Taking the Reins of Torah Leadership
The entire Torah world owes a great debt of gratitude to Rabbi Herschel Schacter and Rabbi Mayer Twersky of Yeshiva University for their respective responses to the decision of the principal of a Modern Orthodox girls school to allow two students to lay tefillin during morning prayers.
No Orthodox community has remained unscathed by contemporary egalitarianism – i.e., the belief that any halachic differences between men and women are inherently discriminatory. Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger told me recently that already in the 1970s Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel, warned that the greatest challenge facing Orthodoxy was no longer from heterodox movements but from feminism. Rabbi Twersky points the way to confronting that challenge.
In addition, Rabbi Schacter's and Rabbi Twerky's responses constitute an object lesson in responsible communal leadership. Rather than eschewing any responsibility for condemning deviations from Torah on the grounds, "It's an insult to ask me to condemn behavior with which I do not identify in any way," they felt the responsibility, as eminent roshei yeshiva within the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy, to explain cogently and forcefully how misguided was the decision of the principal, a graduate of their institution. The force of their arguments will have a powerful effect on their legion of devoted talmidim and deter others from following the principal's path.
And finally, without ever mentioning the ideologically fraught term da'as Torah, Rabbis Schacter and Twersky establish the high standard of halachic expertise required to rule on matters touching on the long established mesorah.
"IN MODERN TIMES," writes Rabbi Twersky, "women did not begin donning tefillin to emulate Michal bas Shaul, or to be devoted Maimonideans or to invoke the shem Hashem upon themselves. Women donned tefillin because men do so." Both he and Rabbi Schacter note that the practice is most associated with the Conservative movement, for which the dominant philosophy is egalitarianism: the belief that halachic distinctions between genders are inherently suspect.
That belief cannot be squared with halachic, and the attempt to graft a "socially dominant, false philosophy" onto Judaism is doomed from the start. The impetus for that unpromising kilayim is a deep inferiority complex about Torah.
By allowing two students from Conservative homes to continue their family's practice at SAR high school, the principal was not showing sensitivity, he was deliberately misleading them, according to Rabbi Twersky. He offers a historical analogy to a principal in 19th Germany confronted by two students from Reform homes, who tell their principal that they have more kavannah in their davening when it is accompanied by organ music in the background. If the principal makes space for the organ, "he grievously misleads" and reinforces Reform behavior with predictable consequences, concludes Rabbi Twersky.
In his responsum on women wearing tefillin, Rabbi Schacter notes that the Tannaim introduced practices into the preparation of the parah adumah to make clear that they did not accept the views of the Sadduccees, even where the practice of the Sadduccees was more stringent. Their concern was that people not emulate schismatic movements, and the same concern holds true today with respect to the Reform and Conservative movements.
He cites Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik as forbidding Orthodox rabbis from emulating the Conservative practice of having a bat mitzvah ceremony in the middle of prayers. Such heterodox practices, said Rabbi Soloveitchik, have the status of the "shoelaces" worn by gentiles that a Jew must give up his life rather than adopt when those shoelaces become a symbol of the destruction of religion. That is true even if the shoelaces are permitted according to "technical halacha."
From the Conservative movement itself, Rabbi Twersky points out, one learns the futility of fighting assimilation via accommodation. Driving to synagogue on Shabbos was justified by the movement in the '50s, as necessary to fight assimilation. And sixty years later, the Conservative movement is on the verge of extinction, while assimilation is ever accelerating.
Nor can accommodation ever satisfy the demands of the feminists. Brushing aside the ruling of theR ema that women should not wear tefillin, which has been unchallenged for 500 years, will not end the matter, for other gender distinctions remain. What started with women's prayer groups has morphed into tefillin, partnership minyanim and demands for women rabbis. "By reinforcing the egalitarian impulse without ever satisfying it, every accommodation intensifies demands for further accommodations, [which] can never be met because Torah and egalitarianism are fundamentally incompatible," concludes Rabbi Twersky.
BOTH RABBIS write with barely contained fury, not at the girls who put on tefillin, but at the rabbis who ruled that they might do so, without even consulting recognized ba'alei hora'a. "It may be his school," Rabbi Twersky addresses the principal of SAR, "but it is the Ribbono shel Olam's Torah."
He takes aim at the assumption that when there are differences of opinion among the Rishonim or later decisors that halacha becomes a "smorgasbord from which everyone is free to make his own selection." Rabbi Twersky quotes the Rema: "A person may not say regarding an issue where there is a difference of opinion, 'I will decide the Halachah as I wish,' and if he does so, his ruling is false."
The idea that anyone who has access to Otzar HaChachma or the Bar Ilan Responsa Project is qualified to render halachic rulings departing from the accepted mesorah, writes Rabbi Schacter, derives from Korach's claim of equality – "the entire congregation is holy." Only one who has spent much time at the feet of a great master, and invested his blood and soul in understanding his words of Torah" can possibly be that one in a thousand who is fit for hora'ah. "He must be married to the Torah – not just engaged to it."
Rabbi Twersky points out that even such giants as Rabbi Akiva Eiger and, in our times, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, despite their mastery of the entirety of Torah, questioned whether they were fully qualified to be ba'alei hora'ah and to publish their responsa. How then can we characterize someone of no standing as a ba'al hora'ah, who presumes to overrule a mesorah of 500 years other than as a Shulchan Aruch describes an unqualified student who renders halachic decisions – "he is delusional, wicked, and arrogant"?
Acceptance of Hashem's Torah, he concludes, is not merely a matter of practical compliance. It requires a reverential attitude, a sense of awe, joy, privilege and pride. That cannot be achieved by those who wish to simultaneously hold fast to secular, anti-Torah Western values and to Torah.
Who Wants to Be Like Us?
Last week my wife heard a lecture by one of Israel's leading sportsmen in which he described the impact on his marriage of his becoming a ba'al teshuvah. The rabbis with whom he consulted all agreed that his becoming religious was not a reason for divorce and that as the party who had changed the rules in midstream he had no right to place any demands upon his wife with respect to Shabbos or kashrus. That advice, incidentally, is the same as that given by Rav Schach to couples in similar situations.
The couple's children were initially enrolled in non-religious schools. At some point, however, the wife removed them from non-religious schools and placed them in religious schools. When her husband asked her why she had done so, she replied simply, "I want them to be like you."
That response got me thinking. What if each one of us went around with the feeling that our conduct holds the key to whether another Jew chooses to be like us? How our behavior would change. How much more would we think about our every action and its likely impact.
Well, aren't most of us in that situation with respect, at least, to our own children? And each of us has probably read numerous stories of Jews whose lives were permanently changed by the behavior of a religious Jew – most for the better and some for the opposite.
And the more Torah we have been privileged to learn the more intense should be this consciousness. The Ramchal makes this point forcefully: "For it is to the honor of the Torah that one who learns more of it progresses more, likewise, in righteousness and in refinement of character traits. Any lack in this respect, on the part of one who learns a great deal, contributes to disparagement of learning itself, which is a desecration of the name of the HaKadosh Baruch Hu, Who gave us His holy Torah and commanded us to immerse ourselves in it to attain our perfection."
Those words should be engrained on our hearts both entering and leaving the beis medrash.