Monday, January 27, 2014

A Wise and Thoughtful Orthodox Response to Two Women Wearing Tefillin

Rabbi Harcsztark is the principal of SAR Academy in New York, a Modern Orthodox high school. He has permitted two young women whose own practice was to wear tefillin while davening to do so in the school minyan. This prompted the usual and predicable responses. Right-wing commentators explained that the sky is now falling.  The next thing ya know, boys will be cross-dressing and eating treif, while guitar-strumming tambourine-clanging lesbians will be leading the davening. Left-wing commentators agree, argue that this is all good, but claim that we need more. All women should be permitted to wear tefillin to help break down the hegemony of a male-dominated hierarchy.  Or something like that. I try not to read this stuff. But what few people have focused on is the subtlety and wisdom of Rabbi Harcsztark's actual decision. Rather than engaging in broader culture wars, he focused -- oddly enough -- on the welfare of these two young women and his school community.

Rabbi Harcsztark wrote a detailed letter explaining his decision. It is worth reading. He begins by noting that these young women have a real and demonstrated commitment to wearing tefillin as part of their davening, and that his focus is on their welfare and the halacha, not the broader political issues:

Both students, in their respective ways, have shown real commitment to this mitzvah. Since their bat mitzvah, they have been taught, in accordance with their family practice, to daven each day with tefillin. For me, this was a question of whether I could allow a young woman to practice as she had been taught - to daven each and every day in a meaningful way wearing tefillin as an expression of her עבודת השם. I felt that my responsibility was to consider the person before me and the halakha, before considering the political fallout of the decision.

Shocking.  He then explained that (1) halacha permitted but did not require women to wear tefillin, and (2) it was not the school's practice for women to wear tefillin. But he then permitted it for these women in this context.
As such, I granted the two girls permission in the context - in a tefilah setting - of a group of girls who were supportive of their practice. I felt it appropriate to create space at SAR for them to daven meaningfully. I explained this to our students in this way: it is a halakhically legitimate position despite it not being our common communal practice.

But this ruling is limited:
I did not, in so doing, create new policy nor invite any female student who wanted to don tefillin to do so. These are girls who, I believe, have been מוסר נפש (for a teen to get up at 6:20 each morning is meaningful commitment) for this מצוה.

He then spoke with each grade, emphasized that this was not a practice he was promoting or advocating, but was committed to not excluding people with different but halachically permitted practices.
I told my students (and I went to each of our four grades for a community meeting to explain the decision - as well as giving two faculty shiurim for staff) that I am not committed to the idea of SAR girls putting on tefillin. I am not encouraging our girls to do so. But I am committed to having our boys and girls be able to daven in the same shul where a woman might be doing so. That when they see something different, even controversial, before deciding in which denomination it belongs, they must first take a serious look at the halakha and ask their Rabbi whether there is basis for such practice. I suspect that I would not differ much regarding normative halakha with most people in our community. But I would differ strongly with someone who thought this was cause for that person to be removed from the community - or that such practice could not be supported within the community shul.

I'm a little puzzled by the controversy. Rabbi Harcsztark's decision was narrow and nuanced. His ruling fell within the four corners of traditional halacha, but he permitted these two young women to deviate from his community's traditional practice for the benefit of their spiritual development and the continuation of their family practice. He based his ruling on his own specific and detailed knowledge of them and of his community.

The narrowness of the ruling seems to me to be quite prudent and quite appropriate, and its hard to think of this as the camel's nose under the tent. I don't see how this controversy is any different than a rabbi making a lenient ruling for a particular family regarding (say) the kashrut of a chicken or family purity or sukkah walls when someone else might reasonably disagree and make a stricter ruling.

Interestingly, another Modern Orthodox high school, Shalhevet in Los Angeles, was confronted with a similar issue. A female prospective student asked Rabbi Segal, the head of school, if she would be permitted to continue her practice of wearing tefillin at school davening. He considered her request, and after reviewing the relevant halachic literature and consulting with his rabbis, he ultimately decided not to permit this, but would allow her to daven at a nearby synagogue or at home instead.

Rabbi Segal, like Rabbi Harcsztark, reached a different conclusion. But he did so with regard to his community, although it looks like he had much less knowledge about the particular young woman and her own practice. (She was a prospective student, and he presumably did not have a longstanding rabbi-pupil relationship with her.) At a different time and with a different student, perhaps he would reach a different conclusion, just as Rabbi Harcsztark would presumably reach a different conclusion with different students.  Apart from the members of the particular school communities, I don't think the actual decisions require comments from outsiders, any more than than a decision about the kashrut of a particular chicken requires comments from outsiders.

The more important related issue for me -- and other non-Orthodox Jews -- is how can we encourage people to wear tefillin in the first place, not how to we discourage a subset of people who find it meaningful from doing so. Tefillin is a very strange mitzvah, and I find it both odd and brilliant that the Chabad Rebbe picked it as the mitzvah to focus on in Chabad's outreach programs.

This topic is timely.  Yesterday, I taught my my 12 1/2 year old son how to put on his new tefillin. And this coming Sunday, February 2, 2014, is the Conservative Judaism's World Wide Wrap, a day where many Conservative synagogues have some sort of event teaching about tefillin. I'm going to mine.  I would encourage anyone interested to attend and learn about tefillin.

I don't have any great insights into tefillin. For better info, google around or go to a World Wide Wrap event on Sunday. But I do have one less-than-great thought regarding the oddity of tefillin. When you put them on, you look like a deranged Martian, with boxes and straps and knots and all sorts of crazy things. There's no getting around that. But just go with it. Once you accept that fact, it makes it a lot easier to get past the oddness and focus on the mitzvah itself. It's even pretty cool


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Important Tu B'Shevat Update

My wife just made what is perhaps one of the most important halachic rulings ever. Since chocolate is made from cacao beans, which grow on cacao trees, one should have chocolate on Tu B'Shevat. This insight could singlehandedly revitalize Judaism.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Demise of Non-Religious Judaism, As Explained 60 Years Ago

In 2013, the Pew Report showed that Jews who identify as non-religious Jews tended to have children or grandchildren that did not identify as Jews as all.  This was similar to the findings of the NJPS in 1990 and 2000-2001 about "cultural Jews."

About 60 years ago, Rabbi Jacob Agus argued against a similar cultural conception of Judaism.  His observations were astute and prescient.  Agus was looking forward, while the Pew Report and NJPSs were looking backward, but their conclusions are the same.  And Agus's sharp writing is well worth reading today.

Here's the context. One hot topic then, as it is now, is why should a Jew follow halacha, or Jewish law.  Orthodox Judaism has a simple answer:  mitzvot are literally God's divine commands.  Following halacha is literally following God's will.  Reform Judaism (which defines itself as a non-halachic movement) also has a simple answer:  one shouldn't.  Or more precisely, one should follow general ethical rules because they are applicable to everyone, and Jewish ritual rules only if they are personally important or meaningful.  In either case, halacha might be interesting or informative, but is not binding.  Both movements easily answer the question.

But Conservative Judaism has no such simple answer.  Unlike the Orthodox, most Conservative thinkers accept the conclusions of modern historical, textual, and archeological research and do not believe that the Torah and the oral law are literally words from God.  And unlike the Reform, they do claim that halacha -- liberally interpreted -- is binding.  These two claims present an interesting theoretical issue.  If halacha is not a literal divine command, why should it be followed at all?  In the words of the great thinker HaGaon HaRav HadGadol HaDor Ricky Ricardo, "Luuuuuucy, you got a lot of explainin' to do."

A lot of Conservative thinkers have written about this issue, with varying degrees of persuasiveness.  Rabbi Elliot Dorff has compiled the writing of many of these thinkers from the past 100 years or so in a fascinating book called The Unfolding Tradition:  Jewish Law After Sinai.  (Page citations here are to this book.)  Most of the writers are Conservative, but he also included excerpts from writers who are Reform, Orthodox, and other.  There is a lot worth discussing in this book, and I will be blogging about it in upcoming posts.  But let me start with Jacob Agus's insight.

Agus was responding to Mordecai Kaplan, who had argued that people of any society engage in the "folkways" of that society to remain as members of that society.  And Jewish law is simply one of the folkways of the Jewish people.  It is just what Jews do.  They keep kosher, and go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, and put on tefillin, etc.  And Jews, to remain Jews, should follow these folkways.

There is much to criticize in Kaplan's justification for obeying halacha and doing mitzvot, but Jacob Agus offered a particularly powerful, insightful, and dead-on accurate critique.  Agus first noted that the term "folkways" seemed both romantic and scientific, but was actually a particularly bland and sterile way of thinking about Jewish law.

The term "folkway" evokes the romantic admiration for plain people . . . . It is idyllic, almost pastoral in its connotations, redolent of fields and forests, of pre-citified, even if not of pre-civilized existence.  But, even while it thus echoes the cravings of romantic nationalist, it seems to speak in the scientific accents of the anthropologist . . . and the modern American sociologist . . . . (pp. 164-165).

[T]he term 'folkways' can hardly be regarded as offering an adequate concept of Jewish law in our life.  . . . [A]s a contemporary philosophy, it is sadly inadequate.  Primarily, it lacks the moral quality which alone evokes a sense of obligation and feeling of consecration." (p. 165.)

Agus then argues that Kaplan's claim reduces to simply following the past for its own sake, and this is simply misguided nostalgia.

Why should we strive with might and main to preserve folkways?  Their importance is supposed to reside in their inherent appeal and charm, not in any axiomatic claim to loyalty.  Is the nostalgic reverence for parental practice to be glorified as an absolute imperative?  Such a consummation would indeed offer a strange climax to the great adventure of Judaism, which began with a revolt against established customs and parental mores, as expressed in the command given to Abraham, "Go, thou, from thy land, the place where thou wast born and from the house of thy fathers."  (p. 165.)

This is just foolishness.

[This] would be interpreted as the senseless stubbornness of a clannish people, fanatically isolating itself from the ways of the world, forebearing all mundane goods and spiritual values for the sake of mere tribal customs.  Is the ardor of tribalism so beautiful a phenomenon, when we observe it among backward people of the globe, that we should be tempted to reinterpret the Jewish past or reconstruct the Jewish present by means of it?  If today, we should see a people tenaciously clinging to its folkways to the point of sacrificing fortune, well-being and even life itself, in an environment where larger horizons, broader loyalties, and a fuller life is possible, we should unhesitatingly condemn them as being both monstrously foolish and bitterly reactionary. (p. 165.)
And the kicker, anticipating the Pew Report by more than 60 years.

The idea of clinging tenaciously to folkways, regardless of their intrinsic charm and worth, could only appeal to a transitional generation that lost the purpose but retained the sentiment of group survival, remaining, for no good reason that it could give, morbidly sensitive to the specter of the melting pot. . . . [W]hy should we expect our children, who are likely to outstrip us in worldly wisdom, to fall victims to these delusions.  (pp. 165-166, emphasis added.)

Ouch.  That's not just good writing; it's exactly what happened.  The Jews who practiced non-religious Judaism in the 1940s and 1950s were indeed a "transitional generation that lost the purpose" of Judaism.  They disproportionately had children who lacked their "sentiment of group survival," and they in turn had children who disproportionately did not identify as Jews at all.  Agus's rebuttal to Kaplan described the next 60 years of the American Jewish experience.

As I have argued earlier and earlier than that and even earlier that that, I think the key insight of the Pew Report and earlier NJPSs is that cultural and non-religious Judaism are on their way out.  Jewish culture, without its connection to Judaism as a religion, is disappearing.  Jewish culture is certainly changing American culture; cute Yiddish expressions and delis and Seinfeld have all become mainstream staples of American culture, just as many other cultures have effected American culture.  But only a religious Judaism (orthodox or heterodox) can survive as a separate institution in the long run.

I will be blogging about the ideas of some of the thinkers in Dorff's book in upcoming posts, as well as some of my ideas, regarding this religious understanding of Judaism.  Stay tuned . . . .