by Rebecca Borison
This evening, Jews around the world will gather to celebrate finishing all of the tractates of the Talmud. Over seven years, participants have studied a page of Talmud every day, either by themselves or in group lessons, for 2,711 days. And while the majority of these Jews are male, there is a strong number of women who participate. Up until the 20th century, you would have been hard-pressed to find a woman learning Talmud. Dating back to the Talmud itself, it was thought to be licentious to teach a woman Torah, let alone Talmud. Today, however, most rabbis encourage women to learn Jewish texts.
One woman who decided to brave the traditionally male waters is Ora Tenenhaus. Raised in a secular home in Israel, Ora travelled a unique path to this year’s siyum (finishing of the Talmud). Ora was introduced to religious study by her college roommate, and she just couldn’t get enough. After moving to Texas with her husband, Morti, Ora decided to partake in the Daf Yomi Talmud study, and will celebrate the conclusion of her study in Israel at Matan, a women’s institute for Torah studies. Ora spoke with us from Israel about her journey to the Daf Yomi siyum; below is a lightly edited transcript.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
I grew up in Kibbutz Dvir in the Negev. At 18, instead of the army, I went to college. My roommate, Shula Roth, was from a religious kibbutz, and she introduced me to religion.
What made you want to study Daf Yomi?
When I went to college, I started learning about Jewish philosophy and religion, and it always struck me. I slowly became more observant. Since then I was always looking for something. Shula was older than me and was my mentor through college. I was young and didn’t know about the world. She helped me with everything in college and life. She influenced me to start learning. I went to one class in the Knesset Gadol, the big synagogue in Tel Aviv, where I learned the Kuzari. I started taking any class I could, but I was never able to take Talmud because women could not do Talmud. When I heard about the Daf Yomi siyum, and it was on the radio, and it was a big deal, it was my husband who said, “You can do it, too.” So I said, “Okay, I will.” That’s how it started.
Did you learn with one specific group or class?
At first, I downloaded the pages and started listening to classes online—I didn’t have an actual Talmud in front of me. At the same time, there was a group of men at the synagogue who were learning Daf Yomi. When they heard I was studying, they mentioned that I could join them. I learned the first two tractates by myself—I listened to shiurim (classes) online. After I finished the second tractate, Shabbat, I heard that the class at my synagogue was doing a siyum on Shabbat so I asked if I could join. Of course I didn’t lead the Kaddish (prayer traditionally said by men) but I spoke a little. And after, I went to the rabbi and asked if I could join the class. It took place at 5:45 a.m.—before Shacharit (morning services). He was kind of surprised that I wanted to join the men, but he said, “Yeah why not.” It was a group of five men—it bothered one of them that a woman was learning, but the rest didn’t mind. They were inclusive. The rabbi, one other person, and I finished all of the Talmud. It was hard for me to go to class every time. It was too early in the morning. When I didn’t go to the classes, I would listen to recordings online from Yeshiva University, the OU, and Hadaf Yomi—a program from Bnei Brak.
How do you think the rabbis from Bnei Brak would feel if they knew a woman was listening to their Talmud lessons?
About a year after I started studying, I was in Israel, and I wanted to visit some of the rabbis from Hadaf Yomi. So I sent an email to one of the teachers, Nachum Strum—I really enjoyed all of his classes—and never got a response. I finally told my husband to email him, and he got a response, and we went to visit him. He was very happy to see us. I was dressed right for the occasion—I had a hat and a long skirt. When we sat to talk, we sat at the table and at the head of the table was Rabbi Kubalski (another rabbi from Hadaf Yomi), and on the other side was Nachum, and the other side was my husband Morti. Every time the rabbi asked a question, he asked Morti the question, and Morti asked me the question, and I answered. They really didn’t get it. Before we left he gave us a book as a present, and then he went to Morti and said, “Are you telling me the truth? Is it really her that’s studying?” But he was very polite. Until the end he didn’t want to believe it was me and not my husband.
Do you usually get negative responses like that?
Some people are really impressed after they ask two or three times “Is it really you and not him that studies?” and then they accept it. On our recent trip to Warsaw and Lublin, we went to Chabad in Warsaw for Shabbat dinner, and there was a young guy that was there. We told him how I was celebrating finishing the Talmud. He looked at me and said, “I don’t think women need to learn Talmud.” I got a lot of different reactions from people, but never really negative.
Why did you decide to go to Israel for the siyum?
I decided to do something for the siyum that would be more than the siyum in Dallas. My husband initiated the trip. We went to Lublin first, where Daf Yomi started in 1923. There’s a synagogue there that used to be a big yeshiva. Then we’re going to celebrate the siyum on Thursday with Matan, a women’s yeshiva. My husband started researching to help me do the siyum, and to go to New York with thousands and thousands of men wasn’t good. They wouldn’t feel comfortable with me. He said, “Let’s look for a place where women do it.” I asked around, and they suggested Matan.
Do you plan to continue your learning?
I don’t think I will continue Daf Yomi. There were a lot of things that I didn’t study that I should. Maybe I will do Nach Yomi (daily learning of Prophets and Writings) and study the Bible some more. I want to continue studying, I just need to decide what.
Does your family share your passion for Jewish learning?
Not as much as I do. My husband did Chagiga (a Talmudic tractate on the holidays) with me one time. He learned Masechet Megillah (a Talmudic tractate on Purim). He studies more Jewish philosophy. My daughters are not studying as much. My younger daughter is thinking of doing Daf Yomi.
Is there anyone who especially helped you achieve this goal?
Definitely Shula. She passed away this year, and I want to dedicate this to her. I also lost my father this year. This should be in his memory. He was not a religious man, but he always encouraged me to study, and he would be proud of me. And of course my husband supported me the whole time.