When, if ever, is it appropriate to criticize the politically incorrect statements of a leading rabbinic figure?
That question is being asked in Modern Orthodox circles these days after Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva and rosh kollel at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, seemed to compare women to animals in expounding on a religious practice.
This comes several months after the rabbi, an influential posek (decisor of religious law), described Jews as spiritually superior to other people, noting that Jews and non-Jews “have different genes, DNA and instincts.”
The current controversy was sparked by Rabbi Schachter’s comments on whether a woman is permitted to read the ketubah (marriage contract) at a wedding ceremony, as advocated by some on the Orthodox left.
Technically, yes, he said, adding that “even if a parrot or a monkey would read the ketubah, the marriage would be 100 percent valid.”
Underscoring the gap between more liberal elements of Modern Orthodoxy, who found the statement offensive, and their rabbinic leaders at YU, who view with suspicion proposed modifications to ritual traditions, the rabbi repeated his views (“Yes, a monkey could also read the ketubah!”), seemingly unaware of the perceived insensitivity of his comparison.
In a posting titled “Can Women Be Rabbis?” found on TorahWeb.org, a Web site that promotes the writings and taped lectures of YU rabbis, Rabbi Schachter made the point that the reading of the ketubah is not a halachic element of the wedding ceremony, so it doesn’t matter who performs the act.
The posting, which appears to be a transcript of a recent lecture by Rabbi Schachter, has generated much discussion via e-mails and phone calls in the Modern Orthodox community. (In recent days the word “monkey” was removed from the TorahWeb posting.)
The rabbi further explained that the key reason women are not encouraged to read from or be called to the Torah is a sense of modesty. For a woman to come forward in such a public way is to suggest that no man present is capable of performing the act and thus constitutes “an embarrassment to the minyan,” according to the rabbi.
Countering that long-held majority view among Orthodox authorities was Mendel Shapiro, a Jerusalem scholar. Shapiro published an article several years ago in the journal of Edah, a Modern Orthodox group, suggesting that while in centuries past women’s participation in certain parts of the religious service, such as being called to the Torah to recite a blessing, was an implicit insult to men, that is no longer the case at a time when women are trained as Torah and Talmud scholars.
Given Rabbi Schachter’s prominence as a highly respected, if not revered, teacher of rabbinic students and leading authority on the halachic teachings of the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the spiritual leader of the Modern Orthodox world, few are willing to publicly take issue with his socio-religious commentary, however uncomfortable they may be with it.
But Blu Greenberg, a founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, said Rabbi Schachter’s “comparison through innuendo of women to animals falls quite hard on feminist ears, though he may have intended no disrespect.”
She added that “while it is a difficult matter to take issue with an esteemed rosh yeshiva,” she hoped he would take her reaction “in the spirit of honest discourse, wanting to know how others read his writings and interpret his words.”
Rabbi Schachter went on in his discussion to suggest that the motivation for those in the Modern Orthodox community who are championing increased participation by women in the service is to redress the imbalance of the sexes God created.
“Clearly the motivation to have a woman read the ketubah is to make the following statement,” he wrote: “The rabbis, or better yet, the God of the Jews, has been discriminating against women all these millennia, and has cheated them of their equal rights, and it’s high time that this injustice be straightened out!”
“What a silly misunderstanding!” Rabbi Schachter continued, asserting that God “never intended to cheat women of their rights and privileges” but “quite the contrary,” allowed them to fulfill commandments while maintaining their “tznius,” or modesty.
Greenberg countered that “to say that women are insulting God and the rabbis when they call for reinterpretation of certain laws that affect their lives is to impugn the entire enterprise of halachic reinterpretation.” She cited as proof rabbinic innovations in the past that enabled women to inherit property and disallowed polygamy.
Rabbi Schachter went on to criticize the Conservative and Reform movements for following the early Christians in suggesting that women be given the same religious rights as men, and doing away with separate seating at services, out of a sense that God discriminates against women.
He also noted that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading decisor in 20th century American Orthodoxy, wrote that when a woman seeks to perform a mitzvah not required of her, like listening to the shofar or waving the lulav, the key determinant is her motivation. If she seeks to do the mitzvah from a sense of “protest to the tradition,” her act is sinful. If, however, her goal is the “sincere desire to come closer to God,” she is “deserving of reward.”
Rabbi Schachter did not say who determines the woman’s inner motivation or how.
The rabbi is in Israel and could not be reached for comment. Some colleagues defended him, saying he is naive and meant no disrespect. Others said part of the problem is that Rabbi Schachter is unaware of the negative connotations of his remarks.
Richard Joel, the president of Yeshiva University, was unavailable for comment. In the past he has cited academic freedom as a reason for not publicly criticizing faculty.
One rabbi quipped that while Rabbi Schachter’s opinions about participation in the marriage ceremony are troubling for women, they represent a positive breakthrough for animal rights advocates.
More serious, though, is the issue of whether some of YU’s most influential rabbis are out of step with their communal constituents and not held accountable for their remarks.
One Modern Orthodox rabbi privately called Rabbi Schachter’s comments on women “vulgar and embarrassing,” and said the problem is compounded by the fact that the views of the rabbi and his RIETS colleagues “are the only official religious opinions from YU that the community hears,” so that, by default, theirs becomes “the YU position.”
Samuel Heilman, a Queens College professor who has long studied the Orthodox community, observed that Rabbi Schachter has made “a series of rather extremist comments both in addresses in synagogues and on this Web site, and the powers that be have been silent.”
Heilman sees this as “ongoing evidence that Modern Orthodoxy has few rabbis willing or able to counter points of view that appear to speak with halachic authority, no matter how skewed those points of view are.”
Another Orthodox academic noted that for a halachic expert like Rabbi Schachter to cite tznius as the primary reason why women cannot be rabbis or play a greater role in ritual services is to acknowledge that the issue is more about social customs than religious law.
The academic said such customs are subject to change over time, pointing out that Maimonides cited tznius as the reason women should not go out of their homes more than twice a month, and that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi, rejected a woman’s right to vote in Israel’s national elections based on tznius.
“Times change,” the academic said. “If this is the best that a halachic authority can do against women rabbis, the future of Orthodox feminism is bright indeed.”