Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Women, Gemara Learning, and Making Babies

Five years ago, a young couple moved into Oak Park and joined our shul. He was a Doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, she also a graduate student in Advanced Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. After a short period it became clear that this couple, and especially the young woman, had a great deal to offer the community, and I asked her if she would be willing to give a shiur to the women of the community on a regular basis.
She readily accepted the challenge, and for the past five years, (now Dr.) Shana Schick taught the only women's Gemara shiur in the metro Detroit area.
I, of course, never attended the shiur. But walking the halls of shul on Sundays, I'd sometimes peek into the Beit Midrash to see a group of women around the table, focused in concentration on a sugya, and get a deep sense of pride. Without fanfare and with a minimum of controversy, we were offering women yet another avenue to deepen their spiritual connection to Judaism.
I'm reminded of this scene because of recent news reports that Shana has finally defended her dissertation, and received her PhD in Talmud this summer. I know this because it's been a big news item recently. It appeared first in the JTA, then on Jpost and Ha'aretz.
“Orthodoxy has long emphasized the value of the study of Talmud,” Schick told JTA in an interview. “But Talmud study, which in yeshivot is the central focus of the religious duty to learn Torah, is still rarely emphasized as a vital part of women’s education.”
While it's a great achievement, hopefully she'll be the first of enough women earning advanced degrees in Talmud that they don't make the news. I'm really happy for Dr. Shick, and know that she'll make an important contribution to Torah learning here in Israel.
Yet, I found a thread of comments on the Jpost article about her saddening and disappointing. (It's dangerous to follow comment threads. The anonymity allows people to spout in truly disturbing ways. But I'll wade in nonetheless.) A commenter wrote,
this woman in 30 and has acheived a doctorate in Talmud, but it seems she is not married, and has not brought any children into the world (if I am mistaken, my apologies)...is this really so meritorious?
First of all, as many other comments noted, she is married and has been blessed with two children. But that fact is irrelevant to the larger point: How does her motherhood prevent her from learning Torah? How does it prevent her from earning a doctorate? Had she earned her PhD in biology, would anyone have batted an eye? Only when a woman chooses to engage in serious Torah study does it raise the "question" of whether she's fulfilling her duties as a mother.
I fear that the underlying attitude of the comment represents a more insidious and dangerous attitude that I think affects more of our community than we would like to admit. Too many (and I think this includes women as well, and many in the Modern Orthodox community) see women primarily as baby machines first, and anything else second. To people with this attitude, women's primary (and perhaps only) mission is to raise Jewish children after the Holocaust. (Somehow, Hitler always finds his way into these discussions, as if a woman learning Gemara isn't properly fighting the Nazis.)
But, by suggesting that women serve as baby-making-machines, we minimize the contributions that women can and must make to society, especially now that they have the opportunities to do so. Moreover, what about women who cannot have children? What about women who haven't found their "bashert"? Are they supposed to curl up in a corner, and hibernate until they find a proper sperm donor? This destructive attitude, to my mind, makes the shidduch crisis far worse than it needs to be, because it conveys the clear message to our young women that unless they're married and popping out kids, they're really just wasting their time.
And that's exactly what many of them do. Instead of growing, developing, working, earning another degree and building the world, they fall into such a state of despair that they're not doing what they "should" be, that they don't do anything meaningful at all. Either they really do "curl up," (at least figuratively), or they figure, "If I'm really just wasting time before I get married, I might as well have fun," frittering away potentially productive years, and instead of earning a PhD in their early thirties, find themselves in the very same place they were when they finished college, only they're not ten years older (and not much wiser).
So Ladies, contrary to the foolish commenters on the interwebs and their ilk (of which there are many), I hope you reject the attitude that insists that you're mainly baby machines. With God's help, you either have or will be blessed with the gift of children, but the advancements that women have made over the past hundred years don't just give you rights. They bring responsibilities as well.
So start learning Gemara (if that interests you). Or Chumash. Or biology. Join a shul (and pay membership dues.) Get on the Finance committee or the Social Action committee of your local Jewish Day school's board. Encourage your friends to do something meaningful for your community. Join the board of your local JCC. Or the public library. Or your local food bank. Get another degree - in Talmud - or in whatever interests you. (Note: All of these suggestions apply to single men as well.)
But never allow yourself to fall into the baby-machine trap. Because, as disgusting as it is, I fear that too many Modern Orthodox women have allowed a backwards, and truly disturbing mindset, to creep into their psyches, preventing them from becoming the women they can and should truly be.