Rabbi Yehudah Mirsky responds to Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Here is the fifth 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 was by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, and the fourth response was by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper. Finally, we have a response by Rabbi Professor Yehudah Mirsky.

Yehudah Mirsky is Associate Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, and is on the faculty of the university’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies. He is the author of Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution (Yale University Press, 2014) and tweets @YehudahMirsky. He appeared on this blog in fruitful interview on his Rav Kook biography.

Mirsky reminds us that halakhah is law, with its implicit sense of obligation, power structures, and connection to justice. He cites Robert Cover’s indelible point that as law, the law is violent. “Legal interpretation takes place on a field of pain and death.”  And those interpretations have consequences. As Cover notes: “When interpreters have finished their work, they frequently leave behind victims whose lives have been torn apart by these organized, social practices of violence.”

For Mirsky, the issues of synagogue inclusion are connected to the injustices of a system that is not responsive to agunot, tolerates get refusal, and is many times unjust to women appearing before the rabbinical court.  Our directive should be to avoid cruelty.

In addition,  Mirsky declares: Jewish marriage and divorce on the one hand, and Jewish prayer on the other, are intimately connected.” In Israel, the private and legal realms have become muddled so that there is coercion even in the voluntary private realms. While in the diaspora,  “policing the boundaries of marriage and divorce is for traditional rabbis, as it is for traditionalists in other religious traditions, almost the only power they have left.”  Mirsky lays down a gauntlet for the opponents of egalitarian prayer to explain “why non-egalitarian prayer does not contribute – wittingly or not- to the terrible cruelties that the institution of Jewish marriage has tragically come to inflict in our time. ” In short, choose kindness over cruelty.


Communal Prayer and the Meaning of Law and Dignity, or, Counting the Agunah who is Always in the Room

Yehudah Mirsky

As I once told Ethan Tucker, I regularly have a running conversation with him in my head – as he challenges us to think harder and more clearly about halakha with rare creativity and sensitivity. I haven’t yet had the chance to read the new book he’s written with Micha’el Rosenberg (indeed, Amazon has already run out of copies!), though I’m confident it is  an important intervention in contemporary discussions. My comments, then, are limited to his post at this blog,

Rabbi Tucker is admirably open about his position and presuppositions, and I will try to be here. My own practice, since the early ‘90s and the founding of the (sadly now late) Kehillat Orach Eliezer, is to belong to and participate in partnership and traditional egalitarian services as often as possible (and when those are unavailable I generally go to Orthodox services).  I am in very deep sympathy with his arguments and conclusions, but wish to suggest that the meaning of legal obligation and claims of human dignity he puts forward run even deeper than he suggests. There is, in other words, an elephant in the room, as I hope to make clear below.

His argument that “(w)e are not coming with an outside critique of halakhah.  Instead, we are trying to apply halakhah’s internal logic to a changing reality” is bracingly refreshing,. It offers a way out of regularly unsatisfying arguments over ‘meta-halakha’ and the like, which effectively lock participants into rigid positions of Legal Realism and Legal Formalism, neither of which do justice to the history and reality of halakha, or for that matter of most any legal culture.

In looking at the internal logic of the halakhah, he argues that gender was for Hazal, not about sheer biology, at least not when it came to communal prayer, but rather a proxy for other categories: honor and dignity, and maximal obligation in mitzvot. One of the many virtues of this approach is that it can make sense of why excluding women from communal prayer made sense for a long time, even if we conclude that it no longer does, as modernity has shifted the ground under so many things, to the point of creating Orthodoxy as a self-conscious ideology of resistance to change. (I’ve written at greater length about the socio-historical dimensions of Orthodoxy’s emergence and my understanding of the theological reach and limits of that emergence.)

In truth, gender does seem more essentialized than that in Rabbinic literature, certainly when it comes to theology and utterly when it comes to Kabbalah. Indeed, one way of framing the deepest divides between the Jewish philosophic and kabbalistic traditions is whether God can in any ways be discussed in terms of gender at all. 

Rabbi Tucker’s starting point of gender being, when it comes to prayer, not an immanent category but a proxy or signifier for issues of obligation and dignity is prima facie reasonable, and squarely within a formal-rational understanding of the halakhic process.

I will first say a brief word about the legal freight of the very term “obligation,” and then move to my core points, about the legal meaning of human dignity.

I suspect I am not alone in sensing that to many non-orthodox critics of Orthodox prayer (and of Orthodoxy in general) fail to understand that Orthodoxy, takes religion as law. Halakhah is for Orthodoxy as it was for pre-modern Judaism, as Prof. Gerald Blidstein so well put it, “the normative structure undergirding Jewish life in both its private and public dimensions.”  Because halakha is law, it has, or at least works towards, the internal morality and coherence of law. (Gerald J. Blidstein, “Halakhah – The Governing Norm,” Jewish Political Studies Review 8:2 (1996), 37).

In other words. someone who is not obligated in a mitzvah cannot help another person fulfill that obligation, the same way that under the laws of the United States the Postman can’t write you a parking ticket and you can’t be arrested by a diplomat from the State Department.  In this light, reckoning with degrees of male and female obligation, makes eminent legal sense.

For non-Orthodox Jews (and for many Orthodox laypeople too, one suspects), Judaism is not about law, but about “religion,” that distinctively modern Western notion that our relationship to transcendence is something that exists outside or alongside law, and takes shape under the rubrics of “community,” “ritual,” and “ethics” – all terms which, whatever their premodern antecedents, mean very different things now than they did in the many centuries when people’s primordial, civic and transcendent identities were knotted more tightly together. (I go into this a bit more here and with specific reference to Israel and Zionism here).

One of the myriad changes wrought by modernity and its disestablishment of organized Jewish community, is its changing the very existential stance and meaning of communal prayer, from something utterly continuous with the socio-political and legal life-world to a privatized space, standing as an alternative to the life-world shaped by law. Indeed, for those to whom Judaism means ethics and ritual, the exclusion of women, not to mention the fine distinctions of devarim she-bi-qedushah and eyno metzuveh ve-‘oseh, make little sense. But if halakha is law, then those distinctions make all the sense in the world.

Thus, a key claim of Orthodoxy, and indeed of the word halakha, whoever employs it, is that whatever else Torah is, it’s law. Indeed, in some ways Orthodoxy’s problem is that it sees halakha as law, but not all the way down. I say that because to take halakha seriously as law, means, at the very end of the day to see it as being about the legitimate use of force, or at the very least, of other means of coercion and social control. As my late teacher, Robert Cover put it in his less-well-known but important essay, “Violence and the Word”: “Neither legal interpretation nor the violence it occasions may be properly understood apart from one another.”

The idea that a quorum of adult males constitutes the public and coercive face of community seems to me implicit in the very proof texts used to establish it, at BT Megillah 23b. The word edah is the very word used in Mishnah Sanhedrin 1:6 to establish the quorum necessary to inflict capital punishment. This linkage seems not merely semantic but essential.  Minyan is the public face of the community at prayer. Minyan is the public face of the community enforcing its boundaries.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room when it comes to the role of women and communal prayer and that is the structure of Jewish marriage.  If communal prayer is indeed communal, it is all about the community and its boundaries, and not only in public, in synagogue and on Shabbat mornings. Communal prayer is inextricably connected to Jewish marriage.

To disallow egalitarianism in the synagogue is to disallow it under the chuppah and ultimately in the beit din.  The most potent female figure in the moral universe of communal prayer is, to my mind, not the ba’alat tefillah or kriyah, but the agunah,  potential or actual. The way we structure our community in prayer will further chain her or help set her free.

In other words, the moral claims of egalitarian prayer arise not only from women’s legitimate concerns for spiritual self-expression, but from what is in many ways the only thing that matters, and that is the avoidance of man-made cruelty.

Now, part of being human means that we cannot ever fully be rid of our abilities to inflict cruelty on one another.  I regularly tell my students that I often hope that future generations will find it as hard to understand how we lived with our moral failings today as we find it hard to understand how people lived for so long with slavery.  Nevertheless, the humbling knowledge of our own inevitable moral inadequacy is no reason to give up trying to minimize as best we can the cruelties we can avoid. The attempt to avoid man-made cruelty in our processes of governance and law is itself the deepest meaning of human dignity, and whatever kavod ha-tzibur may be, the avoidance of organized cruelty is surely a part of it.

I freely declare that much of what has driven me to egalitarian services over the years is the recognition that at the very end of the day the system that excludes women from the public space and public speech-acts of communal prayer is the system that runs roughshod over them in court. And in matters of domestic relations regularly treats them with great cruelty.

Jewish marriage and divorce on the one hand, and Jewish prayer on the other, are intimately connected. The cord connecting the two is that both take the form of law. This relationship is regularly muddied in both Israel and the Diaspora, each for its own reasons.

A key feature of the State of Israel, and the source of many of its dilemmas, is its being a nation-state created to answer the problems of both sovereignty as well as the crisis of modern Jewish community. As a result, the lines between the state, as the monopolist of legitimate coercion, and community, as an essentially voluntary association, are regularly, and hopelessly, blurred. Rabbinic authorities regularly wield a coercive power to which much of the citizenry has hardly given informed consent.

(See on this Rivka Lubitch’s extraordinary new book recounting her nightmarish experiences as a to’enet rabbanit working with agunot, converts and others in Israel’s regularly Kafkaesque rabbinic courts. But is also certainly true in Diaspora communities, as many of us who have been involved in one agunah situation or other can attest. I do think pre-modern halakhists, for whom evidentiary issues predominated, were regularly more morally responsive to the dilemmas of igun, than their modern successors, but that is for another time.)

In the contemporary diaspora halakha is the circumscribed dance of a community nestled in the larger framework of the liberal state – indeed what makes today’s diaspora communities distinctly modern is precisely their lack of the corporate identity, and regularly coercive frame, of the pre-modern kehilla.

Diaspora communities are voluntary and their power of suasion is a mix of the social and the spiritual, therefore we can lose sight of the arenas in which coercion is still central to the enterprise. Indeed policing the boundaries of marriage and divorce is for traditional rabbis, as it is for traditionalists in other religious traditions, almost the only power they have left.  (I am indebted for this observation to Prof. Frank Vogel, formerly of Harvard Law School.)

Which is another way of saying that I understand why egalitarian prayer is genuinely and understandably threatening to many observant Jews. Especially when pursued – in partnership minyanim – by people who know what tradition is, who are committed to it, and who cannot simply be waved away as lukewarm Jews.  Because, indeed, once women are treated as equals in the form of communal structure of prayer they can only with much greater difficulty be unequal in the communal structure of law.

We are by now deeply inured to the privatized nature of prayer in the modern world, including its being encapsulated in this category called “ritual.” Prayer is of course ritual, as we understand it, and is deeply expressive, indeed the claims of self-expression regularly twist and press against the necessary conformities of public prayer. As Rav Soloveitchik so powerfully wrote so often, we regularly turn to prayer, and prayerful community, precisely as a haven from the relentless and regularly terrifying daily pursuit of getting and spending and accumulating power. (See, for instance, his essay, “Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah.” )

But in as much as prayer is about halakhic community it is also about power, much as we might wish it were not so.

I certainly don’t mean to argue that gender’s place in Judaism starts and ends with the problem of igun or that legal equality and its corollary of egalitarian prayer do or should exhaust the range of religious experience.

As I’ve written elsewhere, Maimonides call to imitatio dei itself implies a spectrum of religious life embracing both sides of the gender divide and going beyond them as well, though what I’ve called “a shtiebel of one’s own.”  But once the shtiebel is no longer just one’s own, but of the community, we must be aware of the ways we are talking about boundaries and power.

I see power at work in many places, but not anywhere and everywhere, nor do I think the power entirely defines and circumscribes the range of human action, choice and freedom. I am not a disciple of Michel Foucault, for whom power is so all-encompassing that escape is impossible. I do not believe escape is impossible and we can choose our lives. But in order to do so we need to understand the ways in which power shapes and determines our lives and especially our religious lives.

While I am very much in agreement with Rabbi Tucker, and see his overall project as a vital contribution to the renewal of Torah in our time, I urge on him, to be frank, a more suspicious hermeneutic of halakha, and not only because the texts we are studying have all been written by men.  I say this because Torah is too precious to be deformed and be made an instrument of cruelty as it has so often been, and is today, precisely through the renewal of Jewish sovereignty.

Rabbi Tucker’s powerfully attractive stance as a student and practitioner of halakha assumes someone who not only stands before law but also is analytically prior to the law, with their own moral and religious judgments.

I envision someone with commitments, including moral commitments, some of which are shaped by tradition, and some of which we come to by ourselves, given this historical moment in which we find ourselves caught up. Now one could assume human being are constructed entirely by the tradition.

Indeed, some forms of Orthodoxy have been very busy trying to construct that very kind of person, or at least the idea of that kind of person. But it is unclear if such a person actually exists. And even if such a person does exist, he or she must, when faced with the suffering of other human beings, make a decision.

Invariably a person must choose to be cruel or choose to be kind. The law we hope will guide us to choose kindness. At least not affirmatively to choose cruelty. Those are the stakes of egalitarian prayer – and the challenge for its opponents is to answer how and why non-egalitarian prayer does not contribute – wittingly or not- to the terrible cruelties that the institution of Jewish marriage has tragically come to inflict in our time.

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