Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

This week I found amongst a library I acquired a private letter sent from Rav J. B. Soloveitchik to R. David Hollander, the president of the RCA during the period of this letter ca. 1955. The typed letter, hand signed by the Rav, discusses many of the challenges facing American Jewry at the time, particularly the issue of the mechitzah. While American Orthodoxy faces many challenges today, it was fascinating to me to read through the discussions and issues facing the Rav, the leader of the American Jewish Orthodoxy in his era.

From the letter: “The RCA stands now at the crossroads and must decide either to assume boldly and courageously the time honored and the by ages sanctified role of the traditional rabbinate tracing its history back to Joshua, Moses and Sinai, and thus be ready to fight for an undiluted halachah which is often nor in the vogue, or to deteriorate into a so-called modern rabbinic group if undefined quality and of a confused ideology, vague in its attitudes and undecided as to its policies.


In particular, I wish to call the attention of the Conference to the mechitzah problem. I continually receive reports from laymen from all parts of the country, accusing many rabbis of displaying indecisiveness and even cowardice in this matter. They charge them with laxity and indifference, even in cases when the traditionally minded individuals are willing to organize in defense of the principle of segregation. I have the feeling that a well coordinated, aggressive effort on our part may stop, if not reverse even, the trend of Christianization of the synagogue. However, many of our colleagues choose the derech ketzarah va’aruchah, the easy way which leads to doom and disaster.


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I do hereby reiterate the statement I have made on numerous occasions, both in writing and orally, that a synagogue with a mixed seating arrangement forfeits its sanctity and its halachic status of mikdash me’at [a sanctuary-in-miniature], and is unfit for prayer and avodah she-belev [the service of the heart]. With full cognizance of the implications of such a halachic decision, I would still advise every Orthodox Jew to forego tefillah b’tzibbur [group prayer] even on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, rather than enter a synagogue with mixed pews, notwithstanding the fact that the officiating rabbi happens to be a graduate of a great and venerable yeshivah. No rabbi, however great in scholarship and moral integrity, has the authority to endorse, legalize, or even apologetically explain this basic deviation. Any rabbi or scholar who attempts to sanction the desecrated synagogue, ipso facto casts a doubt on his own moral right to function as a teacher or spiritual leader in the traditional sense of the word. No pretext, excuse, ad hoc formula missionary complex, or unfounded fear of losing our foothold in the Jewish community, can justify the acceptance of Christianized synagogue as a bona fide Jewish religious institution….”

He goes on to write about other matters as well: “As chairman of the Vaad Halachah I intended to inform the conference about our activities during the past year. Since I am prevented from doing so I have asked my friend Rabbi Joseph Weiss to take my place.

Permit me to say the following. One of the fundamentals of my faith is that the halachah is an all-inclusive discipline and system of thought capable of meeting any challenge of modern times and of confronting the most perplexing problems which a technically progressive and scientifically minded society may periodically pose. This optimistic formula, however, cannot always be successfully applied because of the limited knowledge and the imperfect intellectual capability of the human being. I for one, am not always able to behold the halachic truth and to see the light under all circumstances. Many a time I grope in the dark, pondering, examining and re-examining an intricate halachic problem – and find myself unable to arrive at a clear decision. Even the Talmud has not solved all problems and has not answered all questions. The teiku is a very prominent and characteristic feature of Torah She-B’al Peh. We members of the Halachah Commission are not partners in a contracting firm whose task it is to provide every member of the Rabbinical Council of America with a clear-cut answer to his problems. Quite often the solution eludes us. We are beset by grave doubts. We face many alternatives not knowing which to choose since each is supported by sound logical reasoning. We cannot be guided in our decisions by emotional factors or pragmatic arbitrariness and hence we are impelled to employ in such situations the principle of “B’divrai Torah Haloch Achar Hamachmir” which seems to inconvenience some of our members.

Religious Jews have of late developed an intolerant attitude towards what they call the shyness and reluctance on the part of scholars to commit themselves on halachic issues, not knowing that there is no omniscience in this world and that doubt is an integral part of the halachic experience as it is of every scientific performance. A rabbi who thinks that he can solve all problems is implicitly admitting his own ignorance. I implore the convention to abstain from leveling charges of evasion at the Halachah Commission. Let us not repeat the complaints which are so common in religious circles in Israel about a lack of boldness on the part of the rabbinate. They come, for the most part, from people who are not conversant with Halachic scholarship. If there is in our ranks some one wise enough to undertake to answer all halachic questions by return mail, I would not hesitate to relinquish my position as chairman to him.”

References were made at the end of the letter to 2 other long forgotten issues of the day; “P.S., I would suggest that the convention adopt a resolution condemning the Humphrey Bill pertaining to humane methods of slaughter. The convention should also send a letter of thanks to the State Department for the special attention of Assistant Secretary Herbert Hoover, Jr., for its stand against the proposed calendar reform.”


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Israel Mizrahi is the owner of Mizrahi Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY, and He can be reached at [email protected].