Rabbi Jeffrey Fox recently published a teshuvah regarding the presence of the male Beit Din at the mikvah immersion of a female convert. My response came out to over 20 pages with footnotes and formatting, which I feel would be as annoying to read as a blog post as it would be for me to transcribe it. As such I am posting my response in PDF format here and on Scribd. I strongly encourage readers to first consult R. Fox’s teshuvah (PDF) in the original. I also reference and recommend reading Immersion, Dignity, Power, Presence and Gender by Rabbi Ethan Tucker.
My recent post Women, Tefillin, and the Rise of the Rav seems to have struck a nerve in the Orthodox community. By far, it has elicited the greatest response, and divisiveness, than anything else I have written to this point. For those who have not been following, a quick recap is in order. In response to R. Tully Harcsztark recent decision permitting two female students to wear tefillin during school services, R. Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University wrote a scathing critique not only of the decision itself, but of how it was made, equating intellectual independence with Korach’s rebellion. My own response to R. Schachter linked above elicited extreme contrasting reactions. As to be expected with any controversy, there is bound to be some degree of partisanship with people being predisposed towards one side or another.
The astute reader noticed that while the subject of women wearing tefillin was the impetus, my main point dealt with the broader question of rabbinic authority, and it was this issue which prompted the most passionate responses. In particular, many readers took specific exception to my tone, which was characterized in various forms of “flippant,” “disrespectful,” or simply not deferential enough in that I treated R. Schachter as a peer rather than a superior. Many others had no such objections to my tone and found well within the bounds of propriety. 1 In truth, the question of “respect” and how a Torah scholar ought to communicate was, in my opinion, a distraction from the more central question of authentic Rabbinic authority. After all, if one’s status as a Torah scholar is measured by the tone of one’s discourse, then it would seem that R. Schachter would have crossed that line in his initial letter. 2 My critics contended that my post and R. Schachter’s letter are not valid subjects for equal comparison because the authors of these respective writings are not of the same “stature.” The argument may be summarized that as a more prominent rabbinic authority, R. Schachter is not only unconstrained by the rules or halakhot of proper discourse, but he is beyond reproach and not subject to any form of criticism by lesser rabbis. According to this perception of Jewish law, there are different rules for different roles. 3 Furthermore, some argued that by not giving proper deference to R. Schachter, I was essentially challenging the entire chain of Jewish halakhot tradition, very similar to the argument of R. Schachter himself.
But herein lies the point of contention; I have received a very different tradition than what is currently disseminated in the Orthodox world. While I attended and received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, but I do not count R. Schachter among my primary teachers nor would most of my teachers consider themselves followers of his tradition. In fact, the three Rabbis from whom I have learned the most, my father, his teacher Haham Yosef Faur, and R. Moshe Tendler, have all been vocal critics of R. Schachter at one point or another. The latter two I even cited in my earlier post since both differentiated between the positions of Rav and Rosh Yeshiva. While I have previously addressed the logical flaws in appealing to a “gadol’s” authority, today I wish to demonstrate how, despite any assumptions to the contrary, I have been following the tradition of my own teachers.
- One Rabbi (not my father) actually thought I was too respectful. ↩
- Assuming he had not done so long ago. ↩
- I resisted the temptation to respond to certain individuals by arguing that according to this logic, no non-rabbi would have any right to argue with me on the grounds that my having rabbinic ordination would make me superior to all those who do not. While this argument is logically sound, it would have been impossible for me to make without giving the pretense of pretentiousness. There are limits to the extent that I argue with others on their terms. ↩
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.
I recently received the following missive from Rabbi Hershel Schachter regarding the recent controversy regarding women wearing tefillin. I do not have time at present to translate or comment, but the full text is included in the post below with the original PDF available here (errors in the transcription/formatting are mine alone).
Rabbi Josh Yuter presents his framework for understanding the controversial topic of Egalitarianism in Judaism, using Biblical and Rabbinic Laws to define the parameters of the Torah’s ethical imperatives.
In this Very Special Episode of Current Jewish Questions, Rabbi Yuter moderates a conversation with Maharat students Ruth Balinsky Friedman, Rori Picker Neiss, and Alissa Thomas.
“Just once I’d like to see a book on tznius/modesty published anonymously.”
Rabbi Josh Yuter – Jan 9, 2012
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.
This past Shabbat I was asked a straightforward question: Can a blind person be called up to the Torah to receive an aliyah? On the spur of the moment – the Torah reading was well underway and I was functioning as gabbai sheni and did not have the time to double check. On the spur of the moment, I said, “no” based on what I remembered.1 At the very least I had enough of a reason assume safek berachot an instance where it is doubtful that a blessing should be said, in which case the default would be to refrain from saying the blessing.
When I had a chance to look into the matter, I found that my decision was in line with Shulhan Aruch O.C. 139:3:
סומא אינו קורא, לפי שאסור לקרות אפי’ אות אחת שלא מן הכתב
A blind person cannot read [from the Torah] for it is forbidden to read even one letter [of the Torah] not from the written scroll itself.
The immediate question which ought to come to mind is what does reading from the Torah have to do with getting called up for an aliyah? To answer very briefly, the initial custom, sustained for generations and still kept in some communities to this day, is that whoever was called up to the Torah was responsible for reading that portion.
In his gloss to the Shulhan Aruch, Mishna Berurah O.C. 139:12 provides a practical dispensation for permitting a blind person to receive an aliyah:
דכיון שאנו נוהגין שהש”ץ קורא והוא קורא מתוך הכתב שוב לא קפדינן על העולה דשומע כעונה
Since our practice is that the agent of the congregation [i.e. a designated reader] is the one who performs the reading and does so from the text [of the Torah scroll], we are not strict on the one who is called up to the Torah, for when one listens it is as if he has said it himself.
Thus according to Mishna Berurah, a blind person is permitted to receive an aliyah because our custom of Torah reading has changed. Since the one receiving the aliyah usually does not perform the actual reading, we need not be concerned with a blind person reading by heart.
It occurred to me that this rationale employed by Mishna Berurah (and ostensibly others) has fascinating implications for women’s aliyot.2 The Talmud in B. Megillah 23a explains why women are excluded from being called up to the Torah
הכל עולין למנין שבעה, ואפילו קטן ואפילו אשה. אבל אמרו חכמים: אשה לא תקרא בתורה, מפני כבוד צבור.
Everyone [is eligible] to go up in the quorum of seven [i.e. to read from the Torah] even a minor and even a woman. However, the sages say that a woman should not read from the Torah due to the honor of the congregation. [Emphasis mine]
From my own experience, I have found the topic of women receiving aliyot is most often framed in the context of (re)defining “honor of the congregation.” However, I would like to suggest that according to the logic employed by Mishna Berurah, the question of “honor of the congregation” is irrelevant. The Talmud only states that a woman reading from the Torah is an affront to the honor of the congregation, however, as noted above, the person receiving the aliyah does not actually read from the Torah.
To put it concisely: I suggest that if one permits a blind person to read from the Torah on the grounds cited by Mishnah Berurah, then there ought to be no halakhic objection to women being called up to the Torah. According to the position of Mishna Berurah, the Talmudic restriction would not apply, thus any opposition to women receiving aliyot would be based not on halakhic/Talmudic problems inherent to the action, but rather for more subjective social or political reasons.3
Comments welcome below.
1. I should point out that the individual in question had not yet been called up to the Torah. Otherwise, there would be another consideration of publicly embarrassing the individual.
2. I have not seen this analogy made, but admittedly I have not looked very hard. If anyone knows of another source which makes a similar argument, please let me know so that I may give proper credit.
3. Not to say that these reasons are irrelevant or ought to be disregarded, but it is my opinion that halakha and pesak should be presented as honestly as possible.
The opinions expressed here are my own and are not intended to reflect those of any individual or organization.
This past week the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), voted on whether or not women ought to be admitted to the organization. This was not the first time the IRF considered such a proposition. In 2008, before the advent of “Maharat” or “Rabba“, the IRF recognized that women have been functioning as religious leaders within Orthodox Judaism. In Israel women serve as “To’anot Beit Din” – advocates for women in religious courts and “Yoatzot Halakha” – halakhic consultants regarding family purity. Even without formal titles women serve as Torah educators alongside men and several synagogues employ women in some religious capacity. In fact the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), under Orthodox Union (OU), sends married couples to college campuses across the country with the expectation that the wife serves the campus Jewish community alongside her rabbinic husband. Regardless of the semantics of titles – or lack thereof – Jewish women assume professional roles similar to those performed by male rabbinic counterparts and thus should not be excluded from conversations affecting the Jewish community at large based solely on gender.
When I was first confronted with this question I supported the theoretical inclusion of women into the group, even if it meant removing “Rabbinic” adjective from the organization’s name. I even submitted to a subcommittee my own proposal defining criteria for women to be treated as rabbinic colleagues given that no comparable title existed at the time.1 And yet despite my earlier positions and after hearing passionate arguments in favor of admitting women, when the IRF finally voted on including women, I voted “no”. My decision may appear at first glance to be inconsistent, dishonest, or indicative of intimidation from opposition. On the contrary, as I will explain in this essay my principles remain intact. My position is not based on the identity politics of gender but on what I perceive to be the role and function of rabbinic leadership in Judaism.