in this week's Forward discusses the halachic
issues of women celebrating with the torah, as relevant to the upcoming Chag
of Simchat Torah
. The piece has quotes from two differing Orthodox viewpoints. One, from an authority who obviously has a more progressive opinion on the subject:
With the increased demand in recent years for greater ritual opportunity for Orthodox women, rabbinic authorities have been pressed to examine the tradition barring women from dancing with the Torah. Their findings showed that "from a purely halachic point of view, there is no prohibition at all preventing a woman from touching a Sefer Torah or even from reading from it — even while she is menstruating," according to Shlomo Riskin, founding rabbi of New York's Modern Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue and chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat. This position opened the way for women's hakafot in many synagogues.
It came as no surprise that the Forward was able to find an Orthodox Halachic authority willing to disagree with that viewpoint. Rabbi Herschel Schachter, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, has a storied career of limiting womens' involvement in Orthodox Jewish ritual and mitzvot
- and usually in a particulary insensitive manner. On this topic, he does not disappoint:
Those opposed to women's hakafot — like Rabbi Herschel Schachter, professor at the Yeshiva University-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary — argue that the movement to allow women to dance with the Torah springs from the "impure motivations" of rebelliousness and self-aggrandizement rather than a pure desire to connect with God. Another issue of contention is the fact that according to rabbinic tradition, a long-held Jewish custom attains the status of a halachic ruling.
Rabbi Schachter, some of you might recall, came under fire a while back for his answer to a question regarding the new Modern Orthodox "trend" of allowing women to read the ketubah
under the chuppah
at a wedding. His answer
, as follows, enraged many women across the Jewish denominational spectrum (emphasis mine):
A new trend is emerging among certain "modern Orthodox" circles. A scholarly woman is called upon at a wedding ceremony to read the kesuba. They say that "halachically there is nothing wrong with this!" In a certain sense this statement is correct. If one only judges the issue from the perspective of the laws of "siddur kiddushin" there's nothing wrong. Yes, even if a parrot or a monkey would read the kesuba, the marriage would be one hundred percent valid.
Now, is it just me, or does Rabbi Schachter seem to suffer
from the plague of particularly poor choices of phrase? In that case, as in his comments on the question of women dancing with the Torah, Rabbi Schachter does not display much sensitivity toward the women who wish to have a higher level of involvement. I was willing to accept that he did not intend to compare women to parrots and monkeys in his unfortunate comparison last year. I did find that his comments displayed a shocking lack of sensitivity, but was willing to accept that it was unintentional. I am not even taking issue with his halachic opinion, it is his right to have a more restricitive view on the subject of women's involvement than others across the Orthodox spectrum.
However, his most recent comments are not as easily explained away as based simply on a poor choice of words. His assertion that women, as a group, only wish to have a closeness to the Torah out of "impure motivations", is not just mean spirited, but in my opinion, violates the commandment to "judge each man favorably". Unless, of course, Rabbi Schachter doesn't feel that that commandment applies to "judging each woman
: Lkwdguy points out in comments that "Judging people favorably would, in my humble opinion, include not concluding that a very learned man is insensitive to women based on a (very possibly out of context) quote in the Forward." Absolutely fair. So I would like to point out that I am not judging as huge a Talmid Chacham
as Rav Schachter as insensitive in his attitude. I know of a few cases where Rav Schachter has shown tremendous sensitivity to women in his rulings. And simply ruling on this topic that women are not allowed to participate in certain activities, regardless of the fact that it may make certain groups unhappy does not necessarily make him insensitive - just principled in his beliefs.However, I maintain that Rav Schachter's choice of phraseology leaves something to be desired. When he uses words that risk so offending the very groups that would be most disappointed by his rulings, he risks (and succeeds) in muddying the debate. It created a situation where his rulings are no longer the discussion, but the way in which he presents them is.Update II
: Also, the last paragraph of my original post, especially since commenters have pointed out that the Forward deviously used a quote that Rav Schachter used in an article dated 1985, was truly unecessarily harsh, and more than a little mean-spirited. I am leaving it there, but attributing the anger displayed within it to exhaustion from my indentured servitude in the kitchen this holiday season. I, myself, am apparently not a liberated woman in the least.