The OU Statement on Women: A Stern Student’s Perspective

Mindy Schwartz

About a year ago the Orthodox Union (OU) commissioned a rabbinic panel of seven prominent Orthodox rabbis to address the topic of female clergy in Orthodox synagogues. After meeting among themselves and with many other community leaders and laypeople over the course of several months, the panel issued their final ruling: women cannot serve as clergy members in Orthodox synagogues. An explanation of the psak by the panel was released alongside a statement by the OU about three weeks ago.

The whole affair, which has been extensively covered by news outlets, communal figures, and laypeople alike, touches on countless issues relating to female involvement in Orthodox Jewish spiritual life beyond the question of female clergy. These complex issues have already been treated by many individuals far more qualified than myself to discuss communal matters, halacha, or women’s topics. Still, as a student at Stern I do feel compelled to speak about one particular issue noted in the ruling of the rabbinic panel — advanced Torah learning for women.

The rabbinic panel, in its statement elaborating on its final decision, endorsed advanced Torah learning for women as a communal good: “The spiritual growth of our community is dependent upon a steady stream of talented women both serving as role models and teachers, and filling positions of influence. As a community, we need the best and brightest women – and men – to be motivated and well-trained to pursue careers in avodat hakodesh, whether in schools, synagogues or chesed organizations.”

The OU was sure to note this stance in their accompanying statement: “the Panel has […] proclaimed – and celebrated – the important, and fundamentally successful roles that women can and must play within our communal and synagogue structures, including as educators and scholars [….] As articulated by the Rabbinic Panel, women can and should teach Torah, including at advanced and sophisticated levels; give shiurim and divrei Torah.”

The OU’s statement on the psak even went so far as to commit the organization to “removing barriers that impede women from further contributing to our community, in halachically appropriate ways.”

Out of the seven Rabbis who served on the OU’s panel, six are currently serving as YU Roshei Yeshiva or faculty. They are each inarguably prominent and influential members of the university. These spiritual leaders of YU have proclaimed – even celebrated – the importance of advanced Torah learning for women. As a halachic ruling is no place for ambiguities, I must presume that, since it was not otherwise noted, this celebration includes all types of advanced Torah study – Tanach, philosophy, halacha, history, and Talmud.

And so, as a student of Stern seeking advanced Talmud study as a part of my education, I read these portions of the statement with mixed feelings – I am at once encouraged and frustrated. My reaction is mixed for a simple reason: it is a fact of my university that as a Stern student, my opportunities for Talmud study at “advanced and sophisticated levels” are not equal to those of my male peers at YC, specifically those in the Yeshiva Program (YP) or Beit Midrash Program (BMP). And yet, despite this fact, here in these statements my university’s religious leaders tell me that they do value, even celebrate, advanced Torah study for women as a communal good. Here they tell me that women should be “well-trained to pursue careers in avodat hakodesh.” Could they possibly mean that women should be “well trained,” or teach on “advanced and sophisticated” levels just as men should, except when it comes to Talmud?

I readily acknowledge that I am–at least currently–a minority voice in the larger Stern student body. Certainly the many students who desire advanced Torah study but do not look for it in Talmud, are able find satisfaction at Stern, no less than their male counterparts are able to find it at YC. Stern undeniably offers superb, challenging courses in Jewish subjects ranging from Tanach to Jewish philosophy, and for that I am exceedingly grateful. But even in light of this, it is also undeniable that in terms of Talmud study the opportunities at Stern as compared to YC are gapingly scant. To be sure, the advanced, intermediate, and beginner-level Talmud courses offered each semester at Stern are certainly of a high quality. Still, an examination of the disparate educational realities at our institution make it difficult to deny an inequality in Talmud education for men and women at YU. Here are just a few of those realities that bear out this inequality.

A simple comparison of the hours allotted to Talmud study for a Stern student enrolled in advanced Talmud and a YC student enrolled in YP clearly demonstrates this imbalance in opportunities to develop sophisticated Talmud skills. Students in YP learn Sunday through Thursday b’chavruta for about three hours every morning, followed by an hour and half long shiur – totaling roughly 19 and a half hours of intensive Talmud study each week.

At Stern however, chavruta time for Talmud courses is not alloted for within the formal class schedule. Advanced Talmud students must find their own time to learn b’chavruta to prep each day’s sources. Given the difficulty in making additional time aside from a crowded course load in general in order to prepare, most students learn for about one hour b’chavruta each day. Adding to that time the hour and a half of class time for shiur Monday through Thursday, students engage in intensive Talmud study for roughly nine hours every week – less than half the time spent by  their male peers.

The Judaic education programs at YC and Stern themselves also result in an inequality in Talmud opportunities for male and female students. At YC, a student may choose between three different tracks of Torah study – the more “well rounded” IBC, similar to the Stern model, the intensively Talmud-focused YP, or even a slightly less intensively Talmud-focused BMP. Since naturally Talmud study does not appeal to everyone equally (or even at all), this system is primed for maximizing a student’s personal Jewish educational needs.

At Stern however, students do not choose from multiple tracks tailored to each person’s individual needs, but instead must take a set number of Jewish history, Jewish philosophy, Tanach, and Judaic Studies (Halacha or Talmud) courses. Although this does provide students with a “well rounded” Jewish education, it can force students to miss out on a semester or more of Talmud in order to fulfill some other one-size-fits-all requirement, as I myself experienced last semester. While the Jewish Studies department is eager to help students, including myself, find ways to take courses that appeal to them – even “bending” the distribution requirements at times – they can only do so much with the system given to them. Of course it is perfectly reasonable to require that each Stern student fulfill some sort of requirement for Jewish courses other than Talmud, as is done in YP and BMP, but to systematically force a student out of Talmud so she can sit in a second Jewish History class that does not match her personal educational proclivities is less defensible.

The set Jewish course requirements are not the only systemic problems that can inhibit a Stern student’s ability to take Talmud. Advanced Talmud is held in the first class slot each day, which can result in scheduling conflicts for students. Courses which students must take during specific semesters for their majors may be offered in just one slot a semester — in the first slot of the day. For example, Organic Chemistry is traditionally only offered in the first time slot, necessitating that any pre-med students miss at least one semester of Talmud to take the course. Students are thus unable to take Talmud in order to take a course for their major, instead of being able to enroll in both like their counterparts at YC. In a similar vein, although undergraduate participation in the Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS) is encouraged for those seeking advanced Talmud study beyond the undergraduate offerings, it is often not feasible for many students because of similar scheduling conflicts which surface not just in the first course slot, but for all morning slots of each day.

So with all of that in mind, as I read the ruling of the panel and the OU’s statement “celebrating” advanced Torah learning for women, I am on the one hand tempted to cry hypocrite, to roll my eyes and dismiss these words of support for women’s Torah learning as mere sugar to make the “medicine,” the ruling of the panel forbidding female clergy, go down easy. I am tempted to ask, How could they really mean this? Given the fact that my experience at Stern seems to at least in some significant ways contradict their “celebration” of Torah learning –of all types– for women, I must admit that I find such a jaded, cynical response to be perhaps somewhat justified.

However I am trying avoid the temptation of cynicism; in fact I plan to take these rabbis at their word and believe that they have sincerely committed to women’s advanced Torah learning. I chose this tack for two reasons. First, I think trusting in people’s sincerity, rather than assuming negative intentions, is simply a better way to interact with the world. But more importantly, I chose to believe that these rabbis are sincere because they are not just rabbis, but leaders of the YU community, which is my community. If I cannot have faith in them, then I am not sure why I am here at all.

I chose to believe in the sincerity of their endorsement for “advanced and sophisticated” Torah learning for women, and so my personal experience as a Stern student compels me to speak up.

The goal in dredging up these barriers is not to stew in frustration or throw blame, but to alert our community’s spiritual leaders of their presence so that they can begin the communal effort to remove them. Now that this support has been expressed, it is a perfect moment to bring any “barriers that impede women” from advanced learning to the forefront. As some of our most prominent leaders, these rabbis have powerful agency in matters of Torah education at our school. If advanced Torah learning for women matters to them, then they can spread that concern to the wider community. They can affect the attitude of the student body and with that support, show the university administration that this is a critical issue necessitates real solutions.

If we take our leaders at their word, if we read this statement with sincerity, then hopefully we can expect to see those solutions very soon.