Of Revolutionary Women and Straw Men

Cross posted to Hirhurim.
I do not envy the task that Michal Tukochinsky set for herself in writing “How Women’s Talmud Study is Unique” (New York Jewish Week, April 12, 2011). She wishes to describe how the new (second) generation of women’s Talmud study differs from the first, differs from men’s Talmud study, and yet remains part of the halakhic community despite its discomfort—typical of all traditional communities—with revolutions. Unfortunately, in order to accomplish this task, she oversimplifies the contrast groups while grossly understating the current state of women’s (or feminine, or feminist) Talmud study. The result is a flawed view of the uniqueness and contribution of the program she heads.

To begin with, she certainly does not give much credit to the pioneering women who first entered the male-dominated world of Talmud study. She unflatteringly describes these women as modeling themselves after and “aping” the manner in which their male counterparts studied Talmud. To be sure, many of these pioneering women may have been motivated, consciously or otherwise, by the prospect of breaking into a typically masculine world. Indeed, many traditionalist opponents of this first generation accused them of just that. However, such motivation, even when present, would not render them methodological copycats. They wished to learn Talmud from whoever was willing to teach it. The reality was that they found willing teachers in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and his disciples, thus exposing them to one specific methodology, which also happened to be highly conceptual and famously devoid of “worldly awareness” in its talmudic analysis.

Tukochinsky’s second error, perhaps related to the first generation’s limited exposure to various methodologies, lies in describing the entire world of male Talmud study in terms that apply to only one school of thought within it. Granted, this school, the “Brisker” school founded by Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik more than a century ago, became the dominant methodology in the world of yeshivot, conquering, in turn, Lithuanian, greater European, and ultimately even Sephardic institutions. From a historical perspective, however, the Brisker school is a relative newcomer and never even came close to monopolizing Talmud study worldwide. Much of Tukochinsky’s critique may be justifiably applied to this school, but there are and always have been other ways of learning that she may admit are more “feminine,” or less “isolated from the world.”

Relating to some of these other ways of reading and studying Talmud makes it difficult indeed to defend the uniqueness of Tukochinsky’s beit midrash. For centuries, the dominant Sephardic mode of Talmud study was “aliba de-hilkheta” – with the specific goal of eventual application of the Talmud to life. Although not terribly popular in mainstream yeshivot, its practitioners included those who emerged as the greatest poskim, including, inter alia, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and the still-living Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. It is no accident that those who studied Talmud with an eye on “life itself” earned the trust of the community when it came to applying the Talmud to life.

In 1986, Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin published Le livre brûlé, Lire le Talmud, in which Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Blanchot, and other European thinkers are brought to bear on the Talmud and other traditional Jewish texts (here’s an excellent review). It was published in English in 1995 as The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud. Indeed, Derrida himself was no foreigner to the world of the Talmud; a major influence on him—though they certainly had their differences—was the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who notably articulated many of his philosophical teachings in the form of talmudic readings (three volumes of which have thus far been translated into English, and two into Hebrew).

There is still much good to be gained from studying Talmud in light of postmodern continental philosophers. However, to relate to it as unprecedented or revolutionary ignores at least 25 years and arguably a half century of French-Jewish intellectual creativity. The fact that the circles that comprised “Vilna on the Seine” are little-known outside the Francophone Jewish community may say something about the creativity of Tukochinsky’s student, but cannot possibly say anything about how the second generation of women’s Talmud study is revolutionary.

There has, in fact, been a feminist revolution in Talmud study, though Tukochinsky makes no mention of it. The late Chana Safrai, a pioneering Orthodox feminist, was arguably the first to apply the feminist critique to the Talmud from within a traditional context. Daniel Boyarin’s Carnal Israel (1993) is already considered a classic work of feminist Talmud study. More recently, Tal Ilan has begun a large project, the Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, of which several volumes have already been published. Rather than relating to some unique or creative or new method of Talmud study and attributing it to the women’s revolution, these works directly address how gender shaped the worldview of those who produced the Talmud.

In other circles, the second generation of women's Talmud study has taken different contours. Talmud study for women is taken for granted to the point that it is no longer seen as a revolution. The self-consciousness of being revolutionary that characterized the first generation is diminishing among their daughters. Furthermore, by the time many young women graduate high school, they are as bored with and turned off to Talmud study as their male counterparts (though hardly because of a desire to imitate them). It is significant that the second generation, in many respects, is NOT characterized by revolution.
In the final analysis, however, there is clearly a difference between the first and second generations of women studying Talmud, which coincides with broader shifts in the general world of talmudic scholarship. The Talmud has always been “broader than the sea,” endlessly mined, using a dizzying variety of hermeneutical tools, to create sense and meaning for living Jews. In today’s universities, yeshivot, and rabbinical schools, one can find men and women reading the Talmud according to the Brisker method, in light of legal theory, source-, form-, and gender-critically, in comparison with contemporaneous Christian, Zoroastrian, or Sectarian texts, with an eye on the dominant Roman and Persian cultures, as literature, as a mystical tract, or as a guide to life.

One may argue that some of these modes of reading are more “masculine” or “feminine” than others—whether practiced by men or women. However, that would mask the exciting reality that different people with different ways of thinking are applying their prodigious talents and creativity to a text that has long been the lifeblood of the Jewish people. There is no doubt that women Talmud scholars still face barriers to advancement in yeshivot and even universities. Let us hope, along with Michal Tukochinsky, that these barriers erode, allowing women to more fully add their voices to the diverse, exciting, and ever-expanding world of Talmud study.

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