The Real Story?

by Steven Pruzansky

The controversy du jour deals with the high school girls and their tefillin, and it has prompted the usual litany of responses. Once again, what passes for psak in the Modern Orthodox world is little more than cherry-picking the sources to find the single, even strained, interpretation of a rabbinic opinion in order to permit what it wants to permit or prohibit what it wants to prohibit. The preponderance of poskim or the consensus in the Torah world matters little; fables – like Rashi’s daughters wearing tefillin – carry more weight.

No honest reading of the sources could ever give rise to a statement such as “Ramaz would be happy to allow any female student who wants to observe the mitzvah of tefillin to do so.” Happy? Tell it to the Rema or to the Aruch Hashulchan. And what about the prohibition of lo titgodedu ­– of not having contradictory practices in the same minyan (e.g., some girls wearing tefillin and others not)? And what of the statement being made to the traditional girls – that their service of G-d must somehow be inferior to that of their peers who are on a “higher” level, or the statement being made to all of them – women’s spirituality can only reach its peak when it mimics the religious practices of men? I would not want my daughters to be exposed to either sentiment.

Frankly, it is unsurprising that many young students in high schools text on Shabbat, observe half-Shabbat, and the like. If the Mesorah can be manipulated to permit girls to do what they want, why can’t it be manipulated to permit what boys want? Clearly, the subtleties are being lost in translation. Would that the schools focused on enhancing the commitment of the boys and their tefillin than broadening it to include others who are not within the purview of the mitzvah.

And, like night follows day, the secular Jewish press – besides praising the courage of the administrators – have trumpeted this story as another sign of the feminization of Orthodoxy – a triumph of women’s rights in an age when those are considered some of society’s most cherished values. They perceive it as another sign that Orthodoxy is modernizing, getting with the times, and catching up with the non-Orthodox movements, to the chagrin of the troglodytes on the right who insist on impeding progress.

But what if that is not the story? It is quite possible that we – and especially the media – might have missed the essence of this unfolding tale.

One question needs to be asked: do the girls here even define themselves as “Orthodox Jews?” Upon information and belief, they do not, and I do not write this to impugn them in the least. The fact is that in these day schools, anywhere from 10-30% of the student population consists of children from non-Orthodox homes. These families are proud members of non-Orthodox temples, and are certainly among the more dedicated. After all, they are sending their children to day schools under nominally Orthodox auspices. Some may even be the children of non-Orthodox rabbis, both males and females. When one girl explained that she has been wearing tefillin since her Bat Mitzvah, she is likely telling the truth. She has been wearing tefillin because that is part of the egalitarianism that is the most dominant value in the non-Orthodox world. If these girls – as it seems – are from non-Orthodox families, then the narrative has nothing at all to do with the so-called modernizing tendencies in Orthodoxy, but something else entirely.

The real story is not that Orthodox girls are wearing or want to wear tefillin, but that non-Orthodox children (or their parents) are essentially dictating to day schools how they want non-Orthodox practices incorporated – in school – in their children’s education. It is as if Conservative Judaism and its customs must be acknowledged much like schools have been known (and properly so) to allow children of the Edot Hamizrach to have their own minyanim and adhere to their own customs. And the schools are willing accomplices. Will they next remove their mechitzot to allow an egalitarian minyan, or is that too great a departure from the Orthodox brand?

There was a time when non–Orthodox Jews were thankful that yeshivot accepted their children, but correctly assumed that the curriculum, standards, practices and ideology taught would conform to Torah. They knew it would differ from what they were being taught at home – but they wanted that.

There was a time when a yeshiva administration had the authority and the courage to insist on those standards. Times have changed. In the competition for the tuition dollar of the non-Orthodox – and the fact is that SAR and Ramaz are competing for the same students – accommodations have to be made. And that is a travesty. Masquerading under the convenient narrative that this is a war for the soul of Modern Orthodoxy is the inconvenient reality: the inmates are running the asylum. The administrators are either unable or unwilling to maintain a complete fidelity to Jewish tradition, for at least some of their constituents are demanding otherwise.

Does a boy in such a school then have the right to say: “I do not feel that my divine service requires me to wear a kippa. My father doesn’t, not even in the house. I am against your religious coercion”? Should a school tolerate that? Or, an even better question: could a boy say that he rejects wearing tefillin until all the girls do? I.e., he is such an advocate of egalitarianism that it would be unconscionable for him, coming from his background, to continue to propagate the school’s antiquated, misogynistic, patriarchal attitudes that discriminate between males and females. I can hear it now: “There is only one G-d. He created all of us, and so there should be one law for all of us!” I wonder how the administrators would respond to that; probably, quite uncharitably, but on what grounds?

As one male SAR student asked me this week: if girls can be obligated when they are really exempt, why can’t he be exempt when he is really obligated? The logic is not impeccable – he is only 16 years old – but begs the question: if the Mesorah is so ephemeral that it can change on a whim, why can’t any rabbi make any change that he wants to make? Why can’t a layman?

Add to this one other point. I personally have met a number of graduates of these schools who are children of non-Orthodox female converts who were never informed by the administrators that the conversions were not acceptable according to halacha. In effect, they went through high school thinking they were Jews like all their classmates only to discover – years later and often on the verge of marriage – that they were not considered Jewish. The tragedy is heart-wrenching, because these young men and women are pure innocents. But there are halachic ramifications as well even while they are in school: Did the son of such a female convert lein in school? Was he motzi the audience with his Chazarat Hashatz? Did he count for the minyan?

Take a more tragic example: what if a young girl, child of a non-Orthodox converted mother, meets and falls in love with a male classmate (perhaps, her chavruta in Gemara class), and that young man is a kohen? What would have been a beautiful relationship is now marred forever and their life plans have to be altered. Perhaps, G-d forbid, the couple might then even turn away from Torah observance entirely because the young woman in question also needs to convert according to halacha, but now cannot marry this young kohen. Is the unequivocal acceptance of non-Orthodox converts and their children the norm in these schools? Is any attempt made to have them – if possible – convert according to halacha? I wonder.

On some level, the policy makes internal sense. For a day school appealing for non-Orthodox students in a very competitive climate, questioning the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions would be a turn-off to parents – just like denying these girls their tefillin would displease future applicants as well. We can debate whether these policies are l’shem shamayim or l’shem mammon; it is probably a bit of both.

But the bottom line is that the story here might not be at all about “Orthodox” girls wearing tefillin but about non-Orthodox children seeking an accommodation of their religious practices, and about day school principals reluctant to insist on adherence to Torah standards. And that is the opposite of courage.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the morah d’asra of Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, NJ, and a former practicing attorney.

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45 Responses

  1. Charlie Hall says:

    The letter of Rabbi Harcsztark, SAR High School Principal, to the SAR community about this issue has now been made public. I hope that in fairness Cross-Currents will publish it.

  2. mycroft says:

    The following is from what I wrote on another blog more than 3 years ago is relevant to Rabbi Pruzansky’s column :

    Mordechai Kaplan may have more Jewish adherents in the US than any other theologian. Not that 99% of those who follow his beliefs ever heard of him abd most certainly do not share Kaplan’s thirst for Jewish knowledge.
    Humerous anecdote a decade or so ago there apparently was some discussion at Ramaz of a new mission statement-one Ramaz parent a JTS prof without stating the source copied a paragraph from Kaplan and a lot of parents felt it represented their belief system.

  3. AY says:

    I ask this question in all sincerity- what exactly is the problem with women wearing tefillin, if they want to for reasons other than “to act like men”? I know this has been raised so many times that it’s cliche, but women do other mitzvos they are not obligated to do, such as arba minim and succah, yet little fuss is created?

  4. Raymond says:

    When I read this article, I could not help but interpret it to be in its essence not a religious issue, but an economic one. See, the religious aspect of this is actually a very simple one: Orthodox Jewish schools can rightfully call themselves Orthodox, only if they follow the Torah laws that has kept our people alive for thousands of years. There would be no question of sticking to these religious principles, if money were not involved. And so it really comes down to a question as to whether Orthodox Jewish schools can exist without the financial backing of those who refuse to adhere to its Torah laws, at least in principle. If they cannot, then perhaps they need to find other ways to make a living. But if they can manage to not compromise the religious values of their schools, and still survive financially, then all I can say is, more power to them.

  5. Miriam says:

    AY I can’t give an actual answer to your question, but I will tell you how Ramaz handled this request 20 years ago. When they had one (female) student who wanted to don tefilin during the obligatory school morning services, Rabbi Lookstein instead gave the family the option that she may pray at a synagogue at home where that is the norm and come to school after services. This was the answer for years.

    I also see Rabbi Pruzansky’s point that the request raises an educational opportunity – letting students suddenly do whatever they want (can a girl now decide from one day to the next whether she’s wearing tefillin or instead sneaking to the back to chat with friends? Does it then make a mockery of the boys’ side of services?), or leaving a value judgement unclear (are all the girls now under pressure to wear them if they want to see themselves as “top” students?) – and that must be dealt with carefully.

  6. joel rich says:

    I agree that the tfillin policy of these schools is a mistake. I also think that stating as fact someone else’s motivations without any hard evidence is also a mistake. As avi mori vrabbi zll’hh would say, “two wrongs make two wrongs.”

  7. Dorron Katzin says:

    The following is a letter sent by Rabbi Harcsztark to the parent body of SAR High School.

    January 24, 2014
    23 Shvat 5774

    Dear Parents,

    The issue of women and tefillin resurfaced this week in light of the Boiling Point article recently published at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles and circulated on Facebook. It has since become an international topic of discussion. I imagine that many of you have read the articles and have had many conversations on the issue. Over the course of December, I spoke with students and faculty but I did not communicate directly with the parent body on the topic. Given the international publicity of this week, I would like to share my thoughts directly with you.

    Two girls who have put on tefillin since their bat mitzvah approached me months ago to ask permission to put on tefillin in school. Both students, in their respective ways, have shown real commitment to this mitzvah. Since their bat mitzvah, they have been taught, in accordance with their family practice, to daven each day with tefillin. For me, this was a question of whether I could allow a young woman to practice as she had been taught – to daven each and every day in a meaningful way wearing tefillin as an expression of her עבודת השם. I felt that my responsibility was to consider the person before me and the halakha, before considering the political fallout of the decision.

    In my opinion, the practice of these families has support in halakha. It has basis in the Rishonim (רמב״ם, רשב״א וספר החינוך) – and R. Yosef Karo, the מחבר שולחן ערוך, seems to follow that opinion. I felt it appropriate to see this as a legitimate practice albeit different than our communal practice – but one that has halakhic justification. As such, I granted the two girls permission in the context – in a tefilah setting – of a group of girls who were supportive of their practice. I felt it appropriate to create space at SAR for them to daven meaningfully. I explained this to our students in this way: it is a halakhically legitimate position despite it not being our common communal practice. But since there is support for it, I would be willing to create such space in the school. I did not, in so doing, create new policy nor invite any female student who wanted to don tefillin to do so. These are girls who, I believe, have been מוסר נפש (for a teen to get up at 6:20 each morning is meaningful commitment) for this מצוה. At its core, women donning Tefillin is a discretionary act in Jewish law. While our community has adopted as normative the view that women refrain from this act, I see the range of rishonim who allow women to don tefillin as support to give space to that practice within our community. One can disagree with this decision on halakhic and public policy grounds. But the position is a coherent one and deserves careful consideration.

    But why? What was so important about this? As the weeks passed and I heard the various reactions and responses, my feelings on the issue became increasingly clear to me. Perhaps this is best expressed by way of a story. I daven in R. Yosef Adler’s shul, Congregation Rinat Yisrael, in Teaneck. Many of you know Rabbi Adler as the principal of TABC. On that day back in December when I emailed the faculty, I met Rabbi Adler at a community event. He crossed the room and came over to me, took my hand in his two hands and said, “yasher koach, you made the right decision. In a world where there are so many things that distract our teens from focusing on mitzvot, we should support teenagers who seek to strengthen their connection to Hashem and to a life of mitzvot. If I taught girls in my school, I would make the same decision.” In fact, as he subsequently shared with me, he had made the same decision. A few years back, a woman from the community asked if she could daven at the morning minyan at Rinat – but, she said, I wear tallis and tefillin when I daven. Rabbi Adler permitted her to daven in shul. A number of men in the community came over to him and said that they refused to daven in such a minyan. That story crystallized it all for me. I told my students (and I went to each of our four grades for a community meeting to explain the decision – as well as giving two faculty shiurim for staff) that I am not committed to the idea of SAR girls putting on tefillin. I am not encouraging our girls to do so. But I am committed to having our boys and girls be able to daven in the same shul where a woman might be doing so. That when they see something different, even controversial, before deciding in which denomination it belongs, they must first take a serious look at the halakha and ask their Rabbi whether there is basis for such practice. I suspect that I would not differ much regarding normative halakha with most people in our community. But I would differ strongly with someone who thought this was cause for that person to be removed from the community – or that such practice could not be supported within the community shul. I permitted our two female students to daven with tefillin because I believe that we should not be afraid of different forms of עבודת השם when there is halakhic argument to support it. I permitted the young women to daven with tefillin because we should be proud, as a Modern Orthodox community, that we recognize the sanctity and dignity of each person and we find ways to support their spiritual growth in different ways.

    I am proud to say that many students have taken this as an opportunity to learn about their classmates and to learn the sources more carefully. They have engaged each other seriously and respectfully. They have helped shape an atmosphere of support, of care, of אהבת ישראל.

    And here is what we do not do: we do not loosely and without basis malign other Jews, call them names, disparage their motivations and their divine service in the name of…what? I am not sure. I have been reading social media (a new practice for me) and I have been appalled. I have read people maligning these two fine young women with insults and false characterizations based on…nothing. It is awful; it is abominable; it is unacceptable. Two girls who are שומרי שבת וכשרות, גומלי חסד,and בנות תורה. It has been awful to watch. It is מוציא שם רע at its worst (of kids, no less). We should be proud to be stringent in recognizing the dignity of others and valuing their divine service and stringent about how we talk about others, especially children.

    I know that not everyone agrees with my decision. I expect that and I respect that. It is my hope that we can champion, together, ahavat yisrael, love for each Jew; that we can come together as a community even when we disagree; that we can deeply respect each other with pride as we create space for us to work together, as a community, to strengthen ourselves in our עבודת השם.

    With respect and appreciation,
    Rabbi Tully Harcsztark

    SAR High School
    503 West 259th St.
    Riverdale, NY 10471
    [email protected]

    [YA – Full confirmation of one of the key points of the article is in this line: “Since their bat mitzvah, they have been taught, in accordance with their family practice, to daven each day with tefillin.” The two schools are conferring legitimacy on the practice of non-Orthodox families. And then “support” is found by trolling the rishonim – and ignoring the Rema and the consensus of poskim.]

  8. Elana says:

    This author is making the exact mistake that he is accusing others of — that is, taking one particular halakhic opinion, the one that he happens to like most, and calling it the one that is absolutely right. He has his own little skewed and fact-less opinions — such as the idea that the girls wearing tefillin are not Orthodox — and decides to wrap an entire pseudo-halakhic argument around that little opinion. Maybe if the author were able to let go of his personal prejudices, he would be able to take an honest look at the halakha, not to mention take a more compassionate stance vis a vis those who wish to embrace more mitzvot (d’heinu, the girls wearing tefillin). Maybe if he actually studied the halakhot he would realize that there is no real halakhic objection to women wearing tefillin, at least no objection that can hold water for more than three seconds. In fact, this article isn’t about halakha at all but is merely a smokescreen to label women who wear tefillin as non-Orthodox. Perhaps this entire article represents all that is wrong with Orthodoxy today: a mean-spirited, arrogant and judgmental misreading of halakha based on a desire to keep certain people “out” of the club.

    The Orthodox community would do well to learn from the girls who are wearing tefillin, those whose desire to embrace God and Torah overcomes all else.

    [Editors’ Note: For better or worse, CC does not claim to be an “open” forum. It’s comments are heavily moderated, and contributions themselves occupy, by design, a place on the Orthodox continuum from slightly right of center to much further along in that direction. So it might be surprising to readers that we’ve allowed this comment by the Executive Director of JOFA (at least she was till a few days ago), the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. We did so to invite readers to examine the cogency of her remarks, and see them in the context of all the material they can find on the JOFA website. We will ask our readers to also consider the place of the Rema in psak, and his mochin beyadan psak in regard to women laying tefillin. We also ask them to read this thoughtful consideration of other halachic parameters by R Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton. We challenge anyone to do so in less than “three seconds.”

  9. L. Oberstein says:

    This debate is just the tip of the iceberg. In my opinion, there is a paradigm shift in American Judaism and orthodoxy is becoming much more important while the young blood is not there for the other “streams”. Orthodoxy is on a road to a split and there is nothing we can do about it. It reminds me of the small town that had one commununity day school,but as the community grew, the frummies wanted a Torah School, the lefties wanted a community school and the poor, original school was bereft of its potential students. I can think of cities where this played out. Unity only seems to work if we are weak and can’t exist without each other. We used to have orthodox shuls with lots of non observant families whose children could be exposed to NCSY,etc. Now, it is either an all Shomer Shabbos shul or one that is largely not and those are not thriving, by and large. I have no axe to grind on this issue,but I think that what Chovevai is doing is filling the vacuum left by the demise of not so frum orthodox shuls. YU no longer sends candidates to shuls using a regular microphone, Chovevai does. Those who deal in religion as a matter of belief and ideology really don’t understand how meaningless that is to the vast majority of American Jews, it is sociology, not theology. Many of the people who attend orthodox shuls aren’t really true believers in fundamentalism, they like the ambiance and the fact that there is an active community. Irt is lonely being a shomer shabbos Conservative Jew.

  10. Dov Freundlich says:

    Advocating a minimalist attitude in halachic decisions can yield the result of entire communities more dedicated to religious observance. By leveling the playing field it naturally eases the pressure and other harsh feelings projected onto those already lenient in practice. Potentially, such a mindset curbs elitism, establishes cohesiveness, and enables a more vibrant religion.

    To achieve this end it is not currently sufficient to say “the lenient have what to rely on” or “one may be lenient but a true ‘master of soul’ is stringent,” because such statements only enable elitism. History as well as the contemporary state of affairs of the various factions within halachic Judaism have demonstrated that the general public often takes such formulations in halachic decisions as cues to be condescending of their more lenient brethren, not more tolerant. While such formulations may be well-intended and factually correct, they suffer from something akin the Euphemism Treadmill syndrome (whereby, for example, the word “retard” is originally employed in order to circumvent less polite connotations but ends up connoting the same old negativity). Thus there is a solid rationale to support stating an unqualified “it is permitted” in cases where there is at least something to rely on.

    I am not a spokesperson for any particular group but I think this argument can be employed as a strong defense of the lenient approach to halacha held by various rabbinic figures left of center. They are not “seeking leniencies” in the sense generally implied by that phrase. I don’t see them looking for a lazy religion or one that caters to their everyday whims and fancies. They seem more motivated by the search for a religion of unity, cohesiveness, and vibrancy. And these are undoubtedly ideals valued in the traditional sources.

    To me, it is an unfortunate reality that many who advocate a purist attitude in halacha fail to give credence to this approach, which is justifiable even from an organic survey of the traditional sources.

  11. Rafael Guber says:

    If memory serves Rav Pruzansky is also an attorney. He is methodical in his “prosecution” of the facts. Also, he does not shy away from the truth regardless of whether he is goring a right wing ox or a left wing ox. This makes him, to my mind, a very credible voice. He has courageously spoken out against the reinvention of the history of the Lithuanian Yeshiva movement putting truth before consequences. He applies the same steady reasoning here. Yasher Koach

  12. Mr. Cohen says:

    Rema comment on Shulchan Aruch, chelek Orach Chayim, siman 38, sif 3:
    Even if the women want to be strict on themselves [by wearing tefillin],
    it should be strongly discouraged (based on Kol Bo).
    (הגה – ואם הנשים רוצין להחמיר על עצמן, מוחין בידם (כל בו

  13. Mr. Cohen says:

    There is no evidence that Rashi’s daughters wore tefillin.
    jewish_action 05/2011 “Whats the truth about rashi’s daughters” Available online

  14. Daniel says:


    In this scenario, wouldn’t your minimalist approach be to counsel the girls to NOT wear tefilin? Aren’t the tefillin wearers the “machmirim” in your story which will make the others feel like they “don’t care” about doing all the mitzvos they can?

  15. Jeff gross says:

    If the students aren’t being taught the difference between volentarily doing more than required and not doing the minimum of what is required then who wears tfillin is the least of the problem.

  16. Kevin in Chicago says:

    Thank you, Dorron Katzin, for providing the full text of R. Harcsztark’s measured, considered opinion. One may disagree with his approach, but it is hardly evidence that the sky is falling. (Wordplay on “lo bashamayim hi” optional.)

  17. Dov Freundlich says:


    By advocating a minimalist approach I am not suggesting leaving nothing to the religious experience other than the minimum halachic requirements. Rather I am suggesting that in the realm of dictating what people do, we only dictate the bare minimum that we need to dictate.

    Of course people will find their own path and go the extra mile in the areas that appeal to them; I am in no way discouraging that. I am talking about keeping the demands made in public halachic discourse to a bare minimum so that more people see halacha as inviting rather than inhibiting, and the halachic community is thereby strengthened and given more vibrancy.

  18. Y. Ben-David says:

    I think it is a serious mistake to simply attribute new “minhagim” like girls wearing tefillin as being an “infiltration of non-Orthodox people into Orthodox institutions”. The world is changing, whether we like it or not. For generations, the only person in town with a Shas and Shulchan Aruch was the Rav and he was the only one who knew how to read it. Today, everyone has access to the basic sources of halacha and very learned people are coming out of the yeshivot and even from the women’s seminaries and they see what is written there, such as the Shulchan Aruch mentioning women being able to have aliyot to the Torah. These people WHO CONSIDER THEMSELVES LOYAL TO TORAH AND HALACHA are asking themselves why they can’t “experiment” with things that are within the world of halacha, even if not in practice today.
    A good example of this is the “Women of the Wall”. When they were offered the opportunity to do whatever they want at the new, mixed Robinson’s Arch location, Orthodox members rejected it because they do not want to pray mixed with men, but they do want to wear Tallitot and read from the Torah. Thus, to simply say “they are not Orthodox” and we should thus stick them with the other non-Orthodox is missing the point. No doubt there are groups of provocateurs among them, but many are sincere, observant women among them, just as there are among the new groups of women wanting to wear tefillin. For a long time I, like many others, dismissed this as simply rebellion, but having talked to learned young RELIGIOUS Jews, I have come to understand that there is more to this than simply being a troublemaker, or “trying to make a point”.
    There is also the factor that the increasing extremism being seen emanating from some more traditionalist circles is alienating other more moderate people and this is causing a boomerang effect which makes those who are not part of these more extremist groups tend to reject everything they say, even if in cases like this there is much validity in what they are saying, at least in these matters.
    Those circles who reject innovations of this sort are going to have to figure out how to deal with sincere, religious, Orthodox people who do accept them, even if they go against old traditions and consider whether they should be considered outside the Orthodox world entirely or not, and if so, consider what the consequences of such a move would be to the religious world, and the whole of the Jewish people in its entirety. Not a simple situation, but it requires dialogue and and ability to listen patiently to those who are different than us.

  19. Rochel Sylvetsky says:

    Did the girls who wish to wear tefillin so much first begin to keep commandments that righteous and modest women have taken upon themselves through the ages without any fanfare or competition with men’s obligations, namely deciding to daven three times a day? in shul? because they want to?

  20. Josh says:

    Mr. Cohen: The instances in which Ashkenazi Jews decline to follow the Rama (even le-kula) are many. To give one example (particularly relevant to this topic), have you ever heard of Ashkenazi boys waiting until 13 years and 1 day to don Tefillin for the first time, per Rama’s p’sak in OC 37:3 (which is based on guf naki concerns, actually)? Quite the contrary, the minhag in most Ashkenazi communities is to begin putting on Tefillin anywhere between 1 to 3 months before bar mitzva. See Baer Hetev and MB ad loc. Citing the Rama’s p’sak does not end the inquiry (especially when several Rishonim took the opposite view), although it is entitled to great deference.

  21. Rafael A. says:

    “There is also the factor that the increasing extremism being seen emanating from some more traditionalist circles is alienating other more moderate people and this is causing a boomerang effect which makes those who are not part of these more extremist groups tend to reject everything they say, even if in cases like this there is much validity in what they are saying, at least in these matters.”

    I used to believe this but not anymore. There is no anecdotal evidence that people are seeking company in more right-wing circles and then, when they feel rejected, move into the open arms of Open Orthodoxy (“OO”). OO is a response to people who want, l’chatchilah, to find ways to accommodate egalitarian values with halachoh in Orthodoxy as much as possible. This left flank has always existed, but because it no longer find a home in Conservative Judaism, now occupies the far-left flank of Orthodoxy. Your analysis/theory doesn’t given enough “credit” to OO and its embrace of feminism and the impact of that embrace on halachic practice and gender roles. Feminism is the key here and that is what is driving these changes. If OO did not believe that feminism provides an acceptable worldview upon which to base halachic decisions, you would not see the radicalism you see now.

    As for your claims about how the Right and dealing with “sincere, religious, Orthodox people”, the Right will never be able to deal with these people because the Right will never accept feminism and egalitarian values as being the “guiding light” for how Orthodoxy should be molded and shaped. That is unfortunate. However, my prediction is that if OO does not move fast enough to embrace full equality it will be left in the dust as all pretense of halachic fidelity is abandoned. So far, I have not seen any OO authority say “that’s not acceptable, genugt!”

  22. Eli B. says:

    As Chazal say, Kol HaPosel B’Mumo Posel. Who did certain Rabbonim endorse in the Corzine vs. Christie election?!

    YA – To your note, I assume you will soon be writing articles about Yashan and Cholov Yisroel (for which the Kulas also rely on an extreme minority!) How about davening after Zman Tefilah? Not eating in the Succah on Shmini Atzeres? Tefillin for girls certainly has more of a leg to stand on than any of the above.

    [YA- 1) Had I lived when those innovations appeared, I hope I would have campaigned against them! At this point, those battles are lost 2) Even those practices are all different, not coming from a general indifference to halachic protocols, which is what we are witnessing here.]

  23. Dave says:

    There are many issues that have been raised here, but I would like to point out one that is inherent in the SAR principal’s letter. Psak, ruled on by qualified poskim, is normally based on the majority views of those who came before. This was the methodology used by Rabbi Yosef Karo in formulating the Shulchan Aruch. It is not a compendium of chumros, but rather, a collection of normative everyday halacha.

    Great poskim have rarely, but often famously, veered away from that approach, and only in times of dire need or perilous danger. The halachic rulings from the ghettoes and death camps of WWII are not necessarily what Jews today are required to follow or indeed should follow. Yet they were also the psak of qualified poskim. Similar legendary psak has been handed down about the Kashrus of the chicken or using milk for the Arba Kosos and the answers for these impoverished souls were forged from rachmanus and ahavas Yisrael using whatever kullas could be applicable.

    But the idea that in our day and age we need to be digging deep for obscure dicta of Rishonim or trying to find that one sage who gave an alternate pshat to an halachic question is at best cherry picking and probably closer to the practice of opinion shopping that is considered unethical in the world of auditing (relevance? – it is l’havdil a psak on financial info that people rely upon). It is precisely first deciding what you think the halacha should be and then finding the one source that will validate it.

    We live in a time where being frum is not so hard. We don’t get fired for not working on Shabbos. We have easy access to kosher food. We have mikvahs to serve our large communities and promote Taharas Hamishpacha. It is not required to twist ourselves into pretzels to create new halacha.

    There is a politically public point being made with talis and tefillin specifically. Maybe there are better ways for our young ladies to express their deep devotion to Judaism. What about visiting the sick and the elderly, or working raising money for poor brides and grooms who cannot afford a modest wedding. There are numerous other mitzvos that have no P.R. stench that nobody wants to talk about.

    So call me skeptical from both the perspective of the students and their families and the perspective of the schools and their administrations. Fealty to normative halacha is at best secondary.

  24. Noam Stadlan says:

    Since R. Efrem Goldberg’s article has been cited, I suggest reading the response penned by my nephew(one of R. Goldberg’s congregants):
    [Google goldberg stadlan ]

    I am not sure that citing the רמב״ם, רשב״א וספר החינוך amounts to cherry picking. Nor R. Yosef Karo.

    Women are not obligated to wear tefillin, but theoretically it is a mitzvah for them to do so, just like any other mitzvat aseh sh’ hazman grama. The question then is, why should they be prohibited from doing so if they wish? I think that for every rationale, it can be shown that the rationale is being applied only to women to the exclusion of others who it should be applied to, if the halacha was going to be applied with any consistency. For example, yehura applies to anyone wearing tefillin longer than actually mandated. There are disabled adults who do not have the obligation to put on tefillin but a lot of effort has gone into allowing them to do so if they wish. are they not in the same non-obligated category as women? So if there is any cherry-picking going on, it appears to be those who are finding reasons to oppose the non-obligatory wearing of tefillin, but cherry picking who to apply it to. I have not thought a lot about women wearing tefillin, but I think that consistency of application should be a hallmark of halacha.

  25. mb says:

    Mr Cohen, Fact: Apart from you and R.Steven Pruzansky, nobody mentioned Rashi’s daughters.

  26. Bob Miller says:

    If any rabbi won’t stand up for right and oppose wrong, without socio-political smoke and mirrors and without being swayed by financial considerations, what exactly is his public function?

  27. Chochom b'mah nishtanah says:


    Fact: The allegation that Rashi’s daughters is raised in almost every conversation as support for WoW wearing tefillin or these girls wearing tefillin. As in “how can you possibly aver that something is wrong with women wearing tefillin, Rashi’s daughters wore”.

    A quick search of the many many discussions will prove this point.

    There is a reason why R Prizansky mentioned that it is an unsupported fable. Precisely because it is mistakenly used as proof.

    But I am sure you knew that.

  28. Steve Brizel says:

    R Pruzansky deserves a huge Yasher Koach for analyzing what is in reality intellectual self gratification masking itself as seeking an enhanced relationship with HaShem, and for demonstrating that in this age of social media, a demonstration of proper motivation and view towards Shemiras HaMitzvos is easily ascertainable.

  29. Steve Brizel says:

    I stand by my prior comments elsewhere on this site on this issue as well as by the articles by R Pruzansky and R Goldberg. AFAIK, Lishmah or a proper motivation ,has always been a valid factor to consider in the adoption of any new minhag , kulah or chumrah, regardless of whether one views himself or herself as MO or Charedi, and the easily done disposing of Lishmah to the historical dustbin, requires a response. I never realized that justifying amd having tolerance for the unjustifiable was what distinguished MO from the Charedi world. It is indeed a tragedy when two schools that are openly MO in orientation view feminist fetishes, which today have their basis in the heterodox movements, as a basis for enhancing Avodas HaShem of young women when the real issue is what such schools can do to enhance the Avodas HaShem of both genders without compromising on either Halacha or Mesorah. The question remains whether the schools involved will allow young men to object as “conscientious objectors” to a practice that is beyond the pale and supported only by a cherry picking of the Rishonim that is designed to support a pre-ordained conclusion and ignores the Mesorah of how, why amd who performs a Mitzvas Aseh Shehazman Gerama that men, but not women, are obligated in , on a Torah basis, and women are exempted from. The practice described can only be viewed as an apologetic surrender to feminists and their advocates.

  30. mb says:

    Chochom b’mah nishtanah
    You just moved the goal posts. I don’t see any mention of WoW or Rashi’s daughters (nor King Saul’s daughter) in Rabbi Tully Harcsztark’s, in my opinion, excellent letter.
    The fact that the Rema was against it is also not relevant as other Rishonim permitted it.
    “God smiles when you follow Rabbinic opinion, even if a das yachid.”
    R.Chaim Shmulevitz Zt’l(Told by him to one of my teachers)

    [YA – I would love to know the fuller context of that remark. It is unthinkable that R Chaim Shmulevitz was granting carte-blanche to disregard the psak of Shulchan Aruch any time there was a daas yachid in the rishonim. I would also bet that he would argue for a distinction between a single individual who may need to rely on a daas yachid under limited conditions, and relying on such a shitah for a community.]

  31. Y. Ben-David says:

    Rafael A.-
    I live in Israel and so I am not familiar with “Open Orthodoxy” or various disputes within American Orthodox Jewry. I also have contact with young Israeli religious men and women and what I stand on waht I said about the “boomerang effect” regarding increasing extremism in certain sectors of the religous world. I was asked once point blank “if it is praiseworthy for women to observe optional mitzvot like Sukkah, Lulav and prayer 3 times a day, what is wrong with Tallit and Tefillin?”. (The girls I heard this from ARE NOT FEMINISTS AND ARE NOT INTERESTED IN THE FEMINIST “AGENDA”). I was told bluntly that “it simply isn’t done” or that “Rav X is against it” are not a very satisfying answers.
    Regarding the “boomerang effect” I was also told that the war being made against the Women of the Wall by certain elements who attempted to use mass force against them has indeed created more sympathy for them than would have existed prior to these large-scale counter-demonstrations.
    It is important to note that we live in changing times. Pluralism, mass access to the original sources and greater levels of education among all sectors of the religious public have made irrevocable changes among ALL religious Jews, including the supposedly most insular. This is the situation whether we like it or not. Thus, to simply dismiss those who are demanding a new look at halachic guidelines as being motivated by some larger “agenda” is to face the danger of possibly alienating amny truly idealistic religous Jews who are asking a lot of questions these days.

  32. JK says:

    To me, the saddest element of Rabbi Harcsztark’s letter is his blindness to the Halachic system that has guided observant Judaism for generations. Could you imagine a teshuva (even a contemporary teshuva) using the “compelling” argument that “It has basis in the Rishonim (רמב״ם, רשב״א וספר החינוך) – and R. Yosef Karo, the מחבר שולחן ערוך, seems to follow that opinion. I felt it appropriate to see this as a legitimate practice albeit different than our communal practice – but one that has halakhic justification.” Did he, even for a moment, think that maybe he should ask one of his Roshei Yeshiva whether his halachic argument was solid?

    But even if Rabbi Harcsztark is correct that there are Rishonim that permit the practice, the Issur of “Lo Tisgodedu” accepts that the minority practice has halachic basis (if it didn’t, you wouldn’t need the issur of Lo Tisgodedu – it would be ossur in and of itself). It starts from the acknowledgement of halachic legitimacy to the minority practice, and specifically prohibits this “creation of space” when that is not the accepted practice of the entire rest of the community.

    Further, it’s quite cavalier of Rabbi Harcsztark to argue that his “responsibility was to consider the person before me and the halakha, before considering the political fallout of the decision.” Have spent a significant time in the proximity of several Gedolei Yisrael, my experience has been that this shikul is not at all so clear-cut, and again, had Rabbi Harcsztark paused in his haste to break new ground, and consulted with people head and shoulders more learned and with more experience than him, he might have avoided this entire episode.

    Or perhaps, he didn’t ask because he didn’t want to hear what he knew the answer would be. And that is probably the most frightening possibility of all.

  33. Moishe Potemkin says:

    YA- 1) Had I lived when those innovations appeared, I hope I would have campaigned against them! At this point, those battles are lost.

    Of course, the point was not to question Rabbi Adlerstein’s consistency. It was to demonstrate, as Rabbi Adlerstein himself notes, that the Orthodox world can withstand practices that diverge from the psak of the Rema.

  34. JK says:

    Just to clarify my comment in the third paragraph. I did not intend to imply that political considerations trump halacha. What I meant was that halacha, combined with communal/political considerations, will often times outweigh the wants or desires (however sincerely intended) of the individual. As a terribly over-simplistic example, the kosher status, along with my sincere desire, for the cup of coffee from McDonalds notwithstanding, it may be prohibited to purchase it because of communal concerns (ma’aris ayin).

    One last point. Wouldn’t this have been a wonderful opportunity for those girls to have learned about the halachic system, da’as Torah (a dangerous term, I know), Kavod haTorah, etc, by the Rabbi taking them to speak with Rabbi Shechter or Willig etc at YU to discuss the issue and ask their guidance? Does anyone have any doubt that they would have received a sensitive and intelligent answer (albeit perhaps not what they WANTED to hear). And, in doing that, Rabbi Harcsztark would have served expertly his role as a mechanech, preparing them for the life of an observant Jew, where what we want to do, albeit sincere, might not always be the right thing to do. And our ability to thrive as halachic observant Jews, on some level, boils down to our ability to subjugate those personal wants and desires to the Ratzon H’.

  35. Eli B. says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,

    I hear where you are coming from, and to a certain extent agree. However, after reading the Rema with the Magen Avraham and thinking about it a little, this seems similar (to me, who is certainly not a Posek) to a Gezairah whose reason is given, where we say that if the reason is Batel, the Gezairah is Batel as well (Similar to Mayim Megulim, see Tos. Baitza (IIRC 6a?), and the Shulchan Aruch also paskens that it is Muttar). In this day and age with hygiene products and regular showers, the inability to keep a Guf Naki seemingly no longer exists.

    There are certainly other reasons why girls are not chayiv (and perhaps should not) wear tefilin (The Mechilta regarding Limud HaTorah comes to mind). There is always the adage “Chadash is Assur Min HaTorah” (point to Yashan issue intended). Certainly a posek should say it before we go ahead! But there certainly is room to work with, and more than other issues where we do work with much less wiggle room.

    I think it should also be noted (as others did as well) that in the letter Dorron posted, Rabbi Harcsztark is not saying that he would push girls to wear tefilin, rather that he would not disallow it.

  36. Rafael A. says:

    “Of course, the point was not to question Rabbi Adlerstein’s consistency. It was to demonstrate, as Rabbi Adlerstein himself notes, that the Orthodox world can withstand practices that diverge from the psak of the Rema.”

    The difference is that gender roles in Judaism and its centrality to halochoh and minhag is being challenged. The consequences of ignoring the Rema, Aruch HaShulchan and other gedolei haposkim, and not just paskening directly from the Rishoni, is that once the “genie” of egalitarianism is out “of bottle”, we have an idea, looking at the heterodox movements, what change that could cause. Those other changes are minor compared to what public tefillin wearing will do to cause massive change in Yiddishkeit, and at such a rapid pace (in keeping with the fast paced social upheavals of the last 130 years since Seneca Falls).

  37. Steve Brizel says:

    After rereading the letter of R Harcsztark, I agree with JK’s well reasoned objections-this is nothing more than additional evidence that the inmates are running the asylum on this issue, and that his conclusion was driven by the supporters and fellow travelers of radical egalitarian feminism within some sectors of MO.

  38. Steve Brizel says:

    One wonders what the principals of Ramaz and SAR would do with male students who don Tefilin and refuse to be part of a Shacharis Minyan that allows a woman student to don Tefilin. If such a student was sent home and/or riduculed or criticized publicly or privately in his school for being “intolerant” of the “inclusive” practices based on the cherry picking of the views of the Rishonim , that would be irrefutable evidence that we live in an upside down world which the Talmud described as an Olam Hadfuch, thousands of years before the words “the inmates running the asylumn” were put to ink.

  39. Steve Brizel says:

    Of course, the 800 pound gorilla that noone discusses-how many young men in either school put on Tefilin every day and what is the percentage of students and alumni who are Shomrei Torah UMitzvos?

  40. Steve Brizel says:

    The other 800 pound gorilla that warrants discussion is that many women who advocate ritual change are hardly paragons of adherence of Tznius in their personal lives and their POVs. Take a look at the JOFA website if you want to read anti Tznius rants dressed in what can be best be described as pyschobabble.

  41. Moishe Potemkin says:

    Rafael A.: The difference is that gender roles in Judaism and its centrality to halochoh and minhag is being challenged.

    I think that just begs the question of what appropriate halachic gender roles are in a world where women’s capabilities are understood far differently than in the past.

    I have no pretense of being able to answer that question, but when the arguments depend on clearly inaccurate statements (such as asserting that we always follow the Rema, that poskim never rely on minority opinions, or that it’s fundamental to Judaism that women not accept men’s mitzvot, notwithstanding the examples of semicha, sukkah, lulav, shofar, etc.), they become less compelling.

  42. erlichnotfrum says:

    Steve Brizel,
    On what planet is there a requirement for a male student to refuse to be part of a minyan that allows a woman to don Tefillin? She is on the other side of the mechitza, dressed according to the dress codes of the school…but you think there’s a requirement for some sort of civil disobedience? Please explain this new halacha to us.

  43. Steve Brizel says:

    erlichnotfrum wrote in part:

    “On what planet is there a requirement for a male student to refuse to be part of a minyan that allows a woman to don Tefillin? She is on the other side of the mechitza, dressed according to the dress codes of the school…but you think there’s a requirement for some sort of civil disobedience?

    I think that if the student based on his Mesorah from home and shul views the practice of women donning Tefilin as absolutely beyond the pale of normative halacha, then that student either should daven elsewehere or seriously think of transferring to another school, as opposed to giving legitimacy to an illegitimate practice. Such a student should not be forced to daven with a minyan where radical feminist egalitarian considerations trump mesorah.

  44. Robert Lebovits says:

    It is not simply that non-Orthodox families are insinuating non-Orthodox practices into ostensibly Orthodox educational institutions. Far more critical is the fact that the entire spectrum of feminist & egalitarian concepts that is being promoted as an advancement over normative Orthodox behavior is rooted in decidedly non-Jewish ideologies that are diametrically opposed to the principles and lifestyle that have sustained our Nation through the centuries. A number of proponents of OO innovations have been explicit in describing their motivation as being driven by the aim of transforming religious observance into something wholly different from past generations by rejecting mesorah-based observance and psak. We’ve witnessed for decades the way in which heterodox Judaism has lost its Jewishness in favor of the latest fashion of liberal thinking, with tragic consequences. As those camps are fading into oblivion a parallel process is taking shape in the Torah world. It must be resisted.

  45. Jonathan Uziel says:

    With respect to the contribution to כלל ישראל of Rabbi Avi Weiss, Rabbi Tully Harcsztark etc. Who are they to make such enormous revisions to normative Judaism. These men are not ‘Gedolei Torah’ in any sense – they are community rabbi’s and principals of day schools. It takes utter hubris and churzpa to assume the right to ‘innovate’ in this way. Which ‘Gedolim’ did they consult with, get the support and approbation of to do this? Unfortunately, too many people, like many on this forum, assume that if they can learn a blad gemorrah and read a halachik sefer, that they can render valid opinions. Until I hear Rabbi Shachter or Rabbi Willig or someone of their stature endorsing the opinions of those like Avi Weiss, Tully Harcsztark, ETC. I will consider them as operating outside the realm of halachik Judaism. I am particularly saddened by and disappointed with Avi Weiss who previously made such an enormous political contribution to Am Yisrael.

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