May 17, 2024
Close this search box.
Close this search box.
May 17, 2024
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

New Circumstances Demand New Halachic Views: A Response to Rabbi Mordechai Willig

The recent piece (“Trampled Laws,” originally published by and reprinted by the Jewish Link on August 13, 2015) by Rabbi Mordechai Willig, which lamented Open Orthodoxy and traced its rise back to the revolution in women’s Torah study over the past decades, is worthy of serious thought from numerous perspectives. Here we would like to offer three comments on the piece: on Rabbi Willig’s consistent thought over the years, on what the piece has to say about the intersection of social realities and halachic decision-making, and on what the position staked by Rabbi Willig tells us about the landscape of Yeshiva University.

Rabbi Willig’s consistency

In one sense, there is little that is surprising in Rabbi Willig’s piece. Rabbi Willig has long been—and we use this term descriptively, not judgmentally—reactionary. In reaction to developments in one direction, he has advocated strong movements in the opposite direction. He also has a very strong sense of the slippery slope, arguing that any step that is allowed leads ineluctably to more, until the starting point is no longer visible from the new position.

In Rabbi Willig’s shul, the tefilla li-shlom ha-medina is not recited. He explains that this is not in opposition to the religious value of the State of Israel, but rather because we cannot risk altering the form and structure of the liturgy: once that is altered, what is to prevent modernizers from altering it further? A version of the ketubah that is utilized by some members of the YU community, written to accord with Aramaic grammar and based entirely on medieval versions, is rejected by Rabbi Willig on similar grounds: if we tinker with the formulations in the ketubah at all, what is to prevent someone from inserting the names of the mother of the groom and the mother of the bride?

What, indeed?

It should be clear to anyone with a sense of history that there is great irony in both of these examples. The shul does recite the Kabbalat Shabbat, an early modern innovation, for example, and the formulas of the ketubah were quite fluid for many centuries, and still are in many communities. So the focal point of Rabbi Willig’s worldview—the point from which all begins and against which all innovations are measured—is not the time of Tanach or even of Chazal, not the Middle Ages and not the early modern period. It is, instead, the relatively recent past, perhaps including 19th-century Eastern Europe but focused primarily on mid-20th-century United States. Interestingly, when Rabbi Willig really did innovate, as in the introduction of the prenuptial agreement, he argued that the practice was rooted in centuries-old precedent.

It is in this context that one can understand his position and rhetoric in a talk last year, addressing the question of a child of same-sex parents who is applying to an Orthodox day school. Rabbi Willig reported that he told the school not to accept the child, because, “we have to consider the [idea of the] family.” Having such a child in the school would inevitably raise questions for the child’s classmates, and these are questions best avoided if possible. (Where should the child go to school? This was never addressed.) The cultural impulse towards acceptance had to be rejected: “It’s all part of the new world we live in: new technology, new morality, new everything. … Gimme the old time religion! … Get me back to Har Sinai.”

Of course it is true that there were no children of same-sex couple in the cheders of the 19th-century, or in the Spanish schools of the Middle Ages, or the academies of Byzantine Palestine. But the immediate impetus for his position is clearly the reification of the 1950s stereotypical American family, in which the father worked at a profession and the mother raised the kids (and it makes no difference right now what percentage of families were actually structured this way). Rabbi Willig is certainly not advocating a return to a biblical economy, in which the woman worked incredibly hard in the fields, or Rashi’s France, for example, where women worked the vines, rented the land, took care of the sheep and cows, and were market traders and midwives to boot. No, the model is the one taken from mid-century America, endowed now with the sanctity of religion, and thus enshrined as eternally unchangeable and timelessly valuable.

Changing psak with changing times

The second point to make is that as a number of people observed, Rabbi Willig’s position here is radically different from the position of his teacher, Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik z”l, who famously delivered the inaugural Talmud shiur to women at Stern College more than 40 years ago. According to Rabbi Kenneth Brander, “Rabbi Soloveitchik really launched the entire notion of teaching Talmud to women and for women to be able to receive a Jewish education on the highest level.” It is also radically different from the position of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l, who wrote, “If we speak of the ability to learn a page of Talmud, to understand it and enjoy it, then I see no reason not to educate girls to these goals. Indeed, there is a need to establish this as an integral part of the school curriculum … And that seems to me to be the recommended road for our generation’s girls.”

More importantly, this position is radically different from the position Rabbi Willig himself took many decades ago. Rabbi Willig attended Rabbi Soloveitchik’s inaugural shiur at Stern College, and after that lecture, the first regular Talmud class for women was offered by Rabbi Willig himself. Of course, many educators know that they may find themselves teaching a class they would never have asked for, or in a context they wouldn’t have wished for, for practical reasons. And, of course, if his own teacher supported it, it would have been hard to resist no matter what he felt. Still, it is difficult to imagine that Rabbi Willig at the time was opposed to Talmud study for women. And indeed, some of his admirers have called this an “about face” and a “dramatic change.”

This sort of reevaluation should be applauded. It is a travesty of modern political culture that a public figure who changes her mind on an important issue is accused of “flip-flopping,” instead of, as is often the case, continuing to learn and think about a topic and sometimes realizing that an earlier position was wrong. Sometimes, too, this comes as the result of new information or new developments, and someone who insists on holding on to the same position despite new information is truly dishonest. So Rabbi Willig’s willingness to reevaluate a position he once held is to be applauded.

It should equally be applauded when other halachic poskim change their views, or diverge from the community’s earlier-held views, in other directions. Rabbi Willig’s call for a “reevaluation” says this: the world is constantly changing. To rely blindly on rulings from past generations, or even from earlier in this very generation, would be foolish. Of course, the direction in which Rabbi Willig changes, and the direction in which other poskim may change will be different. But Rabbi Willig’s about-face makes clear that new circumstances demand new halachic positions.

It should be noted that in this case, the specific decision reached is based on a particular sociological claim: women’s Talmud study led to an erosion of gender hierarchies and to the erosion of norms regarding women’s social and religious roles and homosexuality. His sociological analysis is somewhat shallow, however, if not entirely misguided. If one needs a short summary of the massive upheavals of the past half century, it would be better to say, broad cultural trends with deep roots have led to deep-seated egalitarianism and tolerance in large swaths of the Modern Orthodox community in recent decades, leading to, among other things, women’s Talmud study, changed social and religious roles for women, and fundamentally changed views on homosexuality. This revision is not just for the sake of accuracy; it is also to make it clear that these are not issues that could be reversed “if only” one could abolish the study of Talmud by women. One could try, of course, but that would truly create a schism.

Landscape of YU

Finally, it is important to offer a thought on the fact that both this article and the piece on which it is commenting were written by faculty members at the same institution. (One of the writers of this piece is a professor at Yeshiva University, and Rabbi Willig is a rosh yeshiva at RIETS.)

The administration of the University likes to speak of YU as a “big tent.” This is a metaphor worth dwelling on for a moment. There are many types of tents, of course, but I imagine we are speaking of something like a circus tent, for a number of reasons. This tent may not have walls, but it certainly has boundaries (using gud asik mechitzata, we suppose), defining what is “in” the tent and what is “out,” while allowing for full view in both directions. These borders are salutary, for it is a painful but necessary condition of a community to define itself in various ways.

There is not only one axis in the tent, say, right to left, but rather a number of axes. Perhaps there are four, and it is an octagonal tent, or 10, and the tent is an icosahedron. Or, since this is a fictional tent anyway, we can allow ourselves to imagine a Borgesian tent with infinite axes. In any event, along one of these axes are aligned the various positions within the tent on gender roles. Rabbi Willig has now firmly planted himself on the extreme right of that axis, wherever he may stand on other lines. I am willing to assume that the tent is big enough to include someone who explicitly argues for a return to 1950s family structures within the borders, but also assume that this is about as close to the boundary as one can get without slipping under the tent flap and out of the tent and into the non-Modern Orthodox world entirely.

The fact that one can be so far to one side and still remain in the tent is important for everyone to not just recognize, but salute. Since the tent is symmetrical, as far as one can go to one side, there is also room in the opposite direction, and in social movements, as with physical objects, it is known that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Fortunately, there is ample room in the tent in both directions.

Shira Hecht is an instructor of Talmud at SAR High School. Aaron Koller is associate professor of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. Both are proud alumni of Yeshiva University undergraduate and graduate schools.

By Shira Hecht and Aaron Koller

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles