An Open Letter To Rabbi Herzl Hefter

by Rabbi Nahum Spirn

אֵיךְ נָפְלוּ גִבּוֹרִים – How the mighty have fallen. These words, spoken by King David in his eulogy for King Saul, seem to apply oh-all-too well to you, R’ Herzl. How we looked up to you when we were in Gush. How my peers were impressed by your incisive analyses of Rishonim when you taught them Yoreh De’ah in Gruss.

And now, in your recent essay explaining your decision to ordain women: From a few vague sentences in the writings of the Ishbitzer, you bring out not just a new yesod in a sugya (a fundamental, underlying principle in a Talmudic topic). No, not just that. Rather, a whole new yesod turning upside-down all of Jewish intellectual and religious history. How weak a basis can one have (see here)!

So how is it possible? How is it possible that a leading student of Rav Lichtenstein, one who excelled in understanding when a Rishon (early Talmudic commentator) was making a clear point and when he was ambiguous and thus open to interpretation — how can it be that this student takes a few ambiguous and esoteric statements from a few Chassidic masters and says that “our [own] refined moral convictions and moral sensibilities may be considered a form of divine revelation”?

Perhaps the answer, R’ Herzl, is that there are additional sources, sources you did not quote in your essay, that espouse your approach. So let us look at some additional sources:


  • The Ishbitzer did not make up the idea, in the words of R’ Yaakov Elman (here), that there is “much greater room for a dynamic human involvement in the post-Biblical halachic process” than had been assumed by earlier scholars. The idea came from the Ishbitzer’s rebbe, R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa. And it was developed much more in the writings of the Ishbitzer’s talmid (student), R’ Tzaddok HaKohen. Thus he writes in Resisei Layla (p. 14b):
  • Thus, even though later generations are inferior [to earlier ones], they nevertheless maintain their awareness [of knowledge], as dwarfs [on the shoulders of] giants … and they themselves continue the process of this opening of new Gates [of knowledge]. Even though they themselves are greatly inferior [in comparison to their forebears, their insights] are more profound, for they have already passed through the Gates opened for the earlier generations (translation Elman).

2) The Vilna Gaon on Mishlei 16:4 writes:

Every person has his own [spiritual] path to walk… When there were prophets, people would go to the prophets to inquire of God, and the prophet would tell [him] … the path he should take, based on the root of his soul and the nature of his body… And when prophecy ended, there was [still] ruach hakodesh (Divine spirit) in Israel, and each person’s [own] spirit would inform him how to act; for each and every person has ruach hakodesh (translation mine).

Not bad, right?

But let’s go back to analyze these sources, starting with the first:

1) In R’ Gordimer’s response to you, he noted that the Chassidic sources you cited do not at all speak about halachic decision-making or observance. This is true. But let us grant the possibility that they were talking about halacha, too.[1] Does R’ Tzaddok not support you?

It is clear that the answer is no, and this for two completely separate reasons:

  1. a) In halachic matters, who has the authority and the right to create brand new halachic principles? Do the greatest rabbis of the last 1500 years have that right?

They do not. Only Chazal do. The last Amoraim (Sages of the Gemara) were the last of Chazal, and thus the last people to have this authority.[2] The period of the Amoraim ended approximately 1500 years ago. Even the Vilna Gaon did not believe he had the authority to create brand new halachic principles.

R’ Chaim Brisker famously said that our job today is to understand the Rishonim, i.e., to figure out how the Rishonim (Rashi and his colleagues who lived from 1000-1500 C.E.) understood the words of Chazal. In other words, in halachic matters, we don’t even pretend to have the ability to understand Chazal in brand new ways!

  1. b) R’ Tzaddok HaKohen, in the paragraph translated above, speaks of later generations opening “new Gates of knowledge.” This is possible, he writes, because “they have already passed through the Gates opened for the earlier generations.”

But this means that the scholar of the later generation is going in the same direction as the earlier generations. He has passed through various Gates, and now he is able to continue further, opening new Gates. It is obvious that the later-generation scholar cannot contradict what has been taught in the earlier “Gate.” He cannot undo it; it has already been accepted as truth. He can only build upon it.

So, R’ Herzl, would R’ Tzaddok give you the right to create brand new halachic principles? Would he allow you to use your own “refined moral convictions and moral sensibilities” to create a new “Gate” that contradicts all the earlier Gates opened by the scholars throughout Jewish history?!

Certainly not.

Let us go on to the next source.

2) The Vilna Gaon in Mishlei sounds just like you, doesn’t he? “Each person’s [own] spirit would inform him how to act; for each and every person has ruach hakodesh.” Wow.

But let us read further in the very same passage by the Vilna Gaon: 

Praiseworthy is the person whom Hashem considers to be without sin and who has no deceit in his spirit. … But who can say, “My heart has merited,” who has no deceit in his spirit at all, and [that] his nature does not desire and does not lean toward anything but the word of the will of God? … If God forbid there is in his heart a small “root flourishing with gall and wormwood,” then there is deceit in his heart. If [such a person] will act according to [the dictates of] his [own] spirit — and every person’s path is pure and upright in his [own] eyes — he will fall from the heavens to the earth until he will not be able to rise [any more]; he will turn away from the ways of Hashem without realizing [it] himself (translation mine).

So while we might all have ruach hakodesh, evidently that Divine spirit will not help us too much unless we are true and perfect tzaddikim! R’ Herzl, with all due respect, do you qualify? I certainly don’t.

R’ Herzl, these sources cannot justify your “new theology.” What, then, can it be that leads you to posit that “our [own] refined moral convictions and moral sensibilities may be considered a form of divine revelation”?

I am afraid there is but one answer. You have written (here) about your acceptance of the teaching of the Bible scholars that the Torah was written over many centuries and is not entirely the actual Word of Hashem. If this is so, then clearly the things you are writing now, to utilize one of our favorite expressions from Gush, are “le’shitaso” — following one’s own opinion on a related topic elsewhere. If you hold the opinion that human beings can add onto the Torah itself, and their additions can become, for all intents and purposes, the Word of God Himself — then indeed you must hold that “a person’s own convictions and sensibilities are a form of divine revelation.” Le’shitaso.

Here is not the place for a discussion of Biblical Criticism. The idea that Jews in any era would have accepted large-scale additions to their Sifrei Torah seems to me crazy. But I know that arguments have been made. I would like to quote Rav Lichtenstein again. In 1984 a question was posed to Rav Lichtenstein during a Question-and-Answer session (the type of session that came to be known affectionately in later years as a “press conference”). The question was: In light of the ideal of “freedom of inquiry,” why had Rav Lichtenstein strongly discouraged the reading of certain books? (The questioner mentioned two books. One was The Canterbury Tales; I don’t remember the other.) Rav Lichtenstein answered, “First of all, the list of books I would say that one should not read is far longer than the two books you just mentioned.” And then he went on to quote Thomas Aquinas, who said that there are two types of Truth: Truth of Revelation and Truth of Reason. While Truth of Revelation is most powerful – one has heard something directly from God Himself! – nevertheless, Truth of Reason can overpower Truth of Revelation. That is to say, we can become convinced by our logic of something that is against something known to us by revelation. And therefore, Rav Lichtenstein concluded, one should not read books that may “convince” us of something that is against our Tradition.[3]

R’ Herzl, you did not heed our rebbe’s advice. You became convinced by the Bible critics. You have adopted a forbidden belief (no Rishon holds this way!).

It is, of course, your prerogative.

But why did you have to tell everyone? The Gemara (Yoma 86b) rules that if a person committed a sin that is בֵּין אָדָם לַמָּקוֹם (between man and God), he should not publicize it. The Rambam codifies this ruling (Hil. Teshuvah 2:5), calling its violation עַזּוּת פָּנִים (brazenness). It is not right to share one’s religious doubts (or in this case, “certainties” of the falsehood of traditional Torah beliefs); to publish essays that may bring others to do things that are against halacha. To the contrary: Elisha ben Avuyah, the great rebbe of R’ Meir who became a heretic, warned R’ Meir to turn back when the 2000-cubit techum (the limit for walking outside the city on Shabbos) was approaching.[4]

So we come to the original topic: ordaining women. I don’t want to discuss the halacha — I don’t think I’m qualified. (I will tell you that I am a supporter of women learning, and of the Yoetzet Halacha program.) But I have noticed something troubling about the women being “ordained” as Maharats, or as rabbis, or as whatever they may be called: A high percentage of them have expressed, in different ways, a desire to utilize their own “convictions and sensibilities” to change the halachic landscape (see, for example, here, here, and here).[5] These women, whether technically your students, R’ Herzl, or not, appear to be highly in tune with your kind of thinking. What prevents them from wreaking havoc with the halakhic system?

You provided the answer. You wrote that your basis for ordaining women was your “new theology.” And you wrote that humility will enable those who follow the “new theology” to “avoid falling into a totally subjective scheme in which anything goes and my personal preferences take precedence over all else, including the Halakha.”

But creating a new theology — one that is not supported by any Rishon or Acharon — how is that consistent with humility?

Who is actually guilty, in the Ishbitzer’s words, of “creating God in our own image”?

SAM_0229[1] After all, as R’ Elman points out, R’ Tzaddok in his writings refers repeatedly to Moshe Rabbeinu not understanding the novel points in R’ Akiva’s shiur many centuries later (Menachos 29b) — and the shiur was almost certainly on halachic topics, as the Gemara itself implies.

[2] See Bava Metzia 86a: רבינא ור’ אשי – סוף הוראה. See also Rambam, Introduction to Mishneh Torah, that all of Klal Yisrael is bound by the rabbinic legislation found in the Gemara and earlier works penned by Chazal; legislation penned later is binding only on local communities.

[3] Rav Lichtenstein’s advice was based, of course, on the words of Chazal, who taught:  “הַרְחֵק מֵעָלֶיהָ דַרְכֶּךָ” זוֹ הַמִּינוּת, which means: Distance your way from “it” — this refers to heresy (Koheles Rabbah 1:24).

[4] Chagigah 15a; Rus Rabbah 6:4 (on Rus 3:13); Koheles Rabbah 7:18 (on Koheles 7:8).

[5] For a Yeshiva Maharat graduate who apparently doesn’t even feel comfortable identifying with Orthodoxy, see the end of the article here.

Rabbi Spirn is a graduate of Gush, YU, Revel, and RIETS. He also has Semicha Yadin-Yadin (from Torah Vo’daas) and Semicha in Hilchos Gittin (from R’ Gedalia Dov Schwartz and R’ Zalman Nechemia Goldberg). He has served in the rabbinate and taught in a wide spectrum of yeshivos.


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11 Responses

  1. Dan M says:

    I am a MO student at YCT who agrees with the critiques of Rabbi Hefter’s new theology. I hope no one tries to paint with a broad brush that his radical essay is the officIal doctrine for anyone but himself. Thank you Rabbi Spirn.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    As bad as OO pseudo-analysis and pseudo-halacha are, the fact that many people can fall for it, unless guided by hand through the maze of silliness to detect the basic problems, could be worse yet. What essential background information do people who pass through our schools lack?

  3. Bob Miller says:

    As bad as OO pseudo-analysis and pseudo-halacha are, the fact that many people can fall for these, unless guided by hand through the maze of silliness to detect the basic problems, could be worse yet. What essential types of background information do people who pass through our schools lack?

  4. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi Spirn, I appreciate that you provided an alternative to Rabbi Gordimer’s (unfounded) assertion that Rav Zadok ztl was referring to hashkafa only. Your reference to Professor Elman (as well as Prof. Avi Sagi’s book on the Open Canon) provide more than adequate proof that Rav Zadok meant halakha, primarily.

    However, you then veer off in various directions asserting things that you believe, and might generally apply, but are hardly normative, attempting to counter Rabbi Hefter (and Rav Zadok.)

    First, wrt to the Talmudic sages, I was reminded of Rabbi Meiselman’s view by your assertion of their uniqueness. This is not the venue for a full discussion of halakha ke’basrayi or yiftach be’doro ke’shmuel be’doro, which would seem to counter your assertion. Chazal provide a plethora of disparate views, some would appear support your view. But le’mayseh, as the Rav ztl demonstrated in his yartzeit shiur, shenai minai masaoret, the reason we treat the gemara as authoritative is hiskimuh bah kol Yisroel, as opposed to some qualitative distinction of chazal. (That view of the Rav happens to have strong academic/historic support.)

    Second, your view that achronim and contemporaries 1) cannot argue on rishonim in a halakhic matter and 2) cannot offer new interpretations of Talmudic text, I believe have counter-examples, particularly 2), which has many. While the Baal HaTanya, brought many proofs countering Rabbeinu Tam’s end of a day from geonim and rishonim, the Gaon’s arguments were primarily based on science, logic and his reading of the Talmudic text. In no sense did he rely on earlier sources. As an aside, a comment by R. Chaim Volozhiner interpreting a line in that sugyah, kochav echad yom, does not, as best as I know, exist previously ANYWHERE in halachik literature. Of course, I would not be foolish enough to equate any contemporary to the Gaon and R. Chaim, but it is incontrovertible, that Brisk created a NEW methodology for Talmudic study, despite Rav Chaim Brisker’s viewpoint. The intro by Rav Agus ztl to the Marcheshet, makes this point even more dramatically. And I don’t even have to quote from academic studies in these areas.

    We are mekhadaish both interpretation and halakha. I happen to be re-reading a chapter of “Divine Law in Human Hands,” on metzitzah. Let me quote the late prof. Katz: “For some people, the observable changes in halakha during the course of history will support the negation of its eternal validity. For others its adaptability to changing conditions will guarantee its continued preservation.” The work of Prof. Katz and the many who follow in his footsteps, demonstrate the validity of the latter sentence.

    As to Bible criticism, I will follow what you said as opposed to what you then did and withhold comment.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    R Spirn deserves a huge Yasher Koach for pointing out where the adherents of OO have simply gone beyond any reasonable definition of a committed MO.

  6. Rabbi Spirn says:

    While Rabbi Hefter might indeed speak only for himself, I am afraid that Rabbi Lopatin speaks for YCT. And he has written (morethodoxy website, July 26,2013) that Rabbi Farber’s opinions on the subject of the authorship of the Bible — which I suspect are more extreme than Rabbi Hefter’s — are “different from, and in some ways contradictory to, what we teach and ask our students to believe at YCT,” and that while those views are “on the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking on this subject…Rav Zev is a big enough talmid chacham to defend his Orthodoxy from all his critics. We support his honesty…”

    Please. These views are far beyond the outer boundaries of Orthodox thinking (as Rabbi Lopatin knows). And if someone honestly believes a different unacceptable belief, for example that all Jews or blacks are evil, would we “support their honesty” for publicly saying so?

    And just a few weeks ago, commenting on Facebook (not his own page), Rabbi Lopatin defended Rabbi Farber again, even more strongly: “We are proud of the work Rabbi Zev Farber is doing to bring many Jews closer to the Divine Torah. I am told many Orthodox Jews are downloading and printing essays from his website for their Shabbat reading. May we all grow in love of Hashem and Hashem’s Torah in our own unique ways.”

    So. We all have our “unique ways” of connecting with “Hashem’s Torah” — which was written by man.

    Dan, I don’t know you. And certainly I’m glad you agree with my critiques of Rabbi Hefter’s new theology. But you are learning in a yeshiva which officially countenances — nay, encourages — individuals coming up with their own unique opinions on everything, however foreign to Orthodoxy they may be, however they may fly in the face of thousands of years of Jewish teachings. And this is as radical a philosophy for an Orthodox rabbinical school as one can imagine. Because so many of your older peers who have been ordained by YCT publish (and publish and publish) how “as an Orthodox rabbi I believe” this, and “as an Orthodox rabbi I hold” that — while in truth, these beliefs and opinions are not Orthodox at all. This is false advertising, and it is confusing the heck out of masses of less knowledgeable Jews.

    Hatzlacha to you.

  7. Shmuel says:

    How is it possible that a leading student of Rav Lichtenstein, … how can it be that this student takes a few ambiguous and esoteric statements from a few Chassidic masters and says that “our [own] refined moral convictions and moral sensibilities may be considered a form of divine revelation”?

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these matters are coming to the fore after Rav Lichtenstein’s passing.

  8. EWZS says:

    As someone who is very sympathetic to the YCT/OO agenda of trying to reconcile liberal values and our tradition, it is painful to see how its leaders are their own worst enemies. As R. Spirin notes, the Hefter piece is shockingly weak. The corrective to deciding on the basis of pure religious inspiration is…. our capacity for reason??

    If it wasn’t already obvious why this is an obtuse defense of any religion rooted in revelation, it may be sufficient to point out that the belief in the documentary hypothesis is not based on effective use of our rational faculties. The DH does not meet basic standards required of a scientific theory, first and foremost that its claims must be falsifiable with empirical evidence. As Ben Zion Katz puts it, the DH is like “evolution without fossils.” You’d think that someone had found other documents by these authors that were woven together to form our Torah? Nope, and they say they never will since the claim is that these were oral traditions. Ok so at least you’d think that there is evidence from other cultures of composite texts that were woven together like the Torah supposedly was. As R. Spirin suggests, it seems hard to believe that people would tolerate the mushing together of their holy books, so you’d like some evidence that this has occurred somewhere. Sorry Charlie. These problems and others are admitted in internal discussions by source critics (See e.g., Ben Sommer’s recent article “Dating Pentateuchal Texts and the Perils of Pseudo-Historicism” where he acknowledges that they have no idea how to date various texts. And see e.g., Seth Sanders’s forthcoming article “What if There Aren’t Any Empirical Models for Pentateuchal Criticism?,” where he basically acknowledges that there is no empirical basis for source criticism) but they are loath to fully admit it publicly. In particular, people like R. Farber and present source-criticism as settled science (certainly R. Hefter assumes this in the essay that is linked above) when it is in fact pseudoscience cynically peddled to the scientifically illiterate. And this pseudoscience’s enduring ability to hoodwink is the best evidence one can imagine for the fallibility of our capacity for reason.

    (Note that I respectfully disagree with R. Spirin’s suggestion that we should avoid reading the academic bible studies literature. I do think though that one should have a good *scientific* education, as well as Jewish education, before so doing and also perhaps a good appreciation for key lessons from the history and sociology of science, among which are that a paradigm founded in weak evidence and logic can retain significant strength for generations)

    What’s very very sad is that those who suffer the consequences of such leadership include many people who are authentically struggling with apparent contradictions between their commitment to our tradition and the strong pull of values that seem to reflect the Torah’s spirit but not received Halacha. We need rabbinic leaders who can address this challenge in a way that effectively addresses the valid concern that any break with our tradition is tantamount to throwing off the yoke of heaven.

  9. YB says:

    The answer to “eich naflo giborim” is clear. The answer is shochad. Not the $$ type but the sincere desire to be the champion of these women and seeing them as aniim that need a champion. The reality is though that a dayan is not allowed to favor the ani either. The interesting thing is that HH fails even “leshitaso” since his “birrur” misses this shochad.

  10. David Z says:

    I had the great merit of having R’ Spirn as a rebbe.. So nice to hear his words again. But… Why Canterbury Tales?? I would love to see a list of these books.

  11. Avner Zarmi says:

    Shalom Aleichem R’ Nachum!

    Thank you very much for this incisive analysis of Rabbi Hdefter’s recent and shocking decision. It is very well reasoned and very well presented, and one can only hope that it will cause Rabbi Hefter to reconsider his various positions, and return to the good.

    Your old chavrusa from Milwaukee,

    Avi Zarmi

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