Guest Post by Rabbi Herzl Hefter, “The Challenge of Biblical Criticism: Dogma vs. Faith”

September 16, 2013

 

The Challenge of Biblical Criticism: Dogma vs. Faith

Rabbi Herzl Hefter

In recent weeks we have been witnessing a vibrant debate within the modern Orthodox community concerning the authorship and historicity of the Torah triggered by a thought provoking piece by Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber. Unfortunately, much of the discussion has revolved around what one is “allowed” to believe rather than striving to understand what one should believe -אליבא דאמת- authentically. What we believe should be driven not by fear and submission to authority but by passion for truth and trust in God and the Torah. If we believe in the Torah, we cannot live in fear or denial of scientific inquiry (whether in the natural sciences or the humanities).

As a community, the first step of freeing ourselves from this fear is to understand from where it derives. The general tone of modern society is pluralistic. Truth (with an upper case T) has been replaced by subjective “narratives.” Consequently asserting allegiance to a particular tradition and maintaining a distinct identity is very difficult.  In this challenging environment we naturally seek an anchor in certainty which can justify our commitment and construct our particular identity.  For many years that anchor has been our belief that the Torah in its present form was communicated by God directly to Moshe. If that belief is undermined, how can we maintain our religious commitment to Torah and mitzvot and our particular identity as Jews?

Our religious beliefs, convictions, commitments and adherence to practice cannot be held hostage by rigid dogma which asserts historical truths yet demands immunity from inquiry.  By accessing our own Kabbalistic and Hassidic traditions which are rooted in Chazal, we can free ourselves from the necessity of asserting historical truths while maintaining and actually fortifying our belief in God and the Torah.  Our tradition affords us the instruments with which to encounter biblical criticism without bias and apologetics and come away  more committed as Jews. The encounter with modern biblical scholarship actually affords us an opportunity to clarify and refine two crucial and inter-related faith issues: 1) The nature of the Torah and 2) the nature of Divine revelation.

The Nature of the Torah

It is safe to say that the basic assumption of “Torat HaSod” is that the Torah needs to be read symbolically. That means that the elements in the stories of the Torah and the stories themselves point to a Divine reality and that their value does not rest in their literal truth.  Thus, for example the Zohar (Bereishit 7b) divides the word “Bereishit” to read “Bet” (=two) “Reishit,” namely two beginnings, one revealed and one hidden. On one level the biblical narrative in  sefer Bereishit tells of the creation of the cosmos by God. Yet, according to the Zohar, this narrative is an outer manifestation of a deeper story, the story of how God is revealed to us.  The “pshat” narrative is a garment (levush) which paradoxically both obscures and facilitates the revelation of this spiritual reality. The significance of the biblical narrative according to this tradition rests not in its historical accuracy but in the underlying spiritual content.

Rav Kook shared this assumption when, back in 1908, he responded to the “biblical criticism question” of his day, namely how to relate to the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. His response is so important and relevant that I wish to quote part of it here. (Igrot HaRaayah no. 134. The translation is my own).

Concerning opinions which are derived from recent scientific investigations which on the whole contradict the straight forward meaning (pshat) of the words of the Torah:

“In my opinion … even though these theories are not necessarily true, we are not at all obligated to deny them and stand against them. This is because it is not at all (stress mine-HH) the point of the Torah to inform us of simple facts and occurrences of the past.  The main point (‘ikar) is the inner content (tokh). … For us it is of no consequence whether in fact there ever existed in this world a golden age (i.e. the Garden of Eden – HH) in which mankind lived in spiritual and physical bliss  or [not]… and thus when we have no vested interest we can judge [these new theories ] fairly.”

The intellectual integrity displayed by Rav Kook in this last sentence should not be lost upon us and should serve as a model for emulation for those engaged in this discussion.

The purpose of the Torah, according to the “sod” tradition is not to convey historical truths but rather to gesture toward a deeper and more profound spiritual reality.  It is possible, then, to accept that the Torah in its current form is the product of historical circumstance and a prolonged editorial process while simultaneously stubbornly asserting the religious belief that it none the less enshrouds Divine revelation.

The Nature of Divine Revelation

In order to assert this, of course, we need to refine our understanding of Divine revelation.  And so we come to our second point. Though this short essay is not the platform to properly flesh out differing views concerning Divine revelation, I will bring one or two Hassidic sources which are representative of a school of thought.  Rather than thinking about revelation as something which originates “out there”, the great Hassidic masters turned the focus inwards and spoke of the heart as the seat of revelation. R. Zadok Hakohen of Lublin (Tzidkat HaTzadik 261) writes that the burning palace (birah doleket) which gives birth to the faith of Avraham is the burning of his very own heart. Faith in God (as well as the Torah) is produced by the encounter with God which transpires in the heart and not necessarily through history or nature “out there”.  R. Ya’akov Leiner of Radzyn goes even further than R. Zadok when he writes that if one was to be conscious of the mystery of one’s own spirit which rests in the heart, that would be tantamount to knowledge of God. (Beit Ya’akov, Mishpatim no.4). This doctrine is held to be true not only (or even primarily) for the individual but for the nation of Israel as an organic whole. R. Zadok HaKohen repeats many times the midrash from Shir HaShirim Rabbah (5:2) “The Holy One Blessed Be He is the heart of Israel.” This means that the will and presence of God in creation is manifest through the collective consciousness of the Jewish people.

The instrument of Divine revelation is the human heart; it is in the heart that He dwells and through the heart that (to the extent that it is at all possible) He may be known.  To be sure, the heart of which we are speaking needs to be refined and sensitized through rigorous involvement in the study of Torah and avodah. None the less the ultimate platform for the revelation remains the emotive and intuitive faculty symbolized by the heart.

Thus, our God is not only a hidden God (El mistater) but a subtle God as well. God stirs our hearts and He stirs in our hearts; that is the revelation. The rest is interpretation. As a matter of faith, I believe that in the ancient history of our people we experienced such a stirring of our communal heart. God, fashioning our collective consciousness launched our tradition and civilization in the course of which our Torah came to be. Is the Torah then human or divine? The answer is paradoxically, yes.

There is a tremendous tactical advantage to this approach. Because of the minimal truth claims that it makes, it is unassailable by any scholarship. Yet the real advantage here is spiritual. The friction generated by the encounter between biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism and the consequent undermining of long-held truth statements can actually strengthen our commitment and identity. Considered faith is far more meaningful religiously than adherence to dogma. A religiosity which affirms the immediacy of the Divine in the human heart feeds a sense of urgency to make that presence manifest. This urgency can serve as the catalyst which ultimately invigorates our commitment to avodat HaShem as Jews and as human beings created in the image of God.

Rav Herzl Hefter is a graduate of Yeshiva University where he learned under the tutelage of Rav Yerucham Gorelikזצ”ל and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik זצ”ל. For the next ten years, Rav Hefter continued his Torah studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion under Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. Most recently, Rav Hefter taught advanced Talmud to the Kollel fellows at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat. Prior to that Rav Hefter taught Yoreh De’ah to smicha students at the Gruss Kollel of Yeshiva University for 17 years and served as the head of the prestigious Bruriah Scholars Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He also taught at Yeshivat Mekor Chaim in Moscow and served as Rosh Kollel of the Torah M’Zion Kollel in Cleveland, Ohio. Rav Hefter combines a passion for Lithuanian style Talmudic analysis with the study of Hassidut


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


“Beliefs, Boundaries, and the Need for Theology” Guest Post by Rabbi Yitzchak Blau

September 9, 2013

PART I:  A Response to Rabbi Kadish

1)     All concepts have boundaries; otherwise, they lose any meaning.   Atheists or Buddhists can also declare themselves Orthodox Jews but I need not agree with their self – assessment.   If everything coheres with the identity of “Orthodox Jew” then there is no such entity.  Feminists would justifiably object to a fellow who thinks that women should just cook dinner and rear children declaring himself a feminist.  Believers in democracy would object to a communist referring to his regime as democratic.   Every group has standards and qualifications.  Otherwise, one does not stand for anything.

See the evaluation of Avi Sagi’s article in my book review in the September 2008 edition of Meorot.

2)     Neutralizing the significance of belief and making Jewish identity purely behavioral does not prevent exclusion.   If someone lacking any commitment to halakha cannot declare his approach to be Orthodox, we still maintain a communal discourse that excludes other positions.  David Berger makes this point in his Tradition Summer 1999 review of Menachem Kellner.

3)     This point becomes even stronger if the opinions come from a rabbi or communal leader of some kind.   If our group stands for certain ideas and ideals and we are concerned about a voice influencing others away from our ideals, it seems that we would have every right to protest.

4)     Religion lacks coherence without a belief structure that explains why we adhere to religious practices; otherwise, mizvot turn into mindless behaviorism.   See my review of Marc Shapiro in The Torah u”Madda Journal Volume 12.

5)     Beliefs matter both intrinsically and because they influence practice.  If a child of mine told me he thought that African Americans were an inferior race, I would be very upset even if it turned out he did not treat them any differently than other people.  I view the mere holding of such a belief as wrong.  In addition, I would be nervous that it will ultimately affect how he treats people.

6)     Furthermore, beliefs affect the value of what I do.  If I keep mizvot because I believe a supremely wise and benevolent deity commanded them, that is quite different from observing Jewish law because a malicious and powerful tyrant will send me to hell if I do not.

7)     Sanhedrin 10:1 makes it difficult to argue that Hazal were indifferent to belief or did not think it criterion of exclusion.   I am curious why R. Kadish thinks citing rishonim who believed in dogma helps his position.  R. Yosef Albo did include a category in which people who honestly arrive at erroneous theological beliefs should not be treated as koferim and I happily endorse that position.  However, his entire discussion assumes that there is a set of erroneous beliefs beyond the pale of normative Judaism.

Now the arguments above do not prove me right in our particular situation.  One can concede that concepts have boundaries worth fighting about and that beliefs matter and still say that I misapplied these principles.  However, these points do change the nature of the conversation.   We should not rush to exclude but, in principle, there is nothing problematic with saying a particular viewpoint is beyond Orthodoxy.

8)     Finally, I am not judging people but arguing about the world of ideas.  I explicitly wrote that those convinced by the DH are not evil and that I am not interested in saying anything derogatory about them.  I fully disagree with the pseudonymous commentator on my post who accused adherents of the DH of using bad arguments to maintain secular liberal values.  There are certainly people genuinely convinced of the DH for authentic reasons but that does not mean I have to agree with them or cannot contest their stand.

I do not know Rabbi Farber and think that he may be a wonderful human being.  However, I also think that concepts have boundaries, that beliefs matter, and that one can strongly disagree with another’s ideas without rejecting them as people.

One final question for those who think beliefs are a free for all.  I recall reading once that a talented mid – twentieth century musmakh from JTS was offered a prominent pulpit but he turned it down since he no longer believed in God (he later became a well – known philosophy professor).    Several people involved urged him to take the position anyway but he refused.  In your view, was this an act of great integrity or should he have simply taken the job and perhaps written a manifesto explaining that belief in God does not matter for Conservative Judaism?

PART II:  A Response to Rabbi David Steinberg

Rabbi David Steinberg’s critique of my approach to Shemini Azeret ignores half of my answer.  He asks why Devarim 16 includes mention of the seventh day of Pesach and not of Shemini Azeret.  In my original post, I noted that Shemini Azeret is a separate holiday; indeed, Vayikra 23 also knows of a seven day holiday called Sukkot.   Likewise, Bemidbar 29 depicts the seventh day of Pesach differently than Shemini Azeret and it describes a seven day holiday called Sukkot.   This dissolves his question.  Since the seventh day of Pesach is an integral part of Pesach, it receives mention.

R. Steinberg’s counter example of Shemot 23 actually supports my approach.   He seems to agree that the short account there is primarily interested in the pilgrimage aspect of the holidays.  Yet the pesukim there mention the commandment to eat matza while leaving out all other ritual requirements.   Apparently, even a more focused presentation adds some other elements.  Devarim 16 adds more Pesach requirements without giving an exhaustive list of all the mizvot of the hagim.

According to R. Steinberg’s methodology, the perspective in Devarim also does not believe in the four species, the omer offering, shtei halehem on Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur.  Furthermore, Vayikra 23 does not think one need rejoice on the festivals.  Along the same lines, Devarim 22:12 does not know about tekhelet strings whereas Bemidbar 15 thinks the commandment of tzitzit applies even to all garments and not just those with four corners.  I suggest that it is more reasonable to say that the Torah includes different details in varying contexts.

R. Steinberg thinks gratitude should mandate Moshe’s mentioning that Yitro came up with the idea of judges.  Everything has its time, place, and context.  In Devarim 1, Moshe is admonishing the people for their quarreling forcing the need for additional judges.  In that context, whose idea it was to institute judges is not of great relevance.

I wrote that the Pesach Sheni passage anticipates their entering the land and therefore it addresses those too distant to bring the offering.   R. Steinberg asks why the Torah does not explicitly say “when you enter the land.”  Once the Torah clearly does anticipate halakhot that would only be practiced later, I think we have a more reasonable explanation for discussing those far away than positing a later interpolation.  This remains true even if I could not answer why the Torah does not add the phrase “when you enter the land.”  However, I have explanations.  The two verses in Bemidbar 15 address commandments that have no bearing at all until they enter the land.  Pesach Sheni, by contrast, is relevant immediately; it is only that one particular detail kicks in later.  Therefore, the Torah does not introduce the Pesach Sheni passage with “when you enter the land.”  Furthermore, in Bemidbar 15, God wanted to reassure Am Yisrael after the punishment for the sin of the spies (Bemidbar 14) that they will ultimately enter the land.  Therefore, He explicitly speaks of their future entry.

I fully agree that Korah was the ringleader of the rebellion.  Not surprisingly, when Zelofhad’s daughters want to say that their father was not part of the rebellious band, they refer to him.  Devarim 11 is about the rest of Am Yisrael learning from punishments they witnessed and in that context, the Torah focuses more on the verbal aggression of Datan and Aviram as exemplars of the degradation and destruction engendered by sinful behavior.

This example also points to a broader methodological issue.  According to the critics, Bemidbar 16 reflects a redactor splicing two stories together while Bemidbar 27 and Devarim 11 reflect the two stories in their distinct format.  For adherents of the DH, the redactor sometimes integrated conflicting traditions (the flood), sometimes left them distinct (wife-sister stories), and sometimes did both (Korah).   Thus, integration plus distinctiveness plus a mixture of the two all cohere with the work of the redactor. This sets up an approach which allows almost any evidence to fit with the work of the redactor.

A similar problem comes when one notes that an E or J passage includes a theme that should not be there according to the critical approach.  The critics often answer that this is a later interpolation.  Again, this allows almost any evidence to fit the critical perspective, an allowance which makes the entire endeavor less scientific.

Let us examine one expression of the critical approach to solving the Korah problem more carefully. As James Kugel explains it: “The Korah element, scholars say, was added later by a priestly writer; it was another salvo in the “Who is a priest” battle that we have already seen….the purported priestly author of this revised version of the episode did not hold that view; he believed that only Aaronids could be priests.  Indeed, this is the great lesson, according to scholars, that the Korah episode in its final form was designed to impart” (How to Read the Bible, p. 334.)  In other words, one political faction made up a story to try to discredit the opposition.  Does such an approach indicate that academic bible study has much to add to our appreciation for the sanctity and divinity of Torah?

Defenders of the traditional position should sometimes address specifics and I have attempted to do a bit of this in my two posts.  At the same time, I think there is something to be said for arguments working off a global perspective.  Treating the Torah as a unified document has worked for centuries and has produced glorious results full of ethical and religious wisdom.  Scholars such as Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg who have treated the Torah as a unified whole (even if they personally accept multiple authorship) have added profound contributions and located meaningful ideas in the text.  To some degree, this in and of itself adds support for the unified theory.  I understand that one could attribute all of this to a redactor (and to the ingenuity of human interpretation) but this redactor seems to have been a remarkably talented fellow.  It is hard to find a parallel achievement of redaction in human history.

Finally, we come to the question of theology.  My original post mentioned several theological problems with Rabbi Farber’s approach.  Rabbi Steinberg does not address any of them.  Instead, Rabbi Steinberg contrasts those with “half baked answers,” “lack of faith,” ideas that are “far from satisfying” and apparently not “serious” with those who have “real emunah,” a “nuanced approach to Torah and mitzvoth,” and “a thoughtful and compelling synthesis of traditional and academic approaches.”  If you will excuse a blunt formulation, rhetoric is no substitute for working out a theology.

Reading the posts on thetorah.com seems to set up the following set of assumptions.  The Torah was written by flawed human beings and is full of human errors.  It contains contradictory approaches that cannot truly be reconciled.  Some of the contradictions are there because warring political factions were trying to score points for their teams.  The exodus and the revelation at Sinai did not occur.  Much of the Torah simply copies laws and myths from the Ancient Near East.  To add one more point fairly common in academic studies, the Torah is full of etiological tales not intended to teach any religious or ethical wisdom.  For example, Bereishit 26 is not meant to teach us anything about proper character or behavior but simply an explanation for how Be’er Sheva received its name. Yet none of this is a problem since we assert that the Torah is divine or that is has been sanctified by the collective wisdom of Am Yisrael.

Divinity and sanctity are words with meaning; they are not magic formulations that solve all problems as long as I include them in a sentence.  What does the “divinity” of the Torah mean for those who accept the assumptions above? Those who think that academic biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are compatible have a lot more work to do before they talk of a “thoughtful and compelling synthesis.”

Even those who think beliefs insignificant should realize the seriousness of the matter.  We have experience with modern Jewish ideologies that rooted halakhic observance in the decision making of “Catholic Israel” or in vague notions of the divinity of scripture and their track record in inspiring ongoing observance and commitment is quite poor.  If so, Rabbi Steinberg is incorrect when he writes that we have little to lose.  While those fully convinced by the DH will likely find this point irrelevant, those of us unconvinced have every reason to fight.

This will be my last post on this topic in this forum. I realize that my critics may get the last word but someone has to and I hope that I have already made a contribution.  Those interested in a few examples in which the artistry of the unified text is missed by source critics insistent on finding multiple authors may enjoy the first chapter of Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative and the fifth chapter of Adele Berlin’s Poetics and Interpretation.   Finally, my comment about “magic formulations” owes something to Alan Brill’s (second) point number 5 in the following blog post.

Appendix

My original post only commented on examples from the website http://www.thetorah.com.   In order to underscore examples of other methodological flaws prevalent in academic bible study, I now turn to other sources.  These examples do not constitute a refutation of the DH since every approach has weak manifestations and poor practitioners.  However, cases of flawed use of a methodology sometimes help highlight problems in the entire endeavor.

1)     Bias towards finding conflicts.  The well – known bible scholar Claus Westermann writes that Yeshayahu 56:3-5 cancels the regulation of Devarim 23:2 (see his Isaiah 40-66, p. 313).  Many prominent scholars endorse this position (see the list in footnote 5 of Jacob Wright’s article in JBL 2012).  As Prof. Wright ably points out, there is no conflict between the two verses whatsoever.  Devarim speaks of someone with crushed genitals whereas Yeshayahu speaks of a eunuch. They do not address the same group of people. Furthermore, the passage in Yeshayahu says nothing about the eunuch joining the assembly of God (traditionally understood as relating to marriage) but only about God granting him a legacy better than children.  Even if we posit that both verses describe the identical group of people, Devarim instructs us that they cannot marry in to the community while Yeshayahu says that they can still leave a lasting monument as productive individuals in the house of God.

Prof. Wright contributed a blog entry for the Huffington Post which exemplifies particular flaws in academic bible study.  He discerns several historical stages based on analysis of the first two chapters of Shemot.  According to Wright, the second chapter was first an independent story originating as a response to the question of why Moshe, the great Jewish leader, had an Egyptian name.  The account clarifies his Jewish lineage.  In the original story, Moshe was abandoned by his mother not as a life – saving measure but because there was something illicit about his birth. Since many found the idea that the savior of Am Yisrael was the offspring of an illegitimate union disconcerting, chapter one was added to offer a different reason for placing Moshe in the Nile.

2)     Speculative ideas stated as scholarly conclusions: This kind of historical reconstruction is a highly speculative endeavor and should not be said with assurance.  Just based on the biblical account, it seems improbable that Prof. Wright could confidently tell us about different literary stages and the motivation for each one.

3)     Circular reasoning:  Some DH analysis posits what it wants to establish.  In his argument against the sequential reading, Wright says regarding chapter two: “Nothing is said here about Pharaoh’s decree to slay all Hebrew male children.”  That argument already assumes a break between chapter one and chapter two.  If we read the text as a unity, then chapter two assumes we know why Moshe’s mother wants to hide her baby; Pharoah has decreed the death of all male children.

In fact, only the unified reading makes sense of chapter two which does not explain why she would want to hide her baby.  The baby being “beautiful” or “good” (Shemot 2: 2) might give a mother added resolve to try a desperate measure but it is not a reason per se to hide a child.  Prof. Wright’s idea about the hiding and abandonment of an illicit child appears nowhere in the text.  Ultimately, he prefers breaking up the two chapters and adding a reason for hiding not founded in the text to reading the two chapters as a unified whole where the reason for hiding explicitly appears.

4)     Good questions do not support bad answers.  Prof. Wright supports his theory about the illicit union from the Torah not telling us the name of the father.  Why the Torah does not explicitly name Moshe’s parents is a good question but this does nothing to suggest that their relations were problematic. The Torah is not reticent about recounting flawed behavior including that of Jewish heroes and their relatives.  Why should it suddenly go silent on the names of Moshe’s parents?

 

Rabbi Yitzchak Blau teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and the Orayta Yeshiva and has previously taught at Yeshivat Hamivtar and at the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School. He has published articles on many areas of Jewish thought as well as a book of aggadic interpretations, “Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada,” published by Ktav. Rabbi Blau has a BA in English Literature from YU, an MA in Medieval Jewish History from Revel, and semikha from RIETS. Rabbi Blau lives in Alon Shevut with his wife and four children.


Guest Post by Rabbi Dr. Avi Kadish: Orthodoxy and the Humanities, a Response to R. Yitzchak Blau

August 6, 2013

Orthodoxy and the Humanities: A Response to R. Yitzchak Blau

by Rabbi Dr. Seth Avi Kadish

Rav Yitzchak, without getting into the specifics of how the examples in the first part of your article were chosen, nor the kinds of methodologies needed to deal with them, I think that part of your essay is making a single basic point (with which I agree): Biblical scholarship is ultimately part of the humanities.

In the humanities, the pendulum swings back and forth as the generations go by (in a way unlike the hard sciences): There is always room for an alternative approach, so long as a persuasive argument can be made to justify it, which is then subject to the criticism of peers. Though methodologies are improved, and new evidence may come to light, the currently accepted approach may still have no greater claim on the truth than do its alternatives from the past and in the future. This is the beauty of the humanities, and the source of their value and power, because the ever swinging pendulum is also an essential aspect of humanity.

One need not accept the regnant view in any area of the humanities, neither in biblical scholarship nor for Homer. Furthermore, to enter the humanities with an uncommon outlook or a different set of assumptions, far from being a hindrance, is actually a boon. It can open new doors and uncover new truths, provided that it is honestly acknowledged.

A deep subjective faith, grounded in the national memory of Israel about our core experiences, is as healthy and valid as any other perspective. I stand with you on this, not with Rav Zev. And like you I think those experiences matter for our relationship with God. The essential validity of this subjective approach is, in my opinion, the rich inheritance bequeathed by Rav Hasdai Crescas to thinking Torah Jews in the modern world. (I hope to write about that soon in a different forum, as well as address your point that “sometimes quantity is quality” which is true as far as it goes, but in my opinion fails to take medieval assumptions fully into account). So acknowledge your loyalties openly, and go on with that to participate honestly and respectfully in the humanities and in biblical scholarship.

At the same time, as a Torah Jew, there is no need to debate the “Orthodoxy” of people whose intellectual quests take them where you don’t see a need to go. Despite all the current verbiage to the contrary, there is no mitzvah nor any halakhic need to do so.

To engage in this is the עצת יצר הרע, [counsel of the “evil inclination”], its greatest tool today for creating hatred and stifling thought and discussion in Am Yisrael. The yetzer works to cause evil specifically through Torah scholars and committed Jews, whom it has convinced that doing this is both necessary and right. Of course they sound convincing, and many of them like yourself are not at all malicious, but the very need for this cannot ultimately be justified. It simply isn’t Torah.

The constant effort to define “Orthodoxy” and make decisions about who is “in” and who is “out” has nothing to do with living our covenant with God in today’s reality. The Torah is about loyalty and action out of love and fear of God, not about judging other Jews’ honest intellectual struggles or challenging their self-definitions. So instead please just keep writing what Orthodoxy means to you (and to me), not what you think it needs to mean for others.

Rabbi Dr. Seth (Avi) Kadish earned his Ph.D. at the University of Haifa (2006) in Medieval Jewish Philosophy. He previously studied at Yeshiva University were he received his rabbinic ordination and master’s degrees in Bible and Jewish Education. He currently teaches medieval Jewish philosophy and history at Oranim Teacher’s College, and in the Overseas School at the University of Haifa. He has also taught immigrant soldiers in the Nativ program of the IDF education corps and adult Israeli Jewish education for the Hebrew University’s Melton School. He lives in Karmiel, Israel with his wife and children, where he is involved in building modern Orthodox communities that are meant to be open and welcoming to the entire public. Rabbi Kadish is the author of Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer and The Book of Abraham: Rabbi Shimon ben Zemah Duran and the School of Rabbenu Nissim Gerondi.


Living by the Word of God – Guest Post by Dr. Ben Elton

July 26, 2013

Introduction

This coming Shabbat morning Jews around the world will listen to the verse (Devarim 8:3): ‘So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.’

An unbroken chain links the Jews who heard those words from Moshe and those who will hear them in the synagogue this week. Orthodox Jews, of whatever stripe, hold fast to the belief that God spoke to Moshe and gave him the Torah. We believe that we were founded as a people by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that we went down to Egypt and were enslaved there, that God took us out and brought us to Mount Sinai. There, a truly mysterious event took place, which we shall never understand and none of our ancestors understood. The Infinite met the finite, Heaven and earth touched and God transmitted His words and His will to the Jewish People.

That is the source and origin of Hamisha Humshei Torah.[1] They are not a product of inspiration or ‘channelling the Divine,’ in a way that later biblical books or even the rabbinic literature might be described. We believe that ‘this is the Torah which Moshe placed before the Children of Israel, by the mouth of the Lord, by the hand of Moshe’.[2]

That is my faith as an Orthodox Jew and it is what took me to the Orthodox beit midrash of  Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT). It is the belief I will teach as an Orthodox rabbi, just as I have been taught it by my rebbeimin the yeshiva. If some graduates of the yeshiva take a different view, that is a matter for them, though we should respect the integrity of an honest struggle. Like any yeshiva, YCT can only be held responsible for what it teaches and the beliefs and conduct of its current students – just ask Gateshead Kollel about Louis Jacobs.

The Place of Torah Min Hashmayim in Traditional Jewish Thought

This is not the place to rehearse the rabbinic literature on Torah Min Hashamayim. Suffice it to say that Hazal took it as given that there was a Revelation on Sinai. Their main concern was that people might argue that while Moshe went up the mountain he brought down a forgery, and they declared that anyone who claimed that Moshe wrote the Humashof his own account would have no place in the World to Come. This is a very serious statement considering that in general every Jew has a portion of the Afterlife. It certainly never entered the heads of Hazal that Moshe is a fictional character and that the whole text, both its sources and its current form, dates from much later than his supposed lifetime.

Indeed, until relatively recently no-one at all thought that. From Moses Maimonides in the twelfth century to Moses Mendelssohn in the seventeenth, there was unanimity that the Torah’s status as the product of unmediated revelation was the basis of the whole of Jewish life and belief. Even some early proponents of the academic study of Jewish literature, for example Nachman Krochmal and Zacharias Frankel who were otherwise fairly radical, drew the line at Higher Criticism of the Humash itself.[3] In recent times, even David Weiss Halivni, whose view of the composition of the Humash as we have it is novel, would not abandon the commitment to the revelation at Sinai.

Must We Accept the Documentary Hypothesis?

Of course that is not a good argument for Torah Min Hashamayim. An idea is either true or it is not. However, the claims of the Documentary Hypothesis have been thoroughly dealt with by traditionalists like Rabbi David Tsevi Hoffman, moderate traditionalists like Umberto Cassuto and radicals like Benno Jacob. The Documentary Hypothesis proceeds from the premise that the text is human, and then concludes how it could have been assembled as a human text. It is driven by its starting assumptions. Furthermore, it is the product of hyper-modernity, in which everything can be dissected, including literature, using methods that were described as ‘scientific.’ Scholars of literature and of history would be embarrassed to use such a term today. Literary theory and historical practice have both come a long way since then, but simply accepting the Documentary Hypothesis takes none of that development into account. It is odd that sometimes we are more concerned about the Documentary Hypothesis than the academy, many parts of which concentrate on more interesting and fruitful literary questions.

As we well know, the problems that bible critics have identified have been dealt with by traditional scholars for millennia. The explanations of Hazal, the Rishonim and Aharonim have all addressed the same questions of different accounts of events or expressions of laws. There has been no diminution in the brilliance or insight of these explanations in recent years. Two examples of this approach are Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik’s explanation of the two accounts of the creation of man in Lonely Man of Faith and Rabbi Mordecai Breuer’s entire approach. More recently, the work coming from the journal Megadim, Aviva Zornberg, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks or Rabbi Shalom Carmy all assumes the unity and Divine nature of the text of the Humash.

The Breadthand Boundaries of Orthodox Opinion

As these scholars, and their predecessors, have shown, the Humash is a far from simple text. There are also many questions to be asked about which parts of the Humash are to be taken literally, which are allegorical or might be dreams, although we should note that those question go to its meaning not its authorship or its authority. The Talmud discusses how it was communicated to Moshe and compiled by him. Did it come in one revelation or was it given piece by piece and then collated at the end of forty years? Is Devarim different in some respects from the earlier four books? Did Moshe write the account of his own death or did Joshua? Were there some small sections added later, as Rabbi Yehuda HeHassid and the Ibn Ezra thought? It is possible to say that about some other parts, as Rabbi Yuval Cherlow and others have suggested? Has the text been corrupted over time or must we believe that it was transmitted entirely without scribal error, as Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg thought? These are all ideas to explore and they have a place in Orthodoxy because they are authentic elements of our Mesorah. We have to resist any attempts to narrow our intellectual vision by expelling them or their advocates.

All of these positions have the support of traditional authorities, or at least traditional roots, and they are a world away from JEPD or any variation on it. To accept the Documentary Hypothesis and still claim to believe in ‘Torah Min Hashamayim’, or ‘Torah MiSinai’, is no more than playing with words. I can claim to believe in any term I like if I change its meaning enough. However, words and phrases have integrity; they communicate meaning based on their usage across space and time. To appropriate them for new positions, simply because of a desire to hold onto traditional language, is untenable. Only in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There does a word means just what the speaker chooses it to mean – neither more nor less. On any non-tendentious reading, I find it hard to see how a rejection of the classic formulation of Torah Min Hashamayim can be consistent with Orthodox theology

Does It Matter?

Acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis is therefore unnecessary and a radical break with Jewish tradition. But does it matter? Classical Torah Min Hashamayim may have become one of the recognized boundaries between Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy, but should it be? Surely if we come to the conclusion that the text is Divine, the mechanics of its writing and editing are immaterial.  I think that is an error. This is a dogma we should care about andhalakhic Jews should not delude themselves that they can abandon Torah Min Hashamayim and maintain the Judaism they cherish. Their attempts to do so fail even on their own terms, both in theory and practice.

The rejection of Torah Min Hashamayim makes a nonsense of both parshanut and the Gemara. The varied explanations of the traditional commentators might be inspiring but they do not give us an insight into what the words were meant to convey.  We can only hope to uncover their meaning through the study of authorship and context, like any other text. Traditional and modern exegesis cannot exist alongside each other. It would make no more sense to devise a devar Torah based on Vayikra than on the Code of Hammurabi. In the realm of Talmud, for one who accepts the Documentary Hypothesis, when Hazal seeks sources in the Humash for halakhot, they are on a wild goose chase, because to a modern critic the words of the Torah never meant what the Rabbis took them to mean. The entire halakhicliterature becomes an elaborate intellectual folly. It might be interesting or valuable in the study of a particular people in order to understand how they constructed their spiritual life, but it cannot be taken as a real explanation of the biblical text.

This has profound implications for halakhah. Judaism stands on its belief in heteronymous law, the idea that we are commanded by Another (God) and His law is unconditionally binding. He communicated His will to Moshe in the form of the Torah shebikhtav (Humash) and the Torah shebal peh (oral explanation) that accompanied it.[4] Once we come to the view that the Humash is, as a matter of history, a human work, it might well be an attempt by a series of writers in the ancient near east to reach out to God, but how do we know He reached back? Some parts are very challenging but we keep faith because we believe it represents the direct Divine will. If we cease to believe that we are mandated by the Divine Will how is Humash any different than  the Koran, the Gospels or the Baghavad Gita, all of which contain parts we like and parts we don’t?

The founders of the Conservative Movement claimed that although critical scholars were correct about the composition of the Humash, the authority of the mitsvot was unaffected. They argued that a human text could receive the Divine imprimatur through its survival and acceptance. history legislates. However, they failed to persuade their followers to lead halakhic lives, because while an individual might feel that, they cannot transmit that belief. Furthermore, that total commitment sooner or later gives way even in its advocates.[5] Louis Jacobs who at first claimed that under ‘halakhic non-fundamentalism’ all mitsvot were Divine and binding, later found he could not justify institutions such as themamzer. All who have rejected Torah Min Hashamayim have come to the view that the Humash contains higher as lower parts, and have therefore broken its binding nature. It is not a chance of history that Reconstructionism came out of the Conservative Movement and lived for a long time within it. It is the logical outcome of the process which begins with rejecting Torah Min Hashamayim.

Finally, supporters of progressive Orthodoxy should also be extremely wary of accepting the Documentary Hypothesis. If God did not speak directly to us, but has rather endorsed whatever we happen to construct for ourselves, then we create a Panglossian world in which ‘whatever is, is right.’ If I have heteronymous, authoritative texts and traditions which I can study, investigate and probe there is room for development on issues as diverse as relations with non-Jews and non-observant Jews, the role of women and family law. If history is the voice of God, if the status quo is always what God wants us to live by, where is the capacity for change, which has always been a feature of the Mesorah? We come to pick and choose based on whatever feels right at any particular time, or the halakhic process is frozen. Neither is the way of traditional Judaism.

In Sum

I am Open Orthodox. I do not want to throw anyone out of Orthodox communities. We have to provide a home for people of varying levels of observance as well as those wrestling with difficult theological questions. Nevertheless, I am clear that accepting the Documentary Hypothesis, or any similar theory, is not only a breach with tradition, it is also unnecessary and harmful. There is a great deal to discuss and debate and the study of Mikra is becoming richer every day. I am lucky to have access to master teachers of Tanakh, whose insights are innovative and compelling, all within the bounds of tradition. We must continue to live in the knowledge that when we pick up a Humash we hold in our hands the word of God. It contains a sacred gift He gave us 3,000 years ago, and because that revelation is pure and direct, it contains infinite wisdom, beauty and goodness. That is the way for modern and open Orthodoxy to flourish, and any alternative would be a tragic error.

Ben Elton is a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School


[1] I will address later in this essay which parts of the Torah were given, and when. I acknowledge it is not necessary, or even sensible, to believe that the entire Torah was given on Sinai.

[2] I am aware that this verse does not have that expansive meaning in its original context. However, that is the way the verse is used in our liturgy. It expresses our belief in the nature of the entire Torah, as it is lifted up and we look at it.

[3] Leopold Zunz and of course Abraham Geiger did accept the Documentary Hypothesis.

[4] If one holds that the Humash is a single text then it follows that there must have been an oral accompaniment, because otherwise it makes no sense. There is a great deal of debate among the classical authorities about how expansive that original Oral Law was, but that is not a question for now.

[5] Louis Finklestein may be an exception.


Revelation and the Education of Modern Orthodox Rabbis

July 26, 2013

Guest Post by Rabbi Asher Lopatin, President YCT Rabbinical School

As an Orthodox Rabbinical School, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is committed to the classic, Torah-true mesoret of Torah Min Hashamyim, a basic tenet of Jewish belief. That is what we teach. As Rav Nati Helfgot, Chair of our Philosophy Department (Machshavawrote, the yeshiva teaches in a classical and traditional way that both the oral and written Torah were revealed to Moshe at Sinai and in the wilderness.

At the same time, as Rav Ysoscher Katz wrote, since we are an Open Orthodox rabbinical school, we want our students to struggle openly throughout their lives as they integrate the mesoret into their own hearts and souls.

Our talmidim are exposed to a range of views on Torah Min Hashamayim from our classic commentaries and thinkers, and students will embrace different views along this traditional spectrum. Some talmidim are in the midst of theological work to uphold Orthodoxy in a way they find intellectually honest.  One recent example is Rav Zev Farber, whose journey has taken him to the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking on this subject. Rav Zev is thinking honestly and personally, but his ideas are different from, and in some ways contradictory to, what we teach and ask our students to believe at YCT.  He discusses his struggle in more detail here.  Rav Zev is a big enough talmid chacham to defend his Orthodoxy from all his critics. We support his honesty and speaking his mind, but he speaks for himself, not YCT. His beliefs on this matter are his own and far from the broad classical views of Torah Min Hashamayim that we at the Yeshiva believe in.
 
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School actively encourages diversity of thought—all anchored within our students’ passion for their Orthodoxy. I invite you to become part of the conversation, part of a dynamic Orthodoxy that is open and contemporary, but, most important, an integral part of the unfolding of Hashem’s holy Torah, given to us all so long ago at Sinai.
 
 
 

The Torah, TheTorah.com, and the Recent Tumult in Context – by Rabbi Zev Farber

July 25, 2013

Background

I completed two educations as an adult, religious and academic. After spending four years in yeshiva studying gemara and chumash intensely (and teaching chumash and gemara in my early twenties), I spent one year working on peshat and literary readings of Tanakh, then attained my semikha, followed by dayanut. That was my religious education. I also have an academic education. After my B.A. (in psychology), I completed an M.A. in Biblical History, and following a 6 year break, earned my Ph.D. in Jewish studies with a focus on Bible.

Throughout this period I led a bifurcated intellectual life. I understood that both the religious and academic courses of study were meaningful, and believed both in Torah Mi-Sinai / Torah min ha-Shamayim, and academic bible studies. To live with this tension, I followed a version of the David Ben Gurion philosophy: “We must assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper and we must resist the White Paper as if there were no war.” In other words, I kept my academics academic and my halakha halakhic. This is still my philosophy, in essence, but over the past few years I have given serious thought as to whether I can make the two sides meet at any point, or, at least, put them in serious conversation. Thoughts were percolating in my head but nothing clear had as yet emerged.

 

Project TABS / TheTorah.com

The opportunity to begin to resolve a meeting point between academic Bible studies and classical religious faith emerged when Rabbi David Steinberg hired me to research and write for Project TABS’ website, TheTorah.com. Project TABS was founded by David Steinberg, a former kiruv professional, together with Marc Brettler, an observant Jewish Bible professor. According to the about page,

Project TABS (Torah And Biblical Scholarship) is an educational organization founded to energize the Jewish people by integrating the study of Torah with the disciplines and findings of modern biblical scholarship.

When David and I first spoke, it turned out that we had had many of the same experiences even though we came from very different communities and backgrounds. Each of us had been contacted by people who were grappling with difficult questions. Some dropped out of the religion entirely; others stayed because they had children and spouses who wanted to, or because they enjoyed the social scene, but the fire had gone out. On top of this, it was becoming clear to me that a disturbing number of people in the Modern Orthodox world who were, ostensibly, doing well were, in fact, intellectually and emotionally checked out of Torah study. For some, the study of Torah lacked the intellectual intensity, rigor, and openness of their secular and professional pursuits. It was almost as if they “knew” that they couldn’t possibly really believe what they were being told, so they preferred not to invest too much emotional energy in it and risk disappointment, or worse.

At a certain point I realized that I had a choice: I could allow myself to avoid these questions, keeping whatever personal synthesis I had thought of to myself, or alternatively, I could offer my thoughts publicly and start a real conversation about the challenges academic biblical studies poses to the Orthodox Jew and brainstorm about how best to deal with it. It was beshert that David Steinberg and I were put in contact with each other at this time by another observant Bible scholar, since we both believed that the latter was the better course. In fact, it is part of my emunah that if otamo shel ha-Qadosh barukh Hu emet (the seal of the Holy One is truth) that an honest search would yield a way through.

The Manifesto

In my programmatic essay on Torah, History, and Judaism, recently posted on TheTorah.com, I offer my preliminary thoughts on a range of issues. No single point of my piece is novel in itself, but the overall presentation is meant to guide the reader through the full spectrum of my struggle to make sense of the divinity of Torah without denying aspects of academic biblical study that seemed to me to be correct.[1] Certainly, as some have pointed out, some or many of the conclusions of academic Bible study or archaeology could, in theory, shift over time in a very different direction and be disproven, but that point does not help the religious person stuck in a quandary today. We need to understand the world, including the Bible, according to the best tools we currently have.

Do the worlds of tradition and academic biblical study need to contradict? Does it have to be one or the other? Can a person feel like he or she can engage in honest inquiry about the Torah and still keep his or her faith intact?

I will note that, throughout this process, my own faith has remained intact, albeit its hue has altered as my understanding of the issues matured. To be clear: I believe in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, that the Torah embodies God’s encounter with Israel. I believe in Torah mi-Sinai, the uniqueness of the Torah in its level of divine encounter. I believe that the Torah is meant to be as it is today and that all of its verses are holy. I believe that halakha and Jewish theology must develop organically from Torah and its interpretation by the Jewish people. These are more than just words to me. My life is about studying, teaching and living Torah. The divinity of the Torah and the Sinaitic moment pulses through my veins – it’s who I am. Nothing I have said or written should fool the reader into thinking that I have abandoned my deep belief in God’s Torah and the mission of the Jewish people.

My own experience has taught me that it is possible to look at the issues honestly, to struggle with them, and to strive for synthesis, all the while maintaining a deep connection to Torah and Jewish observance. In fact, I strongly believe that if I had taken the opposite approach and denied myself the study and the struggle, my religiosity would have suffered. It is for this reason that I felt it necessary to take on these critical issues, and offer a possible synthesis in the hope that this will inspire others to do the same.

A Note about the Future

In my work for TABS I will be publishing my ideas and tentative theories to engender this conversation. Sometimes ideas might not be as fully nuanced as they should be or might be misunderstood;[2] I will make mistakes, state things too forcefully or not forcefully enough, we will rethink and revisit constantly—this is the nature of the type of endeavor upon which Project TABS is embarking. I look forward to the pushback, critique, and give-and-take our website will hopefully foster. The key is to be in conversation and to be exploring possibilities and struggling together.

To be clear, my programmatic essay was not—is not—meant to be a final statement, but a conversation starter. If some of my essay came off as a conversation stopper, I deeply apologize; mea culpa, it was not my intention. I am muddling through these complicated issues like many of you. I put my thoughts on the table as a suggestion; maybe I have discovered a way through, maybe I haven’t. Hopefully other people will share their suggestions, but we can’t just leave these issues as “a kasha”, “an interesting question” and end with that. The issues are too pressing, the problems are too large and too numerous, the consequences are too dire.

Our community desperately needs to have a candid conversation about Torah and faith, and the conversation must be held in a safe and open-minded environment, where there is no bullying, no threats, no name-calling, and where each person’s intellectual and religious integrity can remain intact. It is my hope that Project TABS, and its website, TheTorah.com, will contribute to a greater engagement with Torah study. I look forward to continuing this conversation with the community as we all work together to find the right path in this challenging but crucially necessary endeavor.

Rabbi Zev Farber, Ph.D.

Fellow, Project TABS / TheTorah.com


[1] In this sense I see myself as following in the footsteps of modern Torah thinkers such as Mordechai Breuer, Amit Kula, Tamar Ross, and Yuval Cherlow, not to mention the great medievalists such as Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Rambam, Yehudah ha-Chassid, and many statements of Chazal. Certainly the particular synthesis is my own, but many others before me have attempted to reconcile traditional belief with science and philosophy, as they understood these disciplines in their time-periods.

[2] I would like to take this opportunity to clarify one matter. Another piece of mine, an introduction to the opening section of Deuteronomy, caused quite a stir. One of the reasons for this was the abrupt end of the original posting. This was pointed out to me by a number of friends and colleagues—well before the Rabbi Gordimer’s Cross-Currents article attacking mine was posted—and I quickly reworked the ending to further clarify and add nuance. The reason the ending was so abrupt is because this post was originally part of a longer essay, which was divided into part 1 (the post in question) and part 2, which offered a modern midrashic understanding of the differences between Deuteronomy 1-3 and the other parts of the Torah. When the two were divided, the first was left, essentially, without an ending. This was a sloppy but serious mistake, and I apologize and will strive to be more careful and precise in the future.


Reflections on Torah Min Hashamayim and its Place in Jewish Thought and Life, from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School

July 24, 2013

As a Modern and Open Orthodox Yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah embraces the classical view of Torah MiSinai and Torah Min Hashamayim in the way the multitude of accepted commentaries and thinkers of our Mesoret have passed down to us through the ages. We also teach our Torah in a way which allows our talmidim to speak freely and openly, without fear, as they seek to grasp in their own ways the very basic theological foundations of Judaism.

In the article below, written by our esteemed Ram and head of the Talmud department, Rav Ysoscher Katz, the Yeshiva presents a glimpse into the way we teach our holy and divine Torah – in a way designed to continue the passing of the Mesorah – and second, a view of how our talmidim are thriving in our open, non-judgmental approach, to be the future rabbonim who will carry on our tradition.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin
President

Rabbi Dov Linzer
Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean

 

Guest post by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz: ואהבת את ה’ אלהיך: שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידיך

It happened again. For several years now the Chareidi newspaper Yated Ne’eman has attacked our Yeshivah, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, on average once every couple of months.  This time the attack came from another quarter.  R. Avrohom Gordimer, identifying himself as a member of the executive committee of the RCA, in a recent CrossCurrents posting, wrote a scathing critique of one of our graduates, R.  Zev Farber. The common denominator in these attacks is the shared format: after a brief, often skewed review of some recent activity by one of our Rebbeim or graduates, we are inevitably tagged with some synonym for apikores: heretics, Reformers, neo-Reformers, etc.

Like R. Akiva in the story told in Makot (24B), I find myself reacting differently than my colleagues and students. While many of them are disturbed and hurt by these critiques, I find myself smiling and feeling reassured. If we are being critiqued so harshly and so often it is a sign that we are doing something important and having an impact.

In the yeshivot I studied in my youth I was repeatedly told that R. Kook Z”l was an apikores. I, of course, was horrified at the time. Only later did I realize that, frequently, calling someone a heretic is an easy way to avoid confronting the serious issues they are raising. (It is hard not to make a comparison with what is currently happening in the elections for the Israeli Rabbinate where some of the participants refuse to engage the opposition on the issues and instead simply label their opponents Rasha or Amalek).

We are engaged in a serious debate about the future of klal Yisrael.  As in the times of Rav Kook, we too are at a crucial juncture. Our students, congregants, and followers are turning to us less for help in halakhic matters. Increasingly they look to us for guidance on questions of faith, ethics and social mores.  They are struggling with doubt and confusion that is an inevitable consequence of living in the modern world. The experience at the shul where I daven is pretty typical. Inevitably, at least once a month, and often more, a fellow congregant pulls me aside to share with me his or her doubts about the efficacy of prayer, accepting the traditional view of Torah min ha’shemayim, or conventional approaches to theodicy.

Doubts about the fundamental tenets of our Tradition however are not unique to the Modern Orthodox community. I cannot speak for the specifics of R. Gordimer’s community, but I do have first-hand experience with the average Yated reader. (I grew up in Williamsburg and studied in Satmar and Brisk Yeshivot.) Their community, in Israel and abroad, is having serious difficulties, trying to stem the high level of attrition they are currently experiencing. A significant number of those who leave that community do so because they are confronted with serious questions and debilitating doubts about Judaism. Ideological confusion is a universal-across the denominations-crisis.

Let it be clear.  YCT believes in Torah miSinai as it has been traditionally understood.  At the same time, we see that it is our responsibility to graduate rabbis who can engage our community’s doubts, and to do so by opening up, rather than closing down, conversation.

As a member of the YCT admissions committee I meet each and every student before they are accepted to the Yeshivah.  While אהבת תורה and יראת שמים are prerequisites for someone to be accepted to our semicha program, we also have an additional requirement, one of equal importance. A Chovevei student needs to be someone who is willing to grapple with the fundamental challenges modernity presents to the contemporary Jewish believer.

Grappling is the key point.  There is a segment in the observant community for whom אמונה פשוטה, simple faith, works. They are, however, not the majority.  Large numbers of our community struggle with questions of faith, belief, authority, autonomy, ethics, morality and the like. The old methods of response are insufficient; they do not provide the solutions contemporary men and women are looking for. Often times they are counter-productive, feeling trite and superficial. They end up turning people away from our tradition, exacerbating the situation. A successful rabbinic leader is one who is able to honor the struggle and engage these questions seriously. Along with his piety and commitment to the teachings of the Sages, he also must have the courage and intellectual ability to be innovative and creative in these matters.

Creatively addressing these difficult questions takes time, energy and deliberation. We at YCT are committed to helping guide our audience through these murky waters.  In this endeavor, we recognize the possibility that, on occasion, a graduate might entertain a non-conventional answer, not in keeping with our shared Orthodox beliefs. We believe that ultimately they will end up in the right place, embracing a modernity that is deeply steeped in the Tradition. Our confidence is based on the fact that each and every one of our graduates leaves the Yeshivah after four years infused with Yirat shamayim, ahavat Torah, emunat chachamim, and a deep-seated commitment to avodat Ha’shem.

YCT is a yeshivah like any other yeshivah. Like any other serious semicha programs, we too teach punctiliousness in Jewish law, optimal observance of Mitzvot, and a commitment to learning Torah. There is one key difference though.  Training towards expertise in Psak halakhah, built on a foundation of punctilious observance, is not the only thing we teach our graduates. We expect them to grow in areas of Jewish thought as well.

There are spiritual risks in such an approach, but given the challenges our generation faces, we do not have an alternative. We owe it to klal Yisrael to guide them in these precarious religious times. (As does Yated and R. Gordimer owe it to their respective communities. It is just a matter of time before they will no longer be able to avoid this reality in their own backyard).

To properly serve our generation, today’s rabbis need to be able to model how an observant Jew wrestles with doubt and uncertainty. That is what we try to do at our yeshivah. In that sense, our critics are right; we indeed expose our student to a cacophony of voices. We want them to hear them, engage with them, and, most importantly struggle with them-regardless of how extreme those views are. Our belief is this: If the general community is exposed to those opinions in university, in the larger society, then our graduates need to be exposed to them as well. This will enable them to engage those questions in an honest and sophisticated way. Exposing our students to the larger world of ideas, no matter how extreme they are, is the modern manifestation of David Ha’melech’s adage: ידי מלוכלכת בדם שפיר ושליא כדי להתיר אשה לבעלה (Berachot 4A).

The Gemara says (Niddah 73A) הליכות עולם לו, אל תיקרי הליכות אלא הלכות. By conflating Halakhah (observance) with halicha, (walking) the Rabbis convey an important lesson. Observance is a journey. We strive to grow and ultimately arrive at an ideal set of behaviors and beliefs. Nevertheless, the divine encounter that halakhah tries to mediate happens during the journey as well, not just after one has arrived at one’s ultimate destination.

When blessing the new month, we implore God to give us a life of אהבת תורה ויראת שמים. We do not, however, ask for ideological certainty. That is a goal but its attainability is incredibly difficult.  R. Chaim Brisker famously explained that faith begins where logic ends. If a set of beliefs makes sense, it is no longer a belief, it is a conviction. Faith requires one to transcend logic and accept dogma. Such a requirement is a hard-sell for our generation. We try to prepare our YCT graduates to confront that challenge. And we are aware that in the process they are likely to experience their own periods of uncertainty as they continue to sort out the content of their own beliefs.

Our willingness to grapple and confront the challenges faced by the majority of klal Yisrael has clearly rattled some in the Orthodox world. They, in turn, have critiqued us, oftentimes harshly and unfairly.  We pray that we, nevertheless, listen to those critiques and when appropriate acknowledge our mistakes. We are traversing a less travelled path; there will inevitably be bumps in the road. While we strive to improve, we intend, however, to stay the course. We will continue to graduate students who make us proud in their mesiras nefesh for klal Yisrael and in their willingness to model genuine, modest, and honest grappling in the attempt to serve Ha’shem.

Religious wrestling is in our DNA. That is what our forbearer Yakov did (Genesis 32) and we carry on that torch. Yakov was scarred by his encounter with the angel and we sometimes get scarred as well. We will not, however, let these scars prevent us from responding to our calling to serve God and His people.   Ultimately our goal is to reach the day when ומלאה הארץ דעה את ה’ כמים לים מכסים (Isaiah 11:9; Maimonides Kings 12).

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is Chair, Department of Talmud at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School 


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.