It was about ten years ago (I am now 36) that I discovered how exciting the study of Jewish text could be -from Torah and midrashim, to Prophets, to Talmud, to Medieval Rabbinic commentary. For me, text study has opened a door into an exhilarating, rich, multi-layered, and complex world of theology, philosophy, ethics, social justice, psychology, legal theory, and politics, from a Jewish world view. Text study, and the invitation that it brings to reflect upon, question, and actively shape one’s sense of what it means to be Jewish in the world, has played a large role in shaping my identity as a Jewish woman.
It is within this context that I want to relay a troubling conversation I had the other day with our Hasidic friends over Purim dinner. When we get together, they often ask: “So, what are you so studying these days”? In the past, we have gotten into chumash conversations, or conversations about Tanya. All was fine. This time it was different. I excitedly told them that I was studying women and Jewish law, and that we were tracing current halachot all the way back through to their origins in Torah, and examining how the origin of the laws evolved to how they are practiced today. This of course requires study of Talmud. Now I know that talmud study for women in my friends’ community is not something that is systematically institutionalized. Nevertheless, I was surprised by the conversation that was to follow. Both the husband and the wife met my disclosure about what I was studying with great suspicion. Why, they wanted to know, would I be examining talmudic texts? What was my ‘motivation’ in studying the mishnah or gemarah on an issue when we have the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). Why look back? Was it simply for intellectual curiosity they wanted to know? Looking back, they insisted, would be of no help or value in determining how to practice a certain halacha today – which, in their eyes, took precedence over anything else.
Surprisingly, the wife vocalized even more suspicion and concern than her husband. Very bluntly, she warned, “if not done with the right teacher and the right motivation, what you are doing could be very dangerous”. “Dangerous”, I asked, “how so”? She explained the fear that people could inappropriately use the talmud to justify and legitimize changing current halacha and overriding the Shulchan Aruch in the process.
A lengthy conversation ensued, in particular about the value and importance of text study for women. The gist of their position can be summarized as follows: First and foremost, Judaism is about ‘doing’, specifically, about keeping the mitzvos. In the absence of keeping all the mitzvos (referring to people like me who do not live within a strictly halachic framework) spending time studying Talmud, for example, is more than just ridiculous, but is politically very dangerous with respect to where it could lead i.e. the potential questioning or undermining of the halachic system. To put it another way, my friends primary and indeed ultimate concern is the practice and preservation of halacha. The way in which I was studying, they feared, not only didn’t ensure the practice of halachic Judaism, but potentially undermined it. Basically, it just didn’t make sense to them Jewishly. The husband put forward an analogy to help express this puzzle for him. He said, its like wanting to buy a car with all the best and latest technology, but not even having a driver’s license. Part of what was troubling to me about this conversation was that on a certain level something resonated with me about the argument. Yes, Judaism is about the doing. While study is at the very cornerstone of Judaism, at the same time, study must lead to action, or else there is something going wrong.
What concerns me though about my friends’ particular formulation of this problem is the approach to Judaism that rests at its foundation – an ‘all or nothing’ attitude. Basically, ‘you want to study Talmud or some obscure midrash, fine, first do all the mitzvos, then maybe we can talk’. It leaves little room for multiple expressions of our Jewish selves by creating an inside/outside dualism which pivots on the notion that there is only one ‘authentic’ way of being Jewish.
So, back to Jewish text study. Unlike my friends, I don’t want to get caught in what I see as the confining trap of looking at study strictly in terms of how it will refine my daily practice of halacha. This is far too narrow. Rather, I like to look at text study as a wonderfully open invitation. An invitation to delve into an ongoing, dynamic, and rich conversation, which has been going on for thousands of years, about the ways in which I can express myself as a Jewish women in the world. In short, an invitation to engage Jewishly in the world.