Barbara Sofer

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The Human Spirit: Daily Talmud

August 03, 2012


Let me try to put this delicately. A woman comes to the rabbi to determine if she can remain married to her husband. Whenever they have intimate relations, she becomes ritually impure. The couple is subsequently divorced. The same problem persists with the woman’s second husband. Again, she’s divorced. But when the problem continues with her third husband, she is advised in great detail how to undergo a series of tests to determine the source of the problem.

If this complex, graphic talmudic passage is unfamiliar to you, chances are you are not among the tens of thousands of Jews around the world who are taking part in the seven-and-a-half year daily Talmud study program called “Daf Yomi,” a comprehensive study that covers the Talmud, day by day, page by page.

The discussion took place around the world when Tractate Nida 66 was the folio (double page) of the day. The teachers and students of Daf Yomi were in the final lap of the long-distance run through the 2,711 pages that make up the Talmud. Everyone was in the most literal sense on the same page, whether you walked into a classroom in Canarsie or Calgary, Wickliffe, Ohio, or Yeroham, Israel – Nida 66 was the subject.

The cycle of Daf Yomi began on September 11, 1923, the same year that the USSR was formed, Time magazine published its first issue and Disney kicked off. This week, the 12th cycle of Daf Yomi ends and the 13th begins. Nida is the last of the tractates studied, and deals with details of intimacy between wife and husband.

There are more than 1,000 classes each day in Israel in Daf Yomi, but as the teacher gets into the finer points of the gynecological examination and feminine hygiene, I’m glad that I’m in the all-women’s class, with a woman teacher. Indeed, this morning Daf Yomi class in my neighborhood is probably the first all-women’s Daf Yomi taught by women in the history of the Jewish people.

The idea of Daf Yomi was promulgated by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the founder of the esteemed Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva in Poland. Tractates of the Talmud were being ignored in study centers, and Rabbi Shapiro proposed the idea of covering the entire opus in an organized manner. Shapiro’s initial thought was to aim the study at religious young men in Eastern Europe, but the idea quickly caught on in a broader population.

Sadly, Rabbi Shapiro died at a young age during the second cycle.

AS THE 12th cycle is soon coming to a close, a dozen women have gathered around the table at the Sadie Rennert Women’s Institute for Torah Studies in Jerusalem. The institute is better-known by the Hebrew name Matan (machon torani l’nashim).

The Daf Yomi regulars are women in their 40s and 50s who, as one puts it, “no longer have to get little children off to school in the morning.” Class begins at 8:10 a.m.

Most are young grandmothers wearing hats and wigs. Among them are erudite Torah teachers like Debra Spero Applebaum, 55, who was one of the prime movers in the women’s Daf Yomi launch.

“After the last completion of the Daf Yomi cycle, I had the idea that we should do a cycle at Matan, where I study,” said Applebaum. “I mentioned it to Yardena Cope-Yosef [the director of the Matan Advanced Talmud Program] and she showed me a paper in her hand with the identical idea.”

Applebaum already had a strong Jewish education, but the challenge of covering the entire Talmud was appealing to her. She was confident other women would share her enthusiasm. Matan’s founder and director Malka Bina – whom no one could accuse of lack of experience and optimism in the world of women’s Torah education – was less certain.

“I thought we might get off to a roaring start with Brachot in the beginning, and then peter out,” said Bina. “But part of the process of women’s Torah learning at Matan is to empower women to organize study themselves. That’s what happened so successfully here.”

Five Daf Yomi cycles ago, very few women studied Talmud in organized classes. When Rabbi Chaim Brovender opened classes in a Jerusalem women’s yeshiva back then, he reputedly had his tires slashed. Strident voices within Orthodox Jewry maintained that women were prohibited from learning Talmud, the subject matter of most men’s yeshivot and the portal to serious Jewish scholarship.

Others argued that although studying Talmud wasn’t exactly prohibited it violated their idea of how they thought women should spend their time. This is what I call the “good enough for grandma” school of thought, in which old-time religion is based on an idealized view of a pious grandmother who was satisfied with a less activist role in Jewish studies and ritual.

Decades of interviewing grandmothers have taught me not to make such assumptions about them. Indeed, Matan founder Bina often cites her grandmother’s frustration at not being able to fulfill her Jewish educational goals as a motivating factor in her own commitment to advancing women’s education.

I first met Bina where she was teaching in Brovender’s revolutionary school four Daf Yami cycles ago. Back then, the heavy lifting of Talmud was done by men. Even then Bina spoke of a future when women would be experts and teach Talmud, serving as educational role models for their women students.

That time has come. “Finding women who could and would teach Daf Yomi turned out not to be a problem,” said Bina.

“We’ve reached a new level.”

At Matan, the teachers rotate, providing the students with a variety of learning styles. Today’s teacher is Davida Velleman, a young woman with her hair covered with a scarf and long earrings. Velleman began this Daf Yomi cycle as a student after high school when she spent a year at Midreshet Lindenbaum, another of the fine academies for women’s Torah studies in Jerusalem. She loved it, and signed up for the advanced Talmud program at Matan. Over the course of the Daf Yomi cycle she grew from student to teacher.

As they sit down to study, one of the students relates an anecdote from her family history. Her grandfather was an Eastern European scholar who had come to Pittsburgh as an assistant rabbi. In Pittsburgh, adult education was open to all. One woman was a regular in the community Talmud class. The rabbi asked her not to come to class on the day he taught today’s difficult section from Nida. She refused, so the rabbi skipped the page.

No one skips pages here.

In a matter-of-fact way, Velleman demystifies the Aramaic for the anatomical and physical terminology, as well as the euphemisms built into the text. When post-menstrual mikve preparation is explicated, Velleman smiles at a private memory she doesn’t share with the class. I have to wonder how men cope with this material, especially the young, religious yeshiva students for whom Shapiro first designed this program.

The format of Daf Yomi doesn’t leave much time for discussion. The program is designed to give a broad picture without lingering on details. Indeed, Velleman talks about her own bittersweet feeling every time she finishes a Tractate. “We’re accustomed to go into depth,” she said. “I realize there are so many issues we haven’t gone into.”

Despite the hurried pace of the class, a few statements from Nida 66 stand out for me.

Ultimately, the rulings that impact a woman’s private life depend on her testimony.

There is never a question of their veracity, her frivolousness or fickleness. The second is a more general comment about Jewish women. No matter the rabbinical ruling, they tend to be very careful and stringent in observance of the law.

Committing to Daf Yomi isn’t a question of religious necessity. Here, too, women have gone beyond minimum requirements that a woman study to fulfill a desire for broad Jewish knowledge. They’ve broken another glass ceiling.

Hundreds of thousands of men may be gathering in sports arenas to celebrate the ending of the 12th Talmud cycle. I’m walking over Matan, to drink a l’haim to my fellow Jewish women, who have raised the bar higher for all of us.




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