January 2020, The Jewish Press, The Times of Israel
Something strange happened over the last 15 years. Women’s Daf Yomi went from being non-existent, to something in the exclusive domain of radical feminists, to a full-fledged movement on the verge of becoming mainstream and even celebrated in some parts of the Orthodox world, as if this is the way it always should have been. All in the span of 15 years.
What’s most remarkable about this transformation (I will not refer to it as “progress”) is that it happened completely under our noses. The Halachic authorities of our time did not convene and issue rulings to clarify the authentic Torah position on this and guide any change from previously accepted norms. There were no scholarly debates or public discussions on the pros and cons of a seismic change of this nature. And yes, despite the thoughtless, pom-pom waving propaganda that the secular-leaning Jewish media has been pushing down your throat, there are always cons.
Before I get into that, a brief history lesson will provide illuminating context to my concerns. In the ancient year of 2006, Daf Yomi for women was encouraged only by such breakaways from mainstream Orthodox Judaism as the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and Chovevei Torah. The culture wars that have gone completely out of control today were just starting to really hit their stride, and the Orthodox world was blissfully oblivious to the subversive influences threatening it from the margins. An article in the Jewish Journal appeared with the title “Battle of the sexes reaches Talmudic teachings — why can’t girls learn Gemara?” The “battle line” was not whether Daf Yomi study was appropriate for women, but whether women should study Gemara altogether.
It is vital to note that this sudden controversy over women’s learning and the demand for “equality” paralleled the secular atheistic feminist movement and drew much of its tactics and terminology from them. We’re not talking about the daughters of Tzelofchod approaching Moshe and the elders with the greatest of reverence and willing to accept no for an answer, but activists on the very fringes of religious Judaism with a goal in mind and viewing traditional halacha and norms as being little more than a burden to be overcome. For them “no” is never an acceptable answer, and is taken as evidence of ignorance, primitive thinking, and a desire to oppress.
These are the direct progenitors of the women’s Daf Yomi movement. A mere six years later, in 2012, the 12th Siyum HaShas was celebrated. For the first time, a feminism-driven Siyum was co-sponsored by, in their own words, “a wide range of Modern Orthodox Synagogues, Yeshivot, and Institutions.” That statement is an oxymoron in and of itself, but the list of participating organizations is a veritable who’s who of liberal bastions and envelope-pushers. 1 I point this out merely to demonstrate that as recently as the last siyum, Daf Yomi for women was virtually unheard of in the mainstream Orthodox community, and the push to introduce it was coming from activists who share more in common with secular activists than Gedolei Yisrael.
The participation of somewhat-more-mainstream institutions lent them an air of credence that they desperately needed. It’s fascinating and disturbing how much they managed to leverage this in the ensuing seven years. In December of 2019, Torah Tidbits carried advertisements for three separate Siyums on three consecutive pages, all held in Binyanei Hauma in Jerusalem and sponsored by different organizations:
1. Hadran, Advancing Talmud Study for Women. The headline was “Be a part of history,” and the list of presenters featured nine women and one token liberal rabbi. Five of the women were referred to as “Rabbanit”, one of many terms that the activists have been insinuating into the Orthodox world to realize their dream of women being accepted as quasi-rabbis, albeit with a slightly more parve title. Be a part of history indeed.
2. The Central Religious Zionist Siyum Hashas, sponsored mainly by the Mizrachi World Movement, with many other organizations participating. The list of presenters was almost half women (including three “Rabbanits”), and this parity was clearly deliberate, despite the fact that women do not comprise anywhere near 50% of Daf Yomi learners. The first advertised presentation was a panel discussion with the three Rabbanits on “The Revolution of Women’s Torah Learning”. All well and good, but looking at the advertisement it would be easy to forget that this was a Daf Yomi Siyum, and not a partisan event with a clear agenda.
3. The Kollel Iyun Hadaf Siyum Hashas, sponsored by Mishpacha, Artscroll, Hamodia, several others, and with plenty of black hats in the picture. This one advertised a “special women’s program” with a Rebbetzin addressing the women. No other speakers or participants were named. It seems even the most conservative (lowercase “c”) segments of the Orthodox world have felt the need to “throw a bone” to women, for lack of a better term.
I agree wholeheartedly that women should be acknowledged and appreciated for their vital participation in the community, and that few of the men who completed Shas would have done so without the encouragement, support, and self-sacrifice of valorous women. I am also not here to declare that it is forbidden for a woman to open a Gemara; I am not a posek and am not qualified to make such determinations besides.
What I am against is the way something that was simply not done for thousands of years – and for good reasons – has in the span of just a few years become increasingly mainstream through insidious propaganda and agenda-driven movements. In this short time, Daf Yomi for women has gone from non-existent to being celebrated and encouraged, as if all of Jewish thought and history before then is outdated or otherwise irrelevant to us “enlightened” people.
I don’t have to think hard to come up with numerous Torah sources severely discouraging Talmud study for women. If one puts these sources on a scale against those that might indicate otherwise, and is completely unbiased, he would not conclude that the Torah favors widespread Daf Yomi study for women. For one to reach this conclusion, he must either define numerous Torah sources out of existence, argue that they simply no longer apply, or claim that it was made up by a bunch of male rabbis seeking to keep women down (albeit the same male rabbis these liberated women now wish to study!).
I’ve read numerous articles celebrating the women’s Daf Yomi movement. None of them makes a compelling Torah argument. None of them acknowledge that there is even another side to this, in fact a legitimate side that is deeply rooted in Torah law and tradition. Their arguments in favor are primarily that women shouldn’t be “denied” this opportunity, as if all their predecessors were subjugated. The women relate how wonderful Daf Yomi makes them feel, almost as if it’s a Far East meditation or drug-induced spiritual high, as opposed to the yoke of Torah.
And therein lies perhaps the most sinister aspect of it all. A man learns Gemara not because it makes him feel accomplished, or gives him a spiritual rush, or a sense of belonging, or any of these other self-based highs. Indeed, a man learns Gemara even if he enjoys none of that, even if it’s difficult, frustrating, confusing, boring, and he feels he gets nothing out of it. A man learns Gemara because it is a fundamental obligation, because that is one of his primary responsibilities as a Jewish man, and if he enjoys it, he is fortunate.
A woman learns Gemara because she feels like it.
If your son told you one day that he hates Gemara and doesn’t want to learn, you would be very concerned. You would encourage him and give him whatever support he needed to continue learning Gemara, even just a little bit. If your daughter told you that she hates Gemara and doesn’t want to learn, you would say “No problem, honey, you don’t have to.” And you would be right in both cases.
The Daf Yomi program was originally started so that a man can travel anywhere in the world and find people to learn with that are on the same page. The Daf Yomi program for women was not started so that a woman can travel to China for business and find a Daf Yomi class, then stop over in Moscow and Europe and do the same, before returning home and rejoining her group. The Daf Yomi program for women was started to “make history” and advance an agenda, plain and simple.
If a man tells me he is joining the Daf Yomi, I would be excited for him and encourage him. If a woman told me the same, I would wonder why she wishes to do that. This is not because I am against women being educated, learned, and growing spiritually, but because it simply is not relevant to a woman’s role in the Jewish people, and may easily conflict with it. By necessity the sacrifices she makes to study Daf Yomi will come at the expense of other things, and we need to discuss whether this is something to be celebrated and encouraged, or perhaps quietly permitted at most.
This is in fact the most important question. The message being sent by all the slanted coverage of women’s Daf Yomi is that more women should join, ideally every woman should join, and that this would be wonderful for them and the Jewish people. I couldn’t disagree more, and I’m not afraid to say it.
Seven years from now, I wonder if it will still be acceptable for a man to thank his wife for supporting him in completing the Daf Yomi. I suspect the leftists who have been providing the engine for this movement will by then have succeeding in twisting this genuine appreciation for a woman’s true role into a sexist remark meant to deny her what is rightfully hers.
I can provide copious Torah sources to support all of my concerns. But I wonder: does it matter anymore? Does anyone care? Or is this movement a runaway train to who-knows-where, and there’s no emergency brake?
If that is the case, I hope I can at least give pause to some of the women in our community before they breathlessly jump aboard.
Note: A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Jewish Press.
1You can see the full list here: https://web.archive.org/web/20120708230428/http://www.siyumhashas12.com/co-sponsors.php