Wednesday, February 12, 2014

the "imposition of select religious authority" and slippery slopes

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein's logic (link) with respect to women wearing tefillin -- "since nobody really does it the right way [with proper attention and proper mindset] as the Halacha cautions us why are women any different from men in this respect" -- escapes me. Were his assumption correct, the proper response would be to stop wearing tefillin, or to minimize even further the amount of time they are worn even by men. What sense does it make to throw women into the mix and add to the number of people doing the mitzvah incorrectly?   Does he mean that the requirement of hesech hada'as (whether the issue of guf naki has anything to do with hesech hada'as is another discussion) is null and void, irrelevant, since it is too high a bar for anyone to meet? So since “nobody” follow the halacha, we just wipe it off the books?  

You can't ask for a better illustration of the dangers of the slipperly slope than Rabbi Lookstein's argument: "Today, my granddaughter, Julia Straus Baruch, is learningTorah and Halacha in Nishmat, preparing to be a Yoetzet Halacha, something which would have been inconceivable in the time of the Aruch Ha-Shulchan, 150 years ago. Why is tefillin different?"  I don’t know what learning Torah has to do with putting on tefillin, but once you are headed down the slope and are matir X, then why not Y?  In 10 years from now (and I’m pretty confident we won’t even have to wait 10 years) I wonder if we will be hearing the following argument from the pulpit of KJ or other synagogues: “Women wearing tefillin was once inconceivable. Now every other girl in our school is wearing them. Why should X be different?” Fill in the blank for what X is. 

Rabbi Lookstein's remark shows his admiration for the Nishmat program and the openness shown by R’ Yehudah Herzl Henkin, the Rosh Yeshiva of Mishmat and the posek who stands behind the Yoetzet program, to women’s participation in advanced learning. Yet, interestingly (as noted by Rabbi Eli Mansour), R’ Henkin himself addresses the question of whether a woman may wear tefillin in his teshuvos (
Shu”T Bnei Banim vol 2, #3) and prohibits it.   Clearly Rabbi Henkin, a noteworthy posek in his own right, does not join Rabbi Lookstein's in making the leap from Torah study to tefillin. 

I already linked to Rabbi Shachter’s response to this issue. Rabbi Shacter’s point was not, as one Rabbi tweeted (quoted with a response
here), “The shorter version of R. Herschel Schacter's missive (it's not a 'teshuvah') is that the greatest sin a Jew can do is disagree with him.”  This individual objects to the “imposition of select religious authority” – “select” I assume, given R' Shachter's point, meaning “competent.”  Should we instead allow anyone armed with a passing grade on a smicha test the right to determine right from wrong for his constituants, no matter how delicate or complicated the question, and no matter how far and wide outside the community (given the speed at which news travels on the 'net) the repercussions may be?

This Rabbi caught R’ Shachter as omitting sources: “He does not cite Tosafot B. Berachot 14a which records that it was once prevalent for women to put on tefillin, even with a blessing, just as they shake the lulav on Sukkot.” Indeed, it’s not just Rabbi Shachter who does not cite this Tosfos -- neither does the Rama. In fact, there are hundreds of other places in the Shulchan Aruch that the Rama chooses to decide Jewish law like one set of Rishonim against others, sometimes even against Tosfos. Do we now have the authority to rewrite 500 years of Jewish law and custom and choose, absent any compelling need or argument, to adopt views that the Rama rejected? Or is the Rama perhaps just one “select religious authority” who has no right to impose his views on us either?

Not content with Rabbi Lookstein’s leap from the apples of women learning Torah to the oranges of wearing tefillin, this Rabbi
argues that, “Furthermore, someone who has access to a Bar Ilan CD (and know for what to look) can easily find examples where the current Ashenazi practice does not follow the Ramo…” One exception to paskening like Rama invites others, irrespective of custom and tradition, or context for that matter. The slippery slope revisited.

I have to say I am disappointed. Originally I had a degree of sympathy at least for the dilemma faced at SAR -- kick kids out of school, or make an exception and allow girls to wear tefillin -- irrespective of whether the conclusion was the wrong one.  We were talking about a sha'as hadechak that demanded an ad hoc resolution.  Now, we are far beyond a conversation about what may or may not be appropriate for a particular school in a perhaps unique situation.  Now, the sha'as hadechak is being championed as an ideal and being turned into a fight about halachic authority.  The arguments being tossed about are broader and broader in their strokes, and in turn, are less and less credible.  If this is the best those who champion the cause of women being allowed to wear tefillin can muster, I'm afraid their arguments carry little credence.


  1. Anonymous12:04 PM

    Very well done.
    Unfortunately, I think the problem is worse than you think.

    "Should we instead allow anyone armed with a passing grade on a smicha test the right to determine right from wrong for his constituants, no matter how delicate or complicated the question..."

    From my interaction with those on the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy, you don't even have to have smicha to make such decisions. Many of these people believe that since they are intelligent, accomplished lawyers/doctors/phds in whatever, and they have studied "the sources" themselves, they have the right to make such decisions themselves, without having to consult the Rabbi at all. "I've learned the sources" is a common refrain that I have heard for LWMO types as justification for their independant decision-making on complex halachic topics. And as Rav Schachter noted, Bar-Ilan and Otzar Hachochma make the problem that much worse. People like Yuter have the gall to think they're entitled to an opinion because they know how to do a Bar-Ilan search.

    It's really scary.

  2. America is the land of egalitarianism, where a man with minimal public leadership experience can rise to the office of presidency on no more than the belief that he deserves to be president so why shouldn't one of YU's less academically accomplished graduates not think he can invent women rabbis? Why shouldn't one of his colleages not think that you can deny the truth of Torah but remain firmly Orthodox?
    As a physician I can relate. After all, anyone can open an on-line copy of the Merck Manual or search Medscape and "learn" all about their condition and how to treat it. Why shouldn't owning the Bar Ilan USB stick not give you the same qualifications to pasken?

    1. The difference is that there are licensing laws that prevent anyone other than an M.D. from writing a prescription or walking into a hospital and doing surgery. But you are right in that nothing prevents a patient from going to a self-taught quack and trusting his/her life to that individual and suffering the consequences.

      I don't have much interation with the LW of MO, so I can't comment on whether it is worse than I descrive or not. Ultimately I don't think R' Shachter's response will make any difference, as those who have crossed the line no longer respect him as their posek the way they might have respected the Rav.

  3. I had an idea that is not really dealing with the halachic aspect of this debate but with the girls who want to put on tefillin. How badly would they want to put on tefillin if, by doing so once, they obligate themselves to do so for the rest of their lives (i.e. they would now become "bar chiyuvas" with all that entails). To me, at least, that would help define the level of desire for the mitzva.

    1. Rabbi Lookstein says that in speaking with girls who want to do this he does stress to them that it has to be a lifetime committment.

  4. If these rabbis claimed that they held like the GRA who says there is a chiyuv to pasken according to what you believe is the emes of the sugya, even if the Shulchan Aruch disagrees, and believed that Tos's shita was the emes, would you still feel the same way?