Women’s Learning: Public Policy and Personal Commitment

BY: Dean Karen Bacon

In a recent issue of Kol Hamevaser,[i] Fran Tanner reflected on the state of women’s Jewish education and concluded by challenging the reader to consider whether our current situation is ideal or in need of development.  In structuring her analysis, Ms. Tanner equates Torah study with the study of Gemara.  In her words, “R. Soloveitchik began paving this path for women [i.e. Torah study], instituting Gemara at the Maimonides School and later establishing the first Gemara shi’ur for women in Stern College.”[ii] Against this yardstick of the formal study of Gemara within a beit midrash construct, Ms. Tanner suggests that women’s education, both in quality and quantity, is sorely lacking. But this focuses on methodology, and I would rather turn our attention to the ultimate goals and objectives of Torah study. In this regard, let us consider some broad questions and trends in education generally and particularly as they relate to women’s Jewish education.

Public policy must take into account at least two important stakeholders: the community and the individual.  Where the needs and wants of both coincide, establishing public policy and adhering to that policy can be relatively simple.  When that coherence does not exist, policy inevitably is driven by the needs of the community, although the individual may yet have the freedom to pursue less traveled roads.  In the United States, educational policy has been traditionally aimed at preparing an educated citizenry.  More recently, political leaders have been asserting that educational policy should be related to economic goals, ensuring that students have the knowledge base to maintain the economic superpower status of this country.  Let us contrast this with the driving forces in Jewish education.

R. Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Dignity of Difference, refers to education as the “conversation between the generations.”[iii] For the Jewish people, that “conversation” started at the beginning of our recorded history, with Sefer Bereshit, and continues throughout the generations, through the texts and the voices that are our living masorah (tradition).  Jewish educational policy should have at its very foundation this transmission.  At the same time, the individual must assume his/her responsibility to be an active participant in this transmission and not just a passive recipient.  But this alone is insufficient.

Dr. Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University, reflected on the outcomes of Jewish education in an article titled “Takhlit: Teaching for Lasting Outcomes,” which appeared in Seventy Faces.[iv] Quoting from Berakhot 17b, Dr. Lamm introduces two fundamental goals of Jewish education: to transform the individual’s personality and to cultivate the commitment to the performance of good deeds.[v] These two goals must also figure prominently in the development of Jewish educational public policy and in the responsibility assumed by each individual.

Thus, having barely touched the surface, we have listed three driving forces for Jewish education: the intellectual transmission of the Jewish conversation (the texts), the affective development of the individual personality, and the cultivation of value-driven behavior.

Stopping at this point, let us return to the issue at hand, framed as two distinct questions: what should be the nature of women’s Jewish education as expressed in public policy, and does this absolutely define and restrict the approach that might be preferred by individual women?

In the absence of strong precedents for women’s education, I would argue for flexibility rather than rigidity.  More specifically, I would suggest a public policy that has clear goals, including, but not limited to, the ones described above, with multiple routes to achieve those goals.  All the routes should share some common denominators: the development of analytical and linguistic skills to study text, the cultivation of an understanding of the halakhic process, and the acceptance of the responsibility for being a part of a masorah-dedicated community. Beyond these overarching goals, women should feel free to intensify their studies in the directions to which their hearts and minds draw them.  For some, this may lead to a commitment to the formal study of Gemara, for others it will lead to studies in Mahashavah (Jewish philosophy) or biblical parshanut (exegesis), etc.   But regardless of the road chosen, for a combination of clear policy and individual flexibility to be successful, the student must be passionate about life-long learning, something so clearly evident in Ms. Tanner’s plea for communal and personal self- reflection.  Without this passion, public policy will be for naught and individual choice will be a charade.  In the words of the sometimes-quotable Woody Allen, “Seventy percent of success in life is showing up.”  The beit midrash is open, and it awaits us all.

Karen Bacon is the Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of Stern College for Women.

[i] Fran Tanner, “Women’s Learning: Educational Goals and Practice,” Kol Hamevaser 4,2 (Sep. 2010): 20-21.

[ii] Ibid., p. 20.

[iii] R. Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London; New York: Continuum, 2002), p. 81.

[iv] Dr. Norman Lamm, “Takhlit: Teaching for Lasting Outcomes,” in idem, Seventy Faces: Articles of Faith, vol. 1 (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 2001), pp. 225-240.

[v] Ibid., p. 225.