Yeshiva U said to reverse decision to cut women’s Talmud classes, following petition

1,400-plus signatories urged Stern College to offer Gemara lessons even with low enrollment, suggested endowed position to honor late rabbi who taught core Jewish text for decades

Stern College for Women, part of Yeshiva University, in New York. (Wikimedia Commons via JTA)
Stern College for Women, part of Yeshiva University, in New York. (Wikimedia Commons via JTA)

JTA — The future of Talmud study for women at New York’s Yeshiva University (YU) may be safe, as a recent letter from two deans at YU’s women’s division, Stern College, claims to reinstate courses whose cancellation due to low enrollment had previously been announced. The deans’ letter comes in response to a student-led petition and widespread dismay over the cancellations.

Several of Stern’s Talmud classes were called into question when a dean told a student newspaper that the US school would not be hiring a replacement for a recently deceased veteran teacher, Rabbi Moshe Kahn. Ostensibly, too few students were signing up for some of the courses he had taught for the university to continue to offer them.

More than 1,400 people to date have signed a petition calling on the university to preserve Talmud courses at Stern College for Women, YU’s women’s division. The signatories include prominent Talmud teachers, current and former YU faculty members, YU alumni, and students at American Modern Orthodox high schools, among others.

The petition calls on the university to partner with those who have signed it to endow a teaching position in honor of Rabbi Kahn, who taught the advanced Talmud classes for decades before his death from lung cancer in January, at 71. It also argues that courses for students at all levels of Talmud proficiency are essential for the Modern Orthodox college’s educational program.

“Not hiring a full-time professor dedicated to teaching Talmud at diverse levels will close the pipeline of access to Gemara for all students and ultimately lead to a decline in enrollment in the advanced level course,” said the petition. “The world of Torah study for women as we now know it would indeed be shamem, utterly desolate.”

In a letter published online on Friday and set to go to students this week, Stern administrators responded to the petition for the first time, noting that advanced courses are still offered, affirming support for women’s Talmud study, and inviting those who are concerned to help the school cover its costs.

“We have been planning a number of new initiatives,” Stern faculty said in the letter. “We would be delighted if those who support women’s advanced Torah study and the students, friends, and supporters of Rabbi Kahn would endow a Rabbi Moshe Kahn Chair of Talmud Studies for Women. We are also seeking to create a new cohort program of Matmidot Scholars for young women to learn Tanach and Talmud on the highest levels.”

Stern College administrators did not respond to questions, including about which courses would be offered.

But a second letter has gone out to some of those affiliated with Stern College attesting to the addition of two new Talmud courses for the Fall 2023 registration, and crediting the “outpouring of interest revolving around women’s Talmud learning.” The letter names the professor recruited to teach these courses, and includes scheduling details, confirming the university’s commitment to reduce the potential for scheduling conflicts with other mainstay courses required by the college.

Any scaling back of women’s Talmud courses at YU would diminish scholarship around one of Judaism’s most fundamental texts at the US’s flagship Modern Orthodox university. It also would make YU an outlier in Modern Orthodoxy, given expanding opportunities for women to study Talmud after centuries during which it was considered the exclusive province of men.

In the past few years, a growing number of women have formed asynchronous communities around studying “Daf Yomi,” a folio of Talmud a day. An increasing number of programs that offer ordination to Orthodox women also place a heavy focus on Talmud study.

Students who learned from Kahn said he had been a vital force for those women who wanted to study traditional Jewish texts.

“He said, ‘Any woman who comes to my class is welcome.’ It wasn’t just lip service,” said Tamar Beer Horowitz, who studied with Kahn for five years and helped write the petition. “He genuinely made us all feel welcome.”

But while Kahn’s courses may have drawn up to 20 students, lower-level Talmud classes sometimes had much smaller rosters, according to students and administrators. Many fell below Stern’s purported threshold to offer a class — eight students.

“We can continue low enrolled courses for a few semesters to see if the numbers pick up,” Karen Bacon, dean of YU’s Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told The Commentator, the student newspaper of record, earlier this month. “When they don’t, we cannot justify the course unless it is a requirement for a particular major.”

YU has made multiple changes to its Jewish studies offerings for both women and men in recent years. In 2021, the school announced that it would end its in-person Hebrew courses indefinitely, offering asynchronous classes online. That year, the undergraduate men’s college also dissolved its Jewish Studies division, combining multiple departments into a Bible, Hebrew, and Near Eastern Studies department. Before its dissolution, Jewish studies was the largest department at Yeshiva College.

The scaling back has come amid ongoing financial strain for YU, which survived a financial crisis more than a decade ago but now faces renewed litigation over its handling of child sex abuse allegations, in addition to the prospect of curtailed state funding, depending on the outcome of a battle over the university’s decision not to recognize an LGBTQ student group.

Yeshiva University, New York. (Wikimedia Commons)

The changes in course offerings also come amid a national decline in the number of students studying the humanities. That trend has caused colleges and universities across the country to change their course offerings.

YU appears to be hoping that the conversation spurred by the viral petition could cause more students to choose Talmud classes.

“We are pleased to share that Rabbi David Nachbar, an esteemed member of our Torah faculty, will be teaching a number of Rabbi Kahn’s classes,” the first letter to students said. “We hope that recent discussions will inspire stronger enrollment, especially in our Talmud classes.”

But more than just offering courses will be needed, according to some Stern College students and graduates who say scheduling roadblocks can make it difficult to enroll in Talmud classes even when there is interest.

Multiple Stern students said that the school’s schedule meant registering for Talmud courses would have required them to sign up for two classes that met at the same time — making it impossible to complete the required coursework. Meanwhile, on the men’s campus, which offers more scheduling options for Talmud courses, the same conflicts do not occur, they said. Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, a leader in the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, was installed Monday morning as the men’s division’s full-time chair of Talmud and Jewish law.

“The claim that there’s no interest is — personally, I don’t think it’s true,” said Beer Horowitz, who is the founder of Bnot Sinai, an intensive women’s text study program in New York.

Her sense may be about to be put to the test, as Stern’s second letter establishes the two new Talmud classes during times that should ease the conflict with required courses.

But even if there were low interest, canceling classes is not the best option, Beer Horowitz said.

“I think that there may be dips in and rises in interest over time, but there’s also different things that cause that and we have to look critically at those,” she said. “You need to have that consistent offering to get it back to that place where it’s big and it’s popular and people are doing it.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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