Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 1: Elisha’s Wings – by Rabbi Zev Farber

January 31, 2014

See: Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 2: Women Wearing Tefillin

Preface

The debate about women wearing tefillin rages. The issue has many moving parts, some are halakhic, most are sociological. In this piece, I want to touch upon only one aspect of the debate, the concept of guf naqi (clean body) and its application to the question of whether women should wear tefillin.

Part 1 – Elisha’s Wings

The idea that tefillin require a guf naqi comes from a passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 49a):

Rabbi Yannai said: “Tefillin require a guf naqi (clean body) like Elisha, with the wings.”[1]

This statement is enigmatic, both because it is unclear what it means by “clean” and because of the reference to this strange person, Elisha with the wings. More importantly, what the halakhic consequences of such a statement are meant to be. Assuming Elisha with the wings was an extraordinary person, does that mean that most people should not wear tefillin? As will be seen, there is more than one way to understand the import of the statement about Elisha.

Model 1 – Persecution and the Pure Spirit

The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 49a) relates Elisha’s story:

Why do they call him, “the man with wings”? Once the wicked Roman government made a decree against the Jews that anyone who wore tefillin would have his head pierced. Elisha, however, put on his tefillin and went out in public. An official saw him. [Elisha] ran away and the man chased him. When he was about to catch up, [Elisha] removed them from his head and held them in his hand. The man said: “What is that in your hand?” [Elisha] replied: “Dove’s wings.” He opened his had and there were dove’s wings. Therefore, he is called, “Elisha with the wings.”[2]

According to this story, Elisha’s righteousness was that he risked his life to fulfill the mitzvah of wearing tefillin. Not only that, he wore them in public, a bold if risky move.

Following this story, a number of commentators assume that the meaning of Rabbi Yannai’s dictum is that one should not wear tefillin during a time of persecution unless one is as righteous as Elisha. Rav Hai Gaon, for instance, in a responsum dedicated to convincing men that they should wear tefillin and should not worry about the cleanness of their bodies, writes (Sha’arei Teshuvah 153):

If one were to argue that tefillin requires a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings, the Sages explained it thus: In what context was this stated? During a time of persecution, where they made a decree that anyone who wore tefillin would have his head punctured. The Sages said: ‘Anyone who knows that he is as righteous as Elisha with the wings, for whom a miracle was done during the persecution when he risked his life, should wear tefillin. Otherwise, do not put yourself at risk.” For if you do not interpret it this way (but assume that one should not wear tefillin unless one is immaculately clean), a Torah scroll, which is bigger and holier and has many parshiyot and is complete – we open this and read from it all the time, certainly we can wear tefillin! Rather, learn from this that when the Sages said that tefillin needs a guf naqi, this refers to during a persecution and to no other time.[3]

In other words, in Rav Hai Gaon’s interpretation, guf naqi means something like “a pure spirit” and the halakha refers only to wearing tefillin at the risk of one’s life. It has nothing to do with physical cleanliness at all.

Clarifying this position, R. Shmuel bar Meshullam Yerundi (Sefer Ohel Moed, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Tzitzit 1:1) translates the term guf naqi as “free from sin (כלומר נקי מעבירות).” This is R. Tam’s position as well (Sefer Ha-Yashar, Novelae, 675):

Tefillin requires a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings – meaning, if one wishes for a miracle to be performed on one’s behalf as was done for Elisha, he must have a pure being like that of Elisha with the wings.[4]

For R. Tam, the import of R. Yannai’s position is only about hoping for a miracle. In other words, R. Yannai is discouraging men from endangering their lives in order to wear tefillin.[5]

Model 2 – Immaculate Bodies but not Halakha Le-Ma’aseh

Another interpretive tradition assumes that the statement was meant to limit tefillin wearing to very select individuals. The Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 2:3) makes this point clearly:

Over there (Babylon) they say that anyone who is not like Elisha with the wings should not wear tefillin.[6]

Although this statement mentions nothing about Elisha’s “clean body”, it states that if a person is not like Elisha, in whatever way he was special, he should not wear tefillin. Significantly, the Jerusalem Talmud attributes this position to “them,” which implies that it does not accept the statement as authoritative.

The Jerusalem Talmud is not the only one to distance itself from this position. Rabbi Menachem ben Shimon (Midrash Sekhel Tov, Exod. 13) writes:

It is forbidden to sleep in tefillin, whether just nodding off or really sleeping, lest one flatulate while wearing them, however, we are not worried about ejaculation [during sleep] as semen would not forbid a person from wearing tefillin, as we stated earlier. However, we do not follow the position of the person who said that tefillin require a clean body like Elisha with the wings, since the Torah was not given to the ministering angels, as it says (2 Sam. 7:19): “this is the Torah of man.”[7]

This is the understanding of R. Hananel as well (Shabbat 130):

The Halakha does not follow… Rabbi Yannai, who said that tefillin require a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings. The Rabbis, however, interpreted R. Yannai and said that he was only referring to the time of persecution, and they support this with the account of [Elisha] running away and a miracle occurring on his behalf.[8]

According to R. Hananel, we simply do not follow R. Yannai’s position, although he is open to accepting the reinterpreted R. Yannai as described in the previous model.

Model 3 – Flatulence

The Babylonian Talmud offers its own clarification of the concept of guf naqi in the lines immediately following the quote from R. Yannai:

What does this mean? Abaye said: “Not to flatulate with them on.” Rava said: “Not to sleep with them on.”[9]

Assuming one were to accept both answers, i.e. that it is forbidden to flatulate with tefillin on or to sleep with them on, this does not seem like an impossible task. Is Elisha with the wings really the only person who was able to accomplish this? The answer that the vast majority of authorities who follow this model give is “no.” In other words, everyone should wear tefillin; it is only a warning to be careful while wearing them.

Many Rishonim further claim that R. Yannai was speaking about people who wear their tefillin all day, but, certainly, for people who wear them only during prayer there should be nothing at all to worry about.

Below are some examples of Rishonim who make this point.[10]

R. Moshe of Coucy (Sefer Mitzvot ha-Gadol, Positive Commandments, 3)

This refers to a person who wears tefillin all day, as is the mitzvah, lest he forget he is wearing them and he act inappropriately. During prayer, however, there isn’t a person wicked enough that he can’t be trusted with tefillin.[11]

Rashba (Glosses on Tractate Shabbat 49a)

The term ‘they require a guf naqi’ refers to someone who knows how to avoid flatulence while wearing them, meaning that he knows to remove them when he feels the need to flatulate – that is Rashi’s explanation, and it is Tosafot’s as well.[12]

Rosh (Hilkhot Qetanot, Tefillin)

This does not mean that he must be like Elisha with the wings, but rather that he can avoid flatulence and falling asleep like him. For since a miracle occurred for him because of his tefillin, it seems reasonable to assume that he guarded their purity. Nowadays, since we only wear them during prayer, it is easy for a person to be careful during that space of time.[13]

R. Joshua ibn Shuib (Derashot, Va-etḥanan)

There are those who are lenient with this mitzvah because of what R. Yannai said, that tefillin require a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings. They say: “Who could be pure like him?” But this is not correct, because [the Talmud] explicitly asks what is the reason or what is the halakhic import of this statement, and it answers, to avoid flatulating or sleeping while wearing them. So any man who can avoid sleep or flatulence should wear them. This was also Rashi’s interpretation. It was back in the period when they would wear them all day that they said that tefillin requires a guf naqi like Elisha of the wings, but just while reciting the Shema, every person can be careful to avoid sleep and flatulence![14]

R. Avraham Zakut (Sefer ha-Yukhsin, Seder Amoraim, “Elisha”)

The Geonim wrote that the halakha does not follow [R. Yannai], since the Torah was not given to the ministering angels. However, later authorities wrote that it is halakha, and that a person can remain under control during prayer.[15] 

Halakhic Summary

In short, if R. Yannai’s statement was meant to warn regular Jews not to risk their lives by wearing tefillin, it is irrelevant to the question of cleanliness. If it was meant to limit tefillin only to exceedingly pious individuals, like Elisha, the Geonim already decided that his is not the halakha and we do not follow this position. If all it means is that people wearing tefillin need to be careful not to flatulate or sleep while wearing it, that is considered halakha, but is also considered easy to follow unless one has a stomach ailment.

The only people who might have trouble with it are people who wear them all day. For this reason R. Yannai suggests that only very pious people should wear them all day, but everyone should wear them during prayer, since there is nothing to worry about for the average person. This is the halakha as we have inherited it.[16]

See: Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 2: Women Wearing Tefillin


[1]  אמר רבי ינאי: “תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים.”

[2]  ואמאי קרי ליה בעל כנפים? שפעם אחת גזרה מלכות רומי הרשעה גזירה על ישראל, שכל המניח תפילין ינקרו את מוחו. והיה אלישע מניחם ויוצא לשוק. ראהו קסדור אחד – רץ מפניו, ורץ אחריו. וכיון שהגיע אצלו נטלן מראשו ואחזן בידו, אמר לו: מה זה בידך? אמר לו: כנפי יונה. פשט את ידו ונמצאו כנפי יונה. לפיכך קורין אותו אלישע בעל כנפים.

[3]  ואם בא אדם לומר תפלין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים כך פירשו חז”ל במה דב”א בשעת השמד שגוזרים כל המניח תפלין ינקרו את מוחו אמרו חכמים כל היודע עצמו שהוא צדיק גמור כאלישע בעל כנפים שעשו לו נס בשעת השמד ומסר עצמו למיתה יניח תפלין ואם לאו אל יביא עצמו לידי סכנה שאם אתה אומר כן ס”ת גדול ומקודש שיש בו כמה פרשיות והוא שלם ואתה פותח בו וקורא בו בכל זמן וק”ו תפלין מכאן אתה למד שלא שנו חכמים תפלין צריכין גוף נקי אלא בשעת השמד ולא בזמן אחר.

[4]  תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים. כלומ’ אי בעי דאיתרחיש לי’ ניסא כמו שנעשה לאלישע צריך להיות גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים.

[5] R. Tam’s position is brought down as authoritative by R. Avraham bar Natan Even ha-Yarḥi in Sefer ha-Manhig (Tefillin) as well.

[6]  תמן אמרין כל שאינו כאלישע בעל כנפים לא ילבש תפילין.

[7]  ואסור לישן בהן לא שינת עראי ולא שינת קבע, גזירה שמא יפיח בהם, אבל משום קרי לא מיתסרי לאנוחי, כמא דפסקינן לעיל, ולא קיי”ל כמאן דאמר תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים, שלא ניתנה תורה למלאכי השרת, שנא’ וזאת תורת האדם (ש”ב ז יט):

[8]  ואין הלכה… כרבי ינאי שאמר תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים ומפרשי רבנן כי לא אמר רבי ינאי אלא בשעת הגזרה וסמיך דהוא עריק ועבדי ליה נס.

[9]  מאי היא? אביי אמר: “שלא יפיח בהן.” רבא אמר: “שלא יישן בהן.”

[10] See also the treatment of R. Baḥya ben Asher (Kad ha-Qemaḥ, “Tefillin”), who surveys more than one model for understanding R. Yannai.

וכיון שביד האדם לקיים מצוה זו אין לאחד מישראל שימנע מזה על המחשבה שהזכרתי למעלה, כי כל אדם ראוי להניח תפילין כל זמן שהוא בריא וגופו טהור מן החולי והמדוה, ואין צריך עכ”פ שיהיה לו גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים, הוא שטועין בו הרבה בני אדם מהמון ישראל גם קצת מן היודעים שחושבין שאין כל אדם ראוי למצות תפילין אלא א”כ הגיע למדרגת אלישע בעל כנפים שנעשה לו נס ושיהיה לו גוף נקי כמוהו. וזו היא הסבה שהמצוה הזאת מרופה בידם ולא יחזיקו בה, ולא ידעו ולא יבינו כי אין המאמר הזה אמור אלא בשעת השמד שאם המניח תפילין הוא כדאי ובטוח על עצמו שיעשה לו נס כאלישע בעל כנפים יש לו להניח תפילין בשעת שמד ואם לאו אין לו להניחם מפני הסכנה, אבל שאר כל המון ישראל שלא בשעת הסכנה חייבים להניח, וכל ישראל ראוים לכך כי כל העדה כלם קדושים, או יהיה ביאור המאמר לענין הנחתן כל היום כלו וזהו לשון גוף נקי שאם יש לו גוף נקי כאלישע ונזהר בהם הזהירות הראוי חייב להניח’ כל היו’ כלו כמו שהי’ עושה אלישע, אבל אם אין לו גוף נקי כמוהו די לו להניחן בשעות ידועות, ואין צריך לומר הגדולים שהם חייבין במצות תפילין ושהיא מצוה מוטלת עליהם, כי גם הקטנים צריכין להניחן כדי לחנכן במצות. וכן אמרו במסכת סוכה (פ”ג דף מ) קטן היודע לשמור תפילין אביו לוקח לו תפילין:

[11]  זהו באדם שמניחן כל היום כולו כמצותן פן ישכחם עליו ויעשה בהם דבר שאינו הגון, אבל בשעת תפילה אין לך רשע שלא יהא ראוי לתפילין,

[12]  פירוש צריכין גוף נקי היודע ליזהר שלא יפיח בהן כלומר שיזהר לסלקם בשעה שצריך להפיח, וכן פירש רש”י ז”ל, וכן פירשו גם בתוספות.

[13]  לומר לא שיהא צריך כאלישע בעל כנפים אלא שיכול ליזהר משינה ומהפחה כמוהו. דכיון דאירע לו נס בתפילין מסתמא היה שומרן בטהרה. והאידנא שאין רגילין להניחן אלא בשעת תפלה בקל יכול אדם ליזהר באותה שעה.

[14]  ויש מקילין במצוה זאת משום ההיא דרבי ינאי דאמר תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים, ואומרים [כי] מי הוא נקי [גוף] כמוהו. וזה אינו [כן] כי בפירוש אמרו מאי טעמא או למאי הלכתא, ואמרו שלא יפיח בהם ושלא יישן בהם, ואם הוא יכול ליזהר מן השינה וההפחה כל אדם ראוי להם. וכן פירש רש”י זכרונו לברכה ובאותן הזמנים שהיו מניחין אותן כל היום היו אומרין (זה) שצריך גוף נקי כאלישע לכל היום, אבל בזמן קריאת שמע כל אדם יכול ליזהר משינה והפחה.

[15]  והגאונים ז”ל כתבו שאינו הלכה כי לא ניתנה תורה למלאכי השרת, אבל האחרונים כתבו שהוא הלכה ויכול אדם בשעת תפילה להעמיד עצמו,

[16] See, for example, Shulḥan Arukh, Oraḥ Ḥaim 38:1, where R. Joseph Karo says that people with stomach ailments should not wear tefillin. Presumably, the average person without such an ailment can avoid flatulence during prayer.

 


A Recent Episode As Seen From Three Perspectives by David Wolkenfeld

January 22, 2014

Rabbi Avi Weiss and the Israeli Rabbinate: An Episode Seen from Three Perspectives

I.

Rabbi Avi Weiss announced last October that his letters attesting to the Jewish status of members of his community who had moved to Israel were no longer acceptable to the rabbanut, the Israeli rabbinate. When pressed to justify their rejection, a spokesman for the rabbinate explained last month that controversial positions that Rabbi Weiss had taken over the years, as reported to them by anonymous American rabbis, rendered Rabbi Weiss suspect in their eyes and insufficiently Orthodox even to vouch for the personal status of members of his community.

Since Rabbi Weiss broke this story, he has been able to mobilize an impressive list of colleagues, students, and other allies, both in Israel and in the diaspora, to advocate on his behalf.  Late last week, the rabbanut announced that they would, once again, accept Rabbi Weiss’ letters regarding personal status when members of his community move to Israel.  Just last Thursday, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) announced a larger agreement with the rabbanut, wherein they would take responsibility for verifying the Jewish status of the congregants of any of its member-rabbis and that the rabbanut would, as a matter of course, accept the status-determinations made here in America.

Like a Mandelbrot fractal image, no matter how narrowly or how broadly one examines this episode, the shape is the same and raises fundamental questions.  Broadly speaking, there are three levels to this episode and three important contexts for the ensuing conversation.

II.

The first level is the question of “who is Orthodox?”  For those of us love rabbinic politics (or love to hate rabbinic politics), and for those who have some personal connection to the question – this is an important and compelling question. But for most Jews, whether or not Orthodoxy has boundaries and where those boundaries lie, is, at most, a passing thought. Furthermore, within the context of the decades long battle over the place of Liberal Orthodoxy within the broader Orthodox community, there are no surprises. Anyone who has read the polemics surrounding Liberal Orthodoxy, or about Rabbi Weiss himself, that have been published in the past fifteen years already knows that there are segments of the Orthodox world who no longer consider Rabbi Weiss, and inter-alia, his students, to be Orthodox.  Secretly encouraging the rabbanut to reject Rabbi Weiss letters was, perhaps, a new low, and a worrisome escalation, but it was not a move that should have been surprising.

That being said, there are two new elements of this stage of the story that should be noted, condemned, and responded to. First, several of the most consistent and fiercest critics of Liberal Orthodoxy published essays or blog-posts in the past two weeks that disagreed with the decision to disqualify Rabbi Weiss’ letters. Those conflicted critics, and those who agree with them, should experience this episode as a wake-up call. The sensationalist attacks on Rabbi Weiss could have no other long-term effect among those who believe them, other than the total inability of Rabbi Weiss to function as part of the Orthodox rabbinate. That self-destructive path would lead Orthodoxy to a place of less trust, less collegiality, less sharing of Torah ideas, and less respect for Torah and Torah scholarship among a jaded community who witness Torah scholars attack and vilify each other.

Second, the RCA has a need to investigate and identify (at least as part of an internal review) the anonymous source(s) that the rabbanut relied upon to initially disqualify Rabbi Weiss. The ability of the elected leadership and professional staff of the RCA to direct the organization for the benefit of its membership and for the benefit of Torah, necessitates the ability to adopt policies and implement them. Rogue rabbis who speak in the name of the organization without authorization render all of that collective action impossible. Having been burned once, the rabbanut, one hopes, will be more discriminating regarding from whom it accepts information. In turn, the RCA needs to restore its ability to devise and implement policies.

III.

Ironically, the public and private defenses of Rabbi Weiss, from organizations that he is affiliated with and from his colleagues, students, and allies, all affirmed his faithfulness to Orthodox beliefs and practices, and argued that he should be entitled to all of the legal privileges of Orthodox rabbis. This, however, only begged the question of why Orthodox rabbis alone should have this legal status in the State of Israel. More than a few non-Orthodox Jews, and other astute observers, have publicly condemned the resolution of this latest episode as being insignificant for their aims of bringing religious diversity to Israel. The struggle for religious pluralism in Israel is the second context within which to examine this episode. Both those who condemn and those who embrace religious pluralism should recognize that the past two weeks have been insignificant to that broader cause.

IV.

But the rabbanut, the state rabbinate, is not an independent variable. The role and function of the rabbanut is dependent on the tasks that the state asks it to perform and that is connected to a much broader question. What does it mean to be a “Jewish State?” The State of Israel currently defines itself as a Jewish state – at least in part – in an ethnic-religious way. This means that those who can prove a Jewish ethnic background, or who were converted by the right sort of rabbis, are entitled by law to a certain legal status. And, as long as that remains the case, there will be a need for a centralized government agency that can keep track of who is Jewish and who is not.

This broader context, to me, is the most interesting perspective from which to contemplate the latest episode between Rabbi Weiss and the rabbinate.  So long as the conversation remains, “is Rabbi Weiss sufficiently Orthodox for the purposes of a certain government agency” or even if the question is expanded to include, “what kind of diaspora rabbi will have the ability to affect the legal status of Israeli citizens?” then the conversation is one that is beyond the conventions of democratic public discourse. “Rabbi Weiss is indeed an Orthodox rabbi” is not a liberal cry. Nor is, “every rabbi should be able to perform conversions recognized by the State of Israel,” at least not as liberalism has been understood for centuries.

The State of Israel was established because the Zionist visionaries understood that nation-states can uniquely protect their citizens from the threat of violence and that the Jewish people needed our own nation-state to protect our lives in a dangerous and threatening world. Nation states can also sponsor, protect, and encourage a national culture in various guises. But nation-states, at least in the democratic world, are ill-equip to answer questions like, “who is a rabbi?” or “what are the boundaries of acceptable halakhic behavior?” Those sorts of questions, however, are asked and answered every day by kehilot, by communities, and by the religious leadership of those communities.  And because we don’t depend on each other for our physical survival, it’s OK for our kehilot, our shuls, and our religious movements and denominations, to answer those questions in different, or even contradictory, ways.

Think of what you love about living in Israel or visiting there. Think about what the State of Israel means for world Jewry and its significance in the grand sweep of Jewish history. Does any of that depend on a government office collecting lists of Jewish and gentile citizens?

A kehillah is capable of organizing around a common religious vision and a common purpose. That sort of unity, ish echad b’lev echad, as Rashi taught us last week in Parashat Yitro, is a preface to receiving Torah.  But a nation-state cannot easily impose that degree of unity.  Contrary to Kobi Oz’s creative lyrics, the State of Israel is not a giant shul.  Let’s learn to unite where we should, and to foster diversity where that is needed.  We in the diaspora should celebrate all that Israel represents for us, and do what we can to ensure Israel’s safety and flourishing. But we should not look to Israel to resolve questions of Jewish identity that we can more properly answer at home.


No Agunah Left Behind: A Proposal to Solve the Agunah Crisis – by Rabbi Zev Farber

October 11, 2013

At the recent agunah summit, I submitted an outline for a solution to the agunah/mesurevet gett problem. Having sent this to a number of rabbis and agunah activists, I post here a revised version of that proposal. I will begin with an annotated outline and move on to some final observations and a summary.

Annotated Outline

1. Create a network of rabbis and communities who are intent on solving the problem.

I suggest a motto of sorts for this community, styled after the famous pledge of the rangers: “No agunah left behind.” As I wrote about in a different venue, solving the agunah crisis is the job of the rabbis, wielding their halakhic knowledge and authority.[1]

2. Become self-sufficient when it comes to divorce.

One of the political difficulties emergency-style solutions—like the Rackman beit din—come up against is the fact that they only exist as emergency problem solvers. In other words, the vast majority of gittin, where there is no agunah issue, are done through the auspices of people or groups who may not subscribe to the “no agunah left behind” philosophy. This fact leaves the more left-wing Orthodox community open to the claim that when things are easy we go to the “real batei din and mesadrei gittin,” but when we don’t like what they say we create our own “fake batei din.”

3. Agree to use only batei din and mesadrei gittin who see themselves as part of the network.

I suggest this not only for agunah cases, but for any case of divorce whatsoever. I imagine that this will mean a radical shift in the divorce process in our communities.

4. Rabbis who perform life-cycle events should be trained as mesadrei gittin.

There is far too much emphasis on how complicated and technical siddur gett is, which I believe functions to obfuscate the process and place it into the hands of a select few. We should create a network of soferim and a core of people with training and experience who can show rabbis how to do the ceremony. After a while each rabbi in our network will be self-sufficient in presiding over the divorces in his own community with a direct connection to the soferim. If and when an agunah case arises, the rabbi will be the woman’s chief advocate.

5. Ensure that our system is professional, transparent and user-friendly.

Part of doing this means that the power in the vaad cannot only be the mesadrei gittin themselves but there must be oversight from community leaders as well.

6. In cases where an agunah situation does arise, the problem will be solved.

When the solution is unclear to the rabbi requested to do the gett, there will be a central body of rabbis, posqim, scholars, and lay-leaders (including and especially women) who will be the advisory committee for that rabbi on how to solve the problem in each case. This body will help the rabbi and the woman explore the halakhic options, whether it be qiddushei taut (declaring the marriage invalid), hafqa’at qiddushin (annulment), or some other mechanism.[2]

7. When necessary, the vaad must be willing to bypass the husband entirely in finding a solution.

With the gett hanging over the head of the woman, there are simply too many instances of abuse, where withholding of the gett is threatened or implied so that women give up many of their rights, whether financial or custody, in order to ensure receiving the gett. Additionally, a recalcitrant husband can cause delays and other unpleasantness. For this reason it must be made clear to all parties that the vaad/beit din will resort to solutions that totally bypass the husband if need be. He holds no power over her in our court.

8. The group is a vaad with an attached beit din because it must include lay members, pulpit rabbis, and community leaders of both genders.

This is for two reasons. First, it is never safe to have only one interest group hold all the power. Even ignoring the possibilities of bias or corruption, every group sees matters through the lens of its own experiences. Having more than one type of person in the vaad/think-tank will facilitate a robust and honest process. Second, freeing agunot has accidentally slipped into magical thinking—as if some special rabbis have the “power” to free these women. Declaring a marriage invalid (I refer here to qiddushei ta’ut, not hafqa’at qiddushin) is not a ma’aseh beit din (rabbinic act)—the rabbi simply clarifies the fact that the marriage was invalid. This can and should be done by the woman’s rabbi, not by a third party beit din or poseq, even if said party is needed for a consultation. Additionally, although annulling a marriage (hafqa’at qiddushin) is a ma’aseh beit din—and the advisory committee should have members who can also form the beit din—there is no reason why the pulpit rabbi himself should not be part of this beit din, especially when the woman in question lives in his community and the decision effects his community.

9. All rabbis in this network must agree to only perform marriages with prenuptial agreements—specifically the Tripartite Prenuptial Agreement.

Although one may choose to use the RCA prenuptial—or some other version of this type of prenuptial—in addition to the Tripartite, nevertheless, all weddings should include this agreement as it creates the possibility of totally bypassing the husband if he is recalcitrant. The RCA prenuptial, in contrast, makes use of penalty clauses which require enforcement by secular authorities and the cooperation of the husband.

10. The community at large should pressure their rabbis and their synagogues to be part of this network.

Furthermore, the community should pressure their synagogues to make having a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement a membership requirement for married couples, and to hire only rabbis who are part of the “no agunah left behind” network.

11. The goal is to create a system that works and is accepted by a large community, despite the strong probability that many on the right will reject the solution.

The best is the enemy of the good here, and total consensus is impossible in the current climate. Nevertheless, our goal is to create a large enough network such that any agunah/mesurevet gett will have a place to turn. We must commit to these women that we will have them freed from their dead marriages, that we will perform their future marriage(s), and that we will defend their children from the pernicious claim of mamzerut.[3]

The Logic of the Proposal

Imagine the world of Jewish marriage and divorce as a pyramid. If we start from a firm base we can build something vast. If we start from the pointy top and try and build backwards it will not work. To illustrate: There are many marriages in the Jewish world, there are less, but still many divorces, of those marriages that end there are some agunot/mesuravot gett. We cannot focus only on mesuravot gett to solve what is a systemic problem (rabbinic paralysis, and the weak position of women in the process.)

Similarly, there are many cases of mesuravot gett. Some can be handled by invoking a prenuptial (if there is one) or with a strong phone call from the man’s rabbi. In cases where this does not work, many can be solved by a robust use of qiddushei ta’ut. Of those that cannot be solved by persuasion or qiddushei ta’ut, the rest can (must?) be solved by hafqa’at qiddushin (dissolving the marriage). However, for this chain of events to have practical effect, there must be “buy-in” from the beginning; the rabbinic and community participants must sign on to a marriage-divorce system that buys into this approach before matters come to a head.

Therefore, we must begin with a campaign of rabbis/congregations/lay leaders/agunah activists who are willing to say that we are solving this problem. Period. No agunah left behind. The benefit here is that by signing on in advance, the rabbis have skin in the game and the communities have skin in the game. With a large base, hopefully, this pesaq will quickly become minhag yisrael in the Open Orthodox world.

Brief Summary

1. Every member of the group agrees to use the Tripartite Prenuptial Agreement.

2. Rabbis in this group agree to learn siddur gett. This will contribute to ending the mystification of the divorce process at the expense of the average rabbi and his congregants.

3. The rabbi agrees to use qiddushei ta’ut when it works, and will consult with this group’s vaad to learn how to pasqen these questions.

4. If there is no other way, the rabbi will join with members of the vaad to form a beit din to do hafqa’at qiddushin – as a last resort.

Conclusion

I hope that the larger Open Orthodox and even Modern Orthodox community will take this proposal seriously, and with that may we end this blight on our community and this desecration of God’s name for all time. We must do what is right and, in the end, our community will be stronger for it and our Torah will again be a Torah of life. Hopefully our system will be a “light to the right” as well, and, speedily in our days, the problem will be solved for all Jewish women from any community.

Zev Farber


[1] To be clear, I do not consider sending thugs to beat up on recalcitrant husbands as a legitimate solution or as an example of wielding halakhic authority.

[2] I will explain more about this and other halakhic mechanisms in future postings.

[3] Here is a schematic look at the outline:

  1. Create a network of rabbis and communities who are intent on solving the problem.
  2. Become self-sufficient when it comes to divorce.
  3. Agree to use only batei din and mesadrei gittin who see themselves as part of the network.
  4. Rabbis who perform life-cycle events should be trained as mesadrei gittin.
  5. Ensure that our system is professional, transparent and user-friendly.
  6. In cases where an agunah situation does arise, the problem will be solved.
  7. When necessary, the vaad must be willing to bypass the husband entirely in finding a solution.
  8. The group is a vaad with an attached beit din, not just a beit din, because it must include lay members, pulpit rabbis, and community leaders of both genders
  9. All rabbis in this network must agree to only perform marriages with prenuptial agreements—specifically (but not limited to) the Tripartite Prenuptial Agreement.
  10. The community at large should pressure their rabbis and their synagogues to be part of this network.
  11. The goal is to create a system that works and is accepted by a large community, despite the strong probability that many on the right will reject the solution.

Alternative Berakhot for Women’s Torah Reading – by Rabbi Zev Farber

September 24, 2013

Many Orthodox synagogues have women’s prayer groups, with one of the main features being the reading of the Torah. The halakhic issues with regard to this practice have been discussed and debated at length and I do not wish to rehash them here.[1] However, since Simḥat Torah is coming up, I wanted to offer a suggested solution to one sticky point that remains.

Since a group of ten or more women is generally not considered a minyan (halakhically recognized prayer quorum) in Orthodox communities, what is to be done with the blessings over the Torah reading? These blessings are considered devarim she-be-qedushah, prayers that are only to be recited in a minyan.[2] Although some have suggested that the women skip their own recitation of the blessing over the Torah in the morning, and recite it when called up to the Torah, I am not personally comfortable with that solution. There is a hint of something almost misleading about affecting to do one thing (recite the public Torah blessing) while actually doing something else (reciting the personal Torah blessing).[3]

Years ago, when my oldest daughter was being bat-mitzvahed, and we decided to do a minḥah bat mitzvah with Torah reading at our home, we were faced with this problem. Although a number of women’s prayer groups simply skip the berakhah entirely, we did not want to do this. Instead, I wrote an alternative set of blessings. (Others, like Rachel Levmore, have done this as well.) These were designed to approximate the form of the berakhot as they appear in the standard Torah reading service, but without actually being technical berakhot in the narrow halakhic sense.

None of the words in the berakhot are mine; they were all taken from biblical verses. I tried to find verses that were relevant to the theme of blessing God or thanking God for the Torah. Furthermore, I made use of some verses that were recited by women in the biblical texts, in this case Deborah and Hannah. The main part of the opening berakhah was taken from an alternative form of birkat ha-Torah found in a genizah fragment and no longer in use.

Finally, the “ḥatimot” (endings) of each blessing make use of the two verses in Tanakh which begin with barukh atta a-donai, which allows for the form of the berakhah to approximate standard berakhot, but without bringing up any halakhic problems of berakha she-einu tzerikha (unnecessary blessings) or berakhah le-vatala (blessings recited in vain).[4]

Over the years, people have written me on occasion asking for a copy, so I decided that this year I would post them and make them publicly available. They are posted below with a translation and some annotation.

Ḥag Sameaḥ to all,

Rabbi Zev Farber

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

Opening Berakhah over the Torah

Leader:

לִבִּי לְחוֹקְקֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַמִּתְנַדְּבִים בָּעָם בָּרְכוּ יְ-הֹוָה.[5]

My heart is with the leaders of Israel, with the dedicated of the people – Bless the Lord!

Congregation responds:

בָּרוּךְ יְ-הֹוָה לְעוֹלָם אָמֵן וְאָמֵן.[6]

Barukh A-donai le-olam amen ve-amen.
Blessed be the Lord eternally, amen and amen!

Leader continues:

גֶּפֶן מִמִּצְרַיִם הֶעֱלָה אֶ-לֹהֵינוּ, וַיִטָּעֶיהַ.[7] מַיִם מִסִּינָי הִשְׁקָה אוֹתָה, וְנוֹזְלִים מֵחוֹרֵב.[8] בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֳ-דֹנָי, לַמְּדֵנִי חֻקֶּיךָ.[9]

Our God brought a vine up from Egypt, and planted it. He nourished it with water from Sinai and liquids from Horeb. Blessed are you Lord, teach me your laws.

Closing Berakhah

Leader:

אֵין קָדוֹשׁ כַּי-הֹוָה כִּי אֵין בִּלְתֶּךָ, וְאֵין צוּר כֵּֽא-לֹהֵינוּ.[10] בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ-הֹוָה אֱ-לֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִינוּ מֵעוֹלָם וְעַד עוֹלָם.[11]

There is no one holy like the Lord, for there is none like You, and there is no rock like our God. Blessed are you Lord, God of our father Israel, from eternity to eternity.

[1] For more on the topic, see: Avraham Weiss, Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women’s Prayer Groups (revised edition; Ktav, 2001).

[2] This is not the place to discuss Rav Shlomo Goren’s responsum, which claims that women can make their own quorum, nor is this the place to discuss the possibility that a quorum for Torah reading may be something different than a quorum for other prayers—both worthy topics but beyond the scope of this short post.

[3] Some have gone so far as to call this “ziyuf ha-Torah” (falsifying the Torah) but I think that is going too far.

[4] In fact, the Rabbis suggest that if one has begun a blessing and realizes that it will be in vain, he or she should switch the blessing into a recitation of one of these verses to avoid inadvertently sinning.

[5] From the Song of Deborah; Judges 5:9

[6] Psalms 89:53

[7] Adapted from Psalms 80:9

[8] This was originally an alternative version of the Ahava Rabbah/Ahavat Olam prayer mentioned in a genizah fragment. It ended with the standard “Ohev (amo) Yisrael”.

[9] Psalms 119:12

[10] From the song of Channah; 1 Samuel 2:2

[11] 1 Chronicles 29:10


International Rabbinic Fellowship Sukkot Supplement 5774

September 11, 2013

IRF Sukkot Supplement 5774

The International Rabbinic Fellowship is pleased to present this supplement in time for Sukkot 5774. Please follow the link for brief articles exploring several facets of the observance of Sukkot.

Table of Contents:

Can Emotional Pain Exempt Someone from the Mitzvah of Sukkah?

by Rabbi Jason Weiner

Inviting Non-Jews and Conversion Candidates to Yom Tov Meals

by Rabbi Barry Gelman

Halakhic Approaches to Ensuring an Inclusive Shabbat Table

by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

Sukkah Building Guidelines

by Rabbi Barry Gelman


Rabbi Google and I -by Yael Unterman and Yael Valier

September 10, 2013

Yael Unterman and Yael Valier are the coordinators of Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s Think Tank – http://cardozoacademy.org

The Two ‘I’s

Today is the age of ‘I’ – not only of the self, but also of concepts beginning with the letter ‘I’, and specifically two: Information and Individualism. Under these two headings many modern phenomena may be subsumed.

In our time, enormous numbers of people are empowered as never before – sometimes for the good, sometimes less so. Information, bringing power and control, is accessible to all who have a basic internet connection and do not live in a dictatorial regime. When it comes to Individualism, the new message of our times is: “You are important.” No longer the collectivist movements of the twentieth century, which expected sacrifice or even death for the sake of large-scale ideologies. In the twenty-first century, every human is (ideally) considered a world, a unique consciousness, complex and worth valuing.

When twenty-first century individuals feel disempowered, they do not sit still and accept their fate. They seek information via search engines, or turn to online social networks for answers. Doctors, for example, are no longer the ultimate authority on health, for Dr. Google and a health discussion forum can contribute much useful information of which the flesh-and-blood doctor might be entirely ignorant.

This new reality is also impacting how people interact with halacha. Where they might once have turned to a rabbi, today they turn to Rabbi Google. Rabbi Google is not very discriminating, providing not only results from carefully-worded halachic websites, but from any person who decides to write up halacha, and also from lay discussions of  halacha in email groups of varying intellectual levels. Such discussions, often unbeknownst to their writers, have actually become searchable text on the web. Thus, a remark by Mrs P. Almoni of Far Rockaway may rank higher in the Google results than a responsum by Rabbis Elyashiv or S.Z. Auerbach, the OU or YU, or even “Ask the Rabbi” or Vebbe Rebbe. Google does not distinguish between words written by those with decades of learning and  an off-the-cuff comment replete with horrible spelling mistakes and abbreviations such as IMHO!

Now, such lay analyses may well contain intelligent evaluations and suggestions as to the halacha; and many of them will quote rabbis, famous or local. But they may also be based on vague memory or uninformed opinion, representing one person’s erroneous impressions.

Risks and Benefits

The “Rabbi Google” approach clearly runs a serious risk of shallowness, and misinformation (and we do not even mean deliberate and malicious halachic misinformation, a phenomenon which until now we have not yet come across and which would of course be highly damaging). It might even be said to undermine the entire basis of the halachic system. Just as laypeople can be over-confident and arrogant in dealing with doctors or anyone else simply because they have access to Google and therefore think they  are informed, at risk to life and limb, so too laypeople might consider rabbis passé now that we have Rabbi Google.

Nevertheless, we hold the phenomenon of “lay internet halacha” to be a blessing in some ways. What is indisputable is that discussions by laypeople encapsulate greater degrees of  grassroots life experience, reflecting halacha as practiced on the ground, or ordinary people’s perceptions of and feelings around halacha, to a greater extent than a posek’s responsum might. There is something refreshing, alive and comforting about hearing the voices of people like oneself who are going through similar experiences, sharing how halacha actually functions in the context of real life, in a democratic and non-authoritarian environment. Such halacha will feel much more accessible than even the most internet-friendly rabbi. Facebook groups dedicated to halachic discussion bring the halacha into the world of social media, and thus into the heart of day-to-day interaction and socializing, making it a natural and organic part of life – which is where halacha ought to be.

In any event, both opponents and proponents must admit that significant numbers of our contemporaries – and just how broad a phenomenon this is is hard to gauge – are choosing to run a google search or ask questions of an email or facebook group alongside, or at times instead of, approaching a rabbi. The assumption that the intelligent committed surfer will not be influenced by internet halacha is mistaken.

Individualism also affects the picture: People expect to be treated as individuals by those  with whom they interact, and particularly by those who impact their lives significantly. Many people hope and expect their doctors to see them as people, not things or subjects. They report traumatic experiences of being laid on a table and poked and prodded without any personal relationship. Understanding the person’s history and psychology is crucial in medical evaluation; a standardized, general prescription can be way off the mark and the patient or a good friend might even diagnose better than an expert. Thus too, people wish to be fully understood by a posek, otherwise the psak might too be a misdiagnosis. Many poskim do not have the time or the sensitivity to stop and understand the particular person before them. The halachic system as it stands today allows many people to fall through the cracks. Absent a sympathetic, wise and accessible posek who knows them well, or other forums in which to increase their understanding of the role of halacha in their own lives, people (especially of the younger generation) will likely turn to virtual peer groups who will understand them, or resort to google searches and make up their own minds.

(Ironically enough, Information may damage Individualism. One additional effect of casual halachic discussions on the internet is the preserving in writing of psak that was originally given verbally and privately to one individual. Now this psak becomes available to the general public, when it might not have been intended for widespread dissemination. As rabbis become aware of this, they may curtail or keep secret such information in the future. Or a new phrase may end up being appended to verbal psak, whereby the rabbi adds in closing: “Do not spread this psak on the internet.”)

Analysis and Response

What is the value of the materials being generated thus? What is the optimal approach towards the new, democratic/grassroots halachic discussion? The observant Jewish establishment is gradually beginning to assimilate the new reality of halacha on the internet into the system and to come up with a measured halachic response. Examinations of the ramifications of online or “cyber” responsa and “Ask the Rabbi” sites are being published and blogged about.  Much less has apparently been written about the phenomenon of individuals sharing and discussing halacha in a group, what propels them to do so and what effects this might have. The likely connection to individualism of both these types of cyber-halachik activity has yet to be fully explicated. Meanwhile, the momentum already exists, the phenomenon is already established. One facebook group user wrote: “There appears to be a new women’s oral law developing here.” The meaning of this needs to be explored, its dangers understood, its benefits maximized. (Just for fun – try googling the phrase “Rabbi Google”…)

At the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank, under the guidance of Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, we are working on addressing some of the philosophical and social-emotional aspects of these issues. We are working on developing a series of workshops and a book for people interested in deepening their understanding of how halacha works and how their own attitudes and assumptions affect their halachic decisions – touching on the topic of individualism.  The workshops intend to give people the space, time and information to gain a measure of clarity when considering their halachic choices and allow them to move forward in a confusing halachic world, with feelings of confidence and joy around being halachic. They will also include the subject of internet halacha – how it is transmitted, how it is used and viewed, the effect it has and the significance of the phenomenon.
We are finding this work challenging yet thrilling, and hope that others around the world will also set to grappling with the challenges of our age.

We thank Yehudah DovBer Zirkind for his input


What Threatens the World and the Rabbinate? by Rav Yoel Bin Nun

July 4, 2013

What threatens the Torah world and the rabbinate? It is not the “draft decree” into the IDF, nor the “equality of burden” proposal, nor even budget cuts or the elections for the Chief Rabbinate. All these things do not threaten the Torah world or the rabbinate in any way.

If the elite members of the hareidi yeshivot will serve in some form or arrangement, their Torah world will only grow and deepen. This will be especially the case with those who are talented, especially with the Talmidei Chachamim amongst them.

During my service in the IDF, both during my initial service and during reserve duty, I was forced, by circumstances, to engage in in depth study of sugyot (areas of Talmud) and halakhot that by and large are not generally studied, such as Hilkhot Eiruvin as I was obligated to construct an eiruv by myself in the field during training missions, on more than one occasion, and of course to check the eiruv every Friday. In addition, I learned many laws of Kashrut and Shabbat in depth during my service in the IDF, because that is where one is confronted by many unusual circumstances. It is impossible to study daf yomi or the pristine sugyah in the standard tractate that is learned in the yeshiva. In the IDF one learns to live by the Torah in all situations, even in difficult circumstances, and on Shabbat one cannot simply call one’s posek.

If I had my druthers, I would test all of the bnei yeshiva in the country in Hilkhot Eiruvin and the like in order to demonstrate to the rashei yeshivot that it precisely the most talented and capable students who should serve in the IDF.

In the quota of those exempt from service in the army, if implemented, I would only include those whose religious commitment is weak and who may end up abandoning Torah observance during their service-as they are the ones who will not be asking the questions in Hilkhot Eiruvin.

In such a scenario, the quota of exemption would become a sign of shame, and the service in the IDF a symbol of pride for the Torah world (even that which is not Zionist). This is what is correct from a Torah and halachic perspective.

In passing, it should be pointed out that the members of the tribe of Levi in the desert also had a quota, and it is explicit in the book of Numbers. He who relies on the words of Maimonides (at the conclusion of the laws of Shemitah and Yovel) and compares yeshiva students to the Levites, cannot be opposed to a quota that limits the amount of who is exempt.

 

The Threat of the Agunot

What truly threatens the Torah world and the rabbinate?

The women- just the women. And it is not the women who may be joining the body that elects the Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel. It is the women who are suffering, the women who are abused and crying, the women who are agunot and are refused a get. It is they that threaten the Torah world, with the potential of leading to its utter destruction, God forbid.

Why?

As the Talmud teaches (Ketuvot 2b-3a) “Because of the meek (tznuot) women and because of the uninhibited (perutzot) women [the rabbis were lenient and accepted the validity of a get that was not technically valid].”

In the world of truth that Hazal inhabited one gave a get immediately. One did not wait a month or a year. A man could return and marry the women he divorced and so there was no reason to postpone the giving of the get. Only for a Kohen who was prohibited from marrying his divorced wife, would they write a special type of get (get mekushar) in order to postpone the effectuation of the divorce in case he might have second thoughts. This also lasted a far shorter time than the quickest get procedure in today’s rabbinical courts.

It is enough simply to look at the statistics provided by the rabbinical courts themselves. In Israel, there are currently 200 women who have not received a get after a rabbinical ruling that the husband must give a get. It is known, of course, that such a ruling is not given immediately and has only come after many months, years of deliberations in the rabbinical courts. There are also 200 men whose wives refuse to receive a get for various reasons. However, these men can live with other women and even sire children who are halachically kosher. If we examine the numbers of women who have not received a get from a recalcitrant husband, whose cases are being stretched out in the rabbinical courts, and who have not yet received a ruling, the numbers reach into the many thousands.

What happens to the women who are agunot, whose beloved of youth has abandoned them, and in many cases already lives with another woman?

The “meek (tznuot)” amongst them weep, and their tears reach the heavenly throne because the gates to accept “those who are oppressed” and the gates to accept “tears” are never closed (Bava Metziah 59b) And when a tear fell from the eyes of the wife of Rav Rachumi, who was expecting his return on Erev Yom Kippur, and he was immersed in his Torah learning and di not return to his home as was his yearly habit, Rav Rachumi died (Ketuvot 62b).

The “uninhibited (perutzot)” amongst them say, what can I do if the rabbis and judges do not pay attention to me, and allow the man to make demands and conditions for giving the get. In such a case, I have no choice and I will also find myself a man to live with, for I cannot carry such a heavy burden, the burden of raising children and my own personal burden, all alone. And then, God forbid, there is adultery, and it becomes viewed as justified, because it is done out of sense of “no options” available, viewed by many men and women as something akin to an oness – a situation in which one is coerced into a violation, so much so that many lawyers and rabbinical advocates admit that such a reality can often spur the rabbinical court to move with a bit more alacrity to resolve the situation.

What did Hazal , in the rabbinical court of truth state?

“Whoever betroths a woman, betroths on the (condition) of the acquiescence of the rabbis” (Gitin 33a). They found ways to uproot the kiddushin (betrothal) and the nissuin (marriage), if there was no other path available such as in the case that a man sent his wife a divorce via an agent and then canceled the agency in the middle of the mission.. Now all rabbis in the world, all of us, teach grooms to recite the formula “According to the laws of Moses and Israel” under the bridal canopy. “Israel” is a reference to the rabbis who stand under the canopy with the grooms and brides. However, we do not stand with the women when they find themselves in their difficult hour, when they request a get.

It is clear, that in the court of truth of Torah, the burden falls squarely on the shoulders of the rabbis and their disciples, and the adultery of the women who wait months and years, all alone is the responsibility of the rabbis before God.

The tears of the meek women also will determine the judgment, and may possibly bring a destruction of the Torah world and the rabbinate. It is impossible to know which is more serious—adultery caused by a sense of having no option or the tears of the women refused gittin, who will never be able to live with a man without a kosher get.

 

The Responsibility of the Rabbis

If the rashei yeshivot, rabbis, rabbinical court judges and poskim, thought that they would stand before the heavenly court and be held accountable both for the adultery and the tears of pain, and that their entire Torah would, God forbid, be tuned against them as an agent of prosecution, if they understood that the Master of the Universe stands: “By a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand” (Amos 7:7 see Bava Metziah 59a), that is that there is no protective wall, and everything  is breached, they would immediately come together- Lithuanians and Hasidim, Sefaradim and Ashkenazim, Zionists and Hareidim, Moderates and Zealots in order to make decisions- not as to who will sit on the chair of Rav Kook, the founder of the Chief Rabbinate of Eretz Yisrael, buit rather on the question as to what the Chief Rabbis and all the rabbinical courts should do to save themselves from the guilt of adultery and the tears of the women that rest on their shoulders.

However, those who grab hold of the Torah do not truly believe that the Master of the Universe stands upon “the wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in His hand”. They shut their eyes and do not see the adultery that they cause to the “uninhibited” women and do not hear the cries of the “meek” women who have not received gittin at the hands of recalcitrant husbands.

They only hear the threat of women being included in the body that will elect the Chuief Rabbis, and will soon quote for us what Rav Kook wrote about women being elected or having the vote, without understanding the full import of the position of Rav Kook and his son Rav Tzvi Yehuda on this serious question.

For many years, rabbis and dayanim have told me that it is only permitted to teach Tanakh based upon the midrashim of the sages. Listen carefully to what the rabbis stated about the destruction of Shiloh together with the Tabernacle that exited in Shiloh.

In the book of Samuel 1 (Ch 2:22) it states: “Eli was very old and heard all that his sons were doing to all of Israel, and that which they would sleep with all the women who would congregate by the Tent of Meeting”.

Rashi and Radak interpreted the text according to its plain sense and then cite a midrash of Hazal (as is my practice as well in teaching). However, most rabbis in our day only teach this according to the words of hazal. And this is what it states in the Talmud (Shabbat 55b). “Whoever states that the children of Eli sinned is mistaken…rather because they tarried and did not bring the sacrifices of the women who had given birth (in a timely fashion) thus causing them not to be allowed to be with their husbands, The Torah considers it as if they slept with these women.”

It is a clear kal vachomer (a fortiori argument). If the Talmud considered the sons of Eli who prevented women from engaging in procreation for a number of nights (until they paid up the terumah that the sons of Eli demanded –see Samuel 1:2:12-16) as having slept with these women, (of having committed a grave offense)-and thus it explained the words of the prophecy, what will be the judgment of the rabbis and dayanim who postpone and prevent the giving of gittin for months and years. According to the sages this can be considered similar to the actions of the sons of Eli, as they harm the women who congregate at the doors of the rabbinical courts begging to receive a get according to halacha.

It is for these actions and inactions that the Torah world and the rabbinate may, God forbid, be destroyed just as the Tabernacle at Shiloh was eradicated.

 

Rav Yoel Bin Nun is the former rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Kibbutz Hadati and a founding faculty member of Michlelet Herzog of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and a faculty member at Yeshivat Har Etzion and other Torah institutions. He is a pioneer of the modern day study of Tanakh in the Religious-Zionist world in Israel and beyond and a leading thinker, activist and educator in the Torah world. This essay originally appeared in Hebrew in the June 20th edition of Makor Rishon. The essay was translated into English by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot.


Orthodox Women Rabbis: A Response to the Blogosphere and a Hope for the Future

June 25, 2013

Orthodox Women Rabbis: A Response to the Blogosphere and a Vision for the Future

By Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

Rabbi David Wolkenfeld is the incoming rabbi at Congregation Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel in Lakeview, Chicago. For five years, he and his wife Sara directed the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Princeton University.

 

I.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer, a rabbinic coordinator at OU Kashrut, has recently published an online essay, “What Part of Mesorah Do You Not Understand”  reacting to an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week written by Zelda Stern and Elana Sztokman celebrating the first graduating class of Yeshivat Maharat.  Rav Gordimer makes two central arguments opposing women rabbis; the first is an assertion that women rabbis offend Orthodoxy’s “traditional communal norms.” The second is that women rabbis are fundamentally forbidden by halakhah itself for three reasons that Rav Hershel Shachter explained in a 2011 essay  published in the journal Hakirah. However, Rav Schachter’s halakhic arguments are unconvincing and an argument based on “traditional communal norms” is more subtle than Rav Gordimer admits.

Rav Shachter has a stellar reputation for the sharpness of his lomdus, and for independent and creative analysis of halakhic topics. In designing an eruv for Princeton University I relied upon some of Rav Shachter’s leniencies in Hilkhot Eiruvin without hesitation – placing my community’s shemirat Shabbat into his hands. Unfortunately, the three arguments that Rav Shachter presents in opposition to women rabbis are weak, perhaps reflecting his well-documented and idiosyncratic antipathy towards Jewish feminism.

 

II.

The first argument that Rav Schachter presents in opposition to women rabbis is that women rabbis violate “serarah” a prohibition found in the midrash halakhah and codified by Rambam, that it is forbidden to appoint women to any position of authority within the Jewish community. There are several responses to this argument:

Rav Schachter presents the halakhic prohibition of women exercising serarh using the words, “the Tanna’im understood the pasuk in Chumash as implying that women may not be appointed to the position of King” as though it were a well attested and universally accepted halakhic position. In fact, this halakhah is found nowhere in the Talmud, is mentioned by Rambam alone among the rishonim, and is not codified by the Shulhan Arukh (Rav Soloveitchik’s hiddush in Hilhot Shechitah notwithstanding). As an added element of irony, the entire profession of the rabbinate is entirely illegitimate according to Rambam, who categorically forbids earning a salary for teaching Torah. Since the entire Orthodox rabbinate rejects Rambam’s position on whether rabbis and Torah teachers can be paid for their work. How can we present Rambam’s purported opposition to women rabbis as though it were the only halakhic voice? Rav Aaron Lichtenstein shlita, has written about the need for rabbis to present halakhah in all of its complexity and nuance. And to not ignore that complexity, even in the interest of a seemingly compelling short-term polemical or policy interest.

Furthermore, Orthodox women do in fact exercise serarah in significant ways including serving as members of legislatures and the judiciary in Israel and elsewhere, serving as principals of Jewish day schools, and supervising staff in professional contexts. The onus is on Rav Schachter to explain why these well accepted and common ways that Orthodox women exercise leadership are different from serving as a rabbi, especially in a modern context where a rabbi is hired by a board, works cooperatively together with congregational lay-leadership, and serves only so long as the congregation retains his services Finally, this argument against women rabbis does not apply in situations where a rabbi does not exercise serarah such as an assistant rabbi, a chaplain, or a teacher in a day school.

 

III.

The second argument that Rav Shachter presents in opposition to women rabbis is rooted in Rav Schachter’s theory of tzniut. According to this theory, one I remember hearing in person from Rav Schachter fifteen years ago, tzniut is an absolute preference for being private and, at least initially as a way to imitate God’s own hiddenness, tzniut applies equally to men and women. However, since someone has to compromise on the value of tzniut for the sake of a community that needs public leadership, it is better, according to Rav Schachter, that men take on public roles so that women can maximize their tzniut.

This argument constructs a theory of tzniut that, however plausible it may be, is entirely irrelevant to the way that contemporary Orthodox Jews live. Do men with prominent communal positions experience their public leadership as though it were a painful but necessary sacrifice? Is it even true that contemporary Orthodox women refrain from speaking in public or serving the community in a visible and public way?

Orthodox women are scholars and teachers who lecture before crowds of hundreds. They are prominent in the professions and shape the world in all of the ways that men do. Women Torah scholars give lectures each year at the annual convention of the Rabbinic Council of America. Rav Schachter’s theory of tzniut is incompatible with the choices that pious Orthodox Jews, men and women, make each day.

 

IV.

Rav Schachter’s final argument is the most interesting one. Citing Rabbi Dr. Saul Liberman, Rav Schachter explains that the original “Biblical” semikhah implied the eligibility to sit on the Sanhedrin as a dayan. Since women are disqualified from being dayannim, so too they cannot be rabbis since contemporary rabbis serve as a sort of “imitation” or “carryover” to the original form and function of Biblical semikhah.

R. Lieberman’s concern can be overcome with a simple “heker” – a distinguishing feature that makes it easier to separate between two things with different halakhic statuses. Male rabbanim are indeed receiving an imitation semikhah that is a carryover to the original Biblical semikhah, whereas women who serve in positions of spiritual leadership can be given another title to make clear that they are not eligible to serve as dayyanim (or to perform any other ritual role that halakhah limits to men). Indeed, R. Lieberman was opposed to the Conservative Movement ordaining women with the title “rabbi” – but Orthodox women have gravitated towards uniquely female titles (yo’etzet, maharat, hakhamah, rabbah etc.) that do not carry any of the connotations that concerned R. Lieberman.

V.

The most significant barrier to Orthodox women serving as clergy is not purely halakhic but concerns what Rav Gordimer called “traditional communal norms.” This is, presumably, what the RCA had in mind when it referenced the “mesorah” in its public statement condemning Yeshivat Maharat’s graduation. Rav Gidon Rothstein’s criticism of Yeshivat Maharat was based on that same idea. Indeed, being part of Orthodoxy, even its liberal wing, like being part of any family, means respecting the sensitivities and concerns of other members of the broader Orthodox community. Rav Gordimer is undoubtedly correct that most Orthodox Jews remain instinctively uncomfortable with women rabbis. But there are several crucial caveats that cannot be overlooked.

-Over the past fifteen years diverse Orthodox communities have grown increasingly comfortable with women performing rabbinic functions in schools and congregations. Merely avoiding the title “rabbi” seems to be sufficient in many cases to overcome Orthodox discomfort with women clergy.

-Sometimes “traditional communal norms” coalesce in opposition to phantom threats. The Hassidic movement as it spread in Eastern Europe introduced halakhic innovations, liturgical changes, and promulgated an ideology that was reasonably interpreted as undermining the value of Torah study. In turn, many of the greatest rabbinic minds of Europe devoted tremendous energy towards a futile effort to eradicate the movement. And yet, no one today can question the halakhic faithfulness of Hassidim and their communities. Ha-Po’el HaMizrahi, the Mizrahi Workers Party, is another interesting historical example of a fringe group of activists, with little or no support from the rabbinic establishment, who broke off from the Mizrahi, and then established the crucial institutions for Religious Zionism to thrive in Israel (such as B’nai Akiva and the religious moshavim and kibbutzim), leading to the original Mizrahi being eventually absorbed into the one-time splinter group.

-Traditional communal norms can change very rapidly. One does not need to consider the acceptance of rabbinic sermons in the vernacular; congregational singing during tefilot, or clean-shaven men, for there has been a perceptible shift in the Orthodox community about this very issue during the four years that Yeshivat Maharat has been training students. The controversy over women’s ordination swept through the American Orthodox community four years ago with a strength that seems to have surprised Rav Avi Weiss.  In contrast, the first graduation ceremony at Yeshivat Maharat was received with excitement and enthusiasm by hundreds of spectators, bolstered by the news that there were more Orthodox communities seeking to employ graduates than there were graduates of the program seeking positions.

 

VI.

The graduation of Yeshivat Maharat’s first class comes in the context of a several programs, some ensconced in the heart of Orthodoxy, others occupying places at its periphery, that are working to open the doors of the beit midrash to women as students and teachers of Torah. These schools have different educational visions, different halakhic orientations, espouse different religious worldviews, and are promoting different visions of leadership. I consider myself very fortunate to have had students from several of these institutions as my teachers and colleagues. Contemplating the diversity of responses to the need for women’s Torah scholarship and religious leadership fills me with optimism for the future of Orthodoxy.

From my vantage point as a supportive spectator, I have deep respect for the determination on the part of Yeshivat Maharat to professionalize their model of women’s religious leadership and link the systematic and supervised study of halakhah to a title. Those unique contributions of Yeshivat Maharat to the movement of women’s Torah education deserve emulation.

The mainstream Orthodox community has created opportunities for women to achieve formidable accomplishments as Torah scholars and has created entry-level positions where those women can use their scholarship and passion for Judaism to the benefit of Klal Yisrael. The examples closest to my heart are the women who, together with their rabbi-husbands, direct the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus programs at sixteen North American universities. These women (a group that included my wife) teach shiurim, provide Jewish mentorship, offer halakhic guidance, and serve as resources for students, faculty, and others on campus who are seeking Torah knowledge or religious support.  But, without a title, their Torah scholarship is not acknowledged and the reliability of their religious guidance is un-credentialed. The many women who have served as interns at Orthodox congregations are another revealing example. For what profession and for which positions are these women interning? When moving beyond entry-level positions, Orthodox women have difficulty competing with ordained rabbis for jobs that they are fully qualified to perform. Orthodox women face this employment discrimination even outside the Orthodox community where professionals have degrees attesting to their training and religious guidance and “Judaic gravitas” is provided by rabbis.

The lack of a defined career path for Orthodox women to serve in positions of spiritual leadership and Jewish education, the lack of a broadly accepted title to honor their commitment and scholarly achievements is both a disgrace to the Torah that women study, and is complicit in a catastrophic waste of talent that the Orthodox community cannot afford. With so many models of Orthodox women’s leadership and so many programs educating and training women, it is too soon to predict what the landscape will look like when the dust settles in ten or twenty years. But all of those on the front-lines have my respect. The Orthodox community, and Klal Yisrael as a whole, needs them to succeed.


Partnership Minyanim: A Defense and Encomium – by Rabbi Zev Farber

January 25, 2013

Partnership minyanim such as Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem and Darkhei Noam in New York, wherein women lead certain parts of the service, are becoming a significant force in the prayer experience of the Modern Orthodox community. Although these currently exist only in the biggest Jewish communities, they also exist on numerous college campuses, and as time goes on the phenomenon will probably expand. For some, like me, this is an exciting possibility. However, those in the Modern Orthodox camp who believe that women’s leadership of any part of the synagogue service is a violation of halakha, are concerned.

This concern has recently been expressed articulately and forcefully by Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel, noted author and Rabbi of Kesher Israel in Washington D.C.,  in an article titled, “Putting the Silent Partner back into Partnership Minyanim,” available on Hirhurim. I commend Rabbi Freundel for his thorough analysis and critique of the phenomenon and will use his piece as an opportunity to share my own thoughts on the subject in the spirit of collegial debate. (I apologize in advance for responding to a 35 page paper with a blog post, and for inevitably skipping over a number of details.)

Rabbi Freundel opens with the surprising assertion that there has been no “formal attempt in writing” to discuss whether the partnership minyan’s practices are indeed halakhic. Although Rabbi Freundel may be making a unique contribution to the discussion with this article, he is actually part of a larger conversation that began with Rabbi Mendel Shapiro’s article on Women’s Torah reading (which Rabbi Freundel cites) and moves on to other aspects of tefillah as well. Dr. Chaim Trachtman has an edited volume on the subject, with essays by a number of authorities, Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives, and Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber has an entire book on the subject, On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations. The very issue Rabbi Freundel wishes to discuss, women leading Qabbalat Shabbat, was debated by Rabbi Michael Broyde, Women Leading Kabbalat Shabbat: Some Thoughts, and Rabbi Josh Yuter, Land of Confusion: A Response to R. Broyde on Women Leading Kabbalat Shabbat.

It seems unfair to characterize halakha as the “silent partner”, implying that not much thought was put into teasing out the halakha from the sources. It is my understanding, from speaking with people who were involved in the process of designing these minyanim, that halakha committees were formed and many discussions held, with sources analyzed carefully and thoughtfully. Although not all their analyses were written up, there is an entire booklet—as Rabbi Freundel himself references—put together by Michal and Elitzur Bar-Asher Siegel, and available for download on the Kolech website, which describes in detail the practical findings of these committees. In short, Rabbi Freundel’s characterization of halakha as the silent partner, and his article as the first, seems “ungenerous.”

Before getting to the main halakhic point, Rabbi Freundel addresses the question of whether it is incumbent upon the Orthodox community to allow women’s public participation in the synagogue service since barring them completely is hurtful. (Note: I am aware of the “us-them” language here and the fact that this debate is yet again two men talking about women – but I see no way around this as Rabbi Freundel and I are both men.) To this, Rabbi Freundel writes:

“We would need to know who or what group is entitled to speak for women—all women, all Jewish women, observant women, Orthodox women, etc. It is also necessary to have a clear idea of what percentage of women actually feel demeaned, troubled, or unhappy at not being able to lead services, and what percentage is happy or unconcerned with the status quo. To my knowledge no one has made a formal presentation of the data that exists on these questions—if any does exist. Absent an attempt to gather that information scientifically we are dealing with anecdote and hearsay.”

Though I do not have any statistics to offer Rabbi Freundel, I do not think his request for data is to the point. The fact that the Orthodox service, and often the Orthodox shul, is designed for men only should be clear to any objective observer. I have written about this previously, in “Davening Among the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes.” Some Orthodox women have also written about their experience in shul and the pain it causes them; the piece by Dr. Vered Noam (in Hebrew), a Rabbinics professor at Tel Aviv University, is a poignant example. Furthermore, Rabbi Freundel does not mention that a growing number of men are unhappy with this situation as well, a phenomenon one can read about in Elana Sztokman’s The Men’s Section. Simply put, many women and men find the complete lack of female public presence in Orthodox synagogue services to be hurtful. Many women and men wish for a change. These are facts, although not quantifiable; I do not see what more information is needed.[1]

This brings us to the main halakhic point in his essay. Rabbi Freundel describes the argument for the legitimacy of women leading Qabbalat Shabbat as two-pronged. First, Qabbalat Shabbat is not a Talmudic requirement, but a qabbalistic custom that began in the 16th century, so the question of whether women are obligated is irrelevant. Second, Qabbalat Shabbat does not require a minyan, so the question of whether women are part of the minyan is irrelevant.

Rabbi Freundel believes the above analysis to be mistaken. Qabbalat Shabbat, he argues, is a custom that was accepted amongst all Jews and is therefore as binding as if it were halakha. A discussion about when the service was instituted is of academic interest only and he believes such discussion to be an example of the Genetic Fallacy (i.e., assuming historical accident defines the essence of a thing.) Additionally, as the custom is to have a mourner recite Qaddish at the end of this service, it seems clear that it was instituted as part of the public synagogue service—Rabbi Freundel calls this category tefillah be-rabbim (public prayer)—and should be subject to the usual requirements that the leader must be “obligated” in the service and be part of the minyan, in other words, the leader must be a man.

With all due respect to Rabbi Freundel, I believe his analysis is dependent upon a category error. There are two possible functions of a shaliaḥ tzibbur (prayer leader). The classic function of the shaliaḥ tzibbur is to say certain prayers out loud either on behalf of the congregation as a whole, e.g. Qaddish and Barkhu, or on behalf of individuals who do not know how to recite the prayer on his or her own, e.g. the repetition of the Amidah (=ḥazarat ha-shatz) and the repetition (Rashi) or out-loud recitation (Rambam) of the Sh’ma service (=pores al Sh’ma, no longer practiced in most synagogues).

The second function of the shaliaḥ tzibbur is to set the pace and tone of the prayers. In such cases, the shaliaḥ tzibbur is not reciting prayers out loud in order to fulfill anyone’s obligation, but to enhance the collective prayer experience by keeping the various participants together, saying the same prayers, singing the same tunes, etc. This is how the shaliaḥ tzibbur functions in the Qabbalat Shabbat service as well as in the Pesuqei de-Zimrah service, for example, another staple of partnership minyanim. The leader will generally recite the psalm silently, like the rest of the congregants, but will say the last couple of lines out loud so that everyone will know “where they are.” Sometimes, the leader will sing one of the psalms and the rest of the congregation may join in.

This tone and pace-setting function of the shaliaḥ tzibbur is entirely different from the recitation-on-behalf-of-others function since the leader is not reciting any prayer on behalf of the congregation or any individual. Rather, each participant is reciting the prayers on his or her own. Therefore, even if Rabbi Freundel were correct in claiming that there is an actual halakhic obligation to recite Qabbalat Shabbat (I do not think he is), this does not mean that the leader of the service need share this obligation. The shaliaḥ tzibbur is simply setting the pace and tone for the service, he (or she) is not reciting anything on anyone’s behalf.

This point can be illustrated in two examples Rabbi Freundel brings to demonstrate the existence of a public recitation not limited to the classic Sh’ma and Amidah prayers: Magen Avot on Friday night and the ten-person zimmun after meals. The first, although instituted as a way of extending the evening service, was built as a kind of mini-repetition of the Amidah. For this reason the leader recites the prayer out loud on behalf of the congregation. The second is a classic example of a prayer said by one person on behalf of the participants. In both of the examples, the shaliaḥ tzibbur fulfills the classic function of reciting a prayer on behalf of those obligated in that prayer service (Ma’ariv and Birkat ha-Mazon respectively), and must be someone obligated in the prayer service in order to do so.

Another example referenced by Rabbi Freundel is seliḥot, which he correctly points out is treated as a davar she-be-qedushah (a holy service requiring a minyan) even though it is post-Talmudic. This is an excellent example because the function of the shaliaḥ tzibbur in this service is subject to interpretation. In some traditions, the leader recites certain parts out loud (the 13 attributes of God, the aneinu paragraphs, etc.) while the participants listen silently. In other traditions all of these are said together or privately. The difference between these two traditions is illustrative precisely of the difference between whether the shaliaḥ tzibbur is performing the function of recitation on behalf of the community or whether the shaliaḥ tzibbur is setting the pace and tone for the participants’ prayers. (Ostensibly, whether there is a restriction on who can lead seliḥot would be dependent on which custom one follows.)

Rabbi Freundel finds further support in his claim that a woman can never be a shaliaḥ tzibbur by pointing to the Tosefta (Ḥagigah 1:3; b. Ḥullin 24b) which states that for a male to be the shaliaḥ tzibbur he must have a full beard. Clearly, Rabbi Freundel points out, the text does not even contemplate the possibility of women fulfilling this role. Firstly, the fact that the Rabbis didn’t discuss it doesn’t prove that they thought it was halakhically illegitimate. More importantly, I will again point out that the Rabbis are talking about a shaliaḥ tzibbur who recites the prayers on the people’s behalf, not someone who sets the pace and chooses the tune. There was no Qabbalat Shabbat service or Pesuqei de-Zimrah service in the Talmudic period; the former didn’t yet exist and the latter was recited privately by individuals. In Talmudic times, the shaliaḥ tzibbur only fulfilled the function of reciting prayers on behalf of others—a very important role in an age before prayer books.

Considering the above, it appears to me that since the shaliaḥ tzibbur for Qabbalat Shabbat (and Pesuqei de-Zimrah) is not reciting any part of the service in order to fulfill the participants’ obligations, but is merely setting the pace and tone of the prayer service, there is nothing, halakhically speaking, to bar women from leading these services.

This brings me to my final point. Although this blog post has focused on questions of halakhic minutia, this really isn’t the main issue. The main issue is that the way Orthodox services and synagogues are run is hurtful to the sensibilities of a number of contemporary women and men, who have become accustomed to social parity in every place but the synagogue. Solutions must be found. Sadly, instead of trying to find a solution Rabbi Freundel—and he is just one example—goes to great lengths to create an issur (prohibition) where there is none. Now I do not know whether partnership minyanim will prove to be the solution; nevertheless, I believe they are halakhically defensible and sociologically critical.

Rabbi Freundel ends his piece by urging Orthodox people not to have partnership minyanim, and warning the reader that this phenomenon might “split the community.” In my opinion, offering an option that many Orthodox people (even rabbis) consider to be halakhically valid is not what splits the community. What splits the community is the threat from one group to declare the reasonably defended practice of another to be illegitimate. The Orthodox community has survived halakhic debates of more gravitas that who gets to lead Qabbalat Shabbat. There are debates about what foods are kosher and what actions violate Shabbat. These debates often concern real Torah prohibitions (not just customs) and yet both sides remain Orthodox. There are serious debates about whether day schools should be mixed-gender or separate or what prayers should be instituted to celebrate the founding of Israel. The Orthodox community has survived these as well. If the community splits over this issue as Rabbi Freundel predicts, it will not be the fault of the partnership minyanim.

The partnership minyanim are trying to offer a religious service to Orthodox people who feel uncomfortable with the level of participation available to women in the establishment synagogues. The disenfranchisement of women in our synagogues is a real concern and many women—and men—need a different venue. A short while ago I wrote about the need for a paradigm shift in Modern Orthodox prayer services. The presence of women in the synagogue needs to be felt, and their voices need to be heard. The partnership minyan is an excellent example of this type of necessary paradigm shift, and I, for one, wish to see them go mi-ḥayil el ḥayil, from strength to strength.

Rabbi Zev Farber, Atlanta


[1] Two technical notes: Rabbi Freundel states that he does not wish to discuss the already highly debated question of women reading from the Torah. Instead he limits his discussion to the Qabbalat Shabbat service. For the sake of this blog post, I will do the same and, as he suggests, will forego discussion of the oft-quoted Talmudic passage of kevod ha-tzibbur (the honor of the congregation), which forms the basis of the debate surrounding women’s Torah reading. Rabbi Freundel goes on to discuss whether kevod ha-briyot (human dignity) should be a mitigating factor in this debate – he thinks not – but I will skip over this issue for the sake of brevity, as I think it unnecessary to invoke kevod ha-briyot here.


Women’s Participation in Ritual: Time for a Paradigm Shift – by Rabbi Zev Farber

October 15, 2012

Today, the baseline in any Orthodox community is that women do not participate in public ritual at all. In the average Orthodox synagogue, there is not one thing that women do which is part of synagogue performance. Their presence is not felt and their voices are not heard. The paradigm for women’s ritual participation in the Modern Orthodox world must change.

Although what I described above is standard, in some Orthodox shuls women have complained that they feel excluded and marginalized. In the best of shuls there has been an attempt to accommodate their feelings and various solutions have been offered. Some synagogues are unwilling to accommodate the women in the actual prayer space, but allow them to have a separate women’s prayer group, often based around a Torah reading ceremony of some kind. Others have passively recognized women in the synagogue, e.g., meḥitza down the middle, carrying the Sefer Torah into the women’s section, etc. or allowed some active participation, e.g., opening the ark, saying a mi-she-beirakh, reciting qaddish, etc.

Instead of focusing on specific solutions, I wish to describe what I see as the overall problem with the process of coming to solutions. As described above, we begin with the assumption that women currently lead no prayers and play no public role in the synagogue service. If a group of women in a given synagogue feel that this is insufficient for them, they can come to the rabbi with a complaint and he will think about what he may be willing to do to accommodate them. In my opinion this process is seriously flawed, even if in a given case the outcome is satisfactory for the women. Why is it that we have no expectation that the rabbi will work actively to expand opportunities for women? Why is it that the synagogue automatically assumes that the baseline should be no participation and that women need to put themselves out there, at a real risk of humiliation and disappointment, before even the smallest action will be taken on her/their behalf?

I would argue that the reason the impetus for change has fallen so squarely on the shoulders of women stems from the fact that we are still living under an antiquated and obsolete paradigm. Although there are a number of Talmudic pericopae (sugyot) that discuss technical questions surrounding differences between men’s and women’s obligations in prayer and related halakhot, this does not really explain the stark difference between the place of men and women in the synagogue. The larger issue, I believe, is sociological in nature.

In the Rabbinic period, as well as throughout the Middle Ages, the place of women in the social hierarchy was very different than it is now. Women were rarely public figures and were discouraged from receiving too much education, taking visible public roles, participating in the power structure, and generally from being around men. If any woman were to express superior learning or knowledge than a man in front of a group it would have been a serious breach in etiquette. This is why, according to Tosafot (b. Sukkah 38a, s.v. “be-emet”), women do not lead the Grace after Meals for men or read the Megillah for men, since it would be insulting to them (zila milta). For the same reason, R. Israel Meir Kagan, in his Mishna B’rurah (281:4) argues that women should not say Qiddush for men, at least in public. The Talmud offers a similar reason why women do not read from the Torah in synagogue (b. Megillah 23a), although they are apparently eligible to do so, as it would offend the honor of the congregation (kavod ha-tzibbur). This sociological stance, typical of the classical and medieval periods, goes a long way in explaining why the common practice is not only that women do not lead the repetition of the amidah (which requires a man who is obligated in this prayer service) but they do not even participate in p’tiḥah (taking out the Torah) or lead p’suqei de-zimrah (the pre-prayer psalms), neither of which has any halakhic requirements for who should lead it at all.

The sociological realities nowadays are entirely different. In our world, women hold every position of respect and power in the public sphere as men do. Women serve in Congress and the cabinet, women are judges, doctors, lawyers and police officers. The idea that a group of modern Western men would feel offended if a woman were to perform a public function in a synagogue should be laughable, except for the fact that they may think it a religious violation. But it is only a religious violation since the rabbis believed that the men would be offended. It is a vicious cycle that continues nowadays only due to the unfortunate combination of inertia, obliviousness to halakhic sources, and paternalism.

This is where I believe the paradigm shift must occur. To break out of this vicious cycle, we need to shift the paradigm 180 degrees. Instead of saying that since women have never historically participated in public ritual, so each shul and each rabbi will—upon request—think about creative ways to allow women to participate ritually in things that are permitted, we should be saying that all Jews, men and women, can do or participate in any meaningful ritual unless it is clear that halakha expressly forbids this. How to define what halakha forbids will be a question every shul and rabbi will need to answer, but the inertia factor and the women-don’t-do-these-kinds-of-things factor will have to be taken off the table.

In discussing this issue with others, I have sometimes heard the accusation that women are just trying to copy men. For example, in discussing women’s Torah reading ceremonies, which occur in a number of Modern Orthodox shuls around the world, including the shul where I daven, (thanks to the initiative of a number of women and the sensitivity of the rabbi), I have heard people—not from my community—ask “why would women want to read from the Torah anyway? Is it just because men do it?” I have also heard the related claim: “They are just doing this to make a statement. Women should be more tzanua (modest) about such things.”

These dismissive statements are out of touch with the spiritual and sociological reality of the synagogue service. Women do not want to read from the Torah because men do; women and men both want to be called to the Torah because participating in the reading of the Torah is considered an honor (kavod) due to the great respect all Jews have for the Torah and the Torah scroll. Every man who gets an aliyah receives a myriad of hand-shakes and yeyashar koḥakha’s—and this is true on a regular Shabbat. On Simḥat Torah the average shul breaks out all the Torahs so that every single congregant—male congregant—can be called to the Torah. Afterwards, the real kibbudim (honors) begin.

A year or so ago, I received the Ḥatan Torah honor (the aliyah where the last section of the Torah is read). It was quite an honor. There was a speech about the work I do for the shul, there was a very long and overly flattering Hebrew prayer/song sung by the gabbai, and while he was doing so four men held a ṭallit over my head as if I were getting married. Needless to say, only men get this honor. One can use many adjectives to describe this kavod, but tzanua (modest) is not one of them. It seems rather disingenuous for men who receive these honors and take their access to the Torah for granted to then ask what possible reason could women want to be a part of this. It is totally unfair to create a society in which access to the Torah is considered the greatest honor, bar women from it, and then turn around and ask what their problem is.

Another critique that I have heard of women who want more ritual participation is that “most of these women hardly do what they’re supposed to already; they come late to shul on Shabbat, they aren’t punctilious in their own mitzvah observance, they don’t do any extras like shaking the lulav and etrog or praying three times a day. Why should they get to do extras when they haven’t even covered the basics?” I see two basic problems with this critique.

First, they should be granted access to ritual possibilities because it is their right. Since when is the shaking of a lulav the prerequisite to opening the ark, reciting a mi-she-beirakh or dancing with a Torah scroll on Simḥat Torah? Second, even if a rabbi were to say that in his fantasy world he would only give kibbudim to people who were religiously “up-to-scratch,” I do not believe that he would feel that he could implement such a policy with men. For the life of me I cannot imagine a rabbi taking a Torah scroll away from a man on Simḥat Torah on the grounds that he comes late to shul on Shabbat, or announcing a policy that aliyot in his shul would only be given to men who show up consistently for weekday minyan. However, this is essentially what is being done to women who are told that since they do not daven enough, come to shul enough, do enough mitzvot—what have you—their desire to participate ritually in some way in the synagogue will be denied.

This leads to my final point, which is the issue of power structure. Women are finding it very difficult to make changes in their synagogues because they do not really participate in the power structure. In general, women in the Orthodox world are less learned than the men (due to the structure of yeshiva education), and there are virtually no female clergy in the Orthodox world. Happily, both of the above are changing, but the change is slow, and, therefore, it is critical to have men in our synagogues who understand the significance of changing the paradigm of women’s ritual participation. However, the real work will only begin once women are an integral part of the power structure in the Modern Orthodox world. Only then will the important and difficult conversations about the role of men and women in Orthodox Judaism today take place in a fruitful way. Until then I can only call out with my male voice to my colleagues in the Modern Orthodox world: change the paradigm now and let’s feel the presence of the women in our synagogues and hear their voices—the time is way past due.

Rabbi Zev Farber, Atlanta