The woman leading a revolution in Talmud learning

Michelle Cohen Farber at Hadran’s Siyum HaShas ceremony in Jerusalem (Credit: Hadran)

On Jan. 5, thousands of Jewish people gathered in a hall in Jerusalem for Siyum HaShas, the celebration marking the completion of the seven-and-a-half year Daf Yomi cycle of Talmud study. That celebration, put on by an organization called Hadran, was one of many at the time; Jewish communities all over the world held similar simchas to honour the achievement. But Hadran’s siyum was unique because, of its 3,300-plus attendees, almost all of them were women.

Michelle Cohen Farber, co-founder of Hadran, has made it her mission to introduce women to the Talmud. At the beginning of the last Daf Yomi cycle, she set up a class for women in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana, and also started a podcast explaining each day’s page that gets 3,500 downloads a day. She visited Toronto from Feb. 21 to 23, visiting shuls and Jewish schools and homes to inspire women to learn Talmud.

One reason Farber, who is Orthodox, wants to make Talmud accessible for women is because she believes it’s an integral part of the Jewish experience, and they’re missing out on on the full spectrum of Jewish life without it.

“In the modern world, you can’t appreciate Judaism without learning,” she said. “Nowadays, if you don’t understand what you’re doing, and you don’t feel connected intellectually, many women – I’m not saying everybody, but many women – won’t really connect to Judaism, they won’t understand. The logic of the Talmud is the logic that our whole religion is based on. And it’s a unique logic. And it’s a unique way of thinking. And without understanding all of that, it’s hard to really understand what Judaism is all about.”

The audience at Hadran’s Siyum HaShas ceremony in Jerusalem
(Credit: Hadran)

Beyond introducing women to the Talmud for their own sake, Farber also thinks it’s important to introduce the Talmud to women. She says that women can have a lot to add to the text when they interpret its teachings through the lens of their own experience. That’s why Farber is gratified to learn that men are looking up to her as a teacher and listening to her podcast.

“People should be hearing women’s interpretation on the topics, women have a different perspective. And the fact that men are listening is amazing because men are hearing women’s perspective on these texts, which they’ve never heard before,” she said.

Farber also said teaching women the Talmud gives power and legitimacy to their voices within the community. When conversations are conducted and decisions made in the language of the Gemara, fluency in that language equates to influence, and a lack of it means your voice is silenced. Farber shared a story of a woman who had told her about the debate about a mechitzah in her synagogue.

“They were building the shul, and they were talking about the mechitzah, and they didn’t really take the woman into consideration so much. And then she started quoting sources, and they said, ‘Oh.’ And she was trying to say, ‘according to the sources, it doesn’t really have to be the way you say.’ And then all of a sudden, they started taking her seriously. And it’s important that women be part of that,” Farber said. “Women gain legitimacy by having knowledge and if they don’t have knowledge, it’s very hard for them to partake in a good way in the conversations that are shaping our religion.”

Farber doesn’t just want to teach Talmud to a few curious women. She wants to normalize it within the community. When she asked some girls in a Toronto classroom if there are differences between what the community expects of boys and girls, one girl said that even though everyone learns Gemara in school, her father only studies Gemara with her brother. Farber said the idea that Talmud study isn’t meant for girls is “deep-rooted,” and that is what she wants to change.

“The real goal is to make change in a much broader way. Because, for example, once your mother’s learning Gemara, then as a daughter, you view things differently,” she said. “Once women are learning Gemara in the community, the community treats it differently.”