Category Archives: Minhagim

Kotel Controversy

Here in Israel, the recent Cabinet decision to segregate the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple Mount) into traditional/Orthodox and non-Orthodox, Western-influenced modes of worship have ignited passions on all five sides of the issue. From one perspective, the decision merely enshrined into law what had become a de facto non-Orthodox place of worship for several years already. From another perspective, the decision enshrines into law not only a violation of the status quo that had been in effect for more than fifty years, but also authorizes an especially vulgar violation of the sanctity of the holiest site in Jewish life. It’s not a mixed blessing but a mixed curse.
We start with the positive aspects of the decision. Permission to the non-Orthodox to hold sway over part of the Kotel defuses a major source of tension between Israel and part of American Jewry, and counteracts the incessant pressure and threats they make against Israel when they feel disrespected. Threats by Jewish secular politicians and the Jewish “religious” politicians to reduce their support for Israel if their demands were not met bore fruit, even if those threats were idle. (Remove the “Israel factor” from non-Orthodox life, and the substance of their Jewish commitment largely reads like the Bernie Sanders platform.) But reduction of acrimony is always a good thing.
Secondly, the decision has effectively banished the Women of the Wall and their provocations away from the main Kotel plaza and into the non-traditional section. This most certainly must stick in their craw, but does accurately define how the Torah world perceives them. Thirdly, as the location is not visible from the main plaza and need not be seen by traditional worshipers at the Kotel, the Kotel will no longer be a constant flashpoint for media stunts and public relations ploys. Rather, each Jew can choose his/her place of worship and not be affronted by the presence of the “other.” As such, it fulfills a pluralist vision, for those who worship in that temple. It purports to express a “live and let live” philosophy.
Sounds great? Here are the problems and they are serious. The decision, purporting to be accommodating, is one of the most divisive acts in Jewish life in decades, and perhaps not since the Reform movement’s patrilineal descent ruling in 1983. One of the greatest expressions of Jewish unity – that all Jews could gather at this sacred space, the remnant of the Holy Temple, and worship precisely as our fathers and mothers did for centuries – has now been shattered. The fraying bonds of Jewish unity will be further torn, hanging by a bare thread.
Secondly, and this irony should not be lost on any thinking person, the laws of Mechitza are derived (Masechet Succa 51b) from what took place on the Temple Mount. The fact that Jewish law requires a separation between men and women during prayer is derived from the very practice that took place on the Temple Mount that stands directly above the place where descendants of those very Jews are now brazenly flouting that very provision. So, why exactly are they there?
Some, to their discredit, have pointed out that there was no Mechitza in place at the Kotel until 1967, and generations of Jews prayed there in mixed or at least separate fashion. The ears that hear such a statement should tremble: for 19 centuries, the Kotel was controlled by non-Jews: Romans, Byzantines, and then for centuries, Muslims, followed briefly by the British. Should we act today in the sovereign State of Israel exactly as our enemies treated us – and the Kotel – during the years of our dispersion and persecution? To answer in the affirmative is to acquiesce in a breathtaking lack of Jewish pride, sense of Jewish nationhood and awareness of the historical moment. There was no Mechitza for centuries because our enemies, occupiers of Yerushalayim, did not allow it. And sovereign Israel should do the same?!
Additionally, even if we ignore for a movement that the Reform movement for generations rejected the concept of the Return to Zion, it still renounces the traditional Jewish dream and objective of rebuilding the Temple. Do they recite the thrice-daily prayer that the Temple should be restored speedily and in our days and the order of worship therein be restored? I think not. So, why exactly do they want to be there?
And the only way we identify the place in question as the Temple Mount is through the Mesora, the unbroken transmission of Jewish law and lore, that is rejected by the non-Orthodox movements. Indeed, the official position of the Palestine Authority is that there was no Temple Mount, fanciful and spiteful to be sure, but a clear denial of our tradition. (Not to belabor the incongruity, but the “Palestinians” are the group that lacks any tradition of living in the land of Israel for any appreciable amount of time.) In essence, Jewish groups that deny the Mesora are claiming their “right” to worship as they see fit in a place that is ours due to our Mesora and preserved by those faithful to that Mesora.
Furthermore, the non-Orthodox must surely concede that the way they wish to worship – mixed pews – is itself a violation of that very Mesora. And, although the decision currently prohibits the use of musical instruments or flagrant desecrations of Shabbat in the non-Orthodox zone, give that time. The will of the G-d of Israel, to them, must always defer to the gods of pluralism and religious freedom. Religious freedom is the freedom to construct your own religion. That is a Western value that animates too many Jews; but is it a Jewish value that should find expression in the holiest place in the holiest city in the holiest land on G-d’s earth? No.
It is inconceivable that the Vatican would open a Protestant church in its jurisdiction, or that Shiite sites might allow Sunnis to worship as they wish. (Given the world scene, free people can differ as to which scenario today is more unlikely!) Thus, allowing “all Jews” to worship as they wish in the name of pluralism engenders a variety of interesting possibilities? Jews for Jesus? Joint and commingled prayers among all religions? Should the new Kotel area become a venue for the performance of intermarriages? After all, one good Churban deserves another… On some matters “live and let live” shows a religious relativism that undermines what is sacred.
The decision, which I believe is well-meaning, harms the unity of the Jewish people, the sanctity of the place, and the integrity of Halacha, and those are in no particular order. It turns the Kotel into a shrine, in the worst sense of the term: the sanctification of a wall, of stones, with little consciousness of the G-d whose presence sanctifies the place, the G-d whose law we are enjoined to obey, and of the generations of Jews whose faithfulness and fidelity to Halacha kept alive the prophetic vision of Jewish national life that is now being realized.
There is something to be said for the notion that the Israeli-Jewish public is composed of a variety of tribes that has to find some way to co-exist, not just in order to deal with the real and pressing threats of our foreign enemies but simply because that is the way it has always been. In the ancient past, each tribe had its own character and interests, even if all were committed to Halacha. Our modern tribes differ in that commitment, and so historic compromises were made to foster co-existence. Control of Jewish status issues – marriage, divorce and conversion – were given to the Rabbinate. Public observance of Shabbat and Kashrut were guaranteed. Both commitments ensured the unity of the Jewish people. What is today characterized as “caving in to the ultra-Orthodox” was the simple recognition that the guardians of the Jewish faith and way of life – Torah-observant Jews, and not only the “ultra-Orthodox,” which the elitists use as a slur against a segment of the population that the average Jew is supposed to dislike – were best positioned to maintain the traditions, the unity and the faith of Israel. Here’s the open secret: we still are. That fact alone should promote a measure of deference to changes in the religious status quo.
It is unconscionable that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinate of Yerushalayim were not consulted on this matter, and that the Rabbi of Kotel was consulted and basically ignored. The Minister of Religious Affairs was similarly not consulted. A neutral observer would likely conclude that matters of religious practice at the Kotel fall under the jurisdiction of any one of the aforementioned agencies. It is interesting that just two weeks ago Israelis were expelled from a building they had lawfully purchased in the holy city of Hevron because they allegedly did not have the appropriate authority from the Defense Minister under whose jurisdiction such purchases come. I suppose the difference between encroachments on the jurisdiction of the Defense Minister (who then unabashedly reverses the actions that were taken) and encroachments on the jurisdiction of the rabbinical authorities (which are ignored) is that the former has men with guns at his disposal and the latter do not.
What is well-meaning in the decision is not just the desire to reduce tensions in the Jewish world but also the attempt to keep the non-Orthodox in the fold, to limit the alienation they feel from Israeli life and Jewish destiny by placating them. The problem with this legitimization is that it almost closes the door to a complete return to true Jewish observance, and that is ultimately unfair to them and to their children. The reality is that the non-Orthodox movements exist – but the undeniable and tragic reality also is that their rate of assimilation, intermarriage and attrition from Jewishness is horrifying and catastrophic. We are losing souls, and the process of accommodation that the current decision implies has proven to be a failure.
The proof will soon be apparent. Some perspective is necessary and perhaps this too played a role in the decision. The fact is that the Kotel location will be available 24/7 but will be rarely used. Don’t expect a vatikin minyan or a midnight Maariv. Daily public prayer has not been a focus of the non-Orthodox for many decades, and the new space will be as unpopulated on a daily basis as are the non-Orthodox temples on a daily basis, notwithstanding that there might be a few exceptions. Their Kotel area, born in rebellion against G-d, will be a place for special events – and those who demanded it will still not be satisfied and will make further demands and threats.
I do recognize that there is even a difference between the informal use of the Robinson’s Arch area and official approval that ratifies a new situation. But can it be stopped? In this regard, there have been many unfortunate Israeli initiatives in the past that have been thwarted by the Arabs. As if on cue, the Wakf, the PA and the Jordanians have expressed their vehement objection to the plan. Expect the resurrection of the deceitful Arab claim that Israel is trying “to undermine Al Aksa.” Indeed, the location here is closer to Al Aksa than all the other times this lie was uttered; this too is a lie but Arab lies often affect Israeli policy. The plan may have to be abandoned in order to forestall Arab rioting.
Additionally, the Jerusalem Post reported last week that 60% of Israeli Cabinet decisions are never implemented. Many are announced to great fanfare and receive significant media attention – and then, nothing. One example: a Cabinet decision around ten years ago to move all (or most) government ministries to Yerushalayim. The politicians were lauded, the hypocritical world was outraged, the West denounced it, and since then, nothing. One reason suggested was the lack of money to implement many decisions, notwithstanding the great enthusiasm generated when they are announced. A better reason might be the frequent change of governments and ministers, each with their own priorities, which sees these pronouncements place on the back burner.
Who knows what the future of this decision, scheduled for next year, really will be? What is more pressing than accommodating all types of worship at the Kotel is the disastrous loss of souls to the Jewish people. To my mind, this will hasten that process, not delay it. Worse, the place on earth that was most suitable to unite all Jews will no longer exist in that form and serve that purpose.

I once heard Nechama Leibowitz z”l quote her brother as suggesting, after the Six Day War, that Israel should return the Kotel to Jordan. Otherwise, the day won’t be far off when Jews will turn the Kotel into a “Discotel.”   Those who are rejoicing should take notice, and focus more on substance than on symbols.

The Resolution

The RCA statement on women’s ordination was both timely and tardy.

It was timely because waiting longer would have further greased the slippery slope towards a complete abandonment of Torah and Mesorah. In the absence of a formal resolution decreeing that the institution of female Jewish clergy is beyond the pale of Orthodoxy and insisting rabbis not hire nor shuls retain such clergy, in another few years  dozens of such clergywomen would have been ensconced in left-wing Orthodox synagogues. That would have created a schism in the Torah world that we can ill afford. Invariably, most Orthodox Jews would have shunned such synagogues, which would be the natural reflection of such a rift in the Torah world.

But the resolution was also five years too late, because, in many respects, the schism has already taken place. Previous resolutions were bland or toothless enough that it had little impact on proponents of the move, something I suspect contributed to the blandness of the statements in which proponents had a hand. But now the lines are very clearly delineated as to what is within the world of Torah and what is outside that holy framework. Once clarity has been obtained, then people can make their own decisions, but they cannot say they were not forewarned about the predictable costs of treading that well- worn path.

The resolution was necessary if only because the deviations have expanded over time, not receded. Parents warn their children not to play in the street and to watch for oncoming cars, and no one accuses parents of redundancy when these admonitions are issued every time the children leave home. Rabbis are not parents in this sense nor are the intended audience of this resolution to be construed as daydreaming children. But rabbis are guardians of the Mesorah, and the resolution is nothing less than a cry from the heart – a shriek of “Gevalt!” (for the Yiddishists) – that the road these women are merrily traveling on, with their supporters in tow, leads towards a cliff. They may not want to acknowledge that – may not? They certainly don’t – but that is the reality as seen from this perspective.

If rabbis cannot warn Jews that certain steps are deleterious to their spiritual futures, to the sanctity of the Jewish home, or to the proper observance of Torah – then who can? And who should? Much of the recent deviations from Torah have been fueled by the Western-inspired rejection of any objective authority. “Don’t tread on me! And I have the right to worship G-d in the way I choose!”

Indeed that is so – just don’t call it Orthodox. There needs to be a modicum of intellectual integrity in the pursuit of innovations. Integrity would demand an admission that the advocates recognize that they have strayed from the traditional path of Torah, are mimicking some of the deviations of the traditional non-Orthodox movements, and that what they are doing may be new and attractive to some, but it just is not Orthodoxy.

That the RCA and the Moetzet of Agudah should issue similar statements within days of each other should be cause for at least a second thought on the part of the proponents herein. To be sure, the advocates and feminists will dismiss it as a sign of Orthodoxy’s “turn to the right,” that hoary but meaningless cliché. Could there be another possibility, maybe, just maybe? Can you consider, just for a moment, that maybe these rabbis and spiritual leaders – representing the overwhelming majority of the Orthodox world – genuinely consider these deviations as heresy? Perhaps proponents – and certainly the fence-sitters – should entertain that possibility.

As I have said for years, one of the considerations that make such statements painful for our side is that so many of the proponents of heterodoxy are nice people, they mean well, and are sincere in their pursuit of change within the Torah world. They have much passion and enthusiasm for what they do and for what they believe, and passion and enthusiasm are precious commodities in Jewish life. Feelings are wonderful sensations, but the strongest feelings do not change the substance of the policies or programs. They remain outside the Torah framework. The founders of the non-Orthodox movements were also passionate people, sincere in their belief that their “modernization” of Jewish law would save generations of Jews from assimilation. That they failed miserably in that quest should concern the proponents of “Open Orthodoxy,” who seem to be doing the exact same thing the non-Orthodox did a century ago and hoping this time for different result (remember Einstein’s dictum…).

Much of the reaction has been typical of the ideological true believer, doubling down on their approach without the slightest bit of introspection. In some circles, it has been distinctly modern, if not a little childish – appeals to Facebook, social media, satire, scorn, obloquy, and maledictions. (Are there people who really believe that Facebook “likes” and petitions are part of the methodology of psak?) To accuse rabbis who reject female ordination of being “sexist” is, to say the least, both unsophisticated and unbecoming. Surely proponents can do better, and it might help if they looked a little beyond themselves and even beyond the secular, progressive feminist narrative that seems to animate many of them. No more proof of that assertion is needed than merely noting that non-Orthodox female rabbis have been honored guests at the Maharat ordination ceremonies.

No one on our side of the divide, as far as I know, has ever responded to these issues without careful consideration of what is permitted and forbidden, what is desirable or undesirable. It should worry advocates that the Torah world – both men and women – vehemently oppose what they are doing. It should worry advocates that Nechama Leibowitz z”l would have been disgusted and horrified by what they are doing, not to mention the Rav z”l. This whole issue is viewed by many through the prism of feminism. They sit in judgment of the Torah itself and adjudicate what comports with feminist doctrine and what must be discarded. How sad. I was a student of Nechama Leibowitz (and not a very good one, I concede) in the 1970’s, and not because she was a woman. When I open her sefarim these days, it is not because she was a woman. Both were because she was a teacher of Torah who had something magnificent to contribute to the world of Torah scholarship. But when the Torah – and Jewish law, and Jewish life – are seen only as vehicles to further a narrow agenda, such a movement is bound to fail.

Obviously there has been too much defensiveness over the last few years among too many rabbis in articulating the truth of Torah, as if we should be embarrassed by any Torah doctrine – as if we have achieved a level of piety and scholarship at which we can sit in judgment of the Torah itself, G-d forbid. That is one cause of the official reticence that has bedeviled the ModOs for years already.  Some purported leaders were intimidated into silence. But the core division today in Jewish life is between two groups, one that loves the Torah and sees it as perfect (temima, in King David’s locution) and one that doesn’t love the Torah as is, nor as perfect, and wishes to change it to conform to their contemporary moral predilections. In a free society, they are certainly entitled to do that, even if the loss of Jews to the Torah family is distressing to the rest of us. Just don’t call it Orthodox.

Some have argued that the resolution causes a schism in Jewish life. Indeed, the opposite is true; the goal is to avert a schism. The schism was caused by those who decided to repudiate the Mesorah and challenge the nature of rabbinic leadership that has existed since Sinai. So, who exactly is being divisive – the adherents to tradition or those who have gone their own way?  Others have maintained that the resolution did not go far enough; undoubtedly, some voted against the resolution on that basis. A peculiar argument has been adopted by some who said they are opposed to women’s ordination but voted against the resolution because it was repetitive. Of course, the RCA also passed “overwhelmingly” this year a resolution (that has already disappeared into the ether) decrying the BDS movement – an exact repetition of past resolutions on the same subject. So why vote for that redundancy? Oh, well, consistency is so limiting.

And others have stated that there is a great battle going on for the hearts and minds of today’s young people who are enamored with innovation, suspicious of authority, and averse to any type of restrictions imposed on them by an external system. Sadly, those who embrace this attitude are already lost. There are reasons why the population of the Jewish people has not grown in 2000 years, and religious persecution is only one reason. There is another – the persistent lure of heterodoxy and other heretical ideas that mislead Jews into thinking that what they are being taught is also Torah. By the time they realize it is not, if they do, they have already left the reservation, in effect rejecting something – Torah – that they never really possessed or understood. And this happened regardless of how well meaning the teachers, proponents, and even rabbis were of these novel approaches to Torah. To read some of the heresies emanating from various promoters of the new faith – rejection of the binding nature of halacha, rejection of the divine origin of Torah, a disparagement of Chazal, et al – one shudders at the realization that this cannot end well, and we as a people will be repeating the same pathetic mistakes of the past.

Many of us still harbor the hope that the deterioration can be arrested, that some needed soul-searching can be done by the men and women who see themselves in the vanguard of this new movement, and they can remain within the camp of Torah.

But, until then, they should really stop calling themselves Orthodox. I appreciate the aspiration, but I appreciate truth and clarity even more.

 

Omens

We are commanded this time of year to dwell in Succot (booths) “so all generations should know that G-d had us dwell in Succot when He took us out of Egypt: (Vayikra 23:43). We have been dwelling in Succot ever since –    a sign of G-d’s love and protection from hostile natural elements, and from hostile human forces as well. Our Sages famously disputed whether these Succot were real, actual booths or the divine clouds of glory. But how far does the protection extend?

Rav Rami Berechyahu (the fine Rav of Talmon in Samaria and founder of the organization “Maaminim Bamishtara,” an educational network for religious police officers in Israel) was once asked the following question: a fellow said that he was building his Succa and he injured himself, broke his finger when he smashed it with the hammer. He wanted to know how such a thing was possible when the Talmud (Sota 21a) states that when you are involved in the performance of a Mitzvah, you are protected from harm. So how was he hurt?

The Rabbi first answered that building the Succa is not the mitzvah but a hechsher mitzvah  (preparation for the mitzvah, which is dwelling in the Succa), so the aforementioned principle doesn’t apply) We might be tempted to dismiss such a question altogether but for the fact that many people live their lives according to such signs, omens, premonitions. This action brings good luck, and this brings bad luck. I’ll be successful if I wake up at a certain time, or the weather is a certain way, or this person calls me. As is well known, there are people who do this with mitzvot as well – if I observe this mitzvah, then that entitles me to this reward, or even this: if I do this mitzvah, then I can transfer my reward to someone else.

All of this is alluring but essentially baseless – we can daven for someone else (the primary way of helping another, aside from actually helping them) or even learn extra Torah for someone else. I’ve never seen an authoritative source suggest that I can assign my reward for wearing tefillin (or taking challah) to someone else, anymore than the Jets can assign extra points they have scored to the Giants (not that it would help). And if the transference of reward did work, would the converse also work – that someone else becomes responsible for my sins? (“I’m doing it for him, not for me.”)

Yet, interestingly, the notion that we can interpret events or signs is not unknown even in the world of Halacha. Two famous vignettes suffice: the Vilna Gaon long desired to implement the recitation of the Priestly Blessing every day in the exile, and not just on Yom Tov as we currently do. He tried several times but stayed his hand, until one time he decided that he would do it the next morning. That same night, he was arrested on slanderous charges (part of the Chasidic-Mitnaged wars of the 1700’s); when he was released he took it as a “sign from Heaven” (Aliyot Eliyahu, 44) that he should not make this change in the liturgy. Some years later, the Gaon’s disciple tried the same thing – and the night before it was to happen, the Bet Midrash in Volozhin burnt down.

So, too, the Chatam Sofer ruled that if a person ate meat late at night and arose early the next morning, it is permissible to have coffee with milk even before six hours have elapsed since he last consumed meat. One need not wait the customary six hours between consumption of meat and milk, as sleep speeds digestion. Most others disagreed, but having ruled, the Chatam Sofer decided to act in accordance with his ruling, ate a late night meat meal, rose early the next day, poured himself coffee, added milk, and… promptly knocked over the whole cup. From here he deduced that the halacha is not in accordance with his opinion.

What does this all mean? Are we mystics? Do omens matter? Rav Yisrael Salanter rejected all of these, arguing that the Torah is not in Heaven. Halachic questions must be decided based on halacha and not based on signs or wonders. The Bet Midrash in Volozhin was burnt down not by an act of G-d – but man, Rav Yisrael contended; it was arson by people who resented the change in minhag. (Some Jews will do anything to defend a custom – even violate several Torah prohibitions!) Perhaps on the level of the Vilna Gaon or the Chatam Sofer different rules apply. But who knows? Clearly such an approach is not normative. We can’t live that way.

Not everything has a deeper meaning. Rav Shlomo Aviner was once told by someone that he was trying to write a check for charity to a poor person when his pen ran out of ink. What message, he asked, was G-d sending him? Rav Aviner answered that G-d was telling him that he needs more ink in his pen. So too, Rav Berechyahu told his interlocutor that the signal the latter was sent from Heaven when he broke his finger while building the Succa was this: when you use a hammer, you have to be careful. That is also a divine message.

The Succa is a demonstration of faith on our part and of love on G-d’s part. The Vilna Gaon explained that the 15th of Tishrei was the day on which the divine clouds of glory returned to shelter the Jewish people after the sin of the golden calf.  Those divine clouds of glory do not hermetically seal us. But without them, the actual Succot could also not protect us. They reflect the special Providence through which G-d preserves His people, and His love in giving us the Torah and Mitzvot, a land and a way of life, that doesn’t prevent harm but give us guidance in dealing with harm, especially the harm caused by G-d’s other creatures, human and otherwise. We don’t need a greater demonstration than Succa; we just need the Succa. It is our shelter of faith.

In so doing we find our deepest connection to G-d, our purpose in life, and our source of true happiness, and hastens the day of redemption, when G-d’s kingship will be recognized by all mankind.

The Real Story?

     The controversy du jour deals with the high school girls and their tefillin, and it has prompted the usual litany of responses. Once again, what passes for psak in the Modern Orthodox world is little more than cherry-picking the sources to find the single, even strained, interpretation of a rabbinic opinion in order to permit what it wants to permit or prohibit what it wants to prohibit. The preponderance of poskim or the consensus in the Torah world matters little; fables – like Rashi’s daughters wearing tefillin – carry more weight.

     No honest reading of the sources could ever give rise to a statement such as “Ramaz would be happy to allow any female student who wants to observe the mitzvah of tefillin to do so.” Happy? Tell it to the Rema or to the Aruch Hashulchan. And what about the prohibition of lo titgodedu ­– of not having contradictory practices in the same minyan (e.g., some girls wearing tefillin and others not)? And what of the statement being made to the traditional girls – that their service of G-d must somehow be inferior to that of their peers who are on a “higher” level, or the statement being made to all of them – women’s spirituality can only reach its peak when it mimics the religious practices of men? I would not want my daughters to be exposed to either sentiment.

Frankly, it is unsurprising that many young students in high schools text on Shabbat, observe half-Shabbat, and the like. If the Mesorah can be manipulated to permit girls to do what they want, why can’t it be manipulated to permit what boys want? Clearly, the subtleties are being lost in translation. Would that the schools focused on enhancing the commitment of the boys and their tefillin than broadening it to include others who are not within the purview of the mitzvah.

And, like night follows day, the secular Jewish press – besides praising the courage of the administrators – have trumpeted this story as another sign of the feminization of Orthodoxy – a triumph of women’s rights in an age when those are considered some of society’s most cherished values. They perceive it as another sign that Orthodoxy is modernizing, getting with the times, and catching up with the non-Orthodox movements, to the chagrin of the troglodytes on the right who insist on impeding progress.

But what if that is not the story? It is quite possible that we – and especially the media – might have missed the essence of this unfolding tale.

One question needs to be asked: do the girls here even define themselves as “Orthodox Jews?” Upon information and belief, they do not, and I do not write this to impugn them in the least. The fact is that in these day schools, anywhere from 10-30% of the student population consists of children from non-Orthodox homes. These families are proud members of non-Orthodox temples, and are certainly among the more dedicated. After all, they are sending their children to day schools under nominally Orthodox auspices. Some may even be the children of non-Orthodox rabbis, both males and females. When one girl explained that she has been wearing tefillin since her Bat Mitzvah, she is likely telling the truth. She has been wearing tefillin because that is part of the egalitarianism that is the most dominant value in the non-Orthodox world. If these girls – as it seems – are from non-Orthodox families, then the narrative has nothing at all to do with the so-called modernizing tendencies in Orthodoxy, but something else entirely.

The real story is not that Orthodox girls are wearing or want to wear tefillin, but that non-Orthodox children (or their parents) are essentially dictating to day schools how they want non-Orthodox practices incorporated – in school – in their children’s education. It is as if Conservative Judaism and its customs must be acknowledged much like schools have been known (and properly so) to allow children of the Edot Hamizrach to have their own minyanim and adhere to their own customs. And the schools are willing accomplices. Will they next remove their mechitzot to allow an egalitarian minyan, or is that too great a departure from the Orthodox brand?

There was a time when non–Orthodox Jews were thankful that yeshivot accepted their children, but correctly assumed that the curriculum, standards, practices and ideology taught would conform to Torah. They knew it would differ from what they were being taught at home – but they wanted that.
There was a time when a yeshiva administration had the authority and the courage to insist on those standards. Times have changed. In the competition for the tuition dollar of the non-Orthodox – and the fact is that SAR and Ramaz are competing for the same students – accommodations have to be made. And that is a travesty. Masquerading under the convenient narrative that this is a war for the soul of Modern Orthodoxy is the inconvenient reality: the inmates are running the asylum. The administrators are either unable or unwilling to maintain a complete fidelity to Jewish tradition, for at least some of their constituents are demanding otherwise.

Does a boy in such a school then have the right to say: “I do not feel that my divine service requires me to wear a kippa. My father doesn’t, not even in the house. I am against your religious coercion”? Should a school tolerate that? Or, an even better question: could a boy say that he rejects wearing tefillin until all the girls do? I.e., he is such an advocate of egalitarianism that it would be unconscionable for him, coming from his background, to continue to propagate the school’s antiquated, misogynistic, patriarchal attitudes that discriminate between males and females. I can hear it now: “There is only one G-d. He created all of us, and so there should be one law for all of us!” I wonder how the administrators would respond to that; probably, quite uncharitably, but on what grounds?

As one male SAR student asked me this week: if girls can be obligated when they are really exempt, why can’t he be exempt when he is really obligated? The logic is not impeccable – he is only 16 years old – but begs the question: if the Mesorah is so ephemeral that it can change on a whim, why can’t any rabbi make any change that he wants to make? Why can’t a layman?
Add to this one other point. I personally have met a number of graduates of these schools who are children of non-Orthodox female converts who were never informed by the administrators that the conversions were not acceptable according to halacha. In effect, they went through high school thinking they were Jews like all their classmates only to discover – years later and often on the verge of marriage – that they were not considered Jewish. The tragedy is heart-wrenching, because these young men and women are pure innocents. But there are halachic ramifications as well even while they are in school: Did the son of such a female convert lein in school? Was he motzi the audience with his Chazarat Hashatz? Did he count for the minyan?

Take a more tragic example: what if a young girl, child of a non-Orthodox converted mother, meets and falls in love with a male classmate (perhaps, her chavruta in Gemara class), and that young man is a kohen? What would have been a beautiful relationship is now marred forever and their life plans have to be altered. Perhaps, G-d forbid, the couple might then even turn away from Torah observance entirely because the young woman in question also needs to convert according to halacha, but now cannot marry this young kohen. Is the unequivocal acceptance of non-Orthodox converts and their children the norm in these schools? Is any attempt made to have them – if possible – convert according to halacha? I wonder.

On some level, the policy makes internal sense. For a day school appealing for non-Orthodox students in a very competitive climate, questioning the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions would be a turn-off to parents – just like denying these girls their tefillin would displease future applicants as well.

But the bottom line is that the story here might not be at all about “Orthodox” girls wearing tefillin but about non-Orthodox children seeking an accommodation of their religious practices, and about day school principals reluctant to insist on adherence to Torah standards. And that is the opposite of courage.