Women and Tefillin: Address It; Don’t Suppress It

Jewish law needn't bend to liberal trends, but we must still engage in debate with an attentive and respectful ear.

A lecture was given two weeks ago in Riverdale, New York. It was filmed and uploaded to YouTube. This article is nothing more than a plea for people to take the time out to watch it. But, in order to make that plea, I want to provide some context.

A couple of months ago, it was reported that a Modern Orthodox high school in New York allowed two of its female students to don tefillin (phylacteries) in morning prayers. The principals of the school, as far as I can ascertain, were not trying to create a halakhic (pertaining to Jewish law) innovation, encouraging all Orthodox girls to don tefillin, rather, two girls belonging to the Conservative movement happened to attend this Orthodox school, and, as is common practice in the Conservative movement, these two girls “have been committed to daily prayer with tefillin since their bat mitzvah,” and thus Rabbi Tully Harcsztark “felt it appropriate to create a space at [the school] for [prayer] that is meaningful for them.”

This decision sparked a veritable flood of condemnations, counter-condemnations, blog posts, edicts and the like – a good sample of which have been collated by morerthodoxy.com.

A related online brouhaha has to do with the permissibility of partnership minyanim. An Orthodox partnership minyan is a prayer group that intends to abide by Orthodox halakhot regarding prayer, whilst making as much room as the letter of the law allows for female participation and leadership. And thus, 10 men will still be required for the prayer quorum, but women will be allowed to lead certain segments of the service and to be called to the Torah.

Rabbi Gil Student raises the following concern with all of these liberal trends within the left of Orthodoxy: “Open [i.e. liberal] Orthodoxy has no poskim [authoritative legislators]. They let anyone with the title rabbi, and even those without the title, make groundbreaking halakhic innovations.” As somebody with a rabbinic title, I heed this concern. Just because I hold a piece of paper doesn’t put me on a level with the great halakhic authorities of this or any other age. The halakhic legislative process doesn't give each person an equal voice, for some are more qualified than others.

However, even though his concern is valid, I fear that it is actually being used as a stick to beat down dissent without engaging in real conversation. If I can say that you have no right to an opinion, then I needn’t go to the trouble of listening to your opinion, nor to the trouble of weighing up its merit, nor formulating a response. I can bypass all that bother if I just cut you out of the conversation. This attitude seems inimical to the spirit of the sages – to the virtue of loving your fellow Jew and to the virtue of learning from all people, and being open to accepting truth from wherever it comes. The halakha needn't bend to these liberal trends, but we must still listen to people with an attentive and respectful ear.

In a recent blog post against partnership minyanim, a prominent, learned and truly decent rabbi from London made just such an error. He tried to demonstrate that one of the “allegedly Orthodox founders and leading proponents” of partnership minyanim has said things that fall beyond the pale of Orthodox Judaism. This so-called heretic, the rabbi claims, “writes that the entire Mishna and Talmudic literature needs urgently to be subjected to a feminist critique… The entire halachic system, she claims, suffers from a deep male-bias which needs to be corrected and rewritten in the 21st century by the feminist ‘voice’ in order to achieve a truly balanced Torah…” The rabbi in question concludes that this is heresy, and therefore that partnership minyanim are infected by a similar heretical imperative.

I have two problems with this line of reasoning. Firstly, it’s not clear to me that the call for a feminist critique is inherently beyond the Orthodox pale. The great Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein argued in his “Leaves of Faith” that halakha is able to evolve ethically (or he is at least open to this possibility). Halakhic compromises were made in the past to accommodate the moral state of society (hence the one-time legality of slavery, polygamy, and capturing women in war), but as the ethical fiber of society improves, so may the halakhic system evolve to make more things incumbent upon us (hence the abolition of Jewish polygamy, for instance).

My second problem is that even if these views are heretical, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to them patiently, kindly and lovingly, before trying to answer them with all seriousness. By proving that a view is beyond the pale, does it exempt you from responding to it on its own merits?

This brings me to the ray of light in the story. Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of Riverdale sent his children to the school in question, SAR High School, and has been associated with it for many years. He delivered a lecture in his shul explaining his opposition to the tefillin policy, but at the same time he delivered a stunning master class in how to disagree with respect and love. Thankfully, the talk was uploaded to youtube. It’s not a short lecture, but it is well worth a listen, for at times one feels that one is listening to a prophetic voice.

If this whole ugly episode of internal Orthodox bickering gives us nothing more than this one lecture, then perhaps it was all worthwhile. For it seems as if the Jewish world at large has no ability to conduct its most important and burning debates with love and respect – lessons we can learn from Rabbi Rosenblatt’s master class.

So I conclude with Rabbi Rosenblatt’s closing words, in which he looks forward to a future where people conduct their debates under “the shared mandate of sanctity and dignity, so that Hashem will not only be proud of our conclusions, because of course, each side thinks that he’s right, but that he will also not be ashamed of the spirit in which we processed our disagreements."

Dr. Samuel Lebens, an Orthodox Rabbi, is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame.

Michal Fattal