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Rabbi Herschel Schachter Circles the Wagons

February 13, 2014

My issue with R’ Schachter’s article is this: it does not hold to his own personal standards of rigorous talmudic argumentation. Indeed, the sages specifically acted leniently and according to the letter of the law, and did not see fit to act according to the stringencies of the Sadducees precisely because those stringencies were utter nonsense. Assuming the Conservatives were today’s Sadducees, then we also should avoid their stringencies. However, women wearing tefillin is something perfectly within the bounds of halacha, and maybe even encouraged, despite the more recent rulings to the contrary. (In terms of Torah law, the Rema is recent.) If the Conservatives were to be stringent, steadfast, and exemplary in the performance of other commandments of the Torah, say, honoring their parents, would we say that good, traditional Jews should avoid such practices because “that’s what Conservatives do”? He has thus invoked two fallacious arguments: appeal to (his own) authority and reductio ad hitlerum. One could very well argue that while the Orthodox have sat around congratulating themselves for being the only true adherents to authentic Judaism, they may have allowed other streams to take up the mantle of other behaviors and practices that the Torah demands, like encouraging ethical and moral behavior. We all very much know about the usual problems plaguing the Orthodox community. (Growing up, I remember those synagogues where the membership usually had criminal records. I wonder if the non-Orthodox also have special shtiebles for ex-cons.)

R’ Schachter is certainly aware of the old mehitza controversy: back in the day, his mentors, foremost among them Rabbis Soloveichik and Feinstein, decided that Orthodox synagogues were to have separate seating as a matter of strict halacha, and not just style, as it was until then. All this was to differentiate them from the Conservative (and beyond) houses of worship, which usually featured mixed seating. Rabbi Yuter, senior, in his younger days, wrote a critical analysis of their opinion, and showed that they were in essence making a political, non-halachic argument in an attempt to create this differentiation between the sects. I believe that there was much wisdom in such a decision, and that it had the desired effect.

However, I would not, like R’ Schachter does, seek to make a similar red-line with the tefillin issue. For him, the practice of women wearing tefillin may have been defensible at some point, but now needs to be prohibited in order to show that we will not take any advice from the Sadduccees.

Instead I would like to remind R’Schachter about an incident that happened some decades ago, in his youth, whereby Rabbi Soloveichik showed that we should perhaps allow women more leeway in deciding for themselves if they wish to take on the performance of more commandments. I am referring to the opening of the beis medrash for women at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, which Rabbi Soloveichik whole-heartedly endorsed.

That is, then, and even more so today, women needed the chance to elect to perform that commandment which for centuries was obligatory for men and perhaps even prohibited for women. (Yoreh Deah 246, based on Sotah 20a) Why is Rabbi Schachter alarmed that two generations later, those women and their descendants would like to do more? It is his yeshiva’s legacy that women would seek to do as much as possible, and I believe it is also worth pointing out that the Orthodox have pretty much beaten the Conservatives in the historical long run. Their movement is dying, and it is not worth it to bring them up again.

Imagine that a third-generation Stern student were to ask Rabbi Schachter if she could study in the beis medrash, then read the shma every day, and then sit in a sukka on Tabernacles, and then lay tefillin sometimes. Rabbi Schachter would surprise her by permitting everything but the latter. When pressed for a reason, this girl from a nice Jewish community in Metro New York, with dozens of Orthodox synagogues (most affiliated with his yeshiva) and not one serious non-Orthodox institution – you can probably name ten such communities – would hear from R’ Schachter about “how Conservatives do that, so it’s prohibited.” What does that have to do with her volunteering to perform commandments? We have only made it easier and more attractive for women to want to do such things, and that, I believe, is a good historical trend in Judaism.

P.S. The Rema brings the opinion of the Agur who claims that there are some commandments that men should go out of their way to perform, like shma and tefillin, and it is considered wrong for a man to intentionally avoid performing them, while tzitzith however, are only a factor when a man chooses to wear a four-cornered garment, and thus he does not have to seek to perform this commandment. Thus, because even men technically do not have to perform the commandment of tzitzith, it would be arrogant for a woman to take this upon herself. This logic is flawed. Firstly, it assumes that every woman who elects to perform the commandment of tzitzith over any other commandment is aware of this fine talmudic distinction. Most women, like men, associate tzitzith as a typical commandment for men, and are unaware of this distinction when they choose to do it. Secondly, when the woman chooses to perform the commandment out of the goodness of her heart, does the nature of the man’s possible obligation or lack thereof influence her own intent? She takes upon shma and sukka because she wants to do more, and it makes no difference to her how obligated men are, and the same with tzitzith and tefillin, which are usually worn together. If she can elect to wear tefillin, why can’t she elect to also wear tzitzith just because men are not actually obligated to try to wear tzitzith? Are most men even aware of the distinction?

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