Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Thoughts on the Great Tefillin Controversy

[I have been wary of getting involved in the latest polemic, this one surrounding the decision by SAR and Ramaz to allow women to wear Tefillin to the school minyan. However, after following the various postings and threads on Facebook and elsewhere, I decided to briefly (with an appropriate amount of adrenaline) summarize my thoughts on salient aspects of the issue. As you can see, I view the specific question as almost secondary to broader issues.]

This issue has generated so much anger, so much frustration been fed by so much prejudice and ignorance that I don't know if a reasoned discussion is possible. Still, a few points to consider:

1) For those who buy into thoroughgoing, radical egalitarianism and reject Judaism's gender distinctions there is nothing to discuss. They will aggressively defend any move in that direction and will vilify anyone who disagrees. Orthodoxy will, I suspect, find that with those of such opinion there is only a dialogue of the deaf.

2) There has been much discussion of the description of women who don Tefillin in public as being guilty of מחזי כיוהרא. This phrase does does not mean 'appearance of arrogance,' but of being presumptuous (just as מחזי כמבשל doesn't mean cooking, but appearing to cook which will lead to people suspecting one's actions or possibly leading one to cook). Demonstratively practicing a mitzva that one is not obliged to do, according to Tradition, impugns others who do not do so. That, for example, is why R. Israel of Brunn (Resp. Israel Bruna no. 96) forbade wearing one's tzitzit outside of one's clothes. The category has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO with the questioning the motives of the individual. It does question the sensitivities of the individual who is ipso facto making a statement about others who do not accept their new practice. Did anyone ask other women if they are put off by women putting on Tefillin, with the implied judgement that they are less spiritual or less committed?.

3) For the same reason, there is more reason and room to allow women to wear Tefillin in private, not because it is wrong (necessarily), but because doing so keeps their act of piety pure. That is true of every Humra, and rabbis should condemn people who use any personal Humra for self-aggrandizement.

4) I am stunned by the persistent, superficial equation of Black Hats and Tefillin. Yes, black hats are frequently arrogant displays (and prove my point about מחזי כיוהרא).  However, wearing a hat has no religious significance, though it is socially significant as a sub-group marker of identity. Adding religious obligations (whatever the legal mechanism in force there, נדר or חובה) is a deadly serious question. Those who dismiss it in the name of spiritual self-fulfillment only show that they are insensitive to the long term issue of sins of omission, when these same women may not be able to maintain their newly found personal obligation. And the reply that there are men who aren't fastidious in their observance is myopic. Since when do we justify religious lassitude by pointing out that of others?

5) I have spent thirty years fighting for the right of learned rabbis to have their own halakhic opinion, contrary to some Rashe Yeshiva who deny them that prerogative. After seeing the half-baked, uninformed and revoltingly disrespectful way in which Facebookers and other Commenters treat Hazal, the GRA, the Rema, the Arukh HaShulhan etc. I begin to wonder. Orthodoxy maintains a balance between deep reverence for Tradition and Gedole Torah, alongside the need to confront new questions and challenges. R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt'l used to predicate his hardest decisions on the agreement of colleagues. He was a giant of Torah and Piety and Humanity who was attached to the entire Jewish People, from Haredi to Hiloni. Still, he was cautious and responsible when he ventured into new territory. Yet here are people filling the Blogosphere, the Newspapers and Social Media who blithely toss out established halakhic categories as if they were so much detritus because 'it makes no sense to me.' As my revered teacher, Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל once said, innovations are the lifeblood of the Torah, but they occur within its autonomous sphere. You engage the system. You don't violate it by judging it because it doesn't fit superficial, media driven ideologies.

6) At the same time, there is no room in principled Halakhic discourse for base vilification of either side. Hence, the insidious attacks on Rabbis Harcstark and Lookstein are equally contemnable.

7) I have no idea if Rashi's daughters wore Tefillin. I actually doubt it, because Tefillin was a largely neglected mitzva in medieval France, and Rashi actually was against women reciting blessings over mitzvot that they weren't obliged to fulfill. If they did, I am sure they did not where them in Shul.

8) Rashi's daughters were, on the other hand, learned. This brings me to another example of herd-like thinking on this issue. There is no such thing as 'The Forbidden City' of mitzvot from which women are barred and that must be conquered. Each mitzvah, each obligation, has its own parameters and dynamic. Talmud Torah for women is easily allowed. Mitzvot from which women were exempted and for which there are larger reasons to continue that exemption, are another story. It's not all of one piece, unless you are determined to impose an egalitarian, leveling agenda on the Torah. Such a position is, frequently, no longer Orthodox because it denies the integrity of Halakhah and lacks the intellectual and spiritual modesty and humility that are its essential ingredients.


Anonymous said...

So well put - if only the "leaders" of the modern "Orthodox" communities could be as clear and generous in their explanations. I do not choose to wear tefillin - but then again, I am not a mitzvah maven. I do, however, find all the energies spent on this type of discourse deceptive because it doesn't begin the tackle the fundamental and crucial issues facing our community - nor of the now ever-present shift towards greater displays of anti semitism. We need to focus on BIG issues, not on whether some teens (and their mothers) choose to explore/exploit new gender models of prayer.

emma said...

"Talmud Torah for women is easily allowed"
More like, its already been allowed. But can you really say that, just looking at the sources that forbade, talmud Torah was easy to permit? What about TT, textually, makes it easier than tefillij to permit?

Isaacson said...

That your points are strong and well put goes without saying, I would only venture to add a general comment about the nature of these types of discussions when issues rear their heads on facebook or blogs as you alluded to.

We are very fortunate that in our day information is easily accessible. The amount of torah that is available online is staggering. This has led to a vastly well educated laity.

Unfortunately it has also led to people not realizing that just because they have knowledge does not mean they know how to wield it.

I believe this piece from Rav Schachter should be required reading before people who have no business 'paskening halacha' start to post their thoughts online -

There is a reason shimush talmidei chachomim is a prerequisite without which one is considered an Am haAretz.

KosherBoca said...

Incredibly poignant.

Unknown said...

The problem here is to allow the girls to wear tefillin in school davening violates roughly 600 years of Ashkenazic tradition. If the girls were sephardic,this would be a different kettle of fish,since long ago we stopped invoking "lo titgodidu". Those who think that the sincerity of the young women changes the story are ignoring the Rema, who characterizes them as being "machmir al atzmam", and so presumably sincerely religiously motivated. Just as, fortunately or unfortunately, we are not free to willy-nilly drop the minhag of kitniyot on Pesach, so here too we are not free to ignore this Rema, which (AFAIK) was never questioned in the succeeding 400 years by any Ashkenazi posek. Exactly what the parameters of "mochin beyadan" entail is not clear to me, but I would venture to claim that this means that they are free to do it in the privacy of their homes (perhaps after we express our disapproval) and on the othe hand that in school, which has an obligation of "chinuch", we should not permit it.

Unknown said...

1. I couldn't agree with you more about the unfortunate tone of the virtual conversation on this topic. Whether the girls wear tefillin or not, at home or in school, there is no question that MO Judaism is worse off when gedolim like RHS and RHL are disrespected, r"l.

2. I was confused in your post. What does mechzay k'yuhara have to do with tefillin? The Rem"a invokes mechzay k'Yuhara only with respect to tallis (17:2).

His language with respect to t'fillin, mochin b'yadan (38:3) is much sharper. How does a contemporary Ashkenazi posek dismiss this Rem"a?

3. How do we deal with Reb Moshe's teshuva (OC 4:49) relating to women and tallis? Aside from the substance of the teshuva, I note the fact that a respected community rabbi (MO, I believe) chose to ask the shaila to a Reb Moshe (granted 40 years ago, but still) and not to pasken on his own based on how he read the sources.

Have circumstances changed so much or has the sense of autonomy in MO changed (is this a good thing or has it gone too far)?