Orthodox women seek bigger role as Jews end Talmud cycle
By ILAN BEN ZION | January 7, 2020
JERUSALEM (AP) — As Orthodox Jews worldwide conclude a grueling marathon of daily Talmud study, a growing number of Israeli women have joined the effort, spotlighting collapsing gender barriers in the male-dominated community.
Over the past week, Jews around the world have celebrated the end of a 7 1/2-year cycle of daily study of the Talmud, with assemblies from Jerusalem to London to New York.
The Babylonian Talmud is a vast, rambling text written mostly in Aramaic that encompasses law codes, anecdotes, mysticism, customs, disputations and aphorisms, and serves as the cornerstone of Orthodox Jewish practices. The 63-volume, 2,711-page compendium of Jewish law — compiled in Mesopotamia in the 5th century AD — takes seven years and five months to finish at a rate of a single page per day.
This year, Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish organization, rented out the MetLife Stadium and Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for the festivities in New York. Attendance has skyrocketed in recent decades, from a few hundred in 1960, to over 92,000 on New Year’s Day, according to organizers. The overwhelming majority were men.
Similar celebrations marking the “Siyyum Shas,” or completion of the study cycle, took place across Israel, also dominated by Orthodox men garbed in traditional black and white clothing.
But in a sign of the changing times, over 3,000 people joined a celebration in Jerusalem overwhelmingly attended by women dressed in a kaleidoscope of colors.
Michelle Cohen Farber, co-founder of Hadran, the organization behind Sunday’s event, said her 7 1/2-year undertaking began with launching a daily Talmud class in her hometown of Raanana in central Israel.
“You have to be a little crazy to do Daf Yomi every day,” Cohen Farber said. Despite the challenge, she and a group of around a dozen dedicated women went the distance. Along the way, Cohen Farber launched a podcast, “Daf Yomi for Women,” to bring her lessons to a broader audience, and in 2018 she helped co-found Hadran to promote Talmud study among Jewish women.
Orthodoxy does not prevent women from Talmud study, but it has long limited leadership roles for women, unlike the more liberal Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism which have embraced female rabbis. Those limits have often discouraged women from intensive study. But attitudes are changing, and technology has played a big part. There are study groups for women on Facebook, podcasts, Daf Yomi websites, and Sefaria — a comprehensive digital Jewish library with English translation — that have helped make Talmud study far more accessible to women across the Jewish world.