“Where does it say it ?”

 And finally…

One question keep recurring: “Where does it say it?” As in: where is it written that a woman cannot be a Rabbi ? The question, asked several dozen times in the last few weeks, deserves an answer about halachic methodology, because the question itself reveals a lack of understanding about Jewish life and tradition, as well as, I say this gently, not a little disingenuousness.

One might as well ask: where does it say that I cannot give my beloved flowers on Valentine’s Day ? Where does it say that I cannot watch TV or play tennis on Shabbat ? Where does it say that a shul requires a mechitza? Where does it say that I cannot get drunk every day ? (Don’t get any ideas.)

There is a reason why the Torah was not given to us as a law book, but as a narrative that includes laws, unlike, say, the Constitution or the United States Code. Neither of the latter works gave an account of what preceded their composition, but rather just present, respectively, the framework of government and the dry laws that govern different aspects of society. The Torah begins with creation, the stories of our forefathers, the exile in Egypt and the redemption, the Revelation at Sinai and our sojourn in the wilderness. The Torah presents its laws in an ethical framework, and fosters the creation of a Torah personality who is humble, subjugates his will to G-d, and finds his connection to spiritual life through the Mesorah.

The naval birshut HaTorah (the degenerate within the Torah’s framework) is the prototypical example of a person who does not violate any specific laws in the Torah but still confounds and tramples on the very notion of the Torah personality. He is a drunkard and a glutton, but cannot be shown any specific place “where it says” one cannot be a glutton or a drunkard. But he is still a degenerate, not a good Jew, and breaches in a vulgar manner the Torah’s meta-halachic mandate that compels us to be a “holy people.”

There are notions that transcend halacha; not that one could not point to a specific clause here or there that prohibits or permits some desired practice (like the female rabbi), but rather that the specific clause is almost irrelevant to the question at hand. One such meta-halachic notion concerns the appropriate categorization of the roles of men and women in Jewish life, and in particular the criteria for Jewish leadership. Chazal would not have had to ask “how could Devorah judge?” (see Chapter 2 of my book on Sefer Shoftim, “Judges for Our Time” for a greater elaboration) if the issue was self-evident. Other such meta-halachic concepts include “what is right and good,” “you shall be holy,” “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy,” et al. If all we did was just look in a book (or Google the Internet) in order to find what is permissible or impermissible, we would not recognize Judaism or need Rabbis, nor would Judaism have much to say to the world of lasting value. Obviously, no legal work can encompass every single case or eventuality, and the divine genius of Torah is that we are given formulas that can be applied by the masters of Torah in every generation in order to gain a consensus and be guided in practice.

The latter point is critical, as some persist in citing even one authority who permits something, and so therefore it must be legal. (Rav Uziel’s name keeps popping up in terms of women as judges.) But one might then as well reference Rav Yaakov Emden who “proved” that men can take concubines, or Rabbi Yossi Haglili (Masechet Shabbat 130a) who “proved” that one can eat chicken and milk together. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of such examples. Well, all rabbis are created equal, but they do not all carry equal weight. Tradition strives for consensus, and in almost every case – and the exceptions are literally exceptional cases – the halacha, minhag, practice, recommendation, etc. – will follow the consensus of Rabbis and certainly when the matter at hand has national implications. Individual Rabbis might have flexibility in methods of koshering a dishwasher, but only a consensus of great Rabbis can introduce changes that affect the Jewish people – and their reluctance here is grounded not in timidity or prejudice but in Mesorah.

That is why – to answer another recurring comment on the lack of a universal posek – even Rav Elyashiv, Rav Ovadia Yosef, Rav Moshe Feinstein, etc.  will not necessarily be heeded on every particular decision. They, too, great people all, can also fall outside the consensus of halachic opinion in a particular case. But the consensus can be trusted not only to give appropriate guidance, but also to apply the traditional formula to new circumstances and – most significantly – not allow the mesora to be corrupted by alien ideologies that infiltrate our world. (The idea of “female clergy” not only mimics Reform, but in fact is a throwback to pagan ideologies and a perennial challenge to religious establishments. The Catholics suffer from this same type of movement that seeks to feminize the priesthood; it really does come from the “same pew, different church.”)

There is compelling logic in the propriety of consensus, even beyond “acharei rabim l’hatot” (the mandate to follow the majority). If 1000 doctors tell you that something is unhealthy, and only one tells you it is salubrious, only the most foolhardy will listen to the one doctor. We generally follow the overwhelming majority on any matter of interest. Would that we treated rabbinical opinion with the same formula we apply to restaurant or movie reviews; perhaps, to the detractors, the latter have more substance, since religion is all about “how you feel,” anyway.

To say there is no consensus that “female rabbis” are even in the realm of the possible, much less acceptable, is an understatement, to say the least. The opposite is so – there is near universal condemnation of the concept across the Jewish world – right to left – for clearly stated reasons. Some have been articulated earlier. Others present each day: A Rabbi is a spiritual leader, a role model, an example-setter. But the Torah exempts a woman from Talmud Torah and from public prayer – the two most common situations in which the public interacts with a Rabbi. “Greater is the one who is commanded and does than the one who is not commanded and does,” and so woe to the community whose “spiritual leaders” are exempt from essential aspects of Jewish life. “There is darkness in the generation in which a woman rules” (Yalkut Shimoni Shoftim 42), with Margaret Thatcher, perhaps, the exception.

One other point needs to be made on answering the question “where does it say it?” In truth, it is surprising to see that many ModOs are such textual fanatics, since even when specific laws are found in print they are often willfully disregarded. For example, the Talmud, Rambam and Shulchan Aruch (and later authorities as well) are quite explicit in obligating married women to cover their hair outside their homes, or in prohibiting swimming on Shabbat.  The fact that such is in writing – and quite unequivocally – does not seem to have that great an impact in certain ModO sectors. Or, one finds written injunctions on the importance of tefila b’tzibur, but in some ModO communities that does not seem to be the norm. So maybe the fact that something is in writing or not in writing is not really the point?

What emerges is the rank hypocrisy of people who will embrace as permissible whatever is not explicitly prohibited in the books (or explicitly prohibited to their satisfaction), while simultaneously arrogating to themselves the right to ignore or expound away explicitly written prohibitions when they do conflict with a particular objective or desire. That approach of the leftist ModO fringe makes up in legal creativity what it lacks in integrity, and is unworthy of and unbecoming a serious Jew.

All this reminds me of an incident I witnessed at the Kotel years ago. A weekday Bar Mitzva was accompanied by several loud musical instruments – a violation of the prevailing custom at the Kotel. When the father was told by the Kotel usher that what he was doing was forbidden, he replied: “But where does it say that I can’t do it?” Good question. And when told “zeh assur kahn” (“this is forbidden here;” it was even in writing), he answered “aval ani kahn” (“but I am here”) – and that made all the difference. It is all about me.

This month’s Newsmax quotes Rice University religious sociology professor Michael Lindsay on the “playlist effect” in contemporary American religious practice. “The way we personalize our iPhones, we also personalize our religious lives.” Rather than surrender our will to a Greater Authority, we choose what suits us from Column A or Column B – self-worship masquerading as divine worship.  Sadly, this tempest is just another example of Jews imitating non-Jews.

In the end, the question “where does it say it?” stems either from a sincere desire to research the sources – in which case one should consult a credible, learned Rabbi to understand how such decisions are made – or from an unconscious desire for a smokescreen that conceals the deliberate departure from Jewish tradition that this entails. To think that one can manipulate the sources – underscoring some, ignoring others – to permit the forbidden and thereby deviate from tradition is too clever by half, and just unserious.

The simplest result might be the most painful – simply to construe the small group of breachers as non-Orthodox, with all entails for their standing in the Jewish community. I hope there is another way, but it is clear now that the overwhelming consensus in Jewish life rejects this innovation, and will not let it stand. Let us therefore call it what it is. And let us recall as well that “whether Jew or non-Jew, man or woman, the holy spirit rests on a person in accordance with one’s deeds (Yalkut Shimoni Shoftim 42) – but we are each nonetheless called upon to serve G-d according to His will.

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9 responses to ““Where does it say it ?”

  1. So, I presume that you are anti-Zionist – or at least would have been 80-120 years ago?

    • I don’t quite follow your logic. The Torah itself is a “Zionist” document as it advocates Jewish residence in and possession of the land of Israel. Just because the “return to Zion” was dormant from many centuries did not vitiate its inherence in Torah thought, any more than the absence of a Bet HaMikdash has vitiated that institutions’s viability.
      Bear in mind that, outside of Hungarian anti-Zionism, most opposition to Zionism was politically-based, not hashkafically-based. That is to say, the gedolim opposed the secular Zionists, whom they did not trust (and usually, rightfully so), that they did Zionism in its pure form. Who would oppose a return to Zion ?

  2. Excellent article. This is probably the best short articulation of the concepts of concensus and Mesorah that I have seen. These are frequently ignored concepts in the MO world.

  3. What about the Age of the Universe question? Should we follow the majority in banning R’ Slifkin’s books? Or is your argument valid only to halakhah and not hashkafah/machshavah?

    • Machshava questions have no “psak,” although it is possible that certain ideas could be banned as heretical. I was not aware that a “majority” banned R. Slifkin’s books, and I don’t believe that to be the case. And even some of the impetuous banners have retracted their signatures. That particular issue – the age of the universe – is one on which much has been written across the Torah spectrum, and so does not allow itself to categorized as a Haredi v. Modern issue. Obviously, time became fixed at the first Shabbat, 5770 years are counted from the creation of Adam, and the sun itself – one of critical arbiters of time – was not created until the “fourth” day. So something has to give, and the Torah – which doesn’t directly address the issue – can accommodate a number of views, all of which have been espoused by gedolim in the last several huundred years.

      • If the people in this article: http://chareidi.shemayisrael.com/archives5765/bo/aslifkin.htm are not majority, then you are definitely not speaking for many observant jews. I understand that in some circles, people such as R’ Schachter or R’ Willig, or R’ Lichtenstein or R’ Amital are considered Gedolim. However, it seems that the Gedolim of the linked article attract much more followers. What would you say?

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  5. Wow I’m actually the first comment to this incredible read!

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