Friday, August 14, 2015

A Response to Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Recently, Rabbi Mordechai Willig penned a highly controversial piece entitled Trampled Laws (  Disclaimer - I'm a relatively recent musmach of RIETS (2011) and have learned tremendous amounts from Rabbi Willig during my brief tenure in the rabbinate.  As an intern at the Beth Din of America, I witnessed Rabbi Willig serving in an active judicial role as Sgan Av Beit Din (something akin to Associate Justice second to the Chief Justice).  His scholarship, social awareness, common sense, and ability to actively, sensitively, and effectively apply Jewish law in constructive ways clearly designed to be comfortable to the recipients of his instruction were (and I'm sure still are) an admirable combination.  While studying in RIETS,  I had the absolute pleasure and merit of attending classes given by Rabbi Willig, where the breadth of his knowledge, clarity of presentation, involvement of students, and intellectual honesty in interpretation and application were hallmarks.  

Because these are the qualities I personally experienced and admire, I feel the need now to politely pen a response to this most recent essay, which fails to measure up to the excellent analysis I've come to expect.  To be quite clear, I respect Rabbi Willig immensely, do not claim to approach his level of halachic expertise, and am floored both by the quality and quantity of his dedication to the Jewish people.  So far as I've experienced, he's always welcomed dissent and counterargument in the hopes of helping to sharpen the truth.  In that spirit, I'd like humbly to respond in part:

At the crux of his argument, Rav Willig suggests a reinterpretation of our current approach to women's Torah study.  Though the Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, Mishneh Torah, and other classic sources all spoke negatively of teaching one's daughters Torah, particularly the intricacies of oral law, Rav Willig correctly notes how leading figures such as the Chofetz Chaim boldly asserted that this was not a categorical prohibition per se but rather timely advice as to the best path given then-extant social realities:

Those gedolim, guided by their yiras Shomayim as well as an absolute mastery of kol haTorah kulah, understood that in light of the weakened state of the mesorah from one generation to another in the twentieth century (ibid), talmud Torah for women was a necessity to, "implant pure faith in their hearts" (Rav Zalman Sorotzkin in Moznayim L'mishpat siman 42, etc.), and as such was entirely consistent with Chazal's mandate to provide the most productive chinuch for women. 

Rav Willig suggests a re-examination of those rulings given the great changes of modernity.  Truthfully, this first assertion is absolutely correct, and characteristic of the benefit of Rav Willig's general style of analysis.  Like his predecessors before him who reinterpreted the dicta of the Talmud in radically changed social circumstances, Rav Willig resists the temptation to pidgeon-hole halachic application, always seeking to re-examine and accurately apply rulings to modern circumstances.  In a world bereft of a Sanhedrin and centralized mechanisms for Jewish legislative correction, reapplication of halachic principles to changed circumstances is absolutely essential to the survival of a meaningful Jewish law system.  As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt''l was wont to explain, the art of pesikah, understanding a particular situation and applying the law accurately to that situation, is an essential component of rabbanus.

Times are entirely different.  The worldwide movement for women's suffrage was just gaining steam toward the end of the Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan's lifetime, and women had not substantially entered the workplace, institutions of higher education, or any of society's leadership structures.  Gender roles were largely bifurcated and fixed.  

Rabbi Willig asserts that, because of the rise of "feminism" and "egalitarianism" within even Orthodox circles, past approaches need to be peeled back, with a more restrictive role for women:

However, in the words of a "pioneer of the religious feminist wave" cited in the aforementioned article, "What is happening today is a direct continuation of the beginning of Talmud studies for religious women in the 1980's." This candid admission must, for the genuinely Orthodox, call into question the wisdom of these studies. Although there are ample reliable sources that encourage individual women who have proper yiras Shomayim and whose motives are consistent with our mesorah to further their Torah study[1], the inclusion of Talmud in curricula for all women in Modern Orthodox schools needs to be reevaluated. While the gedolim of the twentieth century saw Torah study to be a way to keep women close to our mesorah, an egalitarian attitude has colored some women's study of Talmud and led them to embrace and advocate egalitarian ideas and practices which are unacceptable to those very gedolim.    

I'd like to address these claims from both pragmatic and philosophical perspectives.  "Feminism," a movement which many even in modern Orthodox circles decry and a word many use pejoratively, is not in fact bad or anathema to Torah.  While there are many different strata and stripes of feminism, it is, at its root, a movement that has had profound and positive effects for (approximately) half of the world's population.  Feminism is about social, political, and economic equality for women.  The cause has manifested in successful advocacy for the right to women's suffrage, the right to work, the right to hold public office, the right to own property, maternity leave, laws against sexual slavery, child rape, spousal abuse, and a variety of other advancements.  

Many of us see feminism primarily as a kiyum (fulfillment) of the divine affirmation that we are created in the image of God.  These societal advancements can be seen (and are!) in religious terms as a fulfillment of the respect owed to infinitely valuable souls gifted to us for a short time by the blessed Creator, and representative of the development of societies' ethical sensitivities, something to be celebrated.  Efforts in this regard are part and parcel of the rabbinic notion of tikun haolam, the perfection of the world legislated through reforms designed to alleviate poverty and oppression throughout the Mishna and rabbinic literature.  More grandly, they represent the very essence of our partnership with Hashem in the advancing the work of creation and redemption.  

Moreover, we have a hard time accepting the consistency and cogency behind the arguments that posit feminism and egalitarianism as categorically negative or even evil.  After all, if you support women being politicians, doctors, lawyers, owning property, in a word, being fully autonomous beings and not mere subordinates, then how can people fairly assert that feminism is simply bad, case closed.  Run the thought experiment and take away the reforms of the feminist movement, and fairly tell me or anyone else that our wives or daughters would be better off (economically, spiritually, emotionally) under that regime.

Now, that's not to say that feminism and other largely positive developments haven't brought along a host of complicated challenges.  I trust that Rabbi Willig and others, out of a deep bona fide concern for mesorah, fear that seeming innovations and a new spirit threaten to upend that which we cherish.  Rabbi Willig and others (seemingly the majority of recent essays on the Cross Currents blog - have taken to criticizing trends of "postmodernism."

Now, I'm certainly not an expert on current postmodern trends, but do know well that postmodernism presents at least two major challenges (opportunities?) to the faith community.  First, postmodernism is characterized by a profound skepticism about truth, valuing instead narratives and perspectives.  This skepticism extends all the more so to claims of dogmatic or absolute truth, and results in a deep mistrust of organized religion and traditional frameworks.  While this is certainly a challenge to the received wisdom of our cherished tradition, the truth is there are many positives to the current thought trend, should we choose to take advantage of it.  a) "Elu v'elu divrei Elohim chayim - these opinions and those are all the words of the living God."  Why a living God?  Our earthly existence, unlike that of the unified Creator, is an existence of multiplicity and difference.  We're entirely accustomed to difference leading to discord; Judaism teaches that fundamentally, difference too is divine, not discordant.  God "lives" through our good faith passionate disagreements, and that these differing perspectives can all represent truth.  b)  Though critiqued, the Rambam's negative theology, whereby not only anthropomorphic descriptions of God but even anthropopathic descriptions of God were proscribed serves as a model.  Ultimately, if God is "kadosh," meaning utterly distinguished, there's nothing we can fairly say.  This reverence and humility can perhaps be seen as embodied in the practice of our treatment of sheimos, divine names.  We refuse to pronounce, under any circumstances, the Shem Havayah, the revered Tetragramaton, representing God's total otherness.  c)  Humility - all of this skepticism can lead to a profound humility about what we know and the development of personal humility of character.  Moshe Rabbeinu is singled out, according to the Torah, specifically because of his profound and unique humility, and it's a character trait that the Rambam suggested we ought to develop in excess; all of the others require balance and the golden mean.  In an era of narcissism gone wild and surreal selfie-style self-promotion (see the Donald Trump candidacy merely as the current  culmination of the disturbing trend), humility is the character trait the hour demands.

Secondly, postmodernism has been characterized by fluid less-rigid roles and structures.  This isn't only a product of postmodernism, but also of a more flexible economy whereby increasing numbers of people work remotely, from homes, coffee shops, or anywhere else, and automation and technological development has spurred an increase in the kinds and varieties of work that people do.  The fluidity of modern society results in more flexible family structures whereby roles are not normative but rather functional on individual levels.  It's not just that we have two-parent working families.  A dad might choose to stay at home or work part-time, if his job and temperament allow it, particularly if mom has a higher-paying or more reliable job with a large corporation.  Increasingly, people are happy to embrace the variety of choices present in a largely non-biased society, and do whatever works best for them.  

The benefits are obvious - rather than have ill-fitting roles foisted upon individuals because of their gender or other identity delineaters, we're able to expand the potential for human and family development by allowing individuals and families to create structures most suited to help them flourish.  Now, it's not all rosy.  A recent article in the New York Times highlighted that millenials aren't nearly as willing to shed traditional roles as they think they will be once they have families and children.  Also, the lack of predictability and ill-defined roles creates a new organizational challenge of role definition, and overcoming the associated chaos, stress, and lack of predictability.  Still, society has weighed in, and the market of humanity has, across cultures, chosen more fluid roles.  

It's this area which ostensibly poses the most overt challenge for traditional Judaism, which in  large part rests on the breakdown of gender roles as a rationale for the increased number of male religious requirements, particularly the time-bound ones.  This poses challenges not just for women, but for men as well.  For example, a man who chooses to stay at home and care for the children may have a harder time being able  to fulfill his requirement to attend the daily minyan or fulfill other time bound positive precepts.  Recently, a congregant suggested to me that the legal mechanisms for dealing with these new realities already exist in the halachic system, notions such as osek min hamitzvah patur min hamitzvah, someone who is engaged in a commandment is exempt from others, and the like, and that we merely need leadership and good faith reverent application of the laws on the books.  Perhaps.  A full discussion of this is beyond the scope of what I'd like to discuss in this piece.  

Most importantly, just as the sages of the early twentieth century adapted to a situation whereby women's roles were changing, Rabbi Willig's absolutely correct that postmodern trends require reevaluation of womens' roles.  However, the nature of that reevaluation must be based on current social realities, so as to insure the survival of the mesorah  we all value so deeply and its wise application to modern times.  Of course, the changes can't themselves be in violation of the tradition, as this would prima facie represent a destruction, not preservation of the tradition.  This will mean that, for example, where halacha permits, we will need to see more fluidity, based on particular individual needs and circumstances, in the nature of gender roles in our community.  A return to roles of the 19th century is, in this respect, unhelpful in addressing the current reality. Since many mainstream authorities permit, in theory, the notion that women can have a heter hora'ah, permission to rule on legal questions, if qualified, opportunities for training and leadership will become normative and ought to be afforded.  Unlike some others who support women's "ordination", I don't believe it's a radical change at all, or that members of a traditional faith community should be engaged in radical change altogether, but rather a modern application of traditional and absolutely halachic norms.  This is just one example, though, of a wider trend of more fluid roles.  For another example, note the number of "Rebbitzens" who, due to full time workloads and a variety of diverse responsibilities, eschew the traditional role of being a semi-official synagogue staff members.               

To close, a word on methodology of argumentation.  Lately, many critical pieces employ logical fallacies in the effort to persuade (not intentionally, but in their effort at good faith persuasion), particularly the straw-man fallacy and the fallacy of poisoning the well.  Briefly, the straw-man is a fallacy whereby a caricatured and easily combustible version of the opponent's argument is posited for easy burning; really good argumentation (like the highly complex and brilliant argumentation comprising the Talmud) seeks to assert the strongest version of an opponent's claims, note the weaknesses of one's own arguments, and arrive at a modified but stronger end point.  For an example of this, there is the trend of calling Orthodox believing religiously pious  Rabbis and lay individuals alike "neoconservative."  They're not (go to their synagogues and they're distinctly Orthodox), and though their might be some overlap, the social realities suggest the comparison is not particularly accurate or useful, broadly speaking.  Large communities of halachically observant Jews who favor legally permissible women's ordination (or certainly arguably legal), for example, are legally and socially observant in ways that neither Orthodox or Conservative congregations were during much of the 20th century.   Along with this, the notion and intimation that feminists are seeking to uproot religious tradition and that the line from feminism to heresy can easily be drawn posits and unfair picture of religiously passionate and pious women. 

Poisoning the well is a technique whereby a host of presumed negative information (usually not sufficiently nuanced either) is introduced at the outset to bias readers against a person or group preemptively.  From a religious perspective, this also cuts against the notion that we ought to try and judge each other favorably, perhaps especially when we disagree.  Many articles contain a host of links, trying to inflame by citing all of the most controversial innovations, usually out of context, in an effort to delegitimitize or frame speakers before a reader has had an opportunity to frame opinions.  Ultimately, this distracts from the merits of  a particular argument, and causes unnecessary animosity.

Lastly, a plea.  Pious Jews seeking new roles for women are merely trying to take part in the natural evolution of tradition, but a tradition it remains to them as well.  They're seeking to preserve it within legally acceptable parameters, not as a compromise but ideally, and as part of traditionally religious imperatives in authentic if new ways.  Moreover, the great changes of modern times call for traditionally rooted solutions and evolutions to preserve our great faith.  Though the times present challenges, they also present opportunities.  It's my hope that the sages and great scholars of this generation, like Rabbi Willig, will address the challenges in constructive ways that make sense for our generation.  Like predecessors before, this will require courage and creativity, rooted in yiras shamayim and scholarship.  People aren't seeking to trample laws, but to observe them and preserve them more broadly.  This should be celebrated and assisted, not fought.    

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