Thursday, May 1, 2008

A bone to pick

I recently realized something about myself that has been gnawing at me for a while, but took some time to articulate: I have almost zero confidence in discussing matters of halacha when there are men around. It's not like I don't know things, per se (although I don't have the greatest memory), it's that I a) don't feel comfortable correcting a guy even when I think he might have said something incorrectly or b) am afraid to introduce things into the conversation for fear of being wrong.

Okay, so maybe b) is a separate issue, but I think a) has a root in the way I was schooled.

In more right-wing schools, girls are often taught halacha in a very simple, non-source-based way. For example, where I went to high school, we learned halacha like this: the teacher (who was a noted posek who definitely knew what he was talking about, no question - I just take issue with the method) would hand out a sheet of questions on a particular topic, and then would go through the questions and give us the answers. There was no source sheet, we never had to look into a sefer - we were literally spoon-fed the answers.

What did this mean? Well, it meant that we knew an awful lot of information without a) knowing the sources b) knowing how to look at sources. Which is problematic. Why? Because there was an implicit statement of, "No need to teach you this, because you can rely on your father/brother/husband to tell you the answer when you have a question." It was practically a given that people would have someone like that to turn to for the answers.

But guess what. Not everyone has that. Not everyone has a father who spent many years in yeshiva learning gemara, or a brother who is currently in yeshiva, or a husband. And there comes a point where you want to look something up because you are tired of always relying on other people for what to do, but you know what? You can't. Because you've never been taught how, or where, to look. You haven't the faintest idea of the structure of the Mishna Berura, or the Kaf HaChaim. Shulchan Aruch? Forget it. You haven't a clue as to where a halacha originated in the gemara or the mishnah. Whenever a teacher referenced those sefarim, it was a passing mention and you only have a vague idea as to what the sefer actually contains and accomplishes.

This has a couple important ramifications. Firstly, what is essentially being told to women is that it's not even worth it to bother to learn how to use a source (or even what sources there are). Secondly, this makes women much more dependent on men (because the implication is "you can always just ask someone"), and therefore, much less confident in their knowledge in the face of a man's knowledge.

I'm not saying that the system of asking a rav a shailah should be torn down. Far from that. Rather, there needs to be a shift in the way that women are taught halacha in bais yaakov schools. There needs to be a lot more empowerment in terms of learning from sources and learning how to utilize sources. There needs to be more of an emphasis on the ability of a woman to discuss halachic issues with men.

I don't know - maybe my hesitation to contradict a guy who I think is quoting halacha incorrectly or to put my two cents into a discussion about halacha is an isolated thing, but it definitely relates back to the way I was taught. And it frustrates me so much. I dislike this imposed paralysis on my ability to confidently state what the correct course of halachic action is. (And I really don't like that consulting a source is so foreign to me or that it intimidates me too much to approach it.)

So what can I do about it? Well, I am lucky that I'm at the point where I can still take halacha classes with professors who *do* go back to original sources and use them in class.

But still . . . it frustrates me SO much! I wish it hadn't been that way.

29 comments:

Diana said...

Oy vey!

Erachet said...

Another issue: if you don't know the sources behind the halacha, you won't be able to participate in a discussion about it. It would go something like this:

Guy: The halacha is like this
Girl: No, it's like this
Guy: But it says here, here, and here that the halacha is like this because of this pasuk and that braita, etc.
Girl: But my teacher said the halacha is this.
Guy: Based on what?
Girl: Um...I don't know?

Ezzie said...

Excellent post. Have to think before commenting.

FWIW, guys sometimes feel this way as well - much of the halacha guys learn is not from a sefer either, but from shiurim, from asides thrown into speeches or conversations, and the like.

badforshidduchim said...

Very true - luckily, our teacher in high school would usually say "this is from the Mishnah Berura" or "R' Moshe says this" so when I'm stuck in an arguement I say "Check the Mishnah Berura and you'll see."

There's also those lovely humogous fat halacha books on various subjects (like kashrus and brachos) which nobody argues with.

But like Ezzie pointed out - guys may know how to look up halacha, but they don't actually know it. They know stuff from the Gemara. If it isn't in there, chances are they haven't a clue. (Just my experience.) And when it comes to halacha, the average girl who went to a good high school knows more than the average yeshiva guy.

(In fact, our halacha teacher in high school said he decided to take the halacha route because his wife embarassed him by asking a question and then answering it correctly herself when he couldn't. Most men aren't at all embarassed, though. They figure they're busy with more important things than mere halacha.)

the apple said...

Diana - pretty much! ;)

Erachet - spot on. And I think I probably had a conversation that went along those lines once.

Ezzie - really? Interesting. I'm curious to get more of the guy's perspective. Can you elaborate?

Bad4 -
1. My teachers would say who had paskened what too. But they didn't say exactly where it was written, so that it becomes slightly useless when you actually want to look it up.

2. Re halacha books - true. But the thing is, while those books *are* helpful, and while they direct you back to original sources (for the most part), it doesn't help if you don't know how to use the sources.

3. True, girls do tend to know a lot more information. That's good, at least - we covered a lot of ground in h.s., and we definitely learned topics that I have found girls in non-BY schools didn't know or didn't learn in high school at all.

Diana said...

I find it shocking how a lot of yeshiva day school graduates don't know how to keep a kosher kitchen.
I may write a post on this later, but really, growing up kosher doesn't always mean you know what you're doing...

Erachet said...

but really, growing up kosher doesn't always mean you know what you're doing...

Yeah, ESPECIALLY if you're a guy and your mother doesn't make you help in the kitchen.mmbiyf

Diana said...

Is "mmbiyf" a groaning noise?

Yeshiva Bachur said...

I think that you have raised a really good point in your post. It actually opened my eyes a bit to the Jewish woman's education. I always assumed that even though the teachers taught a lot of halacha, but they at least gave the reasons and sources behind the halacha.

I would venture to make an accusation at the Jewish man's education as well. Often so much emphasis is placed on reading X number of Seifim of Mishna Berurah that sometimes the many different opinions quoted can be confusing and mixed up. Or after learning a very lengthy sugya of gemara often there is no conclusion reached. For the most part the Yeshiva High School rebeim do not sit down at the end of a topic and say this is the halacha and why. It may be as simple an explanation of he is the oldest or most revered, or a very complicated lumdos. What good is all these pieces of lumdus and different logical reasonings if other ideas are entered into the discussion before the conclusion.

Apple, don't be afraid to open your mouth in matters of Torah if you know its the halacha. Just because somebody has a good logical reason for why a halacha should be one way, is no reason it is correct.

To conclude my 12th grade rebbe used to respond to us whenever we complained about the poor educational technique of the administration. "That is why you guys have to go into chinuch." Often chinuch is not run by the people who know what is best educationally rather by people who either wanted to be Roshei Yeshivas but couldn't make it or people who don't know where their students are coming from. This leads to disasters of teachers and administrators doing things the way they have always done them because they don't know any better way.

Special Ed said...

Even if you do know where to look, I'm pretty confident of the fact that I'll totally misunderstand the M"b and do it wrong, which makes me fearful of paskining for myself.

Diet Dr. Pepper said...

bs'd

Hey Apple,

Firstly, chodesh tov.

Secondly, my high school Halacha class experience was basically the same as yours it seems. Worse was that we only had Halacha class twice a week (while we learned Chumash 5 times a week), so we didn't even learn that much Halacha. After I left, one extra period of Halacha was added per week, but still...

The good news is that I then went to two pretty great schools where I learned Halacha inside with sources, many times starting with the Gemaras, working through the Rishonim, and finishing off with psak of the Mishna Berura. It all depends on what classes you choose (this week. Have fun with registration).

G said...

But like Ezzie pointed out - guys may know how to look up halacha, but they don't actually know it. They know stuff from the Gemara. If it isn't in there, chances are they haven't a clue. (Just my experience.) And when it comes to halacha, the average girl who went to a good high school knows more than the average yeshiva guy.

I am going wait for Ezzie to confirm if this is or is not what he was saying...that way I know just how many people need to be corrected.

MordyS said...

I'm with Ed on this one. I spent how many years in yeshiva? And I'm lucky if I can really figure out what a page of mishna brura is really talking about. In fact, I'd rather just ask instead of going to look it up for fear that I'd completely misinterpret the halacha and totally mess myself up.

That does have less to do with the education I was offered though, and more to do with how little I cared about halacha back in HS. I'm sure if I really cared back in HS I could have learned how to work my way through a halachic source or two. And then in Israel I was a little busy undoing all the HS damage, so I didn't have time for that either.

But that's not to say that I don't plan on being at a point where I can open up a M'B by myself and make sense of it sometime in the near future. (I'll have to put that on the list.)

But to not be offered that option, yeah I can see how that would annoy someone with an actual thirst for knowledge. And I never quite envision BY's (or any frum girls schools for that matter) as being places of female empowerment.

MordyS said...

Oh, and...

There needs to be more of an emphasis on the ability of a woman to discuss halachic issues with men.

WOMEN DISCUSSING THINGS WITH MEN?!

(hehehe.)

SJ said...

In my opinion, the importance of independent textual learning skills cannot be overestimated. I was blessed to attend both a high school and a seminary that emphasized independent learning, and, thank God, I always had the desire to utilize my resources to develop these skills, so I find myself in the opposite situation as the apple: I am often shy in groups of people, and may not speak up at all until halacha is brought up--then, if it is a topic that I know something about, I suddenly have no trouble speaking up.

In our times, what one of my rebbeim deemed "the Artscroll mentality" is a big problem among both men and women. There are too many people who merely rely on English bottom-line halacha books or halachic word-of-mouth, and feel that there is no need to know how to look things up in the original sources. Wanting to be able to learn independently is the first, crucial step; finding a way to accrue the skills you lack is next--and apple, I know you can (and will) do it.

Ezzie said...

Bad4, G - It's *sort* of what I meant. A lot of guys can open up a sefer and learn the halacha if they so choose, a lot can't; but more importantly, most guys never bother to. They take what they're told in classes and shiurim and that somebody throws out in conversation or shiur and assume it must be true (not saying right or wrong), but when it comes down to it, they know very little.

Good example: I worked in the yeshiva kitchen throughout high school and then again as the cook for summer zman a couple years later while the cook was away. I knew exactly what we could and couldn't do, particularly regarding issues on Shabbos, as did anyone who worked with me. Often, we'd have guys from the Beis Medrash come in and question things and hock and complain and accuse us of being "over" on different things. Sometimes we'd reply, sometimes not, and sometimes they'd go to the Rosh Yeshiva or a Rebbe to ask about it. Every time, we were right.

Back to the comment:

They know stuff from the Gemara. If it isn't in there, chances are they haven't a clue. (Just my experience.) And when it comes to halacha, the average girl who went to a good high school knows more than the average yeshiva guy.

I'll disagree on the first part; I don't think it's a matter of Halacha from Gemara or not. I agree more with the second part, but I think that's more of a function of yeshivos assuming guys will learn more halacha on their own, but they either a) don't or b) are only learning from one place or another (Mishna Berura) and not really going back to sources or understanding what's going on/why and if there are other opinions, etc.

Stam said...

I feel the same way about not being comfortable to discuss halacha with a guy.

though in most of my halacha classes we did it inside the shulchan aruch/kitzur/etc and i do feel like i know certain things very well, guys always seem to think they know better (in some cases they may) and basically decide that i'm wrong, they're right.

but it seems like the guys are learning more about the cow found in between two cities and who it belongs to, and not about the cookies baked in the oven that cooked something fleishigs 2 days ago - can i eat them with milk? and i trust their 'opinion' on the halachot less.

Ezzie said...

There's also those lovely humogous fat halacha books on various subjects (like kashrus and brachos) which nobody argues with.

I can't believe I missed that one. Actually, I think that's one of the biggest issues: When there's a reasonably comprehensive sefer on a subject, people tend to rely on that and just assume that it's all right. In fact, much of it is the author's picking of opinions or his own mesorah regarding those halachos, but they are far from clear cut.

I recall being at a close family friend in Israel whose home is basically all seforim (G - R' Dr. F, if you're curious), and a book fell off a shelf on Tznius. It's generally regarded as one of the big books on tznius and "everyone" follows it... and he saw it and noted it was pretty good, though extremely machmir by taking some out of the mainstream opinions simply because they're more stringent. It's quite an issue.

Ezzie said...

Hmm, I forgot to comment on the post itself!

hand out a sheet of questions on a particular topic, and then would go through the questions and give us the answers. There was no source sheet, we never had to look into a sefer - we were literally spoon-fed the answers.

That was partially true for us [guys] as well. We all had a Mishna Berura, but anything outside of the MB was told to us - though generally with the source being told, it still wasn't as if we had to read through it. There were rare exceptions, but this was the general rule.

You haven't the faintest idea of the structure of the Mishna Berura, or the Kaf HaChaim. Shulchan Aruch? Forget it. You haven't a clue as to where a halacha originated in the gemara or the mishnah. Whenever a teacher referenced those sefarim, it was a passing mention and you only have a vague idea as to what the sefer actually contains and accomplishes.

I think this is true for most guys as well. Structure of sefarim? Rarely understood, at least from what is taught in yeshiva. What a sefer is about? Same. How different Rishonim/Acharonim generally wrote, where they lived/whom they were talking to... all relevant, but rarely if ever discussed. I'm not saying that yeshivos necessarily should be doing this - there is a thing called "time", after all - but I don't know that guys know it much better.

(Everything in between those two quotes I agree/empathize with.)

(And basically the same with everything after.)

Avrom said...

This was a long time ago so I may not be remembering it correctly, but when I was in Yeshiva in Israel my Rosh Yeshiva commented that in many cases, seminary educated girls knew more Halacha L'Ma'aseh than Yeshiva guys.

SaraK said...

when I was in Yeshiva in Israel my Rosh Yeshiva commented that in many cases, seminary educated girls knew more Halacha L'Ma'aseh than Yeshiva guys.

Because girls are ONLY taught halacha l'ma'aseh. In my HS, we were never taught the different opinions; we were only taught the bottom line. It was only in my seminary and post-seminary learning that I began to get a feel for the reasoning behind halacha.

In my experience, when guys are asked questions on basic Shabbat or Kashrut halachot, they refer to the Artscroll books.

Erachet said...

Is "mmbiyf" a groaning noise?

It's a secret code.

the apple said...

YB - thanks.

SpEd - it's not wholly about paskening though, although that is for sure a factor - it's more the ability to be able to look something up.

DDP - yeah, I hope I did pick the right ones this time around.

G - now what?

MordyS - interesting. And LOL!

SJ - thank you :).

Ezzie - 1. thanks for clarifying 2. agreed 100% 3. so if girls aren't learning sources inside, and guys aren't either . . . uh oh.

Stam - guys always seem to think they know better (in some cases they may) and basically decide that i'm wrong, they're right.

I definitely relate to this - I had a situation once where *three* guys told me the wrong thing ... you think I even had an ounce of confidence to argue with that? I wish.

And true.

Avrom - perhaps. Doesn't mean that learning halacha in a text-based way wouldn't be beneficial.

SaraK - yup!! Except I don't think I've ever seen a guy actually use one of those books; in my experience girls use them much more often.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to make a note about sefarim that try to composite/compile halachah. This issue is at least 800 years old and was a major source of debate concerning the Mishneh Torah between the Rambam and the Raavad. I think far too many people treat the MB as the primary source material when in fact decades if not much longer evolution of a given halachah has occurred. Obviously there has to be some balance though because often there is not time to go all the way to the Torah source and start learning from there.

jackie said...

I've been in a wide range of Halacha classes, some more process oriented and others more psak oriented. I've concluded that unless I drop everything and learn in yeshiva for a few years, I won't really be halachically literate. So, like people have already said, you're not alone in feeling under-confident and under-knowledgeable.

To clarify, though: I find that the most important thing I've learned from the process oriented halacha classes that I've taken is not a detailed grasp of what to do. Rather, I've gained an approach of how to ask good shailos. Knowing the important variables, principles, and case studies in the earlier sources can really help a person to know if a particular real-life case is clear cut (in which case, check the Mishna Brura/ English sefer) or more complicated (ask the rav). So, it definitely has its plusses.

I think that the psak oriented classes also have great value, and I’ve gained a lot from them as well. Perhaps both models of halacha learning have their place.

And there's always the option to marry a rabbi...? ;-)

Yeshiva Bachur said...

"You haven't the faintest idea of the structure of the Mishna Berura, or the Kaf HaChaim. Shulchan Aruch?"

I just want to mention. One thing that I am very grateful to my 9th grade rebbe for, is spending time at the beginning of the year and orienting us to the M"B. He gave us all a photo copy of a random page and showed us what each section on the page was. He also gave us a biography on each of the different perushim and a basic background of the perush. I can say that I was able to learn M"B on my own much earlier than other people in my grade who did not have that introduction.

On the topic of not knowing where things are in seforim. The first time I really started using many seforim was in my first year in Israel. Some time on my marei mekomos sheet, a perush would be listed, often I didn't have the slightests idea where to find until I realized either it was on the page in Rambam or Shulchan Aruch.

My brother (who is in Semicha) told me that he was learning a certain Halacha for Semicha and he had a question on it. He proceded to ask the Rosh Kollel about it and he gave him an answer and said it was from the Taz (i think). My brother proceded to look up the Taz on the siman and he couldn't find it. Well its in the Taz that is not on the page in the Shulchan Aruch but at the end. He didn't even know that it existed.

"I think this is true for most guys as well. Structure of sefarim? Rarely understood, at least from what is taught in yeshiva. What a sefer is about? Same. How different Rishonim/Acharonim generally wrote, where they lived/whom they were talking to... all relevant, but rarely if ever discussed."--Ezzie

In the Mosad Harav Kook rishonim, they usually have an introduction to the sefer. A lot can be learned from the introduction especially about the rishonim's lives. These introductions usually include where they lived, who their rebbe was, and often points about their lives. I try and take the time to read these, especially when I don't know much about the Rishon.
(Although, I can't say that it has helped me understand who the Shita lo Noda L'Mi is.)

I think that to understand the opinions of and Perush you need to know the Mesorah he came from. If one argues very strongly against another, it may not be entirely their own argument but the argument of their respective teachers. Or one group paskened one way because of the events that surrounded their lives while another didn't because they lived differently (not to say that events will change halacha, rather they were influenced in their thought process). For example, if you don't know that the Rosh is the father of the Tur you don't understand as clearly why the Tur held the pesakim of the Rosh in such high regard. Or that since the Rambam and the Rif where both Sefardi, while the Rosh was Ashkenazi (although he lived in Spain in his later life) leads to more halachos being Paskened by R' Yosef Kairo according to the Sefardi schools of thought than the Ashkenazi schools of thought.

badforshidduchim said...

Ezzie - tznius is not something you can write a halacha book on, since most of it isn't, well, halacha. I'm talking about the kashrus and brachos books. They bring various sources and explain whats a kula, what's a chumra, and what's generally accepted, general meaning the ultra orthodox (litvish) community (that being the community that produced the books).

I beg to argue: for the average Jew, is it important to know how to derive halacha from a zillion sources, or to know what the halacha is? Most of the derivation has been done through the centuries, culminating in epic halacha sefarim (the Tur, the Shulchan Aruch, the Mishnah Berura). More modern questions are handled by a few big names, eg, R' Moshe Feinstein. It's more important to be able to find what you're looking for in the right books than to derive much.

Erachet said...

for the average Jew, is it important to know how to derive halacha from a zillion sources, or to know what the halacha is? Most of the derivation has been done through the centuries, culminating in epic halacha sefarim (the Tur, the Shulchan Aruch, the Mishnah Berura). More modern questions are handled by a few big names, eg, R' Moshe Feinstein. It's more important to be able to find what you're looking for in the right books than to derive much.

Practically, it's not vital for the average Jew to know all the derivations of Halacha, but I do believe it's important, if possible, to make time to learn that stuff because the more you understand the issues behind a halacha and how it got to be the way it is today, you more you understand what you're doing and the better you can tell what parts of the practice of that halacha are just chumra and what parts are actual halacha. Obviously there's usually a generally accepted way to practice, but often there's room for leniency and it's important to know what that room is.

badforshidduchim said...

Obviously there's usually a generally accepted way to practice, but often there's room for leniency and it's important to know what that room is.

100%
That's one of my soapboxes, actually, so I won't get started.