Reader Responses and Author Interchanges

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 Yeteirah—Chiddushim b’Peshat 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 means—there are a variety of feminist critiques, from moderate to radical—and 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:
In practice, however, the burden in these areas has often been borne by the woman and
not by the man. The reason for this is that the simplest way for men to avoid excessive conversation with women, closeness to women, and looking at women is to not have women around at all. This approach is one which keeps women in the home and out of the workplace and marketplace altogether or, at least, separates men from women in places of employment, transportation, in boards and committees of organizations and so forth. As we know, separate is not equal. Restricting women's physical place to the home or other private arenas effectively circumscribes her role and status in society.

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 Women’s Issues" (Ktav, 2003), in which I trace the accretion of the theme of male social dominance onto the blessing’s 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 blinders—characterize 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 women’s 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 metzi’ut, the reality or “facts on the ground.” Bridging the gap between the two requires hora’ah-—ruling-—which follows its own rules, such as making provision for straitened circumstances (sha’at 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 hora’ah 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.

Rabbi Linzer cites, as an example of hedging, the discussion in Resp. Bnei Banim (vol. III, no. 27) of women and sheva berakhot. I argued-—one might say demonstrated-—that Rambam and Shulkhan Aruch do not prohibit women from reciting the blessings, as long as a quorum of men is present. Yet I concluded: But should women bless sheva brakhot under the chupah before the entire gathering? In my opinion we should not permit it even if a basis for it can be found in halakhah. Resp. Chavot Ya’ir no. 222 wrote that “… one must be concerned with the possibility that… Israel’s customs, which are also Torah, will be weakened. Everyone will construct his own private altar conforming to his own reasoning, and the words of the Sages will seem a joke and [people] will disregard [them]….” Chavot Ya’ir’s warning is still appropriate today regarding women and public sheva berakhot.
Rabbi Linzer sees this as a retreat from an initially courageous conclusion, one of a number of “anomalies” of this sort he perceives. I don’t think so. (Rabbi Linzer quotes Bnei Banim, “not just because we can make an argument should we act on it…” But that is R. Yochanan’s dictum in Gittin 19a and 37a. It is a formula used to express reluctance to rule in specific cases but it is not an argument; otherwise, no one could propose any halachic innovation at all. R. Yochanan himself invoked it in only two out of the hundreds of rulings cited in his name.)

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 women’s aliyot.

This returns us to discussion of hora’ah. Hora’ah, particularly in communal affairs, is by nature an art rather than a science. Et la’asot 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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