In the living-room area of what was once a private brick home, at long tables in front of an ark and eternal light, one hears the classic murmur of a cheder, the holy noise of a one-room Jewish study hall. Only the lack of gaslight or a fireplace differentiates this Bronx scene from study halls in the lost worlds of Vilna, Warsaw or Marrakesh, but with a modern twist: All the scholars are young women. The men in the room are learning from them.Here, a pair of huddled heads are deciphering the Baba Kama laws of loans and loss; there, a trio discusses the linguistic nuance of a verse from Parashat Bo.Yentl doesn’t hide here anymore.So it goes every Tuesday night at Torat Miriam, an
immersion in Modern Orthodox ideology for 10 graduate-level women students. Their evening is divided between a 90-minute lecture by a visiting scholar, followed by the women themselves teaching drop-ins from the neighborhood.Torat Miriam was founded and directed by Rabbis Saul Berman and Avi Weiss, and is based in a house utilized by and adjacent to Rabbi Weiss’ Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Begun in September, the program was finding its nascent way when after just a few weeks, it burst from the chrysalis of tender scholarship and into the burly of controversy over women rabbis.In December, one week after Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side became the first Orthodox shul to appoint a woman to para-rabbinic duties as a “congregational intern,” Rabbi Weiss followed by appointing Torat Miriam’s Shoshana Margolin Halickman to a similar internship at the Hebrew Institute.Rabbi Weiss followed that with a public offer to Orthodox synagogues: Torat Miriam — funded by the Edah advocacy group for Modern Orthodoxy and private citizens — would subsidize the salary of any Torat Miriam woman hired as an intern. No Orthodox synagogue has yet to accept his offer.Rabbi Weiss, whose Torat Miriam program is coming under increased scrutiny these days, is scheduled to address next week’s Second International Conference on Orthodox and Feminism, to be held at Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt Hotel. Several conference speakers are expected to ask for a less-transitory title than “internship” to recognize women’s professional religious leadership.“Torat Miriam is a good piece of what we need to develop women into leaders; it gives them Modern Orthodox philosophy, but that’s not enough,” said Bat Sheva Marcus, chair of the Women’s Tefilla Network and co-chair of next week’s conference. “As we move ahead, we’re going to have to figure out a way to combine that philosophy with a solid textual education in halacha, as well.”Said Dovid Silber, founder and director of Drisha, an Upper West Side school of intensive graduate-level study for women: “Just having speakers come in once a week doesn’t prepare you for anything. And are we [at Drisha] preparing anyone to be congregational interns? Quite honestly, no. There’s professional training that’s needed for pastoral work, and that’s not something we’re attempting to provide.”And although the Torat Miriam lecture series is a paean to Modern Orthodoxy, rabbinic leaders at Yeshiva University, Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, are giving it the cold shoulder. Rabbi Weiss acknowledged that Torat Miriam “probably won’t” ever be approved by YU president Rabbi Norman Lamm, for reasons Rabbi Weiss said he could not explain. Rabbi Lamm did not return phone calls about Torat Miriam.Rabbi Weiss, who teaches at Yeshiva’s Stern College for Women, said he was inspired to create Torat Miriam by “sitting with these women [at Stern College] who because of their Torah knowledge are inspired to inspire others. And you see that as they speak, their options are limited. I felt we had to do this.“One of my dreams is that women from this program will be able to be maximally involved in Orthodox synagogues — while being very clear that we are shaping this role in accordance with halacha.”Despite his offering of internships, Rabbi Weiss insists that “Torat Miriam is not, and never was, a course in how to be a congregational intern.”The women of Torat Miriam told The Jewish Week that they were not informed of Torat Miriam’s para-rabbinic angle prior to enrolling in the program, which pays each woman $3,600 to attend. And the promise of internships is not what rivets them to Torat Miriam.Brigitte Dayan, 27, a dark, willowy daughter of Moroccan Jews who exudes the cool cerebral religiosity exhibited by so many of the new generation of women scholars, says she appreciates Torat Miriam for what it is: a weekly complement to her mornings at Drisha and her afternoons at a master’s program in Bible at Yeshiva University’s Revel School.“I like the fact that I have exposure to people who are the top scholars in their field,” said Dayan.The Torat Miriam intern Halickman, her blonde hair tucked into the traditional hat covering of married Orthodox women, said she was particularly impressed by guest speaker Menachem Elon. The former president of Israel’s Supreme Court spoke about the right of women to be represented on Israeli religious councils.“I appreciate the small setting, that I have the chance to ask questions,” Dayan said. “I like the [Meorot, Torat Miriam’s twin program for men] men and women in the program. ... I feel like I’m in the thick of things here. I feel these people are going to be doing great things for the Jewish people in 10, 15, 20 years.”But are the women actually being trained to work with congregations?The weekly lecturers pass out photocopied readings, but there are no books and no tests. The closest thing to practical rabbinics has been Rabbi Berman’s class on whether a Jew can save a non-Jew’s life on Shabbat.Torat Miriam fellow Tammy Jacobowitz, when asked if Torat Miriam’s curriculum prepared anyone for congregational work, said, “As it is constituted now, it doesn’t.”Nevertheless, Jacobowitz, who like most of the Torat Miriam fellows also studies daily at the more intensive Drisha, pointed out that “The exciting thing about Torat Miriam is that it is being defined as it goes along. Nobody was really sure what it would be like, but since it is the first year, everyone is enthusiastic and open to suggestions.”Enter the brick house on winter nights and hear a 12-year-old girl say of Jacobowitz, “If it wasn’t for Tammy, I probably wouldn’t have passed my last Gemara test.” Or hear Dayan, speaking in a soft French, teaching a woman “who grew up with my mom in Morocco, how to read Hebrew.”The older Moroccan woman could recognize the letters; with every passing week the letters evolved into words and thought.So it is with Torat Miriam’s women, recognizing that their program and the landscape of Orthodoxy are in a state of change. Every week ideas, ancient and modern, are recognized, evolving into more daring words and thought. But the women here are content to let labels and definitions reveal themselves in time.