When Rabbi Lamm Allowed Women to Wear Tefillin and Form Minyanim: An Excised Sermon Adds Fresh Perspective to Ongoing Debate
At the height of the women’s liberation movement in 1972, 1,200 Orthodox rabbis organized “The Emergency National Coalition of Rabbis in Defense of Religious Liberties,” urging lawmakers to refuse to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment on the grounds that it would threaten religious liberty.
“The central tenet of our faith is the uniqueness of the respective roles of men and women,” Rabbi Abraham Gross, the president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, told The Associated Press on April 4, 1972. “This amendment directly threatens our rights to continue practicing our faith as we have for the past three centuries in America.” The rabbis feared that new legislation would force egalitarianism into Orthodox synagogues and require women to receive “deeper academic study” which would threaten the “essence of our religious education.”
Four days later, Manhattan Jewish Center’s Rabbi Norman Lamm decided to take a stand. In his sermon, Rabbi Lamm first noted, “To sanctify G-d’s Name means to bring Him closer to man. To desecrate his Name is to create a distance between G-d and man, to make Torah appear remote, forbidding, irrelevant, impertinent.” He then told his congregation, “I find it difficult to speak about the subject because it always pains me to criticize other Jews in public, certainly Orthodox Jews, and certainly my colleagues in the Orthodox Rabbinate.” “Nonetheless,” he said, “my conscience impels me to do so, because […] where the Divine Name is desecrated, one must not keep silent, even if it entails speaking out against one’s teachers or colleagues.”
Rabbi Lamm then recounted the events of the week—the Equal Rights Amendment, the Orthodox rabbis’ opposition, and the state of women’s liberation. He objected to the rabbis’ vision of Orthodoxy, noting that he encouraged women to pursue scholarship at the highest levels at Stern College for Women. Rabbi Lamm reinforced the “equal metaphysical value” between men and women, while noting that they have a “different function in life.” At the same time, he affirmed his belief in separate seating for men and women in the synagogue, one of the lightning points of the debate between Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism and one of the largest concerns of the hastily organized emergency coalition.
Rabbi Lamm insisted that separate seating did not represent any “claim of inequality or inferiority,” but that its purpose is to “remove distraction that may come because of erotic stimulation.” Rabbi Lamm then stated, “If ten women so desire, they may organize a minyan and conduct tefillah b’tzibur, public services; and in such a case, if men straggle in to such a synagogue, it is they who are guests sitting behind the mechitza. I am told that in Boston there is a group of young Orthodox students, all girls, who are highly concerned about their role in Judaism and have decided to pray every morning while donning the Tefillin. I have no objection to that, and would encourage them.”
Rabbi Lamm concludes, “There was a time that according to Rama such behavior was frowned upon as yuhara, or arrogance, but that was because it was an act of exhibitionism by an individual. However, the case is far different when a whole community of women has decided to accept such a mitzvah. More power to them! I wish that every man would join a minyan to lay tefillin!”
In the last three months, the question of the permissibility for women to put on tefillin has again arisen after the principal of the prestigious Modern Orthodox SAR High School in Riverdale allowed two women to continue to place tefillin in accordance with their family practice. The principal, Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, couched his decision in works of the Rishonim (rabbis who lived between 1030 and the 1400s). “I felt it appropriate to see this as a legitimate practice albeit different than our communal practice—but one that has halakhic justification,” he wrote in Matzav. News of the practice traveled across the Jewish world quickly, prompting hundreds of editorials from proponents and opponents alike, with some rhetoric heating to the point of vitriol.
Rabbi Harcsztark’s actions garnered praise from many, including Rabbi Yosef Adler of Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck and principal of TABC—one of the largest feeder schools to YU. It also garnered heavy, if not biting criticism from Roshei Yeshiva at YU.
“When one rules on ‘the donning of tefillin for women’ it is not enough to merely examine the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch in Hilchos tefillin and the sources there and treat it as a simple question,” said Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a Rosh Yeshiva and one of the most respected arbitrators of Halachik decisors among the centrist community of Orthodoxy. In February, he articulated his objection to Rabbi Harcsztark’s diversion of the Halachik process as he sees it. “No mere musmach or local rabbi, even one with the best of intentions, should express his opinion in a question such as this, and certainly not publicize his private opinion through the media or the internet, for such a serious question applies to all of Klal Yisroel [the nation of Israel] who are true to the Mesorah [tradition].”
More recently, Rabbi Mayer Twersky, a Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS, also responded to the question in a similar manner, noting that one may not simply pick and choose among minority opinions without consulting Torah sages. “Overturning five hundred plus years of precedent and overwhelming consensus is anything but simple,” he wrote on Torah Web. “Only the most eminent ba’alei hora’ah [arbitrators of Torah] could even possibly entertain the notion. For anyone of lesser stature to tamper with five hundred plus years of tradition represents the height of brazenness and goes well beyond the pale of Orthodox Judaism.”
Rabbi Twersky went on: “We are witness to a profoundly disturbing, religiously untenable phenomenon. Consciously or unconsciously, people want to hold fast onto some secular, anti-Torah Western values and, simultaneously, Torah. Their commitment to some anti-Torah values casts Torah, to a degree, in an adversarial role. And thus,” he concluded, “consciously or unconsciously, in a futile attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, they push, twist and manipulate Halachah to make it more congenial to their opposing Western values. Somehow or other, Torah has to be made malleable enough to accommodate their dual loyalties.”
The passage discussing Rabbi Lamm’s opinion about women wearing tefillin and participating in minyanim was only unearthed by Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, rabbi of the Pacific Rim Jewish Center, after Rabbi Schachter and Rabbi Twersky’s pronouncements.
In January 2014, a collection of sermons delivered by Rabbi Lamm through his career as a pulpit rabbi was published by Koren Publishers, YU, and the Orthodox Union Press. Titled Derashot Ledorot, or “A Commentary for the Ages,” this was the third volume in the series.
The essays, “culled from the Lamm archives of Yeshiva University,” included only minor editorial “tweaks” by the book’s editor, Rabbi Lamm’s grandson-in-law Dr. Stuart Halpern, assistant director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought and an academic advisor on the Wilf Campus. “The point is to bring contemporary issues to our audience,” Halpern told The Commentator.
However, according to a press release by Yeshiva University, the “‘current events’ referenced to in the essays have been retained so that the reader can best appreciate the historical and communal situation to which Rabbi Lamm was responding at the time.” Despite insisting on the value of historical circumstances, the passage where Rabbi Lamm permitted women to wear tefillin and form minyanim was expurgated from the volume in the months before publication.
“Rabbi Lamm went over all the drashot that would be included in the work,” said Dr. Halpern. “Rabbi Lamm thought that it would be distracting to the overall project to include that part of the drasha. It’s a parsha book, not a halachik book.” Despite removing the passage from the work, the editor did not indicate that any changes to the original archived copy were made. No ellipses or notes point out discrepancies.
“We don’t want to stir the pot for no obvious reason,” Halpern said. “We say that all these drashot are pulled from archives online. People can look at the originals if they want.” According to research done by The Commentator, the only other edits to Rabbi Lamm’s original works were changes to reflect politically correct language and abridgement of passages about synagogue dinners and other less relevant material.
Rabbi Mark Dratch, a graduate of Yeshiva University and the Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America, was consulted by Halpern to discuss the passage with Rabbi Lamm. Rabbi Dratch, Rabbi Lamm’s son-in-law, spoke to him in 2013 regarding the 1972 sermon. “If you look at the context, he wasn’t issuing a Teshuva [a response]. That kind of response wouldn’t be in a sermon. It was a form of rhetoric to encourage religious participation by men and women. Not to denigrate Rabbi Lamm’s carefully chosen words,” Rabbi Dratch said, “I think he overstated his case to women; it was actually a challenge to men to put on tefillin.”
Rabbi Dratch spoke to Rabbi Lamm last week and said that, according to Rabbi Lamm, “If a woman’s intention was leshem shamayim [for the sake of heaven], she can wear tefillin privately.”
“It was a very dynamic period of time,” Rabbi Dratch told The Commentator. “Rabbi Lamm was responding to some of the issues that were coming about. He was dealing with issues of equal pay, of women entering the workforce, of women stepping into different roles. He was dealing with an Orthodox community that’s very different to the YU of today.”