Women and Talmud Study
by Rabbi Heshy Grossman
[Editors’ Note: As a follow-up to a recent discussion, Rabbi Grossman sent us this article, which presents the oft-misunderstood theoretical framework underlying the traditional Orthodox perspective on women and Talmud study. It was originally published in Tradition magazine (Vol. 28:3) as part of a symposium on women’s education.]
Present-day discussions on this theme often overlook an obvious question: how do men and women differ in Torah’s eyes, and what are their respec¬tive roles in G-d’s eternal scheme? Once this matter is understood, the differences in Torah study for men and women are seen to be a natural, organic outgrowth of the way the classical Jewish tradition views the sexes.
The biblical difference between men and women is literally expressed in their given names, ish and isha. The letters yod and heh mark the differences in these names. The Talmud (Menahot 29b) says cryptically: This world was created with the letter heh; the world to come, with the letter yod.” Maharal and others write that the yod, the man’s letter, represents the metaphysical – a world of pure thought – that which transcends the earth. Therefore the yod, a simple dot, floats above the line of text, for it symbolizes that which is devoid of such physical ballast as time, matter, or space – the letter of the world-to-come. The heh, the woman’s letter, is the direct counter-balance to the yod. It is the letter which is formed only by a breath. Just as G-d gave us life by breathing His breath into us, so every human utterance is formed by human breath. As such, the heh reflects the creation of the physical universe. The yod symbolizes the floating dot of transcendence, while the heh symbolizes maintenance of this earth. (Note that yod and heh in the same word form the name of G-d.)
That this mystical concept is rooted in reality is illustrated by calligra¬phy and biology. Calligraphy: the heh is rooted solidly on the line of text. This is the letter of the woman, not a nebulous dot suspended in space without earthly moorings – as is the yod of the man – but firmly planted with¬in the boundaries of this world, the embodiment of the very breath of life. Further calligraphy: just as the written heh conceals within itself the tran¬scendent yod, so does each woman conceal within herself the ability to combine the physical and the transcendent, and thus to imbue physical life with sanctity.
Biology: while the man provides the initial root of conception, the woman nurtures and develops the fetus into life, providing it with her own heh/breath of life. This pattern continues after birth. Man is the sustaining force behind the home; woman maintains the basic framework which brings the home’s potential to fruition, nursing the children into maturity.
This partnership of heaven/man and earth/woman underlies the famous discussion in Bava Metzia 59a: “He who follows the advice of his wife falls into Gehenna. . . . But people say, “If your wife is short, bend to listen to her”? [The statements are reconciled, because] . . . this refers to heavenly matters, and this, to worldly matters.” That is, in worldly matters, the husband must listen to her, because she alone is capable of carrying out G-d’s plan in the physical world. Once again a careful balance is struck between the male and the female.
(This, according to our classical thinkers, is the meaning of the woman’s blessing, she-asani kiretzono—loosely translated as “Who has made me according to His will.” That is, she acknowledges G-d for having created her with the express purpose of actualizing G-d’s will – kiretzono, literally, “as His will.” That is, she carries His will into the temporal world. The man, on the other hand, whose ideal state is not of this world and whose essence yearns to escape from earthly restraints, recites the negatively worded “who has not made me a woman”. That is, man’s essence is rooted in transcendence and not on earth which is represented by isha).
Thus, traditional gender classification and even biological gender differences are merely surface paradigms for deeper metaphysical differences. An understanding of these different creation-roles should clarify, for example, that if men emphasize Torah sheb’al peh and women do not, this is not due to some obtuse masculine desire for power, any more than the woman’s – and not the man’s – ability to conceive a child reflects a feminine desire for power. In each case it is a reflection of the way G-d structured His creation.
All of which leads to the issue at hand: Torah study has two purposes. Firstly, knowledge of Torah is the basis for living by the Torah and is the source of moral values. An ignorant Jew, man or woman, can hardly live a halakhic life without knowledge. In this regard, we study Torah in order to know what to do and how to behave.
But Torah study, specifically Talmud study, has another purpose as well – to direct man’s consciousness towards transcendent, non-worldly con¬cerns. The oft-heard complaint regarding the impracticality of Talmud study is thus totally off the mark, since the purpose of Talmud study is not merely to know what to do. For this, one studies Shulkhan Arukh. Further, it is not knowledge per se that is the focal point of Talmud study. Rather, it is the act and process of study itself that is the focal point – not this-earthly, but transcendent; not utilitarian, but simply engaging one’s mind and soul in a non-earthly abstraction.
This dual purpose of Torah study – knowing how to live as a Jew on earth, and study as an exercise in non-earthly concerns – reflects the differ¬ent roles of women and men in creation. While the success of the man is measured by the extent to which his mind is fully occupied with Torah, the success of the woman is measured by the extent to which she gives material life to that Torah.
Certainly a woman’s mind is capable of comprehending Talmudic analysis. This is not the issue. The issue is that Talmud study – Torah sheb’al peh -symbolizes un-actualized ideas – and is not congruent with the woman’s role of “actualizer-on-this-earth.”
For this reason, the current calls for ‘greater exposure of women to classic rabbinic texts’ strikes an artificial note – not because women should be barred from the texts or because they cannot absorb them. The texts are not the issue. Those calls not only echo secularist concerns; they also reveal an oversight of the most basic aspects of the Torah itself, which is that the differing roles of men and women in creation result in differing roles in the study of that Torah which is the blueprint of creation. The most esoteric and advanced of rabbinic texts will not truly educate women unless this basic concept is understood.
Rabbi Heshy Grossman, former principal of Hanna Sacks Bais Yaakov High School in Chicago, Illinois, is the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ohr Yosef in New Milford, N.J. He can be reached at Tel:(201) 921-4921 or via e-mail at: email@example.com