Category: Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava

Blame Rabbis For Agunot, But For The Right Reasons

The following essay is derived from two recent classes/podcasts Understanding the Agunah Problem and Solutions to the Agunah Problem. These classes include several of the primary sources referenced below

Introduction

The protracted divorce battle between Aharon Friedman and Tamar Epstein is the most publicized case of agunah in recent memory. An aggressive campaign led by the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) capitalized on Mr. Friedman’s relatively prominent status as a congressional aide for David Camp. The efforts of numerous online and personal protests eventually led to mainstream media coverage from outlets such as Fox News, The New York Times and Politico which called national attention to Mr. Friedman’s refusal to grant his wife a halakhic divorce. As with virtually all cases of agunah, the recalcitrant party is vilified with public condemnations and communal pressure to acquiesce.[1. While the majority of agunot are women whose husbands refuse to give their wife a get, it is not impossible for a woman to be obstinate in agreeing to be divorced. Rarely does the husband in these cases elicit the same sympathy as a woman who is an agunah who is only “chained” due to the inherent inequality in the halakhot of divorce which require the husband to willingly issue the divorce while the wife’s consent is not needed, nor can she initiate the divorce (M. Yevamot 14:1).] When the specific goal is obtaining the immediate divorce, it is a relatively simple matter to identify the party responsible for obstructing the process and to protest accordingly. Others, however, find fault with the halakhic system, and in a desire to change the status quo identify other sources of blame.

In a recent Forward blog post titled “On Agunah Issue, Pressure Rabbis, Not Rep” Dvora Myers argues that the plight of agunot is not only the fault of a recalcitrant husband, but of the Rabbis for creating the regulations in the first place.

However, if withholding a get constitutes abuse, if the husband is indeed brandishing a psychological weapon and threatening his wife with it, then the question that should be asked: How did the gun get into his hand?

The answer is clear: It was put there by Jewish law, the rabbis who formulated it, and the rabbis who refuse to amend it.

Myers’ understanding of Jewish law is informed by Blu Greenberg’s famous dictum, “where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way,” thus placing the burden of agunot squarely with the Rabbis. Ultimately Myers concludes,

If maintaining a nearly thousand-year-old ruling is more important than offering women equality within the religion, I would at least like to see one of these rabbis condemning Friedman admit as much. It would be refreshingly honest to hear one of them say something like, “When faced with the choice of preserving tradition and promoting justice and equality that would give women the freedom to divorce, we choose the former.”

Most Orthodox Jews would agree that adhering to a thousand year old ruling is in fact more important than fulfilling the prevailing ethic of the day. This is due to a fundamentally different approach to Jewish law, one which assumes that halakhah is ultimately a representation of Divine Will. In this case it would be strict adherence to the biblical laws of divorce in Deut. 24:1-1 and the capital offense for adultery in Lev. 20:10. It is important to consider that this approach to halakhah is shared by the agunot themselves, who while having the free will to ignore Jewish law and remarry as they wish, are committed first and foremost to keeping halakhah despite the immense challenges it presents.[2. I do not wish to categorize agunot as martyrs to a cause, but to note the religious commitment required for one to choose to remain an agunah is rarely acknowledged let alone supported.] Thus, when a Rabbi adheres to Jewish law, even if it is unpopular, inconvinient, or even difficult for him to do so, he is not being an obstinate misogynist, but rather fulfilling his duty as a Rabbi.

But while it is misguided to blame Rabbis for following halakhah, it is completely legitimate to hold Rabbis accountable to the very halakhah which they espouse. Unfortunately, the Orthodox Rabbinate has not always lived up to their own ideals even when the lives agunot were at stake.




Ep. 63 Current Jewish Questions 10 – Solutions to the Agunah Problem

In this mega-podcast, Rabbi Yuter surveys some of contemporary solutions to the Agunah problem and discusses their merits, limitations, and flaws in light of Jewish law, history, and social politics.

Current Jewish Questions 10 – Solutions to the Agunah Problem Sources (PDF)

Current Jewish Questions 10 – Solutions to the Agunah Problem




Ep. 58 Current Jewish Questions 5 – Chukkat Hagoy

In this installment of Current Jewish Question, Rabbi Yuter discusses sources and approaches to the laws of “chukkat hagoy” – following the practices of non-Jews

Current Jewish Questions 5 – Chukkat Hagoy Sources (PDF)

Current Jewish Questions 5 – Chukkat Hagoy




Ep. 57 Current Jewish Questions 4 – The Superbowl

In honor of Superbowl Sunday, Rabbi Yuter tackles the question of Jews enjoying the Big Game.

Current Jewish Questions 4 – Superbowl Sources (PDF)

Current Jewish Questions 4 – Superbowl




Ep. 55 Current Jewish Questions 2 – Tzniut / Modesty

Just once I’d like to see a book on tznius/modesty published anonymously.”
Rabbi Josh Yuter – Jan 9, 2012
 

The topic of “tzniut” or “modesty” has recently become a prominent point of discussion in the Jewish community, mostly in response recent incidents of religious violence in Israel (some of which we covered in the previous class on Religious Coercion). Recent essays by Rabbi Dov Linzer in the New York Times, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper for a Rabbinical Council of America blog, and an earlier one by Rabbi Marc Angel for The Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals have all attempted to present a more “moderate” view from what is often conveyed by Orthodox Jewish society.

But the common theme in these essays, and indeed what dominates the discussion of Jewish modesty, is almost exclusively framing the issue in the context of women. In particular, modesty is most frequently defined in terms of how women ought to dress, how a woman is supposed to behave, and in some general instances the appropriate role of women in Jewish if not secular society. With this focus on women, it is not surprising that tzniut/modesty is almost exclusively construed as a sexual ethic.

In this shiur I challenge this assumption by approaching the topic of modesty not from the socially defined understanding of tzniut, but rather how and when the root “צנע” is used in the Talmud. While the term is certainly used in the context of female sexuality or displays of femininity (B. Ketuvot 3b, B. Berachot 8b, B. Shabbat 113b, B. Sotah 49b), the Rabbinic tradition also applies tzniut to men as it pertains to his relationship with his wife (B. Shabbat 53b) and his mode of dress (B. Menachot 43a). Furthermore, the ethic of tzniut is asserted in the contexts of going to the bathroom (B. Berachot 8b, 62a), eating (B. Berachot 8b), not displaying one’s wealth (B. Pesachim 113a), and even religious observance (M. Ma’aser Sheni 5:1, B. Sukkah 49b/B. Makkot 24a). (These and additional sources are in the attached source sheet with a modified Soncino translation.)

Given the contextual range of the root צנע, I suggest that tzniut in the Rabbinic tradition may best be described not as a sexual ethic at all (let alone a female one), but a general attitude of behavior of which sexual behavior is only one component. In other words, the true Jewish ethos of modesty does not exclusively pertain to sexuality, but rather reflects a universal ethic, one which is equally applicable to men and women in all facets of life.

Current Jewish Questions 2 – Tzniut / Modesty Sources (PDF)

Current Jewish Questions 2 – Tzniut-Modesty




Ep. 54 Current Jewish Questions 1 – Religious Coercion

In light of the recent religious violence in Israel, Rabbi Yuter begins his new Current Jewish Questions series with a discussion of religious coercion in Jewish law.

Current Jewish Questions 1 – Religious Coercion Sources (PDF)

Current Jewish Questions 1 – Religious Coercion




Ep. 53 Fundamentals of Judaism 6 – Varieties of Rabbinic Fallibility

Rabbi Yuter’s Fundamentals of Judaism series returns with a discussion of ways in which rabbis can err, and their impact on rabbinic authority

Fundamentals of Judaism 6 – Varieties of Rabbinic Fallibility Sources (PDF)

Fundamentals of Judaism 6 – Varieties of Rabbinic Fallibility




Modesty Mussar For Rabbis

With the topic of tznius/modesty buzzing around the Orthodox Jewish world I wanted to share a brief but personally significant story from my rabbinical school days. In 2001-2002 I was in my third year of semikhah and fortunate enough to study in Yeshiva University’s Gruss Kollel in Bayit Vegan. It is perhaps one of the most unappreciated perk of YU’s rabbinical school in that accepted students pay they way to Israel but get free room and board, allowing for greater focus for one’s studies.[1. Academically it was a wonderfully productive year for me. I completed Yoreh Deah, 4th Year Halakhah Lema’aseh, and a triple Revel paper.] The dorms are not what you’d consider “new” with relatively thin walls, thinner doors and apartments stacked on top of each other,[2.Yes, I know that’s how apartments work, just using an expression.] My year of the 30 or so students only 9 were single, while the rest were married rabbinical students, some with children.

One day after our regular Yoreh Deah class, the Rosh Yeshiva called us in to give us some mussar. There was a concern that husbands and wives from other couples were socializing excessively with each other. After all, the Torah teaches “Be Holy” (Lev. 19:2 which Ramban interprets as “הוו פרושים מן העריות ומן העבירה” – separate yourself from illicit behavior and sin, and so forth.

I will stress here that I am/was unaware of any incident which could be classified in any way as inappropriate. Most of the kollel couples knew each other before coming and the relatively cloistered environment would understandably lead to inter-socialization. And even the Rosh Yeshiva had mentioned that he wasn’t responding to anything in particular, but was just making a general observation and expressing a concern.

Strictly speaking, this concern is not entirely unjustified. M. Avot 1:5 states explicitly, “Do not talk excessively with women. This was said about one’s own wife; how much more so about the wife of one’s neighbor” and B. Nedarim 20a explains that it is because this speech will lead to adultery.

Something else occurred to me at that time. The audience here consisted of rabbinical students who would at some point venture into communities as actual rabbis, which at some point would entail talking to women. One would hope that rabbis ought to be able to converse with female constituents without viewing them as sex objects, and if there were any doubt on this point then perhaps they ought not remain rabbinical students. If there was any concern of the moral integrity of the future rabbis of America, then perhaps we had bigger problems on our hands.

But it also occurred to me that it is precisely because of the nature of our profession that this mussar was appropriate. Most professional rabbis have countless interactions with congregants or students. If a rabbi is particularly outgoing or friendly, it is not inconceivable for a conversation to be interpreted in a way other than what was intended.[3. While rabbinic scandals do happen these are a negligible percentage compared to the rabbinate at large.] In short, if interpersonal boundaries are important for Jews, they are much more so for professional rabbis.

I do not know if this was the message the Rosh Yeshiva actually intended, but it was an important lesson nonetheless.




Ep. 52 Confronting Chosenness 7 – Matan Torah in Rabbinic Thought

Rabbi Yuter’s Confronting Chosenness class examines some rabbinic midrashim describing the Jews’ acceptance of the Torah.

Confronting Chosenness 7 – Matan Torah in Rabbinic Thought Sources (PDF)

Confronting Chosenness 7 – Matan Torah in Rabbinic Thought




The Selective Sanctimony of Orthodox Judaism

At times it seems that the Orthodox rabbinate has little more to contribute to the world of Jewish ideas than proclamations declaring who is, or more precisely who is not, “Orthodox.” Consider a few recent examples. This past summer Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky wrote a blog post (since removed) discussing his aversion to reciting the daily blessing shelo asani isha, thanking God for not having made him a woman. In response, Rabbi Dov Fischer castigated R. Kanefsky and the community he represents as, “propagating their views without being subjected to scrutiny and critique by those committed to a Mesorah-driven frumkeit” [emphasis added]. In other words, R. Kanefsky’s halakhic opinion is not part of the genuine “mesorah/tradition,” which R. Fischer apparently does possess. Another writer echoes R. Fischer sentiment more explicitly, “In my view this not only takes Rabbi Kanefsky out of the realm of Orthodoxy, it firmly puts him into the realm of Conservative Judaism.”