Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 2: Women Wearing Tefillin – by Rabbi Zev Farber

January 31, 2014

See: Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 1: Elisha’s Wings

Women are Exempt from Wearing Tefillin

According to the Mishna (Berakhot 3:3), women are exempt from wearing tefillin.

Women, slaves and minors are exempt from reciting the Shema or wearing tefillin, but they are obligated in prayer, mezuzah and reciting the grace after meals.[1]

Why are women exempt from wearing tefillin? Rashi (ad loc.) suggests that it is because tefillin are a positive commandment tied to a particular time (a category of mitzvot that women are generally exempt from performing), since tefillin are not worn at nights or on Shabbat and holidays. The discussion in the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 96a), which assumes that this is the reason for the exemption, supports Rashi’s position.

The Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 2:3), however, offers a different reason.

From where do we know that women [are exempt]? ‘Teach them to your sons’ (Deut. 11:19) – not your daughters. Whoever is obligated in learning Torah is obligated in tefillin; women who are exempt from learning Torah are exempt from wearing tefillin.[2]

According to this source, women are exempt from wearing tefillin because they are exempt from studying Torah.

The Mekhilta of R. Ishmael (Pasḥa 17) offers the same reason.[3]

‘So that the Torah of the Lord be in your mouth’ (Exod. 13:9). Why was this said? Because it says (ibid): ‘This should be a sign [upon your arm].’ I would have assumed that women are included, and this would make sense since mezuzah is a positive commandment and tefillin is a positive commandment, if we assume that women part of the mitzvah of mezuzah shouldn’t we assume that women are also part of the mitzvah of tefillin? Thus the verse comes to teach us, ‘so that the Torah of the Lord be in your mouth,’ I am only referring to someone who is obligated in learning Torah. From here they said: “All are obligated in tefillin except for women and slaves.”[4]

Rambam codifies this reason in his Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (Positive Commandments, 13), referencing the Mekhilta.[5]

The Michal bat Kushi Story

May a woman wear tefillin voluntarily? The Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 96a) records a story about this.

Michal daughter of Kushi used to wear tefillin and the Sages didn’t object. Jonah’s wife used to come [to Jerusalem] for the holidays and the Sages didn’t object.[6]

According to this source, it would seem that women may wear tefillin if they wish.

The Mekhilta records the same story.

Michal daughter of Kushi would wear tefillin. The wife of Jonah would come [to Jerusalem] for the festivals. Tabi, Rabban Gamliel’s slave would wear tefillin.[7]

According to this account, which is the same as that recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, it appears that women may wear tefillin if they wish.

There is an alternative version of this story, however, which appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 2:3) and is included in the Pesiqta Rabbati (22). The passage follows the previously quoted the lines of the Jerusalem Talmud, where it was established that women are exempt from wearing tefillin.

A contradiction was offered: ‘But Michal daughter of Kushi would wear tefillin and the wife of Jonah would [come to Jerusalem] for the holidays, and the Sages didn’t stop her.’ R. Hezekiah in the name of R. Abahu: “The Sages sent Jonah’s wife back and objected to Michal bat Kushi.”[8]

The first version of the story included here assumes that Michal wore tefillin without any objection from the Sages. Moreover, the Jerusalem Talmud assumes that if she wore tefillin, she must have been obligated. (The Babylonian Talmud makes a similar assumption, suggesting that maybe she followed the opinion that tefillin should be worn at night and on Shabbat.) Hezekiah in the name of R. Abahu, to solve this problem, offers an alternative version of the story. The Sages did, in fact, object to what she was doing.

Tosafot and Women’s Fitness for Tefillin

The Tosafot (Eruvin 96a), having seen the source in Pesiqta Rabbati, wonder why the Sages would have objected. Since the Tosafot follows the position of Ri (=Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre) that women are permitted, even encouraged, to take on positive mitzvot for which they are not obligated, they cannot answer that doing that which one is exempt from doing is bad.[9] Thus, in order to answer the question, they turn to the position of Rabbi Yannai analyzed in part one.

It would seem that the explanation for the position that women are not permitted [to wear tefillin] is because tefillin require a guf naqi and women are not zealous enough to be careful about this.[10]

The Tosafot claim that the reason women may not wear tefillin, according to Hezekiah quoting Rabbi Abahu, is because they will not be careful about the cleanliness of their bodies. Since according to the Babylonian Talmud, being careful about “guf naqi” means avoiding flatulence or falling asleep, the Tosafot are saying that women will not be zealous enough about their tefillin to avoid flatulence while wearing them.

Why would the Tosafot say such a thing? Here is where modern readers, I believe, have difficulty accepting attitudes about women that reflect a pre-modern mentality that men are better or more spiritual or more serious about Torah than women. Yet this was a common, even normative belief in the pre-modern era.

In fact, this is the very reason that some sages believed that it is forbidden and a waste of time to teach women Torah.  This attitude was articulated most clearly by Rambam Mishneh Torah (Talmud Torah 1:13)

A woman who learns Torah receives a reward, but it is not like the man’s reward, since she was not commanded [to do so], and anyone who does something [good] which he was not commanded to do receives less reward than one who fulfills a command. Even though there is reward, the Sages commanded a person not to teach his daughter Torah, since most women’s minds are not designed for learning and they will turn the words of Torah into foolishness due to their weak intellect. The Sages said: “Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah it is as if he taught her licentiousness/nonsense.” To what does this statement apply, to Oral Torah, but insofar as the Written Torah, de jure a person should not teach her this, but if he did, it is not like teaching her licentiousness/nonsense.”[11]

Rambam believes that women, because of their weak intellects, would make nonsense out of Torah study, specifically study of Talmud, which is very intricate.

Although it is possible that the Tosafot did not hold as extreme a view as Rambam about women, nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that in the Middle Ages, some rabbis would believe that women could not be trusted to take tefillin seriously enough to hold in flatulence or quickly remove their tefillin if they felt it coming on. Even though the Rishonim state explicitly that any person can hold in their flatulence during the short period of the morning prayers, they were thinking about men, whom they believed would take the mitzvah seriously; they were not (necessarily) picturing women doing this.

A number of other Rishonim expressed the Tosafot’s explanation of the alternative Michal story in even starker terms. For example, in the Kol Bo 21 (the source upon which Rama’s opinion in the Shulḥan Arukh is based), Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg is quoted as being against women wearing tefillin (he may have been the first to codify this position as halakha):

Rabbi Meir [of Rothenberg] wrote: “Women are exempt from tefillin because they are a positive commandment tied to a specific time, for we do not wear them on Shabbat and festivals. If women wish to wear them we don’t listen to them, because they do not know how to keep themselves clean.”[12]

Although R. Meir of Rothenberg may mean the same thing as the Tosafot, that women will not be careful about flatulence, it is possible that he has even more in mind than this. R. Meir may be envisioning the realities that come with women menstruating. Before the advent of feminine projects, it would have been quite difficult for women to keep clean during their cycles. Although such a concern does not appear in the Talmud, perhaps R. Meir is making an a fortiori – if flatulence is forbidden certainly menstrual bleeding should be forbidden—but this is just speculation on my part.

An even clearer expression of how women will not be careful can be found in Ritva’s commentary to Qiddushin 31a. In that text, he is discussing the question of whether women should make a blessing on mitzvot they perform but in which they are not obligated. As part of this discussion, he suggests a possible reason that the Sages objected (according to the source in the Jerusalem Talmud and Pesiqta Rabbati).

…because tefillin require a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings, and women are not clean, they are not clean of body and they are not clean of mind.[13]

Ritva uses an extreme expression in order to get across the point that women, in his view, are not capable of being clean enough or serious enough to wear tefillin.

Although Ritva’s statement is extreme, the majority of the commentaries that follow the position of Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, forbidding women to wear tefillin, repeat Tosafot’s interpretation verbatim (see, for example, TazMagen Avraham, and Mishna Berurah on the Shulḥan Arukh Oraḥ Ḥaim 38:3), i.e., “they are not zealous enough to be careful.”

Conclusion

In modern times, our attitude towards the intelligence and religiosity of women has changed dramatically. No longer do we claim that women are either not smart enough or not serious enough to learn Talmud. Instead, women’s Talmud programs are flourishing in our times. To my mind, the same must be said about women wearing tefillin.

Although in the past it may have been believable to claim that women should not be trusted with tefillin because they would not take the mitzvah seriously, and they may end up sinning by not avoiding flatulence while wearing them, such a claim must be discarded in our days. It is a relic of a time where attitudes towards women was very different.

In part one, we looked at the unanimous opinion of the Rishonim that any man at all, unless he is ill, can be trusted to treat tefillin properly if worn during prayer. In our day, this assessment applies to any woman as well. To put it starkly, if, as R. Moshe of Coucy said, “there isn’t a person wicked enough that he can’t be trusted with tefillin,” this dictum certainly applies to women as well. In short, the prohibition against women wearing tefillin must go the way of the prohibition against women learning Torah; we must consign it to history.

Addendum: The Arukh Ha-Shulḥan

Rabbi Yeḥiel Epstein, in his Arukh Ha-Shulan (Oraḥ Ḥaim 38:6), offers a novel formulation of the halakha.[14]

Women and slaves are exempt from tefillin because they (tefillin) are a positive time-bound commandment, since we are exempt from tefillin on Shabbat and festivals. If they wish to be strict upon themselves and wear them, we stop them. This is not similar to sukkah and lulav where they are exempt but they may say a blessing even so, since tefillin requires extra caution with guf naqi, as we said in Shabbat, “Tefillin require a guf naqi like Elisha with the wings.” In the Jerusalem Talmud, Berakhot, it says: “They say over there that anyone who is not like Elisha with the wings should not wear tefillin.” Nevertheless, men are obligated so they will necessarily be careful with them during Shema and prayer. For this reason, however, they don’t wear them all day, as I stated in the previous paragraph. Thus, women, who are exempt, why should they put themselves into a situation with such grave concerns? For them, [wearing tefillin] during Shema and prayer is like men wearing them all day. Even though it says in Eruvin that Michal daughter of Saul wore tefillin and the Sages did not object, we cannot learn from that since they probably know that she was a totally righteous woman and that she knew how to be careful. All this applies to slaves as well.[15]

With the greatest respect for Rabbi Epstein, his reading of the Talmudic passages seems to me to be impossible. To return to the analysis in part one: If we interpret the Elisha passage to mean, “immaculately clean and superhumanly careful,” then, as the Geonim said, we don’t follow that position. For this reason, most Rishonim follow the plain meaning of the Talmud’s interpretation, that it means that it is forbidden to be flatulent while wearing tefillin and, therefore, unless one is like Elisha, one should not wear them all day.

Nevertheless, it was unanimous that wearing tefillin only for prayer poses no problem for anyone because it is easy to be careful during that short space of time. The reason this consensus was not applied to women (according to those who forbid them to wear tefillin), is because these rabbis believed that women could not be trusted to take the rule about flatulence seriously or to keep their minds on their tefillin, even for a very short time.

I suspect—and I am just speculating—that what motivates this unusual reading is the fact that Rabbi Epstein was living in a modern world and could not imagine that R. Moshe Isserles thought that women could not avoid flatulence, and that they were less spiritual or serious about Torah than men. In other words, it is possible that R. Epstein is trying to square the circle apologetically, to maintain the prohibition against women wearing tefillin which appears in the Shulḥan Arukh, but to make the reason for the prohibition less offensive and more believable to modern people. Whether or not this was the case, Rabbi Epstein’s interpretation contradicts the simple reading of the Talmud and the Rishonim and should be rejected le-halakha. Certainly, it should not be used in a last ditch effort to maintain a prohibition that is based on obscure sources and Ashkenazi custom, flies in the face of the Talmud, has no applicability or believability in the modern world, and offends the sensibilities of many Jewish women.

See: Tefillin and Clean Bodies – Part 1: Elisha’s Wings 


[1]  נשים ועבדים וקטנים פטורין מקריאת שמע ומן התפילין וחייבין בתפלה ובמזוזה ובברכת המזון:

[2]  נשים מניין? ‘ולמדתם אותם את בניכם’ ולא את בנותיכם, את שהוא חייב בת”ת חייב בתפילין נשים שאינן חייבות בת”ת אינן חייבין בתפילין.

[3] In his excellent article on women and tefillin“Gender and Tefillin: Possibilities and Consequences,” Rabbi Ethan Tucker explores the full implications of this Mekhilta text.

[4]  למען תהיה תורת ה’ בפיך למה נאמר לפי שנאמר והיה לך לאות שומע אני אף הנשים במשמע והדין נותן הואיל ומזוזה מצות עשה ותפילין מצות עשה אם למדת על מזוזה שהיא נוהגת בנשים כבאנשים יכול אף תפילין ינהגו בנשים כבאנשים ת”ל למען תהיה תורת ה’ בפיך, לא אמרתי אלא במי שהוא חייב בתלמוד תורה, מכאן אמרו הכל חייבין בתפילין חוץ מנשים ועבדים.

[5]  הנה כבר התבאר לך קראם לתפלין שלראש ושליד שתי מצות. ושתי מצות אלו אין הנשים חייבות בהן לאמרו יתעלה (ס”פ בא) בטעם חיובם למען תהיה תורת י”י בפיך ונשים אינן חייבות בתלמוד תורה. וכן בארו במכילתא.

[6]  מיכל בת כושי היתה מנחת תפילין ולא מיחו בה חכמים. ואשתו של יונה היתה עולה לרגל ולא מיחו בה חכמים.

[7]  מיכל בת כושי היתה מנחת תפילין, אשתו של יונה היתה עולה לרגלים, טבי עבדו של רבן גמליאל היה מניח תפילין:

[8]  התיבון הרי מיכל בת כושי היתה לובשת תפילין ואשתו של יונה היתה עולה לרגלים ולא מיחו בידיה חכמים ר’ חזקיה בשם ר’ אבהו אשתו של יונה הושבה מיכל בת כושי מיחו בידיה חכמים.

[9] See the addendum in R. Ethan Tucker’s (above referenced) article for a discussion of this point.

[10]  ונראה לפרש דטעמא למ”ד דלא הוי רשות משום דתפילין צריכין גוף נקי ונשים אין זריזות ליזהר.

[11]  אשה שלמדה תורה יש לה שכר אבל אינו כשכר האיש, מפני שלא נצטוית, וכל העושה דבר שאינו מצווה עליו לעשותו אין שכרו כשכר המצווה שעשה אלא פחות ממנו, ואף על פי שיש לה שכר צוו חכמים שלא ילמד אדם את בתו תורה, מפני שרוב הנשים אין דעתם מכוונת להתלמד אלא הן מוציאות דברי תורה לדברי הבאי לפי עניות דעתן, אמרו חכמים כל המלמד את בתו תורה כאילו למדה תפלות, במה דברים אמורים בתורה שבעל פה אבל תורה שבכתב לא ילמד אותה לכתחלה ואם למדה אינו כמלמדה תפלות.

[12]  כתב הר”ם נשים פטורות מתפילין מפני שהוא מצות עשה שהזמן גרמה שהרי אין מניחין אותן בשבת ויום טוב ואם רצו להניח אין שומעין להן מפני שאינן יודעות לשמור עצמן בנקיות ע”כ,

[13]  …משום דתפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים ונשים אינם נקיות לא נקיות גוף ולא נקיות דעת.

[14] He is inspired by the retort of R. Avraham Gombiner (the Magen Avraham) to Rabbi Meir Perels (the Olat Tamid), who asks that if women should not wear tefillin because they don’t have to be careful, why should the explanation of women being exempt because tefillin are a positive time-bound commandment ever have been offered. Just say that people who cannot be careful may not wear tefillin and that should include a subset of men and all women? R. Gombiner responds by saying that since men are obligated the force themselves to be careful, and if women were obligated they would also have to force themselves to be careful, but since they are not obligated they are not permitted to take that chance. This retort seems to be the jumping off point for Rabbi Epstein, who references Magen Avraham and states that his analysis makes this position work.

[15]  נשים ועבדים פטורים מתפילין מפני שהיא מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא דשבת ויו”ט פטור מתפילין ואם רוצין להחמיר על עצמן מוחין בידן ולא דמי לסוכה ולולב שפטורות ועכ”ז מברכות עליהן דכיון דתפילין צריך זהירות יתירה מגוף נקי כדאמרינן בשבת [מ”ט.] תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים ובירושלמי ברכות שם אמרו תמן אמרין כל שאינו כאלישע בעל כנפים אל יניח תפילין אך אנשים שמחויבים בהכרח שיזהרו בהם בשעת ק”ש ותפלה ולכן אין מניחין כל היום כמ”ש בסי’ הקודם וא”כ נשים שפטורות למה יכניסו עצמן בחשש גדול כזה ואצלן בשעת ק”ש ותפלה כלאנשים כל היום לפיכך אין מניחין אותן להניח תפילין ואף על גב דתניא בעירובין [צ”ו.] דמיכל בת שאול היתה מנחת תפילין ולא מיחו בה חכמים אין למידין מזה דמסתמא ידעו שהיא צדקת גמורה וידעה להזהר וכן עבדים כה”ג [עמג”א סק”ג וב”י ולפמ”ש א”ש]:


A Recent Episode As Seen From Three Perspectives by David Wolkenfeld

January 22, 2014

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

I.

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

III.

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

IV.

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

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

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

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

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


When is it Appropriate to Pressure Employers of Recalcitrant Spouses?

November 19, 2013

by Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

This Monday, ORA (the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot) organized a protest in Washington DC to pressure Aharon Friedman, chief of staff for Congressman David Camp, to deliver a gett to his ex-wife, Tamar Friedman. Aharon and Tamar divorced in civil courts five years ago and Aharon has refused to give a gett unless Tamar relents to Aharon’s demands viz. a new custody arrangement more favorable to him. Some have sought to pressure Aharon’s employer, Congressman Dave Camp (R – MI), a powerful committee chair, to insist that his employee, Aharon Friedman, deliver a gett. Congressman Camp represents a district with few Jews and no Orthodox community. When I suggested on Facebook last week that one of the Jewish-Republican organizations get involved, someone wrote to me, concerned by the implications of an employer pressuring an employee to take part in a private religious ceremony.

Consider the following scenarios:

Case A.

Avrohom Weiss is in contempt of a beit din order to deliver a get to his wife Gital Dodalson. Weiss and Dodalson divorced in civil courts more than 2 years ago and Weiss has delayed granting a gett until Gital agrees to renegotiate custody and alimony.  Weiss’s father and uncle were employed by Artscroll Publications.  A letter-writing campaign successfully pressured Artscroll to remove Asher and Yisrael Weiss from their payroll so long as they provide financial and moral support to Avrohom’s recalcitrance.

Case B (Fictional)

Joe Schwartz is a member of a large suburban Reform Synagogue. Recently, he invited a Chabad rabbi to open a weekly Shabbat service in his basement. This incurred the ire of the leadership of the Reform synagogue and they made it clear to Mr. Schwartz’s employer – the local community bank – that the synagogue would move its sizable endowment to another bank so long as Mr. Schwartz was employed at the bank.

 Case C (Fictional)

Chaim Schmerel is hosting a break-away minyan in his basement with a lower mechitzah than in the large neighborhood shul. Members of the large shul, upset by what they understand to be lower religious standards at Chaim Schmerel’s minyan, pressure Chaim’s employer, the local municipality, that they will vote against the mayor in the upcoming elections if Chaim remains employed as the towns’ fire commissioner.

It seems obvious to me that case A. is a legitimate instance of community activism. Artscroll is an Orthodox Jewish publishing company. Its success and authenticity depend on the Orthodox bona fides of its editors. Supporting gett recalcitrance undermines Artscroll’s ability to represent or educate the community.

Case B and C both seem like inappropriate efforts at enforcing conformity. However much someone else’s religious choices may offend us, most of us appreciate living in a country were religious issues are kept private and we are allowed to rise (and fall) professionally without reference to religious matters.

Congressman Camp and his chief of staff Aharon Feldman, are more similar to Case A than to Cases B or C. Congressman Camp is a politician and politicians accept upon themselves, and upon their staff members, a certain limitation on their personal privacy. Furthermore and more importantly, gett recalcitrance has been identified as a form of domestic abuse. It allows an ex-spouse to retain control over a former marriage partner even after the marriage has ended. Whether used as a negotiating strategy or as an expression of spite, gett recalcitrance is more than a personal issue, more than a “religious issue,” and an appropriate matter about which to educate Congressman Camp.

AIPAC routinely flies members of congress to Israel so that even politicians with few Jewish constituents can learn about the importance of the American-Israeli relationship. Dave Camp needs to learn about gett-recalcitrance and why all Americans should want their elected representatives to be clean of the taint of this form of abuse.


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.