Re: Avoiding Religious Hubris


In response to:

Dear Rabbi Goldberg,

Thank you for writing about the importance of meta-halakhic values. Indeed, these overarching moral considerations and ideals are often absent from halakhic responsa, and your willingness to invoke them attests to your capabilities as a ‘poseq’ for a community. 

As you know, the ideal of “kavod habriyot” is one such meta-halakhic consideration that has been neglected in the text of many teshuvot, as HaGaon HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein (may God bless him with a speedy recovery), Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion and leading Modern Orthodox poseq, noted two decades ago in an article in the IDF journal Mahanayim and in his lecture “Human Dignity in Halakha.” Meritoriously, some have heeded his call for the explicit restoration of this essential meta-halakhic and theological principle: “Kavod habriyot” is the first principle cited in the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community,” a document signed by over two-hundred Orthodox Rabbis, educators, and mental health professionals.  The application of “kavod habriyot” also led Jerusalem Rabbi, Talmud Professor, and Israel-Prize Winner Daniel Sperber to advocate for women’s aliyot and leining in communal Torah reading.

The metahalakhic consideration you invoked in your column—Yohara, “religious hubris,” as you translate it–no doubt, is an important concern too (although, to my knowledge, it is not as powerful as “kavod habriyot,” which can override a Rabbinic mitzvah or lead to shev v’al ta’aseh—non-observance of a biblical positive mitzvah, or even negate a biblical mitzvah according to the Talmud Yerushalmi). I can think of a number of pertinent cases of Yohara, such as when a student from a Modern Orthodox family, per the recommendation of his/her high school, is sent off to a non-Modern Orthodox yeshiva or seminary and returns, a year or two later, wearing garb different than that of his/her family and observing a stricter kashrut standard than his/her family, making it difficult for him/her to eat in his/her own home.

If we define Yohara in the manner you indicated in your column—acts that deviate from the communal norm, with the risk of conveying a “holier-than-thou” attitude—then we will face countless areas of concern in our community. As many visitors on your facebook page suggested, what about wearing a black-hat (despite what the Vilna Gaon says even about wearing a kippa!) in a predominantly Modern Orthodox shul community, especially considering the perceived connotation that the black-hatter is “frummer” than everyone else? What about wearing tzizit strings dangling outside of one’s clothing?  What about refusing to eat fellow community members’ home-cooked food, due to ‘cholov yisroel,’ ‘kemoch yoshon,’ ‘pas yisroel,’ and other strictures not accepted by the majority of our community? What about women’s hats vs. sheitel? Strictly non-Gebrochts on Pesach? Tehilim circles? Rabbeinu Tam tefillin (a practice directly comparable to the issue on hand)? Acting as a common shaliah tzibur? Baking exorbitant amounts of challah in order to qualify for the mitzvah of hafrashat hallah? What about publicly donating to BRS in sums that other members of the community don’t see in their yearly salary? Making siyumim? Publicizing one’s attendance at a netz shaharit service at the beach, davening and wearing tefillin on public grounds?

Perhaps, in a synagogue community as diverse as ours, or in an Orthodox day school, our expectation of diverse customs negates this concern of situational yohara. It is difficult to violate an accepted norm when variety is the norm. After all, our shul’s signs read “where everyone is welcome” and our very motto is “Valuing Diversity, Celebrating Unity.”

In a lecture on Talmudic Methodology, Rav Moshe Taragin of Yeshivat Har Etzion delineates two opposing models of yohara; one is a public, unmistakable violation of communal norm, while the other is the practice of completely new halakhic concepts. The second model of yohara, attributed to Rabbanan, allows for the observance of “an extant mitzvah from which [one] is exempt. Since [one] hasn’t created new mitzvot, [one] hasn’t violated yohara.” This follows from an analysis of the only two cases in the Talmud Bavli that explicitly involve yohara, the chatan who recites shema despite his exemption and the layman who abstains from work on Tisha B’Av in a community that never adopted the otherwise widespread prohibition. Tellingly, neither of these applications of Yohara stand today (Shulkhan Arukh Orah Hayim 70:3, 544:22).

Based on our tolerance for a wide variety of humrot and minhagim in our BRS community, it is evident that we have chosen (quite appropriately) to understand yohara according to the second model, where the concern for Yohara prevents only stringencies with no halakhic basis.

The permission for women to don tefillin is certainly grounded in classical halakha, and it is difficult to understand why your wrote that “noticeably absent from the conversation, at least from my perspective, is an argument about the halachic merits or challenges of the decision.” As Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal of the SAR High School, wrote to parents, “the practice of these families has support in halakha. It has basis in the Rishonim (רמב״ם, רשב״א וספר החינוך) – and R. Yosef Karo, the מחבר שולחן ערוך, seems to follow that opinion.” Even the articles in The Jewish Daily Forward and Times of Israel–which report news, not halakha—discuss some of the halakhic issues in play. The SAR decision, as reported by multiple news sources, was a halakhic decision.

You are undoubtedly aware of the relevant sources, but I will make mention of the precedent for other readers:

The gemara in Eruvin 96B quotes a braita (Tannaic statement) in which it is understood that women are obligated in the mitzvah of Tefillin:

“If tefillin are found they are to be brought in, one pair at a time, irrespective of whether the person who brings them in is a man or a woman, and irrespective of whether the tefillin were new or old; so R. Meir. R. Judah forbids this in the case of new ones but permits it in that of old ones. Now since their dispute is confined to the question of new and old while in respect of the woman there is no divergence of opinion it may be concluded that it is a positive precept the performance of which is not restricted to a articular time, women being subject to the obligations of such precepts.” (Soncino translation)

This is brought as a clarification of the stance in the proceeding paragraph,

“For it was taught: Michal the daughter of the Kushite (King Saul) wore tefillin and the Sages did not attempt to prevent her, and the wife of Jonah attended the festival pilgrimage and the Sages did not protest. Now since the Sages did not prevent her it is clearly evident that they hold the view that it is a positive precept the performance of which is not limited to a particular time.”

In the Talmud Yerushalmi, the line about Michal is followed by a secondary version, “R Hizkiyah said in the name of R. Abbahu: “…the sages did protest,” a version our Talmud does not include, perhaps deliberately. So while the majority of opinions in the Bavli cast tefillin as a time-bound commandment, the precedent of Michal wearing tefillin—without the protest of the sages—remains valid. Thus donning tefillin is a legitimate option for women of the Talmud, especially considering the Talmudic conclusion that women may voluntarily perform mitzvot in which they are not obligated.

This issue hardly appears in the writings of the Geonim (She’iltot, Halakhot Gedolot, etc.) according to all the surveys of the topic I have found, and many of the primary Rishonim (Rif, Rambam, Rosh, Tur, Shulkhan Arukh) refrain from mentioning any qualms about women donning tefillin. There are those who do: Ra’avad, who, unlike any other rishon and contrary to accepted practice today, prohibits women from performing non-obligatory mitzvot. His other concern is zilzul mitzvah & kilkul mitzvah – the mistreatment of the mitzvah; this concern is easily remedied by proper education (such as the book that you, Rabbi Goldberg, graciously gave many of us males on the occasion of becoming a bar-mitzvah).

Women can perform any time-bound mitzvah, according to Rashi, Rambam, and the largest group of Rishonim. Rashi and Rambam only allow performance without a blessing; “Women and slaves that desire to perform the mitzvah of tzizit may do so, without a blessing; and so too for all the other positive mitzvot from which women are excempt—if they want to do them, without a blessing, we do not prevent them,” codifies Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah (Tzizit, 3:10). However, the majority of Rishonim, such as Rabeinu Tam, Rabbi Zerahia HaLevi, and Rashba allow performance with a blessing, and all three of aforementioned scholars explicitly use tefillin-clad Michal as precedent for their rulings.

Similarly, the Sefer HaHinukh presents this permission and even clarifies the incentive: “If they [women] desire to don [tefillin], we do not prevent them, and they receive reward” (Mitzvah 421).

It is no surprise, then, that legends exists of certain women donning tefillin, proves Rabbi Professor David Golikin, President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. Some Hasidic female Rebbes, a few women of 13th century France, the community of Rav Samson ben Samson of Coucy (HaSar MiCoucy), Rebbetzin Shlomtze of early 20th century Europe, two Italian Jewish women of the 16th century, most likely wore tefillin, according to Rabbi Golikin’s study. This is in addition to our well-known modern-day midrash that Rashi’s daughters wore tefillin (yes, this may be historically inaccurate, but the prevalence of this legend is a statement in itself).

In the realm of halakha, the above should constitute ample support for the practice of women voluntarily donning tefillin, especially in light of its nature as a case of “Zeh Nehene V’zeh Lo Chaser.” Nevertheless, let us examine the reasons for prohibiting the practice. cites a tautological argument originating in the 17th century with Hillel ben Naftali Hertz that tefillin is “begged ish,” a man’s clothing, and thus forbidden to women, based on the biblical translation Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (Targum Yerushalmi). But both Hillel ben Naftali Hertz and the Sdei Hemed question this argument, as no Tannaic or Amoraic source mentions this—a potential biblical transgression–in their discussion of women and tefillin or their explanation of Michal’s practice, and their word overrules that of Targum Pseudo-Jonathan’s.    Parenthetically, we are also taught, in Talmud Bavli Berakhot 6A, that God wears tefillin. Both you and I were present in shul for the conclusion of Shabbat maa’riv last leil Shabbat when Yigdal was sung aloud—“God has neither a form of a body nor a body.”

The concern that you expressed in your article is based on the comment of the Rema, quoted from Kol Bo which is derived from the Maharam, that we must protest women wearing tefillin because women cannot keep themselves in cleanliness, “b’nekiut.” The Maharam, on the other hand, is quoted using the term “b’taharah,” ritual purity.  Both are most likely references to Tosafot in Eruvin 96a, which seeks justification for the alternative textual tradition (not the one in the Bavli) that the sages did protest Michal’s donning of Tefillin, and concludes that perhaps that alternative textual tradition is based on the concern that tefillin requires a “guf naki,” a clean body, which a woman can not maintain. The conflation of these terms—b’taharah, b’nekiut—leads to confusion about whether the concern is physical cleanliness or ritual purity.

If this is a concern about ritual purity, then the Rambam must disagree, as he codifies in the Mishneh Torah, “All of the impure – they are obligated in Tefillin just as the pure” (Tefillin, 4:13).  Additionally, according to the Shulchan Aruch, Remah, Shulchan Aruch Harav, and most posqim today, words of Torah are not susceptible to Tumah. As Rabbi Avi Weiss points out in his book,  “Women at Prayer,” the Remah writes that globally, women should be able to touch a Sefer Torah (and, by extension, other objects encasing Scripture, such as Tefillin) during their menstrual period; however, in his community, women were not always able to maintain their hygiene during their menstrual period, and therefore should refrain from touching words of Torah. It goes without saying that our standards of daily hygiene, thankfully, have improved exponentially since the preeminent Rav Isserles’s lifetime—16th century Poland. (Relatedly, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper posits that the “guf naki” concern stems from mothers’ changing their infants’ diapers, leaving their hands dirty with fecal residue before running water was widely available, and before men were known to change babies diapers too.) And if the concern is menstrual blood itself, this too has been resolved by modern-day hygiene products. (After I wrote this section, I noticed Rabbi Ethan Tucker writes extensively on these issues in the appendix to his article in the Times of Israel.)

According to Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, a clean body “is taken to mean no flatulence,” a definition explicitly stated in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah Hilchot Tefillin 4:15 and based on Abaye’s stance in Masekhet Shabbat 49A in reference to R. Yanai. Being that women are normal human beings, a healthy woman is capable of controlling her bodily functions and properly deal with the need to pass intestinal gas, especially considering that shakharit services are at maximum an hour long. This unique concern about women is physiologically unfounded (though at least the Rabbis did not deny that women have intestinal gas), nor does it appear in the Talmud. (On the contrary, we learn from the gemara that flatulence from the lowliest of women can teach the most profound of lesson to even the worst sinners, leading to complete, exemplary Teshuvah, and even the title of “Rabbi” –Avodah Zarah 17A.) Anyway, the concern for flatulence is weak in light of other behaviors allowed for those wearing tefillin. Nechama Barash points out in the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education Lookjed Digest XVI:33 (sent this morning), we read of sages throughout Masekhet Berakhot entering the bathroom with their tefillin on. A Feldheim publication on the Laws of Tefillin by Lakewood Rabbi Shimon Eider, who received semichah from Rav Moshe Feinstein, writes that some posqim hold it is permissible to urinate while wearing tefillin in a temporary bathroom (a place where feces are not present, and it is not customary to defecate there; however, even according to Rabbi Eider, it is possible that modern–day bathrooms qualify as temporary bathrooms, presumably due to plumbing), and many posqim allow entering a permanent bathroom while tefillin-clad as long as it is not for bodily movements (all largely based on the Mishnah Brurah). While the Rambam prohibits urinating with tefillin due to the likelihood of flatulence, the fact that other posqim allow it despite the relaxation of muscles during urination that may lead to flatulence demonstrates the absurdity of barring women from wearing tefillin due to the possibility of flatulence.

It is also hard to make the argument that women should not wear tefillin based on the concern for their concentration, since, as my friend Yossi Quint pointed out to me (and I myself read in the Mishneh Torah), one is even allowed to take short naps while wearing Tefillin, despite Rava’s prohibition in Masekhet Shabbat. Furthermore, according to Rav Hirsch’s apologetics on women’s exemption from time-bound mitzvot, which you are fond of quoting, attests to women’s ‘innate higher religious and spiritual consciousness’ in respect to that of men; following that line of logic, women should be more mentally prepared than men to donn tefillin. Moreover, correct concentration is not only teachable; it is also, according to the Rambam and others, a PRODUCT of wearing Tefillin:

“The holiness of tefillin—it is a great holiness. The entire time that tefillin is on a person’s head, and on one’s arm, one is humble and God-fearing, and is not drawn to levity and idle chatter, and does not meditate over inappropriate thoughts, rather one’s heart is turned to matters of truth and righteousness.” (Hilchot Tefillin, 4:25-26). This, after all, is in consonance with the Biblical origins of tefillin as “oht” and “totafot,” signs and reminders.

If the concerns regarding flatulence and proper concentration were so acute, why do men today wear tefillin beyond the minimum requirement—Shema and Amidah (Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Haim 37:2)—without concern that they will lose concentration or pass intestinal gas during the rest of shakharit? Why do we encourage—nay, celebrate in school with donuts and speeches—boys’ donning of tefillin before they reach the age of bar-mitzvah, if tefillin should not be worn outside of the obligation, due to concerns of physical and mental states? Why does the Rambam instruct fathers to have their children don tefillin as soon as they are able to observe the mitzvah? Why did Rav Chaim of Volozhin relay the distress of his teacher, the Vilna Gaon, that Jews were not wearing tefillin all day? Why did he say that the Vilna Gaon would have traveled the world encouraging Jews to wear tefillin all day long, if he had the energy? Why do these only magically appear for women?

You also cite Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s after-the-fact rationalization (rationalization is not the right word; mysticization, or mystical apologetics); we know how dangerous it is to pasqin based on mysticism, and, logically, based on his argument, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan should allow a woman to don tefillin at any moment that a fetus is not growing inside of her. On the other hand, examining the verses we recite from Hosea 21-22 while wrapping the Tefillin on our arms, we notice that the recipient of God’s betrothal–“And I will betroth thee (v’erastikh) unto Me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee (v’erastikh) unto Me in righteousness, and in justice, and in lovingkindness, and in compassion. And I will betroth thee (v’erastikh) unto Me in faithfulness; and thou shalt know (v’yadat) the LORD”—is female, and would be an especially appropriate passage for women to recite while donning tefillin (Granted, gender in biblical Hebrew is fluid from an academic standpoint, but the derasha remains).

[It goes without saying, your remark about “behaviors that their parents and grandparents didn’t feel worthy to perform” is completely unfair; for how dare women today study Torah unlike some of their grandparents; how dare they receive a higher secular education than their grandparents etc.?]

Moreover, there are numerous reasons why women should be able to don tefillin, beyond the usual reward for perform non-obligatory mitzvot (as stated in the Sefer HaHinukh specifically about tefillin). Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, in Sefer HaKuzzri, writes magestically about the effect of wearing Tefillin on a person’s connection with the Divine; Menachot 44A connects Tefillin to long life; Kiddushin 35A states, “the entire Torah—all of it—is compared to tefillin”; Megillah 16B explains “Layehudim hayita ora v’simha v’sasson vikar” as a reference to tefillin, as tefillin is the fulfillment of the Biblical verse Numbers 28:10, “All the nations of the world will see that the name of God is called upon you and they will be in awe of you”; Bamidbar Rabbah 12:13 extrapolates from Tehillim 91:7 that a thousand angels come to guard one who wears tefillin from evil. (“Morasha Syllabus” on Tefillin) Can we ignore these explicit benefits in our halakhic discussion?

Due to the substantial support in the Halakhic sources for women donning tefillin, and considering the weakness and double-standard of the counterarguments, it is appropriate that you turned to a meta-halakhic principle to evaluate the issue. However, it is difficult for many of us to see how your understanding of yohara—religious hubris—applies to this case.

Eliana Fishman donned tefillin daily beginning in 7th grade, and did so privately at home before attending SAR. As she writes in the Forward, she missed school announcements, class celebrations, class jokes, and camaraderie, all in order to quietly, privately observe a commandment by herself that she had the right to voluntarily observe. How is this religious arrogance? At Ramaz High School, she was joined by Shifra Mincer (from a Modern Orthodox family), donning Tefillin quietly away from school at local synagogues, including Kehilath Jeshurun. When they were allowed to pray once a week with their female peers, they encountered taunts and belligerence from a handful of students and rabbinic faculty; they were labeled “lesbians.” Is a halakha-based practice, generally done in private, that garners scorn, derision, and despicable homophobic slurs when in public, considered yohara? Is the willingness to get up at 6:20 am every morning just to perform the mitzvah in order to comply with a school community’s norm (as the SAR young women, Ronit Morris and Yael Marans, have) considered public “religious hubris?” When Avigayil Halpern, a senior at the Modern Orthodox Hebrew High School of New England, donned tefillin only at home for months despite permission to do so in school, did she demonstrate “religious hubris?”

[In your facebook post this morning, you clarify that you were not intending to accuse these young women of religious hubris. However, your article can be read to imply such, given the original title and the tone of the column. I know you made some changes (such as adding the word “appearance” to the title) to reflect these clarifications. Still, knowing how mahmir you are regarding motzi shem ra, even inadvertently, I can only assume that you have privately apologized to the two girls at SAR, for unintentionally maligning them.]

While I, God forbid, do not doubt your holy intent and your wisdom, your selective application of “yohara” to this issue, in the face of so many other humrot in our community that violate communal norm, leads me to the concern that your halakhic argument will appear to some as setting a double-standard.

As my friend Avigayil Halpern demonstrates in her article on My Jewish Learning, women are often the objects of double-standards in criticisms of adopting voluntary mitzvot. Women are often scrutinized in halakhic teshuvot for possibly acting upon impure motives, yet this requirement is rarely applied to men. While you clarify in your follow-up facebook post that you never doubted the intent of these young women, your application of yohara, unfortunately, may be misconstrued as a tool used in the same vein.

For the two young women at SAR, their practice is in line with their family’s communities, and now it is in line with SAR’s policy, so where is the concern of yohara? And as for our community, how can you justify choosing tefillin for censure through yohara out of all the many other ways in which some people in our community deviate from the norm? Is a woman’s donning of tefillin, of which there is certainly impetus to do so, really the loudest violator of your value statement, “We seek to fit in and conform to the traditions and customs of the community without needing to make a personal statement through our superior practice”?

You argue that, “Rather than discuss women wearing tefillin, we should be discussing ways to inspire our young men to maintain a commitment to never miss a day of putting on tefillin, even if they struggle to find it meaningful or uplifting.” How ironic is it, then, by your own observation, that young men are struggling with the mitzvah of tefillin—a mitzvah they are encouraged to do through daily speeches in davening, through the daily role model of their fathers and teachers, through public celebrations when they first donn tefillin, using tefillin bought for them as an obvious bar-mitzvah gift? All the while there are some young women in our Modern Orthododox day schools and synagogue communities who demonstrate the utmost commitment to putting on tefillin and genuinely love the mitzvah, without any pomp-and-circumstance and despite the derision, name-calling, stereotyping? Young women who, according to their principal, “daven each and every day in a meaningful way wearing tefillin as an expression of Avodat Hashem”? Aren’t these the young women who we need as role models for our young men? It has worked on me: I have been more scrupulous, attentive, and appreciative of the mitzvah of tzizit ever since I learned of my friend Maya Rosen’s soon-to-open online women’s tzizit store. (If you would like more information about Maya’s store, email me at and I will connect you with Maya)

You write, “Rather than encouraging our young women to wear tefillin, we should be encouraging them to find expression and inspiration in the Torah’s prescription for femininity and womanhood.” Of course, but as DovBear points out, what is the Torah’s prescription for femininity and womanhood?

Do you mean the understanding of womanhood during the time of the Talmud?

Pesahim, 65A: “praiseworthy is the one whose children are male and woe unto the one whose children are female.”

Tosafot Pesakhim 4B, quoting the Yerushalmi: “…because women are lazy.”

Sotah 21B: “Whoever teaches his daughter Torah teaches her obscenity…He means that a woman prefers one kab with licentiousness to nine kab with continence.”

Talmud Yerushalmi Sotah 16A: “may the words of Torah be burned rather than transmitted to women.”

Sanhedrin 67A: “…the majority of women deal in witchcraft.”

Bereishit Rabba 45:5: “The Rabbis said: four traits are said about women: Gluttony, Laziness, Submission, Jealousy.”

Bereishit Rabba 17:8: “Why was woman given the commandment regarding nidah? Because she spilled the blood of Adam…Why was she given the mitzvah of Challah? Because she cursed Adam…Why was she given the commandment of lighting candles? Because she extinguished the soul of Adam.”

In 2009-2010 at Weinbaum Yeshiva High School, all the classes of male students (and one class of female students) studies the first few sugiyot of Masekhet Ketubot; the very possible conclusion a young student may draw from reading those pages is that the value of a young woman lies in her virginity.

We can rationalize each of these statements in their textual context or even historical context.

[In fact, I would say the Talmud and medieval commentators, imbued with the Divine Inspiration and exemplary Torah wisdom, trumpeted the value and honor of women more so than any contemporary document or belief system; meritoriously, the Rabbis were even cognizant of their own gender bias, as demonstrated by the midrash on the daughters of Selofekhad, Sifrei Numbers 27:1 – “G-d’s mercy is different from that of flesh-and-blood. Mortal man shows more mercy to males than to females. Yet He whose word brought the world into existence is not that way. Rather, He shows mercy to both male and female. He shows mercy to all, as it says, ‘His mercy is over all His works’ (Psalm 145:9).” ]

But do you suggest the young women of our community embrace this understanding of womanhood embodied in these (selective) Talmudic quotations?

Contrast this with our first encounter with woman in the Torah:

Genesis 1:27: “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.” (really, It and it)

Woman, Man; equals, created in God’s image.

According to my teacher Rabbi Dr. Zvi Grumet, based on Rashi and an analysis of other paired stories in Tanakh, this first creation story relates the ideal—the way the world was supposed to be; the second story, in which woman was created as a helper, was how it turned out.

The power of our heroines Esther, Yael, and Ruth, lay in their beauty and sexual appeal; all three of them had to allure men in order to achieve justice. Is this Jewish femininity? On the other hand, our matriarch Sarah “pasqin’ed a shaila” with a decision accepted by God over Abraham’s, while Deborah courageously led the nation during peacetime and war; should we not, then, expect the women of Israel to be religious judges, leaders, and Rabbis? Does Tanakh stand against the “Torah’s prescription for femininity and womanhood?”

You write in your follow-up facebook post, “Whether you agree or disagree with the policy or my response to it, I hope we can all agree that there are much bigger issues such as getting teenage boys to wear tefillin consistently and with meaning that we should be discussing.”

We can agree on this, but what is the “bigger issue” here?

The reason SAR’s tefillin policy garnered such excitement is because of the issue you avoided in your article—the exclusion of women from much of Jewish life.

Orthodox philosopher and public intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote in a paper “Emunah, Historia ve-Arakhim” in 1982 that, as told by Professor Tamar Ross, “the topic that is known as “the (status of) woman in Judaism” is more crucial to the future of Judaism than any of the unforeseen halakhic problems that have arisen as a result of the Jewish nation now having its own political state.  As he saw it, “avoidance of serious response to this issue endangers the very continuation of Torah and Mitzvah Judaism in our world.’”

In a world where women can be professors, scientists, authors, doctors, lawyers, athletes, judges, soldiers, and politicians in addition to mothers, women remain in Orthodox Judaism what outsiders would label second-class citizenship. As Orthodox thinker and philosophy professor Dr. Tamar Ross summarizes,

“It is not hard to see how a disinterested reader of the entire body of halakhic literature might come to the conclusion that the male is taken to be the representative Jew, with the role and value of women often defined and limited by male interests and considerations.  Women’s primary function emerges as that of enablers who merit vicariously through their husbands’ religious achievements.   Men are counted as part of the Edah; women are not.   Men acquire women in marriage and initiate divorce.   Men have greater obligations in the study of Torah and performance of Mitzvot  and for this reason their life takes precedence over that of a woman’s in most life-threatening situations.  Men possess greater rights and privileges than women in all matters of communal leadership and authority, are the official heads of their families, and normally the sole inheritors in property law.  Not only are women not the intended audience of halakhic stipulations and excluded from the public or communal arena; in practice they have also had no official part to play in the legislative and interpretive process.   Along with this distinction in status comes a whole set of background assumptions regarding the nature of masculinity and femininity and the way the two should ideally inter-relate.  A woman who functions in the modern world–even an Orthodox woman fully committed to halakhah, its non-egalitarian structure, and its view of the mother as nurturer of the family– cannot help but be struck by all of this.”

Given all this, and given the halakhic precedents for other options, there are Modern Orthodox men and women, fully committed to observant lives and the traditional community, who simply cannot tolerate the current treatment of women in common Orthodox practice. Some of these women turn to women’s tefilah groups; some of these men and women spend time studying together in co-ed batei midrash; some of these men and women form partnership minyanim. These men and women live in communities in Israel, in the United States, in the UK, and other countries; they are high school students, college students, semicha students, married men and women, and even elderly. Many Orthodox women are satisfied with their role in religious life and content with their current spiritual path, but it smacks of religious arrogance to assume that all are or can be.  As a young man encouraged by teachers and Rabbis to fulfill all time-bound mitzvot, as a full-fledged member of a minyan, and as someone who could potentially qualify for Orthodox semikha, I can never actually understand what religious life is like without these duties and privileges, and so I cannot encourage women to be satisfied with their role or to challenge it within the realm of halakha. All I can say is that many committed Modern Orthodox Jews, including myself, are concerned with the discrepancy between halakhic ideals, halakhic precedent, the spirit of the law, and reality on one side, and the more restricting halakhic practice on the other.

There are different ways to approach this challenge—a few are described by Egalitarian Halakhist Rabbi Ethan Tucker in an article posted a few hours ago on Times of Israel, but may not be appropriate for the Modern Orthodox community (others begin with the recognition of Tosafot’s statement as quoted in Meiri on Pesakhim 108A, that all modern day women are considered “important,” so all women should lean at the Passover Seder despite the earlier practice that only important women do).

However, failure to broach this topic with anything more than contrived apologetics is an embarrassment to Torah; for Torah is a tree of life–whose ways are pleasant—and not, God forbid, petrified wood.

I can only hope that you will choose to allow women to don tefillin at BRS (even if they will do so in the small box-like enclosure provided for them in the daily social-hall minyanim) if they so desire, because, in the words of Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, “we should be proud, as a Modern Orthodox community, that we recognize the sanctity and dignity of each person and we find ways to support their spiritual growth in different ways.”

And I can only hope that, in addition to carving out a physical space for these women in our shul, that you can find the space in your heart and mind—next to your shel-Yad and shel-Rosh—to seriously grapple with our current understanding of women’s roles in Jewish life, and to contribute to the actualization of God’s original creation—betzelem Elohim barah oto, zakhar un’kevah, barah otam.

With the utmost respect, admiration, and hakarat hatov for all that you do for our community and klal yisrael,

Joshua Zvi Stadlan