Growing up in Highland Park, Shana Strauch Schick received conflicting messages about the importance of Talmud study for women.
While Torah learning was revered at the Orthodox day schools she attended, immersion in the Talmud was considered the province of boys and men.
Schick, a 1998 graduate of Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth, said that although the education there is “quite rigorous” in religious and secular studies, there are no Talmud classes. (Bruriah principal Rabbi Joseph Oratz told NJ Jewish News that the school offers a four-year oral law course that analyzes topics in Talmud rather than focusing on specific tractates.)
“Talmud is traditionally the central focus of Torah study in yeshivot, but it is still rarely emphasized as part of women’s education,” Schick wrote NJJN in an e-mail from Israel. “I initially began to study Talmud after high school because I could not reconcile the conflicting messages I received: Talmud is the pinnacle of learning Torah yet it’s not important for women to do so. This is out of step with Modern Orthodoxy, in which women are encouraged to achieve as much as they can in their careers and secular educations.”
Schick didn’t just study Talmud — this summer, she became the first woman to receive a doctorate in Talmud from Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. She successfully defended her dissertation on Aug. 4 and received her PhD this month.
“I felt that the lack of Talmud study in my life was both an educational and spiritual deficit,” wrote Schick, 31, who arrived in Israel last month for a year of post-doctoral study at Bar-Ilan University. “By the time I exhausted the few options open to me to continue studying at an advanced level after college, I had been taking classes in academic Talmud with Professor Yaakov Elman [at Revel] and was impressed by his combination of traditional and academic scholarship.
“By pursuing a doctorate I could both continue learning and contribute to the understanding of how talmudic law developed.”
Schick said her role model growing up was her grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Maza, a religious leader in South River for many years (her dissertation was dedicated in his memory). She holds a bachelor’s degree in Judaic studies from YU’s Stern College for Women and a master’s in Bible from Revel. She also spent five years studying in YU’s Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Studies, where she received a certificate in Talmud and Jewish laws pertaining to the Sabbath, kashrut, and family purity.
She acknowledged that Talmud study in a yeshiva setting differs dramatically from how it is approached in the academic world. “But many people, especially those who come from traditional backgrounds, find that the two can be complementary,” she wrote. “What some claim is lost in reverence for the text is made up for with a clearer understanding of the way that the Talmud developed as the central text of rabbinic Judaism.”
Elman, Schick’s thesis adviser, said in a news release issued by YU that from the beginning he saw that she “knew her stuff” and encouraged her to pursue a doctorate. “More important than just being a thinker, I saw that she was a mensch,” said Elman. “When you’re a caring, thoughtful person you notice things that others tend to overlook and that really helps in scholarship.”
Before leaving for Israel, Schick and her husband, Ari Schick, had been living in Michigan since 2007, while Ari pursued his own doctorate in philosophy; he will now write his dissertation in bioethics while the couple lives in Jerusalem. They have a son, four, and a daughter, two.
“The fact that she’s been able to do all this while raising a family is impressive,” said Elman. “She exemplifies the best that YU has to offer.”
Schick credited the Revel administration and faculty for their support and acknowledged her professor Rabbi Moshe Kahn, whose undergraduate and graduate classes she attended for many years.
Oratz, who knew Schick, a “top student,” while she was at Bruriah, called her accomplishments “fantastic.”
“She was a very principled young lady when I knew her years ago,” said Oratz; he added that he is “especially proud” that her achievements have centered around Jewish scholarship.
According to David Berger, dean and Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History at Revel, the completion of her doctorate comes at a time when Revel’s doctoral programs — and the number of women enrolled in them — has been expanding.
“The number of students in the PhD program — 40 percent of whom are women — has more than doubled in the last few years,” said Berger.
Schick said she would like to pursue an academic career as well as continue teaching in other settings “such as adult education and in more traditional beit midrash-style programs.”
She will continue her research in Talmud as part of her one-year Jewish Culture in the Ancient World fellowship at Bar-Ilan, and afterward hopes to remain in Israel — for good.