More on Orthodox Feminism…

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman’s critique of Orthodox Jewish feminism reflects a passion for Torah and tradition.  The passion, however, allows inherited culture tradition to overwhelm Oral Law covenantal Tradition.

Rabbi Feldman is unhappy with the Orthodox feminist quest for “rights.”  He contends that Judaism does not believe in rights, or what in Israeli Hebrew are called zechuyot.  Rabbinic Hebrew, it is true, does not speak of zechuyot, but uses an alternative idiom called reshut, or permission.  One does have a right to do what is permitted.  Laws oblige, forbid, and when silent, permit or authorize.  One has a right to do what is not forbidden.   Rambam, in his Code’s introduction, makes this point.  When Orthodoxy’s leaders speak about of obligations, but not rights, they not only misrepresent the Tradition, they also discourage many outsiders from exploring Torah, which seems so distant, forbidding, and unwelcoming. … Our mixed signals to the non-Orthodox community, and the resentment it occasionally engenders, can be avoided if we commit ourselves to a consistent reading of Tradition’s texts, without the spin of social and historical conditioning, and apply the values encoded therein to our lives.

Rabbi Feldman believes that Orthodox-affiliated feminists are assaulting “halachic ramparts” and their yearnings to “echo contemporary society.”  If and when these feminists violate explicit Talmudic statute, I will join Rabbi Feldman in condemning them.  “Contemporary society,” however, is not a heftsa shel issur, (a prohibited object or category) according to our classical codes.  “Contemporary society” is a cultural taboo for those elements within Orthodoxy that associate modernity with secularity.

There are values in contemporary society that are good, and values that are bad. Women working outside of the home is part of the modern world, but not the world of our great-grandmothers.  The “traditional Jewish mother” in Europe was not the wife [of today] who manages a household and, at the same time, works outside of the home so that her husband might one day be a great Torah sage, after sitting many years in kollel.  Changes in lifestyle are not necessarily changes in Jewish law.  God’s will is ultimately expressed in that which is commanded, and not that which happens to be culturally familiar.

Rabbi Feldman is saddened that the issue of tzniut, or modesty, is not mentioned by Orthodox feminists.  The modesty rules that oblige are defined in the Shulchan Aruch. The modesty that is defined by convention is not necessarily mandated by Torah law.  It is not an act of immodesty to ask for the right to do what by law one is permitted to do.

Rabbi Feldman complains that women should not serve God by behaving like men.  But when women recite blessings before observing time-bound rituals, like lulav, they are doing precisely what men are obliged to do.  If women are forbidden by law to do what men do, why would Tosafot permit women not only to perform the lulav rite, but to recite the commandment blessing as well?  Rabbi Feldman is impatient with women who want to observe aufruff or shalom nekevot in some fashion.  But these rites, like kapporot, tashlich, and upsheiren, are not mandated by God or by the rabbis authorized by God in the Sanhedrin to legislate Torah law.  Men are not serving God any more than are women by observing these rites.  I suspect that Rabbi Feldman’s ultimate source of Jewish piety and propriety is the culture of his teachers, and not the letter of the law. …

Rabbi Feldman wonders why Orthodox feminists never consult with “world-class poskim,” or decisors.  Those poskim recognized by Rabbi Feldman view the feminist quest to be ideologically improper.  What at first appears to be an appeal to dispassionate learning and expertise, is ultimately an appeal to the authority of people who are not really strict constructionists of Torah law, but in fact are social conservatives in Torah law application.

Rabbis Frimer and Frimer, [“Women’s Prayer Services: Theory and Practice, Tradition 32:2, 1998] Rav Avraham Shapira and Rav Nahurn Rabinovich, who are non-Chareidi authorities, were not nearly as negative regarding allowing women to observe what the law allows as is Rabbi Feldman.  If world-class poskim are able to refute the dispensations of Rabbis Shapira and Rabinovich on the basis of strict constructionist law rather than social policy, I look forward to reading their words.

The Torah community must define its identity by forbidding the forbidden.  It must have the courage, compassion, and religious integrity to allow open discussion regarding the permitting of what is reshut (permitted by Talmudic law).  While I can accept restrictions based on policy, I cannot accept the presentation of subjective religious policy of anyone to be binding universal Jewish law.  Only a beit din hagadol may make such rulings.  A perfect Torah may not be diminished by a policy-driven presentation.

Rabbi Alan J. Yuter

Congregation Israel, Springfield, New Jersey

Touro College


Rabbi Emanuel Feldman responds:

Because Rabbi Yuter touches on a broad variety of subjects, I will address his comments seriatim:  When I wrote about the difference between rights and obligations, I was simply pointing out that Orthodox feminists should be careful not to echo the rhetoric of the secular feminist quest for rights.  In Judaism, the focus is not on rights but on obligations.  Rabbi Yuter does not need me to tell him that this is the meaning of the famous incident in which God held Mt. Sinai over the people of Israel and threatened to bury them unless they accepted the Torah  (Shabbat 88a).  The intent was to teach us that Torah and mitzvot are obligations, not options or rights.  That Rabbi Yuter can say that such a classic Jewish concept “misprepresents the tradition” is quite surprising.  In another surprising statement, Rabbi Yuter writes that, “one has a right to do that which is not forbidden.”  Here too, he is as familiar as anyone with Ramban’s famous comment in Leviticus 19, about the naval bireshut HaTorah.  Ramban writes that the fact that something is not expressly forbidden by Torah is not an indication that it is permitted.  He warns about those who violate the spirit of the Torah and then challenge anyone to show them where the Torah explicitly forbids what they are doing.  Rabbi Yuter’s words here lend themselves to all kinds of ambiguity.

As for making Orthodoxy appear “distant and forbidding,” let us have no fear.  Anyone exposed to Orthodoxy knows that there is no contradiction between a way of life that makes demands and obligates, and a way of life that is simultaneously warm, welcoming, and suffused with vitality and joy.  A Torah that obligates and offers clear dos and don’ts is precisely what has attracted — and not repelled — the many thousands of returnees from today’s “anything-goes” world.

     The attempt to cast me into an anti-female mold is amusing.  A person who writes positively of “women who seek a deeper attachment to the Creator…”; who praises “the exemplary desire of Jewish women to reach out for more connectedness to their Creator”; and speaks approvingly of women’s “inchoate yearnings for closeness to God” (direct citations from my article) cannot be pigeonholed as someone who is suspicious of women’s motivations.

    Rabbi Yuter reads several ideas into my essay that are not there: a) Nowhere did I write that contemporary society is prohibited or taboo.  What I did write was that Orthodox feminism must be careful not to echo subliminally the negative values of contemporary secular feminism. b) Similarly, nowhere did I write that it is immodest to ask for the right to do what one is permitted to do.  I did suggest it is time for serious discussions of modesty/tzniut to be placed on the Orthodox feminist agenda – and not just modesty in clothing, but also modesty in speech and attitudes. c) Nowhere did I write that ” women are forbidden by law to do what men do.”  I did point out that a certain mimicry of men is being encouraged by some Orthodox feminist leaders — the groom encircling the bride just like the bride encircles the groom; the bride placing a tallit over the groom’s head just like the groom places the veil over the bride, etc.  Such “me-too” proposals are gimmicks that do no honor to women who seek to relate as women to their Creator.  To compare such silliness to women reciting a brachah over the lulav and etrog is to confuse passing fads with eternity.

As for the accusation that I follow my teachers and not the letter of the law:  I plead guilty. I assume that, like all good Jews, Rabbi Yuter would also plead guilty and that he, too, follows his teachers and not simply the letter of the law.  Surely he does not mean to preach a kind of modern Sadducee-ism, for he knows that the entire basis of Judaism is the Oral Tradition taught by qualified teachers.  We all believe that no Jew can plumb the depths of the “letter of the law” without the benefit of a qualified teacher’s tradition.

As for by-passing rabbinic decisors:  I had suggested that to pick and choose only those halachic decisors who are known to be sympathetic to feminism is to short-circuit the halachic process. Halachic fealty includes submitting to recognized rabbinic authority — not just authorities whose sympathetic views are known in advance, but to universally recognized world-class authorities, whether they be labeled rightists or centrists.

We are blessed with towering Talmudic and halachic masters who are recognized in all circles as brilliant and profound authorities in Jewish law.  If such individuals, in Rabbi Yuter’s words, “view the feminist quest to be ideologically improper,” should not that in itself give pause to objective people?  To paint the issue, as Rabbi Yuter attempts to do, in terms of strict vs. loose constructionists is to avoid looking at the issues squarely.

The citation of the Frimer article in Tradition is disingenuous.  That article was a thorough analysis and review of the sources dealing with women’ prayer issues; the authors explicitly did not intend it to be viewed as a halachic responsum.  The other rabbis cited by Rabbi Yuter can speak for themselves and do not require interpreters.

    The differences between halachic decisions that are social policy and decisions that are “strict constructionist law” elude me.  We ask poskim a question of Jewish law and practice, with the understanding that we obligate ourselves to follow the responses. They respond with their considered opinion, based on previous decisions, precedents and responsa.  For anyone then to weaken such responsa by labeling them “social policy,” and to discount the opinions of world-class poskim because their halachic decisions are “policy driven” and therefore “not binding” is itself a highly questionable stance that does no justice to the halachic process.

Incidentally, Rabbi Yuter himself unwittingly confirms my sense that world-class decisors are in fact by-passed by Orthodox feminists.  He justifies this because, he says, those decisors who disagree with the feminist world-view are merely “social conservatives.”

I fully agree about having open discussion.  My article was intended to begin a serious discussion about the direction of Orthodox feminism.  I raise certain issues that Rabbi Yuter does not address  — that Orthodox feminism may unwittingly be drifting toward a kind of non-Orthodox Judaism; that it needs to sensitize itself to the subtle inroads of secular feminism; that it expends precious energies on “me-too” mimicry of men; that it tends to sidestep the halachic process by ignoring world-class decisors who, they suspect, will not side with them.  These points are not from Sinai, but they are in my view legitimate concerns.

I am flattered that Rabbi Yuter describes me as passionate, but the issues still await a discussion that is passionate, unambiguous and unemotional.

This article was featured in the Fall 2000 issue of Jewish Action.