Monday, March 30, 2009

Mechitzah, Women Rabbis and Intermarriage: I prefer Challenge over Open-mindedness

This morning, visitors to our shul davened outside of the actual room where we were davening; they believed our mechitzah was too low.

My hackles rise, of course, at this sort of insult (and it is an insult*). I recall the Rosh Yeshiva from Yeshivas Mir of Eretz Yisroel who davened in our shul a couple of years ago on a trip through town, as well as numerous rabbonim from Lakewood, Brooklyn and Monsey, all of whom have understood the situation here and did not leave the room.

But I don’t bother trying to convince the ones who don’t get it. I don't believe in being infinitely open-minded. I believe people are correct to evaluate for themselves, assuming they evaluate based on hard Torah sources.

I was in their shoes this past week, in thinking about R’ Avi Weiss’s “Maharat” sort-of-rabbinic ordination of a woman, Sara Hurwitz.

I was in their shoes some time back when I watched an Orthodox rabbi give public honor to a donor in his shul event, with the donor’s non-Jewish fiancee present.

I'll admit that a little voice inside my head says, "You know, others don't agree with you, either." But, speaking rationally rather than emotionally, I feel no obligation to be open-minded or "to each his own" pluralistic just because others question me as well. Being a centrist doesn't mean you need to include everyone else in the middle as well.

Or to put it differently: The fact that all of us are vulnerable to challenge doesn't mean that all of us should accept everyone else's positions. That would create a cabal of self-protecting innovators, open-minded for the expedient sake of avoiding challenge.

All of the rabbis involved in these circumstances claim that we are acting on the basis of Jewish sources, that we have the weight of tradition behind our positions, that other Torah-loyal authorities should agree with our conclusions. So let those Torah-loyal authorities make their own evaluations, and come to their own conclusions - even if it's my own leniency they challenge.

The challenge is good, and even the disagreement is good; it should keep us honest.

How we express disagreement, Where we express disagreement, is another matter - but we all own the right and share the responsibility of evaluation and disagreement.

For that matter, the same goes beyond the rabbinate, to the way we conduct ourselves in our personal religious lives.

Any time you move away from the accepted norm – and “accepted norm” is in the eye of the beholder rather than any objective standard– you face that charge of being too open-minded, or, on the other side, too closed-minded. As the gemara (Menachot 40a) puts it, you become מן המתמיהין, among those who shock people and make them go Hmmm.

At that point, we must be open to evaluation based on the sources you claim on your behalf. If we can stand up to that test, good. And if not, then perhaps it’s time for a self-evaluation.

(*The insult is not that they decided to refrain from davening here; the insult is that they came into the building knowing the situation, just to daven outside that room.)


  1. Hmm. Here in town all our family and friends think we're "fanatics" about observance, while we're clearly "kofrim" relative to all the Orthodox folks we know online.


  2. I guess i had some similar thoughts this weekend, as i attended services at a Chabad shul. I know when i enter a room, the first thing anyone wants to know is am i married. Yes. So where is hubby? Not here. Hmmm...So do i tell them WHY he isn't there? Is it really their business? Am i obligated to tell them? If i felt they would be "open minded" - i may...but i know mostly likely, my marriage will be looked at with tsk tsk in their hearts, and i understand that. I do.

    What are your thoughts?

  3. To Shorty:

    Why would you have any obligation to tell anyone anything about your marriage. ok, I'm not talking about situations where there is a halachik (or policy) issue involved. But, the people who ask questions "when you enter the room" are not the ones who have that kind of need to know. And, you do NOT have any obligation of any sort to share your marriage details to anyone in a social setting, if you don't choose to, for any reason.

    Given what so many Chabad shuls are like, it surprises me that anyone would make an issue of this. No matter what the issue is, I can't imagine any situation which you could be in that is unique.

  4. my grandfather's shul (with a lower mehitzah) gets baalei kriah from the local yeshivah. the bochrim wait in the hallway until the torah is placed on the bimah and then run out literally the second the finish leining.

    one week i got maftir. the minhag in the shul is for the gabbai to say kaddish, and since i was leining my own aliyah, the baal kore left right after shevii without waiting for kaddish. i remember the gabbai being upset that he didn't at least wait for kaddish.

    the minyan is made up of the last 2 oldtimers from a once flourishing community and a bunch of russians. if the bochrim can step in the church to make a buck it wouldn't kill them to stick around a bit and be mechazek the minyan.

  5. You're right, it isn't necessarily unique, I just don't know how people would respond to the statement "my husband isn't Jewish". The Jewish group I am part of, have opened their hearts to me. They don't necessarily agree with it, however, they do see the value in educating me (and him) so that I am part of the community anyway. that being said, we do get questioned a fair bit about it, i know we are a curiosity for sure. ok...i digress...Rabbi? Where you at?

  6. Tzipporah-
    Guess you're a centrist after all.

    Interesting. I don't volunteer information that I think will trouble people and create strife, but I would hope that if your friendships with people there deepen, you'll safe being frank with them.

    That's exactly what I'm talking about.