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Rav Schachter Delivers Tshuva on Women and Tefillin Debate

Teaneck — The decision by Bronx-based SAR High School’s rabbinic leadership to allow girls to wear tefillin (phylacteries) in school has led to significant discussion in the Jewish community. In fact, the decision and the explanation by its supporters were reported on in JLBC’s last edition.

In response to the controversy, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, a widely respected posek (halachic decider), has issued a tshuva, or responsum in the matter. The tshuva was translated from the Hebrew for the Yeshiva World online newspaper, and is available in both Hebrew and English on their website at http://www.theyeshivaworld.com.

In the responsum, Rabbi Schachter criticized rabbis who have made allowances for women to put on tefillin as part of their daily tefillah. He admonished those who would make a unilateral halachic decision like this without consulting a wider range of authorities.

“Our complaint is not at all upon the women who have endeavored to fulfill this mitzvah, rather it is upon the rabbis (all of whom have received ordination from our yeshiva) who proffered an erroneous opinion here, without consultation of their question to the Morei Horaah that they direct their questions toward regarding other matters. They have publicized their opinion as if it were a simple matter to permit.

“I was shocked to see how otherwise intelligent people are engaging in pilpulim [textual disputation], vain pilpulim, dealing with whether or not women may voluntarily perform the mitzvah of tefillin (in the manner of ‘not commanded but fulfilling it anyway’). They have marshalled opinions both this way and that way, and judge things as if we were living in the period of the Tanach (as they cite precedence from Michal Bas Shaul), or in the period of the Tannaim (where the Tannaim debate regarding whether women may voluntarily lay on hands), or in the period of the Rishonim (who debated things regarding the practices of Rashi’s daughters).”

According to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, mara d’asra of Teaneck’s Congregation B’nai Yeshurun, Schachter’s opinion is widely shared in orthodox circles, and that without a truly extensive grounding in halacha, individuals are advised not to make such decisions unilaterally. “Unbeknownst to many, Torah scholarship is not defined by the ability to find singular sources that permit what one has already determined to do. Psak Halacha is not a treasure-hunt, but requires a firm grounding in all areas of halacha as well as sensitivity to precedent, nuance, and unanticipated ramifications. The Jewish world would be unrecognizable if we dispensed with the Mesorah and relied on stray opinions here and there,” Pruzansky told JLBC.

Rabbi Schachter’s tshuva also discussed what he believes is the source and reason for the request for girls to wear tefillin. He indicated that the practice of women putting on tefillin has come directly from those involved with the Conservative movement: “It is a time when this practice of [women] wearing tallis and tefillin is found exclusively with Conservative Judaism, where their entire approach to halacha is founded upon the principle that it is permitted,” Schachter wrote.

According to Rabbi Pruzansky, “For some, egalitarianism (feminism is but one form) is the dominant value that supersedes all others. It was brought home to me at a recent conference in Israel at which “religious feminism” was discussed at length, and with all sides deliberating. Some of the women complained of the “patriarchy” in Jewish life, “patriarchalism” in the Torah, and even a “male interpretation” of the Torah that doesn’t speak to these modern women.

“The greatness of Nechama Leibowitz z”l (with whom I studied for a year) was that her Torah was not a male Torah or a female Torah; it was just Torah. She would be horrified by the discontent in a small part of today’s world. As I have said in the past, the phenomenon of women seeking spiritual growth simply by imitating men leaves me not at all angry, just sad. The Torah speaks to men and women, Jews and non-Jews, in different ways,” Pruzansky said.

In strong terms, Rabbi Schachter advised that those who are aware of the halachic divides between the Conservative movement and orthodoxy, are commanded to distance themselves as much as possible.

“It would appear that only someone who is intellectually blind, with no ‘eyes’ to see, will fail to recognize what is under his own nose – that this practice is the practice of Conservative Judaism, and is highly likely to bring about more changes that lie in contrast to the Mesorah, and to bring about a general laxity in the matter of rulings of Psak halacha.”

“It is also well known in the name of the Rav (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) that when the Conservatives first introduced the Bat Mitzvah ceremony in the middle of davening like the Bar Mitzvah ceremony for boys, the Rav warned that orthodox rabbis are certainly forbidden from doing so.

“The Ramah (OC 38:3) has already cited the views of the Rishonim and there is no dissenting view among all the commentaries of the Shulchan Aruch – that in our times we all have a problem of maintaining a guf naki (a clean body). Therefore, the decision was made to minimize the duration of the donning of tefillin even for men (in other words – just during the shacharis service). This is how the Rav explained the matter properly and well in his lectures (See MiPninei HaRav Tefillin section 1),” said Schachter.

By the same token, the Rav is also on record, Schachter wrote, with an opinion on the same issue: “This is also how the Rav ruled in actuality regarding a young baalas teshuvah, a student in Frisch, who wanted to put on tefillin. The Rav ruled, based upon the words of the Ramah, not to allow her to do so. One cannot say that in the past forty years the situation has so improved regarding the purity of thought necessary for the putting on of tefillin.” Schachter wrote.

“It is known to all that this was the accepted practice for all generations, and who is this who dares to have the audacity to rule against the accepted ruling of our master the Ramah. Compare this to the Rambam Hilchos Shmita and Yovel (10:6) that accepted practice and conduct are considered huge pillars in the matter of halachic adjudication.

“The expression that some of those who have permitted this utilize that ‘according to the technical halacha’ a certain act is permitted, and that which people wish to prohibit it is because of ‘political considerations’ is incorrect. For even a matter such as changing the mesorah – the traditions of the Jewish people is in and of itself an integral section of halacha.

“When one rules on “the donning of tefillin for women” it is not enough to merely examine the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch in Hilchos Tefillin and in the sources there and treat it as a simple question. Rather, like any question in halacha, we must rule on the topic from all facets and perspectives,” Schachter wrote.

When reached by JLBC, Rabbi Tully Harczstark, principal of SAR High School, said that he preferred not to comment on the teshuva through the media.

TABC Rosh Yeshiva and Rabbi of Cong. Rinat Yisrael, Rabbi Yosef Adler, also declined to comment as the JLBC went to press.

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