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Halacha and Innovation Are Not Mutually Exclusive
The case for the evolution of gender roles in Jewish life.
Mon, 05/03/2010 - 20:00
Special to the Jewish Week

This past week, Rav Hershel Schachter, eminent Torah scholar and leading figure at Yeshiva University, issued fighting words. The ordination of women as rabbis is such a serious infraction of Jewish Law, he insisted, that it technically falls under the rubric of “Yehareg Ve-al Ya’avor”—one should sooner be killed than violate the Law. Now, of course, I presume, Rav Schachter did not mean this literally, but only sought to express with the fullest rhetorical force available to him the absolute impermissibility according to halacha [Jewish law] of women functioning as-- let alone actually being called—rabbis.

One can recoil at Rav Schachter’s words and still be grateful to him for drawing an absolute line in the sand. The world of Jews committed to serving God through a life of Torah and mitzvot is divided between those who believe that gender roles are eternally fixed and immutable, and those who believe that new faces of Torah and halacha are revealed in every generation—as they must, if Torah is to remain a Torat Chaim, a Torah of life, dynamic and alive in every generation.

One can respect the integrity—not to mention the robust clarity-- of Rav Schachter’s position. But I wish to make one very fundamental point: the time is long past for Jews to assume that the forces of reaction are somehow “more authentic” or “more religious” than the forces of dynamism, responsiveness, and creativity.

For generations now, those arguing against Chiddush (innovation) in halacha have prided themselves on their insistence that conservatism is just about always the (only) authentic position. There is nothing particularly surprising about that.

But what is surprising—and not just surprising, but profoundly damaging for the prospects of Torah in the modern world—is that those who have argued for Chiddush out of passion and conviction that this is what God wants have largely conceded the point. And thus, countless Torah-observant Jews spend much of their time anxiously looking over their right shoulder, hoping against hope that those on the other side of Rav Schachter’s line will somehow confer legitimacy upon them.

It was Rabbi Chaim David Halevi, the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, who insisted again and again in his Teshuvot (responsa) that Chiddush in every generation is not just permitted, but actually required. And it was Rav Chaim Hirschensohn, legendary scholar and prolific posek (legal decisor) who two generations earlier emphasized that there could in principle be no contradiction between Torah and the progress of civilization. Needless to say, not everyone will agree with eminent figures such as these. But they were not somehow “less religious” or “less authentic” than those who argued against any evolution or development in gender roles.

Was Rav Uziel, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel who believed passionately in women’s suffrage, somehow less committed to Torah and mitzvot than was Rav Kook, his Ashkenazic counterpart, who vociferously opposed it? In retrospect, which position seems wiser and more Torah-true? I need hardly add that when Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the eminent Orthodox scholar, embraced secular studies, women’s learning, and Zionism, there were many traditionalists who regarded these steps as unconscionable deviations from the straight path. And yet we would never countenance the notion that standing his ground rendered the Rav less authentic or religious than his critics. On the contrary, he is widely heralded today for having had the courage to act as he believed God required.

I am reminded of a striking passage in Midrash Sifre to Bamidbar (Numbers). Commenting on the story of the daughters of Zelophead (Numbers 27), the Midrash describes them as follows:

When the daughters of Zelophead heard that that the land was to be divided among the men and not the women, they gathered to confer together. “God’s compassion is not like the compassion of flesh and blood,” they reasoned. “Human beings show more compassion to men than to women, but the One who spoke and the world came into being is different—God’s compassion extends to men and women; God’s compassion extends to all, as it is stated, ‘the Lord is good to all, and His compassion extends to all His works.’”

In other words, Zelophead’s daughters stated clearly and confidently that one should not necessarily conflate prevailing social arrangements with the eternal, immutable will of God, for to do so is to underestimate God’s love and mercy, which extends to women as well to men. How does God respond? “Yes, Zelophead’s daughters are right” (Numbers 27:7). Sometimes those who seek to redress injustice are more in line with God’s will than those who seek to maintain the status quo. It is thus not despite of Torah but because of it that one of the crucial mandates of the hour is to create more opportunities and contexts for women’s voices to be heard in Jewish life.

In his translation-commentary to Bereishit (Genesis), Onkelos translates the phrase “living being” (nefesh chayah) as “speaking being” (ruah memalela) (Gen. 2:7). And in a justly famous essay, Rabbi Soloveitchik speaks of the inherent redemptiveness of a human being acquiring the power of speech. In light of all this, the time has come for those who want to hear women’s voices and who believe that greater roles for women in Jewish religious life are a sanctification of God’s name rather than a desecration thereof, to stop apologizing, kowtowing, and living in fear.

If you are committed to the view that women, who (thank God) now hold positions of leadership in law, medicine, academia, and every conceivable field of human endeavor, should also have greater roles in leading communities of Torah—whatever the pace of change you believe in—Rav Schachter has spoken clearly: there is an unbridgeable divide between your vision of Torah and mitzvot and his. A Torah at once vibrant and worldly, a Torah that can speak God’s word in every time and place, a Torah that believes that women’s emergence into positions of leadership and equality is a redemptive process of God’s image becoming more manifest in the world—let’s call is what it is: Torah-true Judaism.

To be clear: we shouldn’t be slaves to the present. There is much to criticize and even condemn in contemporary society, and Torah offers crucial correctives to much that ails us. But neither should we be slaves to the past, as if ancient social arrangements were the heart of God’s message to our broken world. The Torah has thrived in countless social and political settings, and it can continue to do so today. So let’s not apologize, but understand who we are and where we fall on the crucial question of Torat Chaim, a living Torah, a Torah of life.

Rabbi Shai Held is Rosh HaYeshiva and Chair in Jewish Thought at Yeshivat Hadar.


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(I posted something like this earlier but it hasn't gone up - forgive any duplicates). In response to the poster who wrote: "This comment would have a micron of credibility if there were even a small fraction of truly observant laity in the Conservative movement." What would you consider "truly observant"? Because many of the people I know (lay and rabbinic) in non-orthodox circles daven once if not three times a day, observe shabbat, kashrut, and taharat hamishpacha strictly, learn regularly on their own, in hevruta, or in shiurim, and approach the world using Jewish principles learned from all of these modes of observance. They may still form too small a fraction to show up in the studies of "dismal rates" you are reading - yet - but they are energetic and the fraction is growing. These - and their children - are the Jews who will most influence the conservative and reform congregations around them.
"This comment would have a micron of credibility if there were even a small fraction of truly observant laity in the Conservative movement." I have many friends - lay and rabbinic - in non-orthodox circles who daven at least once if not 3 times a day, who strictly observe shabbat, kashrut, and taharat hamishpacha, who learn regularly, on their own or in hevruta or regular shiurim, and whose approach to the world is informed by Jewish principles: tikkun olam; ahavat Hashem; and the good of Klal Yisrael among others. I hope this is enough observance for you. They may be a small fraction but they are an important, energetic, and growing one, and they and their children will do a great deal to counter the "dismal rates" you mention.
"those who believe that new faces of Torah and halacha are revealed in every generation—as they must, if Torah is to remain a Torat Chaim, a Torah of life, dynamic and alive in every generation." This comment would have a micron of credibility if there were even a small fraction of truly observant laity in the Conservative movement. The dismal rates of observance (by Conservative standards) shows that this is clearly not the way to keep Torah alive and dynamic. What can he possibly mean?
2 questions: 1. What do you mean by "truly observant"? For example, I know women who put on t'fillin every day, because they consider themselves obligated - do you consider them "truly observant"? If not, then we'd be talking past each other, because the vast majority of conservative jews are egalitarian, and your definition of "truly observant" would mean that about half the population of Jews could not be Conservative and "truly observant." 2. I don't follow the connection. Even if there weren't even a small fraction of truly observant laity in the Conservative movement (something I would dispute, although we might have different definitions of truly observant - aside from my discomfort in non-Egal settings, I could fit in fairly well in a modern ortho shul, since my practices aren't so different), I don't follow what that has to do with the idea of Torat Chaim...
Fascinating use of a notorius rhetorical technique - the lumping together of a number of propositions that the reader will certainly agree to with one that the author wants to persuade the reader to agree to, thus deceptively linking the dubious propositon to those that are beyond dispute. Thus the phrase "A Torah at once vibrant and worldly, a Torah that can speak God’s word in every time and place, a Torah that believes that women’s emergence into positions of leadership and equality is a redemptive process of God’s image becoming more manifest in the world" would have one assume that to oppose "women’s emergence into positions of leadership" is also to oppose "A Torah at once vibrant and worldly, a Torah that can speak God’s word in every time and place, ". Judaism has indeed spoken in every time and place . But often it's response to the latest ism has, to its credit, been no. Perhaps that should be its response to feminism. Perhaps the roll of "A Torah at once vibrant and worldly" should be to reject the use of the service of God as one more battlefield on which to wage a campaign that has nothing to do with God.
To say that halakhah should reject feminism is to say that women shouldn't participate in a substantial way in Judaism. In a world where women can be doctors, lawyers, and politicians, refusing to let women participate in rituals alienates Judaism from real life, and thus refuses to allow the Torah to speak to us in our time and place. There may be many -isms worth rejecting, but the fact that feminism ends in -ism is not in itself enough to warrant blatant rejection.
I think most people misunderstand the Conservative movement's take on halakhah. The movement's leadership has historically been a big tent containing more liberal and more conservative streams. They both adhere to the halakhic principles, though, in some sense. The problem is that people conflate the laity with the movement's ideals. Most congregants or people that identify as "Conservitive" do not even come close to living within the dalet amot of halakha. And re the driving teshuvah, almost everyone misunderstands this. There were a number of teshuvot that were approved. The one that people refer to as the "driving teshuva" was actually titled IIRC "a program for the rejuvenation of shabbat" and basically poskened that it's better for someone with little jewish contact in their lives to drive to shul on shabbat than to stay home. I think the argumentation is pretty weak (to be polite), but it was addressing a very specific situation. It's not a global heter, as is commonly understood. In fact, in the discussion at that meeting and also a review afterwards, there were those who were concerned that people would misunderstand it as is has been. FWIW, here's some conservative teshuvot that prohibit driving on Shabbat Benjamin Fleischer
My impression is that Rabbi Schecter could agree to much of this. The evolution of halacha in general, or gender roles in particular, is something he would not disagree with. His reason for stating so strongly that the ordination of women is unacceptable is because this has become one of the highest flags in a movement that claims to be committed to Jewish law, while at the same time permitting the clearly impermissible -- driving to synagogue on the Sabbath, for example. Were there no conservative movement, the orthodox could allow themselves far more flexibility.
To say that learned women cannot have the titles they deserve or take leadership roles in their community because someone is afraid that will lead to people driving to shul on Shabbat shows nothing but a lack of courage, and is a guise for continuing to disempower women. While rabbis like R. Schachter may agree that there is always hiddush in halakhah, they disregard any hiddushim they disagree with. Someone who takes seriously the role of women in the community would never claim that it is preferrable to be killed than to call a woman a rabbi. R. Schachter made clear with his statement that he would never agree with R. Held.
Ha! The Conservative movement is dying an open, obvious death that is all over the news. Its ideology has ended up in disaster - high intermarriage, plummeting numbers and profound malaise. Maybe their way of looking at things simply....doesn't work?? And maybe that indicates that it is ....wrong?
The problem is that this kind of inter-denominational attack, true or not, is really inappropriate and not befitting a rabbi as such. When R. Lamm lamented the possibility of the loss of the Reform and Conservative movements, he was called "triumphalist." Well then, what is this???
R. Held is not championing one movement at the expense of another, which is what R. Lamm did: R. Lamm only derided the Conservative and Reform movements to claim that Orthodoxy is the only viable movement. Even more important, R. Held is making no claim about the failure of Orthodoxy as a movement. He is arguing that R. Schachter does not and should not represent the whole of Orthodoxy. That is a far cry from an inter-denominational attack.
The problem is that everyone agitating for more prominent roles for women have already shattered their credibility with the vast majority of serious halachic Jews (including the traditional conservatives). There are rules for innovation and change and they've trampled them for so long that no one serious can take them seriously. I am "ultra-orthodox" and will agree that that there is more room in the halacha but only when the process can be trusted not to veer wildly off-course. So far, the record of liberal Judaism is dominated by ideas veering even more wildly off-course than any liberal Jew would have imagined. Tell any non-Orthodox Jewish leader in the seventies what intermarriage and affiliation would look like in 2010 and watch how far their jaws would drop. The non-Orthodox don't want to live in the past but all they really want is to live in the present - they take no responsibility for the future and their record shows it.
Firstly, the intermarriage rate in Germany in the 1930s was at 50% already, so I don't think anyone in the 1970s would have been too shocked by what it is in the USA today. Just saying, this has happened before and Jews have survived. Secondly, I think if anyone in pre-war Europe would see how insulated and sectarian ultra-Orthodoxy has become today their jaws would drop pretty far down as well.
Torah True is a loaded term that connotes a "correct" way. Of course every group will think it is Torah True if it holds the Torah in esteem (as do Karaites, Rabbinical Jews, and today's Orthodox, Conservative, and even Reform movements). What differs is the notion of what Torah True means - and every group has its own definition.
I wish Orthodox Jews would stop using the term "Torah-true Judaism." There is no such thing unless, of course, you're a Karaite. If you're not, you view the Torah through the lens of Chazal, which means you practice Rabbinic Judaism, not "Torah-true" Judaism. Rabbis created the Judaism we practice today and rabbis can change it -- if they have the courage.

I agree with you 1000%. The (talmud) is a man made law that threw away the word of G-D and replaced it with a man word that violated most of HIS commandments. May G-D bring back his Jewish people to follow his TORAH as it is written without any man made changes.

Rabbinic Judaism is "Torah True" Judaism. They are one and the same. Karaites would disagree, and that is their prerogative. Rabbi Asher Lopatin