Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Is There a Glass Ceiling in our Text Study Community?

So, there we were, Brian and me, studying our Gemara text one night last week. We are almost up to 10b and I just continue to get jazzed and excited about the ideas and the thoughts that are flying across the space of time and place on the Daf and at our table of study. I think about these ideas and their ramifications for how I put my world together continuously, as I always do when studying such thick and deep texts. In our lesson together, we get to a point where the prayer of Hannah is mentioned, so we go to the text of Shmuel Aleph. We read a bit of Chapters One and Two and we discuss the events that have occurred, Eli’s observance of Hannah praying, and his assumption that she was drunk and the ensuing prayer she offers. I am really focused on understanding the value of what happens here and what we can extract as powerful lessons on spirituality, practice and so much else. Precisely as I am in this mindset, Brian begins to ask lots of questions about Hannah and Eli and other personae in the Tanach text – where they were, who they were and what they did – and then proceeds to tell me that he is really tired of learning Gemara and wants to return to study of Tanach. I am crestfallen at the thought of losing my built-in chevrutah (for this study anyway) and ask him why he feels this way. At this point, he says something to the effect of the fact that I like to think about and delve into and analyze ideas, but this is boring for him because “it does not change anything.” He prefers something with a story line. Enter the Tanach text.

So then, of course I begin to think about the IDEA of what just happened. Brian would expect nothing less of me I suspect! We really are wired differently in a most general yet distinct way, we males and females. Clearly we all have our feminine and masculine sides and inclinations, but I have to wonder if the inertia of what happens when studying Gemara and other Jewish texts has not changed and been significantly enhanced in our world today precisely DUE to the inclusion of more and more women in the process. I note this sometimes when many of the young men in my classes may not be as excited as many of the young women when we are analyzing a text to death. I know…. They are SO there when what we are analyzing is a football game or a car’s engine. But, as Brian would say, what changes by virtue of the fact that we go over and over what G-d might have prayed if G-d indeed prayed; or why the Shema of the evening can be said far more into the wee hours than the permitted boundary for the eating of the last part of the Pesah Seder. What is an AHA UREKA! moment for me is often an “okay enough already” moment for Brian and a good amount of my male students as well, I suspect. To be sure, female students may feel “enough” as well; but I wonder if I am not on to something here.

Yet when we think of the groundbreaking strides made by Nechama Leibowitz z’l, Aviva Zornberg, Tamar Ross and others like them in leading us through texts with their scholarly guidance; when I sit and learn with so many others in a variety of venues in which women have much more of a voice and so many more resources to pull from; when my daughter Talie was able to have this amazing year at Midreshet Lindenbaum; when my daughter Rachie is part of the Hadar community in New York; when my daughter Yoella prepares a Shiyur like no one I know – I really have to wonder if indeed all of these voices and so many more bring a different level of sensitivity, an increased desire to really explore and expand upon ideas, and a perspective that adds both dimension and intelligence to our text study world.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say yes! I have always been a big fan of Rashi’s daughters, Bruriah, Devorah, and others who ventured into the male world of Jewish study and scholarship. I do believe that we have a different perspective as women that we bring to the text and to the fabric of the process of studying that text. I can only hope that we will continue to be able to share that perspective in as many venues as possible


  1. I think one of the major issues will be that as women's voices grow in volume and number, there will always be some disconnect since we were not part of the original conversation. I certainly think that lots of progress is being made and our collective experiences are proof of that, but I think traditional Judaism will forever remain, developed at its core, by men.

  2. I agree. I think that what happens now is that NEW issues and perspectives come on the table -- perhaps more of the moderate, inclusive type, as often happens when women are added to the mix. Then, the male voices will react, either for or against, but either way, as we already see, these are voices that demand to be contended with and listenned to!

  3. Thanks for this. I love it! You and Rachel are definitely on to something important, Sunnie. I'm glad you included me. I myself have had no time for study of any kind for months now, as Harold ("Doc") and I have been preparing to move from the house in which we have lived for almost 40 years; moving day is actually a week from today - oops, I guess I have to say "from yesterday" already in order to be totally accurate, and I do think of myself as a "m'dayeket" - but maybe at some point in the future I'll be able to contribute some of my own reflections. Meanwhile, kol hakavod.