From Zion Will Come Torah

An Interview with Rabbanit Shani Taragin

There are few teachers of Torah more popular today than Rabbanit Shani Taragin. Serving as World Mizrachi’s Educational Director and Director of Mizrachi’s Lapidot Educator’s Training Program, she maintains a breathtaking schedule of classes in Israel and around the world. Rabbi Aron White spoke with Rabbanit Taragin about her childhood, the world of women’s learning, and her dreams for the future.

You have made a career and a calling of teaching Torah. When you were growing up, what did you want to do?

From a very young age I loved learning Torah; my parents would both learn with each of us (eight children, Baruch Hashem) every night, and over the Shabbat table we would each be asked to give a dvar Torah. Shabbat afternoons I would sit and read The Midrash Says on the parasha from start to finish and our shul, “The White Shul”, provided learning groups followed by an oneg every Shabbat afternoon. For me, the learning was also the oneg. In addition, from the time I was 8 years old, I was fascinated by science and wanted to be a pediatric neurologist. My father is a doctor and I would read his copy of Scientific American, particularly the Amateur Scientist column. I remember being fascinated reading articles about surgeons who succeeded in connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and possible ways to enable people to think and enhance cognition. I think there was always a connection between my medical interest in the brain and my love of learning and teaching Torah. I thought I would pursue a career in the medical field and simultaneously continue to learn and teach Torah, so when I registered for Stern College, I majored in Judaic Studies and Biology.

I remember having a life-changing conversation with my father about my career plan. He recommended that I choose what I wanted to specialize in. “You can’t be a great mother of a large family, a great doctor and a great teacher,” he said. I might have been able to be a good doctor, but I wanted to invest in affecting change in the world. I also realized that I wanted a large family. And so as much as I love science, I was more passionate about learning and teaching Torah, and so that is the path I chose. I feel blessed that today, in addition to teaching Tanach and Gemara, I am able to combine my love of science and my passion for Torah in my role as a Yoetzet Halacha, which addresses the interaction between halacha, fertility, intimacy and women’s health. My kids still suggest that one day I should attend medical school. Who knows?!

Rabbanit Taragin with her family.

Who were your role models of women’s Torah scholarship?

When I reflect on my role models, they help me appreciate the progression of women’s learning from its most traditional roots, to growing scholarship in Tanach and then to Torah she’ba’al peh.

Growing up, there weren’t many women who were presented as Torah scholars. Until 10th grade almost all my Torah classes were taught by men, but then I started to have female Tanach teachers.

When I arrived at Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central), I met women who really learned, taught and breathed Torah – women like Mrs. Esther Kraus, Rebbetzin Abby Lerner, Mrs. Rena Gopin-Wolf, Mrs. Sokolow, and Mrs. Aryeh. They taught me the teachings of Rav Soloveitchik and Nechama Leibowitz.

When I came to Israel, I met Rabbanit Malke Bina and Dr. Bryna Jocheved Levy, who opened the doors of Tanach and Torah she’ba’al peh for me and showed me there is no glass ceiling in Torah scholarship. After a year in Michlalah, I spent my Shana Bet learning in the Matan Matmidot program for Gemara, Tanach and halacha, and three afternoons learning Gemara with Rav Yair Kahn at Nishmat. Rabbanit Henkin and Rabbanit Bina taught Gemara as well, inspiring me and hundreds of talmidot to enrich our lives of avodat Hashem through learning while living Torah. People suggested that I focus on one or the other, on either Tanach or Gemara, but here, however, I didn’t feel I had to choose a specialty – I wanted to learn and teach both Torah she’bichtav and Torah she’ba’al peh. I continued learning in Matan while I completed my degrees in Tanach and Talmud in Bar-Ilan University, while also starting a family and teaching in Machon Gold, followed by Midreshet Lindenbaum, Matan, and other seminaries, batei midrash for women, and summer programs.

Rabbanit Taragin with some of the participants of the Lapidot Educator’s Training Program, at the World Mizrachi Leadership Shabbaton in Ein Gedi, January 2023.

How do these changes in women’s learning reflect changing attitudes within the Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox communities?

Initially there were greater opportunities to learn Torah she’ba’al peh in America, led by Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Mordechai Willig, who taught the first Gemara shiur to women at Stern College in 1977. When Rabbi Brovender opened a program for women in Israel that focused on Gemara study (Bruriah), it began with American women who were studying in Israel. The first midrashot like Machon Gold were predominantly focused on teacher training for the Diaspora. It took about another ten years for Israeli midrashot to get off the ground.

When I came to study at Michlalah for my first year in Israel (1991–1992), I would learn a few nights a week in the Brovenders’ beit midrash. The American students were significantly more advanced than most of the Israelis. Fast forward thirty years, and though there are more American high schools teaching Gemara than Israeli schools, there are many more midrashot offering advanced Torah she’ba’al peh in Israel than there are in America. There has been a shift, with Israel now becoming the center for advanced Torah study for women.

This development has numerous ramifications. Yoatzot Halacha are more accepted here by rabbinic authorities, largely because the spectrum is much wider in Torah scholarship. In the Diaspora, it is more politicized and polarized within the Modern Orthodox spectrum. Leading US rabbanim who were more supportive of the Yoatzot Halacha program 25 years ago are now more suspicious and circumspect due to a trend of liberal female “rabbis” in America. 

Here in Israel, the focus is on women’s Torah scholarship and teaching. There may be some political undertones, but they are not as stark as they are in the Diaspora, and not as community-based. The number of women engaged in advanced Torah learning is far greater in Israel, and Baruch Hashem there are many opportunities for observant women to teach and inspire in high schools and midrashot here.

I feel lucky and grateful to be part of that transition, from there to here; for many years, most of my chavrutot in learning and students were American, but now I see my Israeli daughters and talmidot continuing and advancing that learning.

Until about fifteen years ago, the overwhelming majority of teachers in midrashot were men. We must certainly continue to appreciate the role of rabbanim and poskim in our community. But having predominantly male teachers in womens’ programs doesn’t create an ideal religious environment for women. Women of all ages require female role models both in teaching and demonstrating Torah lives – in the beit midrash and in the home. Now that women are more knowledgeable and involved in Jewish thought and halachic discourse, they are more qualified to inspire, educate and play greater roles in Torah-value-based organizations.

I have talmidot who express “kinat sofrim”, “the envy of scholars”, of yeshiva students who have the opportunity to forge meaningful rebbetalmid relationships. “Why can’t we have a rebbe to go to shul and spend Shabbat with?” I remind them that they should definitely have a Rav to whom they address difficult halachic questions, but the Rav shouldn’t be their role model for life. They need a “rabbanit”, a female Torah role model to go to shul and spend Shabbat with – to see how she cuts vegetables halachically, how she dresses, exercises, and raises her children. She can help guide her students as they choose between going to shul, nursing a child, or both. This is a significant and incredibly positive shift to help maintain mesorah, especially if we don’t live with our mothers and grandmothers as we once did.

How does Mizrachi’s Lapidot program fit into this story?

It is imperative that we train women in teaching both Tanach and halacha. In high schools today, it is critical to have female role models for teaching and living halacha, so we started Mizrachi Lapidot to train these women in understanding halachic sources, pedagogy of halacha, and halachic topics pertaining particularly to women. Until now, in many schools, women taught Tanach and Jewish philosophy but not halacha, because they didn’t feel sufficiently confident. It is so important in areas of halacha to have women teach and impart the importance of living a halachic lifestyle as personal role models – Shabbat, kashrut, mo’adim, and especially laws of ervah and nidda which are very sensitive and raise issues of women’s physical and mental health.

Rabbanit Taragin with the 2020 graduates of the Lapidot Educator’s Training Program.

Over the last few years, many womens’ seminaries with a heavy focus on Talmud study have struggled to attract students from the Diaspora. What is causing this trend?

Many factors have contributed to this. In America, due to financial restraints and career pressures, many talented women find it difficult to pursue learning Torah she’ba’al peh long term, which requires serious dedication and investment to develop proper skills and scope. They are also disillusioned by the few positions available to teach Torah she’ba’al peh in the US and the general financial pressures accompanying careers in Jewish education. Those passionate about Jewish education will often opt to invest in skills in other areas of Torah which may inspire more students in middle and high schools.

Secondly, the learning of Gemara has unfortunately become very stereotyped in the United States among both young men and women and is associated with liberal “open” Orthodox organizations and the mitigated observance of halacha.

In the media today, liberal voices are amplified more loudly than more conservative and traditional voices, so young women have come to associate Gemara learning with the more liberal camp. Those who prefer to be associated with the traditional community will opt out of learning Gemara altogether.

Thirdly, women know that their obligation to learn Torah she’ba’al peh is predominantly for functional purposes – to hone their knowledge, understanding and practice of halacha. Beyond that, learning is an expression of a devotional goal of strengthening one’s relationship with Hashem. Throughout history, many women have found that they develop a stronger relationship with Hashem through learning Tanach, tefillah and machshava more than through the intricacies of Gemara. These women want to focus on those means of “ahavat Hashem”, and rightly so.

Finally, this is tied to a general shift I have seen in the last ten years in Jewish education. Due to general concern about how kids are growing up, and how the broader world and the Jewish world has changed through technology and social media, parents and educators are more concerned today with their kids being frum and inspired than they are with their children and students acquiring skills and content. When that happens, people naturally begin focusing less on Gemara. Is this a done deal that we must accept as the new normal, or should we try to change our educational culture? Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l wrote that every woman must be exposed to Torah she’ba’al peh, to in-depth Gemara study in order to strengthen her functional and devotional Jewish beliefs. Beyond that, each woman should continue to pursue Torah learning to strengthen her devotion to Torah and mitzvot.

Most women will choose to pursue inspiration through Tanach and machshava. If so, it should be through appreciation of our texts! There are the few who are completely enthused by Gemara and feel that it genuinely strengthens their commitment to Torah and mitzvot. They may be the minority, but they are a minority who should be celebrated, guided and invested in so that they may serve as proper religious role models in Torah she’ba’al peh for the next generation! 

Rabbanit Taragin (center) together with Rabbanit Chana Henkin (left) and Rabbanit Rachelle Fraenkel (right) at Mizrachi’s Siyum HaShas in Jerusalem, January 2020.

Your teaching schedule is famously overwhelming, even chaotic. You teach an incredible number of classes each week across Israel, and to the Diaspora on Zoom. Why do you push yourself so hard?

In our tefillah three times each day, we ask Hashem פּוֹתֵחַ אֶת יָדֶךָ וּמַשְׂבִּיעַ לְכָל חַי רָצוֹן, “You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing’s will”. A beautiful Chassidic vort explains that we are asking Hashem to provide us with “ratzon”, with willpower. Every day I ask Hashem to give me that ratzon, that drive to share dvar Hashem. I ask Him to provide me with the religious, physical, mental and emotional strength to be the best eved Hashem I can possibly be, and to be able to inspire others.

No matter how tired I am, Torah learning and teaching give me strength. The joy and love of sharing dvar Hashem is incomparable to anything else or any other pursuit. It is not just relegated to the classroom. My children are my favorite students; living teaching is teaching your children. Even regular conversations at home can be infused with teaching dvar Hashem. It’s the most invigorating aspect of my life!

What are some of your dreams for the future?

On a macro level, my goal is to work together with gedolei haDor, rabbanim, rabbaniyot and leading educators to teach Tanach and Torah she’ba’al peh to as many women as possible, without compromising on quality, while also catering to many different aspects of avodat Hashem. This expresses itself in different ways for different groups. I have met many professional women in their 50s who say they now want to learn more Torah, as they did not have the opportunity to do so when they were younger. We need as many community batei midrash for women as possible, places that enable women at each stage of life to enhance their shemirat mitzvot and talmud Torah.

Another new development is the growing social and cultural experiences for women in Torah communities which I hope to strengthen and encourage. Men have so many of these cultural and social religious programs – melave malkas, siyumim, breakfast and evening groups that form around daf yomi, halacha yomit and perek yomi. Now these experiences are beginning to develop for women through wonderful organizations and programs.

Another change that needs to be fostered is the number of female Torah teachers available as a resource to women at each stage of life. Men who go through Jewish schools and yeshivot can often choose between 30 or 40 rabbis and find the three or four whom they most connect with and develop and maintain a relationship with them. Simply having more female teachers at each stage of Torah education will provide women more opportunities to form those essential connections to teachers, rabbaniot, mashpiot and mashgichot. We also need additional professional training in mental health, pedagogic methods and qualitative curricula for existing Jewish studies teachers to raise the level of properly teaching and inspiring textual skill, content and way of life.

There are young women who feel that if they stay in Israel after learning in midrasha, they won’t be able to continue their high level learning in a religious and academically-challenging environment. For that reason, many midrashot encourage students to leave Israel to go to Stern College, where they can stay within a religious framework in chutz la’aretz. But this is changing, Baruch Hashem. As of Elul 5783, Yeshiva University is starting a program in Israel which will provide Anglo college students with a comprehensive religious framework, including religious student life, tiyulim, shabbatonim and more. Young people can make Aliyah and continue their religious development in a framework that is inspiring, enriching, supportive and comfortable. We are creating that environment for them here in Eretz Yisrael as part of the process of geulah! Ki miTzion teitzei Torah!

Lastly, together with my husband, children and grandchildren, I hope to bring greater glory to Torah. And through building our Jewish home, I hope to help others build theirs, which will catalyze Hashem to rebuild His!

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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