THE ORTHODOX JUDAISM OF SH’LOMO AVINER_3
Rabbi Sh’lomo Aviner is a well-known, Religious Zionist thinker whose public statements and popular teachings reflect and embody a controversial version of Israeli Orthodoxy.
At https://www.timesofisrael.com/radical-rabbi-says-notre-dame-fire-retribution-for-13th-century-talmud-burning/, R. Aviner declares that the Paris, April 15, 2019 Notre Dame Church fire may have been a divine punishment for the 1242 burning of Jewish writings, including the Talmud. On one hand, R. Aviner does not advocate Jews’ committing arson on churches, but he explains that Jews need not be saddened by this particular fire. In other words, R. Aviner believes that the Roman Catholic Church got what it deserved with the Notre Dame blaze. R. Aviner regards the Roman Catholic Church to be an idolatrous enemy of the Jewish people. When pressed, R. Aviner correctly and wisely conceded that we do not know the ways of God but it is plausible that the Church fire was retribution for the Talmud burning. There are several problems with R. Aviner’s suggestion:
While secularly very well read, R. Aviner does not allow the mores and mindset of modernity to inform his understanding, and presentation, of Torah. R. Aviner vehemently opposes the conscription of women into the IDF, the Israeli military. When Bet Hillel, an Israeli modern Orthodox rabbinic organization, permitted women to enlist in the IDF, the Jerusalem Post reported that
“Rabbi Shlomo Aviner – a prominent national religious figure and dean of the Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City – criticized Beit Hillel for its ruling, saying that it did not have sufficient authority to make such decisions, and noting that several senior rabbis had forbidden female enlistment. ‘They are good people [in Beit Hillel], but it is the great arbiters of Jewish law who may rule on such weighty issues,’ Aviner told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. ‘They don’t have the legitimacy or authority, and neither do I, to make such innovations, and for sure not to overrule the Chief Rabbinate.’ The rabbi said even non-combat roles in the IDF were unsuitable for women, since they involved inappropriate contact with men and were immodest.” [https://www.jpost.com/Defense/Rabbinical-association-says-permissible-in-Jewish-law-for-women-to-enlist-to-IDF-354648]
R. Aviner adopts and advances the Haredi narrative that [a] claims that the Torah texts are too deep and esoteric to be understood and applied by anyone other than Gedolei Torah, or great Torah sages, [b] since these Great Sages are believed to be divinely inspired, their rulings may not be subject to review, and [c] challenging these rabbis’ divinely inspired opinions is the moral equivalent of defying God. The Great Rabbis have determined that women’s military service is immodest. But according to bSota 44b, in a defensive war in the land of Israel, i.e. a war of survival for the population and polity of the Jewish state, the Oral Torah requires that both bride and groom be drafted into the IDF. This Talmudic norm may not be overruled by anybody or any body other than a Bet Din ha-Gadol, a religious supreme court that is equal in number and wisdom to the court of Ravina I and Rav Ashi, the last court authorized to issue hora’ah, or apodictic legislation that obliges all Israel. [bBava Mezi’a 86a].
Since Torah law is “not in heaven” [Deut. 30:12], legitimate rabbinic authority resides in the norm that emerges from the plain sense meaning manifest in the canonical Oral and Written Torah library, not the charismatic declarations of Great Rabbis. By “permitting” women to serve in the IDF, Bet Hillel only “allows” what Jewish law happens to require. The apparent “source” for those who oppose women’s IDF service is Haredi taste culture, which when reified into social norm, actually supersedes Oral Torah law.
R. Aviner’s other views regarding women’s modesty have also caused controversy in the Israeli Modern Orthodox/Religious Zionist community. It is reported that
“[a] prominent Orthodox rabbi has instructed his followers that women should not engage in politics or run for the Knesset because it transgresses Jewish modesty laws, the Israeli religious news site Kipa reported on Wednesday….Rabbi Shlomo Aviner …told students earlier this week that ‘women should not hold senior positions in the Knesset, as it is immodest. Public exposure is contrary to the Jewish view of the woman, whereby ‘the king’s daughter is all glorious within.’ … He also posited that , women shouldn’t even vote in the general elections but, in the current reality, if a woman wishes to vote he would permit it. ‘It’s not merely a matter of going to the polls, casting the ballot and returning home,’ the rabbi was quoted saying. There are also parlor meetings, for women to know whom to vote for, and those are public events that are inherently immodest. They cause men to mingle with women’” [https://www.timesofisrael.com/women-should-not-run-for-knesset-says-prominent-rabbi/].
Orthodox Judaism does forbid clandestine encounters between men and women who are not married to each other [bAvoda Zara 36b]. Some Orthodox subgroups extend and expand this restriction to all mixed-gender public gatherings as local edicts. While individual communities do have the right to adopt these additional strictures, especially if there are local circumstances that require those strictures, the claim that mixed gender gatherings are forbidden by normative Jewish Law is unprecedented, and because this particular extra strict standard is not legislated as Oral Torah law, it may not be imposed upon the larger Jewish public by claiming that these strictures are actually statutory Jewish Law. As noted above, latter day saintly rabbis are simply not authorized to issue apodictic legislation, or hora’ah, a juridic power that lapsed with Talmudic sages Rabina I and Rav Ashi [bBava Metsi’a 86a]. Nevertheless, Halakhic hyperbole is often invoked in discussions where facts are few and feelings are intense. For example, the mehitsa, the synagogue gender partition, does not appear as a requirement in the canonical Babylonian Talmud or in medieval Halakhic writings. Tosafot regard the mehitsa partition to be an expression of conventional propriety [tseniyyuta be-‘alma], which is not a formal Oral Torah norm. R. Aviner declares but does not demonstrate that mixed gender military units violate any formal Oral Torah norm. The reification of a social norm, a norm not recorded in the Oral Torah canon, into an undefined and undefended Halakhic norm violates the principle of adding to the Law [Deut. 13:1-6].
According to R. Aviner, women should ideally neither seek political office nor for that matter vote for the leaders who will govern their lives. [https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/israel/politics/1562306933-rabbi-s-declaration-against-women-in-politics-embarrassment-to-israeli-religious-right]. In opposing Ayelet Shaked’s assuming a leadership role on the Israeli political Right, which enjoys considerable overlap with Israel’s religious Right, R. Aviner appeals to a concern for modesty, saying that "women do not have their place in the whirlwind of politics.”
R. Aviner’s position finds some support in the fact that the Torah commands the appointment of a king [Deut. 17:15]. At Sifrei Deuteronomy 157, s.v. davar aher, it is ruled that only a male may exercise political authority. The Torah speaks of appointing a melech, a male monarch, but not a female, or Malka, to serve as monarch. Were this ruling, of outlawing women’s holding leadership positions, the final word of Jewish law, Queen Alexandra Solomne would not have ruled as a female monarch with Pharisaic approval [bTa’anit 23a]. R. Aviner does not address the alternative approach of former Chief Rabbi Ben Zion Hai Uzziel:`
1. If women are governed by elected officials, they have right to choose those who will govern them.
2. If we reason that women’s voting is immodest because it involves a public act, we would also have to forbid women’s walking in public or shopping in the marketplace.
3. Those concerned with family tranquility [shalom bayit] fear that a wife whose vote cancels her husband’s will lead to family enmity must realize that Jewish law does not require the wife to submit to and adopt her husband’s political predilections.
4. It is argued [descriptively] that women were historically not holders of public office. This descriptive fact does not imply a prescriptive restriction on women’s voting or office holding. Jewish law is grounded on legislated legal norms, not a nostalgic loyalty to the way we were. Changes in practice that do not violate Oral Torah norms are valid even after the Talmud came to closure.
5.The Torah only forbids women’s appointment to leadership; in a representative democracy, the person seeking office is nominated to be agent representing his, or her, constituents. Therefore, women may run for and be elected to public office, without violating any formal Oral Torah norm.
6. A public assembly where men and women speak to each other cannot be construed to be immodest. After all, a party of three men and three women say birchat ha-zimmun [the invitation to recite the after meal blessing as a group] without a concern for pirtsuta [impropriety].
7. R. Uzziel concludes that [a] woman may vote in elections and [b] may run for office, if the society does not object. [[Pisqei Uzziel n. 44].
R. Aviner dutifully adopts the position of his own Great Rabbi, R. Abraham Isaac Kook, who opposed women’s vote, and whose opinion, because of his personal stature, has, at least among his disciples, the status of settled law [See http://www.edah.org/backend/journalarticle/1_2_debate.pdf]. R. Aviner also understands Psalms 45:14, “the entire dignity is the King’s daughter is in her interiority” to express of a presumed meta-Halakhjic norm, that dainty Jewish daughters dutifully do what they are told and make no claim to positions of authority in public Jewish life. This descriptive passage is [mis]taken to empower select post-Talmudic rabbis to restrict all women’s public activity, rights, and privileges. However, bKetubbot 58b reports that a woman is entitled to declare to her husband, “I waive my claim to financial support and will not service your personal needs.” In other words, Jewish gender roles are habits of culture, and not Torah law.
Nevertheless, R. Aviner declares that women voting, being active in politics, and even serving as a synagogue officer, is both immodest and forbidden. Also immodest are Sivan Rahav Meir’s popular, mixed gender Torah public. [https://www.kipa.co.il/%D7%91%D7%A8%D7%A0%D7%96%D7%94/943179-[%D7%94%D7%A8%D7%91-%D7%90%D7%91%D7%99%D7%A0%D7%A8-%D7%90%D7%99%D7%9F-%D7%9C%D7%94%D7%A9%D7%AA%D7%AA%D7%A3-%D7%91%D7%A9%D7%99%D7%A2%D7%95%D7%A8%D7%99%D7%9D-%D7%A9%D7%9C-%D7%A1%D7%99%D7%95%D7%9F-%D7%A8%D7%94%D7%91-%D7%9E%D7%90%D7%99%D7%A8---%D7%9C%D7%90-%D7%A6%D7%A0%D7%95%D7%A2/]. R. Aviner adds that his criticism of Ms. Sivan Meir is not personal “but a general, fixed, ancient statement [of alleged religious doctrine] from the time of Moses.” Not only have I failed to find a Mosaic source for this restrictive ruling, Deborah, a Biblical, female Judge, leads Israel in battle and song, with a gentleman call Baraq the son of Avino’am [Judges 5:1], without narrative objection that the mores of Jewish modesty were breached, contradicting R. Aviner’s passionate claim. Apparently, R. Aviner’s source of Halakhic authority is not recorded in the revealed—and readable Oral Torah library; it is located in the divinely guided, intuitive charisma of his Gedolei Torah, the great Torah sages who are virtually if not actually infallible.
R. Aviner forbids attaching the blue techelet thread to the tallit, dismissing those who observe this Scriptural obligation [Numbers 15:38], who to his view are behaving improperly and impiously. He reasons that
“Gedolei Yisrael do not wear Techelet and the Minhag of Gedolei Yisrael is more important than the Minhag of your Yeshiva (Ha-Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv was once asked about a child who learned in a Yeshiva and asked if he should wear Techelet like all the other children there. He answered: ‘Tell him that I do not go with Techelet.’ They asked further: ‘Even though the Minhag there is to go with Techelet?’ He answered: ‘Even though.’” [firstname.lastname@example.org, Text Message Q&A #227 ].
R. Aviner here adopts the Haredi doctrine that the textual Torah canon is unreadable and only Great Torah sages have the legal right to express a normative opinion, which because of their charismatic stature are not subject to review. He avoids assessing the relative merits of the contending positions, and references the greatness of his authority people. But according to Torah law, not even God gets sovereign immunity [see for example Numbers 16:22]. Therefore, according to Torah law, it is proper to ask the authority person how his legal conclusion was reached. But R. Aviner demands total submission to the Great Rabbis’ divinely inspired authority. There are however other great rabbis who wear techelet, including my Ashkenazi mentor, R. Moshe D. Tendler, and my Sefardic Hacham, R. Yosef Faur. They both taught “the Torah commands, we obey. No excuses.” That Great Rabbis can be wrong is evidenced by Leviticus 4:13, where the entire community may be in error.
At https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4328348,00.html, R. Aviner presents his religious intuition regarding modest female attire and propriety:
While communities do have a right to knowingly and willingly adopt hyper strict standards in order to address local conditions, it is improper to present one’s private proclivities about the other gender’s private parts as if those tastes are objective, uncontested Jewish law. Communal modesty standards are grounded in local taste, not public law, unless the Talmud explicitly rules otherwise. One is required to cover what by local social convention is covered. By following these conventions, one does not to attract undue attention to oneself. [See Shulhan Aruch Orah Hayyim 75:1]. Hayyim Nahman Bialik contends that we conceal when we reveal and we reveal where and when we conceal. Our clothing conceals our bodies but reveals how we wish to be seen by others. The Jewish modesty discipline is actually directed to the male, not the female, according to Micah 6:8. R. Aviner’s dress code is not really about modesty, it is a proclation that one belongs to a society whose uniformity of dress is a statement of a unity of religious, social and political identity.
R. Aviner’s modesty rules are neither modest, holy, nor beautiful. His “rules” echo the Haredi social ethos, not recorded Torah’s norms. R. Aviner successfully informs his readers what he personally finds to be sexually suggestive. R. Aviner’s neo-Haredi standards regarding what women ought to conceal actually reveal what R. Aviner considers to be troubling—and troublesome—obsessions. If R. Aviner’s modesty code were truly Halakahic, he would not have endorsed the married woman’s “[im]modesty wig.” After all, bShabbat 64b outlaws the wig, at least on Shabbat. R. Aviner will not forbid the female wig because some Great Rabbis allow it!” One of the Great Rabbis who disapproved of the woman’s wig is, ironically, his own R. Avraham I. Kook! Because some Great Rabbis have approved the woman’s wig, one may not, at least according to R. Aviner, shame those rabbis by challenging their ruling. By permitting the female wig, R. Aviner turns from Orthodoxy to Reconstructionism, which defines the will of God to be no more and no less than the projected will of the people [see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5WRdWWDG3g].
We concur with the Ne’emanei Torah Va-Avoda religious Zionists who, to our view correctly, claim:
"On the other hand, Rabbi Aviner's collection of instructions narrows down the value of modesty and damages the values of sanctity. The obsessive engagement in pieces of clothing is in itself immodest, and all this advertisement distorts Halacha, which seeks to reduce a person's engagement in matters of human urges.”
R. Aviner’s neo-Haredi reconstruction of Judaism’s sexual ethic is incongruent with the details and narrative of classical Jewish Law. He presents Torah as an ethos to be defined by Great Rabbis who may not subject to review, and not as a readable, accessible Law. If presented as official Orthodox policy, these innovative standards violate three major Halakhic precepts, [a] distancing oneself from falsehood [Exodus 23:7], [b] adding to the Law [Deut. 4:2 and 13:1], and [c] manipulating Halakhic discourse to misrepresent its manifest content and intent [mAvot 3:11 and bSanhedrin 99a-b].
Rabbi Alan Yuter was ordained by YU AND Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Ph.D. NYU in Hebrew literature. Made aliyah, awarded Yadin Yadin from Prof David Halivni and teaches at CJCUC, Ohr Torah's Institute for Jewish Christian relations.
Rabbi Yuter has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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