Talmud and tefillin, or the first days of class

Classes began on Sunday, and the days that followed have been full of learning.  Sunday began with shacharit, the optional morning prayer service.  I have promised myself that I’ll go more often this year, so we’ll see if I stick to it or not.  This was followed by a brief orientation, where I met more of my fellow students, including Sofia from South Africa-who it turns out lives on my street!  After orientation was ulpan, my Hebrew class.  As I mentioned before, I’m in level Bet, which is the third of five levels offered.  Our teacher’s name is Edna, and despite the class being almost entirely in Hebrew, I can follow along pretty well.  After lunch and mincha (the afternoon service), I had my first text class, of which I have two each afternoon.  My first class is officially called The Place that God Will Choose: Holy Space and Place in the Tanakh, and is taught by Esther.  We’ve been looking at examples of how holiness is commanded and executed in scripture, starting with Avram and Sarai.  My second class on Sunday/Tuesday is Ta’amei Hamitzvot: The Reasons Behind the Commandments, taught by Shaiya.  Shaiya is unlike any teacher I’ve had before (in a good way); his class is very philosophical and he sometimes shares his idea for a third, egalitarian, temple with us, while requesting that we view the Torah through the lens of an alien anthropologist.  On Monday I had my second set of afternoon classes, which included Others and Otherness in Rabbinic Literatures with Yarden, and Tefillah Nusach with Saralee.  On Monday we also had a lunch provided for participants under 30 to meet each other, and the best part was meeting someone else who eats pizza the same way I do-by removing the cheese.  

Tuesday (yesterday) was a big day for me.  I started the day with shacharit, where Rabbi Joel taught us how to wrap tefillin, most of us for the first time.  Laying tefillin is a daily mitzvah with which men are tasked completion, and is what is supposed to be the defining element of a boy reaching the age of Bar Mitzvah.  Many women have taken on this mitzvah as well, but it’s certainly less common to see a woman with tefillin than a kippah or tallit.  There are two tefillin boxes-one for the head and one for the arm.  The tefillin shel rosh (of the head) is placed just below the hairline, and the tefillin shel yad (of the arm) is placed on the bicep and wrapped seven times down the forearm.  I had been looking forward to taking part in this since last summer when I missed the instruction day.  I was expecting it to be a big moment, for me to suddenly  feel connected to the weekday morning service and feel as though I was taking part in something very important.  It was more uncomfortable than anything-I tied the leather too tight around my elbow which served as a distraction throughout davening (praying).  I think I realized that like anything else, it’s going to take practice to feel like a natural and wonderful thing to do, and it’s also perfectly okay to decide to not make this part of my routine long-term.  Something that I did very much enjoy about this was being helped to lay them by two other women, who are older than me and have already been laying tefillin for some time.  There’s something really beautiful about women helping other women to complete a mitzvah that is traditionally only afforded to men.  

The other news of the day comes in the form of a change to my mornings.  On somewhat of a whim, I decided to take Talmud class in place of Hebrew ulpan.  I really wanted to take class with Shoshana, the teacher, and I know that I won’t have the opportunity to study Talmud back at Oberlin.  It wasn’t even 9:30 in the morning yet, but I had already taken on two things that women aren’t to do according to most Orthodox scholars.  At first I thought that perhaps I had made a mistake-the Talmud is in Aramaic, which I don’t speak, and what about coming here to learn Hebrew?  I warmed up to the class quickly, and I will be staying in it for the rest of the session.  My class is small, only three people plus the teacher, and coincidentally happens to be all women.  There’s an older German woman (who is nearly fluent in Aramaic), and a British girl who is a few years my junior. We’re all at very different levels, but it makes for interesting study as we all have something different to contribute.  

The turning point for me was the last 15 minutes of class when one of my classmates inquired about why we should bother with studying Talmud.  The tractate we are studying dictates excruciatingly minute rules surrounding idolatry (masechet Avodah Zarah, for the curious), but in the span of class we confronted larger ideas of how to deal with people who differ from us and debated ideas of religious tolerance.  This was ultimately the answer we arrived at regarding the importance of studying ancient (and sometimes boring) texts into the modern day.  As a class of all women, we all agreed that these texts can be problematic and one is not always left with positive feelings about their faith afterwards.  Sometimes the reaction to a particularly hard to hear text can be to shove the book back on the shelf rather than to continue to study.  It’s important to know that this is an option, but we must not let that be a routine result of text study.  Does this reaction prove that women shouldn’t study Talmud?  Is it somewhat puzzling to be studying texts calling for own oppression? No and maybe, respectively.  It’s incredibly powerful to be able to understand and reinterpret these texts into a way that affirms, rather than negates or oppresses, our identities.  Shoshana said something that really stuck with me, which is that it’s important to take the opportunity to read these words which have been off-limits to us for so very long, precisely because we have been denied their usage.  She feels (and I agree with her) that if women are going to continue to be treated like second-class citizens in many parts of the Jewish world, we need to be literate in these texts that are used against us.  We must take this opportunity we are given to study for all the women who didn’t, don’t, and won’t have the opportunity to do so.  Even though reading about what 1st century rabbis said about what is permitted to be in the hand of a statue does not exactly inspire passion in most, I feel that it is my obligation to bring new life into these texts that I would have found myself prohibited from only a few decades ago.  I’m certainly no scholar and calling myself Jewishly literate would be a lie, but I will keep studying and working with the hope that one day I’ll be able to make a real contribution to Judaism. 


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