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Women, Modern Orthodoxy And Communal Leadership

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R. Lichtenstein stated that a member of parliament and certainly a government minister are often involved in coercive legislation or votes on budgets involving tens of millions of shekels or issues of war and peace. This position is clearly more of a serarah than any shul rabbi or president. He thus felt that, certainly in Israel, the Modern Orthodox community has taken the position that the expansive reading of the Rambam, limiting women’s roles, is not the normative ruling. (It should be noted that R. Lichtenstein’s own wife, Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein, ran for Knesset in 1988 as a candidate for the Meimad party headed then by Rav Yehuda Amital.)

In this context I would also add a question of halachic methodology and consistency that needs to be examined in this as in many other halachic issues. There are many communal voices that, despite the existence of opinions against the Rambam’s view or severely restricting its contemporary application, take the position that we should be stringent for the view of Rambam (in its expansive reading).

I’ve always wondered why, on this specific issue, the “Rambam’s position” is the only one that should be entertained communally.

There are many other opinions of the Rambam’s – some of them quite central to his worldview – that much of the Orthodox community seems to have no problem neutralizing or ignoring because other views exist.

Two examples of the myriad one can cite:

1. Many of the communal rabbis or activists who cite the Rambam on serarah do not hesitate to allow their communities to use standard communal eruvin, in their own neighborhoods and all over the world. According to Rambam’s view, almost all our eruvin are not kosher as they have more than a ten-amot gap between eruv posts.

2. Rambam maintains that receiving money for learning Torah is a chillul Hashem (the worst sin possible in his hierarchy of sin in Hilchot Teshuvah). Yet the haredi, Modern Orthodox, dati-leumi, and hardal worlds not only neutralize the binding nature of Rambam’s position on this matter, they trumpet the existence of various kollelim as the pinnacle of their educational infrastructure.

In all these instances, of course, there are other rishonim who take issue with Rambam, or there are acharonim who limit the Rambam and attempt to show that even he would agree in this or that situation (sometimes more convincingly, sometimes much less so). In many instances, acharonim attempt to show that because of pressing need or another countervailing Torah value, we need to be lenient and not only look to the Rambam’s view as dispositive.

In a word, through the give and take of halacha, the analysis of the social realities and religious needs of the community, and the weighing of other Jewish and ethical values, this or that position of the Rambam’s does not become the final word in the living, practicing reality of the committed community.

Thus, the simple statement that “we should be stringent for shitat ha-Rambam” is far from simple. The question has to be evaluated on a much broader canvas of potentially countervailing legitimate Torah needs, halachic values and spiritual directions that may point us to look to other views besides the restrictive reading of a particular Rambam.

About the Author: Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is chair of the departments of Tanach and Jewish Thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Rabbinical School; is on the faculty of SAR High School; and is spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, New Jersey.

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