I am not a great Torah sage. I have not been through shas dozens of times. I do not, as Josh Waxman put it "live and breath the sources" and I have not "develop[ed] a feel for the way halacha works." I am not going to oppose Rav Shachter or argue with him.
But I do know how to work both Google and the much maligned Bar Ilan-search, plus I have seen a few pages of shas. And the combination of those experiences have left me with a nagging doubt about the central argument Rav Shachter presented in what the blogs are calling his "tefillin missive" So let me raise my hand, like a good talmud, and pose a respectful question.
In brief, I recall learning in BT Chagigah that there were in Temple Days two classes of people: (1) Perushim who were meticulous about purity, and accepted certain stringencies to protect the purity of their food and their bodies; and (2) Amei Ha'aretz who were not meticulous and could not be trusted to even keep the basic requirements.
Throughout the year, those priests who were perushim refused to take trumah (food offerings) from Amei Ha'aretz, and there were strict rules limiting the participation of the amei ha'aretz in Temple services. This was done to protect the priest and the Temple from being polluted through contact with food that may have been handled by people who were, themselves, in a state of impurity.
There is an echo of this in Rav Shachter's letter. He writes that it is a sectarian practice (of Conservative Jewry) for women to wear tefillin and "in our generation, all the Tannaim, all the Rishonim, and all the Achronim would agree that such practice is decidedly forbidden so as not to emulate the schismatic movements, even though it may appear as a stringency." In short, do nothing to suggest that other sects have validity, legitimacy, or any claim to the truth.
But the analogy shatters when you recall that the rules were different on holidays. On holidays the amei haaretz and their food were accepted by the persuhim with love. All stringencies were suspended. Efforts were made within the bounds of halacha to accommodate the ammei haaretz. Why? Because the sages feared that the amei haaretz would go off and start their own sect if they weren't made to feel welcome in Jerusalem on holidays.
Though Rav Shachter suggests the women wearing Tefillin are conservative Jews, this is factually incorrect. They are not conservative Jews, but Orthodox Jews who are on the verge of breaking off and forming a new Open Orthodox sect. If you ban their practices, they won't capitulate. They'll simply go off and form their own sect. This would be unavoidable, of course, if the practice in question was something completely treif, or in clear violation of Torah law, but here we are discussing practices great authorities of the past permitted. Though it is correct to say that their opinions were defeated it would be a completely wrong to say their opinions were beyond the pale of halachic legitimacy.
My questions, therefore, are as follows: Why is Rav Shachter demanding that we take a stand against Conservative Judaism, when the "offenders" belong to Orthodoxy? Why aren't we concerned, as the Sages were in the example I cite, that taking such a strong stand, and one punctuated with such robust language, might drive the "offenders" out of Orthodoxy, and contribute to the development of yet another sect? And, finally, shouldn't preventing the development of new Jewish sects be our overarching concern?
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