Sunday, May 15, 2011 review: Women re halachah

The last time we visited Larry and Malka Esther Lennhoff, they were kind enough to lend me their copy of Jewish Legal Writings by Women, edited by Rabbi Micah D. Halpern and Dr. Chana Safrai. It was quite a lot to plow through, I must confess, since I'm not the studious type. But I managed to read the whole thing (minus the chapters written in Hebrew), except for "Red Strings: A Modern Case of Amulets and Charms," which I found just plain annoying and dumped halfway through, since I don't believe that such nonsense has any effect on one's health.

Naturally, I was particularly interested in Aliza Berger's "Wrapped Attention: May Women Wear Tefillin." The answer, as I should have expected, is that it depends on whom you ask. (1) Rama, R. Moshe Feinstein: No. (2) Yes, during the Sh'ma and the weekday-morning Amidah prayer, or for a minute. (3) Should be protested, per Aruch haShulchan text, based on Rama, who ruled that wearing tefillin should be done "only under conditions of obligation." (4) Yes, based on Maset Binyamin Ravaz, and the majority of Rishonim.

One objection seems to be that women cannot maintain a sufficient level of physical cleanliness. However, this also seems to be the reason why men no longer wear tefillin all day--that level of cleanliness is difficult to maintain. (Flatulence is not permissible while wearing tefillin. There's no really delicate way to say this: Just how long can any human being go without, um, "breaking wind?") Another objection seems to be that women are not obligated to wear tefillin, since it's one of the time-bound mitzvot (commandments) from which women are exempt. However, even men are only obligated to wear tefillin during the Sh'ma and the weekday-morning Amidah prayer, yet they put them on long before the Sh'ma and (generally) wear them for all of Shacharit (Morning Service). In addition, some Ashkenazim now have a custom that boys start wearing tefillin about a month before they become Bar Mitzvah (and are therefore not yet obligated), and Sefardi authority Rabbi Ovadia Yosef even permits boys to wear tefillin a few years before becoming B'nei Mitzvah. So much for the "only when obligated" argument.

I was also particularly interested in Chanah Henkin's "Women and the Issuing of Halakhic Rulings." The short version is that, yes, women are permitted to issue halachic rulings (rulings on matters of Jewish religious law). That said, Mrs. Henkin protests against the use of the term poskot (plural for poseket, a female halachic decisor). I confess to being somewhat skeptical about her insistence that the use of that term is not accurate, and am more convinced that her other argument, "constructive changes will not be made in the glare of spotlights," is her primary logic. She states that she is not interested in "empowering women," but only in "enabling women to observe mitzvot meticulously."
Rabbanit Henkin's own Keren Ariel Yoatzot Halacha program trains Orthodox Women to help mostly other Orthodox women. It does not train them to rule on matters of halachah (Jewish religious law) in general. Rabbanit Henkin appears to have absolutely no interest in training a woman to be a rabbah (female equivalent of a rav/rabbi) who would serve the entire community as a halachic decisor in all matters. I can't help wondering whether she's sincere about this, or whether she truly believes that it's more effective in the long run to sneak women in through the back door. In Mrs. Henkin's defense, there's something to be said for making an end-run around the right wing--I am rather amused that the Riverdale Jewish Center avoids a good scolding by the Rabbinical Council of America and/or the Orthodox Union by calling its Yoetzet Halachah a member of the "Klei Kodesh/Holy Vessels" (roughly translation: clergy), rather than a member of the rabbinic staff.



Blogger Miami Al said...

Sneak in the backdoor. Orthodoxy is always based on Mesorah, meaning, we do what is done, we never change. This means that you can't "make a change," so what happens is you simply change, then after the fact, a justification is made. Once the change is made, people then learn that that is always how it has been.

Think 1984, but without the direct threat of violence.

Sun May 15, 04:54:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Talia bat Pessi said...

Thank you for this post. Beautiful.

Sun May 15, 10:22:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Miami Al, I take it that you prefer "sneak attacks" to "frontal assaults" such as the founding of Yeshivat Maharat? I think that one can make a case that, if nothing else, the "radicals" enable the "liberals" to look less threatening. :)

Talia, thanks for your support.

Sun May 15, 11:04:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Miami Al said...

I consider Yeshivat Maharat a sneak attack. A frontal assault is going and demanding that the OU, the RCA, or some other body sanction things, a recipe for disaster.

Yeshivat Maharat was created by one man, sanctioned by him, and he pushed until the Agudah felt compelled to embarrass the RCA into doing something stupid.

Had he not issued a press release, and just gone about his business, I think that it would have worked out. The RCA won't admit YCT Rabbis until a few New York Shuls with heavy hitter donors hire YCT Rabbis, then they will proudly do so.

It's simply a different cultural approach to the Conservative Law Committee approach of a few out there Rabbis push a liberal opinion and it gets "sanction" and becomes perceived as the opinion of "conservative Jewry." Instead, the people start doing it and the Rabbis then have to jump in front to be leading things.

Mon May 16, 07:14:00 AM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"The RCA won't admit YCT Rabbis until a few New York Shuls with heavy hitter donors hire YCT Rabbis, then they will proudly do so."

Miami Al, fun dein mol un G-tt's oir arein--From your mouth to G-d's ear. Not to mention bi-m'heirah, v'yameinu, speedily, in our day.

That's an interesting description of the different ways that change occurs in the Conservative and Orthodox denominations. It's probably pretty much on target.

As for press releases, I hope to have a minute to blog about some unanticipated and/or insufficiently-understood consequences of contemporary communication technology.

Mon May 16, 12:29:00 PM 2011  

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