A Call for the End of Torah Lishma

We have not figured out adult education in our shul yet. No matter how enticing the class is, or at what time of day it is offered, we get remarkably few attendees. So, a few years ago, we ran a small experiment.  We offered our regular adult education classes, and in addition we offered a few courses where the adult learners would receive a certificate at the end of their study, in a public ceremony.  The learning was goal-oriented – not just learning Torah lishma (for its own sake).  Rather, the student received tangible documentation of their studies. 

The response to this experiment was fascinating.  Many new faces appeared, and all seemed to enjoy the chance to concretize their learning with a certificate.  

Talmud Torah, Torah study, is the corner stone of our tradition.  Moses learned Jewish law from God, and he passed it onto Joshua, who passed it onto the Elders, who passed it onto the Prophets and so on and so forth.  Study is what has kept our tradition alive and kicking.  Through the centuries, Jews have studied for the mere joy and wonder of Torah study.  

And today, there is still a groundswell of young people studying Torah lishma. The ubiquitous practice of taking a year to study abroad in yeshiva post-high school is providing teens with a gift of self -knowledge and Torah study—for no other reason than to study Torah.

For Orthodox men, the study of Torah for its own sake ends in post-high school euphoria.  After that, boys must become responsible adults. For those of who can’t resist the constant beckon of Torah knowledge, it becomes their profession.  Men can learn for semikha, and become professional Torah scholars—pulpit rabbis and teachers. 

But goal-oriented learning is not yet an option for women.  The current institutions of higher Torah learning for women are not degree programs.  While I was at Drisha, there was some discussion about connecting the Scholars Circle to a masters program, so that the women would have a substantive degree after dedicating three years to Torah study.  It never happened. The Stern program (GPATS) is apparently trying to go in that direction.  But this has left women with few venues in which they can use their Torah knowledge to help make a living. 

You see, Torah lishma has its place.  But by creating institutions that only offer women opportunities to study lishma sends a message that our community is hesitant to teach women how to integrate their Torah knowledge into the world.  The message we send is: It’s acceptable to educate women. Let them even study halakha and Jewish law. But it should just be for their personal edification. 

Yes, women do become teachers in Jewish day schools, professors of Jewish Studies in Ivy League universities and executives of Jewish non-profits.  Fortified with advanced Torah knowledge, they are tremendous assets to these institutions and their impact is undeniable.  But more often than not, these women have forged their own career paths, attaining graduate degrees in other areas to put them on par with their male peers. Imagine if there were an institution that had the guts to not only teach women how to learn, but to give women the skills to be able to integrate their Torah knowledge into the practical world.  What if learning was goal-oriented, degree focused (read: semikha) rather than merely study for the sake of study itself?  The number of bright and gifted women who would become engaged in Jewish communal leadership would increase ten-fold.  

This is just one of many reasons why Rabbi Weiss and I are opening up Yeshivat Mahara”t, an institution that does not encourage only Torah lishma.  This will be a place that will train Orthodox female spiritual leaders.  They will learn how to integrate halahkic material into everyday situations.  They will leave ready to apply the black and white words in real life. 

The response to Yeshivat Mahara”t has already been overwhelming.  Applicants are enthralled by the opportunity to finally have something to show for their years of shteiging away. Yeshivat Mahara”t is a call to all those women who want to put their Torah scholarship into action, and ultimately pass it along and share it with others.  Women who complete the rigorous training of Yeshivat Mahara”t will leave with a credential that establishes their qualifications as spiritual leaders.  And it’s about time.

15 Responses to A Call for the End of Torah Lishma

  1. With all due respect, it’s a bit disingenuous for you to call for some kind of recognition and then promote this creature called maharat which has no meaning, no standing, no use, no status, no recognition, and no possibility of helping a woman actually get a job anywhere.

    I would say, it’s a big farce and quite hypocritical. It’s lip service for an idea that you’re not really willing to support yourself.

    If you really believed in what you write here, that women need recognition, you would have insisted that women receive smicha, not some made-up little name that has no real meaning whatsoever.

    Dr. Elana Sztokman

  2. אמרו חכמים, כל הנהנה מדברי תורה, נטל חייו מן העולם. ועוד ציוו ואמרו, לא תעשם עטרה להתגדל בהם, ולא קורדום לחפור בהם.

  3. Yonatan says:

    Dr. Sztokman,

    You are being uncharitable. You cannot expect Ms. Hurwitz to bite the hands that feed her and complain against the bone that she has been thrown.

    At least she is being honest about Torah being a “Kardum Lachgor Bah” and both she and her baal habatim really don’t believe in Torah Lishmah.

  4. shlomo says:

    “A Call for the End of Torah Lishma”

    I thought Torah Lishma is the highest level of learning?

  5. Meir says:

    “For those of who can’t resist the constant beckon of Torah knowledge, it becomes their profession. Men can learn for semikha, and become professional Torah scholars—pulpit rabbis and teachers.”

    Most men realize that if you love learning, do not become a rabbi. Either go to Kollel or get a job where there is enough time to learn. Only if you like teaching or counseling should you become a Rabbi. Which Rabbi’s spends their time learning?

  6. Aabye Felderstein says:

    I think the title of this post was a bit inflamatory — and is being used by other posters as an all too easy pretext to take sanctimonious pot shots — but the point of the post is good. While Maharat Hurwitz would obviosuly acknowledge the value of learning for its own sake — who wouldn’t? — her point is that the previous revolution in women’s learning stressed education for the purpose of self-edification and personal and intellectual growth. But there is also a practical element to Torah study which is to guide others in the practice of Judaism, even — God forbid — as a Rabbi who takes a salary. Maharat Hurwitz’ point is that we as a modern orthodix community should recognize this and create opportunities for this type of practical learning for women as well.

    As for Dr. Sztokman, she clearly enjoys sztoking the fire, and I can’t blame her for being a purist. But assailing Maharat Hurwitz for taking a first and important step is unfair. Apparently, in Sztokman’s world, eveyone is a maximalist and there is no room for compromize or incrementalism. The world is unfair, and change is slow; but change happens….

  7. Lamelle Ryman says:

    Disingenuous? Hypocritical? Hey, that’s my Maharat you’re talking about! In all seriousness, I do think that there is a way to dialogue on this issue without the harshness. I, for one, am proud to be witnessing some movement in the direction of women having an avenue for communal recognition, regardless of what title is being bestowed. As for getting jobs, there are already a handful of Orthodox communities across the globe employing and recognizing women as spiritual leaders, so we already know it IS possible. And as for “no meaning, no standing, no use (etc.),” tell that to my 4-year-old, whom when I mentioned someone named Sara the other day said, “Oh, you mean like Maharat Sara?” It’s my daughter and her contemporaries that will reap the most from sewing these seeds. We have a chance here to work toward upholding our sacred obligation to repair the world. Let’s not let it slip through our fingers.

  8. Hyim Shafner says:

    The first time the Jewish People pray as a nation, after crossing the sea, Moshe leads the men in prayer and then Miriam leads the women. Why? Why wasn’t Moshe’s leadership good enough for the women too? If we look close we see that the women prayed in a very different way than the men, with tambourines and with dancing, not so the men. Maybe Miriam and the women not only had more faith (Rash”I), but a different vision of and relationship to God. I don’t think the Jewish people can thrive without that vision.

  9. While it may be true that a handful of Orthodox communities seek out women leaders, there is not a single one that would have a woman WITHOUT a man in a supervisory rabbinic role on top of her. Even in Rabbi Weiss’ shul, men who are just rabbinic students are called “Rav” while women are not, and these men thus have a higher status over the women leaders who have more learning and have actually passed tests (and i would be willing to bet that they have a higher pay as well.)

    By creating “Maharat” we are ensuring that women will never achieve rabbi. They will always be assistant to, helper to, guide to, inferior to the men with the “real” job, ie rabbi. Maharat is for women and rabbi is for men. That is the message. By using the term Maharat, we are cementing gender inequality and creating a defined inferior role for women that will soon be stuck in stone, and then women will never be able to be called Rabbi.

    (In addition to which, how many job listings for “Wanted: Maharat” are even out there? How many would we realistically expect?)

    And as for the four your old who’s delighted about this, contrast the comment to Maharat Hurwitz’s own son who said, “Only men can be rabbis.”


  10. Lilee says:

    I think change has to begin somewhere. The decision was made not to come on like gangbusters and offer women smicha and the title “Rabbi.”

    So be it.

    Just as celebrating bat mitzva and commemorating Yom Hashoah in the MO community took time, so too in the years ahead we will see progress on this front as well.

  11. Yakov says:

    When women talk about equal rights, they are gangbusters????
    Now THAT is pretty harsh

  12. Holy Hyrax says:

    By using the term Maharat, we are cementing gender inequality and creating a defined inferior role for women that will soon be stuck in stone, and then women will never be able to be called Rabbi.

    I don’t suppose that Judaism holds the same level of “equality” that western norms hold. A lot of Judaism is about roles and separation. Something that modern man has some trouble with.

  13. moshe shoshan says:

    Of course nishmat has been doing this for years with great success and with relatively little resistance from the orthodox community. I think it is only appropriate that you acknowledge this. Are you studying them as a model?

  14. Braveheart says:

    While I feel the title of this post is inflammatory, Maharat Hurwitz brings up one very important point- Torah Lishmah is not really an attitude held by most Modern Orthodox Jews who are not sitting to learn in institutions such as YU and their affiliated programs. Most Modern Orthodox Jews take the approach that the goal is to learn the necessary halachos, maybe shteig threw a few masechtos, and pass the semoicha faher, and instantly, one becomes a Rabbi and Talmid Chochom. As someone else said, how many rabbis are engaged in heavy torah learning when pedagogy and counseling/performing lifecycles and preparing drashas are the center of their lives?

    This is why one sees that in more “black-hat” communities, the typical baalebatim are more learned than the MO rabbi in many cases. A 10 year old Chassidishe kid can generally quote Gemaras, Rashis, Tosfos and Maharshas off the top of their heads. The same can’t be said for the 20-something graduate of a MO institution such as YCT. IN THE WORDS OF R’ ALAN BRILL, who taught at YCT, “their rabbis know nothing.”

    While this may seem acerbic, experience has shown this to be true. While a title is nice and convenient, it is not what HaShem desires from bnei yisroel. He wants us to learn diligently and to engage in ameilus b’torah. Regardless of what field you are in, one must learn at every opportunity possible.

    There is a temptation to stop learning and assume you know everything after you get semicha or a klaf maharat (?) One can never learn the same thing twice and think of it the same exact way. We have a chiyuv to learn kol ha torah. How about learning through every daf of the yeshvishe masechtos with rishonim and achronim? And then proceeding to the Kodshim and Taharos masechtos. How about learning through all of the meforshim on Tanach, and then doing the same for mishnayos? Mastering Mishnayos with all of their meforshim. Learning through other areas of halacha, such as Chosen Mishpat and Even Ha Ezer, even if you don’t want to become a posek or dayan. And let’s not forget all of the works of drush, mussar, aggadeta, chassidus and machshava and kabbalah? This is all torah, yet so many of those considered to be “the best and brightest” of Modern Orthodoxy are ignorant of these areas, and are merely knowledgable of what they need to know for the semicha or the graduate degree. As evidenced by the title of the post, learning for the sake of learning is clearly not a goal for Modern/Open Orthodoxy. Instead, the emphasis is on earning the recognition and accolades of mortals. Here’s an idea- devote yourself to learning backwards and forwards, master masechta after masechta and sefer after sefer, and people will notice and give you the honor due to a talmid chochom. A degree is good for professional purposes. Let us not turn the torah given to us by HaShem into a crapshoot and mechanism for career development.

  15. Apikorus says:

    Dr. Sztokman is correct. The maharat title is window dressing and a slap in the face to women everywhere. Women have no business being Orthodox Rabbis until the Orthodox synagogues/Rabbis allow them to be counted in a minyan etc. as men are. At least the Conservative movement is not hypocritical- their women should be Rabbis and are and are treated with true equality. Rabbi Weiss’ efforts here are simply attention grabbing headlines- as he has always done. He sets back women’s rights in Judaism, not advancing them.

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