A Response for the Neo-Cons

In the Times of Israel (http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/mesorah-and-making-room-a-journey-to-womens-spiritual-leadership/), Rabbi Avi Weiss, whom I will always esteem for his past accomplishments for the Jewish people notwithstanding his current odyssey, lays out his case for the ordination of women as a natural evolution of the Mesorah as he sees it. His arguments are compelling, skilled polemics, but ultimately fall short and are unpersuasive, as well as divisive to the Jewish people.
Note first the proof case for this flexible Mesorah – the Gemara Chulin 6b that states that the great Rebbi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) permitted the residents of Bet Shean to eat produce without first tithing it on the grounds that Bet Shean was not then part of the land of Israel. (Needless to say, none of the innovators here have the stature or national leadership role of Rebbi.) Nonetheless, the story actually proves the opposite of what Rabbi Weiss presented, as it begins (a curiously omitted passage) that Rebbi “heard testimony that Rabbi Meir ate a vegetable leaf grown in Bet Shean without tithing and based on that Rebbi exempted Bet Shean from the tithing requirement.”
That is to say, Rebbi saw that there was evidently an existing tradition to exempt Bet Shean from tithing, or Rabbi Meir would not have eaten untithed vegetables. Likely, there was a change in the facts on the ground – an obvious loss of sovereignty of the Jewish people in that territory and a reduced population that led Rebbi to decree that it was no longer part of the land of Israel for tithing purposes. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was simply following his rebbe, Rabbi Meir, and extended Rabbi Meir’s private decision to the public. But here, was there an existing tradition that Rabbi Weiss followed to ordain women? No. (Only non-Orthodox movements have done so, first Reform, followed a decade or so later by Conservative.) Was there a change in the factual circumstances that called into question the prior mesora? Not at all.
Rabbi Weiss: “Rebbe responded: makom hinihu li avotai le-hit’gader bo – “My ancestors left room for me to distinguish myself.” (Hullin 6b,7a) In other words, it’s been left over for the next generation. No generation can do all of the work that is necessary. It is not only the right, but the obligation of each generation le-hit’gader bo—to distinguish itself. Not to distinguish itself in an arrogant sense, but in the sense of continuing the work of not being frozen in the past and thus taking halakha to even greater heights.”
In fact, Rashi here (Chulin 7a) does interpret “lehitgader” to mean “lehitgadel” – to become great, to make a reputation, to demonstrate halachic prowess. That interpretation perhaps hits closer to home than wanted, but the interpretation of “continuing the work of not being frozen in the past and thus taking halakha to even greater heights” is Rabbi Weiss’ own and not indicated by the text or commentators. In any event, clearly the facts changed and necessitated a different psak than the one his ancestors gave. How is that related at all to women’s ordination? No facts changed; what changed was embracing the secular value system that sees egalitarianism as a Torah value, when it is clearly not.
Notice also that the premise in Chullin is based on two individuals – Asa and Yehoshafat – who did not do what they should have done – destroy idols – thereby allowing Chizkiyahu to “make his reputation” as an idol-buster. I.e., Chizkiyahu’s “innovation” was to destroy what his ancestors failed to destroy. He did the right thing; it wasn’t at all a “Mesora” issue. How does this justify women’s ordination? Additionally, Rabbi Yehuda’s decision was localized, applicable only to the few Jews of Bet Shean. By contrast, Rabbi Weiss’ decision to unilaterally change long-standing tradition and, in the process, disregard several halachic principles, purports to affect all of the Klal Yisrael.
That is not to say that individual halachists have no right to disagree with a psak of prior generations or poskim. Rav Herschel Schachter posits (in his recently released Divrei Sofrim, Page 67) that according to the Rambam, a Bet Din can disagree with the conclusions of prior Batei Din even if not greater than them, except in areas of takana. Of course, the Rambam referred to Batei Din and not individuals, but the same would apply even to great individuals. (“However, this should not lead one to the conclusion that in every generation, rabbinic leaders can pasken as they please.” Pages 113-114).
But note the three cases Rabbi Weiss adduced to show the Mesorah’s evolution: polygamy, slavery and yefat to’ar. In each case, Chazal made use of the principle of “shev v’al taaseh,” don’t so something because it might violate another Torah value. The ordination of women is exactly the opposite – it is a “kum v’aseh,” an active, affirmative violation of the tradition, not a passive abstention from a particular act.
Two examples suffice: the halacha bans blowing the shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashana that falls on Shabbat, lest a person carry the shofar in the public domain to learn how to blow it. The Mesorah “evolutionists” might posit that since today, only proficient people blow, and we have eruvin, and we can leave the shofar in shul before Shabbat, etc., that the tradition of not blowing on Shabbat Rosh Hashana should be abandoned and that we should again be able to listen to the inspiring and awesome sounds of the shofar even on Shabbat. It makes sense – we would thereby fulfill a Torah commandment of shofar – but that breach of the Mesorah would place one beyond the pale of Orthodoxy.
So, too, drawing from one of Rabbi Weiss’ own examples: suppose an enterprising, creative rabbi would decide to reverse Rabbenu Gershom’s ban on polygamy. After all, the edot hamizrach never accepted it, and it is arguable whether it has lapsed or even if he meant it for all time. And this innovative rabbi would do it for the most sincere reasons – say, resolve the singles’ crisis, in which unmarried females outnumber unmarried males. Imagine if willing males would embrace two or three women into their homes. Forget the bigamy laws (as many people have already). The immorality that prevails today (fewer and fewer marriages take place) could certainly accommodate concubinage, which is obviously more formal and more respectful than adultery, one-night stands or other such shenanigans that are not uncommon in the modern world. Needless to say, the rabbi who would suggest that would place himself outside the pale of Orthodoxy and in a heap of trouble with his wife. In theory, though, why couldn’t an “evolving Mesorah” accept that?
The answer is because the Mesorah does not adapt to new circumstances in the way that Rabbi Weiss presented, which is in fact precisely the methodology of the non-Orthodox movements: see which cultural winds are blowing, presume that those values are good, proper and worthy of emulation, and figure out a way to do with the minimum disfigurement of Jewish law. I.e., decide what you want to so and then adduce the sources to permit it. But halacha has a methodology with which it addresses new circumstances; the ordination of women did not utilize it but did utilize the evolutionary theory of the non-Orthodox.
Notice also how innocuous practices – simchat bat – are conflated with weightier issues, like women’s ordination. But even the shalom zachar has a broader purpose unrelated to women (I think, and perhaps only to date:) it announces when the brit mila will take place.
Two references are jarring. The first – allegedly the original Maharat – was someone named Osnat who headed a yeshiva in Kurdistan for a time. Frankly, I have never heard of her, do not even know if she really lived or was simply a fictional character in some historical novel. With all due respect to her and to my dear brethren of the Kurdish-Jewish community, Osnat – if she indeed lived – was certainly not a mainstream figure and even less is known about the spiritual level of her community that induced them to retain the services of this predecessor to Yentl. She cannot be a precedent – she did not even have any successors. By way of analogy, the bearded lady was always a staple of the carnival, but she was hardly a reason to apply to all women the three biblical prohibitions relating to shaving.
The second reference is also a hardy perennial – boldly stating that deceased great rabbis would now support innovations that they strenuously opposed during their lifetimes. It is a specious argument that adds nothing to the debate because it can neither be sustained nor refuted. Tampering with the words and writings of great Sages after they have gone to their eternal reward, and twisting them to mean the opposite of what they said, is not much different than the posthumous conversions done to Jews (and others) for many years by the Mormon Church. Personally, it offends me. Citing Rav Kook, the Chofetz Chaim and Rav Soloveitchik out of context as if they would support something that they actually opposed in their lifetimes is disingenuous. May their memories be for a blessing, and may they rest –but really rest – in peace.
Rabbi Weiss: “Our mesorah does not reject the idea of women’s ordination. Quite the contrary, the mesorah rooted in the past, while emanating light into the future, says quite the opposite.” But it does reject the idea; if not, scholarly women from Bruria, the wife of Rabbi Meir, to Nechama Leibowitz z”l would have been called “Rabbi.” The fact that they were not – and it is a fact – means that the mesorah did not and could not accommodate that title or that job description.
The fact that there is a “demand,” if four institutions out of thousands can be described as “a demand,” really says nothing at all. There are many varieties of Judaism’s out there, many of them having only a tangential relationship with Torah. Any experienced rabbi could attest that many Jews, told something (a food, a restaurant, a Maharat) they long thought was forbidden was now permitted, will flock to it at first. Usually the demand for the illicit is very strong, but it peters out when the desire for the next illicit thing builds and builds. People love to have permitted to them what they want to do anyway, but that is hardly to be perceived as spiritual greatness.
Elsewhere I have addressed the halachic and hashkafic problems, but the attempt to change the Mesorah and traditional Jewish practice because American values have changed is, simply, non-Orthodox. To act on the impulse that the Torah considers women “second-class citizens” is repugnant, and can only and necessarily lead to further halachic mischief. In a free country, anyone can do anything and call it Judaism or anything else. But the Torah world has an equal right – and obligation – to characterize such deviations for what they are: non-Orthodox, mimicry of the Reform/Conservative approach to Jewish law and methodology, and self-alienation of the Torah world.
No one involved in this controversy, least of all myself, is Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Meir, the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Kook, Rav Soloveitchik, et al. This unilateral attempt to transform the traditional role of women in Jewish life has grave ramifications – for marriages, families, children, the Jewish community, the integrity of the Mesorah, and the Orthodox world. It is tantamount to castigating and besmirching the rabbis and leaders of prior generations for not being as enlightened or moral as present company. That requires some broad shoulders and enormous self-confidence.
A kind reader called to my attention this quote from Rabbenu Bachye’s Chovot Halevavot, Shaar Yichud Hamaaseh, Chapter 5: “Be careful, therefore, not to stray in your step from the way of the fathers and the path of the Early Ones, into unjustifiable innovations, relying only on your mind, consulting only your own opinion, and following only your own conjecture. Do not distrust your fathers regarding what they have handed down to you concerning what is good for you, and do not contradict the views they teach you. For there can be no idea that occurs to you of which they had not already thought and weighed its consequences, both positive and negative.”
“You may recognize the positive in a certain opinion at its initial stage, while the negative consequences at its final stage remain hidden from you; so that, with your lack of deliberation, you will see what is positive in it, but fail to see its error and liability. As the Wise One said: ‘Do not move back the world’s boundary [which your fathers established]’ (Mishlei 22:28).”

That is profound, and profoundly relevant. The grievances against the Torah will not end with this, nor will the deviations from tradition. Like a century ago, a new movement has been created that is outside the realm of Torah. It will not have the same devastating impact on Jewish life as did the other movements because their numbers will remain small. The large majority of the Orthodox world will reject it, some rather prosaically perceiving it as a typical, non-Orthodox pattern. Eventually, its rabbis and adherents will find themselves outside the Orthodox orbit – with their marriages, divorces, conversions and kosher supervisions coming under suspicion or just being rejected.
All that is inevitable, if it hasn’t happened already, and echoes Rabbenu Bachye’s concerns above.
I pray that my remarks are not too strident, and that no one take personal offense. This is the business of Torah. I have said my piece and have no interest in ever again addressing this topic.


13 responses to “A Response for the Neo-Cons

  1. Sue Hausdorff

    Wow! Very timely topic…. It was just discussed last nite at dinner… Wish I had read this before the dinner….. Have a great shabbos…

  2. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky said:
    “No facts changed; what changed was
    embracing the secular value system…”

    The short quote shown above concisely
    summarizes the entire issue in 11 words.

  3. Thank you for this brilliantly articulated defense of Halacha and Torah values !

    Kol Hakavod !

    With much appreciation and enormous respect,


    DANIEL WOHLGELERNTER office phone: 310-315-0101
    Sent from my iPhone 5
    Please note my new e-mail address: drdan@santamonicacardiology.com

  4. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky said:
    “I pray that my remarks are not too strident,
    and that no one take personal offense.”

    What a beautiful thought!
    What a beautiful way to end a Torah essay!

  5. Isn’t this the issue:

    “its rabbis and adherents will find themselves outside the Orthodox orbit – with their marriages, divorces, conversions and kosher supervisions coming under suspicion or just being rejected.”

    But this is also true for most “MO” rabbis in the view of the Charedi establishment?

  6. To JK: No, not at all, and certainly not in my experience.

  7. Thank you for this piece. I was just wondering: What about the Rov’s p’sak permitting shaving on chol ha’moed due to an assessment of the current situation? Was that an act of changing the Mesorah and traditional Jewish practice because American values had changed?

    Also, regardless of title, if there would be a woman who proved herself to be “Rabbinically-worthy” (in terms of education, adherence to the mesorah, experience, intellect, behavior), would one be allowed to turn to her for a halachic opinion (at first I had typed out “p’sak halacha”….)? Or would that be a violation of the Torah?

    Finally, it’s stated above that “This unilateral attempt to transform the traditional role of women in Jewish life has grave ramifications – for marriages, families, children, the Jewish community, the integrity of the Mesorah, and the Orthodox world.” First, what are the grave ramifications? And could an argument be made that the ramifications – whatever they may be – might be graver if the role of women is transformed in other areas of life (such as women in the workforce) but not in the Jewish part thereof? (One could imagine that it would not be such a bad thing for Jewish girls to have Maharot as role models. Or could it?). Or are we afraid of the slippery slope?

    Once again, thank you for your essay. I fully agree that the concept is of Mesorah is often downplayed when it comes up against “rational” thinking. It’s just that questions such as the above do come up, and it helps to be equipped with the answers.

    • Thanks for writing. The Rov’s psak was based on the opinions of Rabbenu Tam and the Noda B’Yehuda (rishon and acharon, respectively) so it was not a chiddush.
      Re psak: if it came up, then you should ask a she’elah (of a man) whether it is permissible to get a psak from a woman. While asking that she’elah, you might as well ask the one you had on your mind!
      Finally, I don’t think there would any harm if women’s roles were transformed in other areas but not in Jewish life. Indeed, it has always been so. (Women could work, own property, etc.) The attempt to transform the woman’s role here would, among other things, impair Jewish family life that is already under siege. The bottom line is: all these endeavors – Women of the Wall, Maharat, same-sex marriage, etc. – are nothing less than an attempt to blur and then eliminate any gender distinctions in Jewish life and law, which has been a secular/progressive goal for several decades. But men and women are different, and the Torah believes the division of responsibilities is not only better for society but better for the man and the woman.
      Unfortunately, we are past the slippery slope argument. We are almost at the bottom of the hill. The only remaining question is how many casualties there will be when this finally comes to a stop.

  8. If a Yisrael and a Levi proved their expertise in the laws of the korbanot, then would they be permitted to perform the avodah of the kohanim on the Beth HaMikdash?

    How does this principle apply to the question of female Rabbis?

  9. Fantastic. Thank you for being a beacon of clarity in such a foggy world!

  10. I’ll defend the Torah. I find it boring to repeat myself.

  11. Dear Aaron,

    Granted that the current title of “Rabbi” is not on the same
    level as semichah during Talmudic times.

    BUT, we Jews eagerly look forward to the day when real
    semichah is re-established, as part of the redemption
    process led by Eliyahu HaNavi and the universally-
    accepted Melech HaMashiach.

    Mr. Cohen

    PS: Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan speaks about re-establishing
    real semichah in his THE HANDBOOK OF

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