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My Life in Talmud Torah (With Emphasis on Talmud): Loss (Part 2)

Part 1 here.

It was July 1997.

I had just turned eighteen years old and had spent at least twelve years working my ass off in day school so I could get good grades and get into a good college. I had gotten the good grades (mostly), been accepted to the good college, and was about to take a year off to go and study in Israel. First, though, I worked full-time in June and August in Boston, so that I could spend July in New York City, living with a lovely couple with three sons on the Upper West Side, and studying Torah full-time.

I couldn't get enough of Torah. Torah had been like a drug for me towards the end of high school, which was a bit of a rocky time for me emotionally. It was some sort of panacea or a life raft. I clung to it with all my might, in the belief that it, and only it, had the power to save me by righting all the many wrongs that I identified in the Orthodox Judaism in which I had been raised.

I was young and idealistic. I had had a young (far younger than I am now), idealistic, male teacher in high school who had promised me that women learning Torah on a high level would remake the world of halacha and cure all that ailed The System. I believed him. (See this and this for more on that youthful vision, particularly as it relates to Orthodoxy vis-a-vis feminism.) I loved learning Gemara, in particular. At the summer program for high school students that I attended in July 1997, I learned from the best teacher I had ever had, a recent graduate of their unique "I can't believe it's not smicha [rabbinic ordination]!" certificate program. (Yes, it was called that even then.) All the cool people--the thoughtful people, the people who cared about the things that I cared about--seemed to be professional learners and teachers of Torah. I thought I might study in Israel for a year, go to college, and return to this institution or another to collect my own "I can't believe it's not smicha!" certificate. I was the cream of the Modern Orthodox intellectual crop; I was hope for the future of Modern Orthodoxy. I was told that it was for people like me that the founder of my day school had created it. I had questions, of various theological sorts, but they were taken seriously and I was promised that, in time and with enough learning, I would find answers.

And then I went to Israel. And there, in what I always thought of as yeshiva, they told me, "The world is not ready for women to learn Gemara five days a week."1 I knew that this was not true, since I had been learning Gemara five days a week since I was twelve years old, and had just done it for the entire month of July--five mornings a week and one or two evenings a week of night seder--and the world had not said, "Boo." I was not the only one who wanted Gemara five days a week. Several of us, in the highest Gemara class available to us first year students, petitioned the administration for more Gemara, and they said no. We gave them a very logical reason for wanting more Gemara, namely, that with Gemara on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we spent each Monday reviewing the complicated material, especially the ever-convoluted rishonim, especially as taught through the not-always-textually-accurate-although-it-claims-airtight-logic Brisker method, from the previous Wednesday, since it had all but been forgotten in the intervening four days. They told us that if we stayed in Israel for a second year, at their esteemed institution, that we could have Gemara five days a week.

None of us took them up on the offer. Instead, we went back to the US, to our Ivy League institutions, were nobody told us that we could not get the same education as men because "the world wasn't ready for us." (I did get permission to skip regular Sunday and Thursday morning Jewish thought classes to learn Talmud with another student who had joined the petition for additional Gemara.)

I was not in Israel in isolation. I was there with my male classmates. I spent the Pesach break at a male yeshiva, witnessing, firsthand, while the men were gone, the facilities that were dedicated to men's Torah study. I saw the organic community (no need to import a minyan of opposite-gender people in order to daven as a community!), the beit midrash (large and well-stocked!), the dining hall (three meals a day! no need to take time away from Torah to go grocery shopping and cook!), and the library (well-stocked!). I saw what I suddenly knew, in my heart of hearts, that I would never, ever have.

That year, as I learned more about halacha, I believed in it less. Based on what seemed to be to be hard and fast, intractable problems in halacha--including but not limited to the fact that women could never form their own autonomous prayer group, saying dvarim she'bikdusha--it didn't look like I would be able to get the kind of intense, all-consuming yeshiva-based Torah education that I craved, and that even if I somehow managed to acquire the learning, it didn't look like I would ever be able to have or live a Judaism that would be, well, truly, if I was utterly honest with myself, intellectually palateable. I would also be on the sidelines, unable to really daven the way a person should without the importation of a minyan of men, and never truly respected for my opinion.

I came back to the US without a vision for a future for myself in Jewish learning. The pain I felt at the time is still palpable today. I wasn't sure that I wanted to keep Shabbat or kashrut. I started off my college career attending minyan three times a day, then gradually reduced to once a day, and pretty soon, I was only going on Shabbat, and not too long after that, I stopped going to shul on Shabbat. (I never stopped going to kiddush or Shabbat meals at Hillel, even though I sometimes left them early. Thank God for my unhealthy food issues!) I never really even tried to learn in college.

Oh, that's not quite true. I didn't want to give up that all-consuming vision or dream that I had had, so I went to New York, back to the institution of which I had so many happy memories, for a week of learning over Christmas break. I felt nothing inside. It was boring, empty, and meaningless.

Then I went back to Israel and studied for a few weeks at another institution at which I had been happy during my year in Israel (not the one that denied me full access to the Torah to which I clung). It was an unmitigated disaster. I found Gemara boring and halacha pedantic. Someone told us that the Rambam said that it was not assur, but merely inadvisable, to hug one's brother/sister (of the opposite gender). The teacher made some kind of big deal out of the fact that the Rambam had not outright forbidden hugging one's sibling, as if that was some kind of prize to cling to. That pretty much sealed the deal: This whole Jewish learning thing--heck, this whole adherence to the formalism of halacha thing--was absolutely not for me.

But, I needed the community. I never stopped needing the community. When I no longer cared about learning or davening, I went to shul for the community. I was lucky to have friends who learned and davened and made Shabbat meals, and that kept me in. The world is too huge and lonely a place without Shabbat and the community that traditional observance of Shabbat automatically creates--of people who live within walking distance of each other, of people who play Taboo and Set and Trivial Pursuit together, of people who sponsor seudat shlishit in memory of their dearly departed.

In college, I immersed myself in the study of history and gender, and recognized that the rabbis were all right--feminism was a dangerous thing. Sojourner Truth spoke to me in a way that no rabbi I had never met or whose words I had ever read had. I found my voice, in college, as a writer, a journalist, and student of history and gender--the voice that had been so clearly denied me within the organized Jewish community. I articulated, sometimes only to myself and sometimes to others, a position of suspicion of halacha and halachic practice based on my studies of history and gender, and I felt the pain of generations of women who had come before and been denied full participation in society, in democracy, and in decision-making bodies over the centuries. I tried davening at the egalitarian minyan, but it felt like someone was putting a bandaid over the gaping wound of Jewish history's relationship to the role of women, and, anyway, I liked hanging out with people who knew and talked Torah and got my mishna jokes, and that was, unfortunately, not so true in the egalitarian community, despite it's relatively high level of Jewish education.

I left college alienated from the organized Jewish community and the learning of my youth. If I learned Torah at all (and of course I did--what else are you going to do when you're bored and sitting in a place with sefarim?), it was despite my year in Israel four years earlier, not because of it.

1. This is a direct quote. It was seared into my brain instantly and has never left. If people only knew the impact of their words, especially their words of discouragement, maybe they would think before they spoke....

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There are times when I am very grateful that I am not Orthodox. I don't realize how much I take for granted until I go into the Orthodox world and see women excited to be able to do things that I very much take for granted. (Though I should note that I studied Talmud five days a week in middle school and high school - and both of those were Orthodox.)
Is there going to be a Part 3, explaining how you got from your alienated after-college state, to where you are now? Because, after all, you are learning full time now, even after a less than perfect learning experience last year, so something must have changed.
Taylweaver--I totally hear that. I am mostly happy that I was raised Orthodox, at least through age 17 (after which the massive educational inequity struck with full force). I don't actually think that I would have had more educational opportunities, as a woman, outside of the Orthodox world. The "serious learners" in the non-Orthodox world almost universally take advantage of educational institutions either officially part of the Orthodox yeshiva world, or run by male products of it. It would have been nice to have learned to layn and be comfortable with leading prayer publically at a medium age, though. (I did when I was very young, at an Orthodox day school--we had hazzanim and hazzaniyot at Lubavitch!) That's my main regret regarding the denomination of my early upbringing. I don't think that I missed out on much else.

MJG--There will be a Part 3 (eventually). Have no fear!
That's really quite sad about all that discouragement.
btw, I love the term "the not-always-textually-accurate-although-it-claims-airtight-logic Brisker method"
Great post! As someone who has come to Orthodox Judaism later in life (and struggle with many things about it), this is a refreshing read.
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