Yoav Sorek responds to Ethan Tucker Interview

Last week, I posted a widely read and discussed interview with Rabbi Ethan Tucker. This week, I will be posting several diverse responses.  The first Response was by Dr. Malka Simkovich. Here is the second response by Yoav Sorek. Rather than just looking at technical details, Sorek thinks such decisions need to be grounded in bigger questions of family and society.

Yoav Sorek is the Editor in Chief of the Shiloach Journal of for Policy and Thought (Tikva Fund). He created the Musaf Shabbat section for the Makor Rishon newspaper and was its editor for seven years. He is the author of The Israeli Covenant (Hebrew) and has published numerous articles on Judaism, Zionism and public policy. He is a graduate of Mercaz yeshivas and holds a BA and MA from the Open University in Jewish History. . Yoav is currently pursuing doctoral studies at Ben Gurion University.

In theory, Sorek agrees with Tucker’s method and his conclusion, however is unsure on issues of whether the laws are based on discrimination and not a Jewish vision of the family. Sorek’s views of halakhah compared to others is shown on this report of a panel at Yeshivat Siach Yitzhak that he was on seven years ago in which he spoke alongside Rav Eliezer Melamed, Rav Baruch Gigi, Rav Shlomo Dichovsky and Rav Yair Dryfus. As reported by Tomer Persico. (article is in Hebrew), Sorek stood out on the panel for advocating changes to the halakhah to respond to the major changes of the last century. Halakhah, for Sorek, should not exclude the majority of the Jewish people. On the other hand, he is an active social conservative editing a Tikva Fund publication.


Beyond Technical Details:What about the Family?
Yoav Sorek

I cannot recall any previous experience in which I read a conversation about Halakha and enjoyed it so much. Reading Rabbi Tucker, on the background of the contemporary discourse of halakha, was extremely refreshing. His attitude is not only brilliantly articulated but first and foremost very precise, and deeply loyal to the essential basics of halakha. This is a manifesto of a real talmid hakham

He is a true Talmid Chachm – like the one he mentioned, Dor Revi’i (Rabbi Moshe Glasner, the great-grandson of the Hatam Sofer), of whom I am writing my PhD dissertation. Glasner is relevant in another aspect also: He was probably the first modern Jewish scholar to promote post-denominationalism. After defending the concept of Orthodox separatism in his middle days, he powerfully went beyond it in his last years – believing that when and where there is no danger of assimilation there is no justification to the creation of separate communities.

Nevertheless, as to the topic discussed in the interview, I don’t accept Tucker’s position easily.

I understand his case: when dealing with American Orthodox discourse, Tucker finds himself confronting Jews who believe morally in egalitarianism, but believe that the Halakha can’t adhere to it because of formal considerations. We believe in X, but we can’t touch the Halakha that says Y. Justly, Tucker argues against this approach, which turns the rich and meaningful halakhic tradition into a mere formalistic and stagnated position. Halakha should not challenge our moral believes; it should cultivate them.

As Tucker beautifully articulates, halakha should never be isolated from values. Learning halakha contains the mission of listening to the values that Jewish law echo – which can differ from that we collect from the surrounding zeitgeist. Nevertheless, maybe this is the case here. Maybe, the halakhic rulings cited by Tucker are not merely a reflection of the social and economic status of women in the age of the Sages, rather they contain values that we should learn from.

Tucker is so captured in his egalitarian approach, that he does not really consider its own biases. For Tucker, there are only two possible explanations to excluding women from the minyan: The first is their social status at ancient times, and the other is their “xx chromosomes” – a code that represents a discriminating approach. I believe that Tucker is right and that many of the halakhic rulings towards women are a function of their legal and economic status in ancient times; but I believe that this is not the full picture. Halakha thinks that men and women are not identical, and sees them as having different roles in a way that is essential for family and society. God could have created humanity as a single sex. He did not do so.

Where should we draw the line? Which rulings are based on social status and which have to do with the positive differences between men and women? I don’t know. I think this is one of the biggest challenges that are on the table of this generation’s sages. My personal tendency is to count women for minyan, and I think this will become natural; but I am not sure.

Take just one application: a minyan is not just an instrument to allow certain rituals; it is the core of a Jewish community, or edah in halakhic discourse. While we were counting only adult men, we needed ten Jewish household to create a community. If we will count the women also, then we can be satisfied by five. This is a huge change, which is far from being technical. By counting two adults in every family, we reconstruct the meaning of a Jewish family or household. If until now the family was treated up to now as an organic unit, it is now closer to be an umbrella of two adults who share some kids.

I acknowledge that this is the real world we live in. A world of individuals who share their lives, rather than the old world where the family was the basic unit of society. However, isn’t this change destructive to the concept of family? Is it not worth it to consider the that Jewish tradition conserves a different approach to family worth consideration? Do we accept automatically the attitude that treats traditional institutions as oppressive and ignore their benefits?

When we ask about egalitarianism and family, we should not just focus on the technical question of who will stay with the kids. This is not the point (and men can do stay with the kids just like women). The question is what is a family? Does it have any structure? Is there a “head of the family”? Is hierarchy only a bad word, which represents power – or is it also a key for responsibility, accountability and division of labor? These questions are hard to hear for a liberal ear geared toward egalitarianism. However, I think that when learning Torah we should be open for also for these questions.

Because of these considerations, I am not rushing to create egalitarian minyanim– although I can hardly question their halakhic legitimacy. I am afraid that we have not yet really thought through all of the consequences, and we never investigated the question of where differences are discriminating and where they are real and good. This is a huge challenge which I would like Rabbi Tucker, as well as other brave and devoted Torah scholars, to take upon themselves. I will be more than happy to take part.

Tucker’s attitude towards Halakha is loyal and precise, more classic than classic, in the best meaning of this term. Is he also ready to question his liberal egalitarian preconceptions?

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