Girls’ study is a means to an end – to imbue in them an appreciation and love for Yiddishkeit. Do our girls leave our school system with a passion for Hashem, His Torah and His people?
By Rabbi Shimon Hellinger – Anash Magazine
Formal education for girls is a relatively new phenomenon, and it was started for a specific purpose.
For thousands of years, girls grew up under their mothers, where they were mentored and introduced to Jewish womanhood and life. They lived and breathed a felt Jewish experience. Their education was not missing anything.
About a century ago, things began to change. A decline in housework due to the Industrial Revolution, as well as a widespread aspiration for intellectual study, led to a necessary shift in how young girls would be taught Yiddishkeit. Rather than learning by osmosis, they would now study Torah texts.
Many were hesitant to change the status quo and only reluctantly did they agree to the move. There was a sense of urgency: Either we engage the girls, or we risk losing them to outside lures – of which there are many. The results were hugely successful, and generations of girls were engaged in academically rigorous Torah study that competed with, lhavdil, secular courses.
As we ponder the education of girls today, we ought to consider the goal of their study and apply it accordingly.
Torah learning for women is dynamic, not static. Unlike men’s Torah study, which is an inherent mitvza for its own sake, women’s learning is a path to connection. Beyond halachic instruction – which they previously received at home – the more recent undertaking of Torah study by girls was intended so that they be touched by its holiness and inspired to love Hashem.
At a Beis Rivkah dinner in 5704 (1944), the Rebbe – then known as the Frierdiker Rebbe’s son-in-law and director of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch – delivered a talk on the priority and purpose of girls’ education. After examining halachic sources on women’s study, the Rebbe said this:
“However, if we consider the present circumstances, the above discussion is irrelevant. Because the education of Jewish girls today isn’t for the sake of knowledge alone, but to ensure that they live as Yiddishe kinder.
“Children today are raised in an environment submerged in worries of parnassa and the pursuit of ‘making a living,’ or when there is abundance, in the desire to ‘have a good time.’ They don’t appreciate at all the superior distinction of being Jewish. From their perspective, Yiddishkeit is associated with restrictions, or even suffering…
“This is the function of the Bais Rivka and Bais Sarah schools, founded by my saintly father-in-law the [Frierdiker] Rebbe: To impress upon the hearts of the students that they are b’nos Yisroel, Yiddishe daughters, to explain this sanctity to them, the virtue and purity that it yields, and the responsibility that each one of them bears.”
In short: Girls’ study is a means to an end – to imbue in them an appreciation and love for Yiddishkeit.
With this attitude in mind, we can put aside preconceived notions and ask: What is it that will inspire a new generation of youth to devote their life to Hashem and His Torah? What will fire their souls and warm their hearts to be Yidden, Chassidim?
More specifically: Are today’s girls enamored by wisdom, thirsty for information, stimulated by knowledge? Do our girls leave our school system with a passion for Hashem, His Torah and His people?
And lastly: If you knew nothing of the conventional schooling system, would you come up with schooling as the most effective way to inspire girls to love Yiddishkeit?
Indeed, some girls are naturally fascinated with academic learning, but the vast majority are not. Insisting that girls are able and capable of learning in-depth Torah, though true, is beside the point, as the Rebbe said. The question we must ask ourselves is: Are we reaching their hearts and kindling their souls?
A high school girl can repeat a dvar Torah she learned, but rarely is she enchanted by it. A girl looking to deepen her connection might turn to that kind of learning – having been raised in a school environment that lauds academic study – but often it doesn’t rouse her passion.
We can push, coax and offer prizes to try and make it work, but we are unnecessarily pushing a round peg into a square hole. The premise – that this is how girls must learn – is unfounded.
For better or for worse, times have changed, and we don’t live in an academic culture. People aren’t satisfied with learning and memorizing; they want to relate and experience. Torah – which is a “Living Torah” (Toras Chaim) and implies guidance (hora’a) – can and should be learned as a guide to life.
How many girls have spent years learning Torah texts but are unfamiliar with the Torah’s values on life? Many don’t even know that the Torah has what to say on social and emotional issues! Classroom conversations on such issues grounded in Torah values are not “a waste of learning time.” These are the issues that are of most interest to them and most relevant for their life ahead!
Fixed on the goal of engaging women with whatever it takes, the Rebbe allowed and encouraged women who wanted to study Torah Sheba’al Peh texts (Mishna, Gemara). Today, we can use that same mindset to make Torah accessible and experienced – beyond the text.
It isn’t a difficult task – once we overcome the fear of deviating from convention. With our goal in mind, we can find ways to make Torah and Yiddishkeit meaningful for our girls. Watch their response, and you will know if you are lighting up their neshama.
Our girls need a captivating Jewish experience that can compete with the lures of the outside world. Chassidus and the Rebbe’s sichos in particular offer us the ideas with which to provide a meaningful Yiddishe life and raise a generation of young, passionate chassidistehs.
This article first appeared in Anash Magazine – published by Anash.org.