Women and Torah study

Aviram Valdman/The Tower http://www.thetower.org/article/the-women-who-teach-women-in-war-and-peace/

Classical gender restrictions on Torah study

Some statements in classical rabbinic literature forbid women from learning Torah (including both the books of the Bible, as well as all rabbinic literature.)

The Mishnah (Sotah 3:4) mentions a prohibition that reflects the various paradigms. The Tanna Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (end of the first to the beginning of the second century c. e.) expressed an extremely harsh opposition to women’s Torah study: “Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah teaches her tiflut” (BT Sotah 21b)
The word tiflut is defined in two ways: 1) sexual license or lewdness. It is feared that the woman will learn how to outwit her husband and sin in secret; 2) The learning itself is considered blemished, an unnecessary thing (Rambam on the Mishnah: Vanity and nonsense) (Mishnah Sotah 3:4).

The Jerusalem Talmud (JT) notes the opinion of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, the Tanna mentioned above: “Women’s wisdom is solely in the spindle.” He added, “The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women” (JT Sotah 3:4, 19a).
The same mishnaic verse includes another opinion, that of Ben Azzai (early second century c. e.): “One must teach his daughter Torah so that if she must drink [the water that tests her fidelity if she is a sotah—a suspected adulteress], she will know that the merit postpones her punishment.”
Ben Azzai’s paradigm is that women should understand the commandments and their meanings. There is no opinion that women should be taught in order to develop their knowledge and love of Torah and mitzvot, but only so that they will not disregard the power of the bitter waters—the essence of judgment, or, in another interpretation, so that the merit of Torah study will protect them if they are indeed guilty of adultery.

On the other hand, other statements in classical rabbinic literature are egalitarian, and allow women and men to study Torah:

Another opinion is that of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah (first-second century c. e.): “‘Gather the men, women and children’—since the men come to learn Torah and the women come to hear, why do the children come?” (JT Sotah 3:4, 19a).
This means that women are part of the community on that occasion—the occasion of mass Torah study, as listeners. We could interpret this opinion to be like that of R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, and therefore he emphasizes: to listen, not to study. Or he could be speaking of women who study Torah, but in a different manner.

Talmudic literature also contains expressions of appreciation for women’s erudition. For example, the age of reason of girls is the same as that of boys regarding the taking of vows, with maturity defined as one’s ability to say “We know in Whose name we have vowed and in Whose name we have dedicated something” (Mishnah Niddah 5:6). The Talmud (BT Niddah 45b) says this teaches us that “God gave more understanding to women than to men.”

Similarly, the Talmud tells of the generation of King Hezekiah (BT Sanhedrin 94b): “They did not find a single girl or boy, man or woman, who was not expert in the laws of ritual impurity and purity.” The source does not hesitate to describe a reality where people have attained deep knowledge irrespective of gender.

The Mishnah (Nedarim 4:3) says that although person A vows not to derive benefit from person B, Person B may still “teach Scripture to the sons and daughters” of person A.

Torah Study, by Rachel Keren


On how Chazal (חז”ל ) the rabbis of the classical rabbinic era, understood women and Jewish law, I recommend “Rereading The Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice, by Professor Rabbi Judith Hauptman.

Fully acknowledging that Judaism, as described in both the Bible and the Talmud, was patriarchal, Judith Hauptman demonstrates that the rabbis of the Talmud made significant changes in key areas of Jewish law in order to benefit women. …recognizing that the texts were written by men and for men, and that they endorse a set of social relations in which men control women—the author shows that patriarchy was not always and everywhere the same. Although the rabbis whose rulings are recorded in the Talmud did not achieve equality for women—or even seek it—they should be credited with giving women higher status and more rights …. Rather than plucking passages from a variety of different rabbinical works and then sewing them together to produce a single, unified rabbinical point of view, Hauptman reads sources in their own literary and legal context and then considers them in relationship to a rich array of associated synchronic and diachronic materials.


From the end of the Talmudic era, up until the modern era, the responsa literature showed that many rabbis limited the applicability of these restrictions, and increased the rights of women to study Torah (although not to 20th century standards of egalitarianism) By the late 1800s, after The Enlightenment, there was a growing consensus from Modern Orthodoxy through Reform Judaism that women as well as men should be allowed to study Torah.

Today, it is understood by practically all Jewish denominations that the previous restrictions on Torah study by women were the results of sociology, not theology. As such, women study Torah, in its widest sense as men do.  The sole exception is the world if Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox Jews) who maintain significant bans on woman studying Torah, and indeed, on women’s rights in general.

A Modern Orthodox perspective on women and Torah study:
Talmud Study by Women, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin

Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic (and therefore Haredi) group rejects the Haredi worldview on this topic: In Chabad women learn Torah, Tanakh, Midrash, Mishnah, Talmud and Zohar (although their are no Chabad women’s yeshivas.) Chabad Hasidic women may teach classes on Torah or Talmud, something unheard of among most Haredim.

A Woman’s Place in Torah. From the talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

In Reform/Progressive Judaism

As Reform Judaism holds that halakha (Jewish law) is no longer normative, traditional gender restrictions have been disregarded. Women and men study Torah together in synagogue, adult, education classes, and at the movement’s rabbinical seminaries. Women may become rabbis and hazzans (cantors). Women (and men) Reform rabbis are considered equal; however neither have the training or authority to answer halakhic questions with a psak halakha, as the movement’s ideology rejects the idea that anyone, even a rabbi, has the authority to make a psak. As such, Reform rabbis generally receive little training in the codes of Jewish law, their commentaries, and responsa.

In Conservative/Masorti Judaism

Conservative/Masorti Judaism, as part of rabbinic Judaism, holds that halakha (Jewish law) is normative (something that Jews should accept as binding.) As such, the process by which women became rabbis developed organically through the halakhic process. see “The Ordination of Women as Rabbis: Studies and Responsa” Ed. simon Greenberg, JTS, 1988 { http://www.amazon.com/Ordination-Women-Rabbis-Responsa-Moreshet/dp/0873340426/ }

In Conservative/Masorti Judaism, women and men study Torah together in synagogue, adult, education classes, and at the movement’s yeshivas/rabbinical seminaries. Women may become rabbis and hazzans (cantors). Women and men have equal authority in offering a psak halakhah to a halakhic question.



Joel Roth “Ordination of Women: An Halakhic Analysis.” Conservative Judaism, vol. 33, no. 1: Winter 1984.


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