Volume 8 Number 60

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

Halakhah and Modernity
         [Arnold Kuzmack]
Modern Women and Halacha
         [Janice Gelb]


From: <lkuzmack@...> (Arnold Kuzmack)
Date: Mon, 26 Jul 93 00:35:57 -0400
Subject: Halakhah and Modernity

I would like to respond to the related comments of Hayim Hendeles and
Eitan Fiorino, which deal with the relation of halakhah to the
challenges of modernity.  Due to my procrastination in finishing my
response, some of my points have already been made by others,
particularly on the role of "external" factors in halakhah, but rather
than try to eliminate the duplication, it was easier to leave my
comments as I originally wrote them.

Hayim Hendeles writes in v8n26:

     I once heard from Rabbi Moshe Heineiman (in Baltimore) that
     the "innovations" that were first adopted by the Reform
     movement were halachikly justifiable.  Undoubtedly, they
     made these "innovations" for the exact same reasons as
     mentioned above. Yet, unfortunately, we know where that led

     Anytime, we attempt to change any part of our 3000+ year old
     tradition, for whatever reason - however noble it may be,
     there is always a serious risk that "kol hamosif, gorea"
     (anyone who attempts to add, will in fact, detract).

It seems to me that the mosifim in this case were the Rabbinical
establishment which rejected these practices which were halakhically
justifiable, thus "adding" the prohibition of these practices.  More
important than such semantic distinctions, however, is the nature of the
response to the Reform challenge.  It was a political decision, in the
sense of a decision based on values, rather than law, which can affect
the welfare of the entire community.  Halakhah would have allowed other
choices, but the leaders of what became Orthodoxy decided that the
appropriate response to modernity was to resist it.

The result of that decision was not only a detraction from halakhah in
the sense of fewer Jews observing it, but arguably much of the
divisiveness and sinat hinam [baseless hatred] which afflict the Jewish
world today could have been avoided had the opposite decision been made.

Eitan Fiorino's essay in v8n28 presents a serious grappling with
critical issues.  However, I fundamentally disagree with his concept of
the nature of halakhah.  Halakhah is a divinely ordained human
institution established in love and wisdom to guide Jews in the conduct
of our lives.  Meeting valid human needs is therefore its essence.  In
cases where halakhic judgments appear to conflict with basic notions of
justice, which is also a halakhic value, we need to weigh the possible
halakhic bases for "lenient" and "stringent" solutions.  In most cases,
there will halakhic arguments on both sides.  There will also be
extra-halakhic considerations affecting the imperfect human judgment of
those arguing both sides.  In the case of the issues we have been
discussing, these include, on the one hand, ideas derived from secular
concepts and ideologies, and, on the other hand, ideological opposition
to anything which suggests compromise with modernity.

The example of mamzerut is a propos.  Were this a serious practical
problem today, we would be witnessing the same sort of ferment on
mamzerut that we are on women's roles.  Some would be finding bases for
leniency, and others would find them wanting.  How it would turn out
would depend not only on the strength and airtightness of proposed
solutions but also on ideological attitudes towards modernity and the
like.  In fact, there was a case in Israel 10 or 20 years ago.  I don't
recall the specifics, but I think it involved the child of a Holocaust
survivor who had remarried after the war and whose original husband
turned up alive years later.  Rav Goren found a way to permit the person
to marry, and his reasons for allowing it were criticized by others.  I
find it hard to believe that he did not have a preconceived idea in this
case that he was trying to justify from the sources.

It is inevitable that halakhah will respond to the challenges of
modernity, and it is inevitable that it will change in the process.  It
has done so through the centuries; others have given many examples.  The
question is -- in which direction will it change?  Will it (or, rather,
will we) attempt to accommodate valid needs such as those related to
women's roles?  Or will we invent new humrot [stringencies] in an
attempt to resist the encroachments of modernity?  (Admittedly, not a
totally even- handed description :-).)  Both are consistent with
halakhah, and halahkah itself does not tell us which approach to take,
any more than it eliminates the need to make moral choices in our
personal lives.

This does not mean that anything goes, of course.  There is an
appropriate inherent inertia, which limits the speed of changes and
protects the tradition from transient fashions.  Ultimately, it will not
be the poskim who will determine the outcome but the Jewish people as a
whole, who are "the descendants of prophets".  Just as "the Supreme
Court reads the election returns", so too the poskim know what their
constituencies will accept.  (That is why they have not banned smoking,
which is obviously counter to halakhah.)  In my opinion, this is
perfectly appropriate.  Unfortunately, it does not guarantee that the
resolution will favor greater ahdut yisrael [unity of the Jewish
people], rather than splintering into narrower and narrower subgroups.
For that, leadership is needed from all parts of the community and does
not seem to be forthcoming.

I would also like to respond to two side arguments made at the end of
his essay which have been neglected by other commenters.  These deal
with the nature of role distinctions in Judaism and a lengthy quote from
the Rav z"tl.

Jewish women who are testing the limits do not necessarily maintain that
"equality means identity of roles and responsibilities", although
feminists have admittedly appeared to do so on occasion.  Rather, they
are objecting to being permanently excluded from the core public
expressions of the community.  They cannot lead communal prayer or
publicly read from the Torah.  Their presence in shul is considered a
disturbance to others.  No matter how intelligent or knowledgeable, they
are excluded from participation in the world of talmidei khakhamim.
Until recently, they were completely excluded from serious Torah study.

The other role distinctions cited are not comparable.  The kohen has
only some minor ceremonial distinctions.  Children grow up, and if male
can then participate fully.  A male non-Jew can convert if he wants to
participate in Jewish life.  Only women are permanently excluded.

Eitan's quotation from the Rav zt"l consists largely of what I would
call political rhetoric.  By this, I do not mean any disparagement but
simply that he is making rhetorical arguments which will strengthen the
commitment of those who already agree and be unconvincing to those who
disagree.  The only halakhic reasoning in the quote is a reference to a
biblical verse which is, to put it mildly, very weak support for his
position.  (I can't tell if there was other material that was omitted.
For brevity, I won't go into detail on this but would be happy to later
if people are interested.)  In other words, he is engaging in the
extra-halakhic (or perhaps meta-halakhic) process which will in due
course lead to resolution of the issues of how halakhah will relate to
the challenges of modernity.

Arnold Kuzmack
<lkuzmack@...> (my wife's Internet account)


From: <Janice.Gelb@...> (Janice Gelb)
Date: Mon, 26 Jul 93 14:46:37 -0400
Subject: Re: Modern Women and Halacha

In commenting on this subject, I'm afraid I'm including a bit more of
the message to which I'm replying than usual. I felt it was important
to keep the context of what was said.

In mail.jewish Vol. 8 #46 Digest, Miriam Rabinowitz said:

> Judaism addresses the *very nature* of human beings.  Men and women are
> equal in importance, but are clearly not the same.  We are physically,
> emotionally and spiritually diverse.  As such, in order to provide equal
> treatment to each, Judaism sets up different roles for men and women,
> each according to their very nature.  It treats us differently because
> we ARE different, just as we would treat the cat and the rabbit
> differently because they are different.

I would like to suggest that Ms. Rabinowitz take this philosophy one
step further, and extend it to all people. Not only are men and women
physically, emotionally, and spirtually diverse from each other, but
every person, whether male or female, is physically, emotionally, and
spiritually diverse from every other person.

> Ms. Posen implied that part of the reason that women feel unfulfilled,
> is that we, as women, no longer view our role of "Akeret Habayit" as
> equal.  She's hit the nail on the head.  Because of Feminism in the
> U.S., we tend to look down on a woman who stays home with her children.
> We feel that in order to be a complete woman, we have to do more than
> "mearly" raise our children.  We view the role of a wife and mother who
> maintains her house and raises her children as inferior to that of a
> father who goes out and earns "the bread."
> And in adopting this attitude, we fail to appreciate one of the most
> beautiful gifts that G-d has given us - the special aspect of our nature
> as women that makes us ideally suited to provide our children with the
> foundation needed for them to grow into Torah Observant Jews.  In fact,
> we have taken this gift, smashed it to the floor, and stepped on it,
> saying "We don't want THIS equality!  We don't want THIS role!  We want
> the MAN'S role!"

In keeping with the postulate I present above, I'd like to suggest that
although perhaps an argument could be made that many women may have a
"special aspect of their nature as women" that makes them ideally suited
to raise children and provide a Jewish foundation for them, many other
women do not fit into this category, and are not by nature maternal,
nestbuilding personalities. These women are not trying to take over a
"man's" role, they are seeking a role in which they can truly express
themselves according to the special aspects of their nature as people.
They are not necessarily putting down the role of homemaker and
childrearer in the abstract, but saying that for them as human beings,
it does not fit their particular "physical, spiritual, or emotional

> I very firmly believe that before we should make Orthodox Judaism
> comfortable for the Modern Orthodox woman, such a woman must make a
> serious attempt to become comfortable with Orthodox Judaism and the
> roles which it sets up for her.  If she feels that she is not fulfilled
> as a human being by being a homemaker, then she should get a job.  But
> before stating that she cannot be RELIGIOUSLY fulfilled by being a
> mother, she aught to take the time to study and delve into the sources
> to learn what that role really is and the value that Judaism places on
> it.  She may be surprised to discover that Judaism entrusts her with
> tremendous responsibilities, many of which afford her the opportunity to
> use her intellectual talents; maintaining a Kosher kitchen, ensuring
> that the laws of Shabbat are not being violated in her home, strict
> observance of the laws of Taharat Hamishpacha, all require a strong
> understanding of halacha.  

If one accepts the preceding postulate that men and women are diverse as
people and not only as male or female, I'd like to proceed further by
pointing out that men also have to deal with all of the aspects of
Judaism mentioned above, but they *also* have the further possibility of
other ways to achieve religious fulfillment.

> If, after mastering these areas, she still
> feels that she needs more than her role as a Jewish wife and mother in
> order to feel RELIGIOUSLY fulfilled, and wishes to pursue other avenues
> within Halacha, Kol Hakavod Lah, with the condition that her quest is
> not at the expense of the role that G-d set up for her.
> Torah/Halacha are timeless.  They were designed so that they could be
> applied in every age and generation.  [...] It is imperative that we 
> explore, not stretch, Halacha
> in order to better understand the principles that Chazal have set down
> for us and how these principles can be applied to today's Modern
> Orthodox woman.  Thus we can determine where we can afford women greater
> opportunities within the boundaries of Halacha.

I think this is the crux of the difficulty that many Orthodox women have
with the roles established for them as women. I will state this for
myself and many other women whom I know who are struggling with this
subject but certainly not for *all* women who are doing so: the
difficulty is to deal with the possibility that the roles established
for women in halacha are not truly those established by HaShem, but by
rabbis who were unconsciously influenced by the understanding of gender
and of societal roles of their time. While I truly am *not* trying to
get into a discussion of whether torah d'rabbanan is as binding as torah
d'oraita, and I realize that this list is founded with the assumption of
the validity of halacha and the halachic process, I feel that it is
almost impossible not to consider this question when discussing this
issue, and that is what makes it so very difficult for women who
otherwise live their lives within the framework of halacha.

I don't think this aspect of the question can be fruitfully discussed on
this mailing list and strongly discourage refutation of it on halachic
grounds as we all already know the arguments on that side: I merely
raise it as an indication of one of the most difficult aspects of this
most difficult issue.

-- Janice Gelb


End of Volume 8 Issue 60