Nurturing Women's Torah Growth
AHEAD OF THE CURVE
Moses emerges slowly from the desert, sweat trailing down his brow; eyes squinting against the sun, he totters on a dune above a group of slaves. They halt their work, transfixed by this strange phantom, the Egyptian taskmasters too, bewitched.
He raises his staff and calls out, “I am Moses, I have returned on a mission. Hashem, our G-d has sent me with a message for you all! G-d sees what the Egyptians are doing to you, and He will set you free!” The Jews burst into shouts of joy and laughter, they down their tools and rush up the hill to embrace the prodigal son returned, bearing such joyous tidings. The Exodus begins.
Is this how we imagine Moses’ mission? Is this the reception we imagine he received? Indeed, as we know, it was not.
At the very outset of his duty, Moses, having once attempted to lead the Jews against their taskmasters, says to G-d, “They won’t believe me or listen to me!” He knows the reception that awaits him, and it’s definitely not going to be a warm one. Instead, he expects to be rejected and reviled.
And interestingly, this raises a general question: how prescient are the Jewish people? Do we see the curve, do we stay ahead of it? Do we sense when and where destiny is leading us? Do we catch the wave of providence, or do we more often get dumped, having missed all the signs G-d is sending us? And more intriguingly, do we correctly identify the people sent to help us as such, or do we view them as threats, shooting the messenger?
The famed Netziv of Volozhin has some acute and frightening observations regarding the pattern set in Egypt for the future of the Jewish people.
He explains that Moses’ initial reluctance to lead flowed from his own understanding of how he was perceived communally, essentially saying to G-d, “I am the tail of this lion, not the head; choose someone more appropriate. I’ve never lived with them, I grew up in the palace, they know me as an Egyptian, not a Torah sage or a leader! They will not accept me.”
Hashem’s response is eloquent. He commands Moshe to cast down his staff, which turns into a snake and He then prompts Moshe, “Pick up the stick/snake by its tail! You’ll see that when you do so, the stick will be the right way up. You might think you’re the tail, unfit for leadership. In fact, you may be correct that the Jewish people will not think you are appropriate either, but I, Hashem, do, and I tell you that you will become the head.”
But the final sign Moses is given is the most fateful. Hashem tells Moshe to pour water on the ground which will turn to blood. The Netziv explains that the symbolism here is simple. When the time comes for the Jewish people to be redeemed by Hashem, the awesome, G-dly grace manifested at that time is the life of the Jewish people. Those Jews who recognize the redemption and its herald (in this case Moshe), will have water, will gain life. But those of us who mistakenly oppose the process, will have the opposite, G-d forbid, the blood. His words are chilling:
“And this comes to teach that not only did this apply to the Egyptian redemption but this is how it will be for all generations when a redemption arises for the community from a trouble – that the redemption itself will become an oppression to those who do not merit it…”
(Netziv on Sh’mot 4:9)
And so it has been.
When Cyrus, in 538 BCE allowed the Jewish people to return after our first exile, what did we do? We missed the wave. Most of us stayed in Babylon. We were happy to remain under Babylonian and later Persian dominion. Perhaps we looked at Cyrus and said, “He just doesn’t fit the mould! It couldn’t be that Hashem is working through him!” Those who did, returned in dribs and drabs: as the Talmud teaches us, we could have been a tower, instead we were happy to be a plank of wood. And so the second commonwealth was underfunded, under-personnelled and never gained the heights of the Kingdoms of David and Solomon.
And then later when the voice of our beloved, Hashem, knocked on our doors, collectively and individually from 1850 onwards, did we heed the call? No. As Rav Soloveitchik paints it, we lay on our beds, and moaned, “I’ve already removed my cloak, I can’t be bothered to get up and don it again; I’ve washed my feet, how can I sully them?” (cf. Song of Songs 5:3). And the call at that stage came from pious Rabbis – Rabbis Kalischer, Mohilever and Alkalai. Again we missed the wave and then others took up the banner of a Jewish State. And when Theodor Herzl raised the flag, most Torah Jews turned their backs – how could he be leading the charge? An assimilated Jew? No thank you, said we. And now, we complain that the State of Israel is a secular state, which has before it so many challenges to its Jewish soul! What foolishness. Torah observant Jews had all the opportunity in the world to make the State holy and sanctified, but we chose instead to sanctify Pinsk, Minsk and Vilna. Again, we were behind the curve and were adamant that a Herzl figure could never be the one to teach us.
Although it has been said that some of our opponents never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, it seems that we Jews have often not been much better. Curve after curve, wave after wave, we miss. And if we climb aboard, it’s at the end and too little too late.
Pesach is a time for teaching and learning. It is a time when we encounter the inter-generational continuity of the Jewish people. The Seder is the moment when the family gathers round and all are invited to share and teach. We even have the wicked son there – perhaps he can learn something? Perhaps he can teach us? Pesach is a time when we can challenge the paradigms of the teachers we have and those we have rejected in the past.
Against this background, with the challenges that we as the Jewish people face today, a different form of teacher has emerged slowly over the past one hundred years. As happened with examples above, some of us cannot accept this sort, thinking that they do not fit the mould, thinking that they are not frum enough, most especially, not male enough. The era of the woman Torah teacher is upon us, and we are missing the wave.
How many more opportunities does the Torah world want to lose? How many more pure, holy prospects will we spurn, instead delivering them into the hands of others who will utilise them for the opposite ends? 50% or more of the Jewish world is female, why in heaven and earth would we not invest the same time and effort in generating Torah teachers and leaders for that 50% and from that 50%?
Let me cite two examples.
Firstly, the project of the Yo’atzot Halacha (women trained to offer guidance to other women in matters of family purity) is a case in point. The statistics are blindingly clear – when a community has a woman in such a position, more women ask halachic queries because they feel more comfortable. It is a net gain to Halachic observance and fidelity to Jewish law and a strengthening of the home and connection to Hashem! It has a proven track record world-wide.
Secondly, as Chief Rabbi Mirvis of the UK put it recently, on his launch of the Ma’ayan Women’s Leadership programme, “There are large numbers of women in our communities who, for a variety of reasons, feel more comfortable asking a woman for advice or guidance on personal matters and related aspects of Jewish law. We have a responsibility to provide for them and this programme will help us a great deal in that regard.” He writes further and so eloquently, “The ability to harness the shining light of our mitzvot so that they do not become a blinding glare, is a very special gift which many with wisdom and experience have, enabling them to explain, guide and advise on matters of Torah observance. I have been privileged to meet women in the UK and abroad who are blessed with this gift and who are a great source of inspiration to others. Our communities should have the opportunity to harness the talent of such women, appointed in a formal capacity, to ‘enlighten the eyes’ of those around them.”
This is the sort of thinking and programming we need, and much more, and sooner rather than later. We have been blessed with G-d fearing, punctiliously observant, frummer than frum women Torah teachers. We should be way ahead of the curve, and way ahead of the extremists! We should have an army of learned, trained, committed women Torah teachers throughout our communities, ensuring that our women receive the same level of investment as our men. Instead, we seem content to let things trundle along as they have always have, and to relinquish the narrative to those whose agenda is fixated on what designation a woman teacher should have! We, mainstream Torah Jews, have created the vacuum which is being filled with the noise of extremists on either side of the equation.
Yes, there will always be those who would focus narrowly and anachronistically on achieving exact, complete, purist feminist parity. On the other hand, I have no doubt that even this earnest and temperate call for teachers will be twisted by some scaremongers on the opposite side, seeking to display rabid, anti-Halachic, suffragette monsters in every challenge to “the way we’ve always done things.” But concerns over extremists on either side do not justify our foregoing the opportunity to nurture, build and develop a Torah-faithful leadership who will help us conquer our current Egypts.
This Pesach, though, as we all sit around the table, learning and teaching, I suggest that it is our own future and that of our children, both sons and daughters, which lies in the balance.
I wonder, will we miss this curve?
Will we recoil from the messenger? Again?
I hope not.