A Different Path For Women’s Torah Learning

They mourned when Shira Smiles traded the hills of Hollywood for the heights of Ramat Beit Shemesh, leaving behind a small army of ardent followers. They kept up the connection through a regular video feed. Now, they have one more way to stay in touch with their beloved teacher. Feldheim has published Torah Tapestries, her new sefer on Bereishis.

If you are ready to scream “feminist heretic,” think again. Mrs. Smiles is about as frum as they come. Having won widespread acclaim (and many invitations), she nonetheless refuses to speak for men. She eschews that favorite shibboleth of the Left – autonomy – and refers any novel situations to her rebbi of many years, without whose approval she will not budge.

Despite her clear identification with the Torah world, or perhaps because of it, she may have started something bigger than one talented woman’s career. She may have discovered another, more traditionally acceptable, path for women seeking intense and deep Torah study.

Face it. The Torah community does not provide many organized opportunities for women who have the skills and desire to study Torah textually. Women looking for that often face an uncomfortable choice. They either have to settle for presentations that are unchallenging and unsatisfying, or seek it out in programs whose hashkafa is way out of synch with their own. Why should a young woman who learned to love textual learning have to find it in an institution that offers women Talmud faculty members from JTS, or male teachers who speak about their misgivings about the authority of Chazal?

Mrs. Smiles may have the solution. (There may be other women who have come up with a similar approach, and I apologize for not knowing their identities. Mrs. Smiles’s success is something I have seen personally.)

For the many years she taught it Los Angeles, here shiurim were attended by far more women than in any women’s gemara program I’ve heard of. While a very small group of women struggled to create and keep alive a program offering textual learning for women, Mrs. Smiles was packing them in. They flocked to her shiurim from all parts of the Orthodox continuum and beyond, including some women rabbis who loved listening to her.

As best as this male observer could tell, her winning formula contained two ingredients. Firstly, she leaned heavily on some very meaty sources. She was knowledgeable in significant amounts of Nesivos Shalom and Sfas Emes, and threw in liberal quantities of Maharal. Secondly, she offered what her attendees described as a woman’s voice. In other words, she conveyed the material faithfully, and then applied it in a manner that both reflected her feminine perspective and appealed to the female listener. (I’m not being PC here. After years of giving a weekly participatory Chumash class to women, I am utterly convinced that there is a definite feminine perspective on parts of Torah. There are insights into Chazal and meforshim that only women come up with, and that men will agree with heartily upon first hearing.)

Why did this work? I believe that Mrs. Smiles offered material that was deep instead of predictable, and many women appreciated that. By turning to tried and true seforim beyond the small group favored by others, she could assure her audience of some chidush every time, instead of warmed-over repetition of what they had heard dozens of times before.

She also offered women what they felt they needed, rather than what society told them they should want, that being sharing the same intellectual space as men. Women came out of Mrs. Smiles’s shiurim with a sense that they had gained something usable, whether it was inspiration, or a deeper understanding of a concept that was familiar to them.

Simply put, the most novel, innovative part of Mrs. Smiles’s approach was assuming that a bright woman who had not spent years in a beis medrash could nonetheless teach herself to struggle though a Sfas Emes, and other weighty machshava seforim. This was not such a dangerous proposition, since yeshiva students aren’t taught how to approach Sfas Emes either. They, too, must struggle through it at first, albeit with the advantage of a presumably larger vocabulary of Hebrew and Aramaic words and idioms.

Mrs. Smiles’s sefer (with haskamos from some prominent rebbetzins, as well as one token male: Rabbi Zev Leff) draws on many works beyond the key ones mentioned above. The subtitle of the book reads, “words of wisdom woven from the weekly parashah,” and Mrs. Smiles uses many different hues and textures in her tapestries. A partial list includes: Bnei Yissaschar, Be’er Yosef, Netziv, Shem MiShmuel, Emes LeYaakov, Shiurei Daas, Ohr Gedalyahu, Rav Yerucham Levovitz, Rav Dessler, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Rav Wolbe, Rav Mattisyahu Solomon, Rav Avrohom Schorr and Rav Moshe Shapiro. The pieces I sampled were not as challenging as her shiurim; I suspect some publisher’s demands dictated the audience that the sefer would have to reach.

In the final analysis, who – male or female – could resist sitting down to such a rich diet?

Mrs. Smiles’s success suggests that an antidote to the often well-intentioned but (in the opinion of the yeshiva-trained community) misshapen call for gender equality in the curriculum might be to encourage more bright future teachers to apply themselves to mastering the magisterial machshava works that are dripping with insights on every page. Many of us (including this author) do not support making gemara part of the general curriculum for girls’ high schools. Do we have any problem with women studying difficult machshava seforim textually? If we don’t, couldn’t this introduce some excitement and energy in women’s learning, while steering clear of the sometimes agendized calls for a different kind of learning for women?

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18 Responses

  1. David says:

    Not to take anything away from Shira Smiles, ch”v, but there are plenty of genuine frum benot Torah who do not identify themselves as feminists, and are not trying to change halacha, but would like and could gain from serious Gemara and halacha learning. Could you perhaps explain – maybe in a separate post – why you are opposed to Gemara for women? I have nothing against machshava for women, that’s great, just like machshava for men is great. But I don’t quite understand why a woman learning Bava Kama is a departure from tradition, but a woman learning Shem Mishmuel isn’t.

  2. Mention should be made of the remarkable Nechama Leibovits z”l whose teachings on chumash were profound and far reaching in their impact.

  3. Harry Maryles says:

    I’m not sure why you would have a problem with a Gemarah curriculum for women in the high schools. If rav Sloveitchik supported and taught the first such Shiur in Stern, why would you be opposed? It’s not that I advocate it per se. But I certainly would not be opposed if there was a critical mass of the student body in any given high school who wanted such a course.

    I would also like to point out that Mrs. Smiles is not the only – nor the first – woman to do this kind of in depth learning. Have you forgotten about Nechama Leibovitz?

    And with all due modesty about my city, Chicago boasts one of the finest female minds in this regard: Dr. Esther Shkop who gives a weekly in depth shiur at Cong. KINS which is usually packed. She is also head of the Blitstein Institute for Women at HTC. And her roots are not modern Orthodox at all. Her father is a Chasidic Rebbe who resides in Israel (Bnei Brak – if I am not mistaken) who fully approves of his daughter’s accomplishments.

    [YA -I did not so much forget about Nechama Lebovitz as see her as sui generis. Her sources were traditional; what made her shiurim breathtaking was her comprehensiveness, and ability to organize different approaches into an organic whole, and to compare and contrast. Very few people are prepared to put in as much time into a single shiur. We could not hope to clone Nechama, but we could teach many women to be Shira Smiles. We could show thousands how to be half of Shira Smiles, and enjoy far more self-sufficiency in their own learning.

    No reason to employ any modesty when speaking about Esther Shkop. I should not have forgotten about her, since I am a huge fan of hers, having heard her present on a number of occassions. As one of the blogging elite, Harry, you realize that most of us write at odd hours of the day and evening, and don’t have the yishuv hada’as that we would insist upon in a piece released for print media. One of the reasons we write is to troll for further information and insight from our readers. I’m waiting to see how many more commenters will give a shout out about women who have come up with winning solutions that engage the minds and hearts of large groups of loyal followers.]

  4. I would also note that Mrs. Smiles attended SAR in Riverdale. That is a very LWMO day school. Her background must be modern Orthodox. I have to wonder if that did not influence her to study Seforim in greater depth than if she had attended the typical Beis Yaakov type day school where they do not encourage it at all.

  5. lacosta says:

    out of curiosity, do either her recorded shiurim or this sefer has a proviso that they are for women only?
    is it just giving a live shiur to men that is problematic?

    [YA – We can only speculate. Rabbi Zev Leff, widely regarded as the Anglo spokesman for Gedolei Bnei Brak, gave a haskamah. I think it is safe to assume that he realized that the book would not have a warning label restricting reading to men. Feldheim published it, and they are extremely conservative about what they will publish, knowing what they do about the realities of the market.

    OTOH, it often takes the kana’im a few weeks to catch up. Perhaps you should buy a few copies now before the sefer is banned, and it becomes as valuable as a mint condition copy of Making of A Gadol.]

  6. yehudis says:

    I’m sorry, but Rabbi Adlerstein, your biggest neglect here was your own daughter Shevy’s menaheles in Yavne: the incomparable Rebbetzin Ausband. She was a first year student when I was in my second year, and over the last seventeen years my conviction hasn’t wavered that if a young woman wants to develop her yiras shomayim, her learning, and follow the example of great nashim tzidkoniyos, nshei chayil of the previous generation: get yourselves to Cleveland! No one will get to be Shira Smiles by listening to her shiurim or reading her book. You have to put in a lot of time and “horevanya,” as we used to hear.

    [YA – No argument from me there. In all the years that followed what was probably my daughter’s most positive academic experience at Yavne, I have not come across any program here or in Israel that matches it. I still recommend it to students.

    “Horevanya” is a word that, alas, is not heard very often in regard to what bright frum women ought to be doing. ‘Nuf said.]

  7. Miriam says:

    Harry you make a good point also Nechama Leibowitz learned gemara with her father back in Russia. I imagine many of the groundbreaking women have studied in many cutting edge directions, but don’t necessarily make that the heart of what they teach (that makes them famous or enormously popular or whatever).

    I think Rabbi Adlerstein’s point isn’t anti-gemara, but rather to question whether that’s the “best” or “ultimate” direction to aim at for women’s higher learning.

    Gemara was never “it” for me personally (though I tried and for a fleeting semester even excelled among the beginners), but I wouldn’t put it off limits. My neighbor tells me of a local dati leumi high school in which 40+ girls daven at home and come to school early so they can attend the school’s gemara shiur. Any subject that motivates women to delve into the Torah gets my vote – just make it sincere and give it a good perspective.

    In fact, even if it is a class of only a handful.

  8. yehudis says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,
    I am always annoyed that Yavne is never part of the “conversation” regarding frumkeit/women’s learning/agendas, since it is so much puts the lie to the alleged incompatibility between raising women who are proud of the role “eim b’yisroel” (said of no less than Devora Haneviah), who are leading teachers and menahalos, lovers of Torah and supporters of Torah through their roles as wives and mothers and also parnasah endeavors, and on and on…
    Here we have a model that’s been working beautifully since Churban Europe; why is it not at the forefront of the conversation?
    The only thing that occurs to me is that its conditions are hard (impossible?) to replicate, and so even Yavne’s most learned graduates have not been able to really duplicate the atmosphere of Litvishe ehrlichkeit, ahavas haTorah, hasmadah (yes, hasmadah), yiras shomayim, and pure intellectual competitiveness for the pleasure of devoting your “moiach und koyach” (rather, “meiach und keiach” for Litvaks)to understand the d’var Hashem. V’lo hamidrash ha’ikar elah ha’maaseh, and we got that too.
    So why is it that so few from even the RWMO world do not consider sending it? Too charedi…

  9. dr. bill says:

    Somehow “separate but equal” is what seems to reverberate. The reality of women studying talmud and halakha is happening and attracting many frum women mostly to the academy, as opposed to the yeshiva. The consequences will be interesting.

  10. L. Hershman says:

    As a teacher in Michlala for nearly a decade, I have had my fair share of exposure to talented women – both on the staff and in the student body – who have developed extraordinary textual and analytical skills. I think a good number of them could theoretically produce something similar to what Shira Smiles does produce. I do not think it is the model of analysis of deep machshava sforim that is the missing ingredient. The average Michlala curriculum – that’s 150 girls a year – includes exposure to almost all of the sources you mention, and the bright ones are motivated to learn these sforim on their own, in pairs, or in private sessions with teachers. It is this subject matter that draws the most interest and excitement – as opposed to gemarah and halacha- among the great majority of the students. I think the “obstacle” to achieving greatness in Torah for women is the competing drive to achieve greatness in our more traditional role. Many of my peers – some of the brightest and clearest thinkers, the would-be scholars – have deliberately stepped down from positions of chinuch or resisted expanding their repetoire, because they recognized it came at the expense of their families. Mothers in all professions are faced with the choice of how to spend their prime years; women devoted to Torah ideals often see far more value in striking the balance in favor of family. It is worth noting that Nechama Leibowitz unfortunately did not have any children. I do not know how the superstars like Shira Smiles and Reb. Rina Tarshish (whose mastery of nach and medrash and creativity are breathtaking) do it. I am sure they acheive greatness in both realms, however impossible that may seem to the rest of us mortals. That, is the missing – rather mystery – ingredient.

  11. L. Oberstein says:

    I was in Riverdale this past Shabbos where Rabbanit Henkin was the Scholar In Residence at the Riverdale Jewish Center. She gave a learned shiur in the afternoon with sources from Talmud and Responsa that would give pause to any man who in his arrogance would claim that a woman just can’t understand such complexities. I pity the man who gets into a Talmudic argument with this learned woman. Her topic,”Curators and Innovators’ made the case that there are learned rabbis who see their duty as preserving unchanged what came before and those that use their knowledge to deal in a new way with situations. In a nutshell that is the ongoing argument for centuries on many issues. Is it wrong because our parents didn’t do it.. As my Polish Chassidish friend once told me ” Ve heim lo yodu” In the heim, they didn’t know from this”.

  12. YEA says:

    “Rabbi Zev Leff, widely regarded as the Anglo spokesman for Gedolei Bnei Brak…”

    Really? Interesting, considering that Rav Leff came out in support of Rabbi Slifkin

  13. Miriam says:

    …made the case that there are learned rabbis who see their duty as preserving unchanged what came before and those that use their knowledge to deal in a new way with situations

    Rabbanit Henkin is truly a powerhouse, but it’s how and to whom these ideas get expressed by women that put us into that “gray area” that makes people nervous. The funny thing is that the nervous reaction often goes “isn’t that men’s territory?” but really it should be “isn’t that BIG Rabbis’ territory?”

    For example the either-or suggestion above is a bit of an extreme. For starters, surely every posek upholds the Talmudic concept of hilchata k’batra’i (a perspective within the halachic process which gives more weight to final decisions by *later* authorities). And if everyone has been arguing about it for generations, I hope that no modern-day personality – male or female – is advocating one approach over the other, but rather teaching an appreciation for the harmony of the two. (Of course harmony is something taught especially well by women….. 😉

  14. lawrence kaplan says:

    I quickly looked through some of the essays in Shira Smiles new sefer in the Teaneck Jewish bookstore, and I have to say that my, too be sure rather cursory, impression was that they were interesting, but somewhat thin. I certainly believe Rabbi Adlerstein when he states that her regular shiurim are meatier and more challenging, and that her publishers may have pressured her to water her material down. If so, they did not do Mrs. Smiles any favor–though they may have done one for themselves.

  15. L. Oberstein says:

    Maybe there is a connection between the above posting about the dangers of technology for our children and this article. If our children are bored in school, if their teachers are viewed as out of touch with the child’s reality, then they will seek fulfilment elsewhere. If you have a good teacher, whether it is a Shira Smiles or a Rabbant Henkin, then the child can find meaning in Judaism. I think that we are failing too many of our own children in this generation. I have my ideas, you have your’s , what I really want is something that actually works.

  16. NAB says:

    Rebbetzin Bruriah David and Mrs. Tovah Lebowitz of BJJ (Machon Sarah Schenirer) are also outstanding scholars. The intellectual rigor at BJJ is similar to that at Yavneh (I was fortunate to learn in both places). My father, Dr. Mark Press, encouraged his daughters to learn and fostered a feminist and MO intellectual approach, so BJJ’s approach to Chazal, for example, was not what I was used to. Nonetheless, I was deeply affected by my encounter with women who place themselves firmly within the Chareidi world, yet have all of Tanach (and much more) at their fingertips.

    The emphasis at BJJ is on understanding primary sources rigorously, in context, and according to Chazal. The school has attracted much opprobrium over the years for its high standards and challenging curriculum.

    I remember the last day of class with Geveret Lebowitz, when in a few succinct sentences she pulled together all of the themes from Chazal that she’d been weaving into her Nach shiurim through the year. It was a breathtaking moment, highlighting the underlying consistency of Torah as well as the beauty of Geveret Lebowitz’s approach.

  17. cvmay says:

    Include Esther Kitov and Tzipporah Heller from Israel on the list of superb female educators who churn out chidushim, use textual sources and inspire intellectual Torah growth.

  18. tzippi says:

    Re Harry Maryles’ comment on h.s. gemara for girls: I see the prep that my boys have, starting with flash cards and mishnayos in 3rd/4th grade, and a totally different curriculum preparing them for intense gemara study. It’s not just a matter of revamping the standard Beth Jacob curriculum (unless the goal is dabblers); I as a woman would not have found such a curriculum satisfying and preparatory for life as a Jewish woman.

    There are brilliant women, who aren’t dabblers, several of whom have been mentioned here. And there are some brilliant women who won’t or can’t find their comfort level within the standard parameters; I feel for them but I just don’t know if it’s a sizable demographic.

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