The women of the book

Who are the purveyors of Jewish knowledge in the religious Jewish world?

There is a common perception that the individuals responsible for transmitting Jewish wisdom are primarily male. However, this is becoming a misconception, as more female pedagogical superstars take on senior positions at Israel’s Torah publishing houses. Today, dozens of brilliant women are playing a role in strengthening Jewish connectivity and pushing Jewish education forward.

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“There has been a dramatic change in female Torah study in Israel and abroad,” said Sara Friedland Ben-Arza, who teaches in pluralistic and women’s batei midrash (study halls), and for the past four years, has served as the chief editor of the Steinsaltz English Tanakh, a massive project that will finally make Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s commentary accessible to the English-speaking world.

While part of Ben-Arza’s work included weighing in on the design and format of the work so that it would be aesthetically pleasing to use, she said she also wrote, edited and made broad, strategic decisions about the Tanakh.

“Rabbi Steinsaltz did not write his commentary; he explained all the chapters of the Bible in the presence of a single recorder, and the recordings were transcribed and edited by Rabbi Meir Klein,” said Ben-Arza. “Then, my brother – Rabbi Yosef Ben-Arza – and I received this material and thought about how to edit it as a series of books that will guide the Bible learner in a systematic and orderly manner without skipping a word or a matter without an explanation.”

Ben-Arza said she grew up in a family of writers and publishers, though this was the first time she worked alongside her brother.

“The spirit of our father, Rabbi Hanoch Ben-Arza z”l [may his memory be a blessing], who was a book salesman and a meticulous editor himself, served us during our work,” she told the Post.

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Ben-Arza said she was treated “humanely, respectfully and equally,” but she recognizes that until recently, it was inconceivable to give a role that “bears great responsibility for Torah knowledge on a woman… Even today, this is not prevalent in many parts of the religious world, since the ‘struggle of the sexes’ unconsciously intrudes on the talk and behavior of ordinary people, and unfortunately there are also talmidei chachamim [male Torah scholars] who feel threatened by women who study or learn.”

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, author of The Scroll, a historical novel, expressed similar sentiments. But she said she believes this generation is different.

“Men oversaw transmitting Jewish knowledge for so many generations while women took a back seat,” said Vamosh. “Now it is our time.”

TAKE SHIRA Finson, a copy editor of the Koren Bavli Noé Talmud series, an English language edition of the Babylonian Talmud that is shaped by Rabbi Steinsaltz’s translation and commentary. She said that while she today is “very engaged” in Torah learning, most of her influences were male.

“My dad has a huge influence on me in my early life,” said Finson. “I had three older brothers, and he made a point to learn with them and me as well… My husband has also been very encouraging.”

When Finson started working on the Koren Bavli Noé Talmud project, she “had no idea how extensive women’s influence was or could be.” But as she started her work, dialoguing daily and closely with male scholars, she said she never felt that she wasn’t respected, appreciated or treated like a professional.

Occasionally, people outside the office – “someone more religiously conservative – for a split second might give me a funny look when I would tell them what I do, but most people thought it was amazing and exciting,” said Finson.

Ultimately, the Koren Talmud Bavli copy editing team comprised a minyan of women who, for six years poured over every single page of the Talmud – in all 42 volumes – making sure the translation is clear and consistent, the punctuation is right, the debates flow and the English translation is accessible and comprehensive to a broad audience.

Senior copy editor Aliza Israel said the team of women was diverse, comprised “several senior copy editors who brought a wealth of previous experience in the world of Jewish publishing to the Talmud project,” of Talmud scholars and those who had never or rarely worked with the Talmud in the past.

The project was supposed to coincide with the timeline of the Daf Yomi cycle, which meant “we had to send a new volume to print every eight weeks.” The team held up to the pressure.
Shira Shmidman served as the Aramaic scholar on the Noe Edition of the Koren Talmud Bavli. She said she believes her Aramaic skills are better than that of most males, even though Orthodox Jewish boys traditionally grow up learning Talmud, which is written in Aramaic, in school.
Shmidman studied Aramaic language and grammar in college, in addition to in the beit midrash. She taught a full Daf Yomi cycle to the women of Alon Shvut, where she lives, for seven and a half years. When one of her sons studied in the local Yeshivat Har Etzion, she would join him in the study hall and sometimes attend classes as well.

“Most men are only fluent enough to read the Gemara, but they don’t know or understand the grammar that stands behind it,” said Shmidman. “People who learn in yeshiva – most men – cannot do it like I can.”

But she knows that she is an anomaly.

She told the Post, “Many women feel that the Gemara is a closed book to them. It’s too bad. This is how Jewish tradition is passed on through the generations, and Gemara is a great way to have that connection.”

MENACHEM (MENI) Even Yisrael, Executive Director of the Steinsaltz Center, said there might have been a time when women’s learning was more common. He said that he recently met a Marrano family –Jews living in the Iberian Peninsula who converted or were forced to convert to Christianity during the Middle Ages – in the United States who eventually reconverted to Judaism. The matriarch of the family was teaching things to her daughters that in very Orthodox circles would never be taught to girls. When he asked her why and where she had learned it, she explained that her mother had taught her, and she had it from her mother and so forth.

“When this Jewish community was being forced into Christian conversion, the men were often watched closely by Christian authorities with the assumption that the men would be the ones studying in secret, and passing Jewish knowledge and tradition on,” Even Yisrael explained. “So, the women commonly took it upon themselves to learn what was generally thought of as something only men learn, because they were not suspected of taking that knowledge and those traditions and keeping it alive throughout the generations. But in these communities, that is absolutely what many of them did.”
Finson said the first step is to take the first step.

“There is a lot of baggage around women studying certain texts,” Finson said. “Nothing is going to happen if you open a book. If people give you a funny look, it is not the worst thing in the world.”

Added Ben-Arza, “I thank God for the right to be part of a great revolution, not only a feminist revolution, but a revolution to the state of Torah study in general. I have no doubt that the contributions of women Torah scholars will lead to important Torah developments.”

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