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YU’s GPATS: ‘Bringing Their Own Light to Torah Study’

Positive energy, excitement and anticipation were in the air as women of all ages filed into the main shul at Congregation Keter Torah on Sunday morning, February 28. They had come to participate in a Women’s Community Yom Iyun sponsored by Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program in Talmudic Studies (GPATS).

Greetings to the assembled were delivered by Rabbi Kenneth Brander, vice president of university and communal life.

He noted that the holiday of Pesach does not simply begin at nightfall. It is the culmination of a journey of preparation leading up to the pinnacle. “Similarly,” asserts Brander, “our GPATS students are bringing their own light to Torah study on the highest level; they are on a personal and national journey of women growing in Torah and Halacha.”

Outlining the history of the evolution of women’s Torah study was the task of Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, Senior Scholar, YU Center for the Jewish Future and University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought. From the founding of the first Bais Yaakov by Sara Schenirer in 1917 with the impactful endorsement of two Torah giants of the day, the Chofetz Chaim and The Gerrer Rebbe, the stage was set but not without continuing controversy. Seventy years saw the back-and-forth debates between Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (the Tzitz Eliezer), and the Klausenberger Rebbe, and the restrictions of Rav Moshe Feinstein on the study of Oral Law. In 1953, Rav Soloveichik called the study of Oral Law an “absolute imperative” for women’s study, leading to his 1977 inaugural shiur at Stern. Currently, in the history of women’s Torah study, according to Schacter, “GPAT and other such programs celebrate the fullness of learning Torah by women role models for men and women deeply involved in tradition.”

The Yom Iyun proceeded with two sessions, each featuring two thought-provoking lectures. In the first session, Professor Nechama Price’s Bible shiur explored “Vashti: The Heroine of the Megillah” and Mrs. Chana Zukier entitled her Gemara shiur, “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead: Rejoicing at the Demise of Our Enemies.”

Professor Nechama Price, director of Yeshiva University’s GPATS and Professor of Judaic Studies and Bible at Stern College for Women, defined for her audience what constitutes a true Jewish heroine and consequently who is the true heroine of the Megillah. Price took us through the verses of the Megillah and relevant midrashim to compare and contrast Vashti and Esther, as well as other Tanach personalities including Esther and Batsheva, Esther and the Woman from Tekoa in Shmuel Bet, and even Esther and Yosef. By the end of the shiur it was clear that Esther was truly the heroine of the Megillah. Vashti was all about herself, her pride and her dignity, while disrespecting the king as seen in the simple text as well as the midrash. Esther, seemingly meek at the beginning of the story, defines herself when standing up for the Jewish people. She approaches the king respectfully, first to invite him to her parties and then to beg for the salvation of the Jews and their being allowed to fight to defend themselves. Finally, she boldly asks the chachamim to include this miraculous story in the Tanach. A true Jewish heroine, according to Price, “is an activist for the Jewish people, not for herself and her selfish needs.”

Mrs. Chana Zukier is co-director of the Orthodox Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC) at Yale University. Her challenging topic questioned how we are to properly react to the downfall of our enemies. She alluded to the joyous celebrations and boisterous singing of the National Anthem in Times Square on May 1, 2011, the day on which Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed. Would this have been a proper Jewish reaction? The pivotal verse in Mishlei, repeated in Pirkei Avot, would seem to say that it is not, as there will be consequences for you if you celebrate the death of an enemy. “Do not rejoice at the fall of your enemy as He will shift his anger away from him,” implying that there will be Heavenly retribution on you for this inappropriate joy. The practice of only reciting half Hallel on the last days of Pesach based upon the ruling of the Beit Yosef is that there was a need to curtail full celebration when Hashem’s creatures, the Egyptians, were drowning in the sea, despite their having been enemies of the Jewish people. On Purim we celebrate our salvation but not on the actual day of Haman’s hanging, rather on the following day when the Jews were given respite from their oppressors. On Chanukah, our Hallel is recited to celebrate the re-dedication of our Beit Hamikdash, not the downfall of our enemies. Hence, the key to our celebrations is not vindictiveness, nor to satisfy our emotional need for revenge, but rather to honor Hashem and express our gratitude for His salvation.

Session Two featured Mrs. Sarit Anstandig, Freshman Dean and Tanakh Faculty at the Frisch School, who completed the GPAT program two years ago. Her presentation explored the unusual phenomenon of Shushan Purim being celebrated on the 15th of Adar separately from the Purim for the unwalled cities of the rest of Israel. Why this separation of celebrations? Through analysis of the arguments of the Ramban and the Ran and through a historical investigation of the status of Shushan in the days of Achashverosh and during the times of Yehoshua, Anstandig suggests that the Megillah wants to connect us to Eretz Yisrael by alluding to Shushan as a unique entity. Shushan, like Yerushalayim, is referred to as Ir Habirah, a capital city. Mordechai was exiled from Yerushalayim to Persia. The dishes used at the feasts of Achashverosh were taken from the Beit Hamikdash in Yerushalayim. The message that emerges from the celebration on the 15th is clear. Even in Yerushalayim today we are still in exile, much as we were in Shushan, with much more to strive for in bringing honor to Eretz Yisrael.

Mrs. Lisa Septimus is an instructor of Talmud, Chumash and ethics at North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, Long Island. Her timely presentation dealt with the question of the special emphasis we give to listening to every word of Megillat Esther. During her exploration of the contrast between listening and hearing, Septimus drew on several important distinctions between the hearing of the weekly portion of the Torah and the listening to Megillat Esther on Purim. In the case of the weekly Torah reading, the obligation is on the tzibbur, the entire community, to hear as one entity. In contrast, every individual is required to listen to each word of the Megillah as it is an intrinsic part of the holiday’s commandment to spread the word of the miracle, pirsumei nisa.

By Pearl Markovitz

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