The Rise of the Neo-Cons

No one wants machloket (strife).
That admirable sentiment, a defining characteristic of Jewish personal and national life, to a large extent underlies the silence with which the major Orthodox Jewish organizations (outside the more Yeshivish world) has greeted the unremitting slide from normative Torah views of the groups, loosely affiliated but interrelated, and collectively known as YCT/IRF/Maharat. Collectively, they refer to themselves as “Open Orthodoxy,” but at what point does the “openness” so predominate that it ceases to be Orthodox?
Consider: Whatever semantic games are played, the ordination of women as Jewish clergy shatters one of the demarcations between the Torah world and non-Orthodoxy. Even Rabbi Saul Lieberman, the great scholar who taught for decades at JTS, publicly opposed (in writing) the ordination of women, such that JTS waited for him to pass from this world before it ordained its first women. Of course, the charade – Rabba, Maharat, whatever – is conducted in order to avoid an open break, even as it smacks of dishonesty. But it is what it is, and we are foolish to play the games and ignore the reality. The titles, job descriptions and current subterfuge presage the day when these groups will boast (and I mean boast) synagogues whose spiritual leader is a woman, something considered anathema – for a variety of reasons grounded in Jewish law and thought – by the aforementioned Rabbi Lieberman, Rav Soloveitchick and every recognized posek faithful to the Mesorah. Even Nechama Leibowitz would cringe in revulsion and horror at this obvious deviation from Jewish law and tradition. (I was her student, and she was scrupulously traditional, and humble to a fault. And she did not live with grievances against the Torah.)
Consider as well the variety of statements and positions emanating – without obvious dissent – from members of those groups:
- the constant repetition of the familiar canard (that animated the non-Orthodox movements) that Judaism treats women as “second-class citizens;”
- the denigration in some places, and reluctant acceptance by others, of the institution of mechitza (kept, it seems, because it is part of the Orthodox “brand,” but in some places minimized, removed at various times during the davening, and bound to be on the chopping block in the future, especially since it is not mentioned explicitly in the Shulchan Aruch);
- the embrace of the homosexual agenda, and its essential elimination as a “sin,” as one of the 613 commandments and 365 prohibitions pursuant to Jewish law, including the celebration, in one form or another, of same sex marriage;
- the attempted relaxation of conversion standards, so as to decrease the number of intermarriages while foisting on the Jewish people converts who have not the slightest intention of observing the mitzvot – in the process doing them a great disservice;
- the embrace of non-Orthodox clergy and their integration into religious services in unprecedented ways that completely eviscerate the ideological distinctions between the movements;
- the search for the lenient halachic opinion that will rationalize any desire, regardless of precedent or tradition; i.e., predetermining the conclusion and then seeking justification for it;
- the study of Tanach in a way that degrades the ancients and plays down the commentaries of the Talmudic Sages and medieval commentators, as if all opinions carry equal weight, and as if there is a mitzva in discovering new sins or exaggerating old ones in the deeds of our ancestors. It is a “scientific” approach much more prevalent in the non-Orthodox world than in the Torah world.
(Generally, the New York Times’ editorial page is a reliable indicator –if not the source – of the social perspectives and views of this camp, but that is a different discussion.)
Taken on its merits, almost all the views above are closely identified with the non-Orthodox movements, which either began with those deviations or embraced them along the way.
Why, then, the reluctance to call a spade a spade? Several objections can be made.
First, they call themselves “Orthodox,” thereby identifying with the Orthodox world. That is important, because it evinces their intention to remain Orthodox even as they, for lack of a better word, try to reform it from within. Second, many of the leaders are musmachim of RIETS or YU grads, see themselves as Orthodox, and practice the norms of Orthodox life even if some of their ideas are off the reservation. Third, almost all of the individuals that I personally know involved in these groups are fine, decent people, for whom I have always had tremendous respect, and whose contributions to the Jewish people – in some cases – were legendary and worthy of eternal recognition. And who wants machloket?
Here’s the problem with that: the same could be said of the founders of Conservative Judaism and their successors who broadened its popularity across the United States up to 30-40 years ago. Most of the founders of CJ were also Orthodox in practice, and more. One of the founders of JTS, Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes, also served as one of the presidents of the Orthodox Union (such is unimaginable today). JTS was founded by traditional Jews, like Rabbi Sabato Morais, horrified by the gross retreat from Jewish norms of the Reform Rabbinate. The aforementioned Rabbi Shaul Lieberman was allegedly offered a teaching position at Yeshivas Chaim Berlin (!) in Brooklyn, before deciding to take the position at JTS (such is unimaginable today). Whatever the results, the founders of Conservative Judaism meant to conserve Judaism; hence, the name. (Given their current politics, some probably wince when using the term, and wish they could be called “Liberal Judaism” instead.) The point is that they perceived themselves as the vanguard of what would be traditional, Torah-true Judaism on American soil.
For the first half-century after the founding of the Conservative movement, it was quite common for YU graduates to attend JTS for ordination. It was not uncommon for RIETS musmachim to become spiritual leaders in Conservative temples, like it was not uncommon for those same musmachim to be members of the RCA, like it was not uncommon for some OU shuls not to have mechitzot. (This is meant to be factual, not judgmental; the battles then were different than they are today.)
And undoubtedly, many of the founders of the non-Orthodox movements were upstanding and decent people as well. Their sincerity and dedication – and in many cases their scholarship – should be acknowledged. Reform and Conservative rabbis also wrote responsa, marshaling sources here and there to permit what they wanted to permit: the elimination of the mechitza, the permission to “ride” (but not “drive”) on Shabbat, and the series of feminist responsa on which the current group of Neo-Conservatives relies so heavily, permitting consecutively, and in short order, women counting in the minyan, leading the minyan, and serving as rabbis of the minyan. Those responsa were clever, often misleading or disingenuous, and other times relied on that old shibboleth that “times have changed.” But no Halachist took them seriously. And a more traditional wing often filed dissenting reports.
It must also be acknowledged that, like then, some in today’s fringe groups don’t really belong there, wince at some of the halachic and hashkafic departures from Orthodoxy, and are basically stuck, not really in a position to renounce their semicha but very well aware that their past choices might have been misguided.
This is written in pain and with a heavy heart. No one wants machloket. But emet (truth) is also a value – a profound value, especially in relation to Torah. A well known talk-show host often says that he prefers “clarity to agreement.” Clarity is especially critical when it comes to articulating Torah positions, and certain positions taken by these groups – as outlined above – are clearly beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. Not to admit that is to acquiesce through silence in the ongoing distortion and disfigurement of the Torah. And to acquiesce in silence while the Torah is being reformed and transformed – essentially to conform to a modern, liberal agenda – is to betray our calling as Rabbis and teachers of Torah. To acquiesce in silence, which for the most part has been the default position of the leading modern Orthodox organizations (aside from the occasional mild rebuke), is to make a political decision, but one that has adverse consequences for the Torah world.
Jews have to know what is right and wrong, acceptable or unacceptable; Jews have to know when we say “these and these are the words of the Living God,” and when we say that something else is not drawn from that holy wellspring; Jews have to know that there are “seventy facets to the Torah,” but there is also a 71st or 72nd facet that is not part of the Torah. The Torah is not an intellectual free-for-all, or a document that can be twisted in every generation to satisfy the emotional vagaries or psychological moods of the faithful. It is God’s word, and, indeed, it is not given over to every individual or group to interpret. And to acquiesce in silence is to leave every Orthodox Rabbi susceptible to the pressure from the lobbyists for these causes to replicate these innovations in our shuls because, if there was anything improper about them, someone would have opposed it publicly. Let the censure begin.
For all intents and purposes, the Conservative and Reform movements have merged, certainly in practice if not in theory. A new movement has taken the place of the Conservative movement of a century ago, founded and popularized by some fine people, worthy of respect in many regards, but whose spiritual world-view and halachic conclusions are at variance with the Torah world that we know and cherish. It is eerily similar to the world view (and practices) of the original CJ movement. The ramifications of this conclusion– in terms of conversions, kashrut, edut, etc. – are enormous, which makes the heartbreak that much greater. And certainly, one complication is that there are some –I’ve met them – who nominally belong to these groups but subscribe to none or almost none of the agenda and the deviations. This, too, will need clarification.
Ultimately, I wish to include, not exclude, but also to clarify, not obfuscate. Some will want to re-trace their steps and are welcome, and others won’t because they sincerely believe they are on the right track. Some will bask in the adulation of the secular Jewish media, as if that means anything, and others in the number of the committed who rejoice in all their revelries – as if Jews have never before rejoiced in inappropriate revelries.
But even before deciding on the next steps, clarity and honesty at least demand that we recognize before our eyes the creation of a new movement in Jewish life outside the Orthodox world, one that we have seen before. It can be termed, with due apologies to the late Irving Kristol, Neo-Conservatism. “Open Orthodoxy” is a deceptive brand name, an advertising slogan, and an attempt to remain tethered to the Torah world to re-shape it from within, but far from the reality.
The reality is that we are living through the rise of the Neo-Conservatives. Let us all – on all sides – at least admit it.

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67 responses to “The Rise of the Neo-Cons

  1. http://morethodoxy.org/2013/04/22/the-stranger-within-your-gates-answering-questions-about-bais-abrahams-recent-eshel-shabbat-by-rabbi-hyim-shafner/#comment-6218

    The URL shown above is a link to a pro-homosexual article that was written by someone who CLAIMS to be an Orthodox Rabbi. Read it and weep!

  2. In recent decades, every Jewish movement that accepted female so-called “Rabbis” also eventually accepted homosexual so-called “Rabbis” and lesbian so-called “Rabbis”; examples of this pattern include: Reform, Conservative and Reconstruction.

    Given this trend, what inference can we make about the future of YCT / IRF / Maharat / “Open Orthodoxy”?

    PS: Women in the Reform movement are now writing so-called “Torah scrolls,” even though the Talmud, Rambam, and Shulchan Aruch explicitly and unambiguously reject the validity of “Torah scrolls” written by women. These women wickedly and brazenly claim their scrolls are halachically valid, and their customers are too ignorant and apathetic to object.

  3. Glatt some questions

    Rabbi Pruzansky, would you say by extension that any Orthodox shul that hires a maharat (such as the National Synagogue in Washington, DC, and Shaar Shamayim in Montreal) is not an Orthodox synagogue? And that the OU should ask them to leave if they are an OU affiliated shul?

  4. As a non-Orthodox Jew, I agree with most everything here. They should come clean. I personally believe, despite the very fine good people I have met who are truly Orthodox, that the denomination is riddled with intellectual and ethical problems. While I respect the desire for authenticity, it is a brand as the Rabbi said, and I don’t think it is worth it for the Open Orthodox to continue to associate with it.

  5. Bravo Rabbi Pruzansky!
    Kudos for having the courage to say what many Rabbanim in the Modern Orthodox community believe, but (inexplicably) have not stated clearly or loudly enough.

  6. Just wondering what the exact reasoning is that a female who is knowledgable and therefor able to answer halachik questions is unkosher.

  7. My grandfather is one of the “old school” JTSers that you talk about in this piece. He learned under Liebermann and now looks around and shares your view on what is happening to the orthodox community as it being diluted and dragged left (along with the classical conservative movement in its death throes, the reform movement stepping up to fill the void). I always found it curious that my grandfather, a musmach of JTS would be so aligned with the right elements of orthodoxy on an issue, but it has come to pass…

  8. I wish more Orthodox Rabbis would speak out against certain Jews who believe that their Rebbi is the messiah, despite having died 20 years ago without bringing the redemption, and many other problems.

    I recently saw a video in which the Chabad Rabbi of Beijing (China) told many people that: “the mishkan (in the times of Moshe Rabbeinu) was a Chabad House.”

    That statement of the Chabad Rabbi of Beijing is more than historically inaccurate; it also wickedly implies that Chabad is the only authentic Judaism, and it also wickedly implies that any Jew who does not believe in Chabad does not believe in authentic Judaism.

    PS: I congratulate Rabbi Pruzansky for once again saying what needed to be said. I wish more Jews would listen to him, and I suggest that he attempt to get published in more Jewish newspapers.

    • I don’t think that there’s ever been a time in which there were a shortage of Rebbeim willing to speak out against Chabad.

    • Don’t think Chabad deserves to be compared to HIR (and its various outgrowths, Chovevei, Maharat, etc.)
      The elements you refer to in Chabad are a small minority, while the rest of are shtark, tmimesdike jews that are devoted to the Mesorah of Toras MoshemiSinai, the complete opposite of the movement Rabbi Pruzansky discusses.

  9. I know you won’t publish this comment but I want you to know that the misogyny you enshrine and defend is driving thinking women away from Orthodoxy. I formerly identified as Yeshivish. Now I gladly identify with the Open Orthodoxy movement. Shameful traditions like consigning women to near-slave status legally should be discarded.

    • “Near-slave status?” Hmmm, sounds like you have grievances against the Torah. Perhaps a man-made religion will suit you better, or, even better than that, maybe probe your tradition a little deeper, lose the feminist ideology that emanates from a foreign source, and you will happily learn how God carved out different modes of worship for men and women, because – shockingly – men and women are different.
      It is a shame when women feel that the only mode of worshipping God that is meaningful to them is mimicking that of men.
      Does that sound like misogyny? Sounds more like feminism gone awry.
      In short, women need ordination like fish need a bicycle.
      -RSP

    • Instead of “knowing” that Rabbi P won’t publish your comment, you should’ve hoped that he won’t respond to it…

    • “Near-slave status?”

      The happiest people I ever saw in my entire life
      were Chassidic teenage girls.

      Rambam, Hilchot Ishut, end of Chapter 15:
      Our Rabbis of blessed memory commanded that
      a man should honor his wife more than himself
      and love her as much as he loves himself.

    • Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Metzia, page 59A:
      A husband must always be careful with the honor of his wife,
      because blessings come into the house only through her.

      Babylonian Talmud, tractate Eruvin, page 100B:
      Rami bar Chama taught in the name of Rab:
      It is forbidden for a man to force his wife to have intercourse.

  10. I don’t see a halachic argument anywhere in this post explaining WHY these positions are unacceptable within Orthodoxy. Perhaps it’s worth explaining the reasons for this argument?

    • This requires a longer discourse, which of course several have written already. Rav Hershel Schechter wrote a brief monograph in Hakira some time ago that is easily accessible on the Internet, as is Rabbi Saul Lieberman’s responsum opposing women’s ordination in JTS.

      In brief, a woman is barred by halacha from serving many of the functions of a Rabbi. “Women cannot judge” (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 7:4), and as is well known, the Tosafot in Gemara Nida 50a (and others) discuss at length how Devorah judged – was she in fact considered a judge in a technical sense, did she speak directly to men, was it simply just God’s choice at that time without ramifications for all time, etc. Humbly, I address this matter in my book “Judges for our Time,” Pages 26-31 – and certainly this is not meant to degrade Devorah who, after all, was a prophetess, a great leader of Israel and far better than any of us.

      What about Psak? The Pitchei Teshuva there (CM 7:5) quotes the Birkei Yosef that a wise woman can give hora’ah, but this is not a universally shared opinion. For example, the Shaarei Teshuva in Orach Chaim 461:17 (referenced also by the Pitchei Teshuva) states that women can clarify facts at issue in their areas of extertise but not pasken (“somchim aleihem b’inyan aval lo b’hora’ah”).

      The lenient opinion would certainly not be acceptable according to Rambam, who perceives any formal appointment to a positon of authority as serara from which women are excluded (Hilchot Melachim 1:5), one reason why Rav Soloveitchik opposed women’s ordination.

      Thirdly, there is the profound matter of Tzniut, which, although trivialized by many in the modern community, remains on the books, last I checked. One who does not perceive the potential breach of tzniut in these matters likely cannot be convinced of it.
      One who wants all the reasons in print – and ignores the mesorah – would do well to recognize that the Shulchan Aruch never mentions the need for a mechitza in shul, and not because one is not necessary. Rav Soloveitchik was known to say that the Shulchan Aruch does not mention the obvious.

      When we consider that a rabbi’s role particularly involves tefila b’tzibur and Talmud Torah – and women are technically exempt from both- and occasionally involves edut – and women are barred from that, and not because of lack of credibility (see Tosafot Zevachim 103a), it is clear that essential tasks of the rabbinate are not essentially part of women’s domain. Thus, a woman “rabbi” – or whatever term is used – requires a re-definition of the job, not to mention the mesorah.

      The Torah does prescribe different roles for men and women. They are not as rigid as some would have it, nor as loose as others would. That notion is not vitiated simply because feminists and others don’t like it. Clearly, placing a woman in a man’s role – besides the demeaning aspect of that, the implication that man’s spiritual role is superior and the only way to serve God – violates a Torah norm that has sustained Jewish society. “A curse should come upon a man whose wife and children recite his brachot for him” (Brachot 20b), even though it is technically permissible. The roles are what engenders the exemption of women from time-bound mitzvot. Can a rabbi fully and faithfully represent and guide a kehilla when he is exempt from so many mitzvot? Only if we choose to re-define the role of rabbi.

      Between the halachic constructs of hora’ah, serara, tzniut (and others) and the meta-halachic concept of the proper roles for men and women in society, it is obvious why “women rabbis” were always perceived as against the Mesorah, identified exclusively with the non-Orthodox movements tht reject the divine origin of the mesorah and do not see themselves as bound by halacha, minhag, etc.

      But let us not delude ourselves: as was written in Or HaMizrach, a Mizrachi publication in Tevet-Adar 5739 (Vol. 27, no. 2) – that’s a long time ago – right in the beginning, addressing the non-Orthodox ordination of women then occurring: “It is not the halacha that is the lamp to their feet but the movement for women’s liberation that is impure. The daughter raised with the purity of Judaism does not sense any deficit of freedom or any lowliness in her state…” It goes on to extol the role of women in the family, and that without stable families – a real problem in Jewish life today – the nation is weakened and it doesn’t really matter who is the rabbi. How sad when women do not realize that their role in the home is superior and more important that the man’s role in public.
      Indeed. I have been fortunate in that I have been surrounded my entire life by happy women, who love the Torah, women’s role and their lives. They have no grievances against the Torah, which is to say they have no grievances against the Creator. For me, that is a blessing. For them, as well.

      Obviously, there are functions that a woman can perform – teach Torah, for one. If that was all that this was about, no one would object, nor would there be any reason for ceremonies, concocted acronyms or conferral of titles. The latter is designed to impose on the Torah world a revolutionary change that discounts halacha, throws out the mesorah, depreciates the role of women by turning them into man-wannabes (or manabees) and will ultimately lead to lines being clearly drawn that place these practices and the people who indulge them outside the pale of the Torah world.

      For all the revelry, and the ridiculous but typical media obsession, that is sad, tragic and heart-breaking.
      -RSP

  11. Thank you for this important article. It seems that the stepping stone for the Open Orthodox movement is the Modern Orthodox movement. Most, if not all the leaders of the Open Orthodox movement are graduates of a Modern Orthodox institution. Modern Orthodoxy has deviated from strict tradition and has been the incubator for Open Orthodoxy.

    • I think your point is overly broad and therefore misleading. I knew rabbis in Conservative temples who were Chofetz Chaim musmachim. What does that prove?
      -RSP

  12. Mr. Cohen, do yo really think that Rabbi Greenberg was saying that the Mishkan was historically an actual Chabad House? If so, it says a lot more about you than Rabbi Greenberg.

  13. To be clear, there are Orthodox women who legitimately and sincerely want to do more, within the Halakha, than they currently are. For example, a former girlfriend really wanted to dance with the Torah on Simchas Torah, as opposed to watching the men dance while speaking L”H. She joined a kosher women’s minyan, according to Halakha, in a private space with no men present. She was Kallah B’reishis, as I remember. I could see nothing wrong with that. She was not looking to make a point, she was not looking to “break glass ceilings”, she had a legitimate desire to Praise H”K”B.

    • “To be clear, there are Orthodox women who legitimately and sincerely want to do more, within the Halakha, than they currently are”

      That is a wonderful sentiment. So…take up saying tehillim regularly, how about extra care regarding lashon hara, perhaps bikkur cholim on a regular basis, and the list can go on and on. Unfortunately, it seems that for these women, “legitimate desire to Praise H”K”B”” somehow always translates to taking roles and functions traditionally assigned to men.

  14. Thank you, Rabbi, for your honest and sharp analysis (as usual). One thing (among many) that bothers me about the recent ordination of woman is how duplicitous it is. To critics they are ordaining Maharats – educators, spiritual leaders, etc. – not rabbis. But that is not being honest. The proof is in the language used in their ordination certificates. In Hebrew, these women are given “heter hora’ah,” which is exactly what semichah is today, when we no longer have real smuchin ish mi’pi ish.

    You can see the k’tav semichah here: http://www.jta.org/2013/06/17/default/what-does-an-orthodox-ordination-certificate-look-like

  15. On the one hand, I agree with the Rabbi that, in many instances, the bounds of tradition and halacha simply do not accommodate many (but not all) of the “chidushim” of what he calls “Open Orthodoxy.” For example, the advent of female rabbis, and women leading some of the more significant parts of Tefilla, just do not accord with our millennia-old tradition.

    On the other hand, I think it’s equally disingenuous to claim, as the Rabbi does, that the role of women in our tradition, while separate, is still equal in importance to that of men. It’s just absurd to ignore the fact that our tradition developed in a world where women were indeed viewed as property and second-class citizens, and the only logical explanation of women’s role in Orthodox Judaism is the one that takes this into account. I’m sorry, but there’s simply no “egalitarian” way to explain “Nashim, avadim, u-k’tanim p’turim me-kriat shma.” Of course, everyone agrees that developing and maintaining a pure, Jewish household is very, very important. But the fact remains that men are not closed off from pursuing this goal. On the other hand, according to the “standard” Orthodox tradition that the Rabbi espouses here, women are in fact barred from doing many of our religion’s really, really important activities — like participating in Tefila, and achieving Talmud Chacham status (no knock on Nechama Leibowitz, but we all know there’s another level — perhaps you can associate it with gemarah prowess, but I’m not sure that entirely captures it — that women are just not “allowed” to achieve). Those two activities, for example, are of PARAMOUNT importance in our religion (the Rabbi won’t deny that, according to many sources, talmud Torah is the ultimate religious fulfillment). But women are told that they are forbidden from reaching the level of men in these areas. And, of course, the standard “women don’t need to learn Torah because they’re so special” is clearly an ex-post-facto justification, if there ever was one. We males go on and on about how important prayer and Torah are in our tradition, but when women complain about their lack of involvement in these areas, the best we can muster is “it’s because you’re so special.”

    In my view, the only way to confront our tradition’s clearly male-oriented perspective is to acknowledge it forthrightly. The fact is that our tradition clashes inescapably from the idea of gender equality. Thus, for women whose top priority is to be on an equal playing field to men, traditional Orthodoxy is just not going to work for them. However, for women whose top priorities lie elsewhere — for example, having a fulfilling family life, or having a tight-knit social community — Orthodoxy is still a very attractive option. In this day and age, where institutional/social coercion is a thing of the past, Orthodoxy cannot be all things to all people. And assuming we’re sticking with the tradition (it is “Orthodoxy,” after all), we will inevitably alienate those women who desire, first and foremost, gender equality. I guess it’s a little bit sad, but there’s no way to avoid it, so it doesn’t make sense to argue about it.

  16. “Separate but not equal”? Chas v’shalom. The idea only arises from a male-centric perspective. See my response above.
    “Nashim, avadim and ktanim…” In some cases, the laws affecting them are similar but not because each is the equivalent of the other. A katan has no da’at and is not a bar chiyuva; a woman has no “da’at”? She has plenty of da’at – binah too – but her time is not her own. An eved’s time is also not his – but for a wholly different reason than that of a woman.
    I don’t mean this as a criticism, but that is why the Gemara has to be learned and defined, and not just read.
    -RSP

  17. Understood about the differences between a “katan” and “nashim,” but the fact remains that women’s time is “not their own,” presumably (?) because they are expected to be doing one category of activity (maintaining a household) as opposed to another (Torah study/prayer).

    In any event, there are numerous other examples in our tradition that prove my point. For example, we’re commanded to teach Torah to our sons, but not to our daughters.

    I’m not trying to knock our tradition. I believe in and try to adhere to it. All I’m saying is that it takes a good deal of logical/intellectual gymnastics to escape the conclusion that the gender inequality inherent in our tradition favors males.

    • Women’s time is “not their own” concept is biological in nature and is not an attempt at gender-based discrimination.

    • Inequality is not the same as difference. There are clear differences in the roles and halachot of men and women. The same pertains to kohanim, leviim and yisraelim – but we would never say there is “inequality” because each has laws that do not apply to the other.
      -RSP

  18. Glatt some questions

    Rabbi Pruzansky, there are several Orthodox synagogues on the Upper West Side (Lincoln Square, Jewish Center, Shearith Israel) that currently have (or that have had in the past) women “scholars” employed at the synagogue in leadership roles and as part of the clergy. Are you comfortable with that kind of arrangement at an Orthodox shul? If so, what is the real difference between these shuls, and a shul that is employing a woman who graduated from the Maharat program?

  19. Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sukkah, page 52B:
    The School of Rabbi Ishmael taught:
    If you encounter the spirit of temptation [literally, this
    despicable one], then drag him into the Torah study hall
    [Beth Medrash]; if he is made of stone, then he will melt;
    if he is made of iron, then he will shatter…

    The Beth Medrash is supposed to be a place of refuge from the spirit of temptation, as shown in tractate Sukkah page 52B (shown above).

    But how can the Beth Medrash be a place of refuge from the spirit of temptation, if it is filled with: beautiful Maharats, sexy Yoetzets, and shapely Rabbas?

  20. So in other words, Mr. Cohen, women shouldn’t be talmidei chachamim because their anatomy tempts men. How, exactly, is this NOT misogynistic?

    And Tzvika, please explain how exempting/excluding women from certain religious activities based on their “biology” is not gender-based discrimination.

    Is it really so difficult for us to admit that our religious tradition is gender-discriminatory in at least some ways? If we can’t admit that, any discussion about maharats, rabbas, etc. is a waste of time.

    • It’s quite simple actually. The exemptions are not discriminatory in any way. They are designed to protect the privacy of Jewish women.
      Shocking, but once upon a time a discussion of certain aspects of the female anatomy in a public forum was not something women felt comfortable with.
      In this day and age, the concept of true Tsnius has been so decimated that these things actually need to be explained…
      P.S.
      I’ll let Mr. Cohen answer your question, as I’m sure he’s quite capable.

      • You haven’t really answered my question. Are you suggesting that the study of Torah necessitates discussing female anatomy in a public forum? I don’t think it does. Please explain how the traditional exemption of women from Torah study — ALL torah study, whether or not done in a public forum or on a subject relating to female anatomy — is designed to protect the privacy of Jewish women.

  21. והטעם שנפטרו הנשים מהמצות עשה שהזמן‬ ‫גרמא לפי שהאשה משועבדת לבעלה לעשות צרכיו.‬ ‫ואם היחה מחוייבת במצות עשה שהזמן גרמא אפשר‬ ‫שבשעת עשיית המצוה יצוה אותה הבעל לעשות מצותו‬ ‫ואם תעשה מצות הבורא ותניח מצותו אוי לה מבעלה‬ ‫ואם תעשה מצותו ותניח מצות הבורא אוי לה מיוצרה‬ ‫לפיכך פטרה הבורא ממצותיו כדי להיות לה שלום עם‬ ‫בעלה‬

    Women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments because a women is subjugated (or literally, “enslaved”) to her husband to fulfill his needs.

    If she was obilgated in a time-bound positive commandment it is possible that while she is doing the commandment her husband will command her to do something. If she puts aside her husbands command to do G-d’s command, Woe unto her from her husband.

    If she puts aside G-d’s command to fulfill her husbands command, Woe to her from her creator.

    Therefore G-d exempted her from time-bound positive commandments, so she can have peace with her husband.

  22. I believe the above is from the Abduraham.

  23. Sorry, Abudraham. The link is here: http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=26840&pgnum=18

    Bottom of the left-hand column.

  24. You’re missing my point. Are you familiar with the concept of Nida and the consequent Tumah associated with it, and consequent still prohibition of performance of certain mitzvos?

  25. Yes, but that’s tumah, not “privacy” as you mentioned earlier. Anyway, are you now suggesting that women are prohibited/exempted from studying Torah because of the laws of nidah? Strange — I, as well as our sages, were under the impression that it’s because Torah study is a mitvat aseh she-hazman gramah. And, finally, the Abduraham disagrees with you.

    • Why do you think women are exempted from she-ha-man gromahs?
      It’s remarkable that the concept of Tsnius (modesty) has been destroyed in this generation to a point where a clearly intelligent person like yourself is oblivious to the most obvious parts of the mesora…

  26. Egalitarianism is around 2 centuries old.

    American-style Feminism is less than 1 century old.

    Is it logical to expect a 33-century-old faith like Orthodox Judaism
    to conform to philosophies that are 2 centuries old (or less)?

    Criticizing a 33-century-old faith like Orthodox Judaism for not
    being Egalitarian, is like criticizing George Washington for not
    wearing a disco suit, which did not become popular until 200 years
    after the American Revolution.

    According to the Torah: Israelites are not equal to Levites, the young are not equal to the old, the ignorant are not equal to scholars, the wicked are not equal to the righteous, commoners are not equal to Kings, Gentiles are not equal to Jews, and the Diaspora is not equal to the Holy Land.

    So why expect the Torah to equate women and men?
    Because our Gentile neighbors have decreed complete gender equality,
    so the Torah must bow down before the decree of the Gentiles (G_d forbid).

  27. This post really is about a larger issue: the role of women in Orthodoxy as a proxy for what the Orthodox movement is today, and how elastic it
    wishes to be. We all know that in the 1970s and 1980s “orthodoxy” –
    was far to the left of where it is today; just like in the 1950s and 1960s conservative Judaism was far to the right of where it is today. Why should it
    matter that some elements in “modern orthodoxy” want to move left;
    while other elements seek to move right? People can pick and choose with which group they wish to affiliate. In some ways the intellectual power has shifted to the left (including to groups like Hadar, on the right wing of the Conservative movement) and to the Yeshiva World (with over 6000 in BMG alone, and super hard admissions to the tuly elite yeshivas, like Philly) and away from the Center. If the centrists challenge all on the right and left — there will be a tiny sliver only for the Center, making it all the more irrelevant.

  28. You write that “there is the profound matter of Tzniut, which, although trivialized by many in the modern community, remains on the books, last I checked.” As a 34-year married Orthodox woman, it is precisely for reasons of Tzniut that I now attend a Shul that has a Maharat.

    My husband and I try to keep the laws of Niddah to the tee. As you know as an Orthodox Rabbi, that means that when questions arise about whether a stain is Niddah blood, we consult with an expert on such issues. For the first 6 years of our marriage, we davened at a Shul, such as yours, that did not have a Maharat. This meant that numerous times during those years my husband would deliver my underwear to our Rabbi who would then examine it closely to determine the type of blood that I had stained on them. The process was done with some measures of discretion — there certainly was no label on my underwear with my name — but that doesn’t change the fact that, on many Shabbosim during those years, I would see the Rabbi in Shul and I knew that a few days earlier he had been closely examining my underwear.

    Two years ago, my husband and I moved to a new community and the Shule where we daven has a Maharat. She is an expert, among other things, on what of stains are Niddah blood . When we have such questions now, the Maharat now examines my underwear. It would be an understatement to say that I am far more comfortable with the procedure in my current Shul.

    But putting aside what makes me more or less comfortable, isn’t it obviously far more Tzniut for a Maharat to be the one to examine the underwear of the female members of a Shul than for a Rabbi to do so?

    You have my permission to post this comment. I hope you will do so and respond. Thank you.

    • I understand your concerns, but as a practical matter I think they are misplaced. Should a woman not attend a shul where she might see her male gynecologist? I think that is not uncommon. Applying your perspective, a woman should not. The reality is that professionals are professionals. I frequently deal with such questions and when I see people in shul, it doesn’t even register on my mind that it is the same person. I would think most rabbis are like that, and doctors too. The volume of questions (or patients) make the answers somewhat routine for the Rabbi or doctor, even if not for the questioner.
      Obviously, the Maharat phenomenon goes much deeper than just answering questions in Hilchot Nida.
      Thanks for sharing!
      -RSP

  29. I appreciate the response but it’s off-point. Your gynecologist example would work had I said that I stopped going to Shul because my Rabbi was addressing very personal Niddah issues. But, as I wrote in my comment, I continued to go to that Shul for 6 years until my husband and I moved to a different community. Only once we moved, and now had a choice — a local Shul with a Maharat who addresses the most personal Niddah issues and another Shul (several Shuls) where it’s the Rabbi who addresses those issues — that we chose to attend the Shul with the Maharat.

    My point is not that women should engage in a mass exodus from Shuls where the Rabbi addresses all Niddah issues. My point is that it’s terrific that there are now Shuls that have Maharats to address personal Niddah issues, I hope that there will be many moresuch Shuls in the near future, and I hear this same sentiment from many Orthodox women.

    You say that my concerns are misplaced. I’ll remind you, respectfully, that it’s our underwear being examined, not yours.

    • Read more carefully what I wrote: I didn’t say anything about the Rabbi addressing nida issues. My point was: would a woman stop going to shul if she saw her male gynecologist there? So why would one be uncomfortable in the presence of a rabbi who discussed intimate issues with a family? No sane rabbi personalizes the examination of mar’ot in the way you describe. It is simply part of life. To presume that this area is somehow fraught with sexual tension or titillation is your own conclusion.
      -RSP

    • JewishInsurgent

      I have to agree with Rivka. We have never, not once, brought underwear to a Rabbi. We simply do not feel comfortable in doing so. There is no Maharat, but if there was, my wife would feel comfortable in doing so. Instead, we feel more comfortable guessing. You may find this wrong. I am okay with that. Judaism (people, not God) have left little room for us to feel comfortable within this context.

      • Your suggestion is a tragedy, I am sad to say. Whether you are too stringent or too lenient, in either case you are breaching the halacha, notwithstanding your attempt to adhere to it. In the last week alone, the questions I received in this area ran the gamut of possible approaches:
        a woman called directly and unashamedly; a woman called without identifying herself; a husband called on behalf of his wife; and I was contacted anonymously, with just a phone number for response.
        If you think these questions cannot be handled discreetly, you are simply misinformed. If you think that Rabbis (or doctors, for that matter) are somehow aroused by these questions, you are completely off base.
        If your wife (or you, yourself) had a medical issue that required revealing intimate information to a doctor, would you decide to guess your diagnosis and treatment also? It really is the same thing, except that the life of the soul is more precious, and eternal.
        -RSP

      • Glatt some questions

        Rabbi Pruzansky, do you find yoatzot halacha (who are trained to answer questions on the laws of taharas hamishpacha and speak to women about the subject) equally problematic as maharats? Why or why not?

        We can all lament the fact that women are not being halachic if they choose to make their own decisions and/or remain silent about such questions– and say that it’s their problem. But if that’s the reality, and yoatzot halacha and maharats can change that reality for the better, maybe there is something valuable for the Orthodox community to gain by accepting them.

        I know a woman who was overly stringent upon herself because she was embarrassed to call her rabbi about a nidah issue, and was barren for years because of it. She called a yoetzet halacha familiar with the halacha, and she was able to determine a leniency that allowed her to have relations with her husband while she ovulated–and was able to conceive.

  30. Elegantly written. A fine attempt at creating a new word to define the sentiment that the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews today feel. Ultimately though, as the Rav most likely realizes, it is the overwhelming majority that determine the course of a movement and it’s future.

  31. I applaud Rabbi P on having the courage to write this post. Too many younger Orthodox rabbis, some yeshivish, some more of the Reits school, are so worried about offending anyone in their congregations (and risking their jobs) that they become completely pareve, offering no guidance to their congregations on important issues like this. I wish I was blessed with a Rabbi as wise and courageous as Rabbi P. My first rebbi was niftar over 30 years ago, and the only Rabbi I have met sice then who offered this level of moral courage and clarity is headed for retirement. I have no idea what I will do if he retires. He has some of the same courage as you do, which is to seek clarity over agreement. His strong opinions about Chabad, which has chosen achdut over clarity, demonstrated to me his moral strength and wisdom. I look to rabbis to tell me what the Torah says about the things I see around me in society. You have done so in this piece, and I am most grateful.

  32. Jacob Toledny

    Rivka’s comments make a lot of sense and your response misses the point. I don’t think she’s saying that a Rabbi answering Niddah questions, or a gynecologist doing an exam, finds it sexually arousing. But when Rivka, or any other woman, says that it makes her uncomfortable to present her most sensitive personal Niddah issues to a Rabbi, how can you tell her simply that she’s wrong?

    And have you not noticed that there’s a higher percentage of female ob-gyns than probably any other medical practice? Why do you think that is? Obviously because Rivka is not alone in feeling more comfortable having some of her most private female issues handled by a woman. Just as it’s great that there are male and female ob-gyns so that a woman can choose her preference, why can’t a Shul have a female Maharat (or Yoetzet) to give women the choice as to whom they present their personal questions, given that you’re not saying that this is halachically oser.

    You seem unable in this post (as in so many of your posts) to see the perspective of others. Perhaps this example can help you on this issue. Say you just moved to Teaneck to head one of the largest Shuls in Town. A month later you need a prostate exam. There are two recommended urologists. One is a male, the other is a female. The female is the president of the Sisterhood in your Shul. Are you seriously going to claim that your choice will be made entirely irrespective of the gender of the two doctors because “the reality is that professionals are professionals.”????

    • I think you touched on the problem. “How can you tell her simply that she’s wrong” that she is “uncomfortable…”?
      Of course, I can’t. It is her feeling. Feelings can not be right or wrong; they are simply feelings.
      But the halacha and the mesorah are not based on “feelings” but on facts, precedents, etc. To bring “feelings” into the equation is to end the dialogue because there is no common frame of reference.
      For “Rivka” to possess these feelings is the ultimate in subjectivity. The extent to which the satisfaction of her feelings should allow the vitiation of the mesorah is the discussion at hand. But halacha deals in more objective categories, a point which seems to escape many. Most women, apparently, do not have the same squeamishness; other women, with even stronger feelings than “Rivka,” would not discuss these matters with anyone, male or female, and sadly make their own decisions in these matters.
      And of course I see the persepctive of others. But I write from my perspective! It is not simply an encyclopedia of the various views on the subject, but if you understand “perspective” to mean “feelings” than you are indeed on shaky ground.
      And I would choose the best doctor possible. Or the cheapest. But what does that have to do with Torah?
      -RSP

    • I would have no problem going to a female urologist.

  33. JewishInsurgent

    Yes, I would never go to a doctor who I went to Shul with for that very reason.

  34. Rabbi P, as a fellow attorney and (non practicing) rabbi, I admire and respect your articles. I learn much from them. But I have a few thoughts today on the subject of feminism and “open orthodoxy.”
    The first thing to note is that “open orthodoxy”, or whatever flavor of the month term it uses, barely registers a blip on the radar screen. It’s akin to organizations with fancy letterhead and sophisticated fund-raisers, but for all intents are nothing more than a guy in his office with his laptop. The same is essentially true about liberal orthodox movements. The non religious media, like the Jewish Week, like to promote them because they, as outsiders to religion, foolishly think they represent a challenge to traditional orthodox practice. Hence, they appear to be more numerous than they are. In the real world though, their numbers are tiny, so small so as to be statistically non existent. All of the practicing “morethodx” Jews in the world can fit into one or two good sized shuls in Monsey.

    The second point to note is Levitics 27:2. There the verse says, in no uncertain terms, a man is worth 50 shekels, a woman is worth 30. This is where orthodox feminist arguments come to die. If you accept the Torah, as the morethodx tell us they do, then they are accepting as a premise not only that men are different than women, but that men are worth more. I offer no comment on that, because, as we both learned in law school, res ipsa loquitor.

    Now for the last point. The best argument against the morethodox reformers is not halacha, but society itself. Look at what feminism has wrought in America! For every step supposedly taken forward, two have been taken back. The marriage rate is falling, the divorce rate is climbing, and all the while women’s magazines routinely churn out articles in which women confide that they’d rather be raising children that working. (Exceptions, naturally, abound.) This failed (and eventually to be, fleeting) concept of 20th century American society we should import into our millenia-old way of life? Are we nuts? By making this argument, I avoid the problems of the fact that halacha does change, as we all know. The argument is not from torah sources, but from empirical sources. The evidence of what feminsim has caused is already in, and it’s not pretty.

    The first thing to note is that “open orthodoxy”, or whatever flavor of the month term it uses, barely registers a blip on the radar screen. It’s akin to organizations with fancy letterhead and sophisticated fund-raisers, but for all intents are nothing more than a guy in his office with his laptop. The same is essentially true about liberal orthodox movements. The non religious media, like the Jewish Week, like to promote them because they, as outsiders to religion, foolishly think they represent a challenge to traditional orthodox practice. Hence, they appear to be more numerous than they are. In the real world though, their numbers are tiny, so small so as to be statistically non existent. All of the practicing “morethodx” Jews in the world can fit into one or two good sized shuls in Monsey.

    The second point to note is Levitics 27:2. There the verse says, in no uncertain terms, a man is worth 50 shekels, a woman is worth 30. This is where orthodox feminist arguments come to die. If you accept the Torah, as the morethodx tell us they do, then they are accepting as a premise not only that men are different than women, but that men are worth more. I offer no comment on that, because, as we both learned in law school, res ipsa loquitor.

    Now for the last point. The best argument against the morethodox reformers is not halacha, but society itself. Look at what feminism has wrought in America! For every step supposedly taken forward, two have been taken back. The marriage rate is falling, the divorce rate is climbing, and all the while women’s magazines routinely churn out articles in which women confide that they’d rather be raising children that working. (Exceptions, naturally, abound.) This failed (and eventually to be, fleeting) concept of 20th century American society we should import into our millenia-old way of life? Are we nuts? By making this argument, I avoid the problems of the fact that halacha does change, as we all know. The argument is not from torah sources, but from empirical sources. The evidence of what feminsim has caused is already in, and it’s not pretty.

  35. The worth you address – arachin – is based on objective assessments of the value of a person as a slave. Thus, men fetch more, as men can do more as slaves due to our superior physical abilities. Are we still permitted to say the latter?
    -RSP

  36. I dont know if the superior value of the man is based purely on his physical ability. Recently i learned Masechta Arachin, and I dont recall that point being made. (Naturally I could be wrong or have forgotten it.) Regardless, the bottom line line is that the Torah says a man is worth more. For 5000 years of civilization that has never been questioned, until Ameirca in the latter half of the 20th century. It is a phase, nothing more.

  37. I once heard that the values in Arachin are minimum values for people without skills, but people with skills are worth more, depending on the value of their abilities.

    If someone could find an exact source for this…

  38. Pingback: From Openness to Heresy | Cross-Currents

  39. Pingback: From Openness to Heresy | The 5 Towns Jewish Times

  40. Kvod HaRav: I am more optimistic than you. I see the argument over Open Orthodoxy as akin to the reaction to early Chassidut. In my opinion, the hitnagdut of the mitnagdim eventually restrained some of the more radical aspects of early Chassidut that threatened Torah Judaism – and thus helped create a beautiful dynamic movement well within the Torah world. Might that not be the fate of Open Ortho? Might they come up against their own “misnagdim” (among whom you are a shining example), recalibrate, and emerge as a Torah-true branch of our rich mosaic?

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