a very blessed childhood.”

She wasn’t the only grandchild her grandfathers studied with. “My Torah chevrutah grandfather, who lived in Monsey, had a bunch of granddaughters who lived in Teaneck,” she said. “We would order a pizza and learn high-level texts together. His method was to talk to us as if we were all very capable. He pushed us to think creatively.”

That background, ranging from Torah to Talmud to Shakespeare to Milton, with its exposure to complexity and subtlety and vast cultural differences and assumptions, with its understanding of human nature in normal life and in extremis, seems to have been a perfect medium to grow a theologian. Ms. Taubes earned her undergraduate degree at Barnard and then went to Harvard Divinity School. “I am very interested in the human/Divine relationship, and about both what God expects of human beings and what human beings expect and mean about God. So God is the centerpiece of the way I think about meaning.” God is the lens through which she sees the world.

She’ll teach about multiple messiahs at Lamdeinu. What does that mean? “We have an interesting tradition of them,” she said. “Most people just think of the Moshiach ben David” — the messiah who comes from the line of David — “but we also have an earlier concept, a moshiach from the house of Joseph.” David descends from Judah; if you look at the two biblical characters, Judah and Joseph, “Joseph represents physical and material power and strength, and Judah represents spiritual strength. You need both of those voices.

“The messiah son of Joseph would come first, the Gemara and the midrash tell us. Rav Kook” — that’s Abraham Isaac Kook, the famous scholar and mystic who became the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of mandatory Palestine — “made a reference in his eulogy of Theodor Herzl that Herzl was not the messiah ben David but potentially the messiah ben Joseph. He developed the concept as the birth pangs of the messiah.”

There are other messiahs hinted at in other Jewish texts, she added; they’re all intermediate steps to get to the one whose coming will change the world entirely.

“What I like about the concept of multiple messiahs is that it gives regular people some agency,” Ms. Taubes said. “We can be harbingers of a better future. If there is only one person who can be the savior, that takes away our responsibility, but if there are many, that gives us both responsibility and agency.”

Miriam Krupka Berger of Teaneck is the dean of faculty at the upper school at Ramaz on Manhattan’s Upper East Side; she also chairs its Tanach department. At Lamdeinu, she will look at Eicha, the Book of Lamentations that will be read on Tisha B’Av, just a few days after her talk.

“I will look at the female voice of Eicha,” she said. “It’s the voice of a woman, a virgin, a bride, a widow, a daughter of the city. I will look at why the language of tragedy is so feminized.

“In Eicha, she is the city itself, and an outsider observer, a desperate observer looking at it,” Ms. Berger said. “Then the book moves into the first person singular, and then the first person communal. It moves into the we. And then, in Perek Gimmel” — the third chapter — “it becomes male. Why is that? There is a lot of military imagery there, weapons, spears, war.” Then the voice becomes female again. “Why is it structured like that?

“You are taking just about every kind of pain a woman can experience and translating it into Eicha. And it’s not just that women are more vulnerable. That’s obvious. There’s more.

“I want to look at the way the female voice is used in the rest of the Tanach. Is it different from the way it’s used in Eicha?”

Ms. Berger’s formal background is more in Tanach and philosophy than in English literature — her master’s degree, from Columbia, was in Jewish philosophy, and her thesis was about the mystic Isaac Abarbanel — but her connection to literature is longstanding and deep. “I love to read, and I read all the time,” she said. “I always have. I incorporate what I read into my teaching, because I think that it is both relevant and beautiful.

“I take an interdisciplinary approach, with literature and history and philosophy and language, but you have to know all of it to know Tanach.”

Alisa Danon Kaplan, also of Teaneck, is a chaplain at the oncology department of Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, where she works with outpatients who are getting infusion medication or radiation treatments. “It takes many hours and many visits,” she said. “Patients are often there for five, six, seven, eight hours, and a lot of issues come up during that time.”

As patients wait out their treatments, with not much else to do but sit and think about mortality, about life, about meaning, about fear and courage and hope and love, they often ask chaplains for help. Ms. Kaplan, who has masters’ degrees from the University of Judaism and the Jewish Theological Seminary, and who has trained as a chaplain by getting credits in clinical pastoral education, is now part of a new initiative set up by the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest, headquartered in Whippany.

“I am going to be talking about bikkur cholim” — helping the sick — “and what the Gemara has to teach us about the practical details of visiting someone who is sick,” Ms. Kaplan said. There is much abstract to be said about the importance of such work, but there also is much practical advice to be given, and there is a strong case to be made for the greater foundational importance of the practical over the theoretical.

“It’s what I refer to as tachlis,” Ms. Kaplan said. It’s like getting down to the brass tacks, the here-and-now reality. “It is important to keep in mind that we can utilize these stories and ideas in the Gemara to actually impact visiting the sick and taking care of those in need.

“There are stories in the Gemara of people doing bikkur cholim,” she continued. “It’s walking in God’s ways — it’s imitatio Dei. That’s doing God’s work.

“In Nedarim” — one of the Talmud’s tractates — “Rabbi Akiva enters the house of one of his students, who is sick, and what does he do? Either he or some other students sweep and sprinkle the ground in front of the sick student. He cleans up.

“It is a reminder that bikkur cholim is not just about saying nice things about helping people who are sick. It’s not about saying ‘Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.’ It’s about finding the things that have to be done and doing them. It’s about saying ‘I see your shoes need to be polished. Let me polish them for you.’ It’s about seeing a mountain of unwashed dishes in the sink and saying ‘May I wash them for you.’

“In the Gemara, the disciple says to Akiva, ‘You have revived me. Doing this was medicine for me.’”

Back at Lamdeinu, Rachel Friedman is not saying nice, upbeat things about text study, or about applying women’s voices to that study. Instead, “I spent a lot of time now cultivating the next generation,” she said. “I am very excited about it.

“At Lamdeinu, I will never hire anyone who is not a good human being. That is part of the program. All of our teachers, men and women, are academically trained, religiously trained, and good human beings, who care passionately about the future of the Jewish community.

“If you want to bring along the whole community, you have to make Torah study part of everyone’s life. The Jewish community will look different in 20 years because of it, there’s no doubt. I think it is a wonderful, fabulous thing.

Because of Torah study, because of the new generation of women whose voices are being joined with their brothers’ and husbands’ voices, which always have been raised in learning, “I think we have a wonderful future,” Ms. Friedman said.

Who: Lamdeinu, led by its dean, Rachel Friedman

What: Offers “Torat Nashim”

When: On four Thursday mornings in July, from 10:15 to 11:30

July 5, Rachel Friedman teaches “Endangering Our Ohel: The Challenge of Baal Peor”

July 12, Shuli Taubes teaches “Ani Ma’amin: I Believe in the Coming of the Messiahs”

July 19, Miriam Krupka Berger teaches “Eicha: Analyzing a Language of Grief”

July 26, Alisa Danon Kaplan teaches “Texts and Tachlis: Talmud’s Practical Advice on Bikur Cholim”

Where: Lamdeinu is housed at Congregation Beth Aaron,
950 Queen Anne Road, Teaneck

How much: Each class is $25; the series is $90.

For more information: www.lamdeinu.com or lamdeinu@aol.com

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