Guest Post by Rabbi Seth Winberg

(Asher Lopatin writes: Rabbi Winberg touches on some of the same critiques that I have of Rabbi Shaul Magid’s response to Rabbi Dov Linzer’s Op Ed in the New York Times).


Guest Post from Rabbi Seth Winberg who received rabbinic ordination at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and an M.A. from Yeshiva University. Rabbi Winberg is currently Assistant Director at the University of Michigan Hillel.

Poor Rabbi Dov Linzer. I am honored to have been a student of his remarkable erudition and emotional sensitivity. Reacting to unconscionable behavior in the name of Torah by some Jews in Israel, Rabbi Linzer’s op-ed, “Lechery, Immodesty, and the Talmud”, appeared in the New York Times late last month. A full analysis of talmudic sources appeared on his blog a month before the op-ed. The upshot of Rabbi Linzer’s argument is that the Talmud “places the responsibility for controlling men’s licentious thoughts about women squarely on the men.”

Professor Shaul Magid quickly responded in an open letter to Rabbi Linzer: “To instantiate your reading of the Talmud would require you to act decisively to abolish all the legal mandates that objectify women’s bodies and put the onus on the men to take full control of their libido and desire.” Rabbi Linzer did not go far enough for Professor Magid in promoting liberal values.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America, also attacked Rabbi Linzer. According to Rabbi Shafran, Rabbi Linzer exploited the violent behavior directed at women and children in Israel to further his ideological agenda. Rabbi Shafran implies that Rabbi Linzer’s reading of talmudic texts is wrong. But Rabbi Shafran offers no evidence for this claim. Perhaps Rabbi Shafran will soon share his reading of the talmudic sources.

Until then, Rabbi Shafran provides no substantive objections to Rabbi Linzer’s reading of sources. Instead he resorts to name calling. Rabbi Linzer’s ideology, says Rabbi Shafran, is “redolent of the Conservative movement’s early days.” (Professor Magid, the rabbi of a Conservative synagogue, would surely disagree with Rabbi Shafran for two reasons: (1) for Professor Magid, Rabbi Linzer is too Orthodox to be Conservative and (2) because for Professor Magid “Conservative” is not an insult.)

Professor Magid’s open letter to Rabbi Linzer at least provides substantive arguments for us to consider. Unfortunately, the letter contains inaccuracies about halakhah. Let me provide two examples. First, Professor Magid claims that “traditional Jewish law” does not allow women to say kaddish in the presence of men. What “traditional” source says women cannot say kaddish with men? The first halakhic source I know of which condemns women saying kaddish is from the 1600s long after the Babylonian Talmud (see Havot Yair, 222). That source does not mention modesty as a concern. And as Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen has pointed out, Havot Yair’s objection was a minority view at the time in Amsterdam, and he agreed in principle that women could say kaddish in the presence of men.

One need only point to a responsum of the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, to show women may say kaddish in the presence of men (see Iggerot Moshe, Orah hayyim, vol. 8, #12).

The most troubling inaccuracy in Professor Magid’s open letter is about mehitzah, the partition which separates men and women during public prayer. He asserts that the purpose of a mehitzah is to prevent men from seeing women. The more commonly accepted purpose of a mehitzah is to prevent intermingling of men and women in the context of public prayer (see Iggerot Moshe, Orah hayyim, v. 1 #39 and #41, and Seridei Esh, v. 1, #8, p. 19 which reports Hasidic opposition to Rav Moshe’s view). Contrary to what Professor Magid says, the mehitzah is not put up to prevent sight-lines. Professor Magid’s vague language also suggests that the mehitzah is of talmudic origin. In fact, there is no discussion of mehitzah in pre-modern halakhic literature, let alone talmudic literature. (See Rabbi Dr. Alan J. Yuter’s “Mehizah, Midrash, and Modernity: A Study in Religious Rhetoric” in Judaism 28 (1979): 147-159.)

Professor Magid may consider these the quibbles of an Orthodox rabbi. (I do not.)

A final broader comment about Professor Magid’s open letter. Rabbi Linzer demonstrates a pattern of attitudes (not laws) regarding modesty in the Talmud (not post-talmudic halakhic literature). Professor Magid responds with examples of rabbinic law (overwhelmingly post-talmudic) that he does not like for ideological reasons. Surely Professor Magid realizes that an Orthodox rosh yeshiva is not going to abrogate normative halakhah on the basis of a pattern of attitudes regarding modesty.

Rabbi Linzer is trying to have a real conversation about important values. If Rabbi Shafran and Professor Magid take Torah and ideology seriously, perhaps in the future they will engage in relationship building with their liberal Orthodox colleagues and leave polemics for other situations.

The larger challenge in this discussion is the extent to which the entire conversation is dominated by men. (I am guilty as charged.) I am pleased to see Rabba Sara Hurwitz adding her perspective. I pray that other women–students and graduates of Yeshivat Maharat, the Drisha Scholars Circle, GPATS, and similar programs–will add their voices too.

2 Responses to Guest Post by Rabbi Seth Winberg

  1. rachel says:

    While I appreciate the substantive engagement with this issue, Winberg’s response to Magid misses the forest for trees. Magid’s major–and important–point is that the Talmud and Jewish law/tradition (that is, what follows from the talmud over multiple centuries — perhaps he wasn’t clear enough for Winberg on that point) is, at heart, a misogynistic text. This isn’t shocking, given when it was written and compiled. But it is often glossed over or, worse, refused to be acknowledged.

    Winberg ducks Magid’s major point: “To instantiate your [Linzer’s] reading of the Talmud would require you to act decisively to abolish all the legal mandates that objectify women’s bodies and put the onus on the men to take full control of their libido and desire.” Winberg wants to dismiss this by claiming that “Surely Professor Magid realizes that an Orthodox rosh yeshiva is not going to abrogate normative halakhah on the basis of a pattern of attitudes regarding modesty.” Really? From where does normative halakhah come? Last I checked the Talmud, and centuries of interpretation, codification, and responsa based on both the specific law and “patterns of attitudes” in the Talmud. Even if the mechitzah isn’t Talmudic per se, the enforcement of it takes on the authority of Talmud. And if non-Talmudic matters should be of no concern to Magid, why shouldn’t Winberg and Linzer call for the abolition of the mechitzah or make kol isha a non-issue? Responsa looks at “patterns of attitudes” as much as it looks at the law itself. If you can’t take those “patterns of attitudes” seriously (which Winbergs language suggests he can’t), then it’s very easy to overlook and thus validate misogyny. Try taking Magid seriously and looking at the legal infrastructure and codes of the Talmud. Do you really not see misogyny? Are women really treated with respect?

  2. The problem is that Rav Linzer came close to making a really good point but stopped just short.
    There is certainly some onus on women to participatae in not creating uncomfortable situations for men. But in the end the man is responsible for looking away. What, am I forbidden from walking down the street of my city which is in golus because scantily clad women might walk past? I have a responsibility to look away even if the local women don’t feel a responsibility to dress appropriately. God, in His infinite wisdom, will judge me according to my actions and them according to theirs. If I want to walk on the street staring in any direction I choose and then shout “sinners” at those who offend me, then I am worrying more about their cheshbon then mine which is quite wrong.

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