Halachic Process and Rabbinic Authority: R. Yissocher Katz’ Response to R. Schachter
by Avrohom Gordimer
When challenging a world-eminent halachic master, be prepared. Nice try, but…
These thoughts immediately came to mind upon reading the response of R. Ysoscher Katz chair of the Department of Talmud at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, to R. Hershel Schachter’s p’sak prohibiting Partnership Minyanim – public prayer groups which identify themselves as Orthodox, in which women lead parts of the public service, such as Kabbalas Shabbos and Pesukei Z’Dimra. (See also here , here , here and here )
Let’s look at R. Schachter’s p’sak and then turn to R. Katz’ response. As this requires detail and focus, and cannot be presented summarily, we need to break it down by section.
I. R. Schachter’s P’sak
In his p’sak, R. Schachter demonstrates that the Ruach Ha-Halacha (Spirit of the Law) is a legal principle that governs halachic decision-making, and that innovations in Torah practice, even if they otherwise would appear to be technically legitimate, must be vetted by the greatest halachic masters of the generation (gedolei ha-dor), who are trained and attuned to the Ruach Ha-Halacha and can discern whether a certain practice conforms thereto. R. Schachter then demonstrates that every innovative practice must be adjudicated and approved by the gedolei ha-dor in order to prevent error, and he notes that such approval is glaringly absent in the case of Partnership Minyanim. R. Schachter cites the case of the Reform movement, which initially had technical halachic justification for its innovations, yet did not consult with gedolei ha-dor, and subsequently descended into outright halachic violation and abandonment in a short span of time, evidencing its wholly flawed inception.
R. Schachter explains that the basis for submission to rabbinic authority flows from the mitzvah of Ahavas Hashem (Love of God), such that we accept upon ourselves the authority of Chazal (the Sages of the Talmud) and the gedolei ha-dor as a manifestation of commitment to Hashem beyond that which He mandated in the Torah – similar to one who loves another person and seeks to do things that show commitment to that person above and beyond that which is strictly required.
R. Schachter then turns to the issue of motivation and demonstrates from the Sadducean and early Christian challenges made to Chazal’s interpretation of Dinei Yerushah (Laws of Inheritance) that one’s motivation for introducing innovations needs to pass muster, and that an invalid motivation, such as the Sadducean and early Christian quest to rectify their perceived rabbinic prejudice against women in Dinei Yerushah, per force invalidates the innovation. R. Schachter identifies as invalid the motivation behind Partnership Minyanim – a motivation to rectify perceived wrongs on the part of rabbinic leadership from time immemorial that denied women the right to lead public services – and rules that this on its own merits invalidates the innovation of Partnership Minyanim.
Another reason that Partnership Minyanim should not be permitted, continues R. Schachter, is the Torah axiom that requires people to conduct themselves privately and with modesty, such that one’s private/modest mode may be compromised only as necessary. Hence, since men are obligated in public tefillah, they must take leadership roles therein and compromise their private/modest mode, whereas women, who are not subject to a public tefillah obligation, should not take leadership roles therein for this reason. (R. Schachter applies this same axiom to prohibit the ordination of women for the rabbinate.)
After affirming that the phenomenon of Partnership Minyanim lacks approval of gedolei ha-dor and is thus not in consonance with the Ruach Ha-Halacha and with our age-old Mesorah (Tradition), from which one must not veer, R. Schachter concludes by explaining, as elucidated by R. Soloveitchik zt”l, that it is prohibited to adopt practices that represent the undermining of Torah, such as the practices of deviationist movements, even if such practices present no inherent objections. Hence, since women leading services is a practice of the non-Orthodox movements, adopted by them as reform and rejection of Torah practice, it is prohibited.
II. R. Katz’ Response – The Details
Surprisingly, R. Katz does not muster any halachic arguments, nor does he directly address R. Schachter’s actual ruling. Rather, R. Katz focuses on R. Schachter’s proofs and methodology, questioning, challenging and disputing R. Schachter in these areas.
Let’s first look at some of the main objections raised by R. Katz, after which we will take a step back and see what the larger message is and where this is all heading.
A. R. Katz begins the main initial objection in his response by arguing that, as he understands the function in R. Schachter’s p’sak of the concept of going beyond that which is strictly required in serving Hashem, reflective of Ahavas Hashem, this concept actually supports innovators (and undermines R. Schachter’s p’sak). In other words, R. Schachter’s p’sak relies upon and validates a concept which inspires people to innovate, as they seek out new ways to serve Hashem; this would seem to contradict the prohibitive stance of R. Schachter’s p’sak, argues R. Katz.
R. Katz misunderstands R. Schachter’s thesis, for R. Schachter clearly explains that Ahavas Hashem provides the basis for accepting rabbinic authority (and serving Hashem in other ways beyond the letter of the law) – it does not provide license to introduce unchecked religious innovations. Suggesting that the concept of Ahavas Hashem supports religious innovations that are not vetted by gedolei ha-dor is wholly unsupported by the presentation of Ahavas Hashem in R. Schachter’s p’sak.
B. R. Katz then asks how R. Schachter can impute invalid motivation, or any motivation, to the innovators.
The reality is that countless first-person articles and numerous interviews affirm that those who promote Partnership Minyanim largely maintain that our Mesorah of male-led services is incorrect or lacking, with many feeling that the traditional male-led service is reflective of rabbinic bias that must be rectified or is antiquated. Hence, R. Schachter is not imagining or conjuring up supposed invalid motivations; these motivations have been specifically expressed repeatedly by those behind Partnership Minyanim – no guesswork is needed. (Yes, many who participate in Partnership Minaynim may be sincere, but the concept and establishment of Partnership Minyanim offends the motivational requirement as described by R. Schachter.)
C. R. Katz subsequently argues that the Sadducees were not the first to challenge perceived inequity in Dinei Yerushah, for B’nos Tzelophchad (the daughters of Tzelophchad) objected directly to Moshe Rabbeinu on this very point; there is thus Biblical precedent for objection in such Yerushah cases.
R. Katz’ argument here has a fatal flaw. B’nos Tzelophchad proffered their request to Moshe before Halacha had been finalized; Moshe had the luxury of appealing to Hashem for consideration of the claim of B’nos Tzelophchad, as Halacha was still in process. Many mitzvos had not yet been commanded, and notable exceptions in mitzvah application had likewise not yet been presented. The case of Bnos Tzelofchad is wholly unrelated to modern-day objections to perceived halachic inequity with concomitant innovations in attempt to rectify or modify halachic practice, once Halacha was finalized millennia ago.
D. Taking issue with R. Schachter’s proof from the early Christians regarding the above topic, R. Katz cites a different Talmudic source which indicates that mistreatment of women led to the founding of Christianity. R. Katz’ argues that, contrary to R. Schachter’s presentation, Chazal taught that the quest to prevent mistreatment of women was not a motivation identified with the early Christians, for lack of such motivation actually resulted in apostasy to Christianity.
With all due respect to R. Katz, his argument entirely misses R. Schachter’s point. Yes, mistreatment of women is to be condemned in the harshest terms, and Talmudic sources thoroughly profess such. But R. Schachter’s point is that an invalid motivation, such as seeking to modify Halacha due to a claim that it discriminates against women, is to be condemned and in fact invalidates any innovative religious practice predicated upon such motivation. R. Schachter was not in any way addressing the obvious need to protect women from mistreatment or the message of the separate Talmudic narrative that R. Katz brought forth, for such is immaterial to the motivational requirement elucidated by R. Schachter and is a separate topic.
E. R. Katz then challenges R. Schachter’s assertion that one may not compromise his or her privacy or modesty unless required. R. Katz cites the Biblical stories of 1) Dovid Ha-Melech (King David) dancing exuberantly before the Aron Ha-B’ris (Ark of the Covenant), for which his wife Michal admonished him for lowering himself before the masses, as she saw it, and 2) the Jewish women in Egypt who, per aggadic explanation, comforted and coaxed their wearied, enslaved husbands to intimacy using metallic fashion mirrors, thereby conceiving and giving birth to multitudes of Jewish children. Dovid and these women voluntarily compromised their modesty in the service of God, argues R. Katz, and they were lauded by Chazal for their actions – in contradiction to R. Schachter’s thesis, as R. Katz sees it.
R. Katz again is inaccurate. Dovid was admonished by Michal for behaving in what she felt was an undignified manner – not for compromising modesty. It was Dovid’s compromised kavod (honor/dignity), and not a lack of modesty, which Michal protested. So too, the women in the aggadic narrative with the mirrors conducted themselves in private and did not unnecessarily compromise their privacy and modesty. (In the aggadic narrative referenced by R. Katz, Moshe was concerned due to the use of the mirrors for intimate purposes – not due to their use for unnecessary compromise of modesty.) R. Schachter’s point was that one should remain a private personality to the extent possible; the story of these women, and of Dovid, is not pertinent to his argument.
F. R. Katz concludes his critique of R. Schachter’s p’sak with a strong objection to R. Schachter’s statement in the name R. Soloveitchik zt”l that it is prohibited to adopt practices which represent the undermining of Torah, such as those of deviationist movements, even if such practices present no other objection. R. Katz asserts that Zionism and modernity, which have legitimate religious manifestations, were in fact initially formulated as deviations from Torah, yet were later incorporated by gedolei Torah into legitimate religious paths (Torah Im Derech Eretz and Religious Zionism) – in contradiction to R. Schachter’s thesis.
R. Katz misses the point of R. Soloveitchik zt”l that R. Schachter was presenting. This point is that specific customs and religious rites that represent the undermining of Torah by may not be adopted. This includes women leading general prayer services, as well as conducting the service mainly in the vernacular, moving the bimah for reading the Torah to the front of the shul, women laying tefillin (see here http://www.matziv.com/pictures/ravschachtertefillinteshuvah ), the use of an organ for services, and so forth. That which is not a religious rite or custom representing the undermining of Torah, such as political movements, secular studies, and so forth, are not included in this prohibition.
G. R. Katz’ concluding remarks ask R. Schachter to clarify fully the criteria for determining what the Ruach Ha-Halacha is for each case, who can determine what the Ruach Ha-Halacha is, how it is done, and what its parameters are. R. Katz then includes R. Schachter in a supplication that “the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) should rest upon our endeavors and God’s Name should be sanctified through us”.
What we see in R. Katz’ response on the micro level – and I mean no offense – are inaccurate and even at times petty objections, leaving the substance of R. Schachter’s p’sak unchallenged. Whereas R. Schachter presents a conceptual halachic thesis, R. Katz argues off point, largely without depth (R. Katz’ questions about Ruach Ha-Torah, as if it were to him a foreign idea, underscore this), and without success in the final outcome; he attempted to cut down a few saplings but could not penetrate the forest. R. Katz took a tit-for-tat approach, and the tit did not at all measure up to the tat.
III. The Larger Picture
Although I omitted it from the above presentation, the introductory segment of R. Katz‘ critique focused on R. Schachter’s assertion in the initial section of his p’sak that not everyone who has rabbinic ordination may render an halachic opinion, with R. Schachter noting a brief case in point from the Va’ad Arba Ha’Aratzos (Council of the Four Lands – the communal organization of much of Ashkenazic Jewry in the latter part of the second millennium), which stipulated that no one could publish an halachic sefer without rabbinic approbations. R. Katz thereupon argued that indeed several eminent halachic sefarim were published beyond the jurisdiction of the Va’ad Arba Ha’Aratzos without rabbinic approbations, for the authors’ rabbinic ordination itself licensed these great rabbonim to express their halachic opinions. I also omitted in Section II that, before putting forth his main objections to R. Schachter’s p’sak, R. Katz brought a flurry of sources that require a rav to render halachic rulings, as well as a source that argued against the Ramo’s universally-accepted concept of centralized rabbinic authority via halachic codification.
Aside from the fact that these sources mustered by R. Katz in no way challenge anything Rav Schachter wrote, as Rav Schachter began his p’sak with the axiom that one who has not achieved a level of halachic mastery should not render halachic rulings – an axiom not contested by any of the sources proffered by R. Katz in his effort to halt R. Schachter (notwithstanding R. Katz’ unconvincing attempt at the beginning of his response to show that Rashi would take issue, based on a linguistic inference from the Maharsha on the Aggadeta), and R. Schachter brought the case of the Va’ad Arba Ha’Aratzos as a mere example and not as an all-encompassing, dispositive rule, there is a far broader message being sent here by R. Katz.
The foundation of the approach to Halacha that R. Katz, his associates and constituency promote is one of autonomy – that the local rabbi often need not defer to greater rabbinic authority and consensus. R. Katz attempted to promote the notion of rabbinic autonomy via the sources he presented in the introductory segment of his critique, arguing that every rabbi should render halachic rulings, apparently even if he does not meet the criteria of halachic mastery set forth by R. Schachter. With the exception of the extreme minority opinion R. Katz quoted which disagreed with centralized halachic codification, no other sources mustered by R. Katz support any part of his thesis of rabbinic autonomy. The sources that emphasize that a rav must not shy away from rendering halachic rulings have nothing to do with autonomy; as explained, these sources do not affect anything that R. Schachter wrote in his p’sak, which stipulated that only one with a comprehensive mastery of Halacha should render halachic rulings.
The concept of rabbinic autonomy has been at the core of so many recent controversies involving personalities associated with R. Katz’ yeshiva – controversies regarding conversion standards, feminization of the service, women laying tefillin (please see here ), and more. R. Katz’ response represented, on a broad level, a failed attempt to justify total rabbinic autonomy.
In fact, the tone and concluding supplication in R. Katz’ response reflect an air of equivalency – that he and R. Schachter are colleagues in a peer rabbinic debate, in which one rabbi feels that he has in part pulled the rug out from beneath the other rabbi in collegial rabbinic discourse. I have read many, many halachic debate responsa, yet I have rarely, until now, observed someone challenge and present himself to a senior posek and rosh yeshiva as an equal of sorts as one observes in R. Katz’ critique of R. Schachter, R. Katz’ honorific verbiage regarding R. Schachter notwithstanding.
R. Katz made a valiant effort, but after the smoke quickly clears, what emerges is a successful and enthusiastic affirmation by R. Schachter for the roles of rabbinic authority and Mesorah as the essential and eternal pillars of Torah.
Rabbi Gordimer is a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, as well as the New York Bar. The opinions in the above article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of any other individuals or entities.