Monday, December 12, 2011

Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, ruler of the universe, for having not made me Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein[1]: Traditional Orthodoxy at a Crossroads

By Mrs. Elizabeth Blottstein-Blatt

I am gravely concerned about the future of Jewish Leadership and the survival of traditional Orthodoxy as we know it.

I know it in my bones that the whole community is drifting to the right. Moreover, this rightward drift can hardly be said to produce Jewish leaders of vision and consequence. The rabbis returning from the yeshivas, whether in my native England, or from Eretz Yisrael, or even from those iconic colonies like the Five Towns and Pikesville, seem a rather wobbly basket of eggs.

In my youth, I would ask my grandmother any question about kashrus in the kitchen. She would always answer correctly, though what she knew of the Shulchan Aruch can be summed up by her devotion to using a spotless white tablecloth every Friday night. Yet the same question posed to a kollel chap requires conferral with a maggid shiur who confers with the mashgiach who parlays with the Rosh Yeshiva who makes a call to Israel.[2] Clearly, the spreading of wisdom has lead to epidemic levels of confusion in certain circles.[3] The mesorah is being pummeled from within! I myself am terrified by these yoetzot women, but at least they do not have to go gadding to some indecisive rabbi every time they find a dairy spoon in a meat drawer.

If memory serves the author, there was a time when isolated rabbis could make difficult decisions, but today we have technology. We are drunk with telephones, facsimiles, electronic mail, and so forth, which we use religiously to contact the six or seven gedolim who are permitted to answer questions. Thus everyone else is relieved of any responsibility of having to look up something in the Shulchan Aruch, and is free to tarry long hours studying Tractate Zevachim, eating cholent three nights a week, and waiting for the Mashiach. Glory be the Gan Eden that we live in!


In any event, I was recently forwarded a fascinating web article from Cross-Currents, a website whose contributors carry loose and firm associations with the Aguda, Ohr Samayach, the Haredi College for Women and other right-thinking organisations. The article is by a dynamic Los Angeles rabbi, a gevaldeke human being, considering our generation - rachmana liztlan. Astonishingly, this rabbi exhibits extraordinary respect for those with whom he disagrees. Especially the Far Left, which he claims has no “gedolim or stellar halachists,” nor do its members have much “competence with text that comes with many years of serious […] learning.” Correspondingly, these Far Left rabbis must resort to “wide-scale counterfeiting of Torah” to make up for their ignorance. If this is true, I would hardly bother speaking to such people, much less chiding them respectfully. It must be this rabbi’s enduring commitment to tolerance that endows him with such patience and openness to others. Let the Children of Israel learn from his example!

Now to the point, the fine article begins as a sweeping account of the aggressive advances of Far Left- Wing Modern-Orthodox rabbis. From his description, I could hear the clap of cannon blasts and the approaching artillery shells being fired. I could not help but shiver imagining that Gateshead and Ner Yisrael and the Mir were under siege by the International Rabbinic Fellowship, which is really just another name for Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which are really Rabbi Avi Weiss and his multitudinous fifty graduates and fifty current rabbinic students! The tens of thousands who attend Gateshead and Chofetz Chaim and Ner Yaakov and Yeshiva University are trembling, for these shock troops have “quietly slipped into pulpits around the country” and are representatives of a Judaism that is so “different” that “it can no longer be called Orthodox as the rest of us know it.”

Yet what specific provocation provoked this good minister of the Mosaic faith to finally sound the battle cry and forewarn the “heimishe” community that “partnership minyanim” and “woman’s Tefillah groups” may soon destroy the ehrliche shtieblach of Hancock Park and Monsey? Apparently, there is another “dynamic Los Angeles rabbi, a wonderful human” that has broken all bounds of normative halachah by publicizing that he can no longer recite the morning benediction of shelo asani isha— Blessed art Thou…for having not made me a woman—because it is inherently offensive to women.[4]

How this provocateur extraordinaire—this “wonderful human”—can be described so glowingly when it is later reported “that he mocks […] the previous gadol hador, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l” is yet another indication of the good minister’s boundless respect for those with whom he stridently disagrees.

Returning to the matter at hand, it is abundantly self-evident that one cannot overreact to such provocations, and here I quote the good minister again, “hundreds of thousands of our Modern Orthodox brethren” stand “in danger of embracing a treif ideology.” Yet, if so grave is the matter, so black the threat, I must humbly chide the good minister for restraining his rage…for not doing more and speaking louder!

I was particularly astonished that his article contained an almost mythic absence of halachic sources and citations. What good is all the learning of right-thinking rabbis, who are so much more learned than their left-winging brothers (and occasional sisters, as if it needs be said) if they don’t use their vast erudition as an axe to fell these saboteurs of traditional yiddishkeit! For the briefest of moments, there was a reference to R. Samson Raphael Hirsch zt’l and his battle with the 19th century reformers. But this was the equivalent of pulling the pin and pocketing the grenade. Rav Hirsch himself decided to strike Kol Nidre from the Yom Kipper liturgy, as the prayer “was susceptible to misunderstanding” as one scholar put it.[5] Clearly, the saboteurs might make a comparison.

Then there was a shocking reference to the Rambam, with the good minister’s implicit p’sak that those who attempt to change our holy liturgy, may it remain immaculate and pure until the end of days, are not in any way violating the Thirteen Principles of Faith! To quote briefly: “Rambam writes that we have no right to be dismissive of any Jew who accepts the Thirteen Principles of Faith. ‘When a person believes in these principles…he is included in the nation of Israel.’” Such magnanimous tolerance! ….At least those on the Far-Far Left who reject the 13 Principles are not included among body of Israel, may God have compassion upon their souls. (See endnotes.)[6]

Yet mere mention of Maimonides is the intellectual equivalent of a company of airmen parachuting without a chute. Everyone knows that Rambam acted unorthodoxly upon occasion. Did the good minister forget that Rambam omitted the ancient blessing said by a groom over virgin blood from his magnum opus?[7] The arch rationalist clearly thought the benediction was regressive in the extreme. Fortune prick me, but this could be used as a precedent by the Far Left who claim that shelo asani ishah evokes visages of grunting cavemen![8]

In a similar vein, the Rambam offered liturgical latitude to Ovadiah the Convert, as the devout proselyte felt that repeating certain benedictions verbatim would be dishonest![9] And dare we forget how Rambam arose, as if on a whim, and eliminated the silent amidah from the great synagogues of Egypt? Our provocateur extraordinaire eliminated one blessing—half-mumbled in the small hours of the morning while most are mostly asleep—how can we call this ‘dangerous’ when others (following the Rambam) continue to neuter the mussaf service on the Sabbath and Holidays!?[10] The good minister must do better in his combat with the adversarial Far Left!!!


Some right-hearted rabbis (not the good minister, but a fellow swimmer or two in Cross-Currents) have erred in the past by making humiliating concessions to liberal sentiment. One duly noted that “interpreted properly,” the blessing of shelo asani ishah yields a meaning that is “loving and sympathetic.”[11] How this is achieved is not stated precisely, though the recipe seems to require a dash of positive attitude and a pinch of fuzzy creativity. My throbbing heart prays earnestly that the heimeshe community may yet evade the seductive embrace of the lovely-jubbly mumbo-jumbo (so endemic on the sing-along Left); but I fear the gates of the faithful are falling!

Still, there are a host of sages who defend the integrity and original intent of the sacred benediction said by men: “Blessed art Thou… for having not made me a woman;” as well as the women’s benediction: “Blessed art Thou…for having made me according to thy will.” A glorious example is Rabbi Jacob ben Asher who well understood the second-class status of the second sex. He suggests that the woman’s prayer is a form of ‘acquiescence to the Almighty’s decree for the evil (of her status)’[12]: ונהגו הנשים לברךשעשאני כרצונו ואפשר שנוהגים כן שהוא כמי שמצדיק עליו הדין על הרעה.

Lest bleeding hearts try to reinterpret Rabbi ben Asher’s words as being “loving and sympathetic,” we ought to cite Rabbi ben Asher’s comment on the Genesis 1.27, where he offers this fascinating novellae: “The mathematical equivalent of the word ‘male’ is ‘blessing,’ while the mathematical equivalent of the word ‘(and) female’ is ‘curse.’” (Hebrew: זכר בגימטריא ברכה. ונקבה בגימטריא קללה )o[13]

Clearly, tradition deems that women have a diminished stature vis-à-vis men.[14] On account of this, the right-thinking rabbis, who represent the sacred platitudes of our great tradition, ought to declare this sentiment without apology or apologetics. But where are these fearless leaders? Do they need permission from three Gedolim—or at very least a conference call with the executive board of the RCA or Agudas Yisrael—before they can fight on behalf of truth?

To be a tad forward, I myself would be happy to oblige, however, women (for their own good) are hardly encouraged to learn such things as gemora and poskim… let alone engage in debates about Da’as Torah! But perhaps I should sigh with relief. For I shall never be criticized for writing a 3600-word polemic without citing a few dozen ma’arei mekomos (scholarly citations), much less a Rashi or two from Bereishis or Tractate Berachot! Fate, thankfully, has absolved me of such responsibility. To which I might add, without meaning any insult: ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, ruler of the universe, for having not made me Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein.’

[1] I refer the reader to Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein’s article, “Modern-Orthodoxy at a Crossroads” of 27 September, 2011 (link).
Additionally, the title refers the reader to Rabbi Dov Fischer’s article, “Who Hast Not Made me a Liberal Rabbi” of 8 August, 2011 (link).
[2]Cf. Soloveitchik, Haym. Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy. Tradition Volume 28:4 (Summer 1994)
[3] It is hardly surprising that the blessing thanking God that ‘one is not an ignoramus’ was, despite its Talmudic prescription, eventually omitted from the liturgy. (Cf. Menachot 43b; Tosefta Berachot 6:18) Though it has been conjectured that the inverse blessing, thanking the Lord for ‘having not been made a scholar,’ was much more prevalent among the masses (amei haaretz), the assertion has yet to find evidentiary support suitable to archeologists. (For the complete tale, see Borges, J.L. in manuscript: La Búsqueda de Geniza Otros El Cairo (The Search for Cairo’s Other Geniza) from Ficciones II. 1957. Located in the Archives of the Biblioteca Nacional de la República Argentina – Buenos Aires. An incomplete edition was once in the custody of the Valmadonna Trust. However, it was exchanged for several damaged Tractates of the “Bomberg Talmud.” The former is rumoured to be held in the basement of a Franciscan monastery in northern France...Basse-Normandie or thereabouts.
[4] Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky (here).
[5] See entrée for Hirsch, Samson Raphael. Encyclopedia Judaica.
[6] See Shapiro, Marc, “The Limits of Orthodox Theology” for a rather long list of Jewish authorities who are sadly no longer among the fold… I would assume the good minister considers Reform and Conservative Jews who reject the Thirteen Principles to be excluded from the nation. Pity.
[7] Chelkat MeChukak. Even HaEzer 63.2 [7]
[8] I must point out that I differ here with the minister’s rather foolish defence of those who claim that man may have descended from apes (link). Obviously, this is wrong, though there may be some truth to the claim that some part of ‘humanity’ descended from demons. (See Guide of the Perplexed I.7, cf. II.30; Eruvin 18b; Bereishit Rabbah 20:28;24:6)
[9] Iggrot ha-Rambam ed. Y. Shilat (333-334)
[10] The Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue is rumoured to practice this neutered Amida, yet I have been unwilling to visit that I.R.F. cabal to attest to the practice. *In order not give ammunition to the adversary, or cite an individual who might be inappropriately hoisted as a Gadol of the Far Left, I have refrained from mentioning the work of Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber in the body of my article. See his book: “On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations.”
[11] R. Dr. Emanuel Feldman. Tradition 29:4 pages 69-74(Summer 1995)
[12] Tur OH 46.4; Similarly, R. David Abudarhim understood the woman’s blessing as a form of tzidduk hadin. See Sperber (above) ch. 4.
[13] Baal HaTurim Gen. 1.27. Oddly, the math for v’nikevah (163) is two less than klalah (165), which lends itself to a number of insights that I have yet to fully explore.
[14] See Beit Yosef’s elucidation of Rashi’s view. On Tur OH 46.4; For further reading, see R. Eliezer Berkovits’ “Jewish Women in Time and Torah.” Chapters 1-2. Ktav, 1990.


avraham and ruth walfish said...

I am extremely disappointed to see this piece on the Seforim Blog. It is questionable to what extent the content and the level of scholarship meet the standards of this forum, but it is beyond question that the snide tone has no place on this blog. For the author I would add that I would have more sympathy for the author's sentiments and ideas if she refrained from descending to the level of discourse of those she is criticizing (or, in my estimation, considerably lower).

Aryeh Shore said...

I think the Habad idea of putting the blessing at the end is good. It just means that women were not commanded to put on teffillin. Of course, this still leaves the problem of blessing on a negative.
Thank heaven I am not a Yisrael or a Levi or an elephant or a drug addict.


well written,lucid and articulate,hope to see more submissions by this fine author!mr walfish should leave his wife out of his anti-women sentiments

Yeedle said...

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Anonymous said...

I found this posting articulate and quite on the mark. As for tone, I thought the author a tad too kind. The piece by Adlerstein is an embarrassment to Orthodoxy.

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