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.