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Women Can Be Rabbis In All But Name, But They Are Still Not Qualifed to Wear Tefillin, Part 4

January 6, 2016

(Part 1 here, part 2, part 3)

Around these parts, the non-controversy that embroils the American rabbinate doe not really exist, which is fortunate.

I recently saw that Slifkin wrote what I have been mostly thinking about Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer’s crusade against Open Orthodoxy. I would like to add that I believe that Gordimer’s crusade says more about himself than his intended targets.

Qiddushin 70b:

“Why did you have him proclaimed a slave?” He answered: ‘Because he liked to call [other] people slaves, and he who declares [others] unfit is [himself] unfit, and never speaks good [of anyone]; and Samuel said: ‘B‘mumo posel,  With his own blemish he disqualifies.'”

I learned this lesson first-hand well before I turned 30 years of age. Those who follow in the path of the sages are called  ba’alei t’risin, “shield bearers,” because they engage in defending their own beliefs in opinions, and do not seek to discredit and destroy those of others. This has been my inspiration through the dark times, when my open and public advocacy for keeping halacha in the plain way as defined by our sages and Rishonim led to public attacks on my character. I took it as axiomatic that obeying God and His sages can lead to no harm, and it has shown to be true. It also made me begin to anticipate the day when Chabad ideology would one day become the Jewish mainstream approach, for better or for worse, if not in my own days then sometime thereafter, just because prominent scholars invested so much effort in trying to discredit Chabad. Similarly, some of my ideological predecessors (forebears maybe?) put the whole of the hasidic movement under the most extreme forms of the Ban, yet not only has Hasiduth survived, it has spawned a movement that has made its mark precisely through radicalism and rejection of the rest of Jewish society. Most importantly, they describe those who disagree with them as heretics. There is a talmudic term, baalei trisin, shield bearers, used to describe scholars who engage in the milhamtah shel torah, “warfare of Torah,” so called because their main preoccupation  is defending (supporting) their own positions, and not (attacking) destroying those of others, as sword bearers would. History shows that the sword bearers and disqualifiers tend to lose, perhaps simply due to their methods and not the essence of their positions.

For the sake of intellectual honesty, I want to write that I believe that Maimonides would be offended by the way his ruling concerning not appointing women and converts to positions of communal authority has been perverted and hijacked. Granted that in the laws of Sanhedirn he declares that judges can only be men, and that what we would today call ordination, the right to rule on matters of prohibition, is like an appointment to a position as a judge, but elsewhere he seems to imply that halachic authority can rest in anyone, just like anyone can become a prophet. I repeat my appeal to the YU powers that be to explain why they still grant ordination to converts, or those whose mothers are not native born Jewesses, if Maimonides also ruled that s’raroth and m’simoth should not be granted to converts. Or why, if the rabbinate is a s’rara, it is also not a hereditary position, as Maimonides also rules? It must be that rabbinic authority is not a complete s’rara in Maimonides’s eyes. Is YU going to start ordaining the sons of its musmachim each time one of them passes away “as long as the children are sufficiently wise and God fearing”?  I have no argument against the Hasidim (and those Haredites who are gradually adapting all aspects of hasidic culture) who do have hereditary rabbinical figures, never from convert or female stock mind you, and that, of course, has led to the absurd situation whereby certain Admorim can get their jobs despite their extreme youth or lack of proven scholarship. Rabbi Soloveitchik himself was appointed head of RIETS after his father, but only on condition and after the lay leadership did much to make sure that he was not the official head. (That title was reserved for the president of the University, who would, of course, be chosen by a board of directors.) However, it has been more than 20 years sine the Rav passed on and they still have not offered Rabbi Dr. Haym Soloveitchik anything more than the professorship he has already held. Also, why has  no one gone on a crusade to defend Maimonides’s much more explicit and written-about disapproval of those who would demand to be supported so that they can study Torah full time?  Is it because that it is the crime of those to our right on the spectrum, and whatever they do is really the “more religious way” of doing things? There is so much that Maimonides stood for that contemporary Orthodoxy has thrown to the wayside, so much that is critically necessary in our day and age, yet you don’t hear a word about it.

What does it mean to consult great authorities about matters/rulings/policies that affect all Israel? What does it mean to have  higher authority to rule on issues that affect all of K’lal Yisrael?  It can not be regarding ordinary p’saq,  for example, regarding kashruth or the Sabbath, etc., because any ruling can find its way elsewhere. Let’s look at a practical example. Rabbi A in New York feels that the blessing upon squafs should be shehakol, and his ruling has been published on the OU’s website, while Rabbi B in Los Angeles has ruled that the blessing upon squafs is hamotzi, and his opinion has been publicized in the RJJ journal. Both rulings, each with six pages of reasonable halachic argumentation, are available to the entire Jewish world. Are we worried that because neither Rabbis are national authorities their opinions might be picked up by other Jewish communities, or that one and not the other will centuries from now be the opinion  all Jews follow? Certainly not. And we would not be worried if their opinions on hillul shabbath or nidda also get out. Such happens all the time, and is usually not met with alarm. Rather, national authorities, like a Sanhedrin, are necessary for these possibilities:

1. To positively bind all Jews to a particular ruling: In  the example above, this would mean a Sanhedrin (or other national authority) could declare that all Jews must abide by Rabbi A’s ruling as opposed to B’s. Or, a Sanhedrin could promulgate a new taqqana, a new religious observance, like the Hanukka Holiday, or a new blanket prohibition, e.g. on polygamy.

2. To get the whole nation to do something as one, e.g., to appoint a king or establish a state, fight a holy war, or build the temple, etc. Gordimer has repeatedly invoked the “are you R’ Elyashiv?” fallacy, while I’m sitting here wishing there was a central Jewish authority, so that it would do what everyone knows it takes to protect the Jewish people from their sworn enemies.

For other matters of halacha, rabbinic Judaism has always tolerated a variety of halachic opinions, and that is why I believe that invoking a communal Rabbi’s lack of authority is not a valid form of halachic argumentation. 

Then Rabbi Zivotofsky weighed in with this:

Recent statements by opponents of women’s ordination have described it as violating “mesorah.” So, goes this misguided argument: if the turkey can get around its lack of mesorah so can women rabbis. The problem is that women are not turkeys, ordination is not a predatory state, and the use of the same word in these two contexts has quite different meaning. This attempt at using a Trojan turkey to sneak women’s ordination past the gates of tradition is flawed in both the specifics and the general points. The general point is quite simple. The word “mesorah” in these two contexts has completely different meanings. In the context of bird kashrut it has the narrow, context-specific meaning of a tradition that the bird at hand is not a doress. Nothing more and nothing less. It is a technical requirement to ensure its kosher status. In the context as used by those opposed to women rabbis, mesorah refers to the gestalt of Jewish tradition and the intent is that this is a break from Jewish norms. It is being used in the sense similar to that of Tevyah the milkman when he sang “Tradition.” It is the mesorah mentioned in the first mishna in Pirkei Avot. “Mesorah” in this context is a more amorphous term whose parameters are difficult to define, but usually a person thoroughly seeped in Torah knows it when they see it. It is hard to argue against the statement that historically rabbis have been men and that such is the de facto tradition.

Or, to sum it up in practical terms, the amorphous mesorah is something you invoke when you have no cogent argument with which to counter those of the other. It is a claim that his position just doesn’t fit with the gestalt of Jewish tradition. (Also, it is obvious that the “mesorah” of kosher fowl is not the same as the “mesorah” of the first mishna of the Fathers, but I am shocked that Professor Zivotofsky would equate the latter with the “tradition” of Fiddler on the Roof. There are positive rabbinic traditions regarding the Torah, and then there is the minimal jewish cultural of the unfortunate and illiterate masses, something which has no weight in a halachic argument.)  This argument goes a long way, unfortunately for Rabbi Zivotofsky, to defend those who would argue for female ordination. I wish the flag bearers of Maimonidean Orthodoxy would go back to rigorous halachic proofs that Maimonides would use, and stop invoking the nebulous appeals to the generic tastes of Jewish culture that those to their right have been using against them for a century.

Most of the lady-rabbi debate is about rabbis as public religious functionaries. What I wanna know about is, what if you have a Vilna Gaon type, who just sits and studies in private, answering halachic questions by correspondence, and she just happens to be  a woman? Is she sufficiently modest for even R’ Schachter to accept her haalchic credentials? I think we are rapidly approaching that point, and here is the sign we will have reached it: up until now, the most prominent Orthodox women scholars tend to take the left-most positions. They advocate for their own inclusion in the public prayers and their recognized rabbinic ordination. When you see Orthodox women of that caliber able to marshall new, cogent, and compelling arguments against all of those, that’s when you’ll know we’re there.  


From → halacha, logic, original

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