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On Torah Min Hashamayim and the Ordination of Women

The Jewish Link has been running a series of articles about the differences between the Rabbinical Council of America and Yeshivat Chovevai Torah on Torah min Hashamayim. I’d like to shed a little light on the issue from a perhaps unexpected source, my teacher, the great Gaon, Prof. Saul Lieberman (May 28, 1898–March 23, 1983), long-time Rector at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The Jewish view, summarized by Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz (1906–1984), is based on three principles: The first is the doctrine of Torah min ha-shamayim—that the ultimate source of the Torah is divine. The second principle holds that the Massoretic text of the written Torah (Torah she-bichtav) is the only authentic textus receptus of the Torah. And the third, articulated by the preeminent Torah commentator Rashi (Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040–1105), holds that the only valid method of interpreting the Torah for Jewish purposes is the one that is based on the Torah she-baal peh, the Oral Law, which is eventually consolidated in the Halakhah, the way, i.e., established Jewish law. I can personally testify that Prof. Lieberman unreservedly accepted the traditional Jewish view. He also explicitly rejected terms like “Biblical author” as apikorsut (rank heresy).

He gave voice to these views.

In 1982, Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920–2006), a student of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892–1953) was denied a position at London’s Jews College Rabbinical School (founded in 1855, where my late father, Prof. Nahum M. Sarna, obtained his smicha [ordination]); because of Jacobs’s heretical views, the appointment was vetoed by then-Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie (1985–1979) who cited his “published beliefs” about Torah min Hashamayim.

Dr. Morris Sifman, an observant London physician, mohel (ritual circumciser) and the chief medical officer of the Initiation Society of Great Britain, the Chief Rabbi of England’s organization for supervising mohalim; then wrote a letter to Prof. Lieberman to inquire of his view on this subject.

The answer is illuminating.

Lieberman wrote back: “There can be no question that a man who does not believe in Torah min Hashamayim (‘the truth claim that God is the source and origin of the Pentateuch) can not be considered an Orthodox Jew.” But he went on to say about Jacobs: “However, one should be very careful in passing judgment upon another Jew. Unless one has irrefutable evidence by discussing the problem personally with the individual in question, no judgement should be passed.” He goes on to say, “I have not read the books of the gentlemen you mentioned [i.e., Jacobs], but I know that sometimes an unhappy expression may create a false impression. We now live in a time when the unity of the nation is more important than at any other time. We should do everything to avoid machloket (disputation). Since a statement on my part to this effect would certainly be interpreted as taking part in a machloket, I want to make it clear that this letter is for you personally and not for publication. It is the duty of every Orthodox Jew to stay away from machloket as far as possible. A peaceful solution by persuasion and by preventing a Chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) are the only possible ways. I want to add that I personally see in the undermining of the authority of the chief rabbi a calamity for the entire Jewish community in England.”

My teacher’s response demonstrates both adherence to halacha and a desire to minimize rancorous disputations.

The former Chief Rabbi Baron Jonathan Sacks wrote about Torah min HaShamayim: “The idea of ‘Torah from Heaven’ was, even before it was explicitly formulated, far more than a belief about the origin of a text. It was a belief about the origin of a destiny. ‘Torah from Heaven’ did more than negate the idea that a people was the author of its own texts. It reversed it. It suggested that the text was the author of the people.”

I would be remiss if I did not comment in this discussion on Lieberman’s views on women, also today much a subject of controversy.

They were very traditional, but with one notable exception.

He greatly respected women, and especially his beloved wife, Judith Lieberman, who was fluent in many languages, including the classics, and earned a PhD from the University of Zurich (her dissertation was on Robert Browning). Similar to her husband, she came from a distinguished Rabbinic family, the granddaughter of the Natziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1817–1893), the Dean of the prestigious Volozhin Yeshiva, and she was the daughter of Rabbi Meir Berlin (Bar Ilan) (1880–1949), head of the World Mizrachi Organization, after whom Bar-Ilan University is named.

After the passing of Chana Sefarai (1946–2008), Prof. Naomi G. Cohen related an interesting vignette in her obituary, quoting Sefarai as saying, “The renowned Talmud scholar Prof. Saul Lieberman wished to create a memorial to his beloved and esteemed wife, Judith Lieberman. He and his good friend R. Ya’akov Vainstein, head of the Ramot Shapira educational compound in the Jerusalem hills, called a meeting to discuss his proposal for a school for the education of women. Several women, including myself, were invited.

“After various possibilities had been put forward, I had the temerity to suggest: If Prof. Lieberman really wanted to do something pioneering, how about establishing an institution where women could seriously study Talmud? Prof. Lieberman lit up at the idea. It fell to me, as the author of the proposal, to look for someone appropriate to create and head the novel institution.

“The school, which Lieberman quietly supported, became the renowned Pelech ‘experimental’ high school for girls in Jerusalem, where Talmud is taught as a compulsory subject. In 1993, Pelech received the Israel Education Prize for its pioneering educational work.

“Lieberman, however, firmly opposed ordination of women, purely based on his understanding of Jewish law. In his view, the primary role of a rabbi is as a decisor of Jewish law. In a letter addressed to ‘our friends and colleagues, Rabbis Dimitrovsky, Halivni Weiss, Zlotnick, Faur, Francus, may your peace be increased,’ he observed: ‘Certainly it is an accepted teaching that women are unfit to judge, as Maimonides rules… and she cannot become qualified for this, she cannot be ordained by this title (even if we see it as a mere expression… ),’ concluding, ‘Let us not make ourselves objects of derision and jest.’”

On the other hand, as noted above, he had no problem at all teaching Talmud to women, just like Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, to whom he was related by marriage.

For example, Dr. Beverly Gribetz, founding principal of the Tehilla Religious Girls’ High School in Jerusalem (and who had previously taught at Pelech), regularly studied with Lieberman one-on-one at his home in Jerusalem, while she was still single (and not, heaven forefend, an eshet ish [married]), years after the passing of Dr. Judith Lieberman, while ensuring that his door was unlocked while she was there, as unless they are married, a man may not be alone with any woman not his close relative.

Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions.

David E. Y. Sarna is a writer and former entrepreneur. He has eight published books, including his latest, Evernote For Dummies, V2. He has nearly completed his first novel about the Mossad and the Jewish treasures in the Vatican’s secret archives and is hard at work on a book about the Talmud for general readers.

By David E. Y. Sarna

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