Women learning Talmud

Women learning Talmud

Michelle Farber of Hadran to talk about Daf Yomi for women in Teaneck

The Talmud is the “basis of everything in Judaism,” Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber said. “Most of our Judaism comes from the Talmud, and learning it creates a different understanding of our tradition and our religion.”

Different from what? From the understanding that most Jewishly committed women have, she said. That’s because women traditionally have not learned Talmud. “Many women are intimidated by Talmud,” she said. “They have been taught for many years that the Talmud is not for women.”

She disagrees.

Talmud study is something that Jewish men have done for millennia. Recently, though, it’s become more public, and more publically celebrated, as large groups of men start and therefore end a cycle of page-a-day Daf Yomi study at the same time, seven and a half years later, and mark it with a massive gathering. This New Year’s Day, MetLife Stadium hosted about 90,000 people celebrating the end of a cycle in a Siyum HaShas.

Overwhelmingly most of those people were men.

Rabbanit Farber, who made aliyah to Ra’anana from Long Island when she was 20, 28 years ago, also held a Siyum HaShas — for women — in Jerusalem, in January. “The idea was to create a buzz about women learning Talmud,” she said. “I thought that having a big event would help women realize that the Talmud is a book that speaks to them, and it has been made accessible by the internet.

“Now that all sorts of academic fields have been open to women, there is no reason why Talmud should be closed to them. The idea is to show that Talmud is approachable, accessible, and relevant. And as a result of the siyum, there has been a huge surge of interest in women learning Talmud.”

As Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber speaks, her image is projected to the crowd. (PHOTO COURTESY HADRAN)

Rabbanit Farber — who will be at Rinat Yisrael on Thursday (see box) — is one of the founders of Hadran, a group devoted to teaching women Talmud. (It’s at www.hadran.org.il; its name comes from the prayer you say after finishing a section of Talmud.) She already had recorded a Daf Yomi podcast, and now she’s working on the second one. (What’s the difference? She’s older and wiser now, she said; everyone changes in seven and a half years, so the perspective now necessarily is different. But both are good, she added.)

“There are tons of Daf Yomi podcasts, but this is the only one for women,” she said. “I now have about 3,500 downloads from unique users.” She records in both English and Hebrew.

“They are not aimed only at women,” she said. “They’re also for men.

“I have two goals in mind. There already are men learning Talmud; my goal was to attract more women to learning Talmud. I got so many responses from women after the siyum, saying that it’s so interesting, so eye-opening, such an entry into a world they didn’t know existed.” Introducing women into that world, which she loves so much, is her first goal.

Her second “is to have women’s commentary on the Talmud, and also to have men see women’s commentary. The goal is that women’s voices should be heard.”

It’s also for all women, she added; it’s not just Orthodox women. “There now is a Facebook group, and it is filled with a wide range of women of all denominations,” she added.

Everyone sings at Hadran’s Siyum HaShas in Jerusalem. (PHOTO COURTESY HADRAN)

Although the cycle already has begun, it is not too late to start now, Rabbanit Farber said. “It’s never too late to start.” In a way, she added, “the cycle is just a gimmick, a way to get people involved.” Of course it’s nice to have so many people finish at the same time. “But you can start at any point, even in the middle of a masechet.” And it’s not too late to catch up if you want to; we’re less than two months into a seven-and-a-half-year cycle.

What makes a woman’s insight into Talmud different from a man’s? To begin with, everyone brings something different to it; gender is just one variable. Age, background, historical period, socioeconomics — because everyone is different, everyone can read it slightly differently.

But here is an example, she said.

“There was a story, just a few pages ago, about a rabbi who asked another rabbi to pray for his son, who was sick. So that second rabbi prays, and the son is cured immediately. Instead of being overjoyed that his son is cured, the first rabbi gets a little bit upset, and he says, ‘Wow. Why can’t I do that?’ So his wife says to him, ‘Is that rabbi really greater than you are?’ He says no, and he thinks about it, and realizes, he says, that ‘the difference between him and me is that he is like a servant in front of the king, and I am like an officer. The servant has more access because he is there every day. The officer is not as connected.’

“So you see that the guy, the rabbi, has an ego. It is his ego that gets in the way when instead of being excited about his son he is upset. And then the woman, his wife, comes in and puts it in perspective.

“It is a cute story, but you see that the woman had the right perspective.”

A woman who completed the Daf Yomi cycle stands, clutching the text, as tears run down her face. (PHOTO COURTESY HADRAN)

Some of this story is relevant today, although some of it is not, Rabbanit Farber said. “We don’t generally have people praying for immediate healing like that, but we do come across jealousy, and we can use perspective to look at it. The woman provides that perspective.

“What I really like about these stories is that the Talmud isn’t hesitant to criticize the rabbis,” she continued. “I think that a lot of people go into depth on theoretical things, but I am interested in the values and the human experience; the experience of leadership and the problem with egos.

“I find it very interesting that in the Talmud, everyone’s opinion is accepted. The youngest of the students can be the one they quote. It doesn’t matter. Everyone has something to bring to the table.” The extension to women is clear and logical.

“You can find a range of opinions, and the culture in the Talmud is that everyone is supposed to respect the other one’s opinion.

“No one person holds the truth. There are multiple truths. It is a culture about how to engage in debate. It is not about shutting out the other person.”

For example, she said, Daf Yomi participants are considering the question of which dough demands a motzie — the blessing for bread — and which dough is not really dough and so does not. It can be a hard discussion to follow because descriptions of things like dough change over time; words morph in meaning, and technology changes. “We are not even always sure what they are referring to,” she said. “That leads to many different opinions.”

The women on stage recite the Hadran prayer, marking their completion of a tractate of Talmud; the words are projected on the screen behind them. (PHOTO COURTESY HADRAN)

In general, when you study Talmud you learn that “it is a different language and a different way of thinking, and to appreciate it you have to learn it. You have to see how the logic is, what the games are, and then play them. It’s hard to appreciate the system if you don’t know it.”

She has been learning Talmud for so long that she no longer remembers how she thought before that study began, Rabbanit Farber said, but “my pediatrician always used to laugh at me because I would ask him a million questions. I’m sure it’s my talmudic background. It makes you challenge and question. You don’t take anything at face value.”

As grateful as she is for the technology that makes the Talmud accessible to so many people, and that makes it possible to record podcasts quickly and easily and download and listen to them even more quickly and more easily, she is uneasy with the inherent tension they provide.

Talmud has not been like a textbook that a student can take home and study alone. It’s traditionally been learned either in chevruta — with a partner — or in larger groups. “This has taken the learning out of the beit midrash” — the study hall — “and out to people on their way to work, or in the kitchen, or exercising, or doing whatever it is that they are doing. I spoke to a woman in Philadelphia who told me that she was in a store shopping, and listening to the podcast, and she saw a friend, who was also listening to something, and they didn’t even see each other at first.

“And it turned out that they were both listening to the Daf Yomi podcast.”

A woman holds her baby as she sings at the siyum. (PHOTO COURTESY HADRAN)

That’s great — but it’s also a problem. A fixable one. Given that she knows that there is a vast group of women listening to Daf Yomi, “I want to bring them together on a more regular basis, so they can connect with each other in their own communities,” Rabbanit Farber said. “That’s why the Facebook group is so successful. It’s women constantly sharing their ideas.” There have been other groups that meet over WhatsApp.

Often those communities have gone from the virtual to the real, she added. “There was a woman in Israel, who is about my age and had never learned Talmud before. And then she started listening to the podcast.

“She now has a group once a week, and she teaches Talmud; she listens to the podcast first, and then she comes to teach. It is amazing.

“So some of the groups will be led by teachers, and others not. A bunch of groups already have started.”

She hopes that as a result of her talk in Teaneck, women will feel inspired and empowered to start groups of their own.

“When Reb Meir Shapiro started his idea of the first Siyum HaShas” — that was in 1923, in Vienna, at the World Agudath Israel Congress — “it was to connect people across the world to the words of Torah. It creates a world-wide conversation.”

Who: Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber

What: Will talk about “Open a daf, you never know what you will find — Berakhot 38: Issues relating to birkhat hamazon.”

When: On Thursday, February 20, at 8 p.m.

Where: At Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 W. Englewood Avenue in Teaneck

For more information: Call (201) 837-2795 or go to the shul’s Facebook page

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