Rabbi Ysoscher Katz responds to Rabbi Ethan Tucker Interview

Here is a third response to my interview with Rabbi Ethan Tucker.  The first Response was by Dr. Malka Simkovich. The second response was by Yoav Sorek.  The third response is by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, chair of Talmud at YCT and Rabbi/posek of the Prospect Heights Synagogue

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz received ordination from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for over ten years. He is head of Talmud study at YCT . For a full presentation of his views, see his statement called “Torat Chaim ve Ahavat Chesed” as well as here and here.

Rabbi Katz, while respecting the great learning and erudition of Rabbi Tucker, finds himself on the other side of a divide from the latter’s position. Katz rejects seeing Biblically mandated laws and concepts as subject to social and historical contextualization. For Katz, gender roles is part of the halakhic understanding of the Bible, In addition, Katz does not think we can ever extract the original value behind Jewish law in an act of retrieval of original values.  We only have the flexibility of the halakhic system with which to work.  Katz finds the concept of intuiting the divine moral direction, using the text as a moral compass, as, at best, conjecture. Finally as a coda, Katz declares that he is worried that changes weaken the integrity of the religious fabric that holds the community together. He is worried about questions of reverence and the community as being able to withstand challenges. Katz sees the embrace of progressive social idea predominately as a way of bring a religious message to a broader array of people.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz’s Prospect Heights Shul recently hired a woman as “Rosh kehilla” Michal Kohane, a Maharat-in-training.


Demarcating God’s Presence and Interpreting His Words

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz

Rav Ethan is an important contemporary thinker and teacher of Torah. To use a common paraphrase of the gemara in Avodah Zara (5.): הוא הגבר אשר הקים עולה של תורה; Rav Ethan’s unique Torah is responsible for bringing many people closer to Torah and yiddishkeit. It is a real merit to dialogue with him.

Before I start, please allow me to mention two things:

  • I do not represent any organization or institution. I speak only for myself.
  • The interview provides tremendous insight into Rabbi Tucker’s thinking. I encourage the reader to also read the linked essays on women and tefilin and women as rabbis. They nicely compliment this interview. Combined, they provide a fuller understanding of Rav Ethan’s well thought out and beautifully articulated Halakhic philosophy, along with its theological underpinnings.

With that I will begin.

Even though some people conflate my approach with Rav Ethan’s, they are very different. While there is overlap in our respective philosophies, at a certain point our approaches diverge. My method exists on a continuum of what Modern Orthodox pesika has always done, but I am limited by the parameters of that philosophy. Rav Ethan traverses those parameters, suggesting an approach which is of a whole different magnitude.

Modern Orthodox psak is informed by a belief in a halakhic system that is in dialogue with contemporary norms. While poskim might differ on the specifics of that philosophy or how broadly to apply it, they all endorse the basic ethos of reconciliation, as best as possible, between these two value systems; halakhah and modernity.  Much of what Rav Ethan says in his book Gender Equality And Prayer In Jewish Law operates on that continuum. He too attempts to resolve the conflict between traditional exclusionary attitudes and modern notions of egalitarianism. However, in order for his argument to work perfectly, he ultimately needs to make a Halakhic leap from the outer limits of Modern Orthodox philosophy of psak towards a place where it, in my opinion, cannot go.


Rav Ethan needs to embrace a robust egalitarianism which encompasses the entire Halakhic corpus, one that believes that every gender based distinction in Halakhah is sociological, not biological. According to Rav Ethan, whenever we encounter a gender based distinction, in Chazal or the Torah, it is not about women per se, but instead is referring to someone who is part of a trio of individuals “known to be adjunct or second-class citizens in the larger Greco-Roman world in which the Sages lived” (the other two being minors and slaves). It is not gender essentialist and would therefore not apply to the women of our time.

Consequently, when the Mechilta says that women are exempt from wearing tefillin because the word בניכם (Devarim 11:19) means sons, not daughters, or when some poskim say that women do not count in a minyan because the word בני that is used in the context of devarim she’be’kedusha (Va’yikra 22:32), that distinction no longer applies. Similarly, when Chazal infer from the biblical gendered language used in the context of Jewish monarchy, שום תשים עליך מלך (Devarim 17:12), that a woman cannot serve as a queen (“מלך ולא מלכה”), that distinction also no longer applies today. Again, the origins of this gendered distinction was sociological; women at the time were “adjunct and second-class citizens.” Today’s women are culturally equal and accordingly not subject to the biblical exclusion.

While I am in agreement with Rav Ethan’s overall feminist critique of gendered observance, I am unable to accept his all-encompassing dismissal of the category of women in modern times. Instead I believe that we need to apply it in a more limited fashion. An egalitarian critique, in my opinion, is legitimately applied to de’rabanans, but de’oraita based distinctions, which are derived from the Torah’s gendered language (בניכם ולא בנותיכם, אנשים ולא נשים), are immune from such critique. When God makes those distinctions, it is perhaps capricious (descriptively speaking), but is certainly not discriminatory-in a moral sense. God’s words are eternal and transcend cultural influences or human values. To import a cultural based definition of women in the Rabbinic context to its appearance in the Torah is a conjectural leap. The latter’s speech is obviously informed by contemporary norms, the former’s is not, at least not according to conventions of traditional biblical theology.

Rav Ethen goes from women in Chazal, to gendered language in the Torah. While rabbinic women can easily be explained as referring to a sociological construct, it is much harder to make that claim about verses in the Torah where the gender-specific language is solidified in Midrash Halakhah.  These drashot, from a traditional perspective, are merely interpretive, revealing what the text means when God uttered those formulations.

While Rav Ethan indeed provides multiple proofs for the claim that rabbinic categories are culturally subjective, none of them, however, are categories with a specific basis in the Torah. (Rav Ethan, in his various writings, has employed different examples to prove his claim. He either mentions “nochri” “cheresh” (Gender Equality And Prayer In Jewish Law P. 145, n. 80) the obligation to air out once a month found books,” (in the interview with Dr. Brill) or “the inability of women to offer things for sale at the market” (in the above linked essay on women as rabbis). The common denominator in these examples is that they are all rabbinc concepts or formulations, none of them is predicated on an explicit biblical formulation.  

Practically then, in the context of Jewish monarchy, according to the drash adopted by the Rambam, women are excluded, by divine decree (or perhaps even divine caprice or whim) from any authoritative position. Those terms (מלך ולא מלכה, or the comparable case of tefillin or minyan, where women are excluded because it saysבניכם  or בני respectively), uttered by God, are clearly about essentialist gender and not about a subjective social construct.  The Torah exists outside of a particular social construct. This, essentially is the idea behind concepts like גזירת הכתוב, לא דרשינן טעמא דקרא, or מה אעשה ואבי שבשמים גזר עלי. They imply that God’s commands can be capricious, and that we cannot know definitively the purpose, reason or intent of Biblical commands or their seemingly arbitrarily imposed boundaries, gendered or otherwise.

Can We Know the Divine Will?

Rav Ethan believes that mankind can (and is perhaps even obligated to) discern and fully comprehend the Divine will, to “know what God wants from us.” That ability is partially attainable because of the “kernel of prophecy” embedded in the “Halakhic instincts” of “the Jewish people.”

A corollary of this confidence in humanity’s ability to comprehend God’s inner workings is the assumption (attributed to my dear friend Rav Elisha Anscelovits) that we can definitively “identify what a mitzvah or practice is about, what are the values that are guiding it.” Rav Ethan consequently sees “as problematic an aversion to seeking out reasons for mitzvot.”

Beyond expressing discomfort with those who refuse to say definitively why God wants something, Rabbis Ethan and Elisha also reject the traditional notion that Halakhah is “like an electric fence.” They instead believe that its purpose is to function as a “compass.”

I am uncertain about the theological postulates which provide the framework for Rav Ethan’s Halakhic philosophy. The ability to negate biblical categories which are incompatible with contemporary norms is informed by a belief in our ability to “know what God wants” and that we can “identify what a mitzvah or practice is about, what are the values that are guiding it.” (Rav Ethan and Rav Elisha would argue that He is presumably guided by our value system and therefore “wants” a religious life that is universally egalitarian). I believe that such a level of certainty about the will of the ineffable is impossible.  We can be certain about what He wants us to do, but extrapolating from that what it is that He really wants, is at best conjectural.

The sources that express this unbridgeable gulf between His will and our capacity to decipher it are innumerable.  One, however, is particularly evocative. It expresses the idea with brevity and precision. Chazal tell us in masechet sukkah (5.)  that the Shekhinah perpetually hovers ten cubits above earth, never descending completely. The gap between God and mankind is indeed small and our charge is to continuously shrink it. Yet, despite our best efforts, Chazal tell us, the gap will never be completely closed.

While the statement is primarily mystical, its implication for psak is dipositive. There will always be a categorical difference that separates God from us, our values, and sociological categories. It is noteworthy that they use the Shekhinah aspect of the Divine. Shekhinah in kabbalah represents the immanent aspect of God, the one that interacts with our world. For them, even an immanent God remains somewhat aloof and unattainable. Denying the gap is akin to anthropomorphism. It sees God and mankind functioning on a level playing field. He is lowered to this world, made to conform to our moral and ethical constructs.

Parenthetically it is worth noting an informative similarity. Rav Ethan says that his belief in our ability to discern the divine will is informed by a modicum of contemporary prophecy. He believes that there are traces of “prophecy” in our “Halakhic instincts.” This notion has echoes in 11th and 12th century Ashkenazi poskim’s disproportionate reverence for minhag. The Rishonim’s exaggerated awe for their communities’ cotemporary practices, to the point where they have the ability to challenge the authority of codified Halakhah, is understood by many to be informed by a belief in the inherent sanctity of their community. Their martyrdom during the persecution of the Crusades sanctified their practices and intuitive behaviors, infusing them with the power to force the Rishonim to reevaluate assumed norms and established textual interpretations. Ultimately, those Rishonim, like Rav Ethan, attributed transcendental value to the practices and intuitions of the observant community.

The comparison is informative in the breach. While Rav Ethan allows the communal “prophecy” to challenge established norms which have their basis in the biblical texts, the Rishonim limited that power to the Rabbinic realm. Rabbeinu Tam and others in the group of Ashkenazi poskim who gave Halakhic credence to their contemporaries’ behavioral traditions, drew the line at biblical norms. Communal practices indeed have the power to make us reexamine assumed Rabbinic laws and requirements, but never where they allowed to upend established biblical norms.

(Another pillar of Rav Ethan (and Rav Elisha’s) Halakhic philosophy is the claim that the purpose of the Rabbinic project is to serve as a “compass,” not as a “fence.” It is my sense that such claim would be counterintuitive to most traditional learners. The general impression is the exact opposite, that they see their role as gatekeepers, not as guides. To fully explore this additional disagreement is beyond the scope of this essay. I hope to address it more in depth at a future time.)


Rejecting Rav Ethan’s two fundamental postulates makes it impossible for me to embrace his all-encompassing negation of gender differences, regardless if the source is biblical or rabbinic. I believe that certain gender-based Halakhic distinctions, because of their biblical origin, will (unfortunately) continue in perpetuity. It will, of course, always trouble us, but we will never be able to change that. Our religious mandate, instead, is to, subserviently, accept the burden of divine capriciousness. Rav Ethan’s attempt to alleviate that burden, cannot work because we disagree on the fundamentals.

Postscript on Community

Rav Ethan’s sefer highlighted for me an oft-repeated critique of the entire progressive enterprise. After 183 pages on the Halakhic legitimacy of a robust religious egalitarianism, he spends a scant two pages exploring its sociological implications. This discrepancy is not unique to Rav Ethan, it is true for all of us who are involved in this project. We pay insufficient attention to the socio-religious implications of such drastic changes, introduced at such a fast pace.

The modern religious landscape has been radically transformed in a mere fifty to sixty years. Such rapid change will obviously cause major socio-religious convulsions. We, therefore, need to remember that we are not just rabbis, responsible for our communities’ intellectual growth. Rather, we are also pastors who have been entrusted with our congregant’s spiritual wellbeing. We, therefore, cannot afford to merely focus on the intellectual aspects of the feminist critique, we also need to ensure that these changes are implemented with caution and sensitivity. These changes, if done wrongly, could potentially rent the religious fabric that sustains our communities.

Reverence for tradition is what scaffolds our communities’ infrastructure. When that is gone, the communal edifice falls apart, leaving our congregants exposed and religiously vulnerable. That is a price we currently cannot afford. Our immunity to the potent anti-religious elements that envelop us everywhere we turn are weak and depleted. It would be difficult to justify the progressive agenda if the end result of these changes is a depletion in our religious antibodies instead of an increase.

The real goal of this intellectually challenging and emotionally draining project, at least for me, is to provide an all-encompassing religious arena whereby everybody, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, feels that they have optimal access to a robust and comprehensive spiritual life. For me, progressiveness is merely a platform which allows a broader array of people to grow religiously, and spiritually excel.

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