Tuesday, December 27, 2016

And He Shall Rule Over You

Susan B. Anthony. Are her views compatible with Halacha?
We all had a good laugh when my Mechutan quoted this biblical passage to his  ‘wife to be’ on their wedding day during the Badeken – the veiling of the bride. (Both had lost their first spouses to illness). He then went on to give a beautiful interpretation of it - which is beyond the scope of this post. I mention it in light of an article in Lehrhaus.

One of the most destructive forces in history is the misuse of Eve’s curse to control women . V’Hu Yimshol Bach’ – ‘and he shall rule over you’ God tells Eve as part of her punishment for violating His command not eat fruit from the ‘tree of knowledge’. More than a few women over the course of history were abused – both mentally and physically using this passage from the Torah as an excuse.

Beyond that - until the advent of modern day feminism most wives saw subservience to their husbands as a biblical obligation. Husbands were to have complete decision making authority over their wives in all matters.

If this is indeed God’s mandate, how do we reconcile modern concepts of the equality of the sexes with it?

Rabbi Yosef Bronstein tackles this question in a thoughtful Lehrhaus article. He first quotes the Rambam on this issue who seems to take this curse literally and explains him to mean the following:
While on the interpersonal level marriage is defined by love and mutual respect, the decision-making authority remains with the husband. The wife is enjoined to act in accordance with her spouse’s will, even in instances where she disagrees. 
This is clearly in complete contradiction to how the modern world sees marriage. In most cases husbands and wives discuss and debate an issue and try to come to a consensus. If that isn’t possible – then in some cases the husband prevails and in some cases the wife prevails. But according to the Rambam the husband should always have the last word.

Is that normative Halacha? Do we ignore modern concepts of equality between the sexes? It depends who you ask, it seems. Rabbi Bronstein discusses three views.

On the right - Rabbi Avarham Erlanger’s approach is in concert with the rejectionist approach to outside influences. While his book on the subject spends many pages on treating one’s wife with respect and taking her views into serious consideration - at the end of the day it is always the husband’s right to ‘rule over his wife’. The decision is halachicly his to make and is binding on his wife no matter how strongly she might object. He completely dismisses all outside influences as irrelevant to Halacha - no matter how compelling those influences might be to our modern sensibilities.  

This approach helps explain why the right is so rejectionist of outside influences. It doesn’t matter what makes sense to us. It matters only what Halacha says which is not to be filtered through a contemporary lens. While this is technically true, not everything said by the sages has the same level of obligation. Nonetheless based on this approach one can understand why the right so strongly vilifies feminism .

Rabbi Mordechai Willig has a different interpretation. After a thorough analysis of the Rambam’s style of Halachic Psak he (and others) have determined that the Rambam did not mean all of his rulings to be binding – phrasing those differently than the ones that were binding. This is one instance of that. It was  merely a suggestion of Chazal for a wife to be subservient to her husband. It is given in the form of advice and not binding. Contemporary sages are free to change it based on the circumstances of their own  time.

In the era of equal rights for men and women the current model of an equal partnership between husband and wife is therefore as valid in our time as Chazal’s approach was theirs. This is a view that clearly departs from that of the right. In this view there is no conflict with Halacha in taking modern values into consideration when there is no clear directive not to do so. This is the view taken by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein who said in an excerpt cited by Rabbi Bronstein): 
(Decisions) are subject to the discussion, predilection, and decision of individual couples…
Thus, the familiar description of an isha keshera as a wife who performs the will of her husband (retson ba’alah), in no way precludes a husband’s declaring that his ratson is precisely a desire for understanding and consensus. 
There is a 3rd approach mentioned by Rabbi Bronstein. That of Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ha-Hesder Ramat Gan. He says that as we approach the final redemption we will merit the removal of the curses mentioned in Bereishis. V’Hu Yimsol Bah will no longer apply.

This approach is quite apt for the head of a Religious Zionist Yeshiva. Religious Zionism teaches that with the return of Israel to the Jewish people - we are experiencing the first flowering of our messianic redemption. And thus we can once and for all eliminate Eve’s curse - the source used by mankind that has historically treated women as second class citizens. He bases this on the views of Rav Avraham Yitzchok Kook. Using Kabalah as his guide Rav Kook says that a positive spiritual change taking place with the advent of Zionism allows Halacha to deviate from ‘the values of earlier generations’. This phenomenon, says Rabbi Shapira obviates the original curse of Eve.

As one might expect from a Centrist like me, I view the middle approach of Rav Lichtenstein to be the most sensible. We can take positive values from the culture in some cases and apply them to ourselves without fear that one is contradicting Halacha – if there is a basis to see that the sages did not intend a particular view on a given issue to be binding. The only question to be resolved then is when to know what is and isn’t binding Halacha as recorded by medieval commentators. Upon which normative Halacha is based. Only those steeped in Torah can tell us when we are and are not permitted to do that.