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Jewish Women Defy Rabbis And Start Reading Forbidden Text

It is Day 2,699, with 12 days to go. At 8.15am about a half-dozen women settle around the dining table in a suburban home in Raanana, a few miles north of Tel Aviv, and open their Talmudic volumes.

A quiet excitement is in the air. They are close to finishing a marathon undertaking: a seven-and-a-half-year cycle of Jewish learning known as Daf Yomi, Hebrew for “daily page”. A visitor reads along on a tablet.

Study of the Babylonian Talmud, an archaic, dense and complex text written partly in Aramaic and embodying rabbinical discussions on everything from sacrifices to menstruation, has formed the underpinning of Jewish life, law and scholarship for centuries.

For most of that time it was almost exclusively the domain of men. While Talmud study by women was not forbidden by rabbis, it was generally frowned upon, and still is in parts of the strictly Orthodox world.

Now Daf Yomi is increasingly being embraced by women, with technology and social media making it more accessible.

Michelle Cohen Farber, 47, a modern Orthodox scholar and mother of five, is the teacher in whose home the Raanana group gathers for 45-minute sessions. The Daf Yomi programme, Cohen Farber says, “is about getting women to open this book, for the continuity of the Jewish people.” She adds, “If you exclude women from it, that’s 50 per cent of the population.”

The rigorous but speedy daily routine of studying a single, double-sided folio is, she says, “built for the average, busy, working woman”. Cohen Farber is believed to be the first woman to have taught an entire cycle of Daf Yomi via a daily podcast, which she broadcasts in English and Hebrew. There are also Daf Yomi phone apps and lively discussions in Facebook groups.

On Sunday in Jerusalem, Hadran, an organisation that advances Talmud study for women and that Cohen Farber co-founded, held the first global women’s Siyum celebration. The “Siyum” or completion of the 13th cycle of the Daf Yomi, fell on Saturday. About 3,000 people, mostly women, attended, and it was livestreamed to an international audience.

The 1,500-year-old Talmud is a meandering text including interpretations of biblical Halakha, or Jewish law, ethics and narratives full of digressions and arguments among rabbis. It largely depicts women as a husband’s property. And the final volume, Niddah, deals with the intricacies of a woman’s physiology and anatomy and the laws of family purity, including the prohibition of intercourse with a menstruating woman.

Ilana Kurshan, a Jerusalem resident originally from Long Island, New York, says she did not have “the anger some women have” over the Talmud’s depiction of women as property. “I feel so blessed to be a Jewish woman in the 21st century,” she says.

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A Hasidic rabbi in Lublin, Poland, conceived the Daf Yomi tradition nearly 100 years ago, setting the order of study as a way of unifying and synchronising an increasingly sprawling Jewish diaspora by having Jews focus on the same page each day.

A few women first began the Daf Yomi programme several decades ago. Talmud study has since been introduced in some religious girls’ schools, and there has been growing interest in secular academia and modern Orthodox circles.

Talmud was often considered too difficult and less relevant for women than other texts like the weekly Torah portion. But now that more women are doing it, there seems to have been little pushback from Orthodox men, even in Israel, where more liberal streams of Judaism have not been recognised by the rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox population and by the state rabbinical authority known as the Chief Rabbinate.

Eliezer Simcha Weiss, the rabbinate-affiliated rabbi of a local regional council in central Israel, says of women studying Talmud: “As long as it is not done as a provocation but out of a genuine wish to increase their knowledge of Torah, and as long as they look at it as a book of holiness and importance, I see nothing wrong with it.” He was familiar with Cohen Farber’s podcast.

He noted that even the regular study of Talmud by men was fairly new: It used to be limited to yeshiva students and scholars. “Now everybody’s studying Daf Yomi,” he says, calling it the “in thing”. He also says some people objected to the whole idea of studying – or to a degree speed-reading – the daily page as far too superficial.

Kurshan called women’s participation in Talmud study “a step in an evolutionary process.” The author of “If All the Seas Were Ink: A Memoir,” a book published in 2017 about her experiences with Daf Yomi, Kurshan says it connected her with an intellectual community.

In her book, Kurshan describes the Talmud as a “stream of rabbinic consciousness.” Speeding through a page a day is meant to provide a foundation, she says. “You can always learn in more depth. I’ll never tire. It’s a book you could spend your whole life reading.”

Whether women bring new insights or perspectives to discussions of the Talmud is “the one-million-dollar question,” says Devorah Evron, director of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s seminary in Jerusalem, who has also taught Daf Yomi to women.

When women started becoming doctors and lawyers, she says, the same questions were asked: “Are they just like men with different biology, or is there something they are bringing with them? The same goes here,” she says. “The discussion can be a little different, and that’s the beauty of it.”

Ruth Leah Kahan, one of Cohen Farber’s students, says: “We’re doing this because we can, not because we have something to prove.” She has been coming to class since Day 20, she says, adding that she quickly caught up with the group. After the end of this cycle, she says, “I’m looking forward to starting again.”

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