Rav Hershel Schachter's Valentine to Jewish Women

Taking a page from the questions I ask on my blog, Haaretz via the Forward asks, "Is Valentine's Day Kosher?" The answer? Surprise, "Since Valentine’s Day is even less of a religious holiday than these holidays (New Year's and Thanksgiving), it seems to this writer that Jews should be permitted to celebrate..."

That said, how does the venerable Rav Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University celebrate the festival? He does so by publishing a love letter to Jewish women. He waxes poetic about how special they are to him. It's so touching it brought tears to my eyes to read how much the rabbi respects Jewish women.

Here is his romantic letter in its entirety (translated by Rabbi Yair Hoffman).
“The Entire Congregation is Holy..”


A Mishna is cited in the beginning of tractate Yuma (2a) that the sages would purposefully cause the Kohain preparing the Parah Adumah to become impure, and then immerse him. They did this in order to entirely negate the view of the Sadducees [that the kohain performing the service must be completely pure – not just partially pure].

So that onlookers would now not denigrate the process of Para Aduma – the sages further ordained that all the actions involving the Parah Adumah be performed in vessels of dung, stone, and earthenware – vessels that are not susceptible to impurity.


It was also the custom to build [special] courtyards in Jerusalem over a rock and beneath them an area was hollowed out to protect from a possible grave in the depths below. They would bring pregnant women there and they would give birth there and raise their sons there. They would bring oxen with doors on them and cups so that the children could fill up the water when necessary for the preparation of the ashes of Para Adumah.


We see that all these details, the special raising of children, the utilization of certain vessels, were all because the sages of the Mesorah who lived during the time of the Bais HaMikdash were concerned not just regarding the Mitzvos that the Saduccees performed entirely incorrectly, but rather, even in the matter of the Para Adumah, where the Sadduccees acted more stringently than the Sages of Israel . The sages made a special effort to practice the leniency taught in the Oral law – that even one who was only partially pure is permitted to participate in the Para Adumah.

They would therefore purposefully cause the Kohain to become impure and they would then subsequently immerse him. This is to show that even stringencies that are not in accord with the Oral law have no basis whatsoever – and that one may not follow such customs. And all this is to entrench in our hearts this fundamental principle – that we only have our traditions, passed down and explained by the sages of our traditions in each and every generation.

Now in recent months, a new practice has developed, where women don a Kippah, or a Talit and Tefillin during the time of the morning prayers service. They did not pose this question to the halachic adjudicators of our times. Apparently, they do so according to the philosophy of “the entire congregation is holy” – similar to the complaint of Korach and his band. And even if this is not their true intent (following Rashi citing the Midrash), but rather that everyone of them also stood at the foot of Mount Sinai – and therefore – everyone is worthy of adjudicating halacha in accordance with his or her understanding and feelings. [They echo Korach’s statement:] “And why have you elevated yourselves upon the congregation?” In other words, why do we need a Rav or a Rebbe to adjudicate halacha? [compare this to the famous drasha of Rav Y.B. Soloveitchik cited in brief in the book “Nefesh haRav” in Likutei Torah for Parshas Korach and in the book “Hashkafas HaRav”].

Any individual who has merely studied in a Yeshiva can rule and adjudicate according to his own intellect – especially in our days where anything can be searched and found on the internet, in the Otzer HaChochma, or in the Responsa project of Bar Illan, and other such things. Utilizing these aforementioned methods, each person can thus make himself into a Talmid Chochom or a Morei Horaah. He can then rule even in the most stringent of matters as if he knew by himself all the sources and all the opinions. [Upon this they jokingly explained the intent of the Yerushalmi (beginning of the fourth chapter of Dmai) that states that the fear of Shabbos is upon the unlearned – that is, on Shabbos, where he cannot use his computer, he is in a state of fear that they will catch him and see and understand that in truth he knows nothing!]

I was shocked to see how otherwise intelligent people are engaging in pilpulim, vain pilpulim, dealing with whether or not women may voluntarily perform the Mitzvah of Tefillin (in the manner of “not commanded but fulfilling it anyway”). They have marshalled opinions both this way and that way, and judge things as if we were living in the period of the Tanach (as they cite precedence from Michal Bas Shaul), or in the period of the Tannaim (where the Tannaim debate regarding whether women may voluntarily lay on hands), or in the period of the Rishonim (who debated things regarding the practices of Rashi’s daughters).

However, in the abundance of our sins we live in the year 5774 – in the time period of the rebellion of schismatic movements who fight the oral law.

It is a time when this practice of [women] wearing Talis and Tefillin is found exclusively with Conservative Judaism, where their entire approach to halacha is founded upon the principle that it is permitted – even an obligation to change from the path of our traditions according to the whims and practices of “how the nation conducts itself” whenever there may be any trace of a source to the matter.

It is this particular point which is the essential difference between them and the Orthodox.

There is a civil war here – one campaign versus another. It is where one group continues to follow the traditions of their fathers declaring that our fathers did not lie to us. And that we believe with complete faith like all the previous generations – that Moses received the Torah from Mount Sinai.

The other group screams out and says, “We alone are the true arbiters of the truths of history.” They claim decisively that Moses did not receive the Torah from Sinai, etc. etc. A good portion of their stand and opinion emanates from the claim of their “forefather Korach” – that the entire congregation is holy, as mentioned above.

It would appear that only someone who is intellectually blind, with no “eyes” to see, will fail to recognize what is under his own nose – that this practice is the practice of Conservative Judaism, and is highly likely to bring about more changes that lie in contrast to the Mesorah, and to bring about a general laxity in the matter of rulings of Psak halacha. [It is also well known what Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik said about his father Rav Chaim Solveitchik, that he had intense powers of understanding and observation. He could predict at the outset of a decision that if it was decided to go in one direction – the repercussion in sixty years would be such and such. And if they went in this other direction, then “such and such” would be the results in sixty years. “But I,” remarked Rav Yitzchok Zev, “do not have such powers of understanding.” After a short pause he added, “But, it would appear to me that at least I do have the quality of seeing what is in front of me right now, under my own nose.”]

It is an obvious matter that just as the sages of the Mesorah did not permit us to act even according to the stringencies of the Sadducees, and they were careful to previously cause the impurity of the Kohen that prepares the Para Adumah and then immerse him, for the purpose of ensuring that the preparation specifically be done by a Tvul Yom, so too must we do in our actual situation.

Piskei Halacha are not rendered in an empty vacuum. Rather, they are made in contact with that generation. And in our generation, all the Tannaim, all the Rishonim, and all the Achronim would agree that such practice is decidedly forbidden so as not to emulate the schismatic movements, even though it may appear as a stringency (see the Mishna in Chulin 41a).

It would appear that this matter lies within the idea of “Arkasa d’Msana - even the changing of shoelaces like the gentiles.” The Rav zatzal said that the parameters of the prohibition of “even changing of shoelaces” are that any practice that became a symbol for the destruction of the religion – even if “according to technical halacha” it is permitted – this (that it has become such a symbol) itself causes it to become forbidden. And so did the Rav presciently predict in his time (regarding Ben Gurion’s topic of “Who is a Jew”), that there is no difference in the matter as to whether the oppressor is a gentile like Antiochus, or a Jew such as Ben Gurion, matters of “even the changing of shoelaces” still remains a matter of Yehareg v’al yaavor – where one should be killed rather than violate it.

It is also well known in the name of the Rav that when the Conservatives first introduced the Bat Mitzvah ceremony in the middle of davening like the Bar Mitzvah ceremony for boys, the Rav warned that Orthodox Rabbis are certainly forbidden from doing so. This is because it is within the notion of “Arkasa d’Msana – even the changing of shoelaces” and is yehareg v’al yaavor.

Furthermore, see the Chazon Ish (OC 52:6) who writes that even though it appears correct to permit opening up the hood above a baby carriage [on Shabbos], we should still forbid opening an umbrella for a number of reasons. One of them is that it will cause a pirtzah – a breach. Perhaps his intent is like what was explained above – that the umbrella served as the symbol of the destruction of religion in Europe regarding Reform Jewry. Therefore, we must forbid it – even though that by virtue of the laws of a temporary tent regarding the Malacha of building on the Sabbath it might technically be permitted.

Indeed, I am perplexed at the very outset, what those who permitted it were even thinking.

The Ramah (OC 38:3) has already cited the views of the Rishonim and there is no dissenting view among all the commentaries of the Shulchan Aruch – that in our times we all have a problem of maintaining a guf naki. Therefore, the decision was made to minimize the duration of the donning of Tefillin even for men (in other words – just during the Shacharis service). This is how the Rav explained the matter properly and well in his lectures (See MiPninei HaRav Tefillin section 1).

This is also how the Rav ruled in actuality regarding a young Baalas Teshuvah, a student in Frisch, who wanted to put on Tefillin. The Rav ruled, based upon the words of the Ramah, not to allow her to do so. One cannot say that in the past forty years the situation has so improved regarding the purity of thought necessary for the putting on of Tefillin. It is known to all that this was the accepted practice for all generations, and who is this who dares to have the audacity to rule agains the accepted ruling of our master the Ramah. Compare this to the Rambam Hilchos Shmita and Yovel (10:6) that accepted practice and conduct are considered huge pillars in the matter of halachic adjudication. In them, it is worthy to rely upon. In other words, even though the opinion of the Rambam in this matter was inclined to rule not in accordance with the view of the Gaonim, he finally adjudicated in their way, because this was the accepted practice.

And those who quote the expression, “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai,” continue with and passed it on to Yehoshua etc. They state, “We have in our hand a strong tradition as to how to render halacha.” But the field of halacha is not like an abandoned property where the first person who lays claim to it receives it, and whoever is stronger wins, or whoever publicizes his opinion first either through the newspapers or through the internet the halacha is like him.

No. The matter is as it has been explained in the Midrashim – that one thousand walk into the Beis HaMidrash and one comes out suitable to rule in the area of halacha. That one individual is one who has interned for much time with his master. He received the words of Torah investing blood and soul. He is indeed married to the Torah – not just engaged to it.

Indeed, the Rav would often say (see drasha to Parshas Korach), that every person must recognize that he needs a Rav or a Rebbe. Even a Talmid Chochom whose Rebbe had passed away must constantly ask himself in truth (when they present questions to him) what his Rebbe would have said in such a scase, and what stance he would have taken. [I once heard from my colleague Rav Abba Bronspiegel, may he live, that he had once posed a question to the Rav (when he was visiting the Rav’s mother in her apartment). After some back and forth, the Rav ruled leniently. His mother was upset at him and said, “Your father would not have ruled in this way!” The Rav immediately retracted his ruling, as his father was certainly his Rebbe Muvhak, the Rebbe whom he had learned from the most.]

The expression that some of those who have permitted this utilize that “according to the technical halacha” a certain act is permitted, and that which people wish to prohibit it is because of “political considerations” is incorrect. For even a matter such as changing the mesorah – the traditions of the Jewish people is in and of itself an integral section of halacha. When one rules on “the donning of Tefillin for women” it is not enough to merely examine the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch in Hilchos Tefillin and in the sources there and treat it as a simple question.

Rather, like any question in halacha, we must rule on the topic from all facets and perspectives. Not always will the ruling lay on that page in Shulchan Aruch that we had initially thought. This is what is said in the Yerushalmi Rosh haShana (3:5) on the verse (Mishlei 31:14), “mimerchak tavi lachma – from a far place she will bring her bread” that [quite often] the words of Torah are poor in one place and rich in another place. All difficult questions such as this [ruling against an explicit Ramah in Shulchan Aruch is certainly a difficult question that certainly needs wide shoulders], certainly must be presented before Torah scholars who are Morei Horaah that have a wide knowledge in halacha.

No mere musmach or local Rabbi, even one with the best if intentions, should express his opinion in a question such as this, and certainly not to publicize his private opinion through the media or the internet. For such a serious question applies to all of Klal Yisroel who are true to the Mesorah. Only leading Gedolei Horaah are permitted to decide upon these matters.

Our complaint is not at all upon the women who have endeavored to fulfill this Mitzvah, rather it is upon the Rabbis (all of whom have received ordination from our Yeshiva) who proffered an erroneous opinion here, without consultation of their question to the Morei Horaah that they direct their questions toward regarding other matters. They have publicized their opinion as if it were a simple matter to permit. May Hashem Yisborach mend the breaches and repair the rips that occurred in our camp and direct our hearts to serve him in truth and purity.

(Rav) Tzvi [Hershel] Schachter,

Adar I, 5774

1 comment:

Batya Medad said...

This post has been included in the  Ki Tisa Havel Havelim, Losing Count edition.  Please visit, comment and share, thanks.