From the Women’s Section of the Siyum

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I imagine many men (and women) want to know what it was like in the women’s section of the Jerusalem (English) Siyum of the Daf Yomi Wednesday night. My husband and I drove back to Netanya, along with his Daf Yomi maggid shiur (teacher), and we were spiritually“high” from the gathering of 5000 men & boys, and 2000 ladies & girls (I intentionally use the non-PC term ‘ladies’, because that is our honorific of choice). I will describe the entire event elsewhere.

The essence of the siyum is the hadran (lit. “we will return”, a special prayer upon completing a segment of study). Modern Hebrew adopted this ancient term to describe an encore after a concert – and I have heard many a concert hadran in the Binyaney HaUma, International Conference Center in Jerusalem. However, this cavernous hall reverberated with a traditional, authentic hadran this week at the completion of the entire Talmud. One hadran section says “We arise early, and they arise early…we toil and they toil.” It is helpful to understand how one group differs from another by contrasting it with the focus of another group. The point is not to put another group down but to see how focus on a priority A leads to consequences a,b,c in contrast to a focus on priority B which leads to consequences d,e,f. Therefore, I will contrast what I call the “Daf Yomi sector” with two other Orthodox sectors. (1) The Daf Yomi and Orthodox women; (2) The Daf Yomi and national religious sector.

(1) Daf Yomi and Orthodox women. Who were the 2000 women and girls who came to the Conference Center through a separate entrance and watched the proceedings on a floor-to-ceiling screen in the gigantic hall? These were women whose husbands, sons, or brothers participate daily during the year in Daf Yomi study. Some 60% seemed to be English-speaking seminary (post-high school) girls. There were even a sprinkling of little girls in party dresses. Many seminary girls aspire to marry a full-time yeshiva student, and at the very least to marry a fellow who studies the Daf Yomi. The honor they showed to the event was reflected in their holiday dress. Their priorities were reflected in the commercial booths in the lobby of the women’s hall, selling children’s car seats, kosher bedroom furniture (no double beds), home library Talmud sets, subscriptions to Hamishpacha magazine, etc. Several of the rabbis who spoke referred directly to the sacrifice of women who catalyze and support the men; without this encouragement many men would not study the Daf Yomi, and this acknowledgement was received with enthusiastic applause.

After the hadran was recited celebratory music was played and the men broke into spontaneous dancing, with even the elderly rabbis swaying or clapping. As I watched hundreds of seminary girls form circles and dance enthusiastically in the women’s hall, I felt optimistic about the future of Jewry.

I contrasted this in my mind with the Jerusalem Post article about the few women in the modern Orthodox sector who themselves study Daf Yomi. The title is revealing, “A Gemara of her own” (a play on Woolf’s “A Room of Her Own”). By no means do I denigrate the sincere desire by a few women, gifted intellectually and emotionally, who have the skills to study Daf Yomi. But I want to pose a question. By expropriating men’s traditional role, does that undermine Torah study as the quintessential man’s endeavor, which civilizes and enobles men?

The concluding speaker, Rabbi Mendel Weinbach of Or Sameah, spoke at length about the critical role of women in the Daf Yomi endeavor by men, and pointed out that a home where this is a priority has a different atmosphere. Sure, it is more difficult for a woman to put the children to bed alone if her husband is at his Daf Yomi. But women who make this sacrifice believe that the overall ambience and values of the home are thereby enhanced. I think women are intelligent enough to realize where their best interests lie, and those hundreds of seminary girls dancing are making a statement, that their empowerment lies in encouraging their future grooms to maximize their study. They realize the benefit/cost ratio is overwhelmingly positive. This is a social transformation that has been wrought in the last half-century. Joel Rebibo describes the role of women in resurrection of the status of the male scholar in his Summer 2001 essay in Azure. He quotes Rabbi Grozinski. who said fifty years ago that to marry a full-time scholar would be a last resort for an unfortunate girl. Today, the most ambitious and intellectual haredi girls will insist on marrying a talmid hakham.

There are a few haredi women who make use of the translations to study Daf Yomi with their husbands, but they do this to encourage them, and do it without fanfare. Recently we hosted a haredi couple who are both professors in the sciences, and they excused themselves for an hour in order to study Daf Yomi. The husband asked his wife to embark with him on this endeavor because he travels so much; this way he has a built-in hevruta (study [partner]. But they are raising their children in the yeshiva and Beit Yaakov system, because they realize theirs is an exceptional situation.

Yesterday we were asked to host 7 American seminary girls for Shabbat. At first I hesitated. Then the scene of the hundreds of girls dancing at the siyum flashed across my inner eye, and in a tribute to them, the future of Jewry, I accepted the challenge.

(2) Daf Yomi and the National-religious. There were several hundred modern-Orthodox or national religious participants (identifiable from their crocheted kippot). The Daf Yomi unites all sectors of Orthodox Jewry. Nevertheless, I would like to ruminate about the way these two sectors use the word “mesirus nefesh” (lit. self-sacrifice). At the siyum, the Kaliver Rebbe used the term mesius nefesh twice in connecting with Torah study, and once in connection with the sacrifice by women. The Kaliver Rebbe’s beardless and shining countenance, framed in white hair, stood out among the rabbis on the dais. The torture he suffered as a boy during the Shoah affected him physically (he cannot grow a beard), but not spiritually. He led the thousands in attendance in reciting the Shma, with eyes covered, in memory of the millions lost in the Holocaust, a pledge he was asked to make if he survived. Then he spoke about mesirus nefesh needed to study the Daf Yomi.

I contrasted this use of the term with an article I read in Haaretz on the way to the siyum, about the controversy by a few extreme settlers in Gush Katif of whether mesirus nefesh was demanded if the disengagement forces Jews out of Gaza. In “Choose death over violation of the law?” by Nadav Shragai, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook was quoted as saying, “ It is a positive commandment from the Torah, …that we are obligated to this land, and all of its borders, with mesirus nefesh. When a situation of coercion arrives … we are all obligated to yihareg ve’al yaavor.”

I contemplated the the consequences that ensue from the different foci in these two sectors of Orthodoxy: the Daf Yomi rabbis invoke mersirus nefesh for study, while some in the national religious sector apply mesirus nefesh to emphasis on the land of Israel.

Despite the variations in the sub-groups at the siyum, all held their breath in silence as Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, head of Mir Yeshiva (with several thousand students, the largest yeshiva in the world) spoke. Due to advanced age and severe illness, he was barely able to stand and speak. I held my breath (along with everyone else) as each one of the few words he managed to speak was uttered. I will close with a quote from the Hamodia newspaper,which used the word “mesirus nefesh” in describing the scene:

Rabbi Finkel spoke with mesirus nefesh and brought out the beauty and sweetness of Torah when he said, “It isn’t often that we hear the words hadran alach Talmud Bavli [we will return to you, Babylonian Talmud]. How beautiful and sweet are the words.”

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She is on the board of the Charedi College of Jerusalem. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survved the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She s available to lecture in Israel and in the US.

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6 Responses

  1. Joe Schick says:

    “I wonder if any of the respondents bothered to look at the Haaretz article on mesirus nefesh that I referred to, which appeared on the day of the siyum.”

    I read the same Haaretz piece. It was clear that a small number of zealots are using a 1974 statement from R. Kook to advance an extremist position. It’s perfectly fine to criticize these extremists, or to criticize the dati-leumi for placing the Land of Israel far above all other values.

    However, to criticize the dati leumi generally on the mesiras nefesh issue adds nothing to the post and is unnecessarily divisive and offensive.

  2. Saul Mashbaum says:

    I regret my use of the term ‘denigrate’ in describing Shira Schmidt’s attitude towards the mesiras nefesh of some in the national religious camp. She in fact ‘contrasted’ the two types, but did not explicitly offer a value judgement. This is after in the previous section she ‘contrasted’ the wives of daf yomi learners with women who learn daf yomi, in which it is perfectly clear with which group her sympathies lie. If she is offering no judgement as to which type of mesiras nefesh is more significant and valuable, wherein lies the contrast?
    Although the structure of her article did not help the reader discern her non-critical attitude towards the other type of mesiras nefesh, her response has shown much of my criticism to be inaccurate. My apologies.

  3. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    The critics that saw in Ms. Schmidt’s article disparagement by comparison are fighting phantoms of their own creation. A more careful reading will show that she nowhere denigrates the use of the term mesiras nefesh in the context of limud hatorah. She simply noted that one group applies the concept to limud hatorah, and the other to kibbush eretz yisroel, and leaves it to the reader to decide which activity is more essential to the survival and vitality of Klal Yisroel, or, indeed, if they are both of equal significance. See e.g., a similar point made by Rav Hirsch in Vayikra 2:11 on the din of “kol s’or v’chol dvash.”

  4. Shira Leibowitz Schmidt says:

    Of my 6 children, 5 have served in the IDF (three of them in hesder combat units), and the sixth and youngest is still in yeshiva high school. So I know of where I speak. My husband also served in Zahal.

    I wonder if any of the respondents bothered to look at the Haaretz article on mesirus nefesh that I referred to, which appeared on the day of the siyum. On the way to the siyum I happened to read its discussion of the problems that mesirus nefesh can lead to when the philosophy of some in the Rav Kook school take it to an extreme (e.g. mesirus nefesh, sacrificing one’s life for Gush Katif). When I arrived at the Daf Yomi in Jerusalem, and I heard the same phrase used in connection with Torah study, I pondered the implications of the invocation of the same concept (sacrifice) for different purposes. I used this (perhaps unsuccessfully) as a rhetorical means to say the following. Both sectors – the yeshivavelt (aka haredi) and the national religious – value Torah study and love of Eretz Yisrael. But generalizing on the macro level, the haredi sector puts Torah study at the pinnacle (mesirus nefesh), while the national religious put the Land at the pinnacle (mersirus nefesh). What are the positive aspects of both approaches, and what are the negative concomitants that ensue when either approach is taken to an extreme?

    My other comparison was a veiled discussion of haredi women and girls versus Orthodox feminism, where the latter in some cases make study such a high priority that the message about marriage and family sometimes gets short shrift. I have many close relatives in that sector (and I myself am an ex-feminist) so I am familiar with what is going on there now, both on the positive side, and the downside. And I can explain that in “Rachel bitkha haketana” (in details).

  5. Saul Mashbaum says:

    Instead of lauding the nesiras nefesh of another group, Shira Schmidt found it very important to denigrate it. This “my type of mesiras nefesh is better than your type” argument is very close to the childish “my Rebbe is better than your Rebbe” arguments that go on forever, to the detriment of all who engage in them. Shira Schmidt’s unnecessay contrast between groups within Orthodoxy, irrelevant to the rest of her article, greatly detracted from it.

  6. Joe Schick says:

    I don’t agree with the political extremism of a small number of those who are dati-leumi, but the contrasting notions regarding mesiras nefesh is unnecessarily offensive while adding little to the post.

    A better contrast regarding mesiras nefesh would be the tens of thousands of dati-leumi boys who volunteer for IDF combat units while their charedi counterparts use permanent “deferments” from the army.