2020 Torah Sources Do Not Condone A Women’s Daf Yomi Movement
Chananya Weissman

In my original article on the subject I stated that I can think of numerous Torah sources off the top of my head that would support my views. I will provide and discuss these sources below, but I want to emphasize that these sources are only scratching the surface on the subject. I have written an entire sefer called “Tovim Ha-shenayim: A study of the role and nature of Man and Woman,” which contains dozens of primary Torah sources on these issues, and even that is only scratching the surface.

From all of my research on the subject, I have not encountered a single Torah source – let alone a primary Torah source – that would indicate that mainstream women should be publicly encouraged to learn all of Shas, nor that ideally they would be doing this. On the other hand, there is a powerful wealth of Torah sources indicating that a woman’s primary role is to be an ezer k’negdo, receiving her main reward in this particular area from the Torah study of her husband and sons, and to be the spiritual anchor of the Jewish home. When it comes to transmitting the mesorah and adjudicating Jewish law, that is the purview of men. When it comes to strengthening one’s emunah and adhering to Torah values in the face of challenges, one often receives that from his mother and wife.

Those who wish to dispute it are invited to provide Torah sources to the contrary, and those who simply don’t like it are invited to send feedback to God’s complaint box.

Without further ado, here are many Torah sources that support my views. Or, to put it more accurately, shape them, because my views are based strictly and entirely on my Torah learning.

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The most famous and oft-cited source on the subject comes from the Mishna in Sotah (20A). Ben Azai states that one is obligated to teach his daughter Torah so that she will know that a merit will protect her temporarily from death from the sotah waters. Otherwise, were she to be guilty and not die immediately, she would scorn the waters and encourage other women to engage in sinful behavior. Rabbi Eliezer disagrees, and declares that if one teaches his daughter Torah it is as if he is teaching her tiflus, which is explained to mean either that she will use this knowledge to engage in sinful behavior, or that it will be “tasteless”. Rabbi Yehoshua states another opinion which is not directly related to Torah study, but some commentaries explain that he is even more stringent than Rabbi Eliezer in this area, while others hold that Rabbi Eliezer is the most stringent opinion when it comes to women’s Torah study.

Interestingly, Rabbi Yehoshua also refers to four types of people that bring destruction to the world, and one of them is isha perusha, which is explained as a woman who makes a public demonstration about how pious she is. As Rashi explains, such women do this as a cover so they can commit serious transgressions without being suspected (compare to how one who dares challenge the intentions of feminist activists, flaunting their supposed piety, are condemned).

Tosfot cite the Yerushalmi Gemara, also found in Midrash, in which it is related that a wealthy matron approached Rabbi Eliezer with a philosophical Torah question. He refused to answer her, and retorted that a woman’s wisdom is with the spindle. His son complained that because Rabbi Eliezer refused to teach her one matter from the Torah it would cost him 300 large measures of ma’aser every year. Rabbi Eliezer replied that the words of Torah are better off burned than transferred to women.

The Midrash relates that Rabbi Eliezer’s own students posed the woman’s question to him, for it was indeed intelligent, and he answered them. It was never an issue of a woman’s intellectual capabilities, but of the permissibility of teaching them certain matters of Torah.

It must also be noted that Rabbi Eliezer refused to publicly give Halachic rulings that he did not hear from his own Rebbe, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai (Succah 27B and elsewhere). This was not someone who went around making things up; his fidelity to mesorah was unparalleled. Rabbi Eliezer also reached the level of ruach hakodesh at the end of his life, prophesying about the future, and brought to his grave numerous Halachos that his contemporaries did not know (Sanhedrin 68A). It seems by all accounts that he was the most knowledgable sage of his time.

Some people like to claim that Ben Azai is a polar opposite of Rabbi Eliezer and is actually all in favor of women learning Talmud. That is false. Ben Azai cites a practical reason for women to be taught a particular area of Torah, which would otherwise be discouraged. Rabbi Eliezer finds a greater danger in teaching them this area of Torah, and therefore forbids it as well. They do not disagree on the fundamental question of women learning Shas.

In addition, it must be noted that Rabbi Eliezer preceded Ben Azai by two generations. Rabbi Eliezer was one of the rebbeim of Rabbi Akiva, and Ben Azai was his student. It is not likely that Ben Azai would dare come along and give a ruling on a fundamental issue that is the polar opposite of the great Rabbi Eliezer’s ruling. Rabbi Eliezer was also not just any Tanna. The Midrash to Shir Hashirim (page 12 in the Vilna edition) describes the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Eliezer, where there was a single stone on which he sat, all his students learning Torah at his feet. One day Rabbi Yehoshua, the same one cited above, entered this Beit Midrash, kissed the stone and said the stone is like Har Sinai and the one who sits on it is like the Aron Hakodesh.

This same Rabbi Eliezer had open miracles performed on his behalf in the famous dispute regarding a certain type of oven (Bava Metzia 59), and although his colleagues ultimately ruled against him in this tragic story, the disrespect shown Rabbi Eliezer brought widespread Heavenly retribution. In light of all the above, those who wish to disregard or, worse, slander the words of Rabbi Eliezer had best take caution.

The commentary of Rabbi Steinzaltz on the aforementioned Mishna further discusses the prohibitions and limitations on teaching Torah to women. While some later authorities have qualified the extent of it in clarifying the above teachings, the near-universal approach is that women should be taught that which is practical for their mitzva-observance, not the totality of Shas. There may be more permissive opinions in contemporary times (the extent of even these opinions is limited), but there is nothing to suggest that masses of women should be publicly encouraged to study daf yomi, and those who raise questions about the movement should certainly not be attacked. Their position is in fact the majority, traditional position with the greatest of Torah authorities behind it. Even if there is room for certain changes in light of contemporary needs, those who take a more conservative approach are expressing a very mainstream Torah position, and this must be respected.

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There is no more idyllic period of time in our history in terms of knowledge and opportunity for Torah study than the dor hamidbar. This generation received the Torah directly from Hashem and Moshe, and learned it with all their material needs miraculously provided for. They had the opportunity to study the Torah in its purest form, from our greatest teacher and prophet, without material concerns.

If there were ever an opportunity for women to study all of the Torah and become rabbis, poskim, judges, and scholars on a level equal to men, this was it. If that were God’s will, and that were their purpose, this is what would have happened. There was literally nothing to prevent it from happening. Those who claim that ideally women would be all of the above must explain why in this ideal circumstance we find literally nothing of the sort.

All of those appointed to publicly teach and transmit the Torah were men. The chain of mesora beginning with Moshe and stretching throughout the generations consists entirely of men. Women certainly learned Torah as well, but not everything, and not for the same purpose. Indeed, by matan Torah, Hashem commanded Moshe to teach women the main ideas, and to teach men all the details (Yisro 3:19, Mechilta). Interestingly, the teaching of the women was mentioned first, perhaps to indicate that, while men are commanded to study the totality of the Torah, the foundation for this comes from the knowledge and inspiration of the women. This is, in fact, the way it has always been, and those who want to turn everything on its head threaten the very foundations of Torah from the day it was given.

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If a man has a woman recite Hallel or birkas hamazon for him, a curse should come upon him (Mishna and Gemara Succa 38A, Brachos 20B). Even though, according to the letter of the law, he fulfills the requirement, he is nevertheless cursed. If he did not learn, and therefore required the assistance of the woman, he is cursed for not learning. Even if he did learn, he is cursed for scorning his Creator by employing a woman as his agent (see Rashi and other Rishonim).

There is no corresponding censure, let alone a curse, for a woman who is not learned. A man has a fundamental obligation to be learned in all aspects of the Torah, to the very best of his abilities. If a husband must defer to his wife in Torah knowledge, it is disgraceful. In this area men and women are not equal, and indeed a learned man who thinks he is showing respect to women by having them perform the mitzva on his behalf is cursed for scorning Hashem. It is simply not Hashem’s will for this to be done, period, and only Hashem decides how He is to be properly served.

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There is a dispute between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish over whether a mother is obligated to train her son in the performance of mitzvos, or if this obligation rests exclusively on the father (Nazir 29A). They also disagree regarding the parameters of giving chinuch to daughters. The consensus among the classical poskim is that one is obligated to train his daughter only in the performance of mitzvos that apply to her, certainly not the totality of Torah.

While this leaves the door open to teaching her things that she may fulfill on an optional basis, this is neither obligated nor encouraged. It is certainly not recommended anywhere for there to be a public celebration and encouragement for masses of women to learn that which does not apply to them. Even if we are to assume that this is permitted (which is debatable) to encourage this for the masses is extremely dubious.

If the masses of women occupy themselves with daf yomi, they will by consequence not acquire the expertise they require in the areas of Torah that pertain to them and which are fundamental to their unique, different role. Perhaps the most extraordinary women will be able to devote so much time to Torah study, and will be blessed with such aptitude, that daf yomi study will not interfere with their ability to master that which pertains to them, but that is the 99th percentile of people, if even that. In addition, for a woman to devote quite so much time to Torah will interfere with her primary role as the ezer k’negdo and akeres habayis. Again, if there are exceptions to this, they are most extraordinary exceptions, and encouraging masses of women to strive for this will undercut the very foundation of the Jewish home for the overwhelming majority of them. This is not misogyny, but a very real danger, plain and simple. The pros and cons of the daf yomi movement simply must be discussed before we just assume it’s a wonderful thing with no downsides.

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When the Egyptians enslaved the Jews, they tortured them with avodas parech. One manifestation of this was forcing men to do the jobs of women and women to do the jobs of men: gender role reversal! Even they understood that the genders are different, their roles are different, and forcing a man to do a woman’s job and a woman to do a man’s job is crushing torture. Nowadays this very crushing torture is celebrated as progress, enlightenment, and a righting of historical wrongs. To even suggest that men and women are different, and have different roles, is condemned. Yet that is God’s truth.

Those who are pushing for women to prove that they can do what men do, to fight for it, to celebrate it, are in fact the greatest enemies of women, seducing them with a false ideology that will ultimately lead only to anger, frustration, and the inner turmoil of abandoning one’s true purpose. May God protect our women and give them the insight to see these movements for what they are and the strength to resist their lures.

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Shlomo Hamelech wrote an ode to the eishes chayil, in which he enumerates the attributes for which a Jewish woman is praised (the end of Mishlei). Shlomo was the wisest of all men and he wrote this with ruach hakodesh – in other words, it’s Truth. For all the many praises he cites, Torah study is not among them. If this were a fundamental aspect of a Jewish woman’s mission in this world, it should have been mentioned. Instead, the entire ode celebrates in great detail how she cares for her home and family.

She is expected to have Torah on her tongue as well – specifically, Toras Chesed. This is the solitary reference to Torah for a Jewish woman, Toras Chesed. She dedicates herself to performing chesed and instructing others in that vein. She does not while away her time splitting hairs in esoteric Talmudic lectures, as this is not her mission, and she derives no praise from this. If she has an hour to dedicate to personal growth and service to the Jewish people, she studies the Torah that is necessary for her mission and practices it through her chesed. She does not study a random page of Talmud.

Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders. This is her glory.

If someone invented these words today, he would be pilloried by the secular Western “progressives” and those whose Torah values have been corrupted by their influence. But these words were written by the wisest of men, with ruach hakodesh, at the apex of Jewish history.

Those whose beliefs are not consistent with the Torah must reshape their beliefs accordingly, not the reverse.

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What the whole controversy really boils down to is acknowledging that there are clear and distinct roles between men and women, clarifying those roles, accepting them, and, ideally, embracing them. That is God’s will. I will never be a kohen, no matter how qualified and capable I might be to do their avoda. Is it fair that I have to bow my head and receive blessings from kohanim who may be ignoramuses or even terrible sinners? Is it fair that they receive so many benefits and privileges, merely by virtue of their birth? Is it fair that they, and only they, can perform the most holy avoda? I too want to get closer to Hashem, experience their spirituality, and prove that I am capable. But those who commandeer the kohanim’s avodah commit nothing less than a capital crime.

God decides how He is to be served and who is to do what avoda. You can fight it, suffer the emptiness of missing your true purpose, and ultimately be punished on top of it, or you can embrace your role, whatever it may be, and thrive.

The role of a woman is not to study all of the Torah and mimic what a man does. It is unfortunate if some misconstrue this as denigrating women, “keeping them down”, or other charged pejoratives. A rational person does not need to be convinced of the glory and critical nature of the role of a true bas Yisrael. Those who feel that being an ezer k’negdo and an akeres habayis who also does great things for the community is somehow cheating a woman out of a more rewarding and fulfilling life are selling fool’s gold and striking at the foundations of the Jewish home and society.

The above sources are, again, just scratching the surface, but they are more than enough to demonstrate that the views expressed in my article are firmly established in the Torah, and therefore deserve respect. Those who wish to disagree are welcome to do so from a purely Torah perspective. Those who wish only to fight should complain to the Boss, for that is Who they are fighting.

Those in our community who truly value Torah and its ideals will examine the women’s daf yomi movement, and the underlying agenda of many of those behind it, based on the actual teachings of the Torah and our Sages. I hope our Rabbonim and talmidei chachamim will contribute their wisdom to the discussion and guide the community.

Note: An abridged version of this article appears in the Jewish Press. They also published a counterpoint, which can be seen here. Below is my response to this counterpoint, published here for the first time. I am very grateful to them and the Times of Israel for allowing this issue to be discussed, despite calls for censorship — calls that come only from those on the other side of the issue…

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Response to counterpoint

I appreciate Rabbi Zuckier’s thoughtful contribution to the discussion.  Before addressing his points I applaud him for offering a respectful Torah-based response to my article that makes everyone more informed.  Rabbi Zuckier’s response is devoid of the personal attacks, snide remarks, defamation, vulgarity, and even apikorsus that characterize the responses from those who expressed their disagreement to this point, with almost no exceptions.  While I disagree with Rabbi Zuckier’s analysis and conclusions, and will demonstrate why, I do so with great respect, as one God-fearing student of the Torah disagreeing with another, both of whom are concerned only with arriving at the truth.

Rabbi’s Zuckier’s counterpoint actually brings numerous Torah sources that provide a powerful challenge to the women’s daf yomi movement.  These sources must be explained away somehow for the women’s daf yomi movement to even get off the ground, and unfortunately this is not adequately done.

Like many others who took issue with my article, the counterpoint cites Bruriah and the Beis Yaavov school system as support for women’s daf yomi.  These examples in fact only support the contrary position.  Bruriah was literally a one-in-a-zillion.  At the very most one can argue that Bruriah proves that it is permitted for a woman to study Talmud.  We do not see that Bruriah attempted to teach Shas to other women or start a movement.  We do not see that Bruriah’s learning is idealized as something that should become normative and mainstream.  If anything, the exception only proves the rule, that for anyone who is not a one-in-a-zillion, this lifestyle is not appropriate.  It must also be noted that Bruriah later took her own life; her story did not have a happy end.  It is hard to believe that people would want to start an entire movement based on this example.

Beis Yaacov from its inception until the present times taught women only those areas of Torah that are practical and necessary for them.  There never was any agenda to push the envelope, right historical wrongs, or idealize women learning anything beyond that.  The women’s daf yomi movement and its supporters have literally nothing in common with Beis Yaacov (they tend to scorn it, in fact), and therefore it is disingenuous to point to Beis Yaacov as proof that women’s daf yomi is normative.  Quite the contrary.

The counterpoint also mentions Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.  While he acknowledges that numerous Gedolim up to contemporary times reiterated the conservative Torah position on this matter, he argues that these great poskim provide support for the women’s daf yomi movement.

Unfortunately, this is a terrible error, for several reasons:

1) Even these more permissive authorities nowhere indicate that women studying all of Shas should become normative and mainstream.  Rabbi Zuckier acknowledges that even Rav Soloveitchik’s position on women learning Gemara is largely in doubt and subject to a dispute among his students.

He notes that when Stern College began teaching Talmud to women, several Gedolim prepared a cherem in response.  Rav Moshe Feinstein refused to sign it, and it was not made public.  This is not a great sales pitch for women’s daf yomi.

Even Rav Lichtenstein, whose favorable stance on women learning Gemara is more clear, does not to the best of my knowledge indicate that women should study all of Shas on a level equal to men.  At most he argues that women must be taught Torah on a high level, including some Gemara, in a serious way — and regarding that there is no disagreement from me.  The disagreement is whether that which was forbidden for thousands of years in the strongest of terms should, in the span of about fifteen years, become not only normative but idealized.  I see no Torah basis for that.

Those who favored certain changes to the curriculum of young women did so out of a belief that this was necessary for some women who would become secularly educated on a high level.  It was not an expression of an ideal for all women, nor “enlightened progress”, nor a desire to push the envelope.

No one has managed to explain why women nowadays simply must learn Zevachim and Menachos to live a fulfilling religious Jewish life, and what changed in just fifteen years that made this suddenly necessary.  Without this piece, and in light of the consistent, overwhelming Torah sources to the contrary, women’s daf yomi is a non-starter.

The author also mentions the Lubavitcher Rebbe as support for women’s daf yomi, but cites nothing to back that up, and in fact Chabad does not endorse women’s daf yomi or anything resembling it.

2) I have no problem with people following a single posek if that is in fact their posek and they follow him all the time, even when it is not convenient for them. The women’s daf yomi movement has not officially adopted Rav Lichtenstein as their founder and posek and agreed to follow all of his Torah. They are simply hijacking his name after the fact, while bearing no resemblance to him and his teachings.

3) All those on the other side of the argument fail to explain how we get from point A to point B. Bruriah is not an endorsement of women studying all of Shas to become normative — quite the opposite (why didn’t she teach other women? Why is her approach not idealized in the Gemara?). Bais Yaaov teaching girls Nach and practical halacha is not an endorsement of women studying all of Shas to become normative — quite the opposite. (In fact, there is zero indication that was or would ever be idealized.) One or two contemporary poskim making concessions due to perceived needs, as an emergency measure, is not an endorsement of women studying all of Shas to become normative — quite the opposite.

The most fundamental requirement in determining halacha is properly being “medameh milsa l’milsa“, making proper comparisons to arrive at a truthful conclusion. They are grasping at any example of a woman or a rabbi ever pushing the envelope in any way for any woman as proof that the women’s daf yomi movement is justified. It’s a non-starter, and in fact only supports the conventional, conservative position.

4) Those in favor of women’s daf yomi consistenly fail to address the existence of downsides to instituting a radical change of this nature.  I noted some of these in my article.  I will also note that if one wished to start a movement for men to study Kabbalah for an hour every day, even if they have no background in learning besides that, even if they are not even halacha-observant, while claiming that nowadays men need Kabbalah to function as religious Jews, I would oppose it for the very same reasons.

Furthermore, I would oppose such a movement regardless of the motivations of those who would run to study Kabbalah, which I would still question. The best of motives do not turn a wrong into a right, and if something is against the Torah it cannot be permitted simply because one wishes to do it out of sincere intentions.

In addition, the worst of motives have already been clearly expressed by numerous supporters of this movement, who have made no secret of their contempt for traditional Orthodox Judaism and its norms.   They have expressed their disagreement with my article in the most vile and vulgar terms.  They have accused me of hating women (one person wrote that she hopes I don’t possess weapons, as if otherwise I would go on a killing spree); of mental illness; of desiring only to make money from Torah; of being ignorant and having no Torah sources on my side; of driving people away from Judaism; of driving women to commit suicide; even of pedophilia.  All because I dared to express concerns about the women’s daf yomi movement, its origins, the goals of many behind this movement, and the messages it implicitly sends in its marketing.  The laws of lashon hara and any sense of decency went completely out the window for these sincere people just trying to get closer to God…

I wouldn’t want my daughter learning with such people, from them, or associating with them in any way. It’s also telling that none of the supposed pure-hearted supporters of this movement have publicly distanced themselves from these leitzanim, reshaim, and apikorsim. If we expect the “good Muslims” to disassociate themselves from the “bad Muslims”, we should expect the “sincere feminists” to disassociate themselves from the rabble-rousers waging war on Orthodox Judaism. We see no such thing. I don’t see the sincere people who simply disagree with my Torah-based position expressing disgust with this ugly slander, and they don’t seem to mind having these people on their side.  Unless they clearly disassociate themselves from such elements, they can fairly be lumped together with them.

In conclusion, there is no clear Torah basis for getting from point A to point B.  Supporters of the women’s daf yomi movement are grasping at straws after the fact to support their pre-determined conclusion, while ignoring the real dangers of getting this one wrong.

If one examines all of the above in an objective, unbiased way, it is hard to understand how one can honestly claim that the women’s daf yomi movement is condoned, let alone encouraged by the Torah.  It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that I oppose it.