Rabbi Schachter’s Troubling Tone

This letter first appeared in The Jewish Link of Bergen County

Rabbi Hershel Schachter’s resposum concerning young women being permitted to wear tefillin in yeshiva schools is less troubling for its conclusion as it is for its attitude.  Rabbi Schachter emphatically denies the right of reasonable rabbinic minds to disagree with him, charging that his students were out of bounds in making a decision on their own permitting women to don teffiln and tallit, rather than referring the question to gedolei hora’ah (giants of instruction) such as himself.

One might suspect that it is necessary to defer to gedolei hora’ah due to their superior knowledge of text and that, therefore, Rabbi Schachter’s responsum would explicate texts that these lesser rabbis had failed to consider or had misconstrued.  But he cannot do so, because the texts are clear:

The Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 96a) reports, without dissent, that Michal, daughter of Saul, wore tefillin and that, “the sages didn’t bother her.”  The Jerusalem Talmud (Eruvin 10:1, 26a) and Pesikta Rabati (22) offer the same report, albeit with the lone dissent of Rav Chizkiah in the name of Rabbi Abahu.  The early post-Talmudic rabbis took the Babylonian Talmud’s report (as well as the general rule that women may perform acts for which they are not obligated) to be halakhically decisive and ruled that women may wear tefillin (e.g. Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 471 and Responsa of RaSh”Ba 1:123), and Rabbenu Tam went as far as to cite the Michal story as proof that women may say a blessing when performing such acts (Eruvin 96a s.v. dilma savar).

There are, certainly, authorities who adopt a more conservative view. For instance, Kol Bo 21 raises concerns about women wearing tefillin.  Rabbi Yoseph Karo expressed surprise that Kol Bo would rule against the Talmud and conspicuously does not cite this opinion in Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayim 38:3), while Ashkenazi glossator of the Shulhan Arukh, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, adds that women who desire to wear tefillin should be stopped from doing so per Kol Bo.  Later commentaries on Shulhan Arukh generally followed Rabbi Isserles, though given limited writing on the subject, it is difficult to conclude that this was a universal opinion among rabbis of the last generations.

So, the textual sources are clear – women can wear tefillin.  But, as Rabbi Schachter notes, when ruling on halakhah, “it is not sufficient to study Shulhan Arukh Laws of Tefillin and the sources there.”  Instead, sociological considerations are an essential facet of halakhic analysis.  On this we would agree. 

But For Rabbi Schachter, the overriding sociological consideration is avoiding anything that has recognizable roots in the Conservative movement, which he accuses of prioritizing changing tradition based on the desires of the masses and of resurrecting rejected minority opinions for that purpose.  Ironically, Rabbi Yosef Karo (Bet Yosef Orah Hayim 38 s.v. venashim) sees those who forbid women from wearing tefillin as resurrecting the minority opinion noted in the Pesikta. 

Rabbi Schachter thus ignores the insight of Shulhan Arukh, a code whose magnitude and authority he would not dare claim to match.

As members of the Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ), we share R. Schachter’s concerns to a point.  If there is an organization that is familiar with the Conservative movement’s drift from classical halakhah, it is us.  No voice was louder than ours in criticizing the populist rulings of that movement. Indeed, many, if not most, of our rabbis would discourage women from wearing tefillin for some of the same reasons as Rabbi Schachter. 

However, Rabbi Schachter’s argument that these sociological decisions are the exclusive prerogative of the gedolei hora’ah is alarming and without any obvious basis.  We find the actions of committed and compassionate halakhicly knowledgeable rabbis responding to the religious interests of their constituents far less problematic than an authoritarian group presuming superior sociological intuition, thereby arrogating to themselves the exclusive right to make virtually all halakhic decisions.

Rabbi Schachter tells us that Rambam accepted the traditional sabbatical cycle (Shmitah v’Yovel 10:6) even though Rambam may have personally disagreed with the tradition.  R. Schachter therefore questions how certain rabbis dare to disagree with the ruling of Rabbi Moshe Isserles. 

However, Rambam himself is quite clear, in his introduction to Mishneh Torah, that post-Talmudic halakhic rulings are only binding in the time and place that they are rendered and that subsequent authorities are to free to decide the law based on which side has the better argument (mi shehada’at noteh lidvarav).  In this case, Rabbi Schachter’s concern for where this may all lead may be the wiser argument.  Or, it may be that the considerations expressed by Rabbi Harcsztark of SAR, such as permitting an individual to seek closeness to God in his or her own way, should be the overriding concern.  In the face of reasonable arguments, our community should engage in a dialogue that speaks in terms of caring, concern, and mutual respect, rather than in the voice of arrogated authority.

We fear that a world in which select gedolei hora’ah have the exclusive right to make decisions based on their sociological intuition is a world in which Torah and halakhah are far removed from historical halakhic methodology, more insular, and less able properly to guide a vibrant and diverse community.  May God guide all of our hands in helping our Jewish people to grow in love of Torah and fulfillment of mitzvot.

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Rabbis Ronald Price and Noah Gradofsky