Rabbi Shai Held, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Hadar in New York, recently wrote an Op Ed critical of Rav Hershel Schachter’s position prohibiting the ordination of women as rabbis. Rabbi Schachter, perhaps the preeminent Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University and a student of Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, was one of many speakers at the recent Rabbinical Council of America convention where the issue of women rabbis in Orthodoxy – and, women’s roles in Orthodox Jewish communal leadership in general – was discussed and eventually voted on. Rabbi Held mentioned, accurately, that Rav Schachter put the ordination of women in the category of “yehareg ve’al ya’avor” – those things that a person has to give up his or her life for rather that doing them. Rav Schachter further invoked the ruling of his rebbe, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, that it was halachically impermissible for a woman to be a rabbi. Many of the speakers at the convention, some of whom are poskim, halachic decisors like Rav Schachter is, disagreed with this understanding of the scope or application of Jewish law. Moreover, even Rav Schachter, to the best of my understanding, is in favor of women’s Torah learning and teaching on the communal level; everyone at the convention, including Rav Schachter, would agree with Rabbi Held’s view that, “one of the crucial mandates of the hour is to create more opportunities and contexts [within halacha (ed.)]for women’s voices to be heard in Jewish life.”
Where I want to strenuously, and lovingly, disagree with Rabbi Held is in his implication throughout his Op Ed that Rav Schachter, and those of his ilk, are against “chidush bahalacha”, new, innovative ways of understanding the classic texts and traditions. Nothing could be farther from the truth, especially since Rav Schachter’s speech at the conference delved specifically into the requirement of every contemporary halachic decisor to examine the tradition and the text based on his (or her) own understanding: “l’fi r’ot eini hadayan” – according to the way the judge – of any era –sees it. Rav Schachter spoke eloquently and passionately of how all the rules which seem to prohibit a lesser and later court from ruling against a greater and more numerous earlier court did not apply to understanding halacha, but, rather, only to rescinding a “takana” an edict. When it comes to understanding the infinite word of God, especially in the world of Halacha, Rav Schachter proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that that understanding cannot be based on “status quo”, as Rabbi Held claims, but, rather, by the most contemporary understanding of the halachic decisor who is examining it.
Rav Schachter gave as examples of this new and fresh approach that is required in learning and issuing halachic rulings, Rav Moshe Feinstein of the 20th century and the Vilna Gaon, the great Lithuanian decisor of the 18th century. The Vilna Gaon regularly disagreed with Rishonim and Gaonim, authorities of the centuries and millennium before him. He had no choice: he had to be honest, and if he felt they didn’t read the tradition and the texts (Talmud and Midrash) correctly, he had to disagree with them. When it came to Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Schachter said that Rav Moshe, zt”l, wasn’t even so familiar with many of the opinions of the Acharonim, the big names of the three or four centuries before him, and that he didn’t feel a loss: It’s always interesting for a halachic decisor to see what others are thinking, but in the end of the day it doesn’t matter: halachic decisions are not just copied from the past, they are based on the latest, freshest thinking of the individual halachic authority. Independence and, yes, innovation, where it is called for to bring out the truth of the Torah, are the hallmarks of the Orthodox halachic process, and from what Rav Schechter said at the RCA convention, he was their biggest advocate.
In fact, even though, in general, the authorities of the Gemarra (Amoraim) committed themselves not to take on the understandings of their predecessors, the authorities of the Mishna (Tanaim), Rav Schachter showed how in some ways the great Amora Rav actually did disagree with Tanaim, as an Amora, not under the guise of a Tana himself, though he is sometimes called a Tana. The great halachic and aggadic authority, the Netziv (19th century), Rosh Yeshiva of the storied Volozyn yeshiva developed this concept of “chidush bahalacha” – innovation in the halacha – long before any of the later authorities that Rabbi Held quotes, and Rav Schachter is squarely in the tradition of the Netziv, having studied with Rav Soloveitchik, himself a scion of the Volozyn tradition.
The very idea of ordaining women being “yehareg ve’al ya’avor (die rather than violate)” is based on an innovative understanding of the law in the Talmud of “arkesa d’mesana” – “laces (?)of the shoes”. Rav Schachter explained this Talmudic concept in his talk that even the smallest infraction can become “yehareg ve’al ya’avor” – even how you tie your shoe – if it is in the context of “she’at hashmad” – a time when Jews are being persecuted for keeping Judaism, even down to the smallest detail like how Jews tie their shoes. The innovative read on this Talmudic concept was pioneered by Rav Schachter’s teacher, Rav Soloveitchik, in taking on what the Rav saw as the “she’at hashmad” in the and ‘50’s and ‘60’s, when the Conservative and Reform movements’ popularity in Jewish circles created an atmosphere of pressure on Orthodox Jews to compromise their halacha and conform to Reform and Conservative styles of Jewish worship. Thus, even davening in a Reform or Conservative synagogue, with mixed seating and other infractions of halacha (in the eyes of Orthodoxy), while not normally seen as a central violation meriting “yehareg ve’al ya’avor”, in the context of the social pressures and climate of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s were classified by the Rav as “yehareg ve’al ya’avor”. Wow! While we may recoil from this ruling, to use Rabbi Held’s term, it is certainly an innovative and revolutionary way of viewing a two thousand year old halacha from the Talmud. Rav Schachter continues in Rav Soloveitchik’s innovative interpretation, by seeing the act of ordaining women rabbis as Orthodox Jews knuckling under pressure from a climate of feminism in society and amongst the other movements of Judaism.
Orthodoxy believes in a divine, infinite and eternal Torah that was revealed to Moshe at Sinai and through the 40 years in the wilderness. To understand that Torah properly, requires each Torah scholar and halachic authority, in every generation, such as Rav Schachter, to think for themselves, to figure out what God told us, to understand the texts of our tradition in a way that feels true to the person reading them. The halachic process, within the theological underpinnings of Orthodox Judaism, thrives on new understandings of the ancient texts and traditions; these new and innovative understandings, “chidushei halacha” are celebrated as the contribution of each individual mind, in every era, to give us a better understanding of what God commanded Moses and the Children of Israel in the written and oral law so many years ago. It is ever fresh, ever eternal, and ever open to debate and new challenges. RAL