Rabbi Lopatin clarifies his respect for Rav Shai Held

May 7, 2010

Friends,

As an addendum for more comments regarding Rav Schachter’s shiur at the RCA, I wanted to clarify a few things:

1)      I have tremendous respect and admiration for Rabbi Shai Held who wrote the critique of Rav Schacter, at least in terms of “chidush”.  Rabbi Held is a talmid chacham and already an accomplished Jewish thinker and liturgist.  I have used his liturgy on the Tsunami disaster in my shul!  So any rejoinder I have to his critique is said timidly and humbly.  I apologize that I may not have come off sounding this way in my zeal to defend the “chidush” nature of Orthodoxy.  I look forward to continuing discussions and debates with Rav Held in the future.

2)      Rav Schachter himself, in this same shiur at the RCA conference, allowed for disagreement with his points.  Rav Schechter emphasized how any halachic authority could disagree with another halachic authority, from an earlier time or contemporary, and therefore, I felt exhilarated after his speech as it legitimized my decision to  follow halachic authorities – in the Orthodox world –  who disagree with his stance on the ordination of women to the rabbinate.  Every posek (halachic decisor) must rule what his or her understanding, and every individual must honestly chose which decisor they follow: there will be disagreements, but no one is bound by anyone else’s truth.  If the Gaon from Vilna could disagree with the Gaonim 1000 years before his time, we can certainly feel OK in ruling according to a contemporary posek – or poskim – who disagrees with Rav Schachter.

3)      Thus, I do not think that there is any halachic prohibition on ordaining women as rabbis, and while the time may not be right in Orthodoxy at the moment for this practice, I look forward to the time when it will be appropriate.  In the meantime, within Orthodoxy, I hope to see more and more shuls with full time women in the clergy, and I hope there Yeshivat Maharat, and the programs which confer other titles to women, such as Yoatzot Halacha, will continue to grow and thrive.  I hope that Orthodox leaders step up to the plate to fund those programs and those positions.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


Understanding Orthodox Halachic Innovation: Rabbi Lopatin’s Tribute to Rav Hershel Schachter, shli”ta

May 5, 2010

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


Rabbi Lopatin’s Interpretation of the Rabbincal Council of America’s “No Women Rabbis” resolution

May 3, 2010

Friends, let me add an addendum to Rav Yosef’s thoughts on the RCA conference and the “no women rabbis” resolution. This is from an e-dialogue I had last week (28 April 2010) with Steven Weiss:

SW: Reading the Forward’s story today, I was confused by their paraphrasing you as claiming that the resolution is non-halachic in nature. In its conference call with reporters on Tuesday (http://is.gd/bKj4D), the RCA leadership stated that the resolution is binding upon members as halacha.

So, I’m left to wonder, in reporting on this, what exactly is the case.

Did the RCA represent the resolution to the membership as either halachic or non-halachic, or was there no statement about its halachic nature?

RAL: During the course of the conference, most speakers – including all those on a panel opening the conference – said that we were not dealing with a halachic prohibition. On the other hand, at least one major speaker said that it was a serious halachic violation. When the resolution was presented, it was presented as is – on purpose without a binding commentary that would force you to understand it as halachic or not. In other words, the resolution was written and presented in a way which was open to either interpretation.

SW: Do you indeed think the resolution is not binding upon members as halacha?

RAL: Yes. I don’t even know what that means: Is the RCA a body that can “paskin” – rule – a halacha? In fact, a controversial halachic committee of the RCA was recently disbanded. The RCA is not a Beit Din nor a Halachic authority. It is a rabbinic organization devoted to furthering Torah.

SW: If the RCA had represented the resolution as binding halacha at the convention, would you have opposed the resolution?

RAL: I would have voted against it and argued against it if it would have said that ordaining a women to be a rabbi was halachically prohibited. I follow the authorities who are leaders in the RCA itself who argue that it is not halachically prohibited.

SW: What are your thoughts on the RCA’s representation to reporters of the resolution as binding halacha?

RAL: Everyone is trying to do the right thing and keep a great organization and a great group of Orthodox rabbis united. I support that. I also think that every member of the RCA, and perhaps anyone reading the resolution, has a right to interpret it as they see fit. Nechama Leibowitz argued that it might be impossible to say there is one “pshat” of anything. Certainly, there probably is not one “p’shat” of this resolution. Everyone interpreting it, though, should recognize that in explaining it they are giving only their read of it, and they have to recognize that there might be other legitimate interpretations. It was clear at the meeting that that was exactly the way the document was written – to allow for a multitude of interpretations.