Tuesday, January 28, 2014

halachic vigilantism cuts both ways

I just want to offer one comment on what the principal of SAR, Rabbi Harcsztark, wrote in his defense of his allowing two girls to put in tefillin – link.  Rather than react to this incident or similar ones with knee-jerk condemnation, Rabbi Harzsztark feels his students should respond differently: "That when they see something different, even controversial, before deciding in which denomination it belongs, they must first take a serious look at the halakha and ask their Rabbi whether there is basis for such practice?"

I could not agree more.  However, is there not also a responsibility to seek out the advice of Rabbanim and talmidei chachami before taking the initial action that would constitute at the least a breach of community norms, if not halacha?  The girls in SAR did not ask Rabbi Harcsztark what to do before deciding to put on tefillin.  The issue apparently came up after the fact, when their inclusiveness in the minyan became an issue.  If am not debating which is the greater wrong, but one surely cannot criticize others for vigilante halachic “justice” while at the same time condoning or sanctioning halachic vigilantism within one’s own community. 

 A number of years ago there was some controversy over something an Orthodox Rabbi did in his capacity as a representative of the community in an interfaith setting.  Rav Asher Weiss has a shiur on the issues involved, which was printed up, and I distinctly recall the opening, where he opined that whatever the result of the halachic analysis – whether that Rabbi was right or wrong in what he did – he should have certainly asked someone greater than himself first before taking action. 

Kal v’chomer: if this is true of that Rabbi in question, someone with many years of experience as a community leader and a Rav, is it not also true of teens who barely know right from left in avodas Hashem?  Is it not also true of other laypeople?

And one comment on what another Rabbi has written (link) about this issue.  Quote: "In other words, what are the stakes here? And why are they being presented as so great? What is going to happen if a few women wear tefillin? What’s the dire consequence that we must avoid at all costs?"

The issue here is about more than doing or not doing a particular mitzvah.  B’mechilas kvodo, framing the issue that way strikes me as sheer obtrusiveness.  The reason this is a controversy is because condoning women wearing tefillin amounts to condoning a philosophical worldview that acknowledges egalitarianism as a virtue that supersedes minhag, community norms, even halacha itself.  “Where there’s a Rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way,” as one well known advocate of this philosophy sums it up, means that halacha is maidservant to the values that we dictate, rather than the other way around.  Whether those putting on tefillin intend it or not or whether those who sanction their actions intend it or not – that’s the impression being created. 

In his discussion of R’ Soloveitchik’s view of women’s prayer groups, Rav Meyer Twersky (link) quotes the Shu”T Melamed l’Ho’il regarding tnei b’kiddushin:
I will say one more thing which to my mind is exceedingly important . . . if we who are zealous for the word of God will imitate the heretics to negate the institution of gittin and halitsa by means of conditional kidushin, even if we would say that it is being accomplished in a permissible fashion, nevertheless what will the reformist rabbis say: behold those Orthodox [rabbis] have conceded that their laws are no good and the temper of the times cannot tolerate them . . . and they have thereby conceded that the temper of the times is mightier than antiquated laws. And what can we possibly say in response? Is there, God forbid, a greater desecration of God's name? Consequently in my opinion conditional kidushin should not be instituted under any circumstances.

I don’t worry about what the reformers will say – I worry about what impressionable teenagers will say.   


  1. Decades ago, in a MO shul that was between rabbis, some women decided to dance with a sefer torah on Simchat Torah. This was behind the mechitza, and the conventions of tzniut were observed.

    The city [Chicago] exploded; the Orthodox and "Chareidi" communities were appalled. This was a terrible thing, a violation of the fundamentals of yiddishkeit, etc.

    I happened to visit shortly after, and started to ask the protestors exactly what was wrong with this. Besides "My Bobbeh didn't do it," nobody had a justification for their anger/upset. I was really confused about what the problem was. Until the Rosh Kollel of Telshe Chicago answered me with two words that immediately crystallized the entire issue.

    ארכא דמסנאי

    1. You can have a shul with a Rabbah officiating, a woman shatz (albeit not for devarim sheb'kedusha), women wearing tefillin, women getting aliyos, a 30" non-obstusive mechitza -- each and every one of these items taken by itself can be defended as not such a big deal, as defensible according to one shita or another at least b'sha'as hadechak, etc., but when you look at the complete picture, it's hard to defend, at least in my opinion. The question is simply whether halacha is being treated fairly or usurped to meet some other agenda, whether it is some -ism or simply to make people feel good doing what they like. And you can ask that question about a lot of other practices in different communities as well.

    2. Which depends, to a large extent, on whether or not it is a sha'as hashmad. Which I think it is, and has been since at least the French Revolution and Enlightenment.

  2. Did you see Avi Shafran's article about this issue? He points out two important things. That while most tefillin agitators are politically motivated iconoclasts, there girls grew up seeing their mothers wearing tefillin. Also, that it's simply wrong al pi halacha, as halacha is paskened in the Orthodox community- if there were no political aspect at all, someone saying "muttar" would be marked wrong on a bechina.

    1. >>>as halacha is paskened in the Orthodox community

      To which those in SAR would reply that in ther community, which is Orthodox, the halacha is not that way.

      It's not an argument, it's circular reasoning. Your community is not Orthodox because it does not follow halacha. We know that's against halacha because it's not done in an Orthodox community.

      Question for the sake of argument: it says black on white in Shulchan Aruch that there are certain prescribed zmanie tefillah. A chassidishe guy davens Shacharis at 10:00, as his father did, as his grandfather did, as his Rabbi does. Is that community Orthodox?

    2. >>Question for the sake of argument: it says black on white in Shulchan Aruch that there are certain prescribed zmanie tefillah. >>A chassidishe guy davens Shacharis at 10:00, as his father did, as his grandfather did, as his Rabbi does. Is that community >>Orthodox?
      Not in a normative sense.