Re: Women's Tefilah Groups

Yaakov Menken (
Tue, 31 Dec 1996 19:19:02 -0400

Adam Szpiro had a number of interesting reactions to my last post.

He wrote:
>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.
>The glaring problem with [an] 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.

A formal hierarchy indeed does not exist. But it is certainly possible to
make generalized determinations, using the methodology explained in my
previous contribution:
>>We know the ministers of revavos, not by reading their books, but by
>>consulting our more knowledgeable teachers, ministers of hundreds. And they
>>consult theirs, the ministers of thousands - and _they_ tell us who are
>>ministers of revavos.

So it is not true that finding leading authorities is impossible, and it is
certainly unnecessary "to compile an exhaustive list of ministers of tens,
ministers of hundreds, etc.," in order to determine whether a particular
Rabbi can be categorized as a leading Halachic authority - or not.

I wrote a response to Adam concerning the Maharal, but will defer to Lazer
Abrahamson's analysis (as I'm still across the hall from the editor, it's
easy for me to cut out my own material!). I've seen the original text, and
concur with Lazer's opinion. And in any case, the Maharal certainly cannot be
viewed as permitting a Rabbi - even a teacher of hundreds - to reach a
decision contrary to an explicit, unanimous ruling of current or earlier

>(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.

Rabbi, yes, leader, yes, but "Halakhic authority of the highest rank?" He
has done terrific Jewish outreach and is apparently a most excellent
teacher (I still recall a lecture of his I heard over a decade ago, so this
is my personal opinion as well), but I would say nonetheless that those
people say more about their own level of Halachic knowledge than about
Rabbi Riskin.

For the sake of those who indeed don't know who these people are, let me
try to give a comparable example. Should a history major need to see titles
in order to distinguish the average graduate student from the average
tenured professor? No. A complete layman might not be able to recognize the
greater command of knowledge possessed by the professor - but we would pity
a history major who couldn't see the difference. Similarly, "kol bar bey
rav d'chad yuma" - anyone who has spent time in a yeshiva - should be able
to see that Rabbi Riskin is not a scholar like Rav Schachter, or all the
more so Rav Elyashiv. Again, Rabbi Riskin has done great things for a great
many people, but let us respect him for what _he_ is, and Rav Elyashiv for
what _he_ is! They aren't one and the same.

>(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
> Groupsa are permitted.

It is not true that because two people disagree, we are welcome to believe
whomever we wish. Rabbi Schachter is both Dean of Rav Soloveitchik's Kollel
(YU) and the final Halachic decision-maker for the Orthodox Union, and four
other leading students of the Rav co-signed Rabbi Schachter's decision. And
even were we to accept that there was doubt about Rav Soloveitchik's
opinion, would it not then be incumbent upon us to follow the opinion of
everyone else?

>(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 ruling
>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 way
>which is in line with this outlook." Although he insisted that the
>motivations of the participants be scrutinized...

Neither Rav Moshe nor (apparently) Rabbi Avraham Shapiro said that these
groups are _inherently_ forbidden. But Adam does not explain whether Rabbi
Shapiro would disagree with Rav Moshe's assessment of the women who
actually participate as driven by improper motivations of feminism rather
than the devotion to G-d of Judaism - and thus participating in a
transgression themselves.

I don't know what Teshuvah Adam is quoting, but the above is not the
conclusion of Rav Moshe's Teshuvah on women's liberation. Here is what he
actually said [Igros Moshe Orach Chaim IV S. 49]:

"[In the Halacha as it stands] there is not the least denigration of the
honor of women... and no reason whatsoever for complaint, and this is
something which the honored writer must explain at every opportunity. And
[he] must be upright and strong in his knowledge that this is in accordance
with the laws of the Holy Torah, to object to these women, whom after all
this remain with their corrupt misunderstanding - to not change any one of
the Holy customs of Israel."

As Rav Moshe makes clear, some women (and men) will stand by their corrupt
misunderstanding no matter how much we may object. But it remains our
obligation to object nonetheless.

Yaakov Menken