November 29, 2022

Women’s Daf Yomi: Gender and Talmud Study in Digital Space

By Adam Ferziger

New Year’s Day 2020 saw a crowd of over 90,000 assemble in freezing temperatures at New Jersey’s Metlife Stadium. Rather than the usual football game, they had come for the Siyum ha-Shas of Daf yomi, the ritual “completion” ceremony celebrating study of all 2,711 folios of the Talmud (Shas) over the course of a 7.5-year daily regimen. The nearly five-hour convocation included public prayers, speeches by eminent rabbinical authorities, musical performances, and inspirational films. It culminated with a collective recitation of the final passages of the massive, multi-volumed ancient tome, followed by raucous dancing. Scores of parallel events – some filling arenas and auditoriums and others modest local gatherings in synagogues, study halls and private homes – took place on five other continents. Thousands more joined the Metlife celebrants and other large-scale venues via livestream as well.

Talmud text on a phone.The daf yomi (literally daily page) multi-year Talmud-study cycle was conceived nearly a century earlier as a means to unify Jews worldwide through a common consistent encounter with the foundational text of rabbinic Judaism. Participation has grown dramatically in recent decades. Since its inception, the overwhelming majority of participants were Orthodox men. While this remains the case, the 2020 festivities marked a watershed when over 3,000 attendees congregated in Jerusalem’s Binyanei ha-Umah Auditorium for the inaugural “Women’s Siyum Shas.”

The women’s event was spearheaded by Hadran, an Israel-based organization established in 2018 and led by Michelle Cohen Farber, a veteran immigrant from America and religious educator who has been teaching daf yomi since 2013 at her home in Ra’anana, a suburban town north of Tel Aviv. To celebrate the daf yomi milestone, Hadran brought together a coalition of women’s learning groups from Israel and around the globe, along with an array of institutions and individuals that are at the forefront of advanced Talmud study for women – thousands in person and more via livestream. The evening’s format shared much in common with the Metlife one, but it was orchestrated and led by women, as were over 90 percent of those who joined.

My investigation engages that which unfolded from the conspicuous January 2020 moment onwards, its meaning in the context of contemporary Orthodox Judaism’s enduring struggles over the religious standing of women, and the agency of digital technology in this process.

Such siyum festivities, be they the established men’s ones or newly devised women’s gatherings, are intended to acknowledge the achievements of those who withstood the rigorous day-to-day challenge for over seven years. No less, they are aimed to inspire others to join in the next round. In fact, the new daf yomi cycle that began immediately after has witnessed further expansion in numbers. The signature engines for this growth have been inventive online platforms, apps, and tools that provide comfortable access to live and taped classes, study aids, and supplementary materials. Ironically, these innovations achieved critical value within weeks after the new cycle began, when due to Covid-19 restrictions, face-to-face classes became impossible. Indeed, the move of the main Hadran class from an in-person class setting to a live digital format, has increased participation exponentially. I contend that the emergence of the women’s daf yomi trend marks a pivotal juncture in the history of Orthodox Jewish feminism, a movement that arose in the 1970s and has since become a central source of both renewal and contention. 

Hadran’s stated goal is “to make Talmud study accessible to Jewish women at all levels…in a unique way: by providing a wide range of resources…in the voice of women teachers.” After in-person meetings became impossible, Farber began to teach her daf yomi class twice each morning via Zoom, once in Hebrew at 6:15 AM, and a second time in English at 7:15 AM. These were broadcast live via the Hadran website, as well as Facebook and YouTube. In the process, the live digital platform became Hadran’s core framework. This central live online study session facilitated a novel type of collective daily learning experience; it brought together women (and some men) just starting their day in Israel, Asia, Africa, or Europe, with others ending theirs – whether the previous one in North or South America, or the parallel one in Australia or New Zealand.

In a January 2021 interview, Farber described why she felt that her classes would fill an existing gap, and how she designed her method with this in mind:

When I went online to see some examples of how people taught a whole daf in 45 minutes, I was surprised to find hundreds of daf yomi shiurim by men but none by women. When listening to the shiurim, it was clear that the average woman who comes with little or no gemara background would have a hard time learning with one of those shiurim, not because they can’t learn from a man, but because most of the rabbis teaching assumed the listener had a certain comfort level with basic words and concepts. In addition, the questions that they asked on the gemara or issues they delved into were not necessarily the issues that the women would be interested in pursuing. Also, when a sensitive women’s issue arises, many gloss right over it and move on. It was then that I decided that I would record my classes and put them online to be able to offer a class that could appeal to the broader female audience.

As of November 2021, according to statistics provided by the organization, there were 1,600 daily listeners to her class, and an additional 2,500-5,000 individual downloads of tractates that were already completed.

Hadran home pageOnce they arrived at the Hadran website, a variety of presentations and links were available under the rubric of “Beyond the Daf,” where the female-centric quality of the platform is celebrated. One prominent Hebrew offering is a video blog entitled “Daf mi-she-la-hen” [a page of their own]. It features Rabbanit Hamutal Shoval, a former journalist who holds a master’s degree in new media and teaches advanced Talmud to women, and Rabbanit Shira Marili Mirvis, the first woman to be appointed as the main religious authority in an Israeli Orthodox synagogue. The conversations often gravitate to gendered aspects of the pages studied that week, including exploring how the patriarchy of Talmudic times continues to set the tone for many aspects of Jewish life. As Orthodox Jews, the presenters are committed to traditional Jewish practice and law, but they also acknowledge the many challenges they face as twenty-first century women who have been brought up to assume their rights to full participation in society.

When possible, Farber has further nurtured Hadran women’s network by taking periodic trips throughout North America where she addresses audiences in person, including visits to local women’s daf yomi groups and their supporters. That these women are part and parcel of a global kinship, is emphasized through another component of the website entitled, “Hadran Communities.” Listed there with clickable links are the names of 19 affiliated branches in Israel and 26  around the world. Some of these women meet daily – in person or virtually, while in other cases the local group complements daily study with Farber through private WhatsApp and Facebook discussions in which members present their own perspectives or relevant materials. 

The dedications that are read at the beginning of each session and appear on the digital apparatuses, offer an additional lens for discerning the “reception” of Hadran. They echo the sense that women identify with the gendered foundations of the endeavor. A listing in memory of a woman’s mother, shared a sharp articulation, “As a young girl, she begged her father to teach her Gemara [Talmud] so she could expand her knowledge. She would have loved to know that her daughter and daughter-in-law are pursuing that path.”

The gender egalitarian consensus of the Reform and Conservative movements would seemingly render obsolete the attraction of a predominantly all-women’s setting. Yet, based on direct communications from Hadran site users, 15-20% did not identify as Orthodox. Why do non-Orthodox Jews gravitate to Hadran? Numerous participants expressed that as opposed to most of the other existing online daf yomi options that were Haredi-oriented, they were attracted to Farber’s “non-yeshivish” style. Furthermore, quite a few correspondents disclosed that they began their daf yomi experiences listening to other lecturers but were frustrated by the lack of sensitivity to women’s issues. This dovetails with the comments of a few men who study regularly with male teachers but revealed that when the Talmud addresses gender-related topics, they make a point of turning to Hadran in order to gain exposure to Farber’s perspective. On a pragmatic level, moreover, even if there are many daf yomi portals, none are categorically non-Orthodox. Under such circumstances, Farber’s teaching and Hadran’s overall tenor resonate to Jews who have internalized an egalitarian Jewish approach.

Head shot of Adam FerzigerAdam S. Ferziger is professor in the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University, Israel and holds the Rabbi S.R. Hirsch Chair for Research on the Torah and Derekh Erez Movement. He is a senior associate at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, University of Oxford and co-convener of the Oxford Summer Institute on Modern and Contemporary Judaism. He is a 2021 HBI Scholar in Residence. 

Comments

  1. Roberta Apfel says:

    Thank you for connecting to Hadran, this wonderful resource, at HBI.
    Robbie Apfel, class of ’58

  2. Maggie Anton says:

    Ten years ago, in Spring 2012, I was busy getting ready for “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” pub date and speaking tours while also working on its sequel “Enchantress.” I’d heard that it was possible to do daf yogi online, but I didn’t think I’d have the time to commit to a 7-year daily study session. But the 12th cycle was ending in July so I thought I could commit to 73 days for one tractate, the final tractate Niddah. I figured it should be interesting to learn a tractate that had to concentrate on women and our issues, especially since there were online classes where nobody would know my gender.
    I used the Schottenstein edition to follow along at home, and man, was I disappointed. Not only did the very Orthodox and Haredi classes gloss over sugyot concerning women, but one class removed the texts from the page entirely.
    It’s good see the progress women Talmud students have made in ten years. Y’shar Kocheych.

  3. Harriet says:

    I discovered Hadran beginning with the latest Daf Yomi cycle. It is all that Adam describes. Thank you for bringing it to the attention of HBI.

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