Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Girls and Gemara

My colleague Rav Yaakov Blau recently posted on the Lookjed educators list about the current state of girls' Gemara education.

I think that we are at a stage where modern orthodoxy needs to look at the current state of women’s learning and honestly evaluate what has been accomplished. I’m often asked, since I’ve taught in schools with co-ed gemara classes throughout my teaching career, if the girls are as good as the guys in my gemara classes. What I have found (and of course, these will be generalizations) is that the girls are often stronger than the boys in high school, they’re more attentive, hard working and serious. Yet, after a year in Israel with the boys going to a top yeshiva and the girls going to a top women’s yeshiva, the guys have far surpassed the girls.

The gap only gets wider after that. I believe that the reality is that from the point of the year in Israel and on, men are afforded much greater and intense opportunities than women are. This is not meant to disparage the teachers of the post high school teachers, GPATS, Drisha
etc, who are wonderful people and include some top rate talmidei chachamim, I think they would all agree (the males who teach in these programs) that they had opportunities in learning that their female students will never have. I don’t believe that there is anything
innate limiting women. The best proof is the yoatzot halacha. I believe that after intensely learning hilchot nidda, those women tend to have a vastly superior grasp of those halachot than their male counterparts. Sadly, that is the only example of such a phenomenon.
Perhaps as a community we have accomplished what we need in terms of women’s learning, but I think that we have to be honest with ourselves that we have not created real equality.

And here is my response:

My good friend Rav Yaakov Blau raises some excellent points on the issue of women's learning, and concludes with the statement that we have not created real equality between men's and women's learning, specifically relating to Gemara learning.

I think that it is possible to both agree and disagree with Rav Yaki's statement - it all depends how we define our terms.

1) When we say that we have not created equality, does that mean equality of opportunity or opportunity of results? In terms of equality of opportunity, I think that it is possible to say that we are certainly creating it. Two decades ago, a girl who wanted to study Gemara after high school could go to Midreshet Lindenbaum and then to one class in Stern. Now she has several options in Israel, along with several post-college options. While there are obviously fewer options than the boys have, consider that two decades ago there were far fewer Yeshivot in Israel for boys. My point is that the opportunities increase as demand increase - such education for girls began later and thus is lagging behind in numbers. However, there is no question that there are increasingly more opportunities being offered for women.

2) On the other hand, perhaps Rav Yaki's disappointment is misplaced. He seems to assume that we SHOULD be trying to create equality. If equality means every girl - or at least most of them - learning Gemara in some serious fashion into her college years, then we have to ask if that is a desideratum in our community? While once only the top boys were sent to Yeshiva, certainly in the post-war world the norm has been for every boy to continue to learn Gemara, and for them to continue this as men as well, be it in kollel or in a daf yomi shiur on the train. For whatever reason (and there are doubtless many of them), our community has not demanded the same for their daughters. Take a poll of seniors in high school where both boys and girls have been learning Gemara for 6-7 years - I would be willing to bet that far more boys than girls feel that it is important for them to continue learning Gemara for the rest of their lives.

Cheer up, Rav Yaki. We are certainly making progress on this front, assuming that we define progress as more of our girls having more opportunities to learn at ever-higher levels. How many women taught Gemara in day schools and high schools even ten years ago? Now the numbers are growing, and several of them teach coed classes without anyone batting an eyelash. Does a gap remain in terms of sheer number? Undoubtedly, I think that it always will - but there is no question that we are moving forward.


yoni ross said...

As a side point, I don't agree with the proof drawn from the yoatzot halacha (YH) phenomenon that there is nothing inherent limiting gals.

(A note on convention: In order to avoid the whole girls/women and boys/men issue, I'll be using "gals" and "guys", respectively.)

Important disclaimer: I do not believe that there is anything inherent limiting gals, I just don't think that the existence of high caliber YHs is a good proof of this.

Firstly, the YH are a very small group. Therefore, they constitute too small a sample from which to extrapolate any conclusions about the broader female population.

Secondly, they constitute a self-selected group. It is de rigueur for guys to learn in yeshiva at a high level for at least a few years after high school. Therefore, the average level (if such a thing can be measured) of a guy in a post-Israel setting will reflect the entire population of guys (or at least a very broad one), including those whose level is not so high. However, gals who opt to take the YH route are generally more accomplished in learning to begin with. Perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be comparing gals who go the YH route with, e.g., guys who are studying for or have received Yadin Yadin.

Thirdly, the YH program focuses on a relatively focused area of Jewish law. Not to denigrate the accomplishments which gals have achieved in this area, but aspiring to master the YH curriculum is not comparable (I'm speaking only from the point of view of scope) to aspiring to master a much broader curriculum, of which (as far as I understand it) the YH curriculum is but a subset.

Fourthly, it is hard (and intellectually unfair) to compare a gal's understanding of hilchot niddah with that of a guy, res ipsa loquitur. One of the amoraim (I forgot which one) became a shepherd for two years so that he could properly understand certain halachot regarding animals. Guys are not afforded a similar opportunity when it comes to hilchot niddah, and therefore are at a marked disadvantage.

Anonymous said...

As a "gal" who is currently in one of the top gemara institutions for girls for the year, I definitely agree with what Rav Blau said. I think that I was afforded with a great gemara education in high school, as my peers also think so, but this year there is a difference in the kind of education we are receiving. I have spoken to friends at the other two top level institutions for girls gemara learning(of Migdal Oz, Nishmat and Lindenbaum being the main three), and we do not feel that the gemara education (not the same thing as overall education) is comparable between our schools and the top yeshivot.
Some of my friends were chavrutot with boys who are in those yeshivot now in high school, which implies that they were on the same level then, but because we are not afforded with gemara shiurim all day, we do not come out on the same level. I am not claiming that I do not appreciate getting shiurim in different topics of Judaism, besides for gemara (something the boys cannot claim), but there is a genuine difference in the education received in the gap year, which will inevetably cause a disparity in our gemara skills later on in life.
The fact is that the girls do not learn gemara for 10 hours a day, and therefore the same result is not accomplished. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Abacaxi Mamao said...

This is an interesting discussion. I am sorry that I am only seeing it now, over a year after it began.

When I was at Lindenbaum ('97-'98), I was certainly not afforded as good a Talmud education as my male counterparts, with whom I studied in a co-ed high school, were getting at Mevaseret, Hakotel, Gush, KBY, etc. I do not know that things have improved so much since then.

The question, for me, is not whether all post-high-school women/girls should be required or expected to learn gemara on a high level, but whether for those who want to (and it's a non-tiny percentage), that is even available. 15 years ago, it was not. I am not sure that things are much better today, although I've heard good things about Migdal Oz.

It is also not clear to me that post-year-in-Israel or post-college, women have as many opportunities as men. Men who go to Ivy League schools can go back to learning gemara full-time on a high level afterwards at several programs. Women who do the same cannot, really. (And not every college student who wants to learn gemara on a high level during or after college wants to go to Stern.)