Misunderstanding Mesorah: Turkeys and Women Rabbis

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by R. Dr Ari Zivotofsky

What does turkey have to do with women rabbis? It is a question that would have never occurred to me until last week when my almost 20 year old, popular article about the kashrut of turkey was invoked in the name of women rabbis. I was honored to be cited, but bemused at the application. It seems that women rabbis is THE topic. Are women rabbis good for the Jews or bad? Are women rabbis a fait accompli or will their opponents yet prevail? The discussion goes round and round and is discussed in every possible context. So, come Thanksgiving, there was an article by Ben Greenfield, a rabbinic student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, attempting to connect women and turkeys. I do not consider myself an expert on the topic of ordination and do not intend to address the broader issue of women rabbis, but I do know something about bird mesorah and feel obligated to point out that what was written in this widely circulated article does not actually contribute to a better understanding of whether women should be ordained or whether turkey is kosher.

The proposed argument is rather straightforward. In the distant past, Jews knew which birds were kosher by a process of exclusion – if they are not among the 24 types explicitly banned in the Torah they were kosher. In the mishnaic period, when it became difficult to identify these 24 types, the rabbis offered signs to distinguish kosher from non-kosher fowl. One of these signs is that a predatory bird, a “doress”, is not kosher. Owing to the concern that a new species may unknowingly actually be a predator, both the Shulchan Aruch and the Rema ruled, thus obligating both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, that only birds for which there exists a tradition (mesorah) may be treated as kosher. Turkey is a New World bird (hence its place of honor at the Thanksgiving table) and thus was unknown to Jews until 500 years ago. Today all major kashrut agencies certify the turkey as kosher raising the question: From whence the mesorah? There are many and varied answers offered by 19th century rabbinic scholars to explain the acceptability of turkey despite its seeming lack of a mesorah. Now, here comes that article’s leap of confusion. Recent statements by opponents of women’s ordination have described it as violating “mesorah.” So, goes this misguided argument: if the turkey can get around its lack of mesorah so can women rabbis. The problem is that women are not turkeys, ordination is not a predatory state, and the use of the same word in these two contexts has quite different meaning.

This attempt at using a Trojan turkey to sneak women’s ordination past the gates of tradition is flawed in both the specifics and the general points. The general point is quite simple. The word “mesorah” in these two contexts has completely different meanings. In the context of bird kashrut it has the narrow, context-specific meaning of a tradition that the bird at hand is not a doress. Nothing more and nothing less. It is a technical requirement to ensure its kosher status. In the context as used by those opposed to women rabbis, mesorah refers to the gestalt of Jewish tradition and the intent is that this is a break from Jewish norms. It is being used in the sense similar to that of Tevyah the milkman when he sang “Tradition.” It is the mesorah mentioned in the first mishna in Pirkei Avot. “Mesorah” in this context is a more amorphous term whose parameters are difficult to define, but usually a person thoroughly seeped in Torah knows it when they see it. It is hard to argue against the statement that historically rabbis have been men and that such is the de facto tradition. Can it change? Should it change? That is a different topic, but it is clearly a change, a breach of tradition. But trying to transfer principles from mesorah in the bird context to mesorah in the women rabbi context is nonsensical; they simply have nothing to do with each other.

It is in the specifics that it seems that the author of the article missed the point of mesorah regarding birds and how it differs from mesorah in the wider context. For example, the author attempts to apply the argument used by the 19th century halachic giant Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson to permit turkey to support his position on women rabbis. Rav Nathanson argued that no mesorah was necessary for birds in a very specific instance: when the bird possesses the three positive physical signs (an “extra toe”, a crop, and a peelable gizzard), signs that collectively, in his understanding of the gemara, exclude the possibility that the bird is a predator. This author, missing the nuances of the specific bird case, argues that “Turkey, for R. Nathanson, is an opportunity to finally expunge a conventional but unjustifiable reliance on Mesorah.” Far be it. Rav Nathanson was a firm believer in mesorah when used in the meaning of Jewish tradition and as used by those opposed to female ordination. This led to his strong opposition to the nascent Hasidic movement, which he thought was violating mesorah. Unrelated to that, he believed that a specific mesorah was unnecessary for birds with 3 physical signs due to his ruling like Rambi in sugyat Nesher.

The author again fails to grasp the purpose of mesorah regarding birds when he quotes Rabbi Eliyahu Kletzkin’s explanation that turkey falls within the same general category as chickens. Leaving aside the taxonomic difficulty with that answer, it simply means that Rabbi Kletzkin assumed that the two birds were close enough such that if chicken was known not to be a predator, turkey can also be assumed to be such. The author then takes a leap: “R. Klitzkin thus raises two essential points of nuance in any discussion of Mesorah: is the Mesora actually broader than we thought, and are we obsessing over minor differences in order to exclude?” True, in regard to birds, Rabbi Kletzkin was tackling the difficult question of how broad or narrow to define a bird mesorah in order to know which birds are and are not predators, but what in the world does that have to do with expanding a category in any other area of halacha? Absolutely nothing.

The author cites another late 19th century halachic giant, the Netziv. The Netziv argued that although ab initio a mesorah is needed, once a bird is widely accepted it ipso facto has a mesorah, and only if it is seen to be predatory can the mesorah be overturned. The single-minded supporter of woman’s ordination somehow sees this as a proof to his point and relates: “That first generation of turkey eaters violated the Mesorah and deserved rebuke, but since their practice won out, they are now the true representatives of Mesorah. The Netziv’s approach justifies the RCA’s critique, so long as female clergy remain a new phenomenon. If the project succeeds over the next decades, the RCA might have to look back and admit that what was certifiably untraditional in 2015 is part of the Mesorah in 2050”. It sounds like the author is saying that he and his ilk are, in the quoted words of the Netziv, “violating the mesorah and deserving of rebuke”, but are paving the way for the generation of 2050 to no longer be in the wrong. Wow. That is awfully generous and a big sacrifice on his part, but I fail to see the justification to be in the wrong in the present in the hope that in the future such action will be acceptable.

It should be pointed out that no one argues that turkey was introduced by a group, to use the words of the author elsewhere, aspiring “to create Jewish rituals matching the creativity and wisdom of their time.” It is not clear how or when it was introduced, or how turkey’s acceptance came about, but it is certain that it differs in fundamental ways from the issue of women’s ordination. How turkey came to be permitted is a fascinating topic; but it is abundantly clear that there was no group of turkey activists promoting an agenda of getting turkey accepted. That is a crucial difference. The debate/discussion regarding the kashrut of turkey was/is purely a halachic question of tahor and tamei. There was no ideology at stake.

Within halachic discussion it is important to derive one instance from another. It is a vital step in the halachic process. But it is not magic or hand waving. Halakhah is a legal system with intricate details. And those details cannot be overlooked or sidestepped. One cannot simply say that because the word mesorah is used in two places and in one we see a seeming deviation from “mesorah” (turkeys) so too in the other, unrelated use of the term “mesorah” one can deviate. This is an erroneous and potentially even dangerous argument.

Halachic practice clearly has changed over time. But it is an evolutionary not a revolutionary process. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein employed the word mesorah in the broad sense when he wrote, “He [the posek] is aware of his awesome responsibility as a custodian and transmitter of mesorah, and he resists vigorously the pressures of those who would debase or destroy it….nor is he overwhelmed by the latest popular fad.” Slow change from within is very different from dramatic change imposed as part of advancing an agenda. Is it possible that in 2050 or 2100 there will be women rabbis? I have no idea. But is my eating a turkey shwarma any indication of my stance on the topic? NO.

About Ari Zivotofsky

Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky is on the faculty of the Brain Science Program at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

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