Saturday, March 07, 2009

R' Feitman on Yoatzot Halacha: Second Letter

In this past week's Five Towns Jewish Times, there was a piece published by R' Yaakov Feitman (formerly the Rav of my parents' shul in Cleveland, currently the Rav of "The Red Shul" in the Five Towns) about the issue of Yoatzot Halachah - female halachic advisors. Upon reading the article, I will readily state that I was less than impressed by the arguments cited. Certainly, the examples of a shtender or the tzuras haDaf as examples of not altering our mesorah came off poorly; as commenters on the piece noted, it is difficult to imagine that Moshe Rabbeinu learned at a shtender or that a form created by a non-Jew to allow for easier printing is somehow such an important part of our tradition. Furthermore, only after a later closer reading was it clearer just how R' Feitman intended the role of the rebbetzin and how that was quite dissimilar to that of the proposed yoetzet. Prior to that, my reaction had been to wonder how what he described was different than what was expected of a yoetzet.

Between my own confusion as to his article and after reading other (disrespectful) criticisms elsewhere, I decided to contact R' Feitman asking for a clarification: [e-mail was sent to Rebbetzin Feitman; only relevant parts included]
I'm writing because I feel like your husband is going to get harshly criticized for the Yoetzet piece in the 5TJT. [...] the substance of the piece comes off rather weakly, I have to say. A careful reading suggests that a few points come off a little differently than he may have intended, so perhaps a clarification would help, though certain points simply don't work well.

Not sure why I'm writing this, just felt somewhat frustrated reading it originally. Perhaps R' Feitman could rewrite it in a way that comes off more clearly? I don't know. But it felt important enough to comment to you/him about.
R' Feitman wrote a letter in response to me, beginning with a simple statement noting that he has no further intention in responding in any way, feeling that he has said what he needs to say and is moving on to other things. He then shared a few thoughts for my own sake, but allowed me to quote him if I felt it would be productive. As I had a much greater understanding of his position after reading the points he made, I have decided that the same may be true for others and have decided to do so. [again, only relevant portions included]
Dear Ezzie:

Sholom Aleichem.

[...]

Regarding your e-mail and my article, [...] I actually have no intention of further responding in any way. I said what I needed to say and am moving on to other things.

However, for your sake only, I will share a few thoughts. Feel free to quote me if you feel it will be productive:

1. I purposely did not cite sources.

Much of Torah decision-making and Hashkafah positions are more related to the essence of the Torah and elemental issues than to a particular footnote. It is famous that Poskim treated the "Yirah Li" ("I believe") of the Rosh as a stronger statement than when he sourced his P'sak. There is a famous story to this effect as well with Rav Chaim Soloveitchik and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodjenski. As a matter of fact, Rav Soloveitchik ZTL used this method in responding to Ben Gurion's famous "Who is a Jew?" query. He chose to answer succinctly and with almost no sources jointly with Rav Chaim Heller. The point he was making was
  • a. There is no need for us both to respond since this is basic and there is only one Torah;
  • b. This does not require lengthy analysis or pilpul. It is self-evident-poshut.
2. The points about women being more comfortable with a woman than with a man are of course all valid. My only contention was that this has certainly not gotten worse in recent times. If anything, I believe the opposite is true and there IS a time-honored approach to this matter. I am well aware that Nishmat advocates that the Yoatzot turn to a Posek for complicated or novel issues. However, this is not enough. The sense from the Nishmat web site and literature is that they believe their training is sufficient for the overwhelming majority of Shaalos. This is simply not true. They provide a great deal of INFORMATION. However, even basic P'sak often involves methodology and training far beyond the purvey of those with a thousand or even two thousand hours of study. It is, of course, true that not every Rov is a Posek or the expert we all ought to be. But that does not justify ejecting millenia of tradition.

3. I never, obviously, would claim that a shtender, Tzuras Hadaf or particular type of shiur was the sine qua non of Torah study but the point I was making was that Tzurah or form is part of the tradition of Torah. Clearly, there are numerous legitimate forms -- Chassidim, Sepahardim, Hungarians, Litvaks each maintain authentic but different Tzuros. However, each of those groups would be guilty of a lapse in their own Mesorah if one of their leaders unilaterally cancelled his own tradition even in favor of one of the others. Rav Hershel Schechter, who speaks often in my Shul, has written eloquently in his Nefesh Harav (in the name of the Rov) and especially in his lengthy essay "Tz'ei Lach B'ikvei Hatzon" of the requirement in Torah of emulating earlier generations in both format and substance. This applies most urgently to this subject because we are speaking about the Mesoras Hatorah. We have nothing more sacred than this.

4. Another source which I did not quote (but of course could have) is the famous Yam Shel Shlomo No.9 on the Gemara in Bava Kamma 38a which seems to indicate Jewish bias toward gentiles concerning monetary matters. The Maharshal in this sefer asks, why couldn’t the rabbis have simply withheld the one Mishnah in all of Shas which caused difficulty? The answer, he writes, is that when it comes to presenting the Torah accurately even a sin of omission is as bad as a sin of commission, and may not be utilized even if it means putting all of k'lal yisroel into danger. Analogies are always imperfect and dangerous but it is clear from this Gemara and Maharshal that one must be extraordinarily careful when tampering with any Mesorah.

Those who make the point about changes brought about by individuals such as Sarah Schnierer etc. are correct. However, she did go to the Chofetz Chaim, Gerrer Rebbe and others, the Gedolei and Ziknei HaDor, who with the the most profound of gravity, decided that these innovations were acceptable and necessary for the survival of K’lal Yisroel. This process has certainly not happened with the Yoatzot.

There is much more but it is Erev Shabbos [...]

B'ahava,

Rabbi Yaakov Feitman
At this point it is important to remember what R' Feitman's original intent was in publishing the article in the 5TJT:
...Since this was reported without critical comment or dissent, I feel that an alternative view must be presented to your readers. So please consider this article a macha’ah—one man’s protest and disagreement with the “rave reviews” this project has reportedly received.
His intent was not and does not seem to be to pasken or say with finality that the idea of a yoetzet is anathema to and must be rejected as an attack on Jewish tradition. Rather, he seems to be simply noting an alternative way of looking at the issue by making a few succint points about how it seems to have come about and what the purpose of it is, by questioning why it is necessary and what it really adds. This does not mean that there is no merit to the other side of the discussion, but merely questions whether those merits outweigh or countermand the tradition that is already in place and properly address the other points that have been raised. Certainly, it is worthwhile to think about these issues from both sides before rushing to judgment either way.

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