May Orthodox Rabbis Permit Women to Don Tefillin?

 

May Orthodox Rabbis Permit Women to Don Tefillin?1

by Rav Mayer Twersky (republished with permission from TorahWeb)

 

I. The Ruling of the Ramo and Modern Reaction

ואם הנשים רוצין להחמיר על עצמן מוחין בידן

and if the women wish to act stringently [and don tefillin] we rebuke them
(Ramo, Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 38:3)

Recently, some rabbis have publicized and implemented their view that women wishing to don tefillin should be accommodated, contra Ramo’s ruling. A firestorm of controversy has ensued. But seemingly there is ample justification for their position.

The argument runs as follows. What, in effect, have these rabbis done? To best serve their students/congregants they have, simply, sensitively aligned themselves with the Rambam, et al, whose view, contra Ramo, allows women to don tefillin. Surely, the view of Rambam, et al is valid.

The nominal argument continues. Times have unquestionably changed. We do not live in sixteenth century Krakow, eighteenth century Vilna, or even fin-de-siecle Radin. In today’s world, women wishing to don tefillin should be accommodated.

II. Modern Mistakes

The beguilingly simple argument/psak outlined above is plagued by, at least, three egregious errors.

Error number one: the unequivocal ruling of the Ramo, subsequently silently endorsed by, inter alia, the Magen Avraham, Taz, Gaon of Vilna, Ba’al HaTanya, Aruch Hashulchan and Mishna Berurah, rejects the position of Rambam et al, and has stood unchallenged for over five hundred years. Moreover, Ramo’s ruling has been accepted in Sephardic circles as well.2. Overturning five hundred plus years of precedent and overwhelming consensus is anything but simple. Only the most eminent ba’alei hora’ah could even possibly entertain the notion. For anyone of lesser stature to tamper with five hundred plus years of tradition represents the height of brazenness and goes well beyond the pale of Orthodox Judaism.

The person of lesser or no halachic stature may feel that he has a crucially important perspective on the human dimension of the women and tefillin issue. Even if he were to be correct in his assessment, however, having perspective in no way compensates for his lack of Torah knowledge and qualification in psak. Instead of paskening the layman should share that perspective with the most eminent ba’alei hora’ah.

The rabbi who is not a ba’al hora’ah may nevertheless feel that within his school or shul the question of women and tefillin is his call. Even according to his proprietary premise he is profoundly wrong. It may be his school or shul, but it is the Rebono Shel Olam’s Torah. (This point is elaborated in Section VII below.)

Error number two: even if the five hundred year consensus on the issue of women and tefillin had not existed, the recent “psak” would still be a perversion of Halachah and halachic process.

Difference of opinion in the Rishonim or Shulchan Aruch does not create a halachic smorgasbord from which everyone is free to make his own selection. At a culinary smorgasbord or in a commercial venue such as a clothing store every guest/consumer is entitled to have, and act upon, his preference. He can choose what he likes and select what suits himself/his charges best. But that modus operandi has no place in Halachah and psak Halachah. One is not allowed, much less entitled, to opine that, “I think the view of Rambam and Rashba suits me/my charges best.”

ולא יאמר האדם אפסוק כמי שארצה בדבר שיש בו מחלוקת ואם עושה כן הרי זה דין שקר אלא אם הוא חכם גדול ויודע להכריע בראיות הרשות בידו
a person may not say regarding an issue where there is difference of opinion “I will decide the Halachah as I wish”, and if he did so, the ruling is false. But if he is a great sage and capable of deciding the Halachah based upon proofs it is his prerogative [to do so]
(Ramo, Choshen Mishpat 25:2)3

Psak Halachah is rendered by chachomim who are ba’alei hora’ah based upon canons of psak, not by anyone else, regardless of vocation or title, and not by engaging in crass religious consumerism.

Error number three: the recent “psak” reflects myopic perception. What, in the year 5774, is the core issue regarding women and tefillin? Is it “technical”, yes guf naki or no guf naki? Or perhaps it is educational, accommodating sincere youth or rebuffing them? Alas, if it were only so simple.

In modern times women did not begin donning tefillin to emulate Michal bas Shaul, be devout Maimonideans or invoke shem Hashem upon themselves. Women donned tefillin because men do so. Within the secular modern mindset adopted by Reform and Conservative wherein equality = uniformity women who don tefillin thereby attain a measure of equality with men.4 And thus the defining issue is axiological: can the secular value of egalitarianism be grafted onto Halachah?

The answer is obvious. Egalitarianism rejects a vital, essential, divinely ordained dimension of Halachah. Halachah does not discriminate against men or women. Most assuredly, however, it distinguishes between the genders. A genuine commitment to authentic Halachah per force entails rejecting the socially dominant, false philosophy of egalitarianism.

When individuals, regardless of vocation or title, grant license to women to don tefillin, nolens volens, they validate the insidiousness of egalitarianism.

We would do well to hear the voice of Rav Soloveitchik speaking to us across the generations regarding the obligation to staunchly resist false, socially/religiously dominant philosophies which assail Torah and its values.

In my opinion the Halachic dictum, bishe’ath gezerath ha-malchuth ‘afillu mitzvah kallah kegon le-shinuye ‘arketha de-mesana, yehareg ve’al ya’abor [at a time of religious persecution through governmental decree, even for a minor custom, such as one involving a shoelace, let one suffer death sooner than transgress it] (Sanhedrin 74b), requiring of us a heroic stand in times of adversity, applies not only to political and religious persecution originated by some pagan ruler, but also to situations in which a small number of God-fearing and Torah-loyal people is confronted with a hostile attitude on the part of the majority dominated by a false philosophy.5

A word of elaboration is in order. The issue is not what motivated two particular highschoolers to request permission to don tefillin in school. Their personal motives could be innocent, pure, and noble; I have no reason to think otherwise. The issue is the substance of their request – i.e., what the practice of women donning tefillin in 5774 represents.

This point can be more easily grasped by considering the following historically fictional scenario. The setting is nineteenth century Germany. Two sincere, innocent highschoolers regularly attend Reform Shabbos services. Not knowing any better, they view the playing of an organ as normative halachic behavior. What’s more they are very moved by the musical accompaniment. On weekdays they begin davening at home to the accompaniment of an organ. This prolongs their tefillah. Nonetheless they happily cut back on much needed sleep to arise early because they feel that this mode of tefillah enhances their personal avodas Hashem. Eventually, in all innocence, they approach the principal of the local Orthodox day school and request permission to softly play the organ in the ezras nashim during davening.

How should the principal respond? Should he be “sensitive”, mindful of their mesiras nefesh, and create space for their expression of their personal avodas Hashem?

Once again the answer is obvious. If the principal makes space for the organ, he does not respect their personal avodas Hashem or reward their mesiras nefesh. He grievously misleads; he egregiously reinforces reform behavior and values with tragically predictable consequences.

Correcting the students’ home behavior may not fall within the principal’s purview but he certainly cannot countenance Reform values and practices within school. He should commend their sincerity and commitment to tefillah. But he also should sensitively yet clearly explain why accompaniment of an organ has no place in authentic tefillah. His mandate is to educate. He rewards their mesiras nefesh by inspiring and encouraging genuine, basic shemiras hamitzvosShabbos, kashrus, tznius, etc., not by acquiescing to anti-halachic behavior. He respects their personal avodas Hashem by teaching them authentic, beautiful avodas hashem, according to the Shulchan Aruch.

All this is abundantly and indisputably clear. Today’s contemporary analogue, women donning tefillin, is equally clear.

III. Truth and Accommodation

In the first section of this essay we mentioned a commonly asked question, surely it is preferable to march in step with the times and accommodate women on issues such as tefillin rather than risk losing them? Actually, the preceding remarks have already, in part, implicitly addressed this question. Due to its seminal importance, however, let us be explicit and more elaborate.

Once again the sagacious, authoritative voice of Rav Soloveitchik continues to speak to us.

I know beforehand the reaction to my letter on the part of our apostles of religious “modernism” and “utilitarianism”. They will certainly say that since the great majority of the recently constructed synagogues have abandoned separate seating, we must not be out of step with the masses. This type of reasoning could well be -employed with regard to other religious precepts, such as the observance of the Sabbath, or the dietary laws. However, we must remember that an ethical or Halachic principle decreed by God is not rendered void by the fact that the people refuse to abide by it. Its cogency and veracity are perennial and independent of compliance on the part of the multitudes. If the ethical norm, Thou shalt not kill (Exodus 20:13), has not lost its validity during the days of extermination camps and gas chambers, when millions of people were engaged in ruthless murder, but on the contrary, has been impregnated with deeper meaning and significance, then every Halachic maxim assumes greater importance in times of widespread disregard and unconcern. The greater the difficulty, the more biting the ridicule and sarcasm, and the more numerous the opponent – then the holier is the principle, and the more sacred is our duty to defend it.6

The Rav was confronting the “Christianization of the synagogue”; today’s morei hora’ah confront the egalitarianization of Torah. The halachic directive, which the Rav so powerfully articulated, remains the same.

The “women’s” issues which in certain circles fuel much of the opposition to Halachah today had already begun percolating in Rav Soloveitchik’s lifetime. The Rav sensitively and unapologetically addressed himself to the surface issues as well as their underlying etiology.

[W]e must not yield — I mean emotionally, it is very important — we must not feel inferior, experience or develop an inferiority complex, and because of that complex yield to the charm — usually it is a transient and passing charm — of modern political and ideological sevoros (logic). I say not only not to compromise — certainly not to compromise — but not to yield emotionally, not to feel inferior, not to experience an inferiority complex. The thought should never occur that it is important to cooperate just a little bit with the modern trend or with the secular, modern philosophy. In my opinion, Yahadus (Judaism) does not have to apologize either to the modern woman or to the modern representatives of religious subjectivism. There is no need for apology — we should have pride in our mesorah, in our heritage. And of course, certainly it goes without saying one must not try to compromise with these cultural trends, and one must not try to gear the halachic norm to the transient way of a neurotic society, which is what our society is.7

In forming political coalitions or clinching business deals, negotiation, accommodation, and concession are the watchwords. They play, however, no legitimate role in determining truth. One ascertains truth through honest, rigorous, erudite inquiry – not by negotiating, accommodating, or conceding. What holds true for truth in general holds true for halachic truth (=psak) in particular. Of course, psak Halachah is always an exercise in applying Halachah to real life situations. As such, a fully nuanced, sensitive understanding of the prevailing socio-political, religious situation forms an integral part of the question. But the answer – psak - is neither conciliatory or non-conciliatory. These utilitarian categories are entirely misplaced when speaking of Halachah and psak Halachah. The psak represents what Halachah, truthfully and unapologetically, directs for the situation at hand.

IV. Ein Kol Chadash Tachas Hashemesh

The argument that contemporary morei hora’ah should march in step with the times and make concessions to prevent assimilation is hauntingly familiar.

We similarly state in our program for the revitalization of the Sabbath that the traditional interdiction of riding on the Sabbath for the purpose of attending the synagogue service may, in the discretion of the local rabbi, be modified … we must learn to adjust our strategy to the realities of our time and place, in keeping with the realistic genius of the great builders of our faith. Thus, our Sages cautioned us, tafasta m’rubah lo tafasta – “to overreach is to court failure,” when you attempt to grasp a great deal, you will grasp nothing … In crucial periods, our sages did not hesitate to make special enactments for their own time or for a limited period of time, in order to meet the challenge of new circumstances.8

Conservative rabbis who adamantly insisted they were operating within, and according to principles of, Halachah promoted these arguments. In their ignorance they misconstrued and misapplied the sources they cited, and distorted halachic process and Halachah. Today Conservative Jews – Hashem yeracheim – are disappearing.

V. Truth Endures, Falsehood Does Not9

One final note about the myopic argument for accommodation on issues such as women and tefillin is in order.

As already explained, the real, underlying issue is the Torah’s religious gender differentiation. Accordingly, any accommodation nolens volens accepts and reinforces the inimical premise that avenues and expressions of avodas Hashem for men and women must be identical.

Such acceptance is wholly unacceptable. First of all, it distorts Torah. Moreover, such acceptance and accommodation actually alienate women from Torah.

The process of alienation is tragically straightforward and frighteningly quick. As just noted, accommodation validates and reinforces the inimical egalitarian impulse but cannot satisfy it. Brushing aside the Ramo’s ruling does not make Halachah conform to the egalitarian creed. Seen from the twisted perspective of egalitarianism, women still suffer from discrimination. They are excluded from serving as shliach tzibbur, the halachos of marriage and divorce are most decidedly unegalitarian, etc. By reinforcing the egalitarian impulse without satisfying it, every accommodation intensifies the demand for further accommodations. But that demand can never be met because Torah and egalitarianism are fundamentally incompatible. And thus accommodationism, ר”ל, inevitably results in alienation and assimilation.

Tragically, this process of assimilation has already partially materialized. Yesterday’s women’s tefillah groups which stemmed from the same egalitarian impulse no longer suffice. Today tefillin, “partnership minyanim” and women rabbis are sought. And the handwriting on the wall is unmistakable. Tomorrow these stopgap, anti-halachic concessions will no longer suffice. The current path leads inexorably to a black hole of complete assimilation, ר”ל.10

The alternative to aiding and abetting assimilation ר”ל is to assume our spiritual, educational mandate. Our mandate is to teach Torah (including, but obviously not limited to, elucidating the halachic process), and engender a profound appreciation for authentic Torah values, thereby guiding men and women alike to genuine avodas Hashem and religious experience.

VI. Tefillin and Talmud Torah

Let us digress for a moment. In recent decades whenever people agitate for changing Halachah they trumpet the alleged precedent of women and talmud Torah. It is vitally important to recognize the wholesale distortion created by that analogy.

The Belzer Rebbe, Chofetz Chaim, Rav Soloveitchik and other gedolei Yisroel who advocated Torah she’b’al peh instruction for women were not accommodating them or conceding to heretical, egalitarian, societal trends. Women were not agitating for talmud Torah opportunities. They were ר”ל happily assimilating. The gedolim recognized that our mesorah disapproved of optional, theoretical learning being imposed upon women. Our mesorah always mandated necessary, practical learning. In the modern era Torah she’b’al peh instruction within the guidelines provided by the gedolim for women was/is vitally necessary.11

The issues of talmud Torah and tefillin for women could not be more different. The chachmei hamesorah upheld Halachah and combated assimilation by supporting talmud Torah for women. Initiatives such as allowing women to don tefillin tamper with Halachah and fuel assimilation.

VII. Students and Sages

Let us pause for a moment’s reflection. We have outlined three egregious errors – the brazenness of brushing aside precedent and consensus, the smorgasbord mentality and approach to psak, and myopic perception of halachic issues. Each of these errors in its own right is so elementary and so glaring. The confluence of all three within the recent “psak” regarding women and tefillin is simply mind boggling. How could this possibly come to pass?

The Shulchan Aruch addresses our issue head on.

כל חכם שהגיע להוראה ואינו מורה הרי זה מונע תורה וכו’
Any sage who is qualified to issue halachic rulings but does not do so – he is withholding Torah
[Shulchan Aruch 242:14]

תלמיד שלא הגיע להוראה ומורה הרי זה שוטה רשע וגס רוח ועליו נאמר כי רבים חללים הפילה
A student who is unqualified and renders halachic decisions is a delusional, wicked, and arrogant person, and about him it is said, “(s)he has caused many casualties”
[Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah ibid. 13, quoting Rambam verbatim]

ותלמידים הקטנים הקופצים להורות ולישב בראש להתגדל בפני ע”ה מרבים מחלוקת ומחריבים העולם ומכבין נרה של תורה
And students of small stature who leap forward to issue halachic rulings and to assume positions of authority, aggrandizing themselves before the masses cause discord to proliferate, destroy the world and extinguish the lamp of Torah
[Ramo’s gloss, also quoting Rambam, ibid.]

Let us try to get a feel for who is a chacham she’higi’a l’hora’ah. Rabbi Akiva Eiger (d.1837), the epitome of Torah mastery and majesty, seemed not entirely convinced that he himself qualified.12 Ultimately, he wrote and published his responsa but only for the consideration of morei hora’ah. No moreh hora’ah, he insisted, should simply accept his conclusions. In more recent times, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, widely acclaimed as the posek hador, felt the need to justify how he could write and publish response.13 His justification, in part: hi’gi’ah l’hora’ah is determined relative to one’s own generation. In our generation the range of our greatest sages extends over Shas, Rishonim, Shulchan Aruch, and poskim. Clearly, the bar for hora’ah remains very high.

Let us now turn our attention to the extraordinary, stinging words of censure which the Shulchan Aruch reserved for the talmid shelo hi’gi’ah l’hora’ah who paskens: shoteh rasha v’gas ruach (delusional, wicked, and arrogant.) We have generally excised such stinging epithets from our parlance because we tend to soften or sugarcoat the truth. But softening or sugarcoating also leads rachamana litslan to erosion. Accordingly, we need to take the Shulchan Aruch at its word, and try to retrace the thought process which yields the stinging censure.

Does the educator, rabbi, or layman not realize that he lacks the breadth and depth of knowledge required of a ba’al hora’ah? Does he, in a flight of Walter Mittyish imagination, think himself an expert in Shas, Rishonim, Shulchan Aruch, and major responsa? Halachic queries are never directed to him qua ba’al Halachah because he is not. They come his way only because of the professional position he occupies. Is his hubris so great and grip on reality so tenuous that he fails to recognize this distinction? How can he possibly arrogate the right to render halachic judgments, make public pronouncements about what is or is not consonant with Halachah and/or override five hundred plus years of halachic precedent and consensus?

Everyone intuitively understands and instinctively feels that a doctor who masquerades as a medical authority in an area beyond his expertise is not only dishonest but wicked. He may be very personable, affable, and even sincere in his desire to help. His personal graces and sincerity, however, do not ameliorate the evil of his masquerade. Inevitably and invariably, people will grievously suffer from his misguided medical guidance. Is a halachic masquerade any less immoral? Are spiritual fraud and injury of lesser import than medical fraud and injury?

When individuals act presumptuously and issue reckless rulings, the truth of Yoreh De’ah 242:13 becomes searingly painful. We are deeply pained by the thought that, as codified by the Shulchan Aruch, a fellow Jew is acting as a shoteh, rasha, v’gas ruach. We instinctively recoil at that thought. And yet our vulnerability to truth does not diminish its compelling veracity even an iota. The Shulchan Aruch‘s stinging words of censure for the masquerading halachic authority are formulated with razor like precision.

So too Shulchan Aruch‘s assessment of damage done by irresponsible psak- rabim chalalim hipila, it inflicts many spiritual casualties. Here too the Shulchan Aruch speaks with prescience and precision. Non Orthodox behavior is certified Orthodox. Secular, heretical values are accommodated and re-enforced, thereby promoting assimilation, ר”ל. A mockery is made of authentic halachic values such as sensitivity when so grossly misapplied. And sincere mevakshei Hashem are steered in the wrong direction.

Perhaps the best way to highlight the danger of irresponsible psak is this. Hakadosh Baruch Hu entrusted us with His Torah and its traditions – to study, interpret, and implement. In the hands of humble sages the integrity of Torah is secure. Their thinking and values are molded by a lifetime of immersion in Torah, and vast Torah erudition. Conversely, in the hands of non-experts the integrity of Torah is impossible to maintain. There is no end to the distortions that brazenness, a smorgasbord approach, and myopic perception will cause.

And, tragically, as per Ramo’s gloss quoted above, discord proliferates. Machlokes inevitably follows irresponsible psak because we are not allowed to remain silent. We have an obligation to protest the distortion and protect the integrity of Torah.

VIII. U’vacharta, And You Should Choose

תורת השם תמימה משיבת נפש עדות השם נאמנה מחכימת פתי פקודי השם ישרים משמחי לב מצות השם ברה מאירת ענים יראת השם טהורה עומדת לעד משפטי השם אמת צדקו יחדו
The Torah of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of Hashem is trustworthy, making the simple one wise; the orders of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart; the command of Hashem is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of Hashem is pure, enduring forever; the judgments of Hashem are true, altogether righteous
[Tehillim 19:8-10, Artscroll translation]

Acceptance of Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s Torah does not simply entail practical compliance. Acceptance also reflects firm belief and evinces a reverential attitude. We accept Torah with a sense of awe, joy, privilege and pride because we perceive it for what it is – Hashem’s chochmo, perfect, upright, gladdening, enlightening, true, etc. Accordingly, we accept Torah with humility and submissiveness.

This is what acceptance of Torah ought to be. What acceptance of Torah is, however, in today’s world in some circles does not correspond.

We are witness to a profoundly disturbing, religiously untenable phenomenon. Consciously or unconsciously, people want to hold fast onto some secular, anti-Torah Western values and, simultaneously, Torah. Their commitment to some anti-Torah values casts Torah, to a degree, in an adversarial role. And thus, consciously or unconsciously, in a futile attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable they push, twist and manipulate Halachah to make it more congenial to their opposing Western values. Somehow or other Torah has to be made malleable enough to accommodate their dual loyalties.

ראה נתתי לפניך היום את החיים ואת הטוב ואת המות ואת הרע וגו’ החיים והמות נתתי לפניך הברכה והקללה ובחרת בחיים
Contemplate that I have placed before you today life and good, death and evil, etc. Life and death, I have placed before you, blessing and curse, but you should choose life.
[Devarim 30:15, 19]

To genuinely live a life of Torah and serve Hakadosh Baruch Hu, we are called upon to choose blessing (=good) and forsake curse (=evil). Grafting evil onto good is simply not an option. Choosing what’s right per force means rejecting what’s wrong.

The choices we make define our lives and determine our destiny.

ותן בנו יצר טוב לעבדך באמת וביראה ובאהבה
———


  1. Rav Schachter shlit”a has authoritatively dealt with this question in his recent responsum. This essay, disseminated with his approbation, merely seeks to expound and expand upon some of the relevant, seminal issues in a popular forum. 

  2. עי’ ילקוט יוסף שהאריך בזה כיד השם הטובה עליו, ובין היתר ציין לדברי האר”י ז”ל והחיד”א

     

  3. דברי הרמ”א נאמרו בקשר לפסק ב”ד בד”מ מקום שישנו מושג של שודא, וקו”ח בשאר חלקי התורה  

  4. By definition there can be no adequate response to quibblers who dispute incontrovertible facts. Nevertheless, for purpose of illustration, note the following candid, representative, programmatic remarks, “Ultimately our problem stems from the fact that we are viewed in Jewish law and practice as peripheral Jews. The category in which we are generally placed includes women, children, and Canaanite slaves. Members from this category are exempt from all positive commandments which occur within time limits. These commandments would include hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, eating in the sukkah, praying with the lulav, praying the three daily services, wearing tallit and tefillin, and saying Shema…Moreover, it is both feasible and desirable for the community to begin educating women to take on the positive time-bound mitzvoth from which they are now excused; in which case, those mitzvot would eventually become incumbent upon women.” Rachel Adler, “The Jew Who Wasn’t There”, reprinted in Susannah Heshcel, ed. On Being a Jewish Feminist

  5. “Message to a Rabbinic Convention”, reproduced in Baruch Litvin, The Sanctity of the Synagogue, p. 111. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Transcript of a 1975 shiur delivered to RIETS rabbinic alumni, available at arikahn.blogspot.com 

  8. “A Responsum on the Sabbath”, in Mordechai Waxman, ed., Tradition and Change, 1958. 

  9. קושטא קאי שקרא לא קאי (שבת ק”ד. 

  10. See my article in Tradition Vol. 32 No. 3, Spring 1998 (posted in 2003 on TorahWeb.org in its entirety), presenting and explaining Rav Soloveitchik’s psak opposing women’s tefillah groups. The following passage is, unfortunately, especially relevant: “These groups are predicated upon the mistaken notion that the experience of tefillah is enhanced by assuming active roles and conversely is stunted when such roles are off-limits. And yet women’s tefillah groups, conducted with even minimal technical allegiance to the particulars of Halakhah, cannot provide their participants with the same or even equivalent active roles to those that are available to men praying with a quorum. Within such groups it is impossible to recite devarim she-bi-kdusha as such, fulfill the mitsva of kerias haTorah, etc. And thus, according to the mistaken premise of the tefillah groups, women’s religious life remains muted even within such groups.

    The participants in women’s tefillah groups will, within the present generation, become intellectually and existentially aware of the failure of such groups and the concomitant false yet inevitable conclusion regarding women’s standing within Yahadut. We must recognize that the possible ramifications of this falsehood are especially frightening and particularly tragic. Propelled by negative momentum and misguided by erroneous teachings, some women, God forbid, could reject all remaining halakhic constraints in an unrestrained attempt to enhance their (inauthentic) tefillah experience in particular and religious experience in general. Needless to say, this development would be especially tragic.

    Accordingly, we presently have a grave responsibility to act wisely, and not be drawn into a fool’s paradise of religious accommodationism. We must understand and help others to understand that women’s tefillah groups, sincere intentions notwithstanding, both reflect as well as generate distortions of Torah principles. Instead of forming such groups we must disseminate authentic Torah teachings regarding tefillah, thereby fostering genuine, profound religious expression and experience.” 

  11. See also my article about the Rav in Tradition vol. XXX, no. 4 (reprinted in Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik: Man of Halachah, Man of Faith, edited by Rabbi Menachem Genack) and in Jewish Action Vol. 57, No. 4, Summer 1997 (also posted in 2003 on TorahWeb.org in its entirety.)  

  12. ע’ הקדמת בניו לשו”ת רעק”א  

  13. ע’ הקדמה לאג”מ או”ח ח”א  

 

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About the author

Rav Mayer Twersky is a rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University where he holds the Leib Merkin Distinguished Professorial Chair in Talmud and Jewish Philosophy.

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

9 Responses

  1. noam stadlan says:

    R. Norman Lamm said women wearing Tefillin was ok way back in 1972 in his drasha for Parashat Shemini. (It has been circulated online the last few weeks)
    One basic difference is that R . Lamm embraces the desire to do more and doesn’t automatically ascribe anti-halachic motivations. Whereas R. Twersky, following R. Schachter thinks that anything remotely resembling feminism is heresy.

    • joel rich says:

      R’Noam,
      An issue related to motivations is key and it is not one of individual’s motivations but of group dynamics.

      If what R’ Mayer Twersky purports “As already explained, the real, underlying issue is the Torah’s religious gender differentiation. Accordingly, any accommodation nolens volens accepts and reinforces the inimical premise that avenues and expressions of avodas Hashem for men and women must be identical.” then his conclusion
      …….. “By reinforcing the egalitarian impulse without satisfying it, every accommodation intensifies the demand for further accommodations. But that demand can never be met because Torah and egalitarianism are fundamentally incompatible. And thus accommodationism, ר”ל, inevitably results in alienation and assimilation.” seems on target to me.

      Thus it’s really a question of whether his assumption as to the root cause of the tefillin demand as a critical driver for the group of demanders is accurate, and of course, who gets to make that call.

    • Gil Student says:

      Noam Stadlan:

      One basic difference is that R . Lamm embraces the desire to do more and doesn’t automatically ascribe anti-halachic motivations

      I question your reading of this essay.

      R. Mayer Twersky explicitly does NOT ascribe anti-halachic motivations to the young women. He writes:

      “The issue is not what motivated two particular highschoolers to request permission to don tefillin in school. Their personal motives could be innocent, pure, and noble; I have no reason to think otherwise.”

      Whereas R. Twersky, following R. Schachter thinks that anything remotely resembling feminism is heresy

      I do not see the word feminism anywhere in this essay. R. Twersky rejects egalitarianism. Are you suggesting that R. Lamm accepts it?

    • Reb Yid says:

      The article quotes R. Soloveitchik and the response quotes R. Lamm. Not exactly parity.

      Anyone who’s interested can read R. Lamm’s notes http://brussels.mc.yu.edu/gsdl/collect/lammserm/index/assoc/HASH5498.dir/doc.pdf
      and will find them to be a bit problematic. First, he calls the opposition by an unnamed rabbinical group to the Equal Rights Amendment a chillul hashem. Later, he agrees that men and women are different, that “separate by equal” isn’t so bad, just like when it comes to the various human races (?!). Finally, he declares that women can form a minyan for tefillah betzibur (I repeat, “?!”). These are troubling statements.

      Parenthetically, I think there’s quite a bit of cognitive dissonance when people find out that the Rav was a traditionalist besides being a progressive, and that he can’t be trotted out for every liberal dog and pony show. Much like when people realize that Rav Kook isn’t the poster child for Mizrachi-style Zionism or vegetarianism, for example.

  2. AJ says:

    I thought that the language used in the headline was a bit odd – “May Orthodox Rabbis Permit…” — the Halakha does or does not permit — Orthodox Rabbis are just people who may (or may not) know it better

    I worry that the phrasing buys into a non-Jewish/Christian way of seeing religion as controlled by the Rabbis…

    • Gil Student says:

      I see it is a way to move focus away from the girls, who are innocent bystanders in this discussion. We should not be embarrassing them or discussing them as if they are objects.

  3. […] Rabbi Mayer Twersky published a very strong elaboration of Rabbi Schachter’s very strong halachic proclamation about women wearing tefillin. Rabbi Schachter’s opinion is that it is prohibited for women to wear tefillin and it is hubris for lower level rabbis to think that they can permit that which is prohibited by the greater Torah scholars. In his article, Rabbi Twersky explains the philosophical underpinnings of Rabbi Schachter’s decision. […]

  4. elli.sacks says:

    “The Belzer Rebbe, Chofetz Chaim, Rav Soloveitchik and other gedolei Yisroel who advocated Torah she’b’al peh instruction for women were not accommodating them or conceding to heretical, egalitarian, societal trends. Women were not agitating for talmud Torah opportunities. They were ר”ל happily assimilating. The gedolim recognized that…”

    If I can throw in a theoretical, what if certain women of that period did see the same problematic trends as the gedolim and did begin advocating and agitating for Talmud Torah opportunities before these gedolim prescribed it? Would that have negated the need? Would that have cast doubt upon their motivations? Would the gedolim have had to act against this “heretical, societal trend.”?

    What I am essentially asking is: is it possible for elements of the tzibur to be “ahead of the curve” of the halakhic leadership, or is this by definition impossible?

  5. […] equality = uniformity women who don tefillin thereby attain a measure of equality with men.4 And thus the defining issue is axiological: can the secular value of egalitarianism be grafted […]

 
 

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