- Sarah Schenirer and the Bais Yaakov Movement: A Revolution in the Name of Tradition by Naomi Seidman
Naomi Seidman was uniquely qualified to write the definitive biography of Sarah Schenirer and her establishment of the Bais Yaakov Orthodox women's educational movement in interwar Poland (1917). In addition to being a scholar of modern Jewish literature in several languages, Seidman is herself a graduate of Bais Yaakov schools in New York, and her father, Dr. Hillel Seidman, was among the first academic researchers of the movement, while still in Poland. After her formative years, Seidman left the Orthodox "Derech"—strayed from the path. In one piece, she refers to herself as an "apostate."1 Yet a chance encounter some years ago in Krakow brought her back in touch with her intellectual, cultural, educational and family roots, although not back to Orthodoxy. Her stance vis-à-vis Bais Yaakov is that of both an insider and an outsider. From the outside, she applies feminist theory and historical and literary tools of analysis. From the inside, she has special insights and experiences.
Traditionally, as has been discussed in this publication2 and others, the religious commandment of studying Torah is considered incumbent on males only,3 and the traditional Jewish community largely neglected the formal Jewish education of its daughters. There are even dicta forbidding the teaching of sacred texts to women, such as "Better the words of Torah be burned than transmitted to women" (JT Sotah 3:4.).4 During the nineteenth century, in some east European communities, well-to-do Jewish families began sending their daughters to non-Jewish schools. At first, this was roughly equivalent to the notion of attending a "finishing school"; the Talmud says that learning a foreign language is "an ornament" for a woman (JT Sotah 9:15). The trend was extended into the less affluent sectors of Jewish society as a consequence of deteriorating economic conditions, and, paradoxically, it was reinforced by the women's exemption from Torah study. If the prevailing ideal was that the husband was to devote himself to full-time study in a yeshiva, someone in the family—presumably the wife—would have to acquire sufficient language and [End Page 209] vocational skills to ensure the family's livelihood. This situation largely obtains until today in many parts of the ultra-Orthodox community.
But in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Poland, the girls' exposure to new ideas and secular experiences often posed challenges to parental authority and intergenerational harmony within the home. More than a century ago, a Krakow seamstress named Sarah Schenirer initiated a profound change in Orthodox Jewish women's education. Having been influenced by the disciples of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in Vienna during the World War I, she started, upon her return to Poland, what would eventually become an almost-worldwide educational movement known as Bais Yaakov. The idea of Orthodox schools for girls, largely a response to changing social and economic realities, spread to other streams within the ultra-Orthodox community. Seidman's intriguing subtitle, "A Revolution in the Name of Tradition," attests this historic change. Her analysis of Bais Yaakov stresses its integration of deep commitments to tradition and to strict observance with openness to modern pedagogy, professionalism and changes in the role and status of Jewish women.
Seidman portrays Schenirer as a learned, charismatic educator, worthy of being taken seriously in the field of modern Jewish thought. In this light, it is a pity that Schenirer has not even been mentioned in anthologies like Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality: A Sourcebook (1992)5 or in more recent collections of Jewish women's thought, outside of the ultra-Orthodox community. Perhaps Seidman's book will fill this gap.
Schenirer combined punctilious observance and deep respect for rabbinic authority with progressive social ideas. She interpreted the commandment to "love your neighbor" in a broader way than many authoritative commentaries: "When we state that it is a mitzvah to love people, this...