An attempt to restore balance: “What does the Lord ask of you?” The answer: “Walk humbly before your G-d.”

I humbly submit some of my preliminary thoughts on the wide-ranging, though narrowly focused, proposition of Rabbi Hertzl Hefter regarding how to balance various opposing values and considerations in Jewish law. It is quite a thoughtful proposal with many impressive traditional sources marshaled in its support.

The truth is that I agree with much of the basic principles behind the proposal being submitted, even if some of Rabbi Hefter’s key examples and applications are seriously flawed. I hope this basic agreement over the existence of value-based meta-halachic considerations will not be overshadowed by the severity of my critique.

Already in the 12th century, Rabbi Yehudah Halevi explored the tensions between the the letter and the spirit of the Torah in the 3rd Ma’amar section 49 (really sections 34-53) of his classic Sefer Kuzari. I suggest everyone interested in the topic read his eloquent if slightly polemic perspective on how Chazal have attempted to navigate this age-old conflict.

Because this review is just a preliminary one, readers should be aware that I have not verified the accuracy of any of the sources brought in support the author’s proposal. The lack of detailed analysis of these sources in this review should not be misconstrued as an implicit approval of their accuracy.

What follows are my criticisms of the proposal (interspersed between citations of the original article) that I believe are valid even when taking the accuracy of its support material completely for granted.

Rabbi Hefter rightly surmises:

 So much of what is occurring in the Jewish Orthodox world today in Israel and the diaspora revolves around the issue of obedience to authority as opposed to personal autonomy, responsibility and conscience. We need a path to help us negotiate this thorny problem. That path begins with a deeper understanding of the nature of the Torah as God’s revelation and our part in it.

And then he says:

In this piece I am presenting a model which I hope people of all affiliations will find helpful and meaningful.

Here the author attempts to portray himself as above the partisan politics and wants to present a model that all sides can approve of. But as one reads the entire essay, one is struck by a recurring pattern. ALL sources and examples supplied by Rabbi Hefter regarding this conflict between the Torah of the Mind and the Torah of the Heart are skewed in favor of the Heart.

Not one source is given which demonstrates the ability for the Torah of the Mind to outweigh the values that underlie the Torah of the Heart. Every example cited from the classic literature whether it is the Rambam, the Rashba, Rav Tukashinsky, etc. is of one single type — where the Torah of the Heart overrules the Torah of the Mind.

Therefore, the model, as presented by Rabbi Hefter, is extremely lop-sided in the types of examples and applications provided. This sentence and the paragraphs after it are in effect erecting a veneer of fairness and objectivity where none actually exists.

This problem is exacerbated when Rabbi Hefter actually calls for striking a balance between the two types of Torah, when in fact no such balance can be found in Rabbi Hefter’s scholarship. All his scholarship is employed in the service of the Torah of the Heart exclusively.

II. Balance

…Focusing exclusively on the Torah of the Mind or the Torah of the Heart can lead to serious and even dangerous distortions. If we neglect the legal aspect we are in danger of being swayed by the transient values of the day and our own passions and biases. We could wind up merely worshipping ourselves and calling it the Torah when in fact we would be emptying the idea of a divinely revealed law of any substantial meaning. This is the very justified fear of many right wing Orthodox Jews.

On the other hand, silencing our inner voice and focusing excessively upon submission and obedience to the formal side of the halakha opens us to the extremely hazardous possibility of becoming “a scoundrel who lives within the letter of the Law” — naval be reshut haTorah.

This can express itself in more subtle ways and play into what Erich Fromm described as the “authoritarian personality”.

“…for the authoritarian character can do nothing but submit. The authoritarian character worships the past. What has been, will eternally be. To wish or to work for something that has not yet been before is crime or madness. The miracle of creation- and creation is always a miracle- is outside the range of his emotional experience” (Escape From Freedom, New York, 1941, p. 168-9).

The authoritarian personality is blind to the unique circumstances of the present seeing them only in terms of the past and is incapable of appreciating the challenge of what is new and fresh. To the extent that something new is sensed, it is met with fear and suspicion. When this attitude meets the Torah, our relationship with God is in danger of becoming stagnant and ossified.

Superficially, the approach may seem more religiously devoted because of its conservative predisposition. In fact it is characterized by fear and lack of faith in the Torah’s ability to meet the challenges of the present authentically. The authoritarian approach contributes to the dilution of the level of public discourse, to paucity of understanding and spiritual mediocrity.

Here we have another form of bias by Rabbi Hefter against the Torah of the Mind.

Note that the author spends much space vilifying “the authoritarian personality” which is the bastard child of the Torah of the Mind, fleshing out in rich detail all of its perceived but hollow strengths and obvious weaknesses.

No such detailed critical analysis is made of the dangers of listening to one’s inner voice. A mere two sentences is sufficient. The balance called for by the author in this section is egregiously absent from it and this entire essay.

Let begin to try to restore this missing balance by supplying two midrashim to illustrate the obvious truth that following one’s moral instincts alone will run grossly afoul of G-d’s expressed will and ultimately will lead to a deep betrayal of one’s self. The first is put below in the blockquote:

[קהלת רבה (וילנא) פרשה ז
Don’t be too self-righteous and don’t be overly wise! (Koheles) “Don’t be more righteous than your Creator” refers to Saul, as it states: “Saul came to the city of Amalek and made a dispute in the brook.” Rav Bina’ah says: he made the following dispute with the Holy One: “Master of the World! Shmuel instructed me to smite the Amalekites and destroy all their property. But if the men sinned, what sin did the women, commit? What sin did the children commit? What sin did the animals commit? To this a Divine echo rang out: “do not be more righteous than your Creator!

Rabanan say Saul made a dispute over the laws of Eglah Arufah. He said before Him, “Master of the World! This one kills and this one gets its neck chopped for atonement?! To this a Divine echo rang out and said “Do not be too righteous!”

Reish Lokish said: All who exercise mercy on the cruel will end up being cruel instead of the merciful. How do we know this? From Saul, for it says here that Saul and the nation had mercy on the seed of Amalek yet he wiped out Nov the city of Kohanim and had no mercy. (Koheles Rabba Parsha 7:15)

Another example of a similar theme can be found in Bamidbar Rabba Parshas Pinchas section 21. My desire to keep this review as brief as possible prevents me from translating the entire excerpt.

We continue with Rabbi Hefter’s essay:

There is a delicate dance between mind and heart which occurs in the consciousness of the posek, the halakhic authority. In this particular case the dynamic is actually conscious – and that is what makes this characterization of the process so unique – but it may be unconscious as well. The posek begins with the refined intuition and moves from there to the formal legal analysis which he consciously or unconsciously bends to conform to his intuition. It is crucial to note that this intuition is universal and is consistent with the biblical tradition of Avraham arguing with God and the common sense ascribed to the nations cited above.

At the risk of sounding redundant, note that the author never brings an instance where a posek is compelled to rule according to the Torah of the Mind, and the Torah of the Heart considerations regrettably need to be overruled.

The impression given by this entire essay is that such a thing never needs to happen.

Perhaps one can argue that the examples of such overruling of the Heart by posekim are so numerous in the classic literature that actual examples hardly need to be listed. But if the author wants to present himself as an honest broker between the divide and have his guidelines to be useful across the spectrum, I’m afraid he needs to demonstrate a willingness to concede that in Orthodox Judaism, the Torah of the Heart doesn’t always win the day.

Rabbi Hefter writes:

The Rashba provides three conditions in order to disregard the Torah law.

  • Serious consideration; this is an introspective process.
  • Deliberation; one individual alone cannot make such a determination. Humility requires listening to others.
  • Purity of motivations.
    Upon the basis of these principles the Torah of the Heart and the Torah of the Mind are brought into conversation with each other.

I’m gratified the author included this last condition of the Rashba. We will revisit the principle of purity of motivations when we come to the punch-line of this entire essay — which is to use the authority invested in the “Torah of the Heart” to justify ordaining women.

V. Important to note…
We have presented a number of different instances where intuition, common sense, or moral conviction, which I called the Torah of the Heart, manipulates and at times contradicts outright the objective halakhic principles of the Torah of the Mind.

Here, Rabbi Hefter openly admits that his survey of the literature is biased and skewed sharply in favor of the Torah of the Heart!

Again, balance is called for.

Readers of Rabbi Hefter’s essay should be reminded that there are in fact instances of the reverse direction, where intuition, common sense, and moral conviction were forced into submission by abject obedience to the revealed word of G-d. Such an instance is actually one of the central motif;s of the upcoming High Holidays — the Binding of Isaac, the Akeidah.

Both the actions of Avraham Avinu and the view of the Rambam were invoked throughout this essay, so I think it would be appropriate to invoke them again.

Biblical scholars have routinely compared and contrasted Avraham’s reaction of challenge and probing to the news that G-d is going to destroy Sedom with his reaction of silent obedience and even alacrity in carrying out the unthinkable command to offer his own beloved, long-awaited, righteous son on the altar to G-d.

Without exploring the classic distinctions made in the literature to explain this contrast, we should recognize that this command to bind Yitzchak went against common sense, intuition, and moral conviction — ALL the elements of the Torah of the Heart as defined by the author combined!

Yet Avraham was silent and obeyed regardless.

Let us look to what the Rambam teaches in his Guide to the Perplexed as to the two fundamental take-away messages of the Akeidah. The first is pasted inside the blockquote below:

One message is to inform us of the upper limits of expression love and fear of G-d that a human being can be asked to perform. G-d required a sacrifice from Avraham that was like no other in terms of forfeiting one’s money or one’s life. It was the greatest sacrifice conceivable that any human being can be called upon to make. It went against every fiber of human nature to give up something so precious and dear… But for the fear of G-d and love of Him to fulfill His will, Avraham accepted the command to slaughter his beloved child and turn his back on everything he had hoped for in a son…
…[Why did G-d command this act?] “It was to demonstrate to humanity what is appropriate for a person to be willing to sacrifice for the love and fear of G-d and for no other motive. The angel declared “For now I know that you are G-d fearing” and this statement was designed to teach us that for this level of sacrifice one is given the title of “complete fearing of G-d”. Through this the world should know what the maximum of fearing of G-d entails.


“And one should know that this is the end-goal of the entire Torah, underlying all its positive and negative commandments, all its promises of the future, and all its narratives of the past: To acquire fear of G-d.” (Guide, Book III chapt. 24)

The Rambam also says recording this event in the Torah serves to demonstrate the level of absolute certainty that a prophet has in the truth of his revelation. Avraham must have been utterly convinced that the command he received in his prophetic dream or vision was completely authentic, for had he harbored any doubts that this was truly the will of G-d, Avraham’s nature would not have let him agree to go through with it. It was only because of the knowledge — the Torah of the Mind — that his prophecy was true, that Avraham was capable of suppressing his Torah of the Heart.

Just for the sake of balance.

Here, Rabbi Hefter commits a serious error:

Not all instances are the same, however. In the biblical narrative, Avraham’s moral conviction is in opposition to the revelation of God Himself, not just the Halakha which has been filtered through history and human interpretation.

I am baffled that the author considers Avraham’s moral conviction to have been in opposition to the revelation of G-d.

The plain meaning of the verses indicate that Avraham was probing and challenging G-d to verify that were not enough righteous people to save the cities marked for destruction. Avraham was merely exclaiming that if there were indeed enough, would it not be a travesty of justice to slaughter all the inhabitants?

At no point in the dialogue is there any indication that Avraham was opposing any revelation of G-d. Indeed, with each inquiry, G-d directly verifies to Avraham that there are in fact not enough righteous people to save the cities. As the Ramban’s commentary to this passage explains, the whole purpose of G-d revealing His plans of destruction to Avraham in the first place was to have it on-record for the world to know that the destruction of Sodom was morally justified. Its destruction was initiated only after Avraham challenged G-d not to overlook any possible merit to save the city. But G-d accepted Avraham’s challenge and in fact none was found.

G-d was never opposed to Avraham’s demand that the righteous not be destroyed with the wicked. After all, didn’t G-d send two angels to Sedom? One to save the righteous and one to destroy the wicked?

Now we come to the climax and the raison d’etre of this entire essay: ordaining women.

For example: A very strong halakhic case can be made for allowing the ordination of women as rabbis (this is not the place for a halakhic analysis — this post is already too long. I would refer anyone interested in the halakhic discussion to the comprehensive and well-reasoned article by Rabbi Michael Broyde on the topic.) The only real halakhic objection which may be raised, in my opinion, is that this was not the minhag until now.

The author gives one the impression that the obstacle of a mere minhag preventing the ordination of women is a trifle that is easily dealt with. What the author fails to point out is that depending on the sociological context, a minhag has the power to take on the severity of nothing less than yaharog ve’al ya’avor (one must die rather than violate).

For example, Rabbi Herschel Schachter has made a trenchant observation regarding the Talmudic era minhag of wearing different color shoelaces to distinguish Jew from non-Jew. This mere “minhag” was deemed sufficiently decisive — in purely sociological terms — in establishing one’s Jewish self-identification, as to require giving up one’s life rather than to wear the non-Jewish color! Simply because wearing the other color shoelace made a public statement about one’s religious affiliation, turned this minhag into a halachic imperative of yaharog ve’al ya’avor. Since the halacha unconditionally forbids self-identifying as not Jewish, this mere minhag took on much more severe halachic import.

Similarly, it can be quite easily argued that one of the “minhagim” which distinguishes the Orthodox community from its non-Orthodox and perhaps even its non-Jewish religious counterparts is its explicit policy to not ordain women. In sociological terms, the ordination of women (and giving women equal roles in the synagogue and public religious rites and rituals) was, for decades, a hallmark of the non-Orthodox way of religious communal life. It became one of the fault-lines (just as the mechitza did in the 50’s and 60’s) between the streams of Judaism.

Given this sociological reality, the ordination of women by a rabbi becomes a public statement of non-Orthodox affiliation which has severe halachic ramifications. Abrogating the minhag not to ordain women has taken on the halachic effect of self-identifying with a heretical movement, and it proclaims to the world that one is no longer a member of the Orthodox community.

Now we finally arrive at the punchline:

The decision which Rabbi Sperber and I made, to confer semikha upon our students — two of whom were women — is, despite the novel application, entirely consistent with the dynamics of halakhic and meta-halakhic decision making as it stretches from the bible through the midrashim of our Talmudic sages, our medieval halakhic authorities, down to the later authorities of our own day.

Plato once said that he who loves philosophy cannot deny its pleasures from others. Regarding the study of Torah this is even more true. The intellectual and emotional effort to bring the Torah of the Mind and of the Heart into a balance is the fuel of the edifying process which forges us into the image of God that we are responsible to become. This is why Talmud Torah, the intensive study of the Torah, has been at the center of Jewish religious experience for centuries if not longer. It is ironic that some who view themselves as defenders of the tradition and of the faith would deny Torah knowledge from women. Advocating this is not only morally reprehensible but denies the healing and edifying power of God’s Torah and its centrality in Judaism; it betrays a divorce of the Torah of the Mind from the Torah of the Heart. In order to nurture and transform us, men and women, into the image of God that we can become, the two Torahs must engage in their subtle dance.

Rabbi Hefter is quite articulate and poetic in his argumentation, but all this suffers from a desperate flaw in logic. How did we get to the conclusion — conferring semikha upon women — from the premise?
Let’s grant the premise that Plato is right: denying women the pleasure of Talmud Torah (defined by the author as “the intensive study of Torah”) is morally reprehensible, denies the healing and edifying power of Torah, denies its centrality in Judaism, and betrays a divorce of the Torah of the Mind from the Torah of the Heart.

Granting all that, what should be the conclusion?

I say, let them study Torah! Let them study it intensely! Let them study whatever they want and whenever they want. Let them set up institutions and community structures that will support their participation in advanced, full-time kollels for years on end while their husbands work and raise the children. Let them experience the healing and edifying power of Torah to their heart’s content! Who’s stopping them?

What on earth does that have to do with making them rabbis?

Many of us have heard of famous Roshei Yeshivah and advanced Seminary heads who are constantly engaged in the highest levels of Talmud Torah yet do not have any formal semikha, and in principle do not pasken sheilos in halacha. What do they need it for?

What do these women need it for? They don’t need it to be able to learn Torah!

Let’s be frank, shall we? It’s no secret.

They need it to be recognized by the community as Torah scholars and religious leaders on par with men. They need it to empower women to render lenient halachic decisions over areas of halacha that primarily affect them. In short, they need it to give women an equal share of religious respect and authority in Jewish life and Jewish practice which (they believe) only rabbinical ordination can confer on its recipients.

And here’s where we get to the Rashba’s third condition for following the Torah of the Heart: purity of motive.

If these women and the rabbis who ordain them had true purity of motive, they would simply learn and teach Torah Lishma day and night for at least dozen years and let whatever happens happen. Vesof hakavod lavo. No political agendas, no power grabbing, no fighting for equality or recognition. That’s purity of motive.

What this author should have done was make the case that among the moral convictions and intuitions dictated by the Torah of the Heart is the deep-seated human need for respect, recognition, and fair treatment. That would have made for an interesting essay — given the large array of halachic and hashkafic sources that grapple directly with balancing these human needs with the Torah of the Mind. This is not uncharted territory.

But instead, the author disingenuously employed a Trojan horse strategy where the “need” to study Torah “intensely” has been manipulated to camouflage all these other human needs that are really what’s driving the movement to ordain women.

VI. In summary
We have outlined two aspects of the Torah: The Torah of the Mind and the Torah of the Heart. In order to arrive at proper action we must bring the two into conversation. This involves serious introspection, the ability to listen to others and the requisite human understanding, commitment to, and knowledge of, the Torah.
The moral grey area of the Torah of the Heart is not necessarily a comfortable place to dwell. It is very tempting to be safe and avoid ambiguities by clinging to the perceived certainties of divine revelation and the Shulkhan Arukh exclusively. That safety, though, is an illusion. The Torah of the Heart puts the burden of freedom and responsibility upon our shoulders. As a Breslover friend of mine once said, “Life is an extreme sport.”

That is because there is no simple answer to the eternal question echoed in the words of the Prophet Micah, “What does the Lord ask of you?”

Contrary to Rabbi Hefter’s presentation, the prophet Micah is asking this question rhetorically and actually provides a few answers over there. One of them may not be easy for Orthodox feminists to incorporate while engaged in their brazen pursuit of religious respect, power, and authority, but it is worth contemplating nonetheless:

“Walk humbly before Your G-d.”

About the Author
Dovid Kornreich grew up in the U.S. and made aliya when he married in 1996. He has been studying and teaching talmud and Jewish thought in two Jewish institutions in Jerusalem for over 15 years. He has an enduring interest in the conflicts between Torah and contemporary thought, specifically Science & Feminism
Related Topics
Related Posts