By: Rabbi Yitzchak Blau  | 

Greek Thought, Women’s Roles, and Rabbinic Discourse at YU

This past Chanukah, R. Aharon Kahn delivered a
sichat mussar in Yeshiva University emphasizing avoiding the negative influence of foreign cultures and sharply criticizing the call for women rabbis in some Orthodox circles. I found the talk representative of larger trends at YU and would like to present an alternative voice. This essay is not addressing the question of women rabbis per se, but rather the general orientation and mode of conversation reflected in this sicha. Italicized sections will include either my paraphrases of R. Kahn or direct quotes from his presentation and the numbers are the minutes and seconds of the presentation. (The talk can be found at

Problematic elements certainly exist on the liberal fringes of Orthodoxy regarding both halakhic and hashkafic issues. One sometimes feels that, among these groups, modernity casts a critical eye on our Jewish tradition, but that the tradition cannot criticize Western liberalism. Indeed, Chanukah seems an appropriate time to address the encounter with other cultures and the need for caution in not mindlessly adopting what is popular in broader society. That being said, criticism requires nuance and moderation. R. Kahn’s discourse overstates the wrongness of his opponents and fails to acknowledge the more complex nature of our interaction with the outside world.

R' Kahn’s sicha exemplifies approaches taken by other rabbinic voices at Yeshiva as well.  Thus, I am not addressing one specific talk, but using it as a springboard for raising issues relevant beyond one evening’s address. As manifest in this essay’s title, three themes merit attention. How do rabbis talk about secular wisdom in particular and the gentile world in general? Do they tend to portray it exclusively as a source of danger and corruption? Secondly, how do we react to changes in women’s roles in the modern world? Are we to see all those advocating greater learning and leadership opportunities for women as negative forces with inauthentic motivations? Are there distinctions between different kinds of innovations?  Finally, what is the standard tone of rabbinic discourse? Does it exhibit nuance, balance, sympathy, and generosity or is it cynical, extremely critical, and negative? We now turn to the sicha and explore these three issues seriatim.       

Chanukah is about rejecting foreign influences. This surely reflects one Chanukah theme but the Jewish encounter with other societies is a much more complex business. Significant rabbinic voices struck very different notes in their Chanukah discourses. R. Moshe Avigdor Amiel, onetime Rav of Tel Aviv, gave a derasha on Chanukah about the Jewish ability to utilize ideas from the outside world. R. Amiel’s writes: “The Rambam even integrated Aristotle into the realm of Yahadut and he converted Greek wisdom and brought it under the wings of the shechina, and he followed R. Meir in that he ‘found a pomegranate, ate the inside, and cast aside the rind” (“Hanerot Hallalu” in Derashot El Ami).

Those Greeks are not such good guys after all.  All that art and all that philosophy and all that culture. What does it boil down to, says the Rambam?... A bunch of gazlanim and rapists” (34:26). No doubt, the Chanukah story reveals some of the evils of Greek society. At the same time, it is difficult to claim that Rambam had a uniformly negative attitude to Greek culture.  Rambam accepted (with slight variations) Aristotle’s approaches to the Golden Mean and to friendship, he identified Ma’aseh Bereishit and Ma’aseh Merakva with physics and metaphysics, and he said that Aristotle achieved a level just short of prophecy.

R' Mordechai Pogromonski thought he could not offer Daas Torah since he had read too widely.  Better to go to R. Baruch Ber. who had only studied Torah (19:46). If we truly accept this idea, we cannot rely on the opinions of Rambam, R. Hirsch, or R. Solovetichik, since they all read Western literature. For that matter, we could not trust R. Kahn himself, since this sicha reveals that he clearly knows Horace and the Greek etymology of “enthusiasm.” I think the contrary true.  In many scenarios, we should prefer that Daas Torah, the application of Torah ideals to worldly questions, come from those with broader exposure since they have the knowledge of the outside world necessary to comment intelligently about it. In fact, R. Baruch Ber’s lack of exposure led him to misinterpret Rav Hirsch’s endorsement as of secular studies as an emergency measure, a hora’at sha’ah. Someone who had read R. Hirsch extensively and knew the nature of German Orthodoxy would have arrived at a different conclusion. According to my grandfather, R, Mordechai Pinchas Teitz, yeshiva students at Slobodka and Mir would eagerly gather around R. Pogromonski to discuss their philosophic questions.  Apparently, there are some religious advantages to reading widely.     

The mere fact that an idea comes from non-Jewish society does not in and of itself constitute reason to invalidate it. We should evaluate each idea based on its own merits. Democracy may have come from Western sources, but it has enabled the state of Israel to survive despite fierce disagreements within Israeli society. It has also safeguarded Jewish life, culture, and observance in America (and many other western democracies) in ways our forefathers living under Czars and Kings would have found unimaginable.

I once spoke at a Seattle high school about Rachel, the wife of R. Akiva.  After the talk, a girl came over and informed me that they wanted to hear about Beruria and not about Rachel.   Why is the Rachel model not good enough? “There is a Rashi in Avoda Zara, but I do not think she wanted to hear that Rashi” (followed by student laughter, 27:14). A Rashi about R. Meir asking a student to seduce Beruria because she did not like rabbinic comments about women is not something to joke about. The story is quite embarrassing; indeed, Rashi’s account includes R. Meir himself fleeing in shame. Moreover, why be negative about a girl who identifies with Beruria more than Rachel? Those who love Talmud Torah should appreciate someone who wants to learn herself and not only support the learning of others. Additionally, the entire question of husbands going away for extended periods to learn and leaving their wives behind is far more complex than one Talmudic story indicates. The same Talmudic section that cites the Rachel and R. Akiva story also mentions stories in which the husband gets punished for not coming home when he needs to (Ketubot 62b).

Sarah is megayes et ha’nashim, not et ha’anashim (38:38).  Presumably, R. Kahn utilized this line as a rhetorical flourish and not as an argument. If this inference from the midrash indicates that Sarah did not teach the men, it also indicates that Avraham did not teach the women. This hardly supports the notion that men must have a more significant leadership role. In general, it is difficult to accept a haredi message about women’s more private roles when haredi kollel culture means that their women have to take jobs requiring much more exposure to the broader world than their men experience in the beit midrash. If supporting Talmud Torah can justify women in the workforce interacting with men and with secular Jews, then apparently other values can trump the privacy of a bat melekh.    

We should adhere to our mesorah about men and women’s roles as outlined in Rambam Hilkhot Ishut 15:20 (35:32). There, Rambam writes that the wife “should be in awe of her husband, base all her actions on his word, and view him as an officer or king.” Rambam does not here present the exclusive model of spousal interaction within our tradition. R. Aharon Lichtenstein writes in a 2005 Tradition that issues between spouses such as “areas and degrees of authority and responsibility, the prioritization of respective individual interests, the nature of decision making” are mostly devar hareshut, “an area not axiologically neutral but neither fully normative, with regard to which personal preference, with a possible eye upon meaningful variables is characteristic. In a word, they are subject to the discussion, predilection and decision of individual couples.” Given the element of flexibility regarding these questions, we need not feel compelled to adopt Rambam’s model. Does R. Kahn think we should follow Rambam’s position that a woman should only leave the house once or twice a month (Ishut 13:11)?

Feminism has brought challenges to traditional society, but its influence has not been purely negative. Halakha is clearly not egalitarian and we must oppose a feminism that downplays the significance of having and raising children. At the same time, added Torah-study opportunities for women enable many in our community to practice a more profound and committed Judaism.  About a century ago, the Mishneh Berura (489:3) advised women not to count sefirat ha’omer with a berakha since they do not know the meaning of the words. Is such ignorance an ideal that we strive to return to, or are we happy that women are currently more educated?

Mashiach comes by recreating yiddishkeit. No different than mashiach comes when he doesn’t come and you say he came” (44:20). Given the negative nature of much rabbinic discourse about Christianity, this comparison is rhetorical overkill. Is the initiative to ordain female rabbis the equivalent of a false messiah?  

Al Hanssim refers to a clash with Jewish Hellenizers who are the “zeidim” (3:40). Elya Rabba does mention one interpretation that zeidim refers to Jews, but he also cites an alternative reading that the term is about the Greeks. Chazal certainly do not emphasize the internal Jewish battle in their depiction of Chanukah (Shabbat 21b), perhaps because they did not want to celebrate an internal Jewish struggle. Ironically, a portrayal of Chanukah that stresses the Jewish Hellenizers relies on non- Chazal sources, such as the Book of Maccabees.

“No one wants to reject the culture around him because that alienates you and makes you feel that you don’t belong and everyone wants to belong” (11:10). This statement attributes an ulterior motive to those looking for expanding women’s leadership roles in our community. They are not motivated by ethical and religious values but by a desire to fit in. Attributing negative motivations to your opponents is an unfair tactic that avoids discussing the real issues. We could easily think of ulterior motives driving those of a more conservative bent on women’s issues. The argument would then degenerate into competing accusations of misogyny and imitating the gentiles. Rather than each side accusing the other of bad faith, it behooves us to keep the debate centered on matters of substance.

R' Kahn’s approach to these topics reflects larger tendencies in the YU world. YU Roshei Yeshiva rarely mention the benefits of a good university education and never talk about problems on the right. They frequently complain about the Orthodox left, very often with an intensive focus on women’s issues. Those who promote more ritual opportunities for women are compared to heretical groups such as the Sadducees. Excessive frequency and vehemence reveal lack of proportion and perspective. A more nuanced discourse would promote a far healthier institutional and communal atmosphere.

This current mode of discourse has three negative ramifications. What impact does it have on students to hear several of their rabbeim adopt positions in direct opposition to the entire philosophy of the institution they teach at? If secular studies and encountering the broader world are truly so pernicious, then the students should not be attending YU, and the Roshei Yeshiva should be teaching elsewhere. Furthermore, this type of expression may please some students currently in YU, but it drives others away. Students who could have attended Yeshiva hear this sicha and immediately find NYU and Maryland more attractive. A fellow looking for a more moderate rabbinic voice now chooses other semikha programs over RIETS. The larger Jewish community becomes more estranged from Orthodoxy. Finally, this model trains students to adopt cynicism and negativity as basic character traits.

Both Yeshiva University and the larger Jewish world would benefit from hearing other notes sounded by YU Roshei Yeshiva. Of course, they can continue to voice important opposition to left wing innovations, but those criticisms should be balanced: after all, many difficulties lurk on the right as well. Furthermore, criticism should maintain a healthy sense of proportion. Not every innovation is invalid, nor is every mistake an act of heresy. Proportion also requires avoiding obsessively talking about the same battles all the time. A softer and more nuanced critical voice would significantly enhance the honor of Torah and Am Yisrael.              

   Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a Rosh Yeshiva and Shana Bet R”AM at Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem.