Orthodox Jewish Women Take A New Lead In Talmud Study In Israel

Feb 2, 2020
Originally published on February 6, 2020 9:21 am

Among devout Orthodox Jews, the intense study of Talmud is no longer just a man's world. Women are increasingly delving into this central religious work, and American expats in Israel are at the forefront of the trend.

They're following a custom called Daf Yomi, Hebrew for "daily page," which involves reading a page a day of this centuries-old, multivolume collection of rabbinic teachings, debates and interpretations of Judaism. It takes about seven years and five months to read all 2,711 pages.

Some 3,000 women of all ages attended their first-ever large celebration for the completion of the Talmud, at a convention center in Jerusalem.
Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR

In early January, as Orthodox Jewish men held gatherings to mark the end of the cycle, called Siyum HaShas, Orthodox women in Israel held their own large-scale Talmud celebration for the first time. Some 3,000 women of all ages cheered in a Jerusalem convention center, according to the event's organizers, Hadran.

"I never thought I would live to see this day," said Tamar Stern, a Chicago native, sitting in the second-to-last row at the celebration. She attended Orthodox Jewish schools in the 1960s and 1970s, never allowed to learn Talmud with the boys.

Women and girls flock to the women's Siyum HaShas, as the celebration for completing the Talmud is called.
Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR

Sitting in the first row, Sherri Saperstein, 49, was beaming. She grew up in New York and Boston and now lives in the Israeli town of Ramat Beit Shemesh, home to a community of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who avoid contact with female strangers and still see Talmud as a man's pursuit.

"I was sitting in the post office," Saperstein recalled. "Two men behind me, who would probably never talk to me, were sitting behind me. They were talking about the 'Daf.' I knew exactly what they were talking about because I am in this process, I am learning the 'Daf'!"

The women's Siyum HaShas was co-organized by Michelle Farber, 47, a New York native who teaches a daily Talmud class for women from her living room table in Raanana, a quiet suburb north of Tel Aviv.

Michelle Farber, 47, a New York native who teaches a daily Talmud class for women from her living room table in Raanana, a suburb of Tel Aviv. After a morning class Farber uploads her podcast.
Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR

Men wrote the Talmud and, for centuries, it has mostly been men who have studied it. Today, Talmud study groups — and even related podcasts — are almost all exclusively delivered by men.

"Because they're given by men, they're not actually kind of seen from a woman's perspective," said Farber. "When I teach, I think a lot about the women's issues on the page."

One part of the Talmud discusses the ancient practice of dedicating money to the Temple in Jerusalem, in which Jews should give an amount relative to what the text considers to be their individual worth. In her classes, Farber notes the historical context. "This was written in a time where women were valued as less because women weren't educated and women weren't working," Farber said.

Women in Orthodox Jewish communities were long discouraged from studying Talmud, but they are now increasingly taking part in study classes. Daf Yomi, or "page a day," is the Jewish practice of reading the ancient book of rabbinic teachings. At a page a day, it takes almost 7 1/2 years to read the whole thing.
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR

The modern-day Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism have long embraced a more egalitarian approach, ordaining women as rabbis and allowing equal participation in leading prayer and study. Some progressive Orthodox communities in the last few decades have widened women's roles in leading prayer and participating in Talmud study, and women are expanding the boundaries more and more.

American immigrants like Farber are helping lead the push for women's Talmud study in Israel, in part because many were exposed to Talmud early on. Some Orthodox schools in the United States began teaching the sacred text to girls in the 1950s.

Michelle Farber (center) leads a daily Talmud class for women.
Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR

At 8:15 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, a dozen women, mostly U.S.-born, pored over Talmud books as Farber used a whiteboard to explain the day's page: a complex discussion about women's menstruation, which, according to Orthodox practice, affects when a woman may have sex with her husband.

Each page of Talmud is a small block of mostly Aramaic text surrounded by commentaries, which are nestled in yet another layer of commentaries.

"A brain workout, right?" said Geula Zamist, 59, who flew in from New Jersey to attend Farber's class and the big women's Talmud celebration. "It's such a great way to start a day. It's such a spiritual exercise to use your brain in such a completely different way."

A page of Talmud where a small block of mostly Aramaic text is surrounded by commentaries, which are nestled in yet another layer of commentaries.
Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR

Farber hosts a daily Talmud podcast called Daf Yomi For Women, in English and Hebrew, with about 4,000 subscribers. Her aim is to make the Talmud more approachable for women.

One of her podcast listeners is U.S.-born Ilana Kurshan, the author of a memoir about studying Talmud. Even with their dated assumptions about gender and class, she says, Talmud stories are worth learning.

"There is a story about a man who mistook his wife for a prostitute. A story about a man who was so engaged by his Torah study that he neglected to come home to his wife for years and years. They're stories that just make you think differently about so many aspects of human experience, and in that sense these texts are really timeless," Kurshan said in an interview at her home in Jerusalem.

Women raise paper in the air during an event marking the end of the cycle of Talmud studies in Jerusalem in January.
Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for NPR

The new trend of Talmud study is not limited to Orthodox women.

Nonreligious "secular yeshiva" programs in Israel teach Talmud, while the organization Svara runs a Talmud camp in U.S. cities for "queer, straight, trans, aleph bet beginners, experienced Talmudists, secular, religious, Jews [and] non-Jews."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Orthodox Jewish circles, the study of Talmud was traditionally a man's domain. But more women are now diving into these centuries-old texts. This movement is growing in Israel, and many U.S. natives are leading the way. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The Talmud is a collection of teachings and interpretations of Jewish law going back 2,000 years and filling many volumes. Many people follow a custom of reading a page a day. It takes 7 1/2 years to finish all 2,711 pages.

MICHELLE FARBER: I'm going to start with a line that's not going to make a lot of sense, so be prepared. You're going to read it and say, what are they talking about?

ESTRIN: This study group is just a few pages away from finishing. It's led by New York native Michelle Farber. A dozen women, mostly American immigrants to Israel, sit around a long table in her suburban home near Tel Aviv. It's tough reading. Every page is a small block of Aramaic text surrounded by layers of commentaries.

GEULA ZAMIST: A brain workout, right?

ESTRIN: Geula Zamist is at the class.

ZAMIST: You have to stay so present. That's what's so amazing.

ESTRIN: Men wrote the Talmud centuries ago, and Farber notes that it's still mostly men who give the teachings.

FARBER: And because they're given by men, they're not actually kind of seen from a woman's perspective. And that's something that when I teach, I think a lot about the women's issues on the page.

ESTRIN: Like one section that could be interpreted as ascribing less worth to women. She says men may gloss over passages like that, but she takes time to explain it.

FARBER: There's an issue here. Why are women valued less than men? How do I address it? So we say, OK, we have to look in terms of the historical context. And when was this written? And this was written in a time where women were valued as less because women weren't educated and women weren't working.

ESTRIN: Farber hosts a daily Talmud podcast in English and Hebrew with about 250 subscribers. She's trying to make the Talmud more approachable for women. One of her podcast listeners is Ilana Kurshan, who wrote a memoir about studying the Talmud.

ILANA KURSHAN: These texts are so rich literarily, so richly imagined. There is a story about a man who mistook his wife for a prostitute, story about a man who was so engaged by his Torah study that he neglected to come home to his wife for years and years. They're stories that just make you think differently about so many aspects of human experience. And in that sense, these texts are really timeless.

ESTRIN: She says even with the Talmud's antiquated assumptions about gender and class, the stories are meaningful and worth learning. These women follow the page-a-day tradition that takes 7 1/2 years to complete. In early January, Orthodox Jews held large gatherings to mark the end of the cycle. And for the first time, there was a large mass celebration for women.

(CHEERING)

ESTRIN: About 3,000 women of all ages in a Jerusalem convention center cheering on their friends who read the whole Talmud a daf - or a page - per day. I found Sherri Saperstein beaming in the front row.

SHERRI SAPERSTEIN: I was sitting at the post office, two men behind me who would probably never talk to me. And they were sitting behind me having a discussion. I knew they were talking about the daf. I knew what - exactly what they were talking about because I'm in this process. I'm learning the daf.

ESTRIN: American immigrants to Israel have helped lead the trend, in part because some Orthodox schools in the U.S. began teaching Talmud to girls in the 1950s. Now native Israelis are catching on, too.

ORLY ESHKOLI: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Israeli-born Orly Eshkoli says she's blessed to be in a generation when it's natural and normal for women to study Talmud.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF TATRAN'S "SHVAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.