Questions column

Questions column

Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer’s May 28 impassioned plea for an end to attacks against women by zealots in Israel falls on receptive ears. There is simply no way to excuse those who physically abuse Jews for failing to observe Orthodox practice. The Torah’s ways are ways of gentleness, not of violence.

Having made this admirable point, Rabbi Engelmayer’s essay veers onto thin ice when he claims that “there does not exist an unequivocal … halachic objection to women wearing tallitot, donning tefillin, taking aliyot, or even singing before the congregation; of women touching sacred objects or standing on a bimah … of women sitting with men during prayer services and Torah study. Anyone who claims that such absolute proscriptions exist is wrong – ignorantly so, deliberately so, or perhaps maliciously so.”

Tallitot? Maybe. Tefillin? Maybe. Aliyot? Maybe. Singing? Maybe. Touching the Torah? Sure. Standing on a bimah? Depends when.

Sitting with men in shul during prayer? Excuse me? Certainly Rabbi Engelmayer is familiar with the fact that the great halachic decisor Rabbi Moshe Feinstein held that a mechitza is required as a matter of biblical law, since the statement in Zechariah 12:12-14 represents not a prophecy about future circumstances but binding Torah law. Rabbi Feinstein firmly declared that Orthodox Jews are prohibited from praying in a synagogue without one. The revered Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik held that a separation of men and women during prayer is biblically required, while the physical mechitza was required by rabbinic decree. Since it seems to fair to assume that Rabbi Engelmayer does not limit his loyalty to biblical law alone, one is led to wonder what emboldens him to state that mechitza lacks an “unequivocal halachic” basis.

More important, what impels Rabbi Engelmayer to malign the integrity of Orthodox halachic decisors by terming their prohibition of men and women sitting together during prayer to be “wrong,” “ignorant,” or malicious”? This regrettable characterization, sure to stir up animosity on the part of Jews faithful to halacha, feeds the false flames of zealotry that Rabbi Engelmayer himself decries.

Rabbi Engelmayer responds:

I stand by the sentence David Jacobowitz finds offensive. However, it was neither meant to refer to nor to “malign the integrity of Orthodox halachic decisors,” as he believes I did, and I apologize for inadvertently suggesting otherwise. That being said, virtually all halachic decisors throughout all time would readily acknowledge that others as learned as they could reach different conclusions based on the same sources. The fact that Rabbi Feinstein and Rabbi Soloveitchik disagree on whether a physical barrier is biblical or rabbinic proves this. In any case, halachic decisors were covered in the final paragraph of my essay, which I also stand by and hope David Jacobowitz does, too:

“The beauty of Jewish law is that ‘these and these are [both] the words of the Living God’ (see BT Eruvin 13b), meaning that as long as a ruling is ‘for the sake of heaven,’ it cannot be wrong even if it runs contrary to the halachic approach others take. The ugliness of Jewish life comes when we ignore the beauty of Jewish law. God forbid that it take the murder of women who dare to don tefillin to remember that.”