My backpack was unbearably heavy. It was the first day of senior year, and I had to lug a Talmud, a calculus textbook, a Bible, and Sons and Lovers five blocks down Madison Avenue from my home to my high school. By the time I got to Talmud class at the end of the day, my back was slanted at a 45 degree angle. I took a seat next to Ben. Our still-fresh summer tans contrasted with the stark white walls of the air-conditioned classroom.
Ben and I had been going to the same school together since Kindergarten. We became close friends as we were placed in the same Honors sections every year. Notorious wise-asses, we were known to goof off in class, yet ace our exams. But our new Talmud Rabbi hadn’t learned that yet.
“Whoever you’re sitting next to right now will be your Chavruta for the year,” said our Rabbi. Ben and I turned towards each other and smirked. This was going to be fun. We knew that our crisp, new, leather-bound Talmuds would remain untouched until the day before the exam.
Chavruta, or partner-style learning, has been the traditional approach to Talmud study since its origination in Babylonia during the fifth century. Partners work through the text together, engaging in a back and forth of analysis, discussion, and debate. The back and forth mirrors the format of Talmud itself: a transcript of the of Rabbis debating Jewish law and practice.
Rabbi Nehorai says: Exile yourself to a place of Torah, and do not say that it will follow you. If you are in a place of Torah, your colleagues will make Torah study solid in your hands. Do not rely upon your own understanding.
It was taught: Rabbi Nehorai was not his name, but rather Rabbi Neḥemya was his name. Some say that Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh was his name and his statement was based on the personal experience of forgetting his Torah because he failed to exile himself to a place of Torah.
Ben and I were also partners in Talmud class during the previous year. Our voices hidden among the din of the rest of our classmates learning, our back and forth consisted mostly of gossip.
It was overheard: Jared and his girlfriend from his summer teen tour.
Eliana said: She lives out of town. Not going to last.
Ben said: It will last, they text all the time. Julia has a boyfriend in Israel already and they’re doing fine. It was taught: Distance makes the heart grow fonder.
Eliana replied: Ah, but you said fine. Not great. They won’t last either. It was taught: Long distance relationships will kill you.
I don’t think that when Rav Ashi and Ravina compiled the oral Torah tradition into Talmud they imagined that it would ever be studied the way I studied it in high school. They would probably be astonished that their audience extended all the way to New York City, learning in classrooms equipped with interactive, touch-screen SmartBoards. I don’t think they would have imagined young scholars secretly looking up the English translations to the ancient Aramaic on their smartphones. Or that “Honors Talmud” would appear on these students’ transcripts as they applied to universities where Talmud would maybe appear as a religious studies class.
I definitely don’t think they would have imagined anyone like me studying their work. A gum-chewing, Philip Roth-reading, short-skirt wearing, teenage girl was probably not their vision of a pious scholar.
Rabbi Eliezer says: Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah is teaching her frivolity.
Even though I slacked off during Chavruta study, I always rallied before every monthly exam. My grandfather studies a page of Talmud every day, completing the entire series once every seven and a half years. I called him before every test, and he would drive from New Jersey to New York to prepare with me. He arrived with notes written neatly in all capital letters with a ballpoint pen. An interesting study pair: a vibrant, white-haired 70-year-old in khakis next to a Lululemon-clad teenager with a ponytail. I always sat on his right, next to his working ear, at one end of the long, white kitchen table.
As I studied with my grandfather in my swank Manhattan kitchen, I pictured hundreds of Rabbis, wearing stereotypical ancient garb and sandals, convening in a cave or courtyard somewhere in Babylon. In my mind it was a rowdy scene. One Rabbi would stand up and say his opinion, while another would find an inconsistency in his argument, stand up, and interrupt him with the classic Talmud line, “There is a difficulty!”
Eliana proposed a question: Isn’t it exhausting that we need to read the back and forths of all the Rabbis? Why can’t they just tell us the laws, and call it a day?
Grandpa Billy replied: Don’t you want to know the logic behind what we do?
Eliana found a difficulty: It was taught: there is no way for us to rationally explain God’s rules. So why should we even try?
Grandpa Billy answered: Ah, but Rambam wrote entire books explaining the commandments! He taught: everyone should meditate on the reasons behind the commandments.
Eliana asked: But isn’t that kind of dangerous? What happens when you can’t find a reason for a commandment? You might be tempted not to observe it!
Grandpa Billy answered: That’s why Rambam taught: You should not treat commandments that you don’t understand with any less respect than those that you do.
My Talmud grades were inconsistent. Some semesters, the logic of the Talmud clicked, and I could easily articulate the flow of the page we were learning on the exam. However, other semesters, especially with more technically-based material, my grades were were not up to par. I failed my first exam ever in Talmud class in the middle of freshman year. I wasn’t the only one who struggled. Talmud was a tough class, and a number of my friends moved out of the Honors track to save their GPA. Even though this strategy was encouraged by my peers and parents, I refused to switch out.
Rav Matya Ben Cheresh said: It is better to be the tail of the lion than the head of the fox.
I would like to say that my reasons for staying were noble, that I stayed because I wanted to continue learning about my tradition at the highest level. But I’ll admit that my reasoning was rooted in pride and pretension. I did not want to have any class that was labeled anything other than “Honors” on my transcript.
And although I hadn’t really meditated on it at the time, I was starting to get the sense that Honors Talmud was becoming a boys club. Most of my classmates who switched out were girls. I remembered how one time, we learned a passage about how women were not obligated to wear Tefillin, or phylacteries.
“Women aren’t obligated in time-bound commandments,” explained my Rabbi.
“We are giving them time to take care of the children at home.”
“Do men not have obligations in the home?” Tess asked.
“Yeah, and why is it assumed that they could balance their work-life and religious life while we have to stay at home?” Aliza added.
I couldn’t imagine a classroom where we weren’t there to push back, and question what the boys had to say. I needed to stay to make my voice heard, and to prove I was just as smart as the boys.
My teachers were supportive, assigning me extra credit and working with me after class. They didn’t seem to care about my motives. They were refreshed by my determination to take Judaic studies seriously.
Rabbi Yishmael said: One who studies Torah in order to teach will be given the opportunity both to study and to teach. One who studies in order to practice will be given the opportunity to study, to teach, to observe, and to practice.
Rabbi Tzadok said: Do not make the Torah into a crown with which to aggrandize yourself, and not into a spade with which to dig into others.
Senior year, the push to go to Israel began. Traditionally, most high school graduates from my community choose to spend a gap year in Israel at traditional Jewish studies seminaries. Boys attend Yeshivot, a term that derives from the Hebrew root word “to sit.”
They learn Talmud from early in the morning until late at night, with some of the greatest Jewish thinkers of our time. Girls go to Midrashot, a term that derives from the Hebrew term “house of study.”
The women’s Midrasha is a relatively modern concept. Men’s Yeshivot existed since the third century C.E., but women’s education didn’t start until the 19th century. Even now, only the most liberal of the Midrashot are structured centers for intense Talmud learning. Some won’t even learn Talmud at all.
The same teachers that taught me Talmud at the same level, and in the same classroom as my male classmates, were now encouraging me to attend traditional, single-sex Midrashot in Israel. The idea did not sit well with me. Like the Rabbis in the Talmud, I found inconsistencies in what my teachers were telling me, and I tried to work them out.
Eliana found a difficulty: How is it possible that I have been taught that I am just as smart as the boys, and now I am taught that I must learn separately from them?
Ms. T replied: This is the way they do it there. You’ll gain a lot from it. A year of learning with no obligations.
Eliana asked: So what about the other gap year program I showed you? The co-ed, pluralistic one with volunteering. That’s a year of learning with no obligations.
Ms. T answered: I’m afraid the learning there won’t be up to your standard.
Eliana found a difficulty: But womens’ learning is not up to mens’ standards in Israel?
Ms. T replied: I think you should take this year to think about what you want your Jewish future to be like, without any distractions. These places will help you think about what you want in a husband, what you want in a family.
I walked into Talmud class from my meeting, shaken up and drained of all motivation to learn. Ben and I decided to dedicate our Chavruta to a vent session. We sat across from each other, Talmuds open to the wrong page. We tried to speak quietly enough so that nobody would know that we were engaged in Bitul Torah, wasting time that should be dedicated to studying.
“I mean, I don’t understand. How am I supposed to start thinking about my future husband when I can’t even find a prom date?” I was too riled up and passionate to mimic the serious and studious demeanors of my classmates.
“That’s so bizzare,” Ben answered, brows furrowed. “ My meeting was a breeze. They just asked me whether I wanted an Israeli or an American program, and then gave me a list.”
“Where do you even want to go?”
“Honestly, I’ll just do what my friends do. I just want to go somewhere that will let me sneak off to Tel Aviv once in a while.”
“Noble.” I rolled my eyes.
I was so frustrated that Ben could breeze in and out of his advising session, seemingly unfazed. I was plagued with doubts about my decision whenever I tried to sleep or concentrate on my homework.
One Sunday night, at our dining room table over a hodgepodge dinner of leftovers, I asked my parents what they thought of my gap year options. My mother had attended a Midrasha, while my father went straight from high school to college. Raised by Grandpa Billy, my mother grew up in a more observant home than my father. My parents started dating junior year of the same high school that I attended. They loved to tell the story about how they both failed a Talmud assignment because my dad copied off of my mom. My mom was a star in Judaic studies, while my dad would get in trouble for skipping prayers and not wearing a Yarmulke. The scolding and disciplinary reports did little to encourage further spiritual growth.
The parents taught: You should take a gap year.
Father brought an example: I was a baby straight out of high school. I was definitely not ready for college yet. I knew nobody. I was disorganized. I had no friends. I needed a year to mature.
Mother brought an example: I learned so much about myself when I was away in Israel. I learned a lot from the Midrasha, but I wasn’t ideologically aligned with their teachings. I learned more from the weekends I spent exploring Israel on my own. I was able to come to college having already experienced being away.
Father found a difficulty: Your mother came out of the Midrasha ideologically confused.
Mother explained: I was ideologically confused, but mature enough to be able to figure things out for myself once I got to college.
The parents resolved: Don’t go to a Midrasha. Go somewhere that will help you find your own way to grow and be yourself, not try to make you into their mold.
I went on the co-ed gap year program in Jerusalem. I was learning from the same text that I had studied my entire life. But this time, my leather-bound Talmud was open to a different page. My classmates were no longer Orthodox Jewish New Yorkers, but a dynamic mix of Israelis and Americans, Jews, Christians, Atheists and Muslims.
My teacher was no longer a bearded Rabbi wearing a white button down and a black felt Yarmulke, but a young woman named Chaya, who loved to wear floral sundresses as bright as her curly red hair. She left her ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem in favor of a more secular lifestyle. Yet, she still maintained a strong relationship with the Talmud, the text that informed the lifestyle of the community she left.
Rabbi Meir said: A man is supposed to recite three blessings a day: Blessed is the God who has made me a Jew, who has not made me a woman, who has not made me a boor.
It was taught: If a Jew murders a gentile, he is exempt from capital punishment.
Rava states: Anyone who objects to the word of the sages is liable to death.
At a round table in a classroom surrounded by cool Jerusalem stone, we worked through troubling passages together that I didn’t know existed. Passages about sexuality. Passages about the role of women. Passages about punishment. Passages about war.
There is a difficulty! There is a difficulty! There is a difficulty! Eliana said.
Chaya replied: And how will you act to solve it?