Women and tefillin
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Women and tefillin

May women wear tefillin?

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A Teaneck rabbi should have died rather than permitting two female students to wear tefillin at the Orthodox yeshiva high school he heads, according to a new responsum issued this month by Yeshiva University’s leading authority of Jewish law and posted on the Rabbinical Council of America’s website. At issue was a decision by Rabbi Naftali Harcsztark, principal of the SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y. The students, one of whom is from Bergen County, come from Conservative families.

In his Hebrew-language letter opposing Rabbi Harcsztark’s decision, Rabbi Herschel Schachter, who serves as one of two halachic advisors for the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division, said that because of Orthodoxy’s conflict with the “heretical” Conservative and Reform movements, such changes to traditional Orthodox practice must be resisted as strongly as were the anti-Jewish decrees of King Antiochus.

Feminism is a particularly problematic motive for changing traditional Jewish practice, Rabbi Schachter wrote in a second letter he posted this month. That is because feminism was a principal of ancient Saducee heretics and early Christians, who advocated that daughters should inherit equally with sons – contrary to the plain meaning of the Torah and the halacha as understood by the Talmud.

In general, innovations not approved by great rabbis “lead to destruction and Reform, God help us,” Rabbi Schachter wrote, lamenting that unlike in 16th century Poland, people now can publish their opinions on matters of Jewish law without seeking prior approval from rabbinic sages.

Rabbi Schachter’s letters are the latest salvos in a war raging within Orthodox Judaism.

Rabbi Harcsztark’s decision to permit the two students to wear tefillin was first reported by the Boiling Point, a student newspaper from Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.

Rabbi Harcsztark defended his decision in an email.

Women wearing tefillin “is not the common practice in our community,” he wrote. “However, since there is basis in halacha and these students have been committed to daily prayer with tefillin since their bat mitzvah, I felt it appropriate to create a space at SAR for tefilah [prayer] that is meaningful for them.”

In a longer letter sent to the SAR community, he wrote: “My responsibility was to consider the person before me and the halacha, before considering the political fallout of the decision.”

While the decision was groundbreaking for the SAR High School, administrators at the SAR Academy middle school and the Ramaz School in Manhattan already had made similar decisions.

The Talmud is clear that men are required to wear tefillin and women are not. The Talmud also records that exceptional women – specifically, Michal, the daughter of King Saul – did wear them.

Given the support of such authorities as Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch for women to choose to wear tefillin despite not being required to do so, Rabbi Harcsztark wrote, “I felt it appropriate to see it as a legitimate practice.”

“I know that not everyone agrees with my decision. I expect that and I respect that,” he wrote.

Rabbi Schachter, however, did more than simply dismiss Rabbi Harcsztark’s halachic ruling; the Yeshiva University Talmudist maintained that the school principal had no right to decide the question on his own.

At its core, the debate is not only about the question of feminism but about boundaries and authority.

It is a continuation of the debate that in recent years has raged in the modern Orthodoxy rooted in Yeshiva University – where both Rabbis Harcsztark and Schachter were trained, and where Rabbi Schachter heads an institute for advanced Talmud study – and the Rabbinical Council of America. If modern Orthodoxy once constituted the liberal wing of Orthodox Judaism, today it can be said to have grown to encompass its own divisions: a left wing represented by Rabbi Avi Weiss, who broke from Y.U. to found a competing rabbinical school, Yeshivat Chovevi Torah; a right wing personified by Rabbi Schachter, which has failed in its efforts to expel the left wing from the RCA but succeeded in blocking the RCA from accepting YCT graduates as members; and a center that does not agree with the left wing’s innovations (most notably, Rabbi Weiss’ decision to ordain women) but does not want to see modern Orthodoxy fall victim to internecine fighting.

This fight took an international turn last year, when the Israeli chief rabbinate stopped accepting Rabbi Weiss’s testimony about the Jewishness of his congregants. Proof of Jewishness is required for Jews to marry in the state of Israel, but the rabbinate had been advised by right-wing members of the RCA that Rabbi Weiss was not trustworthy.

“We are very proud that Rav Schachter is a member of the RCA,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, leader of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood and the RCA’s immediate past president. “He is a posek” – halachic decisor – “of great prominence, and he is one of the poskim that the RCA will turn to for guidance.

“That does not mean we are bound by one particular posek, but he is certainly an individual to whom we will turn for guidance.”

For Rabbi Schachter, at issue is not only the specific liberal rulings – in this case, on women wearing tefillin – but a broader question of who can decide questions of Jewish law.

He expresses surprise that those women seeking to wear tallit or tefillin “did not bring their questions before the great decisors of our time, apparently thinking that ‘the entire people is holy,’ as Korach and his followers claimed, though perhaps their thought was that all the people were at Sinai.”

And he dismisses anyone, even ordained rabbis, who think they have the authority to decide halacha on their own.

In fact, he says, every halachic authority – from those of the Mishna until today – “would agree that this behavior is totally forbidden … so as not to copy the heretics.”

Rabbi Schachter wrote that it is only “recognized Torah giants” who can determine what behavior makes God happy and what doesn’t. Although he does not say so explicitly, because he decides halacha in this document even as he defines that activity as restricted to Torah giants, he implies that he counts himself among those giants.

Taken together, the two responsa reflect two aspects of his religious approach, which have made him a controversial claimant to the position of the YU’s preeminent rabbinic figure. That was the role held by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik until he retired in 1985.

On the one hand, Rabbi Schachter highlights his role as a student of Rabbi Soloveitchik.

The two responsa repeatedly quote Rabbi Soloveitchik. (Rabbi Soloveitchik published little during his lifetime, and those publications included no works of halachic responsa, so the bulk of the citations are from “Nefesh Harav,” a collection of Soloveitchik’s teachings and rulings compiled by Rabbi Schachter.)

On the other hand, in these two responsa Rabbi Schachter often cites various 19th and 20th century Orthodox rabbis who today would be classified as charedi and would have had no truck with Rabbi Soloveitchik. (For his part, Rabbi Soloveitchik never resorted to the opinions of those halachic authorities, known as achronim, in deciding halacha, nor did he advise his students to do so. Instead, he generally would turn to the Talmud, Maimonides, and other medieval authorities; when he did turn to later authorities, it was only those from his Lithuanian tradition.)

At times in his writing, Rabbi Schachter’s use of Orthodox authorities without acknowledging their disparate ideological commitments can seem jarring.

Bringing together different streams of Orthodoxy is perhaps the flip side to what is the crux of his argument against Rabbi Harcsztark: What he describes as a “civil war” within Judaism against Conservative Judaism, which he likens to the battle waged against the Saducees by the Pharisees two thousand years ago.

For Rabbi Harcsztark, however, Jewish unity, rather than just Orthodox unity, seems to be an important value. The SAR principal wrote while he does not believe his school’s girls should put on tefillin, “I am committed to having our boys and girls be able to daven in the same shul where a woman might be doing so. That when they see something different, even controversial, before deciding in which denomination it belongs, they must first take a serious look at the halacha and ask their rabbi whether there is basis for such practice.”

His decision, he wrote, was applauded by Rabbi Yosef Adler of Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael. Rabbi Adler also was a student of Soloveitchik, and refers to him frequently in sermons and classes he gives at the boys-only Torah Academy of Bergen County, which he heads.

Meanwhile, one woman raised in Teaneck has argued that the question of women wearing tefillin may be one of life and death – for the future of Orthodoxy.

“As an observant Jewish woman who does not want to wrap tefillin or wear a tallit, I believe unequivocally that women should be able to,” Miriam Krule wrote in Slate; she edits that online magazine’s religion column. “And there are many other women like me. Which is why Jewish law, while of prime importance to those wishing to take this step forward and those hoping to prevent it, is not the most interesting part of this debate. It’s secondary to the question of whether Modern Orthodoxy has a future if it continues to alienate so many women.

“How long will educated, committed women want to be a part of the community that doesn’t want them?” she asked.

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