Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Schachter: Better to die than to believe in God

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

Well, I agreed with Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University, last week, but unsurprisingly, this didn’t last long. Cross-Currents reports that, at this week’s Rabbinical Council of America convention, Schachter taught a class on why women could not be ordained, and said that ordaining women was a yeihareig ve’al ya’avor (i.e., in the category of violations that Jews are commanded to die rather than transgress), “because the Conservative movement had made egalitarianism a key plank in its platform”.

First of all, if Cross-Currents is reporting his statement accurately, Schachter is wrong on the facts, and giving the Conservative movement much more credit than it deserves. The Conservative movement has always been timid about egalitarianism, treating it as a leniency rather than as a principle, and certainly not as “a key plank in its platform”. There are still a number of non-egalitarian Conservative congregations, and the movement doesn’t seem to have a problem with this.

But let’s look at the general principle that Schachter propounds, that any key plank of the Conservative movement’s platform becomes a yeihareig ve’al ya’avor for Torah Jews. One of the things that Emet Ve’Emunah, the Conservative movement’s “Statement of Principles”, actually does say is “Conservative Judaism affirms the critical importance of belief in God”. Therefore, anyone following Schachter’s opinion must conclude that it is strictly forbidden to believe in God, and that this prohibition is so serious that it is better to die than to violate it. Yes, some (presumably left-wing fringe) Orthodox Jews and congregations still believe in God, but we can assume that they will fall into line soon.

I can see the scene now: Schachter and his students giving up their lives al kiddush [REDACTED], having their skin flayed with iron combs as they say with their last breaths, “Hear O Israel: There is no God!”


  1. So the question is this: does emulating the Conservative movement qualify as murder, avoda zara or sexual immorality? Or did I miss one?

  2. Why not go after the big ones:

    Emet v'Emunah

    We in the Conservative community are committed to carrying on the rabbinic tradition of preserving and enhancing Halakhah

    The Sacred Cluster of Ismar Shorsch

    The sixth core value is the governance of Jewish life by halakha

    So, I guess halakhah is out the window for the RCA, as well.

    א,יא אבטליון אומר, חכמים, היזהרו בדבריכם--שמא תחובו חובת גלות, ותגלו למקום המים הרעים, וישתו התלמידים הבאים אחריכם וימותו, ונמצא שם שמיים מתחלל.

    Sages, be wary with your words, for perhaps you will be exiled and to a place of heresy, and the students who come after you will drink and die, and the Name of heaven will be profaned.

  3. BZ, I don't know if this comment was there when you first read it:

    "[Note: It did not take long for the ignorant to demonstrate their ignorance. There are reports that people outside of Orthodoxy are reporting that RHS argued that it is better to be killed than to [fill in the blank.] I was not at the shiur, but anyone who spent time in a beis medrash understands that his reference was almost certainly to the Yam Shel Shlomo in Bava Kama which states that falsifying or misrepresenting what Torah stands for is impermissible under all circumstances. “Yehareg v’al ya’avor” translates into “No way!” and nothing more. People citing him to any other effect are only demonstrating their inability to handle rabbinic text.]"

    So, then why
    "then drew gasps from the audience when he said that it was also a yehareg v’al ya’avor"

    presumably, they already knew that is was a 'no way'....

    "He saw such ordination as a violation of the issur of serarah" (women as leaders)

    So, he thought what of Golda Meir? Or Rebbetzin Jungreis? Or Deborah the Prophetess? Or Shlomtzion haMalkah?
    That is just grasping at straws.

    Also, Is Avi Weiss still in the RCA?

  4. So if that interpretation is correct, then Schachter simply said that believing in God is a "No way!". Is that better?

  5. BZ, I think it's well know that when a rabbi tells you that incest is "yehareg v'al yavor", s/he means "no way!". You shouldn't get the idea that it's better to be killed than do the deed. (And how is ordaining women something you could be killed for? I understood that expression is that it's better to be killed than do this thing...)

    The thing that's frustrating to me, is that I'm not really sure what they're objecting to.

    Are they objecting to women as poskot? Are they objecting to a woman being a mara d'atra? Are they objecting to a woman being a leader in any (religious?) organization? Are they objecting to women giving divrei Torah to a mixed congregation (kvod bat malkah penima)? Are they objecting to having a woman as a member of the RCA? Or is it just the title?

    I think it's understood that an Orthodox woman rabbi would daven behind a mehitzah and not lead services or officiate weddings, serve as a judge, or act as a witness.

    In that sense, I agree that the title shouldn't be 'rabbi', but is there no role for such a woman?

  6. BZ, I think it's well know that when a rabbi tells you that incest is "yehareg v'al yavor", s/he means "no way!". You shouldn't get the idea that it's better to be killed than do the deed.

    But even if he was just being colorful and so was I, that doesn't alter my critique, which is that the logic of "the Conservative movement does X, therefore we must not do X" is ridiculous.

  7. The thing that's frustrating to me, is that I'm not really sure what they're objecting to.

    A changing world where they don't hold all the power. Same as the Tea Party.

  8. BZ sez But even if he was just being colorful and so was I,

    but I was being sarcastic...

    And wikipedia matches what I learned in Hebrew School:

    רק לשלוש מצוות נקבעה עדיפות מיוחדת - "ייהרג ואל יעבור" - כלומר, גם אם קיום מצוות אלה מסכן את חייו של היהודי, אל לו להפר אותן (תוספתא שבת טז, יד; בבלי, סנהדרין דף עד/א)


    However, there are three areas of prohibition that may not be trespassed under any circumstances, even to save a human life. While these three areas of Jewish law are often informally referred to as the "three cardinal sins," they actually encompass many more than three prohibitions. The three areas of Jewish law that may not be violated are certain specific prohibitions involving murder, sexual misconduct and foreign worship.

    The term in the talmud seems pretty literal, and I don't know how he can ignore that:

    א"ר יוחנן לא שנו אלא שלא בשעת {שמד} אבל בשעת {שמד} אפי' מצוה קלה יהרג ואל יעבור כי אתא רבין אמר רבי יוחנן אפי' שלא בשעת {שמד} לא אמרו אלא בצינעא אבל בפרהסיא אפי' מצוה קלה יהרג ואל יעבור

    Isn't shev, v'al ta'ase the more appropriate one?

    Yes, though I think it's hard to not see that there is a part of Orthodoxy which defines itself as 'not Conservative', by which they mean they have a mehitza and women can't lead services. That is, those things are formally outside the realm of possibility while remaining 'Orthodox'.

    (Though R' Lopatin disagrees on this point. He thinks the sources are clear that women can lead tefillot, though a mehitza is still required).

  9. I'm guessing that everybody knows what I'm about to say and is just enjoying a good bash, but what the heck ...

    RHS regards Orthodoxy as the only authentic Judaism. Accordingly, he wishes for the demise of the non-O movements, or to have their theology and practice change to bring them within O norms. He therefore does not want them to stop believing in Hashem, ch"v, since that would drive them further away. He does want them to give up on egalitarianism, and since any movement in that direction on the part of O encourages the heterodox to think "see, we were right all along" he is asserting that the serious risk to Jewish neshamot among the heterodox calls for sacrifice by the Orthodox of things that might in other circumstances be permissible.

    I don't know how much of the use of YvY language is literal vs symbolic. When an Israeli gadol said refusing IDF service for women was YvY did he mean it literally? I do not know - fortunately no one was obligated to make that choice.

    All that aside, I myself once wrote a purim torah citing the CJLS Teshuva for the Revitalization of Shabbat (aka the driving teshuvah) suggesting that since the CJLS encouraged men to buy their wives flowers for Shabbat doing such should be forbidden for O men under the prohibition of encouraging the heterodox.

  10. Larry, I suspect you're right, and most of us do indeed understand R' Schachter's motivations. That doesn't excuse his words, which are problematic no matter how one interprets them.

    If indeed he meant ייהרג ועל יעבור as pesak, then he has adopted a radical and indefensible halakhic stance. If it was hyperbolic, then he has frivolously used in public a highly charged term with specific legal significance. This seems to me generally unbecoming of a man in R' Schachter's position. We sneer when teabaggers insist that the United States Constitution contains verbiage that nobody can find; why should we react differently to a rabbi who makes such ludicrous claims—rhetorical or not—about halakha?

    There is also, of course, the matter of extreme personal insult. Whatever he may have meant by it, what R' Schachter said and what his audience heard is that R' Weiss should have died rather than ordain Sara Hurwitz as a rabba, or maharat, or whatever we wish to call it. It's been less than 15 years since Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated after so many rabbis began to call him a רודף; we should all know better than to cast about such words so casually.

  11. Larry Lennhoff writes:
    since any movement in that direction on the part of O encourages the heterodox to think "see, we were right all along"

    Perhaps if non-Orthodox Jews were to stop looking to the Orthodox community for validation, then this wouldn't be their reaction -- rather, they would already believe that they were right all along.

  12. RHS is already well-known for saying things that offend people... cf. the monkey ketuba line and the "kill the prime minister" joke(?).