Sheilati u’Bakashati: A Review of Mah Sheilatech Esther

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Q-Aby R. Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer

This year, Midreshet Lindenbaum issued a book of Halachic responsa written by two women (Rabbanit Idit Bartov and Rabbanit Anat Novoselsky) who were ordained by the institution with heter hora’ah (license to render Halachic decisions).1

While one may be tempted to review the work on the basis of its novelty as a compilation of sheilot u’teshuvot by women, that would be a mistake. Halacha cannot be determined on the basis of some sort of “affirmative action” for contributors from a hitherto unrepresented “minority.” In putting an Halachic work before the Torah world, the authors implicitly indicate that they would like their contribution to Torah literature to be judged on its own merits.

But how does one judge an Halachic work?

The widespread availability of computer databases has radically changed the world of Halachic writing.

If one lacks appropriate respect for, and deference to, the system and its authorities, how can one issue rulings in the framework of that system?

This change was once captured by a distinguished scholar concerning another scholar: “He knows how to use the Bar Ilan [database of responsa literature] very well.” Resources that were once only at the fingertips of brilliant scholars with photographic memories, like Rabbi Yosef Rosen (the Rogatchover), Rabbi Yosef Engel and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, are now at the fingertips of almost anyone with access to a keyboard and a computer. If, as Samuel Johnson wrote, “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it,” then a contemporary Halachic author, with his or her unprecedented capacity to find information, cannot be judged on the basis of his or her encyclopedic citation of sources. For all intents and purposes, the playing field has been leveled.

What we can assess is the importance of the sources that are cited and the quality of the analysis of those sources. Most of the teshuvot in this volume are based on mainstream, standard sources, and accordingly come to conventional, non-controversial conclusions

However, in her responsum on whether a woman can serve as an Halachic judge, Rabbanit Idit Bartov makes extensive use of HaTorah V’HaMadda by Rabbi Jacob Levinson (1876-1955) and Malki BaKodesh by Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857-1935). While these rabbis did much to defend Torah Judaism in early 20th century America, they are not regarded in the Halachic world as authorities of stature. Rabbi Hirschensohn’s perspectives are particularly problematic. While this is not the place to discuss some of the controversial positions he took (best known among them, his heter for men to use safety razors to shave), it says much that his works are among the very few works of responsa distributed by Machon Shechter, an academic institution affiliated with Conservative Judaism. It is problematic to equate the writings of these rabbis with the those of great authorities such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac HaLevi Herzog.

Another way in which we assess an Halachic work is by attempting to identify any bias that may inappropriately affect the author’s perspective. Of course, even the most agenda-driven author will take pains to – at the very least – conceal such bias. Which makes an editorial comment by Rabbanit Bartov all the more surprising.

In the aforementioned responsum, Rabbanit Bartov – naturally enough – deals with the issues presented by the prophetess Devorah. The Tanach states very explicitly that she judged the Jewish people. Many great authorities through the ages – from major Rishonim to major Acharonim – have dealt with the question of why the law that normally women cannot serve as judges does not contradict Scripture.

Rabbanit Bartov cites these explanations, but then adds:

I will note in a personal tone, that it is difficult to read such variegated exegesis, the entire purpose of which is the distortion of explicit verses in Tanach, in order to find an asmachta (a “support”) for a ruling that contradicts the simple meaning of Scripture.

One is dismayed to see such disparaging lines written about the greatest authorities of the ages. This begs the question: If one lacks appropriate respect for, and deference to, the system and its authorities, how can one issue rulings in the framework of that system?

A more blatant lack of objectivity affects the next responsum, in which Rabbanit Bartov encourages a woman to ascend the Temple Mount.

Even more stunning is the flippant dismissal of a ruling of one the great pillars of Halacha

In the first place, Rabbanit Bartov completely omits the enactment of the great rabbis of Jerusalem through the ages – including Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook and all subsequent Chief Rabbis – forbidding Jews from ascending the Temple Mount altogether. They forbade it to people regardless of whether they are male or female, and regardless of where they intended to walk atop the Mount.

More egregiously, when approaching the complex sub-issue of whether a woman, even if she is not a Niddah, may ascend the Mount within 72 hours of having had marital relations with her husband, the author flippantly dismisses the issue. Her first piece of “evidence” is a rhetorical question: “Would one entertain the possibility that a woman would refrain from partaking of the Korban Pesach on account of the ‘chumrah’ of waiting 72 hours, and be put in danger of the penalty of karet?”

This line of reasoning is Halachically flawed on several counts, but particularly because the Rambam (Hil. Terumot 7:7) rules, in fact, that within 72 hours of marital relations a woman may not partake of terumah on account of its sanctity. The Rambam makes it quite clear that this is not a stringency but the letter of the law. One is forced to assume that this would be the case across the Halachic board, and a heavy burden of proof rests upon the shoulders of anyone arguing for leniency.

Moreover, in the following paragraph Rabbanit Bartov suggests that any such issue can be remedied by the woman in question douching after relations before going to the mikvah. Yet the great authority Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the Rema (Yoreh Deah 196:13), writes that we are not sufficiently adept at this procedure and may not rely on it in our day and age. Addressing this point, Rabbanit Bartov makes the following astonishing statement:

And even if your family custom is to follow the rulings of the Rema, in this deed [i.e., douching  within 72 hours and relying on it to go to the mikvah], there is no issue of forsaking the family custom, since the Rema did not address the issue of ascending the Temple Mount, but ruled for the Jews of the European diaspora [my emphasis] only in connection with marital laws [as opposed to the laws of tumah and taharah – ritual purity].

Anyone who has learned tractate Niddah knows that Halacha is more stringent in regards to the laws of ritual purity than in regard to marital law – in contradiction of the author’s assumption. Yet even more stunning is the flippant dismissal of a ruling of one the great pillars of Halacha.

We must close by reiterating that we have striven to approach the work independently of the novelty of its authors’ gender. Therefore, this brief critique of the work is, in essence, a critique of the derech that Midreshet Lindenbaum has inculcated in its students. Such critique is gender-blind, and applies to any and all of the instructors who have trained their students to approach issues in the questionable ways that we have touched upon. It behooves the leadership of the institution to note these issues – issues that will very likely bar the works that emerge from their Beit Midrash from taking a place in the mainstream of the Halachic world.


  1. [The book is available online here: link (PDF) – ed.] 

About Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer

Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer is a Maggid Shiur at the Mesivta of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and a pioneer of Torah on the Internet. He has written widely and published three books: Bigdei Sheish on Bava Basra, Bigdei Sheish on Shoftim and The Contemporary Eruv.

18 comments

  1. “it says much that his works are among the very few works of responsa distributed by Machon Shechter, an academic institution affiliated with Conservative Judaism”

    Is this such an objection? Shechter (actually a branch of JTS) is also the sole distributor of the sefarim of R’ Saul Lieberman and other sefarim found in the Batei Midrash of, for example, the institution R’ Bechhofer teaches in. Just a side point.

  2. A model of responsible and respectful discourse on this sensitive topic.

  3. Is it fair to say that we all come to the table with an agenda/baggage and with a narrative as to why we think it is justifiable?

    • I don’t think R. Bechhofer was objecting to the agenda. His question was: “If one lacks appropriate respect for, and deference to, the system and its authorities, how can one issue rulings in the framework of that system?”

      • I don’t think RYGB was objecting to the overall agenda of the book as a collection of teshuvot written by women. However, it is interesting to note that the two responsa with which he took issue, were specifically political issues on which we know he holds the opposite position. While the authors may have omitted positions that disagreed with them, surely the rabbis they cite also knew those positions and disagreed with them? So there is no need to beat a dead (R) Kook. As for the 72 hours, I find it interesting that RYGB does not cite anything that directly contradicts the authors, only makes an implied inference from eating trumah (which is ambiguously of a higher level than Korban Pesach – it’s kodshim kalim, but it can be eaten by anyone, not just Kohanim and their families, and even in a state of tumah) to support his position.
        Chana Luntz finds much the same problems – insufficient citation of opposing viewpoints – but does not unilaterally reject the author’s position, recognizing that acceptance or rejection depends on political positions: “And certainly this whole discussion is representative of a particular political mindset of a particular halachic group — that will not appeal to many others — placing this set of teshuvos strictly within a certain dati leumi world.” Some of this difference in reviewing approach may be a personality thing: condemnation of what one sees as a wrong conclusion, vs. constructive criticism to encourage better writing next time.

        • I don’t know why you find the 72 hours part interesting. The very question is bizarre. Let’s say you could be dokhe the 72 hours to avoid karet… What possible bearing would that have on voluntarily visiting the Temple Mount for fun (and I know it’s not to play soccer, but you know what I mean)? If it’s an isur that is going to pass we are MORE makhmir, not less.

  4. My review was deliberately terse and to the point. A more elaborate overview of the work can be downloaded from http://goo.gl/1Xh243

  5. The link does not seem to work (404 error).

  6. The author of the more elaborate review does not share the concerns that RYGB has raised, and in fact appears to have nothing but praise for the volume.

  7. This article is less a review of the book as an essay on the importance of shimush, of knowing the feel of halakhah, the art of pesaq, the things you can’t get from a Bar Ilan CD that go into making good pesaq. RYGB happens to use examples from the book to underscore his points.

    It therefore doesn’t really compare to the other two essays mentioned, which are more general reviews. They are also not obligated to touch the topic here, which — while important for halakhah, is not necessarily instrumental for appreciating the texts for whatever it is you decide they are.

    • In other words, rabbis won’t accept the women to do shimush, but then reserve the right to complain that their halachic work suffered for lack of shimush. Riight. Paging Joseph Heller?

      • You mean that (some) rabbis will teach these women, ordain them and publish their responsa but will not allow them to do shimush? I find that surprising and disturbing, and question your facts.

        • I cannot say whether Midreshet Lindenbaum offers opportunities to have a rebbe-talmidah relationship and learn through shimush talmidei chakhamim. Yeshivat Maharat does.

          But RYGB alleges that that the effects one would want shimush to lead to are lacking here. I haven’t read it, I’m just commenting on his opinion, for which he seems to make a strong case.
          One could apprentice under a poseiq and still miss the point that such apprenticeship is about mimetic learning of a feel that the mentor can’t reduce to words. Pesaq is an art for which you must develop a feel, not a set of facts and an algorithm one can apply.

          In a strong sense, it’s related to RHSchachter’s complaint against pesaqim for ordaining women or partnership minyanim not reflecting a feel for the momentum of the halachic process, a “daas Torah” as he unfortunately labeled it.

  8. “I will note in a personal tone, that it is difficult to read such variegated exegesis, the entire purpose of which is the distortion of explicit verses in Tanach, in order to find an asmachta (a “support”) for a ruling that contradicts the simple meaning of Scripture.”

    Holy cow (excuse the heresy). Isn’t that what Talmud is? Taking our traditions and interpreting tana”kh with them in ways that aren’t literal. Would she have the same problem with attempts to explain why we don’t put out people’s eyes? Our tradition, the tradition of our fathers, as Josephus put it, taught that women can’t act as judges. That takes precedence over the p’shat of shoftim. Whether you’re a traditionalist or follow Weiss-Halivni, the tradition is prime and text of tana”kh can only be understood with the tradition. Without that you’re out.

    “Her first piece of “evidence” is a rhetorical question: “Would one entertain the possibility that a woman would refrain from partaking of the Korban Pesach on account of the ‘chumrah’ of waiting 72 hours, and be put in danger of the penalty of karet?” This line of reasoning is Halachically flawed on several counts.”

    Here, I would think the first “count” is not a halachic flaw but a logical one. I don’t know the answer to the korban pesakh question. But let’s say she’s right. You don’t need to wait 72 hours in that case. It’s the KORBAN PESAKH!!!!! Not optionally visiting the Temple Mount for a quick round of t’hilim. How could you possibly learn anything out of, as she says, being m’vatel a mitsvat ase sheyesh bo karet? Bizarre and really scary that someone felt she was ready to go public with this stuff.

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