In the Mishnaic period (ca. 100 CE), as I have discussed elsewhere,1 there were three basic approaches to Torah study by women: Rabbi Eliezer forbade a father to teach his daughter Torah and considered it lechery (Mishnah Sotah 3:4); Issi ben Yehudah, R. Eleazar Ben Azarya and others ruled that women are exempt from Torah study (Sifrei Deuteronomy, 462); and Ben Azzai taught that a man is obligated to teach his daughter (Mishnah Sotah, loc cit.).
Maimonides (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:13) distinguished between study of the Oral Torah (the Mishnah and Talmud) and the Written Torah (the Hebrew Scriptures). If a father taught the Oral Torah to his daughter, it is as if he taught her lechery; as for the written Torah, he should not teach it to her in the first place, but if he did so, it is not like lechery. The Tur and the Shulḥan ‘arukh (Yoreh de’ah 246), two of the most important medieval codes, copied the words of Maimonides. As a result, most of the halakhic authorities followed the strict approach of Rabbi Eliezer and Maimonides, although they also limited it in four different ways.3 Even so, we know from numerous sources that there were many women throughout Jewish history who studied and taught Bible, Talmud, halakhah and aggadah, from Beruriah in the second century through Flora Sassoon in the early twentieth.4
A sea change began in 1917, when Sarah Schenirer founded the first Bais Yaakov school in Cracow. Her idea caught on quickly, and by 1939 there were 40,000 girls in Bais Yaakov schools across Europe. As Torah study for girls developed, ultra-Orthodox girls began to study Torah according to the more strict interpretations of their poskim, while many modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform girls received the same Torah education as the boys.5
A voluminous literature on Torah study for women has emerged in recent years.6 Even so, i efshar leveit hamidrash belo ḥidush (“there can be no study hall without innovation”—BT Ḥagigah 3a). New texts and insights are constantly emerging, and so we deemed it appropriate to devote Nashim no. 29 to the topic of women’s Torah study. It is worth noting that four of the five articles addressing the topic in this issue were written by women. This is something that we now take for granted, but it, too, is part of the revolution in Torah study begun by Sara Schenirer 100 years ago.
Marina Arbib’s article discusses Rachel Morpurgo (1790–1871) and her advocacy of the Kabbalah in an anti-kabbalistic age. Morpurgo was the first western European female poet known to have written in Hebrew. Though greatly influenced by the [End Page 5] Jewish Enlightenment (the Haskalah), she defended the Kabbalah, in contrast to her cousin Samuel David Luzzatto (known in Hebrew as Shadal) and their contemporary Isaac Samuel Reggio (Yashar), who criticized the Kabbalah. Arbib explains why.
Debbie Weissman compares two twentieth-century Jewish religious schools in Jerusalem—that of Chana Shpitzer, and Ma’aleh. The former institution (1918–1981) was a girls’ school, while the latter (1930–1972) was coeducational. Weissman compares the two schools in terms of goals, educational philosophy, ethnic origins of the children, Jewish studies and their respective attitudes toward teaching the Talmud to girls. She also discusses whether coeducation was and is actually better for the girls.
Zvi Zohar discusses women heroines of Torah study as portrayed in a fascinating passage in the commentary to Pirkei avot written by Rabbi Joseph Mesas (Morocco and Israel, 1892–1974). Commenting on the phrase “Anyone (kol) who occupies himself with the Torah for its own sake (lishmah) acquires by merit many things” in Avot 6:1, Rabbi Mesas asserts that the word kol serves to include women, who, though they are not commanded to study Torah, are nevertheless considered meritorious if they study it for its own sake. He then relates two stories from Algeria that praise righteous Jewish women who immersed themselves in Torah study. Prof. Zohar explains Rabbi Mesas’s attitude toward unconventional women who, as related of Ben Azai in the Mishnah, prefer Torah study...