Re: Women's Tefilah Groups
Tue, 17 Dec 1996 13:14:50 -0500

In his last post on the subject of Women's Tefilah Groups, Rabbi Menken
set forth a strongly hierarchical model for Halakhic decision making. I
agree that this issue provides a wonderful vehicle for a discussion of the
general nature of the Halakhic system.

Yaakov Menken wrote:

[A]fter Moshe's lifetime, we had a Sanhedrin, and after them the few
leading scholars of each generation - the ministers of 'revavos,' or
tens of thousands. [My teacher] also spoke of the great troubles
created not only by ministers of hundreds who fancied themselves
ministers of thousands, but even by ministers of thousands who fancied
themselves ministers of revavos ... [A]n issue such as the one we are
discussing, a Halakhic ruling with global impact, is not to be made by
ministers of tens, hundreds, or even thousands - but by the ministers of
revavos. Even the most convincing presentation cannot give one who is
not a minister of revavos the "last word on the subject".

The glaring problem with the above analysis, in which rabbinic leadership is
compared to leadership in the Midbar and to the Sanhedrin, is that there does
not exist a _formal_ system of hierarchy today. That is in stark contrast to
the two historical models. This is significant as an indication that the
analogy is, at best, incomplete. But the lack of formal hierarchy also makes
strictly hierarchical decision making a practical impossibility. Put simply:
Unless one is prepared to compile an exhaustive list of ministers of tens,
ministers of hundreds, etc., he cannot definitively state which rabbis have
authority to make a particular decision.

In any case, one must contend with the following from the Maharal of Prague:

It is more fitting and correct to decide on the basis of the Talmud.
[This is true] even if there is a chance that [in this way] he [the
judge] might not arrive at the truth and might not decide the law
correctly according to the real meaning [of the Talmud]. In any case,
all a Halakhic authority has is what his own intelligence understands
from the Talmud. Even if his intelligence and wisdom mislead him, he is
nevertheless beloved of the Lord when he rules as his intelligence
directs him because a judge must be guided only by what his own eyes
Such a judge is better than one who, like a blind traveler on a highway,
decides on the basis of a code without understanding the underlying
rationale at all.

In our context, we need only substitue "the rulings of gedolim" for "a code"
in the above statement to understand the Maharal's point. I do not mean to
suggest that the Halakhic process adheres to the model suggested above by the
Maharal. But the fact that he held such views indicates that things are far
more complicated than one might guess from Yaakov Menken's argument.

Now I will switch gears and argue that, even if the hierarchical model is
accepted, the answer is still not clear on the issue of Women's Tefilah
Groups. I should note that most of what follows is taken directly from Rabbi
Weiss's analysis.

(1) Although Rabbi Menken asserts that Rabbi Riskin is not a "minister of
revavos", the fact is that for many segments of the Orthodox community he
is an international leader and Halakhic authority of the highest rank.
Given the aforementioned lack of formal hierarchy, the issue of his
cannot be conclusively settled. Rabbi Riskin endorses Women's Tefilah

(2) With all due respect to Rabbi Herschel Schachter and his distinguished
colleagues, they do not speak for Rabbi Soloveitchik any more than his
other students do. The fact is that Rabbi Riskin, also a student of Rabbi
Soloveitchik, quotes his teacher as saying that Women's Tefilah Groups are

(3) While Rav Moshe was evidently very apprehensive about Women's Tefilah
Groups and was not prepared to permit them, he stopped well short of
that they are forbidden. In fact, he ended his letter on the subject
(after first discussing the problems of proper motivation and then
technical issues of what blessings can be said) as follows: "Each ba'al
hora'ah [arbiter of Halakha] should conduct himself in this matter in a
which is in line with this outlook." Although he insisted that the
motivations of the participants be scrutinized, Rav Moshe clearly left the
door open for individual rabbis to make the final determination as to the
Halakhic status of particular Women's Tefilah Groups.

(4) Rabbi Avraham Shapiro, a former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, did
not support Women's Tefilah Groups. However, in response to a question
from Rabbi Weiss, he responded "I did not say that these groups are
assur [forbidden]."

In light of the above, it is clear that even the hierarchical model of
decision-making does not yield a definitive answer to the question at hand.

Rather, the lack of a formal hierarchical structure facilitates an organic and
multi-faceted unfolding of Halakha. Perhaps history will enlighten us as to
where the best understanding lies. But until then:

Elu v'elu divrei El-him hayim hee ...
v'halakha c' ???.

These and these are the words of the Living G-d ...
and the Halakha is according to ???.


Adam Szpiro