Monday, February 10, 2014

Rav Schachter's missive, and the response

Rav Herschel Schachter recently weighed in on the girls-wearing-tefillin question. He makes a number of persuasive points (though he certainly needs no endorsement from me). For instance, one point of many -- and this is me channeling, rather than summarizing what he wrote -- people think themselves experts because they can search Bar Ilan and get instant access to all the relevant sources. However, they are not really experts. People who live and breath the sources develop a feel for the way halacha works. And they might better assess a halachic question to understand the far reaching implications, and aspects of the question that the pseudo-experts who know how to Bar-Ilan-search would not even consider. For example, people posted about Guf Naki, about Aino Metzuveh veOseh, about Michal bas Shaul. These sources just pop up when researching the topic. But did they even consider, let alone deal with, the issue that it is a sectarian practice (of Conservative Jewry), such that its adoption might be forbidden as a yehareg va'al yaavor? No, because they don't know enough to know what far-flung halachic aspect might come and transform the whole shayla. Rabbi Zev Farber (who has a unique definition of belief in Torah miSinai) wrote an erudite article about tefillin and clean bodies (and see part two). His daughter, Eden Farber, wears tefillin, and writes how she was introduced to wearing tefillin by "[a] Conservative rabbinical student and a girl [her] age who identified as traditional-egalitarian."

Rabbi Josh Yuter posted Rav Schachter's letter on his website and after a brief critique of it on Facebook, elaborated in a lengthy blogpost.

I have neither the time nor erudition to properly respond. But I guess I am motivated to respond because I consider myself a talmid of Rav Schachter (though I don't know if he would consider me so); and because I feel he has, many times, been unfairly judged.

So, a few points in response.

1) While Rabbi Yuter posted Rav Schachter's letter in Hebrew, he did not translate it. It is a strong letter when read in full, in context. But I think that many of his readers will not read it, or understand it, in Hebrew. And they won't see how the points flow together. They will see the points Rabbi Yuter summarized or excerpted, but I am not so sure that that is a fair representation of Rav Schachter's position.

This may be my own hangup. In most of my posts, I present sources (on parsha), translate them to make them more accessible, and then respond to them, agreeing or disagreeing. But the first thing to do is to present it and translate.

2) This is a long-standing objection that Rabbi Yuter has to Rav Schachter and his positions, not confined to this one area. And in those cases as well, I feel that Rav Shachter has over been misconstrued and taken out of context.

3) So let us see excerpts from Rabbi Yuter's post. (But read it in full -- it is accessible in English):
My previous post publicized a recent letter (PDF) authored by Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University. At the time of posting I did not have time for a thorough analysis, but several people took offense at my initial glib reactions on social media, calling it various forms of “disrespectful” or “not nice.” While I found these responses to be somewhat ironic given that R. Schachter himself used his letter to delegitimize those with whom he disagrees by comparing them to Korach and stating that they violate yehareg ve’al ya’avor, the rebuke is nevertheless well taken. 
Rav Schachter compared them to Korach in terms of the egalitarian motivation, as well as in the belief that anyone is equally qualified to render pesak. Stating yehareg ve'al yaavor was a halachic concern, even in cases where the act is one of chumra.

ודבר פשוט הוא שכמו שהקפידו חכמי המסורה שלא להרשות לנהוג אפילו כחומרת הצדוקיםוהקפידו בדוקא לטמא את הכהן השורף את הפרה ולהטבילוכדי שתעשה הפרה בדוקא עי טבולי יוםכן בנדד ממשדפסקי הלכה אינם נאמרים מתוך חלל ריק“, אלא מתוך ההקשר (קאנטעקסט)של אותו הדורובדורנו אנוכל התנאים וכל הראשונים וכלהאחרונים יסכימו שהנהגה זו אסורה היא בהחלטאעפ שהיא לחומרא יתירהשלא לחקות את המיניםעי‘ משנה סוף פב דחולין (דף מא.).

ונראה דדז הוא בבחינת ערקתא דמסאנאדרבנו זל אמר שערקתא דמסאנא גדרוכל הנהגה שהיא שהפכה להיות סמל להריסת הדתאפילו אם עפ הלכה” היא מותרתזה גופא (שנהפך לסמל להריסת הדת)גורם לכך שיהי אסורוכך התבטא רבנו בשעתו (בקשר לפרשת מי הוא יהודי” שפתח בן-גוריון)דאין הבדל בדבר בין אם האנס הוא נכרי כאנטיוכס הרשע או יהודי כבן-גוריוןעדיין דין אותה הנהגה כערקתא דמסאנא ויהרג ואל יעבור(וביטוי זה לענין אנס יהודימקורו בשות אבנז אוח סי‘ תקלזועי‘ ס‘ נפש הרב עמ‘ רלג.)
 וכזה ידוע בשם רבנושכשהתחילו הקונסרבטיבים להכניס טקס בת מצוה לבנות באמצע התפילהדוגמת הבר מצוה לבניםהצהיר בזה רבנו שהרבנים האורטודוקסים אסורים בהחלט לעשות כמותםשזה בבחינת ערקתא דמסאנאודינו שיהרג ואל יעבור.
You want to take offense at it and say it is "delegitimizing"? No, it is a real part of the halachic discussion, whether or not you ultimately agree with it. And it is a real point that those discussing it did not seem even aware of its existence or relevance.

How about this?
Thanks to the resources mentioned, today’s Jewish community has unprecedented access to traditional sources. R. Schachter somehow distinguishes between “researching” a difficult topic and being intuitively knowledgeable of all the relevant factors. Indeed, R. Schachter argues that even though one reads the sources one does not truly know them. Thus people who assume that they too can read Jewish texts and make up their own minds are following in the tradition of Korach. R. Harcsztark committed the cardinal sin of not acknowledging and submitting to his superiors since “he did not seek guidance from the great halakhic decisors of today.”
Yes, I would agree, even though "somehow" was thrown in to question it.

There is a difference in kind between one who recently arrived at a shallow knowledge of a sugya and one who has grappled with it, in depth, and also grappled with thousands of other sugyos in similar fashion. Shmuel said: "The paths of heaven are as clear to me as the pathways of Nehardea." For someone for whom the currents of the Sea of Talmud are clear to him -- the types of analyses that he can come up with are different in kind than one who superficially conducts research.

But this is impossible to explain, especially people who are proponents of the "research" approach. They don't understand what it is that they could be missing.

And there are certainly tiers of Talmidei Chachamim. This is not "Daas Torah" but simple obvious fact.

I don't know what Rabbi Harcsztark did or did not do. (As I've written in the past, I've heard it was a complicated situation, so I don't want to judge.) But I think it is a valid point that (a) this is not a trivial matter that should be treated by research in the same way as whether to say Tachanun on a certain day; (b) whether or not he ultimately listened to such advice, it is good to at the very least seek guidance from those who may well know better.
When R. Schachter quotes R. Moshe Isserles O.C. 38:3 who rules that we prevent women from putting on Tefillin, he does so assuming that the Ramo is the final definitive word on all practice... 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, such as wearing tefillin on Hol Hamoed (O.C. 31:2).
Really? Is Rav Schachter an am ha'aretz, that he believes that the Rama is the final definitive word on all Ashkenazi practice? Rav Schachter is a posek, knows halacha, and certainly knows places where we don't pasken like the Rama!

Here is what Rav Schachter wrote, which Rabbi Yuter incorrectly summarizes and attacks:
ותמיה אנימעיקרא מאי קסברי המתירים בזההלא כבר הביא הרמא (לאוח סי‘ לח סג)מהראשוניםואין חולק עליו מכל מפרשי השוע שםשבזמננו יש לכולנו בעיא של גוף נקיאשר על כן החלטנו למעט בהנחת התפילין אף לגבר ים עד המינימום(כלומר רק בשעת תפילת שחרית)כאשר ביאר בזה רבנו זל בשיעוריו בטוב טעם ודעת(עי‘ משכ בס‘ מפניני הרבערך תפיליןאות א)וכאשר כן פסק רבנו זל למעשה בשעתו בנדון בעלת תשובה שהיתה תלמידה בביס התיכונית על שם פריש“, שרצתה בדוקא להניח תפיליןוהורה רבנו עפי דברי הרמא האלו למחות בידהואין נראה לומר שבמשך ארבעים השנה האחרונות שהשתפר המצב ביחס לטוהר המחשבה הנצרך להנחת תפיליןוכידוע לכלככה היתה ההנהגה המקובלת מדורי דורותומי הוא זה שיהיו ויתחצף להורות נגד פסק המקובל של רבינו הרמא
"And I am astonished, foremost what those permitting are thinking. Did not the Rama already bring down from the Rishonim, and there is no one who argues upon him from all the commentators of the Shulchan Aruch there, that there is in our days a problem of guf naki... So was the accepted practice from many generations, and who is the one who will presumptuously rule against the accepted pesak of Rabbenu the Rama."
Rav Schachter clearly says that it is possible for the commentators of the Shulchan Aruch to argue with the Rama. And practice might then follow those commentators. Just in this case they haven't.
There a huge difference between "The Ramo is [always] the final definitive rule on all practice" and that in this case, no commentator disagreed, such that this was the accepted pesak of the Rama.

I am out of time, and so I'll end here.


zach said...

I haven't mastered shas, the tur, the sa, etc etc so I guess that makes me an am ha'aretz who is not qualified to give an opinion on any halachic matter whatsoever. So all I will state is my gut instinct:

The idea that the prohibition of a woman wearing tefillin reaches the level of yehareg va'al yaavor is so offensive that it suggests something has gone VERY wrong with the halachic process.

joshwaxman said...

I also haven't **mastered** the Shas, Tur, etc.

But Rav Schachter has e.g. stressed in shiur that just as English majors have read through Shakespeare, there is no excuse not to learn through all of Shas. I have my doubts that many of those opining have done that, at least.

There is nothing "offensive" about something *reaching* yehareg va'al yaavor. (And btw I am not convinced that in a practical case, Rav Schachter would say that a woman should literally give up her life rather than wearing tefillin.) But it is as I wrote in this earlier post that "Rather, it is recognizing that historically, praiseworthy actions have been abandoned by the Jewish people in the face of outside groups co-opting it." Not following sectarian practices is a real consideration, and there is a real halachic (and not just meta-halachic) prohibition involved, and a serious one which is not so easily dismissed. It promotes the problem to issur-kares-like problem, rather than going against a derabbanan or a minhag.

And taking offense is not an intellectual answer to an intellectual problem. It is an emotional answer.

Mark said...

"he did not translate it"

Anyone have an idea why R'HS wrote the piece in Hebrew, and why he didn't provide a version in English as well? After all, he is a native English speaker, isn't he?!

joshwaxman said...

This is deflection from the point I was making, to try to point blame in other directions.

possible answers is that he is comfortable writing teshuvot in Hebrew, and has done so in the past; and that other rabbis who speak English write in Hebrew. Or that the intended audience was not every yutz, many of whom don't read Hebrew, but targeted at Bnei Hayeshiva.

you can similarly ask why all the questions we had on becoming swerve in Hebrew even though he could have written them in English.

joshwaxman said...

Should read "on bechinot were in Hebrew"

Anonymous said...

ruvie-- The sectarian argument seems to be a leftover from the 1940/1950 era which many wouldn't consider plausible today.
It reminds me of the Bat Mitzvah teshuvah's beginning in the 1920s ... where chukat hagoyim morphed into sectarianism to ain mitzvah gadolah mizeh...the amcha is educated enough to see this teshuva more as a polemic than a psak....

FTR, Rav Schechter has been harping about rabbis paskening that do not all of shas for a while .....

joshwaxman said...

well, i would argue that alas the amcha is only educated just enough to wrongly see this teshuva as more polemic than a pesak.

i certainly wasn't intending it as polemic when i made a similar point in this blogpost. That of course there is the social statement that women wearing tefillin makes (like it or not), about egalitarianism, and that historically positive actions have been discontinued when assuming "negative" associations.

And the Conservative link -- it is not just Eden Farber. The girls in question are Conservative girls in a Modern Orthodox high school.

joshwaxman said...

oops, link here:

ruvie said...

Rabbi Wacman - I would answer that the tosafists would disagree about the amcha (and their amcha was less knowledgeable by any measures) and halakha.

As to egalitarianism - when has any positive reforms (probably not the correct word) or changes allowing more inclusiveness for women in society or rituals have not been met with negative associations? i would include women's right to vote as well in this list.
How can we one read RHS psak without thinking its a polemic or an emotional attack on others he believes that have no tight to pasken?
I just think this lowers his acceptance in the mo community where more and more will look elsewhere because he does not reflect their haskafa....and to that degree I think its self inflicting.

yaak said...

Translation of Rabbi Schachter's Teshuva:

Here - at YWN

Reb Yid said...

If someone needs a translation so that he can better understand the issues, well, that makes sense. If someone needs a translation so that he can make up his mind what the halacha is, then he probably shouldn't be paskening for himself. If I can't understand the Tax Court's decision, I'm not going to file my tax return on the basis of my personal opinion about tax law.

Hillel said...

R' Waxman,
It's a little difficult not be both amused and frustrated by how "meta" this whole situation is. Essentially, there are differing opinions, not simply about the actual p'sak, but about who has the right to render a p'sak in the first place.

R' Yuter and R' Schachter simply have fundamentally different approaches to that question, with R' Schachter essentially saying (as I understand it) that R' Yuter (and, for that matter, R' Harcsztark and R' Lookstein) do not have the right to pasken, at least not in a complex/significant issue such as this. The other Rabbis obviously disagree.

The end result is that ignorant laymen such as myself have to choose which system/authority to follow, even though by all accounts were are in the worst position to make such a decision!

I'm not a computer guy, but I'm fairly certain that's a pretty good example of a catastrophic systems failure.

If you have any thoughts on this conundrum I'd love to hear them.

Micha Berger said...

It is not wearing tefillin that is deemed yeihareig ve'al ya'avor. It is the context, the willingness to dilute the halachic process, that RHS is really addressing. Much like the lengths we go on parah adumah to preserve the tradition against Sadducee challenges. If she were wearing tefillin for another motiver, or in another context, he wouldn't have branded it that way.

IOW, it's not simply frustrating how meta the conversation is. It's the fact that the problem isn't with how the other is doing one din, but how the other's process works altogether that threatens to make this a schism-generating issue.

Joe in Australia said...

We're talking about a single question, but I think there's really a cloud of related questions. It would be quite possible to assert that women may wear tefilin, but still conclude that they should be discouraged from doing so, and that schools should forbid it on their premises.

Assuming that at least some women may, halachically, wear tefilin under at least some circumstances, each of the folowing statements could be completed with "must", "must not", "should", "should not", or "may":

1) Women, generally, ____ wear tefilin.
2) Women ____ be encouraged to wear tefilin.
3) Schools and synagogues ____ let women wear tefilin on their premises.
4) Schools and synagogues ____ let women wear tefilin publicly on their premises.

Mark said...

5) Schools ______ let women wear tefillin at a woman's tefillah group.

Anonymous said...

There are other characteristics - besides complete familiarity with the sources - that make one a good posek. Vehmayvin yavin.

Chanoch Waxman said...

Josh - I certainly understand your point about the possibility of encyclopedic knowledge bordering on the total generating some unique halachic argument, of a "different kind" than that available to he who merely precedes by means of "research", the known literature, Bar Ilan etc. However that said, two points are in order. First, it does not seem to me that the argument of "gezeirah mishum minut" or "yehareg ve'al yaavor" due to improper motivation or our being engaged in an ongoing war for belief in Torah min-Hashamayim and the like seems like a new "kind" of argument. Second, the formulation of such an argument does not grant it or its advocate absolute power. It is but another consideration, admittedly powerful in my opinion, to be weighed in arriving at a proper conclusion. Regards to your father. Your cousin

joshwaxman said...

Indeed, I wouldn't say that this is necessarily a new "kind" of argument. Hey, I am no great expert but I spotted a similar concern myself. Someone with a Bar Ilan search could have even found it in Shiltei Giborim to Rosh Hashana. (That women are prohibited from wearing tefillin "because their doing so might appear to be the way of non-believers, who disregard Rabbinic directives and refuse to follow Rabbinic interpretations of Scripture."

But it is the **type** of thing that someone relying on shallow and narrow research might well miss. (Which was a different point.)

And I also agree (at least on my own behalf) that it doesn't grant it or its advocate absolute power. Had the people involved consulted with bigger rabbis who bothered to consider it and then decided otherwise for various reasons, perhaps Rav Schachter would have written a different letter.

I'll pass along the regards.

kul tuv,

Chanoch Waxman said...

I agree with your points. But FYI - the shiltei giborim is quite well known - and a thorough look at the sugya in Rosh Hahshana (one of the key women and mitzvot sugyot as you are well aware) would turn it up. So no need for Bar Ilan there. In fact, as R' Aryeh Klapper just pointed out in his recent post on the issue, he cited the Shiltei Giborim in a letter to Hamevaser on the issue over twenty years ago. (By the way - it is worthwhile taking a look at R' Klapper's discussion of the issue in his response to Ethan Tucker). Regarding your last point, I agree that there is a problem of lack of consultation with Gedolei Torah, and consideration of all facets of the issue by those who wish to be lenient or accomodating. But I am not convinced that this is really a causal factor in the harshness of Rav Schacter's response. Perhaps there would be a way to make his fundamental points that conforms more to the parameters of "deracheha darchei noam"

Kol Tuv,
Shabbat Shalom

joshwaxman said...

re bar ilan, i think there are at two points in play here.

the first is that it gives access to obscure sources. the second is that someone unfamiliar with the sugyot could do a narrow search and not realize orthogonal aspects.

i was suggesting that even someone who was unfamiliar with the sugya might well have encountered this via a bar ilan search.

(not that i know. i don't think i currently have such access to run a search.)

re deracheha darchei noam, i think that lakol zeman, ve'es lechol chefetz tachas hashamayim. i think that this was intended for internal consumption only, not meant to be posted (and mis-analyzed) on blogs, translated on yeshiva world news, and read by the general public who are unfamiliar with halachic methodology or the sociological stakes.

kol tuv,


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