Friday, October 28, 2011

Open Orthodoxy

Rabbi Slifkin wrote a bit about Open Orthodoxy here. I’m jotting down some of my musings. Indented paragraphs are quotes from Rabbi Slifkin's blog.  
Personally, I am fairly conservative, with a small "c," from a halachic standpoint. I believe that in order for Orthodoxy to survive, it must follow the approach of Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog, whereby we accept the authority of Chazal regardless of whether we agree with their reasoning. I believe that, in the face of contemporary challenges to the halachic lifestyle and ideology, a certain amount of stubborn rigidity is required…
This is a highly curious statement. Rabbi Slifkin has made it his life’s career to demonstrate the fallibility of Chazal while simultaneously mitigating the authority of their most distinguished and effective promulgators i.e. our gedoley Yisrael. If he truly believes that the only way Orthodoxy can survive is by accepting the authority of Chazal, perhaps he should consider modifying his career a bit.
I see God as undeniably and necessarily unequal in His distribution of opportunities.
I agree, but only partially. There is no question that men possess a lot more opportunities than women and that this is a necessary arrangement. But “more” in this context refers to quantity, not quality. When it comes to a qualitative distribution of opportunities, women are almost on par with men. Some say even more. I personally wouldn't say that because men have the mitzvah of Talmud Torah and women don’t. And Chazal even go so far as to ask “nashim ba’mai ka’zachu”? But there’s no question that from a functional standpoint they are basically equals inasmuch as their respective roles are indispensable to eachother, to the family unit as a whole and to the ongoing perpetuation and welfare of mankind in general.

So if from a functional perspective a women’s role is just as important as a man’s, why do men make the bracha of shelo asani isha? Is it simply because they get the opportunity to do more mitzvos? Maybe. But I’m in kiruv and I know this response rings hollow in the ears of many of the teenage girls and women in my audience. Here’s a response I developed based on the teachings of my rebbi, one which I believe is emes l’amito (although not necessarily the only reason).

If you take a look at the birchos ha’shachar you will notice that each and every bracha constitutes a form of our expression of hakaras hatov to Hashem for the physical benefits He bestows upon us! We thank Him for our eyesight, we thank Him for our balance, we thank Him for our strength and we thank Him for our clothing. We even thank Him for our alarm clocks (first bracha).

What about the more ethereal blessings? Well, even they possess a physical connotation. Ozer Yisrael b’gvura refers to our belts. Oter Yisrael b’sifa’ara refers to our hats.  She’asah li kol tzorki refers to our shoes. It all relates to the physical benefits Hashem bestows upon us on a daily basis.

In view of this, the bracha of shelo asani isha is simple to understand. How so? Let’s delineate some physical benefits men have over women.

Men are stronger than women. Men are taller than women. Men are faster than women. Men are more capable of defending themselves than women. In general, men are more independent than women. A bachur can walk to shul at night for a late ma’ariv. A girl cannot (or at least should not) venture outside on the street at night alone. Men do not undergo the physical pains of child-birth. If a man wants to have a child(ren), he does not have to undergo the pains of child-bearing. He doesn’t experience morning sickness. His strength doesn’t wane. His emotional state remains stable (as stable as it normally is anyway) and his ankles don’t bloat. Women are generally dependant on men for their physical well-being and their societal status. Women are generally subjugated to the will of their husbands (at least they should be). These are only a few of the physical benefits men enjoy over women.

In this world men have it better than women. Accordingly men are obligated to thank Hashem for this benefit. Hence the bracha shelo asani isha. You might ask, why state the bracha in the negative? The answer is two-fold. Practically it is too time-consuming to thank Hashem for each and every physical benefit we enjoy over women. When would we find time to eat breakfast? A bracha stated in the negative covers all the details (although every man should have a particular benefit in mind when he makes the bracha).

Second of all, sometimes things stated in the negative serve to enhance our appreciation of the positive. By stating shelo asani isha we start thinking of all the physical encumbrances women possess and this helps us realize how grateful we as men need to be to Hashem for what He gave us. There is a kabbalistic concept in Chazal referred to as “yisron ha’or min ha’choshech”; the superiority of light when contrasted with darkness. A flashlight is not appreciated during the day as much as it is at night…      

But what about the intrinsic value of women in comparison to men? Does all this make a man more important than a woman? Of course not! Does it make his Neshama superior to that of a woman? No way. Is his chelek l’olam haba any more assured? Not at all. In fact, Chazal state that the “promise” to women (of a share in the world to come) is greater than that of the promise to men (see Maharal in his dissertation to Shabbos Shuva). In the world to come men and women will be perfectly equal. We will all sit together and sing to Hashem. No mechitzos in olam habba. No problems with kol isha...

I see it as being perfectly reasonable, as well as strongly supported by modern science, to state that the differences between men and women extend beyond their physical differences.
And I am way too suspicious of the transient nature of contemporary morality to demand that Judaism conform to it.
Actually Rabbi Slifkin should never demand that Judaism conform to outside morality, even non-contemporary morality. The old morality of the umos ha-olam was no better than today’s morality. Besides, our morality is divinely revealed and transmitted via our mesorah. It doesn’t have any competitors…  

Good Shabbos to our readers!

Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach!


  1. Hi R. Coffer.

    Are the brachos with regard to gentiles and slaves also with regard to physical attributes? Slaves, maybe. But gentiles?

    Also, doesn't the gemara itself explain that the reason for the bracha shelo assani isha is due to men having more mitzvos? My understanding is that this explanation predates the feminist movement by close to 2000 years.

    Gut Shabbos.

  2. Nachum,

    Are the brachos with regard to gentiles and slaves also with regard to physical attributes?


    Slaves, maybe. But gentiles?

    Actually, this is the most physical bracha of all. Hashem made the world for us. He runs the world for us. He causes things, everything, to happen in the world for us. Chazal say, ein pur’anius ba’a la’olam ela bishvil yisrael… suffering comes upon the world only because of yisrael. Rashi explains, in order to cause them to be fearful and repent. And the gemara states, afilu s’fina ha’mehaleches bein agalya li’aspamya eina misbareches ela bi’shvil yisrael. Even a merchant ship full of product which travels between Gal and Spain (no Jews there during the time of this statement in the gemara) prospers in its journey only for the sake of yisrael. So, our first and foremost obligation is to thank Hashem for literally running the entire physical world specifically for our benefit! Only then do we mention some details…

    Also, doesn't the gemara itself explain that the reason for the bracha shelo assani isha is due to men having more mitzvos?

    No. But don’t get me wrong. This is also a valid reason. And the poskim go back and forth regarding the nature of this bracha. Even Rashi on the gemara has two distinct approaches, one which relates to mitzvos and one which relates to her physically inferior status. But even if it has to do with mitzvos it’s still physical. I don’t have time to explain now but my explanation is not bubba ma’asos. It’s real. If you remember, write me after shabbos here to remind me and I’ll spend time explaining it at length. Sorry I’m rushing. Shabbos is in 40 minutes…

    My understanding is that this explanation predates the feminist movement by close to 2000 years.

    True. But MY explanation predates the feminist movement by 5700 years! What was one of the reasons Hashem was upset with Adam? Because he demonstrated a lack of gratitude! The attitude that we need to be grateful to Hashem precedes the Torah! As Chazal say, derech eretz kadma la’Torah

  3. doesn't the gemara itself explain that the reason for the bracha shelo assani isha is due to men having more mitzvos?

    Nachum is right. This is not only Rashi’s explanation (Menachos 43b), but is part and
    parcel of the very source for making this blessing. The Gemora Yerushalmi on
    Brachos 9:2 (63b) reads:

    תני: רבי יהודה אומר: שלשה דברים צריך אדם לומר בכל יום: ברוך שלא עשאני גוי ברוך שלא עשאני בור ברוך שלא עשאני אשה
    ברוך שלא עשאני גוי, שאין הגוים כלום כל הגוים כאין נגדו
    ברוך שלא עשאני בור, שאין בור ירא חטא

    ברוך שלא עשאני אשה, שאין האשה מצווה על המצוות

    “A braissa teaches: Rebbi Yehudah said, ‘Each day one needs to say
    … “Blessed is the One Who has not made me a woman,” because a woman is
    not commanded to perform [all] the mitzvos.”

    The very authority who originally proposed the recitation of this blessing gave this as his reason for it.

  4. > This is a highly curious statement. Rabbi Slifkin has made it his life’s career to demonstrate the fallibility of Chazal

    This is a deceptive statement. Rav Slifkin has indeed pointed out that Chazal were, in their scientific pronouncement, working with the knowledge base of their time and therefore made statements consistent with that base. Science today has moved on and has a new knowledge base. I don't recall at any point him claiming that Chazal were erroneous in their halachic pronouncements which is altogether a different matter.

    In addition, the gemara in eiruvin clarifies why the blessings are said in the negative. It is better that man never was created so the only thing we can do is bless God for not making things lower for us in terms of less mitzvah observance.