Monday, January 27, 2014

Not having any proof won't stop Stephen Pruzansky from slandering two Orthodox schools

I don't think I'll ever understand why rabbi Stephen Pruzansky is permitted to be strident, facetious, overbearing and even obnoxious in his opposition to women wearing tefilln, while those of us who think its a fine idea are required to mind our manners and to speak in only the most polite and deferential tones.

In particular, I don't understand why Cross Currents,  a blog that calls itself Orthodox, allows someone to publish a post that, absent any facts or evidence, accuses the administrators of two different schools of forming halachic policies on the basis of how many rich Conservatives Jews they can attract.

My fisk of his latest travesty after the jump

The Real Story?
by Steven Pruzansky

The controversy du jour deals with the high school girls and their tefillin, and it has prompted the usual litany of responses. Once again, what passes for psak in the Modern Orthodox world is little more than cherry-picking the sources to find the single, even strained, interpretation of a rabbinic opinion in order to permit what it wants to permit or prohibit what it wants to prohibit.

Any serious student of the halachic process could point to countless examples of RW and Hasidic psak operating the same way. Here's one very famous example: 
Once in Jerusalem a pair of doves cost a golden denar. Rabban Simeon b. Gamliel said: “By this Temple! I will not suffer the night to pass before they cost but a [silver] denar.” He went into the court and taught: “If a woman suffered five miscarriages that were not in doubt or five issues that were not in doubt, she need bring but one offering, and she may then eat of the animal-offerings; and she is not bound to offer the other offerings.” And the same day the price of a pair of doves stood at a quarter-denar each (Mishnah Keritot 1:7).
Other examples include how the Hasidim have embraced minority opinions only for the sake of making prayer less burdensome and easier to attend or how RW psak has recently gone completely off the rails in matters of tznius. with one ruling after another propagated only for the purpose of achieving a desired outcome.  And what about the famous video of a someone railroading one of the great Torah sages (was it Rav Elyashiv?) into giving the rulings he wanted. Or the Slifkin fiasco in which a sex offender and a criminal coerced some of the most famous poskim of our generation into banning a book they hadn't read?

The preponderance of poskim or the consensus in the Torah world matters little; fables – like Rashi’s daughters wearing tefillin – carry more weight.

Both SAR and Ramaz sent out letters explaining their position, with a halachic basis provided. Neither message mentioned Rashi's daughters. Here Pruzansky is bolstering his argument with a lie.

No honest reading of the sources could ever give rise to a statement such as “Ramaz would be happy to allow any female student who wants to observe the mitzvah of tefillin to do so.” 

And no honest person would suggest that the decision has anything to do with Rashi's daughter or omit to include the important context provided by the rest of the letter.
Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz, Chair of Talmud in the Upper School, has shared some short and informative notes with us:
1. A woman is not obligated to wear tefilin but can.
2. If she does, she gets [the reward for] a mitzvah and should say all the brachot like men(for Ashkenazim).
3. This is not encouraged, just as a male who wants to wear tefillin throughout the day is discouraged from doing so (Shulchan Aruch, siman 37 and siman 38).
4. School policy should be to educate about these issues.
5. Women should be taught that they do not need to wear tefillin in order to lead Jewishly-religiously meaningful lives, at least equal to men. But they have the right to make their own decisions.
But Pruz is not interested in being honest, here. 

Happy? Tell it to the Rema or to the Aruch Hashulchan. 

What if we told it to the Rambam or the Rashba instead? 

And, anyway, why are we 100 percent confident of our ability to read the minds of men who've been dead for 400 years? Isn't it at least possible, that a Rama reincarnated in 2014 might say, "OK, guys, back 400 years ago when I was totally against women wearing tefillin it was because they had a rough time keeping clean due to the absence of indoor plumbing and those slick sanitary items you have now. But I see that no longer obtains." 

Or perhaps he would say "Tefillin marks you as a full citizen in the Torah community, and 400 years ago women couldn't read and no one thought of them as co-equals. I see that's changed, too. So we can relax the anti-tefillin policy, as well." 

The point is we don't know, and should therefore not pretend to knowledge we don't have.

And what about the prohibition of lo titgodedu ­– of not having contradictory practices in the same minyan (e.g., some girls wearing tefillin and others not)? 

What about how nearly every diaspora minyan in the world permits some men to wear tefillin on chol hamoed, while others do not?  What about how no one even blinks when some men put on Rabbenu Tam tefillin at a minyan where most do not?  Its not right to stringently  apply a standard to women that we apply to men with less rigor - if at all. 

And what of the statement being made to the traditional girls – that their service of G-d must somehow be inferior to that of their peers who are on a “higher” level, or the statement being made to all of them – women’s spirituality can only reach its peak when it mimics the religious practices of men? I would not want my daughters to be exposed to either sentiment.

I don't think either statement is made when you allow a woman to do something the Rishonim said was permitted. If girls can take a lulav or listen to the shofar without getting confused about gender roles, I think they can wear tefillin without experiencing any confusion. And what do the traditional girls think when they see other woman at those ultra-modern amen parties? Do they imagine their ordinary commitment to saying shachris and mincha to now be "inferior" because others are doing more?

Frankly, it is unsurprising that many young students in high schools text on Shabbat, observe half-Shabbat, and the like. If the Mesorah can be manipulated to permit girls to do what they want, why can’t it be manipulated to permit what boys want? 

Your assumption that the Mesorah has been manipulated is incorrect. Anyway, the kids aren't being told that the mesorah has been changed. They are being taught that allowing women to wear tefillin is consistent with the mesorah, just as other communities teach that new fangled nonsense like upshurin is consistent with the mesorah. If the Hasidim can introduce new practices without confusing anyone, it stands to reason that the MO can, too. 

Clearly, the subtleties are being lost in translation. Would that the schools focused on enhancing the commitment of the boys and their tefillin than broadening it to include others who are not within the purview of the mitzvah.

How do you know they aren't doing this?

But what if that is not the story? It is quite possible that we – and especially the media – might have missed the essence of this unfolding tale.

Here comes the nasty...

One question needs to be asked: do the girls here even define themselves as “Orthodox Jews?” 

This is entirely irrelevant. Orthodox Judaism does not recognize the legitimacy of other denominations. In the eyes of the halacha, these girls are Jewish. Period.

Upon information and belief, they do not, and I do not write this to impugn them in the least. The fact is that in these day schools, anywhere from 10-30% of the student population consists of children from non-Orthodox homes. These families are proud members of non-Orthodox temples, and are certainly among the more dedicated. After all, they are sending their children to day schools under nominally Orthodox auspices. 


Some may even be the children of non-Orthodox rabbis, both males and females. When one girl explained that she has been wearing tefillin since her Bat Mitzvah, she is likely telling the truth. She has been wearing tefillin because that is part of the egalitarianism that is the most dominant value in the non-Orthodox world. If these girls – as it seems – are from non-Orthodox families, then the narrative has nothing at all to do with the so-called modernizing tendencies in Orthodoxy, but something else entirely.

The real story is not that Orthodox girls are wearing or want to wear tefillin, but that non-Orthodox children (or their parents) are essentially dictating to day schools how they want non-Orthodox practices incorporated – in school – in their children’s education. 

Perhaps they are. Perhaps they aren't. But school administrators receive pressure from parents all the time, about all sorts of different things. Part of the job is accommodating the suggestions that can be accommodated, and rejecting those that are unfounded. I think ordinary good manners require Pruz to grant SAR and Ramaz the benefit of the doubt and assume they are motivated by a desire to do what's right, and not by any special desire to appease parents from non-Orthodox backgrounds.  

It is as if Conservative Judaism and its customs must be acknowledged much like schools have been known (and properly so) to allow children of the Edot Hamizrach to have their own minyanim and adhere to their own customs. And the schools are willing accomplices. Will they next remove their mechitzot to allow an egalitarian minyan, or is that too great a departure from the Orthodox brand?

Pruz here reveals that he is too dumb to realize that women wearing tefillin is something rishonim allowed, while they never permitted shuls to tear down their mechitzot. The difference between something voluntary and something forbidden also seems lost on him. 

There was a time when non–Orthodox Jews were thankful that yeshivot accepted their children, but correctly assumed that the curriculum, standards, practices and ideology taught would conform to Torah. They knew it would differ from what they were being taught at home – but they wanted that.

And at Ramaz and SAR they are still getting that. It bears repeating that both schools followed the Orthodox halachic process, and that neither school is encouraging women to wear tefillin.  

There was a time when a yeshiva administration had the authority and the courage to insist on those standards. Times have changed. 

Not at SAR or Ramaz. At both schools, the primacy of Orthodox halacha is being preserved. They may have arrived at an outcome Pruz dislikes, but that tells us nothing about the process they followed.

In the competition for the tuition dollar of the non-Orthodox – and the fact is that SAR and Ramaz are competing for the same students – accommodations have to be made. And that is a travesty. 

It's also a travesty when a leading Orthodox Jewish Rabbis issues slanderous statements and unfounded accusations on a major Orthodox Jewish website. Women are exempt from tefillin, but Pruz is not exempt from the rules of Loshon Hara

Masquerading under the convenient narrative that this is a war for the soul of Modern Orthodoxy is the inconvenient reality: the inmates are running the asylum. The administrators are either unable or unwilling to maintain a complete fidelity to Jewish tradition, for at least some of their constituents are demanding otherwise.

I wonder what Pruz's shul does on Yom Haatzmaut? Complete fidelity to Jewish tradition would mean ignoring the day - no halel, no aborigination of the rules of sefira. But my hunch is the inmates at his shul run the asylum and that the Zionists have been accommodated. Why isn't Pruz able or willing to maintain complete fidelity to Jewish tradition? Or will he argue, as the SAR and Ramaz administration have argued, that the modifications they've permitted are actually perfectly traditional?

Does a boy in such a school then have the right to say: “I do not feel that my divine service requires me to wear a kippa. My father doesn’t, not even in the house. I am against your religious coercion”? Should a school tolerate that? 

Apples and oranges. A boy who wants to stop wearing his kippa is moving away from spirituality not towards it, unlike a woman who wishes to wear tefillin.

Or, an even better question: could a boy say that he rejects wearing tefillin until all the girls do? 

Actually this is a very stupid question

I.e., he is such an advocate of egalitarianism that it would be unconscionable for him, coming from his background, to continue to propagate the school’s antiquated, misogynistic, patriarchal attitudes that discriminate between males and females. I can hear it now: “There is only one G-d. He created all of us, and so there should be one law for all of us!” I wonder how the administrators would respond to that; probably, quite uncharitably, but on what grounds?

On the simple and obvious grounds that the halacha is that tefillin is required for men, but optional for women. This is a perfectly coherent position, and firmly rooted in the halacha that both schools follow.

As one male SAR student asked me this week: if girls can be obligated when they are really exempt, why can’t he be exempt when he is really obligated? 

More Pruz lies. No one at SAR or Ramaz says women are obligated to wear tefillin.

The logic is not impeccable – he is only 16 years old – but begs the question: if the Mesorah is so ephemeral that it can change on a whim, why can’t any rabbi make any change that he wants to make? Why can’t a layman?

The meosrah happens to be more ephemeral than Pruz allows. Many changes have been made, both with and without the blessing of the poskim. But again, none of this is a problem for SAR or Ramaz. Both schools followed a halachic process. Despite Pruz's lies, neither school made the change willy-nilly.

Add to this one other point. I personally have met a number of graduates of these schools who are children of non-Orthodox female converts who were never informed by the administrators that the conversions were not acceptable according to halacha. In effect, they went through high school thinking they were Jews like all their classmates only to discover – years later and often on the verge of marriage – that they were not considered Jewish. The tragedy is heart-wrenching, because these young men and women are pure innocents. But there are halachic ramifications as well even while they are in school: Did the son of such a female convert lein in school? Was he motzi the audience with his Chazarat Hashatz? Did he count for the minyan?

You can spend your life going crazy worrying about such things - maybe my wifes great grandmother x10 was a Cossak - and apparently some of us already have.

Take a more tragic example: what if a young girl, child of a non-Orthodox converted mother, meets and falls in love with a male classmate (perhaps, her chavruta in Gemara class), and that young man is a kohen? What would have been a beautiful relationship is now marred forever and their life plans have to be altered. 

This can happen even if the strict, Voldermort-like purity test Pruz desires are put into place.

Perhaps, G-d forbid, the couple might then even turn away from Torah observance entirely because the young woman in question also needs to convert according to halacha, but now cannot marry this young kohen. 

And therefore women should not wear tefillin? 

Is the unequivocal acceptance of non-Orthodox converts and their children the norm in these schools? Is any attempt made to have them – if possible – convert according to halacha? I wonder.

Why don't you call them and ask? That seems more sensible and responsible than vomiting these little thought experiments on to a page. 

On some level, the policy makes internal sense. For a day school appealing for non-Orthodox students in a very competitive climate, questioning the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions would be a turn-off to parents – just like denying these girls their tefillin would displease future applicants as well. We can debate whether these policies are l’shem shamayim or l’shem mammon; it is probably a bit of both.

So to sum up, Pruz has no idea how either school handles applicants who are the product of questionable conversions, and no proof that the school makes halachic decisions on the basis of money. Yet instead of behaving in anything resembling a responsible fashion, he uses his pulpit on Cross Currents to spread a lot of lies and innuendo. Really awesome stuff. 

But the bottom line is that the story here might not be at all about “Orthodox” girls wearing tefillin but about non-Orthodox children seeking an accommodation of their religious practices, and about day school principals reluctant to insist on adherence to Torah standards. And that is the opposite of courage.

And it might be true that Pruz is a cross-dressing Muslim terrorist. I said "might" so its ok for me to make stuff up, I guess.

 Search for more information about Stephen Pruzansky

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