Minyanim and Meta-Halacha

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The article below appeared in Haaretz earlier this week, under the title “Partnership minyan is an innovation too far.”

It is reproduced here with Haaretz’s permission.

What educators call a “teaching moment” is presented by the issue of “partnership minyanim,” prayer groups that aim to provide Orthodox Jewish women greater opportunity to participate in services.

Although halakha is distinctly male-centered in the realm of communal prayer (as in the requirement of ten men to establish a minyan, a quorum permitting the recital of certain prayers), “partnership minyanim” jury-rig prayer services so that women lead parts that arguably may not require a man.

The teaching moment is about how halakha works.

Differences of opinion are part and parcel of not only the Talmud but some contemporary halakhic issues; different conclusions may be made by different poskim, or halakhic decisors.

But a truth that tends to draw fire but remains a truth all the same is that not every rabbi is a qualified decisor. Few, indeed, are.

The most trenchant text here may be a Talmudic aphorism in Tractate Nedarim.

“[What might seem] constructive [advice] of the young [can in fact be] destructive; and [what might seem] destructive [advice] of elders [can in fact be] constructive” (Nedarim, 40a).

Innovations are not anathema to halakha-centric Judaism. Things like the ketuba [the marriage contract cementing the husband’s financial support of his wife] or pruzbul [the legal mechanism to allow debts to be collected even when a shmitta, or “sabbatical year” has passed] in Talmudic times, or like conditioning divorce on the woman’s consent (instituted in the early Middle Ages), or like the Bais Yaakov movement in more modern times, are evidence enough that change can be embraced by the halakha-observant Jewish community.

But what makes such newnesses acceptable is their initiation by elders of the community, whether Talmudic sages or medieval luminaries like Rabbeinu Gershom, or – in the modern age – the Imrei Emes and Chofetz Chaim (who endorsed formal Jewish education for girls in the 1920s).

The reason why changing halakhic norms requires such elders’ endorsements is because such religious leaders alone, by virtue of experience born of age, great scholarship and – most important – their recognition as authorities by large numbers of other Torah-scholars, have internalized the meta-values of Judaism, something that cannot be gleaned from mere books and brains.

Invoking halakhic concepts like k’vod habri’ot (human dignity), several rabbis have endorsed “partnership minyanim.” None of them, however, has achieved the reputation of a recognized halakhic authority. Whatever their ages, they are all “young” in the sense of the aphorism from Nedarim. And so, while their decisions may seem constructive, the reality may be otherwise.

And it is. Every recognized halakhic decisor who has weighed in on “partnership minyanim” has rejected the idea as improper. They needn’t counter with texts or logic; what matters here is judgment. As the Yiddish saying has it, putting “a cat in the holy ark” may not be forbidden by any particular text, but it is wrong all the same. (Note to the humorless: No comparison whatsoever of felines and human beings is intended.)

It is tempting to some to dismiss opposition to the innovation as “Haredi-think.” The tempted, however, should consider the words of two highly accomplished halakhic authorities particularly respected in the so-called “Modern Orthodox” world (though well beyond it too).

Rabbi Herschel Schachter, who studied under Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, recently issued a strong responsum rejecting “partnership minyanim.” Inter alia, he asserts: “Not every young scholar who studied in yeshiva or even kollel or even was ordained a rabbi is entitled to an opinion in deciding halakha. To be considered a ‘scholar who has reached the status of decisor’ requires not just that one has amassed knowledge of Torah but also that he is ‘balanced’ [in his judgments of] his learning…

“To introduce new practices… requires the endorsement of Gedolei Torah whose knowledge spans the entire Torah and who can thus understand what is indeed the ‘spirit of the law’.”

Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, the head of the rabbinical courts of both the Beth Din of America and the Chicago Rabbinical Council and the presiding judge of the National Beth Din of the Rabbinical Council of America, also recently addressed “partnership minyanim,” in a letter. He declines to “engage in a polemic” regarding the matter, since doing so would be “an exercise in futility.”

But “as a rav who has extended himself in being sensitive to women’s educational and marital rights,” he writes, he rejects the innovation as “alien to normative balanced congregational activity,” and as “halakhically and intuitively… going beyond the boundaries of communal Torah observance.”

“Partnership minyanim” have, though, one redeeming value: They provide halakha-respecting Jews an opportunity to better understand how innovations in Jewish practice can happen, and how they cannot.

© 2014 Haaretz

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