Women, Tefillin, and the Rise of the Rav

לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲלֶה לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה: וְלֹא מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲבָר לָנוּ אֶל עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה: דברים ל:יב-יג

It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” (Deut. 30:12-13)

My previous post publicized a recent letter (PDF) authored by Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University. At the time of posting I did not have time for a thorough analysis, but several people took offense at my initial glib reactions on social media, calling it various forms of “disrespectful” or “not nice.” While I found these responses to be somewhat ironic given that R. Schachter himself used his letter to delegitimize those with whom he disagrees by comparing them to Korach and stating that they violate yehareg ve’al ya’avor, the rebuke is nevertheless well taken. Given his perceived stature in the Orthodox community, R. Schachter’s letter deserves a thorough analysis, as I’ve done before regarding his approach to Jewish law, especially as it pertains to the imposition of select religious authority.


Let us begin by briefly reviewing what led to this recent controversy. This past December, Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, the principal of the Orthodox Jewish school SAR High School in Riverdale New York, permitted female students to wear tefillin at their school’s regular prayer services. Given that women generally do not wear tefillin in the Orthodox community (at least, not in public), this decision sparked controversy in the Orthodox world. While R. Harcsztark received some support amongst this colleagues, for just one example, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of the Ramaz school, there has been significant backlash as well, including the aforementioned missive from R. Schachter.

To understand R. Schachter’s letter, it would help to review ideas I presented in a classic post comparing the roles of “Rav” and “Rosh Yeshiva”. Two of my teachers both emphasized significant distinctions between these positions, albeit for different reasons. Haham Yosef Faur compared the Rav and Rosh Yeshiva to their analogous authority in a legal system. The Rosh Yeshiva was comparable to the law professor, who may be exceptionally well versed in legal texts and reasoning but carries no inherent legal authority while the Rav, who may be less knowledgeable than a Rosh Yeshiva, has by virtue of his appointment as a Rav wields the actual halakhic authority for setting religious policy. To illustrate his point, Haham Faur noted that while law professors could give countless arguments as to why Al Gore ought to have won the 2000 election, none of them possessed the legal authority to declare Al Gore as the 43rd President of the United States of America.

I would add to Haham Faur’s analogy that nature of this authority may be attributed to the willing acceptance of a specific community. When a Rav is appointed, a congregation accedes to that Rav’s authority, as defined by the very nature of his employment. There is a reciprocal relationship between the Rav and his kehillah, one which is necessarily based on the mutual consent of the leader and his constituents (M. Avot 1:6). On the other hand, a Rosh Yeshiva is employed by the academic institution of the yeshiva. Certain communities may decide to follow the religious ethos of a particular yeshiva, but there is no halakhic mandate on any one community to follow any one yeshiva. A Rosh Yeshiva may also serve as Rav, but his authority would be limited only to the specific community which willingly accepted his authority. According to ancient Rabbinic law, only the Jewish Supreme Court of the Sanhedrin is imbued with the authority to mandate Jewish law on the entire Jewish people. Without that legal institution, as Maimonides writes, “we do not coerce the people of one nation to follow the practices of another…[nor do we] listen to words of an earlier authority, but rather to the opinion which is most convincing, regardless of it being an earlier or later source” (Introduction to Mishnah Torah). Outside of the legal system established by the Sages of Rabbinic Judaism, there is no individual or institution which has any halakhic sanction to impose its religious will on the entire Jewish community, let alone to coerce others do submit to their authority.

Another teacher of mine, R. Moshe Tendler differentiated between the Rav and Rosh Yeshiva on the grounds of skill. In his inimitable words, “God forbid you want a Rosh Yeshiva making psak for you. You want a Rosh Yeshiva to make psak like you want a mathematician to build your bridges.” For R. Tendler, the art of practical psak comes not from pure knowledge or reason, but in knowing how to apply Torah in the real world. A mathematician may know more about the calculations and equations than an engineer, but that does not mean he has the same aptitude to build large constructs. Similarly, a Rosh Yeshiva may be more knowledgeable of Jewish sources, but being secluded in the ebony obelisk of the yeshiva one does not necessarily know how to apply those sources to the actual situations one confronts in the real wold. 1

In this specific controversy, a duly appointed Rav of a community made a halakhic decision specifically for his own constituents. While he explained his policy in an open letter, he did not make any sort of enactment binding on the Jewish people as a whole. In this letter, a Rosh Yeshiva with no inherent halakhic authority over the decisions of other communities not only disagreed with a Rav’s decision, but did so in the harshest of terms stating that this Rav’s opinion contradicted the very fabric of the Torah itself.

R. Schachter’s objection towards women wearing tefillin in public may be understood via two interrelated issues: diversion from the halakhic process as he see sees fit, and the need for denominational differentiation from those communities who do not follow halakhah as he sees fit. Regarding the latter, R. Schachter begins his essay by citing B. Yoma 2a which records the rabbinic sages intentionally followed a lenient opinion in order to dissociate themselves from the Sadducees, an ancient sect of Judaism which rejected what is now known as Rabbinic Judaism. For R. Schachter, Conservative Judaism is the modern day version of the ancient Sadducees. Furthermore, R. Schachter equates any concession to Conservative Judaism with acquiescing to a an antagonistic king like Antiochus who enacts decrees against the worship of Judaism. In such cases, it is better to let oneself be martyred rather than change “evan a shoe strap” when it comes to Jewish practice (B. Sanhedrin 74a-b). Therefore, since the practice of women putting on tefillin is closely identified with Conservative Judaism, that mere association is enough to consider it prohibited for all Orthodox Jews, as a matter of distinction.

The necessity for such differentiation is not merely superficial, that is giving the appearance of borrowing practices form Conservative Judaism, but according to R. Schachter, the decision to permit women wearing tefillin follows similar halakhic methodology and ideology as that he ascribes to Conservative Judaism. Specifically, Conservative Judaism, “is based on the foundation that it is permitted – and possibly even obligatory – to deviate from the ways of the tradition based on how they see fit,” even based on their own “sources.”

R. Schachter sees a similar problem with the particular tefillin decision, and presumably others as well.

In our days anything can be found on the internet or in ‘Otzar Hahochma’ or the Bar Ilan Responsa project and the like, and even an ignoramus can become a sage and teach and rule and decide Jewish law even regarding difficult matters, as if he knows of the sources on his own and all the sources and opinions.

Thanks to the resources mentioned, today’s Jewish community has unprecedented access to traditional sources. R. Schachter somehow distinguishes between “researching” a difficult topic and being intuitively knowledgeable of all the relevant factors. Indeed, R. Schachter argues that even though one reads the sources one does not truly know them. Thus people who assume that they too can read Jewish texts and make up their own minds are following in the tradition of Korach. R. Harcsztark committed the cardinal sin of not acknowledging and submitting to his superiors since “he did not seek guidance from the great halakhic decisors of today.”

As I wrote at length in my post on “Gadolatry,” Rabbinic Judaism never established a class of uberrabbi which wields greater authority over the Jewish people, nor is there any objective criteria for defining who would qualify. By the fact that R. Schachter writes numerous opinions, including this one, we can assume that he considers himself to be among this elite to which all Jews must pay deference.

Whence does this authority derive? At one point in Jewish history being knowledgeable in the Jewish sources was considered to be a most important skill:

תלמוד בבלי הוריות יד:א
אמר רבי יוחנן: פליגו בה רבן שמעון בן גמליאל ורבנן, חד אמר: סיני עדיף, וחד אמר: עוקר הרים עדיף. רב יוסף סיני, רבה עוקר הרים, שלחו לתמן: איזה מהם קודם? שלחו להו: סיני עדיף, דאמר מר: הכל צריכין למרי חטיא

R. Johanan said: [On the following point] there is a difference of opinion between R. Simeon b. Gamaliel and the Rabbis. One view is that a well-read scholar is superior [to the keen dialectician] and the other view is that the keen dialectician is superior. R. Joseph was a well-read scholar; Rabbah was a keen dialectician. An enquiry was sent up to Palestine: Who of these should take precedence? They sent them word in reply: ‘A well-read scholar is to take precedence’; for the Master said, ‘All are dependent on the owner of the wheat’. B. Horayot 14a

When the most knowledgeable individuals were the Roshei Yeshiva, Jews depended on his scholarship, which unless someone was equally well versed in Jewish texts, would normally go unquestioned. Fewer people today are dependent on the institution of the Roshei Yeshiva because they too have become “owners of the wheat” in the sense that the do not need someone to go to the heavens or cross the sea to obtain the information they require. This does not necessarily mean that Rabbis are obsolete – I concede my own bias on this point – but the additional skills of value are less those which belong to the encyclopedic mathematician but the teacher who can explain the sources and the logic behind them.

When R. Schachter quotes R. Moshe Isserles O.C. 38:3 who rules that we prevent women from putting on Tefillin, he does so assuming that the Ramo is the final definitive word on all practice. He does not cite Tosafot B. Berachot 14a which records that it was once prevalent for women to put on tefillin, even with a blessing, just as they shake the lulav on Sukkot. Furthermore, someone who has access to a Bar Ilan CD (and know for what to look) can easily find examples where the current Ashenazi practice does not follow the Ramo, such as wearing tefillin on Hol Hamoed (O.C. 31:2). Or perhaps one would research the reason for Ramo’s ruling preventing women from wearing tefillin, and find that the reason is based on the fact that wearing tefillin requires a “clean body,” which would disqualify menstruating women. One could then find numerous examples where Jewish practice changed because of a different situation and conclude that women who are on birth control may no longer be assumed to lack a “clean body.” In fact, someone could find evidence in the Ashkenazi legal tradition which would seem surprisingly similar to the methods employed by Conservative Judaism.

The democratization of knowledge is thus a significant threat to those who wish to control it, and by extension, the people who depend on it. R. Schachter must create and rely on his myth that he and his cadre are the true arbiters and representatives of Judaism, and by extension, God’s will. Since the community at large has not formally appointed any “gadol,” he must delegitimize individuals and entire communities as being against the true Torah, even as they cite from the same texts on which R. Schachter relies. Past Roshei Yeshiva did not need to be accountable on the merits of their arguments because so few people had access to the same data to even attempt a rebuttal. Rather than face the indignity of having to defend a position, it is much simply to discard those who disagree.

With few fortunate exceptions, the Rav must constantly engage in dissension. He does not have the luxury of stepping down from a speech without taking questions because he constantly has to face his congregation. A (good) Rav is trained not only as a posek – a decisor, but a moreh ho’ra’ah / an educator of teachings. As an increasing number of Jews become owners of their own Torah, they will not need imperious dictators but teachers and guides to help augment, clarify, and navigate through the waters of Torah. This relationship requires mutual accountability, and a desire from the Rav to educate and the student to learn.

R. Harcsztark not only made his decision in the capacity of a Rav but he explained his position in a public letter with the attitude, sensitivity, and sensibility of a Rav. Perhaps what we are witnessing then is a social rebellion not against Torah, but against those who truly raised themselves over God’s community.

Notes:

  1. See B. Sanhedrin 24b and B. Sanhedrin 88b for Talmudic examples demonstrating the halakhic importance of being actively engaged society.