It has long been my contention that if you want to understand the mindset of the ultra-Orthodox world in Israel and in the Diaspora today, one must first learn how to think like one. Having been once an ultra-Orthodox Jew, I thought it would be helpful to deconstruct their way of thinking, which is probably a mystery to most normal thinking people.
וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ — You shall teach them to your children . . . (Deut. 6:7).
The Talmud in tractate Kiddushin 29b discusses the scriptural obligation of teaching children Torah and its limitations. Commenting on the Mishnah’s directive, “a father is obligated to teach his son Torah,” the Talmud later asks: “How do we know it? — Because it is written, “you shall teach them unto your sons” (Deut. 6:7). If his father failed to instruct him in Torah study, he is obligated to teach himself, for it is said, “ and you shall study …”
But does the mother have a duty to instruct Torah to her children? The answer to this question is not as obvious as it might seem. According to the Talmudic scholars, “The mother has no legal obligation to provide instruction since she is exempt from Torah study herself, and anyone who is exempt from Torah study has no obligation to instruct others!”
Obviously, the Talmudic discussion reveals some harsh economic realities of the age; unlike today, most families could not afford to provide a Jewish education to all their children. In terms of the hierarchy of responsibility, men had to first provide themselves with a good Jewish education so that they could teach their children. However, if a child was exceptional, the son took priority. With respect to a woman who was struggling to provide food on her table, the Sages out of compassion exempted her for survival of the family mattered most. If she could not provide her children with an education, the responsibility fell upon the community itself (Kiddushin 29b).
Scriptural proofs more often than not are used as props for already existing social practices; this was undoubtedly the case in the centuries that followed the destruction of the Temple. Needless to say, בָנֶיךָ “your children,” invariably meant all children—sons and daughters alike, and one would be hard pressed to cite examples in the Tanakh where it is otherwise.
In summary, the Talmudic discussion all depends interpretation on how literal one wishes to translate the word בָנֶיךָ “your children,” which many of the Sages understood as referring to בָּנִים—male children and not בָּנוֹת “daughters.”
While economics plays an important role in the development of the Halacha, so too does misogyny; one could say that misogyny is the original sin of human civilization–and its roots certainly can be traced throughout the bible, when Adam blames Eve for the problems of humankind.
Early rabbinical thinking reflected here certainly is consistent with the majority of Sages of Late Antiquity, but not everyone concurs. The Mishnah in Sotah 3:4 records the view of Simeon ben Azzai, who argues that a father is obligated to instruct Torah to his daughter since the term בָּנִים can just as easily refer to daughters as well!
However, R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus differs and probably reflects an attitude that was quite prevalent: “R. Eliezer says, ‘Whosoever teaches his daughter Torah, is as though he taught her lewdness.’” Rabbi Eliezer’s attitude becomes even clearer when we read one famous passage from the Jerusalem Talmud that expands upon his attitude: “A certain woman posed the following question to Rabbi Eliezer: Why did the sin of the golden calf involve three different types of death penalties? He replied to her: “A woman’s wisdom is only in her spinning wheel, for it is written “All the women who were expert spinners. . .” (Exod. 35:25). His son, Hyrcanus, said: Why did you not give her a proper answer from the Torah? Now you have cost me 300 kur of wheat, which amounts to a year in tithe!” He replied: “Better for the words of the Torah to be burnt and not be given to women!” When she went out, the students asked him: “You chased this woman away, but what kind of answer are you going to give to us?”133
Back to the Future: Well, sort of …
Now, let us teleport our minds to the 13th century and see how Maimonides softens the Halacha, but still upholds the attitude that women should not study Torah; he writes, “However, if a father is determined to teach his daughter Torah, there is nothing harmful being done.” This reflects a dramatic shift away from R. Eliezer’s famous admonition. He writes, ”A woman who studies Torah is rewarded, but not as much as a man is, for the reason that she has not been commanded to study. Anyone who does something voluntarily is not rewarded as much as someone who is obligated to carry out a religious duty. Even though she is rewarded for learning, the Sages commanded that one should not teach Torah to one’s daughter, most women don’t have the mentality for learning, and they think of Torah matters as being nonsensical. When the Sages said that “teaching one’s daughter Torah is like teaching her trivialities.” This is talking only about the Oral Torah, however, nevertheless shouldn’t teach her the Written Torah either, but if one did it is not like teaching her trivialities.”2
In short, Maimonides’ freedom of thought is impressive, but in this case it seems more logical to presume that Maimonides’ decision was most likely influenced by the misogyny of Greek, rabbinic, and Muslim culture. Women in Muslim society did not enjoy many of the same liberties of women in Christian European society.
Now in the Present …
Seventy years ago, R. Yisrael Meir Kagan (a.k.a. the Hafetz Haim) supported and gave permission Sara Schneirer permission to establish Bais Yaakov, a network of schools for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) girls. This bold move went against the ban on teaching girls Torah. Hafetz Haim argued that there was nothing to fear from this, and openly recognized that new circumstances could alter halakhic rulings.Following the Hafetz Hayyim’s reasoning, that is, that the halakhah prohibiting the teaching of Torah to women applies only to earlier times and does not pertain to the present, where assimilation is a real danger for the Jewish people. It is imperative that girls be raised with a strong Jewish education because the family is no longer capable of instructing their daughters with a proper Jewish education.
“It seems that this prohibition of teaching Torah to daughters is only for the past generations, when each person would live in the location of his fathers, and one received one’s family traditions strongly, such that each person followed his family path, as it says in the verse, ‘Ask your father and he will tell you’ (Deut. 32:7). Under those circumstances we could say that she should not study Torah and rely on her fathers regarding proper behavior. But now, due to our numerous sins, the reception from fathers is very much weakened, and it even happens that children do not live in the same location as fathers at all, particularly those who study the languages of the [other] nations. Today, it is certainly a great mitzvah to teach them the Humash and also Prophets and Writings and the ethical teachings of the Sages, such as Tractate Avot and the book Menorat Hama’or, and the like, so that the will come to appreciate the truth of our holy faith. If not, they may deviate completely from the path of God and violate all the principles of the religion, God forbid.”
Despite easing attitudes on women studying Torah, the Haredi communities never encourages women to study Talmud, except, perhaps, for excerpts from the moral Aggadic teachings. Even this leniency is by no means uniform in the Haredi communities. Generally speaking, girls are encouraged to study Tanakh. Young men are introduced to the Talmud in their teens; frankly speaking, I think that Jewish history might have benefited greatly by encouraging women to become scholars who would have historically expanded the Talmud’s development in new and in wonderful ways. Perhaps more young men could benefit from a serious study of the Tanakh, while more young women can certainly benefit from a serious and textual study of the Talmud.
Change is slow, but it is inevitable.In Israel, there is a new woman’s seminary called Nishmat, which has certified over 60 yoatzot (Halachic consultants) who serve to answer various questions pertaining to the traditional laws of family purity that a woman would be too embarrassed to ask her rabbi. In addition to the family laws of purity, this group is also focusing on the laws of Shabbat and Kashrut–areas that certainly have great application in the life of a Jewish family. One suspects that sooner or later, the Orthodox Haredi community will accept women rabbis, but we will have to wait for that development to take place. In any event, female proto-rabbinic scholars will prove to be a force for even the most Haredi of Haredi rabbis to deal with.
 Now in the next section of the Mishnah, R. Joshua attempts to understand the psychology of the Sotah (the woman who is accused of adultery), and makes a few comments about the feminine libido, e.g., “R. Joshua says, A woman prefers one measure of carnal indulgence rather than nine measures and abstinence.” This statement is based on the belief that women enjoy sex more than men. Another interesting Talmudic passage observes that most ladies would prefer being married to a donkey driver, where they can make love every night, to being married to a scholar where they make love once a week on the Shabbat (cf. Ketuboth 5:6).
 Maimonides, MT Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:1.