Thursday, August 11, 2011

When "More" Is Less


Recently, a blog post published by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky concluded that we should no longer recite the blessing שלא עשני אשה  and that, in fact, to do so constitutes a חילול השם. The author adduces several questionable sources to support his proposal and which can be debated and addressed by more competent scholars elsewhere.


 What is most noteworthy and disturbing about the article is not its source material, argumentation or conclusion. What is of greatest concern is the ideological bias that seems to direct the “innovative” reasoning and to undermine the independence and rationality of the halakhic process.  Most striking about the blog post is not the unusual recommendation that emerges from it but the problematic methodology that leads the author to that recommendation.

The Talmud in Masekhet Menahot and Masekhet Berakhot clearly and unequivocally mandates the daily recitation of the blessing of שלא עשני אשה . Millennia before the advent of modern feminism, the Rabbis were already careful to point out this blessing was not intended to imply the innate superiority of men. The Tosefta in Masekhet Berakhot simply and elegantly explains that the blessing is said because women are obligated in less mitzvot than men. Since one who is commanded to fulfill a mitzvah receives greater reward than one who is not thus commanded, this means that men have a relative advantage when it comes to שכר מצוה. There is nothing chauvinistic or misogynistic about the blessing, it is merely a reflection of the fact that women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments.


Ironically, the Rabbis did not need 20th or 21st century feminists to pressure them into developing this interpretation of the blessing. It is not an apologetic that was introduced after the fact or under duress. It is the primary and authentic explanation for the origin of the blessing, straight from the mouths of the Tannaim who instituted it.


Despite this seemingly unequivocal picture of the basis for the blessing in our tradition, it does not “sit well” aesthetically with many modern liberal thinkers who respond to its meaning with their hearts rather than their heads. Such thinkers have determined that the blessing has much broader ramifications than its creators ever imagined. Their feeling of distaste toward the blessing inspired them to seek a way to nullify their obligation to recite it.


Misinterpretations and errors occur in halakhic discourse all the time, and we cannot condemn a rabbi too harshly for making a mistake in his analysis –  as David Hamelekh said, שגיאות מי יבין. Had the Open Orthodox writers merely failed to understand the halakha properly, this could have been pointed out to them and they might have retracted or corrected their views accordingly.


This is where the fundamental problem with Open Orthodox halakhic analysis reveals itself. It evinces a fidelity to halakha, up to a point. When push comes to shove, however, the “smell test”, the subjective feeling and the personal intuition override the demands of halakha. Instead of a dispassionate and honest analysis of the traditional sources in light of the mesorah, founded on a conviction in their absolute truth, we find the “use” of an array of sources that, carefully organized, reach a predetermined objective or quell an inner “emotional discomfort” in the analyst.


Eliminating one blessing from the siddur, in and of itself, seems almost harmless. But it will not be long before this kind of subjective halakhic methodology leads to further, and more disastrous, innovation. Will sympathy with the plight of homosexual Jews inspire Open Orthodoxy to find a halakhic basis for sanctifying their marriages? Will Kohanim be offered permission to marry divorced women or converts? Surely, the same incessant tug at the heartstrings of these rabbis that convinced them to discard a blessing enshrined in our tradition for generations will, one day soon, convince them that the Torah’s restrictions in these areas (and perhaps others) are just too offensive to our sensibilities and must be “reconsidered” in light of the values of modernity and inclusiveness. Of course, these rabbis will find the sources they need to back up their claim, they will fashion carefully constructed arguments לטהר את השרץ   that appear to validate their preconceived conclusions, and they will be מחבל את הכרם in short order.


The mainstay of our mesorah has been the objective reality of halakha and the dispassionate study of its principles. Allowing our sentimentality to guide our analysis of the Torah is a recipe for disaster that places the direction of our eternal religion in the hands of the eternally shifting attitudes of the society in which we live. The blog post about שלא עשני אשה is not just an error about one halakha. It is the articulation of a methodology of halakha that has been the defining feature of every deviant sect of Judaism from the time of Korach until the present day.   

27 comments:

Rabbi Pinny Rosenthal said...

Rabbi Josh, I couldnt agree with you more!

cyberdov said...

"modern liberal thinkers who respond to its meaning with their hearts rather than their heads"

rachmana liba baei.

halacha based on analysis only, without any thought given to the context and impact of the results, is sterile.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Nobody is suggesting that we ignore context or impact. My point is that we must have the humility to understand what halakha is trying to teach us rather than sitting in judgment of it from the perspective of our own ideologies or predilections.

Zev Berger said...

Rabbi Maroof:

How do you reconcile your above stated concerns with the fact that Rabba Sara Hurwitz credits you with giving her "Smicha" and Rabbi Avi Weiss uses your responsa to justify her ordination?

http://www.yeshivatmaharat.org/about-us

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Zev,

You have not been following the news closely enough.

First of all, I have never ordained, or thought myself worthy to ordain, anyone.

Moreover, I recently sent an open letter to Rabbi Weiss in which I requested that all references to my name be removed from all websites with which he is associated, including both HIR and Yeshivat Maharat. This letter was printed on Matzav.com on Monday.

Finally, for clarification of what my involvement was, or wasn't - in addition to reading the letter that appeared on Matzav monday - I suggest that you peruse the comments on the "News and Links" section at Torahmusings.com, where I think the exchange has clarified matters quite well.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

My letter can be found here:

http://matzav.com/rabbi-maroof-to-avi-weiss-please-remove-my-name-from-yeshivat-maharat-website

Zev Berger said...

Hi Rabbi: I read the comments on Hirhurim. Having done some research I see that you have written much on the topic. But in all of your clarifications you have fastidiously avoided answering this simple, pivotal and clarifying question.

Is the following statement taken from the Yeshivat Maharat website True or False?

“[Sara Hurwitz] was ordained by Rabbi Weiss, Rabbi Daniel Sperber and Rabbi Joshua Maroof.”

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

See my latest comment there. No, the statement there is not true, as I have written numerous times on that comment thread and elsewhere. This is why I have asked that it be removed.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I should say, this is PART of the reason I asked that it be removed.

Zev Berger said...

Hi Rabbi: Apologies; I did not see your most recent post on Torahmusings.com. You have indeed answered the above mentioned question and I withdraw the above comment and question.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Thanks - Shabbat Shalom!

Tamir said...

"Millennia before the advent of modern feminism, the Rabbis were already careful to point out this blessing was not intended to imply the innate superiority of men. The Tosefta in Masekhet Berakhot simply and elegantly explains that the blessing is said because women are obligated in less mitzvot than men".

As they say in the British Parliament: Hear, hear !

Re: your supposed support of the ordination of Sara Hurwitz:

I was wondering how your letter( shown in the "Reponsa Regarding Women's roles in Religious Leadership" PDF, pages 17-20), where you clearly supported women becoming Morot Hora'a, but opposed them assuming Serara, meant you were endorsing "Sara bat Mordechai HaLevi and Batsheva ...[ being] well qualified ... to lead the congregations of Jacob ...[ finding] her worthy of receiving the title Manhigah Hilkhatit Ruchanit Toranit, MaHaRa"T, Halakhic Spiritual and Torah Leader"( in the same PDF, page 22), which sounds to me( even without them having bestowed the title "Rabba") like she's been given a title of Serara.

As most of the discussions are around whether you took part in the ordination, or whether you supported her getting a rabbinical title( i.e. using the specific term, Rabba), I would like clarification on a different question: Would you have supported( even without taking part in the ordination) Sara Hurwitz being given just the title MaHaRa"T( which was originally suggested), or would you have not( as I understood from your letter that I referred to above) ?

( By the way, over at Cross-Currents, Rabbi Dov Fischer is connecting your "support" for ordaining women rabbis with Kanefsky's suggestion to remove/change "sheLo Asani Isha": link.)

Chaim B. said...

I believe (I haven't looked back at it -- correct me if I'm wrong) Rabbi Maroof's analysis of ordination basically boiled down to collecting references from the Chinuch, Chida, a Mishpitei Uziel, etc. that all allow women who are learned to rule on halachic issues. The theoretical basis for such an idea is well precedented, and the one obstacle of serara has been dealt with and dismissed or explained away already by many earlier sources. The novelty is not in theory, but in application -- the question is whether these sources can/should be used as a justification for the ordination of S. Hurvitz or whether other considerations are paramount from a practical standpoint.
The bracha case is quite different. Here the mainstream sources have addressed the issue and come to the opposite conclusions of the authors. The chiddush they suggest is not just one of application, i.e. using established law/precedent in an innovative way to address a modern situation. The chiddush is a theoretical upheavel an overturning of precedent in favor of a new theoretical framework. The burden of proof for such a leap is, of necessity, far greater, and the demand of "lishma" in proposing such ideas that much more critical.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

R' Chaim,

Well said.

Chaim B. said...

One question I would be interested to hear your thoughts on: In your post you take great pains to show that the intent of the bracha is not to disparage women or show the "innate superiority of men." Therefore, changing the bracha is unnecessary. That being said, I don't think anyone can deny that there are statements in the gemara that do not reflect well on women (e.g. "ain chochmasa elah b'pelech"). Yes, there are caveats: such statements may be the isolated views of certain sages, they may need to be contextualized, so that read in light of more favorable statements on the whole a more balanced picture emerges, and these statements may be descriptive of society as it was more than halachically prescriptive... And yet, such statements lead to the uncomfortable feeling that equality in the modern sense of the word was not valued by the chachamei hamesorah. Do you agree there is a clash of values? Do you think we should abandon attempts to level the playing field because doing so usurps the value system of halacha?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chaim b. said...

To go a step further -- when do attempts to interpret, contextualize, explain away, etc. statements of Chazal that do not align with our moral compass fall under the umbrella of limud haTorah and proper analysis, and when do such efforts amount to imposing our own value system on Chazal at the expense of their original meaning/intent? How do you tell the difference?

Dovid said...

Yiyasher Kochecha.

Well said.

It is truly troubling when someone feels that once they have Orthodox Semicha, whatever they opine is necessarily Orthodox without their feeling the need to justify it textually.

What is troubling as well is the cavalier denigration of kedoshim and tehorim (Rav Kook!)as perpetrators of Chillul Hashem.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Dovid,

Very true. Thanks for commenting.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

For those who are interested, the comment thread on TorahMusings.com where I explained myself most clearly is here:

http://torahmusings.com/2011/08/news-links-57/

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Tamir,

I wouldn't support any title or degree of any kind that entailed any form of serara.

I realize that Rabbi Fischer has inappropriately linked me to the shelo asani isha controversy. In view of the fact that I directly pointed this out to him and he refused to change it, he is responsible for whatever avak motzi shem ra results from his actions.

His article appeared on Matzav.com as well, and when I complained to the editor, they removed the reference to my name from the piece. Kudos to them for responding appropriately.

koillel nick said...

I'm sick of the smicha of a woman sugya coming up. The smicha given to Sarah Hurvitz, properly or improperly, is not halachic smicha. There is nothing about it in Shas or in the Rishonim. It is not even a mandated minhag. It is merely permission to answer questions in the city of the students rabbi. And even that may not have too much meaning nowadays, as most questions are not new ones,rather hachra'as haposkim.
There are great poskim who don't have it, and amei ha'aretz who have it. Supposedly, the major posek, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan didn't get it till after he had already written the Mishne Brura.
To compare the social question of whether it is proper to give smicha to women, to dropping a bracha mandated by Chazal, is plain stupid. It shows a lack of knowledge of basic Torah scholarship.

Donny said...

"I wouldn't support any title or degree of any kind that entailed any form of serara. "

So do you no longer endorse this article, http://yeshivatmaharat.org/sites/default/files/spiritweb/Responsa%20on%20Women%27s%20Leadership.pdf, which states that
"it is clear that there is no concern in this, not from the aspect of "positions of power" (שררה) for a woman, since they accepted her upon them, and not from a modesty (tzniut) perspective, since we are discussing suitable and wise women, who know the boundaries of tzniut."

Might I suggest you formulate one final opinion on the matter, and thereafter refrain from retracting that opinion, regardless of the pressure, and regardless of the consequences it might have on your career and otherwise?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Donny,

I have a better idea - why don't you go back to that article and reread it, and notice that it was written by SOMEONE ELSE, not me, before you accuse me of being inconsistent.

In the article I wrote, I specifically state that there are potential serara issues that must be reckoned with.

The article you are quoting is either from R. Bin-Nun or R. Sperber. Why do you assume I would endorse it?

As I said, my position on the issues has never changed one iota.

Anonymous said...

Donny,

Your quote was from R' Bin-Nun's article. R'Maroof is not responsible for what another rabbi writes or says. Maybe you should be more careful before attacking rabbis.

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