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Response to the Open Letter from Josh Stadlan

on Monday, January 27 2014. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Dear Josh,

I appreciate your response to my recent column and enjoy the opportunity to engage in lively discourse about a topic that is clearly close to your heart.  The passion with which you wrote and the articulateness you bring to your arguments are a testament, I believe, to your family, our Boca schools, and our community.  I can only wish that all of our youth would feel similarly invested in the tradition that we hold so dear and take the time to research a cherished mitzvah and write about it at length, as you did.

In your letter, you wonder why my discussion of mechzei k’yuhara, appearance of religious hubris, was directed at a yeshiva high school’s decision to allow its female students to wear tefillin, rather than “other humrot in our community that violate communal norm.”  Your question is legitimate, and it gives me the opportunity to perhaps refine my original argument.

Indeed, we live in a time when personal stringencies and custom abound, not all of which conform to typical communal practices.  Some of them are clearly praiseworthy, and some of them, as you suggest, may stray into the territory of “mechzei k’yuhara.”  In general, I do not take public stances on them, neither in favor nor against, mostly because I believe these practices are private, delicate issues that are best handled in that realm.

Therefore, I have nothing to say about individual women who have developed a practice of donning tefillin.  I neither endorse them nor condemn them; it is none of my business.  As you effectively point out, I could have been more clear about this in my original column, and I thank you for providing me with the opportunity to clarify now.

I sincerely apologize to the two girls who precipitated this entire discussion for leaving an impression in any way that their motivation or sincerity is in question.  I have no doubt that they are l’sheim shamayim and admire and applaud their enthusiasm for a mitzvah, even if I disagree with the particular observance.  My blog was never directed at them.

Rather, my comments are directed at those who want to make a public endorsement of a particular practice, which, objectively, deviates from the accepted norm for the Orthodox community. It is with the wisdom of this move, and the possibility of “mechzei k’yuhara, appearance of religious hubris” within it, that I took issue.

Josh, despite your carefully reasoned halachic arguments, I maintain my reservations about the need for a new public policy regarding women and tefillin, in the context of the myriad of educational and other communal challenges that currently face us.

Finally, Josh, I have to admit that your letter confused me on one point.  On the one hand, your letter begins with lengthy, impressive segments of deep, Talmudic analysis, including a careful reading of the gemara in Eruvin 96b.  Towards the end of your letter, however, you cite a litany of seemingly embarrassing quotes from the Talmud and other rabbinic literature, including a characterization of Perek “Besula Niseis” that I would rather not repeat here, all of which you clearly distance yourself from.

That leaves me wondering:  Is the Talmud an authoritative text for you or not?  If parts of it are so distasteful to you, then how can you build halachic arguments out of other sections?  If the Talmud and the rabbinic tradition are not authoritative for you, do you derive your conceptions of Judaism from a different source?

I thank you again for the opportunity to participate in this exchange that I know is “for the sake of Heaven.”



Rabbi Efrem Goldberg


To read Josh’s letter, click here:  Open Letter from Josh Stadlan

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  1. selia permalink

    Rabbi Goldberg,

    In the first line of your piece “Avoiding the Appearance of Religious Hubris”, dated January 24, 2014, you refer to a “prominent Modern Orthodox high school (that) announced this week that girls who want to wear tefillin during davening at school would be permitted to do so.” Most of the commentary I have read on the issue of women and tefillin relates to SAR High School, but I don’t believe SAR made any such “announcement.” To the best of my knowledge, SAR’s internal policy re: young women and tefillin was set forth in a private email to faculty on December 8, 2013, an e-mail which was subsequently widely publicized by a student journalist from Shalhevet High School who claimed that he had “obtained” the private e-mail.

    (In fact, in a November 2013 Shalhevet newspaper article, the very same student journalist polled various high school principals on the subject of women and tefillin but did not even report any discussion with SAR High School. Rather, the journalist spoke with SAR Academy Principal Bini Krausz who told him that the (lower school) had not dealt with the issue recently and therefore did not have a policy on it.)

    As such, I am assuming that your comments, which you have since noted in your open letter to Josh Stadlan were “directed at those who want to make ‘a public endorsement’ of a particular practice (emphasis added)”, do not apply to SAR High School.

    ( I am also wondering what the halacha is regarding “obtaining” e-mails and publishing them?)

  2. yonibrander permalink

    Some people who don’t have facebook have asked me to post my comment here:

    While not to publicly comment on the larger Teffillin matter- I would like to share a comment I made to Rabbi Goldberg’s post on his blog/facebook page regarding the matter of how one can accept the Talmud from a legal perspective but reject the negative portrayal of women found in some of its comments:

    “Towards the end of your letter, however, you cite a litany of seemingly embarrassing quotes from the Talmud and other rabbinic literature, including a characterization of Perek “Besula Niseis” that I would rather not repeat here, all of which you clearly distance yourself from.

    That leaves me wondering: Is the Talmud an authoritative text for you or not? If parts of it are so distasteful to you, then how can you build halachic arguments out of other sections? If the Talmud and the rabbinic tradition are not authoritative for you, do you derive your conceptions of Judaism from a different source?”–REG

    I do not pretend to speak for Josh Stadlan but it is reasonable to suggest that there are aspects of the Talmud that are troubling in the way they portray women. And while these might have been the best of the wisdom of its time- it reflects a problematic outlook from a more modern perspective. This is a philosophical and cultural point far removed from the world of legal precedent. The Talmud’s legal precedent can be binding even if its attitude towards women is not.

    One can accept the legal principles of Kiddushin, Ketubot, Gittin and Nidah even if you reject much of the perspectives on gender that are expressed in those works. To be an Orthodox Jew is to accept the Talmud’s binding authority in law and not its cultural commentary.

    Yes there are intersections between the two that split both ways (for example Modern Orthodox Jews have largely rejected the injunction against teaching women Torah She’Baal Peh while at the same time only on the far peripheries are there rumblings about altering the legal process of Kiddushin.). But for the most part the two are not always inextricably linked.

    Moreover the Talmud does not speak in a single voice- it is a compilation text with multiple strata and countless voices. Just as there are negative voices about women surfaced in the Talmud, there are positive ones as well. Part of being a modern ethical Jew is to closely select the voices which are at once part of our tradition which retain moral meaning in our day and treat with respectful dissonance those that don’t. The Talmud unlike the Torah is not the product of Divine Authorship- its legal precedent is binding and authoritative but not all of its outlooks are timeless.

    Surely it is not farfetched to accept the Halachic validity of the Talmud while treating aspects of its theology or world view at an arm’s length. One can think of tens of Rishonim and subsequent thinkers who do just that. Maimonides does so with anthropomorphic passages which are more commonplace in Rabbinic Literature than derogatory statements towards women.

    We must struggle with those passages which are so deeply troubling in their portrayal of woman. We must acknowledge the existence of such selections. We must understand they very well might have been the most progressive attitudes the world had seen until that time and that they were making baby steps in the right direction.

    We must understand that the Talmud is the authoritative work of legal precedent for all generations but it is at same time a product of the worldview of its time. And a product which requires us to struggle with precisely the questions you posed. I think we may apply the remarks of Elliot Wolfson with regard to misogyny in Kabbalistic texts to the Talmud as well:

    “We may conclude, therefore, that the myth of the divine androgyne in kabbalistic sources, as in Gnostic compositions of late antiquity, is yet another expression of a socially dominant androcentrism. Salvation comes about through the containment of the feminine in the masculine, the neutralization of female power. Suffering the suffering of this axiom is a first step on the path to redeeming an ancient wisdom, tiredly waiting to be liberated from the confinement of its own textual embodiment.” (Language, Eros, Being pp. 390).

    We must acknowledge these strands exist in our ancient wisdom. We must point them out and we must while never compromising the legal importance of the Talmud also not ignore the “socially dominant androcentrism” and misogyny which can be located in the Talmud. Perhaps like Wolfson’s comment on Kabbalah it is our responsibility as those who learn, revere and accept the legal precedent of the Talmud to acknowledge the misogyny in some of the voices found in the Talmud as a “first step on the path to redeeming [this] ancient [text].” Only the act of learning these passages with a certain respectful dissonance can we hope to “liberate” it from “its own textual embodiment.” The authority of the law found in the Talmud remains even if we acknowledge that a new non-Talmudic Jewish view of woman must be advanced (just as the Rambam advanced a new non-Talmudic view of God- with far less natively Jewish material to draw from).

    Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, do you not also struggle with passages like the ones he mentioned?

    • Mark permalink

      I don’t see the issue. Why the need to struggle with passages? It is eminently clear that chazal (and the rishonim, etc) were wrong about various things. They were wrong about astrology. They were wrong about the origin of lice, and of the possible physiology of mice. They were wrong about numbers of teeth. And … they were wrong about women.

      Why would it be a problem for anyone? Why should it be a problem for anyone?

  3. shachte permalink

    Joshua Stadlan has written a very scholarly piece. As he points out, among many other points, institutionalized sexism is part of the blood and bone of Rabbinic Judaism. There is no way to make Rabbinic Judaism pass the moral test of contemporary gender equality. As seen in the case of many innovations in the past 250 years, to attempt to bend Judaism that far will simply result in breaking it. Ultimately, Joshua will need to decide to which he is more loyal, the religion of the Rabbis or the religion of Princeton; he really cannot have both.

    People responded so strongly to Rabbi Harcsztark’s decision because it is emblematic of continued dissolution of communal religious norms in a place where those norms were already imperiled. It is not hard to change Jewish religious observances. What is hard, is to change them in a way where they become part of the future of the Jewish community, rather than becoming a new route out of it. We’ve had plenty of those already, as the accelerating collapse of the Conservative movement is making very clear. SAR is no more a place for these kind of innovations than the Jewish Theological Seminary, if they are to have any kind of lasting impact.

    Just as gays are almost the only people getting married in the Netherlands these days (and soon to be in the U.S.), those two girls are likely among very few at SAR serious about t’fillin. Unfortunately, incorporating their commitment to the wearing of t’fillin into the religious life of the school, is a consequence of the lack of commitment to religion at SAR, not a consequence of a desire to keep Orthodoxy vital in the modern world. Indeed, keeping Orthodoxy vital will not be the consequence of Rabbi Harcsztark’s decision, rather the further exclusion of himself and his students from Jewish posterity. If this change in Jewish religious practice can come at all, it can only emerge out of an institution where boys and girls have a great commitment to Torah and mitzvot, including the mitzvah of t’fillin.

    SAR’s decision was born of accommodationism, not principle, and nothing important or good for the Jewish Jews will come out of it. How many SAR High School graduates will even remain a part of the Orthodox community or will send their own children to an Orthodox High School? How many Princeton graduates?

    • reb yid permalink

      I think your comment is spot-on and no one has really picked up on the global issue at SAR. Of course, it’s not just there, but at many other ultra-modern O schools with a, let’s say, “diverse” student body.

      But to play devil’s advocate, maybe that’s the right place for this kind of laissez-faire approach to practice. If the role of the school (and I don’t mean its self-styled role, but rather its real role) is not to be a deeply committed place of Torah, but rather to keep people barely in the fold for at least one more generation, then maybe it’s all legit? To put it another way, if someone doesn’t give a hoot about tying knots on shabbos, and the school won’t disabuse them of the notion that it’s OK, then maybe chukos hagoyim and egalitarianism and women wearing tefillin for the right or wrong reasons hardly matter.

      My apologies if I seem too willing to give up on people and institutions.

  4. Rafi permalink

    I am writing this fast because on a tablet because I am off to give a class, so pardon the grammar.
    Just wanted to address a few funny things i see in this discussion.

    Rabbi Goldberg- you are toeing a funny lin. You cant politically say what you must because that would be to good in BRS but at the same time you are trying to give subtlety critiques that are seeming getting lost on your congregants. As you see your popularity has sky rocketed because all the anti – torah bloggers have come out of the woodwork to attack you. These will never be the proper forums to address this issues because these issues need to be addressed with nuance . A nuance that can not be given over online and a nuance that these bloggers care little about. I am a campus Rabbi and i come across “Josh”es all the time and when we sit down and talk and build a relationship personally and with the text over time many of these questions fall away.
    B: you not really fully getting to the heart of the issue because you are criticizing people trying to advance an agenda instead of embracing Judaism yet you have Pades and YCT as your “likes” on facebook????

    Josh- I feel bad you seem so smart , if you only spent more time in a Yeshiva that promotes emunas chochmim and under Rebbeim that promote that i think many of your questions would be answered . I personally have many answers to your questions and many can be found online but i feel if you spent time honestly learning the texts without an agenda you come to appreciate who the Amoraim were and your questions would tak e a different form. Instead of it being “how did they say this”.. it would rather be “how can i understand that this amorah, who says so many wonderful things and has such value toward people and Kavod Haodom, would say such a thing. he must be saying something deeper let me study it.

    C:Modox Yeshiva- you quoted your rebbe in Etez Hatzi (or somebody did) . I have to say the guys i know stay frum on campus usually are from different types of yeshivos. The eretz hatzi kids who come here are usually liberal , confused and have zero interest in learning. They dont go to davening regularly and are the first to rationalize kashrus laws. I dont doubt there are good kids in these yeshivos but i have to say i am not impressed by the lessons imparted . very sad.
    Your rebbe you quoted also teaches in Pardes!! so is this a discussion coming from a orthodox perspective/ or an egalitarian perceptive.

    D: i have heard shurim all across the internet addressing your points. I would suggest listening to them (Rav Shechter has many on YU torah talking about these concepts)

    E: i think this only shows the failure of MO yeshivos you send a guy to princeton after 2 years with so little answers to so many questions!! I had many of your questions but i asked and i received answers many it is time to put college on hold and spend time asking questions in a real yeshiva

    (i am assuming Rabbi goldberg will take this down , but i hope he understands this is a heart filled plea for him to see that promoting half truths will only create orthodoxy that will last for another maybe 20 years. I see the detriment of MO (even-though i am a product of such an environment) on the college campus only roughly 35 percent still keep shabbos . Please for your own sake take these lesson into account for Yeshiva-high and start standing up for what you believe)

  5. Rafi permalink

    oyyy no edit button. Sorry for the typos as well. I have much respect for Rabbi Goldberg. If i came off as negative toward him I apologize (although I do question why he has “likes” for organizations like YCT and Pardes, in light of his post something seems contradictory).

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