R. Yehudah Henkin in response to R. Dov Linzer
To the Editor,
I differ with Rabbi Linzer, certainly, over the relative lack of importance he attributes to the section concerning Torah Commentary, and see my "New Interpretations on the Parsha" (Ktav, 1999) and the original Hebrew "Chibah YeteirahChiddushim bPeshat ha-Torah." These are as innovative in their field as my halachic writings are in theirs. Still, since he did not expand on his views in this regard, neither will I.
Instead, I will briefly relate to two points of general interest in the area of halachah, that Rabbi Linzer raised in his extensive and thoughtful review.
Concerning outside agendas. Rabbi Linzer perceives a complete absence of a feminist critique in my analysis of halachic sources and discussion of public policy (p. 8). I am not sure what that meansthere are a variety of feminist critiques, from moderate to radicaland rereading his words, I am not even certain that he feels that the lack of a feminine critique by a posek is a liability. In any case, see "Equality Lost", p. 76:
This is trenchant criticism, feminist or other labels aside. Another, milder, example of socio-historical criticism is in my responsum on the blessing "shelo asani ishah" (who has not made me a women), translated in chapter two of my "Responsa on Contemporary Jewish Womens Issues" (Ktav, 2003), in which I trace the accretion of the theme of male social dominance onto the blessings original meaning.
I do not think that sociological and historical insight and the capability of self-awareness and self-criticism--i.e., a lack of blinderscharacterize or are the property of any particular group or ideology.
Rabbi Linzer specifically mentions my passing over in silence the Talmudic passage (Berakhot 20a) where R. Yochanan states, to me, women are like white geese. In my opinion, however, in context it is a perfectly legitimate simile for not being sexually distracted by women. (R. Yochanan was sitting near the entrance to a womens mikvah.) It no more dehumanizes them (if that is what Rabbi Linzer means), than does the equivalent statement by R. Acha (Ketuvot 17a), who danced with a bride on his shoulders, that to him women are like a wooden beam. We should not be finding anti-feminist messages lurking behind every turn of phrase.
On halachic caution. Rabbi Linzer notes that in Resp. Bnei Banim I have occasionally spent pages demonstrating the permissibility of a certain practice, only to forbid it in the last paragraph for secondary reasons. He, however, replaces secondary with questionable, and with that I do not agree. I will briefly explain my views on this issue:
A halachic decision typically combines pure halakhah as it is derived solely from studying the sources, with metziut, the reality or facts on the ground. Bridging the gap between the two requires horaah-ruling-which follows its own rules, such as making provision for straitened circumstances (shaat hadechak) or significant material loss (hefsed merubah). It takes into account the possibility of negative consequences of a ruling, as well, whether these be the replacement of heretofore uninformed non-compliance by willful flouting of the Law (mutav sheyihyu shogegin), or the weakening of rabbinic prestige and concomitant influence by issuance of rulings that appear overly radical or strange and are therefore likely to be rejected (davar hatamuah larabim ), whatever their scholarly weight may be. These are just examples; I make no attempt to list all the many factors involved.
Why, then, write page after page to reach a conclusion only to abandon it in practice, usually for horaah reasons? First, the discussion itself is Torah, transcending the conclusions reached. Second, one may lack the broad shoulders necessary to promulgate or implement a particular proposal, but expect that raising the issue will prompt other scholars to address it. Third, a Halachic conclusion whose implementation is deferred for secondary reasons does not disappear; it merely bides its time. It may become accepted at another time or place as circumstances and rabbinic opinions change, tomorrow or a hundred years from now.
Others have asked whether the wording under the chupah before the whole gathering and public sheva berakhot hints at a difference between the wedding ceremony and feast on the one hand, and the more intimate sheva berakhot held in private homes on the other? Indeed, it does. As opposed to women reciting the wedding blessings at the wedding or wedding feast proper, if some chose to do so at sheva brakhot in a private home when ten men are present, I would not protest. This closely parallels my position on womens aliyot.
This returns us to discussion of horaah. Horaah, particularly in communal affairs, is by nature an art rather than a science. Et laasot laShem (a time to act for haShem), for example, can mean either to rebuff change or to initiate it, depending on the circumstances (see Bnei Banim, vol. III, p. 43). Besides scholarship, the posek needs the intangibles of intuition and insight, experience and common sense. Beyond that, the community, and history, determine whose opinions are accepted and whose are not.
Rabbi Yehuda Henkin
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