By Blu Greenberg
The Jewish day school, along with the shul, mikveh, kosher butcher and kosher bakery, is a staple of the modern Orthodox community. But more than any other institution, the day school reflects the philosophy of modern Orthodoxy: a synthesis of halakhic Judaism with values of modern culture. So the Orthodox day school, the subject of this JOFA journal, is an appropriate place to examine the impact on Orthodoxy of one of the most far reaching cultural values of our times — gender equality.
Three significant areas to examine are access to texts, availability of female role models, and involvement in prayer. In recent decades, Jewish girls and women have gained access to rabbinic texts that were off limits to their mothers and grandmothers. In my day, boys studied Talmud while girls practiced Israeli dancing. Later, in high school, we were given bi-weekly periods of practical halakha while the boys studied Talmud for several hours each day. And we never noticed the asymmetry. In contrast, my daughters were introduced to Talmud at the same age as their brothers. And they took this quite for granted.
True, the majority of day schools today still do not teach Talmud to girls. Yet that balance is shifting, year by year. One powerful reason is the encounter itself. Girls studying Talmud take to it with great enthusiasm, slaking a thirst they never even knew existed. Not only do girls by the thousands study Talmud every day in Orthodox day schools, but many continue intensive Talmud study after high school and make this their life’s work.
Regarding availability of models, the story is mixed. Yes, in many areas of day school life, female role models have greatly expanded — e.g., women principals, teachers of Torah and general leadership models. But in other areas, limits exist. One of these, oddly, is woman-as-teacher-ofTalmud. Although the likely address for her talents is the day school, the first generation of female Talmud scholars has found that the institutions that educated them will not welcome them back as educators, a loss all around. Clearly some affirmative action is needed so that women who want to share their love and knowledge of Talmud with the next generation not be denied and our sons and daughters not be deprived.
In the third area, prayer, little has changed. Benign neglect seems to be the operational mode of day schools. Girls are required to attend teffilah, but the prevailing attitude is that “davening is for boys.” Boys are taught early on that a community of prayer exists and that they expected to be part of it. In contrast, girls remain passive and unconnected, eyes glazing over at the morning minyan. JOFA has not been apprized of a single day school that has instituted a girls’ teffilah with Torah reading, though women’s teffilah has proven to be both a learning and spiritual experience.
Why is there pride in girls’ learning but mixed interest in female role models and girl’s prayer? Part of the answer lies in the general resistance of Orthodoxy towards women in public roles. Girls are encouraged to learn but not to display this learning in ways that challenge accepted gender power and authority structures. Similarly, while the value of teffilah is promoted, girls are prohibited from taking roles that would place them at center-stage.
In balancing the desires of conflicting constituencies, day schools, conservative by nature, tend to affirm the status quo. To effect change, it will take more than inspired educators of which, thank God, we have many. It will take the pressure and encouragement of dedicated parents and community leaders, asking the right questions and helping shape the answers. And if these joint efforts yield schools in which gender equality is embraced as a positive value, the future of women in Orthodoxy — and of Orthodoxy itself — will be greatly enhanced.
In sum then, in the matter of day school education as in so many other areas of Orthodoxy integrating women’s equality, we must press on with the agenda even as we celebrate the enormous strides our community has taken.