Questions column

Questions column

The Jewish Standard serves an important role in catering to a broad spectrum of the Jewish Community. As such, it is appropriate that the column written by Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer is labeled as representing “One religious perspective.” Those of your readers who identify with the traditional beliefs of Jews throughout the millennia, that both the written and oral components of the Torah were divinely transmitted at Sinai, will not take seriously the manner in which Rabbi Engelmayer makes use of numerous citations of biblical, Talmudic, and medieval sources. However, his May 28 column oversteps the bounds of intellectual honesty by misusing some of his cited sources.

After writing that, “bluntly stated, there does not exist an unequivocal … halachic objection … of women sitting with men during prayer services and Torah study,” he quotes the Mordechai, a 13th-century scholar, to support his assertion: “On the Sabbath, we may erect the curtain between men and women during the time of the sermon.” He then, incredulously and scandalously, infers that in contrast to “the time of the sermon,” during prayer there is no such need for separation between the women and the men.

The Sabbath “sermon” in talmudic times did not take place in the synagogue and not necessarily during the morning hours, i.e., not in the place of prayer and not during the time of prayer, and did not relate at all to prayer (BT Shabbat 116 A). Furthermore, the context of the citation from the Mordechai (Shabbat 311) does not relate to the laws of separating women and men, but rather to the prohibition of construction on the Sabbath. It is permissible to erect a curtain during the sermon since it is done only for purposes of modesty (but may not be otherwise required). The correct inference and understanding of this statement is that not only at prayer is a separation required but even at the time and place of the sermon.

Finally and bluntly, the Mishna in Middot (2,5; see also Succah 5,2) describing the Beit Hamikdash, The Temple, which is the paradigm for our prayer in the synagogue, states: “The women view from above (balcony) and the men from below so that they do not mix together.”

Israel Polak


Rabbi Engelmayer responds:

Let me begin by noting that the column in question was not advocating that women should get aliyot, or should don tefillin, or should wear tzitzit. There are differences of opinion on these and similar matters, and each opinion is valid for those holding it.

My column was about the increasing violence aimed at women who believe that the sources give them such rights.

How sad it is, then, that Israel Polak prefers to pick non-existent nits while ignoring the true subject of the column. I have to wonder whether he considers these attacks to be justified halachically in some way.

In accusing me of intellectual dishonesty, Polak engages in it himself. There are 424 words separating the “bluntly stated” paragraph (which he conveniently truncates) and the reference to Rabbi Mordechai ben Hillel. In those 424 words, there are talmudic and biblical citations that are unequivocal in their plain meaning, such as that “the words of the Torah are not susceptible to uncleanness,” or that a woman is entitled to an aliyah but nevertheless should be denied that right, or that “200 singing men and singing women” were employed in the Temple service (which could be seen as a clear challenge to the notion of kol ishah). We may disagree about whether the plain meaning represents the actual meaning, but we cannot simply ignore that these words were spoken and recorded.

Polak also ignores other citations in the column that just as unambiguously seem to claim that women may don tefillin and are required to wear tzitzit. Again, we can argue about whether what seems to be actually is, or why what actually is should be ignored, but we cannot argue that the words are not there to begin with.

As for the responsum in question, I did not say that the sermon was given during services. Indeed, Rashi in BT Kiddushin 81a (sv gulfei) suggests that the traditonal d’rash was given separate from services. However, Polak ignores the point of the citation: Why would anyone have erected a mechitzah at any time on Shabbat if a mechitzah was already in place? Indeed, why would it not have been put up in advance of Shabbat if the use of a mechitzah was standard at any time during the day?