August 12, 2004

by Reb Yudel
Extremism and Respect: A Response to Avi Shafran's Response to Gary Rosenblatt's Response to Herschel Schachter...

(This piece was solicited as a counterpoint to an opinion piece by Rabbi Avi Shafran which can be seen on the Hirhurim weblog)

When planning our wedding, it seemed odd to my wife and me to invite our fathers and uncles to recite the blessings under the huppa but not our mothers and aunts. But the halachic, Jewish legal arguments on the topic are complex, and besides, we had plenty of Orthodox rabbis on the guest list we didn't want to offend.

So, in a best-of-all worlds solution, we supplemented the seven Hebrew blessings with their English translations. Since the translations are not necessary for a halachic wedding, we figured that the women on our guest list could recite them without question enabling us to evade the questions of Jewish law, double the number of friends and relatives included in the wedding, and even help our guests understand the ceremony.

It turns out that our compromise wasn't so kosher, according to Rabbi Herschel Schachter, a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and the head of the halacha committee of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. As he explained in a lecture posted online last month, even those parts of the wedding not mandated by Jewish law the parts, he zoologically explained, that a monkey or parrot could chant without invalidating the ceremony should not be recited by women because such a public appearance is beneath their modesty.

Rabbi Schachter's arguments are at heart not halachic but cultural, flowing not from women's Talmudic legal obligations (as are the arguments about counting women in a minyan) but from their preferred place. And that place is, in his reading of Judaism, is out of the public eye. Women, he rules, are improperly exposing themselves to public view by participating in the wedding ceremony.

It seem a strange position to take in 2004, when it is the norm for Orthodox women to maintain careers and the search for nannies is a frequent topic on the email list of my largely-Orthodox Jewish community.

But then again, in touting the notion of the feminine as something to be kept private, Rabbi Schachter and other Orthodox apologists are not as uniquely "Jewish" as they might wish. Their attitude is shared by other contemporary religious movements. See the return to the hijab, or veil, to take a mild example from the Islamic world, or those "family values" advocates within America whose reading of the Christian Bible lead them to insist that a woman should subordinate herself to her husband. In leading a rear-guard action against feminism, Rabbi Schachter is very much part of the 21st century zeitgeist.

Rabbi Schachter did not equate Jewish women to parrots and monkeys, but his lack of sensitivity to language, combined with his distrust of equality, is suspicious. (It doesn't help that his groundbreaking essay attacking Orthodox feminists was entitled "Go and Follow in the Path of the Sheep.") While mocked as "political correctness," the need for care in language is a quintessentially Jewish teaching. As Rabbi Avi Shafran has written in other contexts, one cannot call Jews "pigs and monkeys" and then be surprised when Jewish blood is spilled.

A useful illumination of Rabbi Schachter's position is cast by Rabbi Shafran's present essay. Juxtaposing Rabbi Schachter's feminist critics with animal-rights activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Rabbi Shafran illustrates an all-too-often forgotten principle: Any seemingly good idea, taken to extremes, leads to extremism.

PETA, Rabbi Shafran reminds us, exploits the fear that any form of discrimination such as that between people and puppies is ultimately equivalent to the murderous Nazi discrimination between Jew and Aryan.

But in making the leap between Orthodox Jewish feminists and PETA activists, Rabbi Shafran is lumping all activists for equality together in the same way as PETA conflates all advocates of discrimination. His essay is less concerned with defending his thesis that the Torah prescribes different roles for men and women than in presenting a case that inequality is a Divine ideal to strive for.

Too harsh an indictment? Not given the track record of many Orthodox leaders over the past two centuries or so. Orthodoxy greeted the emancipation of European Jews, beginning in Napoleonic France, with equal parts fear and revulsion. Extending the franchise to women was opposed by rabbis on grounds of its immodesty.

Even today, plenty of Orthodox Jews yearn for some sort of "Torah" government for Israel, one combining rabbinic rule with a hereditary monarchy, and question whether they really have an obligation to obey the dictates of the less-than-Divine parliamentary regime of the Israeli state.

As the American Jewish community increasingly values traditions once left to Orthodoxy Sabbath observance, kashrut, Torah study it's worth remembering that the "fervently" Orthodox community has not made a parallel peace with the democracy and egalitarian values of our ongoing American revolution.

As six years of marriage have taught me, the debates of a Talmud classroom which take arguments to their "logical" conclusion is not the way to work things out with one's marriage partner. Marriage calls for a more pragmatic approach of utilitarian arguments tempered by underlying respect and acceptance. However inadvertently, Rabbis Schachter and Shafran illustrate that that is also the best approach for negotiating the marriage of Jewish and American values.

-- Larry Yudelson, August 2004