Sincerity is not the issue
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 7, 2000
A woman once approached Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, undisputedly the preeminent modern Orthodox thinker of this century, and asked him whether she could wear a tallit for prayers. The Rav told her that before undertaking such a major departure from accepted custom she should proceed by stages. He told her to wear a four-cornered garment without the ritual fringes for three months and then report back to him.
After three months, the woman returned and told the Rav that wearing the four-cornered garment had been the most exhilarating and inspiring experience of her life. The Rav replied, "For the last three months what you have been doing has been halachically meaningless. You have been wearing a garment without religious significance, and you have been getting your inspiration from something other than a mitzvah." He forbade the woman to wear a tallit.
The Rav would never have made his point so forcefully unless he felt that it touched on the very fundaments of Jewish belief – the difference between pagan ritual practice and halachic ritual. The essence of the latter, according to the Rav, is the Divine command, which of necessity has intrinsic meaning. Communication with G-d takes place only within the context of that Divine command. The objective fact of the command, not the subjective emotions of the one performing the command, remains always primary.
To be sure, the emotions of the one performing the mitzvah are far from irrelevant. An absence of joy in the mitzvah indicates something lacking in the Divine service. But that joy is an outgrowth of the mitzvah, not its goal.
Pagan ritual, by contrast, has meaning only in terms of its impact upon the one performing the ritual. The ritual itself lacks intrinsic meaning.
The Rav viewed the new feminist ritual as essentially neo-pagan. He did not doubt for a moment that women pushing to wear tallitot and tefillin and to read from the Torah were sincere – i.e., that they wanted to do so very much. Nor did he deny that women experienced something when doing so. Rather he rejected subjective spiritual experience as the basis of Jewish ritual.
German Protestant theology picked up from paganism the idea that religious practice is validated only by the emotional response it engenders. And Friederich Schleiermacher’s elevation of subjective religious intuition and feeling was seized upon by classical German Reform as a means of attacking objective Jewish law.
Jewish feminism today runs the risk of heading down the same path. Eleven years ago, I spent several hours in private conversation with two leaders of the then nascent Women of the Wall. Both women described themselves as mitzvah observant, but they did not speak the traditional language of Halacha, which views us as drawing close to G-d through the choice to submit to His Will.
Instead they stressed repeatedly their need for self-expression and self-fulfillment, and assumed, after the modern fashion, that the sincerity of their desires automatically validated them. (For that reason, they were not even prepared to say that a Jews for "J" group at the Kotel would be illegitimate.)
Even the question, "What is ultimately determinative for you, your will or G-d’s?," I was told is too complex to answer. But the answer begins, said one of the women, "Insofar as I was created in the Divine Image, I feel myself in continuous dialogue with G-d ." The dichotomy between her will and G-d’s was, for her, an artificial one.
To reject subjective emotions as the ultimate arbiter of Jewish religious practice, however, does not mean that only the objective act has halachic significance. The intention with which we perform an action often determines its validity. For instance, a woman is not obligated in the mitzvos of tefillin or tzitzis because both are time bound commandments.
Nevertheless women may perform time bound mitzvos and even recite a blessing on their performance. Thus the act of wearing a tallit is not proscribed. It all depends on why a women insists on wearing one. If she views the Torah’s exemption of women from time-bound mitzvos as inherently sexist and rejects all halachic distinctions between men and women, then her act is a denial of the Torah. The same would be true if she suffers from what Shira Schmidt has aptly termed "Tallis-envy," and believes that a woman’s prayers are only heard if she prays as a man.
There is a simple litmus test to determine whether the action is motivated by the craving to draw close to G-d through His mitzvos – the same desire that caused Moses to beg to be allowed to enter the Land – or by the desire to make a statement fundamentally at odds with the Torah. Is the woman in question already meticulous about every aspect of the mitzvos incumbent upon her or is she particularly drawn to those mitzvos traditionally performed by men?
No one was ever more sincere than the 250 followers of Korach. They rallied under the banner, "The entire nation is holy," and sought, as today, to uproot all distinctions between different groups in religious practice. Though warned by Moses that only one of those who brought the incense offering would be chosen and that the others would suffer the same fate as Nadav and Avihu, who decided to create their own forms of Divine service, their desire to bring the incense was so great that they were willing to give up their lives to do so (according to the interpretation of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin).
They paid with their lives. Their incense pans were then gathered and fashioned into a permanent reminder that it is G-d, not we, Who determines the form of our relationship. Without acknowledging that fact, all the sincerity in the world will not help.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics, Pluralism
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