- Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Religious Education and Modernity by Ilan Fuchs
Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Religious Education and Modernity
London–New York: Routledge, 2014. 267pp.
Ilan Fuchs, a legal historian and Orthodox rabbi, has given us an important, albeit somewhat flawed book on women’s Torah study. It is a very useful compendium of halachic sources and can serve as a resource for people interested in the field.
According to most traditional interpretations of Jewish law, the religious commandment of studying Torah is incumbent upon males only.1 Consequently, throughout most of its history, the Jewish community largely neglected the formal Jewish education of its daughters. Judaism’s classical texts even contain dicta forbidding the teaching of sacred texts to women, such as “Better the words of Torah be burned than be transmitted to women” (JT Sotah 3:4).2 Still, a woman who was totally ignorant of Torah would not have been able to maintain a kosher home3 and to function as a Jewish wife and mother. So, for most women, the rule was informal education in the home, generally by observing female relatives. During the period of the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) in Germany, there were initiatives to start Jewish-community supported schools for girls, but these were of limited scope.4 Some affluent families hired tutors for their daughters as well as their sons.
In Eastern Europe during the nineteenth century, well-to-do Jewish families in some communities began sending their daughters to non-Jewish schools, a custom roughly equivalent to that of sending young women to “finishing schools” (according to a passage in JT Sotah 9:15, learning a foreign language is “an ornament” for a woman). Deteriorating economic conditions, which made it all the more vital for girls to acquire the language and vocational skills they would need to ensure their families’ livelihood, contributed to the extension of this trend to the less affluent sectors of Jewish society. Paradoxically, this had the effect of reinforcing women’s exemption from Torah study, since the traditional curriculum of the boys’ ḥeders, which focused exclusively on Torah study in the hope of instilling a lifelong commitment to it, often put Orthodox men at an economic disadvantage in the changing realities of the period. This situation largely obtains until today in many parts of the ultra-Orthodox community. But in late [End Page 147] nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Poland, the girls’ exposure to new ideas and secular experiences often posed challenges to parental authority and to intergenerational harmony within the home.
Nearly a century ago, a Cracow seamstress named Sarah Schenirer initiated a profound change in Orthodox Jewish women’s education. While living in Vienna during World War I, she was influenced by disciples of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder and leader of Neo-Orthodoxy in mid-nineteenth-century Germany. Upon her return to Poland, Schenirer started Bais Yaakov, an Orthodox Jewish school for girls, which became the seed for a movement that spread to many parts of the world and spurred similar trends in other streams within the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. Schenirer’s project can be seen as a “revolution” within the tradition.
Within decades, in response to changing social and economic realities, Torah education for Orthodox girls at the primary and secondary levels became institutionalized. However, instruction in the Talmud and the sources of Jewish law remained off-limits to Orthodox girls and women until the late twentieth century, and it is still controversial within the Orthodox and especially the ultra-Orthodox worlds. Many scholars—almost exclusively male—have grappled with this question, looking either for justifications for change or for ways to limit its scope.
In the present book, Fuchs demonstrates a broad, impressive knowledge of Jewish sources, together with familiarity with and understanding of the relevant secular literature. For example, he includes entire chapters on halakhic discussions issuing from the Habad and Satmar hasidic groups—movements that are not always represented in this type of survey. In light of this inclusiveness, one wonders why the world of contemporary Sephardic poskim (halakhic decisors), with Rav Ovadiah Yosef at their...