Saturday, October 24th, 2020

Our Writers Respond: Women, Communal Leadership, and Balancing Halakhic Values by Nathaniel Helfgot

I would like to commend my colleagues and friends, Rabbis Brody, Klapper (here and here) and Rothstein (here and here) for their stimulating and substantive posts in the last few weeks, partially in reaction to my original post on two halakhic issues that have been raised regarding the issue of expanding women’s roles in communal and spiritual leadership in the Modern-Orthodox community. They are a model of how these issues should be discussed, i.e with sober reflection, dignity and respectful interaction.

Below are some comments on their postings.

  1. R. Rothstein begins the process of sharing with the public his attempt to tease out some conception of the nature of “traditional Jewish womanhood” as “constructed internally from the sources”.  As R. Rothstein notes at the end of his piece he does not leave us with a finished product and clear outline of what “womanhood” looks like. He does feel, if I am reading correctly, that he has delineated key areas in traditional sources both from the Torah, Biblical law as explicated in the Oral law, and purely rabbinic law as codified in the halakha, which must be central to the discussion. And if I read him correctly, he points us in a specific direction that leans heavily toward a more traditional conception of women’s role in Judaism. He offers some tentative thoughts on what these sources imply but leaves us with a recognition that much more work needs to be done.
  2. R. Rothstein at the beginning of his essay argues that some of his interlocutors reject the notion of taamei hamitzvot or that halakha has a telos in which the mitzvot attempt to direct us to behave and act in certain ways, become certain kinds of people and adopt certain ways of viewing the world. I cannot speak for others, but I certainly am a devotee of these exact notions and often have bemoaned that in much of the Orthodox community (both to the right and to the left) the halakhic system is perceived as a type of obstacle course that one must “get through” in life. I fully subscribe to the notion of the halakha as having meaning and purpose and telelogical goals that God is trying to convey to us. Indeed, these are some of the fundamental lessons I learned directly and from the writings of my teachers, shul rabbis, and colleagues such as the Rav zt”l, Prof. Eliezer Berkovits z”l, and yebadel lechaim tovim vearulim, Dr. Norman Lamm, R. Shlom Riskin, R. Saul Berman, R. Avi Weiss, and mori verabi, Rav Yehuda Amital and mori verabi, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. The question is not therefore whether one accepts the notion of telos and goals but a) if one can always figure out the “unequivocal” nature of that message and goal or b) if there are sometimes conflicting messages and goals in one area itself that express itself in dialectical tension and nuance.
  3. R. Rothstein surprised me by beginning his attempt to tease out the nature of “traditional Jewish womanhood” by immediately jumping to the distinction between men and women that emerges from the rabbinic exemption from certain time bound commandments. I believe that any discussion of womanhood must begin at the beginning and that is that each person, both male and female, was created in the image of God (Gen. 1) and that each person stands before God as a metzuveh  (Gen 2). That is, every human being, male or female, is endowed with the whole range of talents and abilities that come under the rubric of tzelem elokim including the capacity to think, to reason, to create, to conquer (in the best sense of the word) to achieve and to follow in God’s ways.

Secondly, every human being stands as a commanded being before the Almighty where avodat Hashem has to be central to their very being and purpose in life. This all has to come at the beginning before any discussion of distinctions, role differentiations or differences. R. Rothstein makes passing reference to Nehama Leibowitz zt”l. One of Nehama’s favorite comments in all of parshanut (she would come back to it over and over in her sheets and in classes) was the profound words of R. Isaac Arama commenting on Rachel’s complaint to Jacob that she was barren and Jacob’s rebuke to her, that women have two names in the Bible: Isha (derived from Ish) and Eve indicating the primary purpose which is to stress that “like man you may understand and advance in the intellectual and moral realm” while the role aspect of the woman as childbearer and nurturer of the family is the “secondary purpose”. Before we speak of distinctions we need to begin at square one.

4. R. Rothstein rightly notes many of the halakhic areas where men and women are distinct, including the area of marriage law: “while women are required by the Torah to make a commitment to one man…a man could marry several women”. R. Rothstein continues to speak about the reality that according to Torah law only men can initiate divorce. He then goes on to consider other aspects of the stark differences in halakah between men’s ability to play certain ritual and political roles from which women are excluded such as the priesthood and the monarchy.

 R. Rothstein, however, leaves out any discussion of the halakhic reality and sources that indicate that in some areas of ritual, marriage, and inheritance law, biblical and especially rabbinic norms (which R. Rothstein has included in his discussions as indicative of the meta-values of the system) clearly moved in the direction of narrowing some of the gaps between men and women. These include the Biblical recording of the bnot tzlofchad episode indicating God’s recognition of the need to tweak the inheritance laws; the various statements and takanot of Hazal in they which they spoke of “shakdu hakhamim al takanot bnot Yisrael”, “mishum igun akilu bei rabbanan”; the halakha that they permitted women to do semichat hakorban in the Temple-laasot nachat ruah lanashim; the limitations on polygamy and unilateral divorce by men codified by Rabbeinu Gershon etc… Hazal and the Rishonim seem to have been balancing certain clear distinctions that are inherent in the Torah legislation with other Torah values and principles that needed to be brought to the fore.  These Torah values appear to include the desire to protect the dignity of the woman, kevod haberiyot, the view that the ideal marriage relationship is one of “vehayu lebasar echod” and other meta-halakhic values.

        It is interesting to note that on the very topic of marriage and the fact that men can marry several women, R. Nachum Rabinovitch, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maaleh Adumim (who R. Rothstein cites in a different part of his essay) has written that the sharp distinctions that are evidenced in Torah law such as that men can marry more than one wife are actually not the Torah ideal. The Torah ideal is reflected in the original Torah value of “they shall become like one flesh”m (Gen. 2) which bespeaks a more equal relationship. The various laws of the Torah that permit divorce and polygamy, etc.., are reflective of the realities and the slow evolution of transforming the nature of human reality and society in a more positive way. In R. Rabinovits reading, the rabbinic legislation of Rabbeinu Gershom eliminating polygamy and restricting the man’s ability to unilaterally initiate divorce in most instances:

 advanced the values already determined in Scripture [of a permanent covenant between husband and wife]. In the biblical era, however, the time was not yet ripe, and people were not yet ready, for the full realization for the full realization of that vision. Only over time, as a result of a life of training in the life of the Torah, were people’s hearts made ready and did it become possible to draw closer to the goal established by the Torah (Darkah Shel Torah, (Hebrew), Edah Journal 3:1, pg.8).

 This approach is consistent with much of the thought of Rav Kook zt”l in some of his writings on war and ethics, the writings of Prof, Eliezer Berkovits, and the recently published essay by Dr. Norman Lamm where he speaks of the reality of an “developing halakhic morality.”  In that essay, R. Lamm presents a nuanced theory about a developing morality that is based on rediscovering Biblical and halakhic values

that were always there in the inner folds of the Bilbical texts and halakhic traditions… That is whereas we cannot create a new morality to oppose the Biblical one, we most certainly are free to exercise our judgment and experience in searching out authority in Biblical and rabbinic traditions to identify elements in Judaism that support a limitation of or alternative to the original doctrine…we are free, indeed compelled to use our creative moral and halakhic reasoning to reveal the latent moral judgments of the Torah that may contradict what we have previously accepted as the only doctrine of the Torah. For instance, in the case of slavery, the opposing principle of ki avadei heim, that all humans are the servants of the Creator, and hence we must discourage slavery…The choice before us , in such cases, is the tension between the Torah’s explicit legislation versus the Torah’s implicit value system” (War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition, pg. 226-227).

In our context, while the Torah and halakha clearly rejects a total egalitarian ethos, the tensile balance between explicit distinctions and the ethos of recognition of the spiritual desires, needs, and personhood of women as halakhic and Torah values are part of how the system works through competing religious desirata in various eras. Thus the notion that we have clear, unequivocal guidance on any specific current hot-button issue is far from clear to me. The reality is that in evaluating any “innovation” or move, especially when we are not dealing with strict halakha, the pulls and tugs of the various meta-values inherent in the system, e.g. gender and role distinctions and “mesorah” versus desire to enhance people’s avodat Hashem, human dignity and tzelem elokim, nahat rua, etc…, will need to be carefully weighed and considered, with the real possibility that people of good will emerge with differing conclusions. (And that is before one even gets to the sociological and political dimension of any question, which may effect any decision as well.) 

5. Given these remarks, while I was fascinated by R. Klapper’s analysis of my original essay, I do not concur with his assessment of my view of the halakhot that contain distinctions between men and women as hukkim.  I believe that there are many competing meta-values and societal goals that the Torah and halakha wanted to achieve, some eternal, some societally conditioned, but ones that contain dialectical elements and competing values that need to be taken into account in any full-fledged evaluation of any of these critical issues.[1]  

[1] Thus I fully concur with R. Brody’s comment at the end of his post on “Polemics” that in evaluating any halakhic phenomena we cannot simply ask whether it is technically permitted or forbidden. That is just the base level of the discussion. In addition we must think about the meta-halakhic dimensions and ramifications to the system and its adherents. These must include kedoshim tehiyu ala the Ramban, but they are not exhausted by that one value (and what adds to kedusha in each case may also be in dispute). They also include consideration and discussion of other meta-values of such as expansion of respect for tzelem elokim, expanding people’s opportunities for avodat Hashem, ve-asita hayashar vehatov,  lassot nahat ruah le-nashim etc. 

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