Volume 8 Number 28

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

The Halachic Response to Modernity
         [Anthony Fiorino]


From: Anthony Fiorino <fiorino@...>
Date: Thu, 8 Jul 93 18:04:56 -0400
Subject: The Halachic Response to Modernity

In the discussions that have been taking place around the topic of
women's t'filah, I have noticed a somewhat disturbing trend.  Many
people have expressed in this forum, in one way or another, the basic
idea that "anything that we can do to make the modern woman feel more
comfortable in Orthodoxy, we should do."  Since I have already been
designated the honorary villian on the issue of women's t'filah, I
figured I might as well tackle this issue too.  I should note that what
I have to say is not about women's t'filah, and is not addressed at
women's t'filah, and I am not engaging in an attempt to relate this
posting specifically to women's t'filah (although I believe the general
issues discussed here apply to women's t'filah as much as they apply to
any challenge of modernity).  Rather, this posting is a critique of the
general approach contained in the idea "anything we can do to make the
modern woman feel more comfortable in Orthodoxy, we should do "

There are 2 issues at play here issue here is the notion that one can
take an idea, or a social or psychological or political or even
religious agenda, and then go searching through the sources until
finding a way to permit the activity called for by that agenda.  Such a
method of determining psak falls outside the bounds of normative
halachic decision-making.  There are cases in which specific decisions
may be made in this manner -- horaat shaah (a decision of th hour) --
but such decisions, when made by rabbinic authorities, are by definition
temporary measures, enacted to deal with a pressing crisis.  For
instance (yoma 69b) -- Ezra pronounced the full shem hashem when reading
the Torah to the gathering of Jews returned from exile.  It is forbidden
to pronounce the Name outside of the beit hamikdash, but it was a horaat
shaah.  Some modern thinkers (for example, Eliezer Berkovits zt"l) have
called for an application of such methodology to solving the problems
facing Orthodoxy; in R. Berkovits' words, stretching the halachah to its
limits.  Yet the poskim, who determine normative practice, have in
general rejected such arguments, and it is with the poskim, not the
philosophers, with whom we must ultimately stand.

The second issue here is more subtle.  The very statement "anything we
can do to make the modern woman feel comfortable . . ." is based on the
assumption that any needs and/or desires of the modern woman, or man,
(truly, modernity in general) have an a priori halachic viability.  This
is not the case at all, and a point which seems to get lost very easily
is that it doesn't matter how sincere the need, or how much anguish
results from that need going unfulfilled -- the depth of sincerity or
anguish or pain does not necessarily correlate with the halachic
viability of the need, or more correctly, the halachic viability of any
proposed solutions of that need.  The intense pain a person engaged to
be married might feel upon discovering that he or she is actually a
mamzer and may not now get married does not, can not, influence the
halachic evaluation of the situation.  And this is true no matter how
much it might offend our "modern" sensibilities.  Very often, in fact,
the needs and demands of secular modernity are in striking conflict with
the expectations and obligations of halacha.  It is the attempt to
satisfy the needs and demands of modernity which led to the the
establishment of non-halachic varients of Judaism.

We all have been influenced, to a greater or lesser extent, by modern
secular culture.  One of the positive developments of this has been an
increased sensitivity and sympathy to the ideas of equality and equal
opportunity for women.  Personally, I find my natural inclination is to
react positively to any issue which furthers this goal.  The issue of
the woman's position in Judaism was a major concern for me before I
converted, given my very strong leanings to the left.  Since that time,
I have come to see a very clear distinction between the way modern
Western society views people, and women in particular, and the way
Judaism views these same issues.  I have found that I have had to
discard some of my previously held ideas, thoroughly modern, secular
ideas, because they simply are out of the bounds of the Jewish
tradition.  One of these ideas that I have had to discard is that
equality means identitity of roles and responsibilities, and that the
drive to equality is the same as a drive towards identity of roles and
responsibilities.  Judaism is a religion dependent upon distinctions
between the roles and responsibilities of Jews: kohein, levi, yisrael.
Parent and child.  Jew and non-Jew.  And yes, man and woman.  I feel
that any attempt to deny that there are distinctions between the roles
and responsibilities of the sexes is informed not by a Jewish ethic but
rather by a secular one.

Furthermore, Judaism does not assess the value of a person based upon
that person's role -- a kohein is not more "valuable" than a yisrael to
hakadosh baruch hu because of the accident of birth, that the father of
person X is a kohein, not a yisrael.  And if a yisrael has feelings of
inferiority because he is not a kohein, then those feelings of
inferiority, though very real, do not derive from a distinction in the
value that Judaism has for a kohein versus a yisrael.  Similarly, any
lesser value assigned to the role of women in Judaism derives not from
internal Jewish judgements, but rather from the modern Western secular
perspective, from the way modern society "reads" the role differences
which are an essential feature of Judaism.  And I submit that for a
woman to feel her role in Judaism is inferior to that of the man is due
to such a modern, secular reading of the roles of men and women within
Judaism.  The feelings are certainly real -- but to find fault with the
roles of Judaism because of it puts the blame in the wrong place.

So, then, how does one evaluate any particular demand of modernity?  How
is it that women's learning has become a generally accepted norm, while
other demands of modernity, such as the push for removing mechitzot,
fall by the wayside?  (Meant only to compare women's learning to
removing mechitzot in one way -- that both issues arose specifically
from the challenges of modernity.)  It is an issue I struggle with; I
can only make my best attempt to understand the issues.  But I have
faith in the ability of the talmudei chachamim to clearly evaluate the
challenges, and ultimately, the passage of time is the final judge.

I have no doubt that I will take an enourmous amount of heat for this,
so I will bolster my point.  In the mid-seventies, a prominent rav made
a statement to the effect that the Talmudic dictum that a woman prefers
to be married than alone ("tan do mil'meisiv arma lei") no longer
applies.  This seems on the surface an innocent remark, probably many of
us would agree with it.  By our enlightened, modern, secular accounting,
a woman should have no more fear of being alone than a man.  The Rav,
zt"l, felt otherwise, and took exception in rather strong lanuguage.
Below are printed excerpts from the remarks he made to the RCA Rabbinic
Convention in response to the statement.  He describes not only the
approach one must take in determining halacha, but also specifically the
statement that the chazaka in question no longer applies in our day.  I
reprint these words with great hesitation, with a fear that they will be
misinterpreted or misunderstood, but to me, the ideas that halacha can
and should bend to allow us to satisfy any need generated by modernity,
and that such needs, simply by virtue of their existence, can be met
within halachic bounds, can not be substantiated and represent the
encroachment of secular modernity into the halchic process.  And so,
here are the Rav's words:

  . . what does kabalas ol malchus shamayim require of the leimud
hatorah, the person that studies Torah?  First, we must pursue the
truth, nothing else but the truth; however, the truth in talmud torah
can only be achieved through singular halachic Torah thinking, and Torah
understanding.  The truth is attained from within, in accord with the
methodology given to Moses and passed on from generation to generation.
  . . Second, we must not yield -- I mean emotionally, it's very
important -- we must not feel inferior . . . develop an inferiority
complex, and because of that complex yield to the charm -- usually it is
a transient and passing charm -- of modern political and ideological
sevoros.  I say not only not to compromise -- certainly not to
compromise -- but even not to yield emotionally. . . .  it should never
occur to me that it is important if we would cooperate just a little bit
with the modern trend or with the secular, modern philosophy.  In my
opinion, yehadus does not have to apologize either to the modern woman
or to the modern representatives of religious subjectivism.  There's no
need for apology -- we should have pride in our mesorah, in our
heritage.  And of course, certainly it goes without saying one must not
try to compromise with these cultural trends and one must not try to
gear the halachic norm to the transient ways of a neurotic society,
that's what our society is.  . . . .  And let me add something -- it's
very important -- not only the halachos but also the chazakos which
chachmei chazal have introduced are indestructable.  We must not tamper,
not only with the halachos, but even with the chazakos, for the chazakos
which chazal spoke of rest not upon transient psychological behavioral
patterns, but upon permanent ontological principles rooted in the very
depth of the human personality, in the metaphysical human personality,
which is as changeless as the heavens above.  Let us take an example --
the chazaka that's what I was told about -- the chazaka tav l'meisiv tan
do milmeisiv arma lei -- has absolutely nothing to do with the social
and political status of women in antiquity.  The chazaka is based not
upon sociological factors, but upon a verse in breishis -- harba arba
itz'voneich v'heironeich b'etzev teildi vanim v'el isheich t'shukaseich
v'hu yimshal bach -- "I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy travail;
in pain thou shalt bring forth children, and thy desire shall be to thy
husband, and he shall rule over thee."  It is a metaphysical curse
rooted in the feminine personality -- she suffers incomparably more that
the male who is in solitude.  Solitude to the male is not as terrible an
experience, as horrifying an experience, as is solitude to the woman.
And this will never change, mayid shamayim haretz.  This is not a
psychological fact, it's an existential fact.  It's not due to the
inferior status of the woman, it's due to the difference, the basic
distinction, between the female personality and the male personality. .
  . And this was true in antiquity, it's still true, and it will be true
a thousand years from now.  So, to say that tan do mil'meisiv arma lei
was due, or is due, to the inferior political or social status of the
woman is simply misinterpreting the chazaka tan do mil'meisiv arma lei.
And no legislation can alleviate the pain of the single woman, and no
legislation can change this role.  She was burdened by the Almighty --
after she violated the first [law].  And let me ask you a question --
Ribenu shel olam , G-d Almighty, if you should start modifying and
reassesing the chazakos upon which a multitude of halachos rest, you
will destroy yehadus.  So instead of philosophizing, let us rather light
a match and set fire to the beis yisrael, and get rid of our problems.


End of Volume 8 Issue 28