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By the book: Restoring women’s status in Judaism

The rigorous Talmudic scholarship in David Golinkin's new book challenges the growing trend of religious strictures on women

In September 2011 an IDF entertainment troupe was performing at an event attended by the staff and cadets of the IDF officers training base Bahad Ehad. When a female soldier began to sing solo, nine religiously observant cadets got up and left the hall, because (they held) halakha forbids men to hear the voice of a singing woman. Many other religious cadets remained seated. The dramatic departure of the nine cadets was reported by the media and caused a public uproar. Israel’s Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, Yonah Metzger, justified the nine’s action, and stated that the IDF should invite only male singers, when religious soldiers are present. Many yeshiva heads agreed. Indeed, what else could they do – do not the classic sources of halakha, Jewish religious law, state that “A woman’s voice is nakedness?”

Well, what they could have done was what Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin does in pages 77-90 of his recent book: locate the classic talmudic sources, read them carefully in context using the best tools of textual analysis, and thus arrive at a good understanding of what seems to be the original meaning of this phrase. Then, survey the post-talmudic rabbinic literature from earliest times to the present, and identify the various ways in which the phrase has been interpreted. Finally – after doing all that spadework – determine how best to apply the relevant halakha in current time and context.

After doing so, they might realize that the position that they advocate – men are permitted to hear women speaking but forbidden to hear them singing at any time – does not appear in the Talmud or in any of the Rishonim (pre-16th century scholars). Indeed, the first scholar to hold that position was Rabbi Moses Sofer (d. 1839). Is it purely a coincidence that Rabbi Sofer was the great champion of resistance to modernity, under the slogan “Torah forbids the New?” If many great rabbis over the generations understood the Talmud to prohibit hearing a woman’s voice only when reciting the Shema prayer, why choose to follow Rabbi Sofer? And what of the religious value of not denigrating others (e.g., the female singer; one’s fellow cadets) or hurting their feelings?

Rabbi Golinkin’s balanced and rationalistic mode of dealing with the sources clearly indicates his position with regard to the ground of halakhic authority. A novel type of halakhic authority has emerged in modern times, grounded in what is called da’as torah, perhaps best rendered as “Torah Clairvoyance.” Originally an offshoot of the hasidic concept of the tzaddik, the ideology of da’as torah infiltrated the non-hasidic yeshiva world through the Mussar movement and since World War II has become the touchstone of ultra-Orthodoxy. In this view, certain individuals have attained to a level of insight and vision that far surpasses the capacity of mundane human beings. This enables them to serve as infallible guides to the rest of the Jewish people, who are called upon to faithfully and uncritically follow the directives of da’as torah in acknowledgement of the unbridgeable gap between their knowledge and ours.

Obviously, Golinkin does not regard himself as such an authority, nor does he wish to be so regarded. Rather, by his mode of writing, he places himself within the classic tradition of halakhah, in which halakhic decisors were respected and followed because of their intellectual eminence in the subject matter. They knew the sources, were able to analyze them in depth, and could convincingly demonstrate the applicability of texts and precedents to the issue on which they were ruling. This is the classic Lithuanian (misnagdik) tradition – and Golinkin clearly subscribes to it.

In another exemplary responsum devoted to the issue of women and prayer Golinkin integrates the tools of philology and history into the fabric of halakhic discourse. A man is obligated to pray the standard eighteen-benediction tefillah thrice daily; is a woman equally obligated? Golinkin points out that there are major textual variants in the talmudic manuscripts, and that the halakhic positions of great medieval decisors were contingent upon the texts that they had before them. However, all agreed that the commandment to recite the tefillah was incumbent upon women as it was upon men. Golinkin then cites historical descriptive texts, from talmudic and medieval times, that tell of women attending daily services in the synagogue. Indeed, the sixteenth-century Shulhan ‘Arukh ruled that the obligation to pray rested equally upon women and men.

However, a major commentator, Rabbi Abraham Gombiner (1637-1682), noting that in his time Jewish women in Poland did not participate regularly in services, tried to justify their behavior by arguing that there was no clear requirement for them to do so. Golinkin argues – convincingly, to my mind – that Gombiner’s ex-post-facto and ad hoc defense of the practice of his female contemporaries cannot refute the very clear evidence of the rulings of the major rabbinic and medieval authorities that women are required by halakhah to pray thrice daily. Some may be surprised to find that position of the Masorti (Conservative Judaism) movement on this issue thus turns out to be more stringent than what is currently accepted in many Orthodox and Haredi circles.

In both of the cases described above, Golinkin refrains entirely from any halakhic argumentation based on context. Thus, in the first case, he does not suggest that there is anything in the context of modern Western culture and society that should lead to a more relaxed view of women’s singing, and in the second case he does not indicate that in today’s context we should be interested in equalizing the halakhic obligations of men and women. I must confess that I was surprised by this, as such contextual considerations are rife in much of classic halakha, and especially prominent in the writings of Sephardic rabbis in modern times (see my Rabbinical Creativity in the Modern Middle East, forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press). To be fair, Golinkin does employ such an argument at page 330 ff., but in general does so very sparingly. In this, too, his “Lithuanian” tendencies are manifest.

In sum, Rabbi Golinkin’s evident erudition in the vast realm of halakhic sources, coupled with his command of academic studies and – not least by far – his sincere commitment to halakhah speak well of the capability of a representative of Masorti Judaism to participate as a serious player in the field of halakhic discourse. The publication of this volume should be welcomed by anyone interested in contemporary halakhic writing who is not a-priori biased against anything written by a non-Orthodox scholar of halakha.

The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa


by David Golinkin

Jerusalem: The Center for Women in Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, 2012

The book is a collection of 15 responsa which study the status of women in the synagogue and public life, prefaced by two introductory essays on approaches to the topic since 1845. Rabbi Golinkin deals with the tension that exists between Jewish Law and modernity, striving to bridge the gap between tradition and change.




About the Author
Zvi Zohar is Chauncey Stillman Professor of Sephardic Law and Ethics at Bar Ilan University, where he teaches in the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Jewish Studies; At the Shalom Hartman Institute; Prof Zohar heads the Alan A and Loraine Fischer Family Center for Contemporary Halakha. He has published over 60 scholarly articles in Hebrew, English and French, as well as several book-length studies in Hebrew, including: Tradition and Change: Halakhic Responses of Middle Eastern Rabbis to Legal and Technological Change; The Luminous Face of the East – Studies in the Legal and Religious Thought of Sephardic Rabbis of the Middle East; and A Socio-Cultural Drama in Aleppo in the French Mandatory Period. His previous publication with Continuum [written with Avi Sagi] is Transforming Identity, on the history and development of Judaic norms concerning conversion
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