Confronting Systemic Problems – Parshat Va’eira 2018

Not too long ago, Torah study for women was more than just controversial; it was virtually unheard of. But in the past century and a half, the Jewish world has changed dramatically, from the most liberal to the most conservative of communities. Some form of Torah study for women exists throughout the world of Jewish education. But there is a unique phenomenon in the Modern Orthodox community, our community, that is both vexing and persistent.

Since Rav Soloveitchik’s famous lecture at Stern College for Women on October 11, 1977, it has been more or less a settled issue in the Modern Orthodox community that women are permitted and encouraged to pursue the highest level of Torah study, including of the Talmud. Speaking to the women at that first ever Talmud shiur for women, the Rav said:

I am very glad that you invited me to come to give your first shiurWithout Torah She-Ba’al Peh, there is no Judaism. Any talk about Judaism minus Torah She-Ba’al Pehis just meaningless and absurd…It’s important that not only boys should be acquainted, but girls, as well. I’ll support you as far as education is concerned. If you have problems come to me, I’ll fight your battles.

The Rav was in subtle terms calling for a revolution in women’s Torah education, one in which women eventually achieve access to the oral Torah tradition equal to that of men. As many have noted, that revolution never really took place. 

Yes, many Jewish high schools offer some גמרא class to women, especially if the school is co-ed, such as Maimonides. But there is no parallel between women and men’s learning institutions in post-secondary education. My sister studies in the most advanced Torah institution for women in the United States, a two-year master’s program at YU. As important as it is, it only accepts 12 students at a time, lasts only two years, and provides no explicit professional qualifications. Beyond that, there is very little available. Even in Israel, there are only a handful of serious programs and almost none of them match the pinnacle of men’s Yeshivot. Why? What is behind the gap between Modern Orthodox ideology of Torah education for women and the reality on the ground?

פרשת וארא perhaps provides one possible explanation. The Torah records a seemingly radical claim made by G-d in His introduction to the miraculous plagues he was about to instruct משה to perform in Egypt during the quest to free בני ישראל from slavery.

וַאֲנִי אַקְשֶׁה אֶת־לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת־אֹתֹתַי וְאֶת־מוֹפְתַי בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and I will proliferate My signs and wonders in the land of Egypt

ה׳ asserts that He plans to harden פרעה’s heart and prolong the period during which Pharaoh will refuse to release the Jews from slavery. אבן עזרא and many subsequent commentators are disturbed: How could G-d punish Pharaoh for refusing to release the Jewish People if G-d effectively controlled his mind and prevented him from doing so?

Rav Soloveitchik points out that there is an even deeper problem: How could G-d take away Pharaoh’s free will at all? Is it not a principle of faith that we have the option? In ה׳ ,נצבים says:

ראה נתתי לפניך היום, את-החיים ואת-הטוב, ואת-המוות, ואת-הרע

See I have placed before you today life and good or death and evil.

As the רמב״ם explains, G-d gave us freedom of choice and that only that freedom can – is that freedom not undermined if G-d could sometimes take it away?

ספורנו explains that not only was ה׳ not removing Pharaoh’s free will, rather in strengthening Pharaoh’s heart, He was restoring it. Under normal circumstances, Pharaoh’s stubborn grip on בני ישראל would have collapsed under the weight of the מכות. The מכות were coercive, like torture, and no rational human would have refused to capitulate to משה’s demands. In order to make it possible for Pharaoh to truly still have a choice, ה׳ had to “harden his heart,” to make Pharaoh able to withstand the pressure.

רש״י and רמב״ם suggest that while G-d does not initially take away an individual’s free will, there is a point beyond which a sin is so heinous, they lose their freedom to repent. For example, people like Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, or Osama bin Laden should not be and were not provided with a chance to do שד״ל .תשובה argues that since G-d is the ultimate cause of everything that happens, it is possible to attribute even freely-made decisions to G-d. However, we only do so when the decision is obviously irrational. Similarly, Rav Soloveitchik says that G-d didn’t directly interfere with Pharaoh’s mind. ה׳ is taking credit for creating a world in which פרעה could not imagine the Egyptian economy surviving without slavery. 

I recently discussed these answers with my students in Maimonides. Ultimately, many of them were unsatisfied – does this פסוק not that fly in the face of מדת הרחמים, the idea that G-d is merciful and just? Even if the תשובה, the repentance, wouldn’t have precluded any punishment, how could G-d in any way be involved in preventing someone from doing תשובה?

I wish I could have known at that time the approach of the שפת אמת. The שפת אמת was a 19th-century Hasidic rebbe of Ger in Poland. After his parents died when he was very young, he was raised by his grandfather, the חידושי הרי״ם. A humble prodigy, he initially refused to inherit the position of Gerrer Rebbe, but after his replacement died at a young age, he rose to the occasion and helped grow his community to the largest Hasidic sect in Poland.

Says the אקשה את לב פרעה ,שפת אמת does not mean that G-d will make it harder for פרעה to do תשובה; just the opposite. In a society in which evil, in which cruelty and discrimination is institutionalized, it becomes impossible for even the most enlightened people to pursue change. פרעה and מצרים had already reached the point where they already had lost their sense of agency; they had fallen so far that they could never independently come to the realization that they should free the slaves.

At the same time, בני ישראל were so demoralized that they could not even imagine supporting משה’s efforts to free them. The only way out of this situation was for ה׳ to interfere. ה׳ transferred the קישוי עורף, the stubbornness of the Jewish People, to מצרים so that the Jewish People could advocate for themselves and support משה and אהרן. As the שם משמואל explains, things had to get worse before they could get better. By sending משה to פרעה and leading פרעה to double down on his cruelty, בני ישראל reached a tipping point, as well.

This understanding of Pharaoh’s obstinacy may help explain why Modern Orthodoxy has been slow to create equal Torah learning opportunities for women. This past week, a woman named Ayelet Wenger published a heart-wrenching post about her experience earnestly trying and failing to find a place for herself in the בית מדרש, in the world of elite Torah study. She writes: 

My shanah aleph havruta graduated from Stern and then there was nothing for her. Once we dreamt up an imaginary school together. A school for driven women, women who would be in the beit midrash when the world goes to sleep and when the world wakes up and when the world ends. We would have one of those Ramim, the kind our friends have in the Gush, the kind who show up at the women’s schools for an hour or two of community service teaching each week before scurrying back to their boys, the kind whose words waft across Shabbat tables and through classrooms back home in America. We would learn Torah. The intricate, complicated, mind-bending, challenging kind. The kind that our ancestors studied. The kind that God gave us. We smiled at each other, laughing because: Who would pay for this knight in shining armor?…Which great mind would leave rows of brilliant talmidim to spend years teaching a handful of women?…How many women could devote so many years to such intense study in exchange for a lifetime of patronization?”

In other words, ultimately, the reason change has not happened and cannot happen is because the discrepancies between male and female Torah education are so great, so institutionalized, that it’s impossible for anyone to change it. Rabbis will not throw away their careers to try; women will not dedicate their lives for a road to nowhere.

Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg is often quoted, sometimes derisively, as having said, “Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way.” But have we so been מקשה את לבנו, has the Orthodox community so hardened its position against women learning Torah that even when there already is a halachic way, we still can’t find the rabbinic will to implement it? I hope not; I pray we aren’t so far gone that things need to get worse before they get better, that we haven’t already lost our agency to make things better. May ה׳ help us summon the will to make Torah accessible to everyone.

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