Women’s Talmud classes are back on at Yeshiva University after uproar over cancellation


(JTA) — Talmud courses are back on the table for women at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, less than a week after current and former students launched a petition criticizing the classes’ cancellation.

More than 1,400 people, mostly Y.U. faculty, alumni and students, signed the petition, which launched late Wednesday after a dean told the student newspaper in early April that the school would not be hiring any full-time faculty to replace Rabbi Moshe Kahn.

Kahn, who died at 71 in January of lung cancer, was seen as a champion of women’s Talmud studies and taught many of the advanced Talmud courses at Stern College, Y.U.’s women’s division.

“Not hiring a full-time professor dedicated to teaching Talmud at diverse levels will close the pipeline of access to Gemara for all students and ultimately lead to a decline in enrollment in the advanced level course,” said the petition. “The world of Torah study for women as we now know it would indeed be שָׁמֵם [shamem], utterly desolate.”

The petition — whose signers included prominent Talmud teachers, about 30 current and former Y.U. faculty members and students at Modern Orthodox high schools — called on the university to partner with them to endow a teaching position in Kahn’s name.

Now, Y.U. appears ready to do that — though it says it will not wait before resuming Talmud instruction at Stern.

“We have been planning a number of new initiatives,” Stern faculty said in a letter published online Friday and set to be sent to students’ inboxes later this week. “We would be delighted if those who support women’s advanced Torah study and the students, friends and supporters of Rabbi Kahn would endow a Rabbi Moshe Kahn Chair of Talmud Studies for Women. We are also seeking to create a new cohort program of Matmidot Scholars for young women to learn Tanach and Talmud on the highest levels.”

Yeshiva University is the only address in North America for undergraduate and graduate women to access advanced, intensive secular and Judaic studies. The graduate program is the only Orthodox program in North America for women’s Torah learning that culminates with a master’s degree.

The decision not to offer an introductory or intermediate level course in Talmud would have meant that the country’s flagship Modern Orthodox university would no longer educate its women students in one of Judaism’s most fundamental texts.

It also would have made Y.U. an outlier in Modern Orthodoxy amid expanding opportunities for women to study Talmud, after centuries during which it was considered the exclusive province of men. In the past few years, a growing number of women have formed asynchronous communities around studying a page of Talmud a day, a practice called daf yomi. The increasing number of programs offering ordination to Orthodox women also place a heavy focus on Talmud study.

Students who learned from Kahn said he had been a vital force for women who wanted to study traditional Jewish texts.

“He said, ‘Any woman who comes to my class is welcome.’ It wasn’t just lip service,” said Tamar Beer Horowitz, who studied with Kahn for five years and helped write the petition. “He genuinely made us all feel welcome.”

But while Kahn’s courses sometimes drew up to 20 students, lower-level Talmud classes sometimes had much smaller rosters, according to students and administrators. Many fell below Stern’s threshold to offer a class, eight students.

“We can continue low enrolled courses for a few semesters to see if the numbers pick up,” Karen Bacon, dean of Stern’s Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told The Commentator, the student newspaper, earlier this month. “When they don’t, we cannot justify the course unless it is a requirement for a particular major.”

Y.U. has made multiple changes to its Jewish studies offerings for both women and men in recent years. In 2021, the school announced that it would end its in-person Hebrew courses indefinitely, offering asynchronous classes online. That year, the undergraduate men’s college also dissolved its Jewish Studies division, combining multiple departments into a Bible, Hebrew and Near Eastern studies department. Before its dissolution, Jewish studies was the largest department at Yeshiva College.

The scaling back has come amid ongoing financial strain for Y.U., which survived a financial crisis two decades ago but now faces renewed litigation over its handling of child sex abuse allegations as well as the prospect of curtailed state funding depending on the outcome of a battle over its decision to bar an LGBTQ student group.

The changes in course offerings also come amid a national decline in the number of students studying the humanities.

Y.U. appears to be hoping that the conversation spurred by the viral petition could cause more students to choose Talmud classes when registration for the fall opens next week.

“We are pleased to share that Rabbi David Nachbar, an esteemed member of our Torah faculty, will be teaching a number of Rabbi Kahn’s classes,” the letter to students said. “We hope that recent discussions will inspire stronger enrollment, especially in our Talmud classes.”

But more than just offering courses will be needed. Some Stern College students and graduates say scheduling roadblocks can make it difficult to enroll in Talmud classes, even when there is interest.

Multiple Stern students said that, given the school’s schedule, registering for Talmud meant they would have had to enroll in two classes that met at the same time — making it impossible to complete the required coursework. Meanwhile, on the men’s campus, which offers more scheduling options for Talmud courses, the same conflicts do not occur, they said. Rabbi Ezra Schwartz, a leader in the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, was installed Monday morning as the men’s division’s full-time chair of Talmud and Jewish law.

“The claim that there’s no interest is — personally, I don’t think it’s true,” said Beer Horowitz, who is the founder of Bnot Sinai, an intensive women’s text study program in New York.

But she said even if there were low interest, canceling classes isn’t the best option, she said.

“I think that there may be dips in and rises in interest over time, but there’s also different things that cause that and we have to look critically at those,” she said. “You need to have that consistent offering to get it back to that place where it’s big and it’s popular and people are doing it.”