Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pesak, Subjective and Objective

Someone used a flawed syllogism to infer an untrue position of R' Soloveitchik in comments on the Hirhurim blog recently. In responding there, my old thoughts about this ten-year-old article, and its peculiar inferences about the Rav's ideas, returned to the surface, and I feel I should express them, if only to elicit clearer explanations of R' Twersky's ideas.

I enter into this with some trepidation, as R’ Mayer Twersky has been my teacher, and clearly cares about his talmidim personally, even those of us who were not in his regular shiurim at RIETS. But this article, written ten years ago, has bothered me for a long time. It seems very personal, but not, unfortunately, well argued.

Full disclosure: My mother is one of the founding members of the Lincoln Square Women’s Davening Group, and has served as its treasurer and on the Kiddush committee. For her, the sound of other women’s voices around her motivates her to greater concentration in prayer, both then and in the regular minyan. Until recent years, her Hebrew was not good enough to allow her to lead a service, so it was not a personal desire for leadership or performance that initially motivated her participation. But this explains some of my bias in favor of WTGs. Also, all the rabbis in whose synagogues and schools I was raised (R’ Riskin, R’ Lookstein, R’ Angel) today have women’s davening groups in their synagogues.

* * *

R’ Mayer Twersky wrote an article ten years ago on “Halakhic Values and Halakhic Decisions: Rav Soloveitchik’s Pesak Regarding Women’s Prayer Groups”. R' Twersky's article claims that his grandfather, R’ Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, “posek for modern orthodoxy,” hereinafter “the Rav,” maintained a "consistent, unequivocal opposition" to WTGs [Women’s Tefillah Groups]. Other writers, notably the brothers Aryeh and Dov Frimer, give a different picture of the Rav’s positions relative to WTGs, that while he was opposed lechatchila, he was supportive bedieved. The reality is more nuanced than the presentation in R’ Twersky’s article. And the appraoches taken by R' Twersky to support that conclusion surprised and bothered me, as in my limited experience (I attended his shiurim at Lincoln Square Synagogue for 2-3 years), R' Twersky is a clear thinker.

On rereading the article, I see a lot of R' Twersky's unwavering opposition to WTGs, but fewer of the Rav's ideas on topic. There are various attempts to draw analogies between the Rav's stated positions on certain things, such as changes in custom and the ceremonial nature of certain synagogue practices, and WTGs.

For instance, R’ Twersky argues in his grandfather’s name, for the élan of Shabbat categorically prohibiting wearing T-shirts and shorts on Shabbat, and participating in sports, even if done within an eruv and therefore technically permissible. This leads into a discussion of an axiological approach to halacha, seeking the spirit of the law as it applies to the “etiology and telos”, originating force and goal, of halachic actions. That spirit of the law can then govern how the law is pragmatically applied.

* * *

The Rav writes in an article on the nature of prayer as avodah shebalev:

Their beauty, the majesty of strength, is revealed precisely in their naturalness, originality and spontaneity. And is not man who supplicates his Creator a gushing spring or even a mountain spewing fire? It is clear that prayer is the antithesis of ceremony with regard to the relationship between content and form, heart and word. Thus all these aesthetic emendations in prayer, instead of deepening the experiences will rob it of its content and soul.

This soliloquy is part of an argument against ceremonialism in prayer, the leader standing on a platform, wearing clerical robes.

R’ Twersky then algebraically makes this argument against ceremonialism apply to WTGs:

Nevertheless, his [The Rav’s] impassioned words also articulate with remarkable prescience and precision his unwavering opposition to such groups. We need only to shift the critical lens from inauthentic ceremonialism to misplaced emphasis on active participation and leadership.

It is a remarkable jump from the one to the other, from one situation to another, based on their own personal (family?) approach to prayer. I see no intrinsic similarity between ceremonialism and WTGs, other than both being things opposed by the author.

In earlier generations, we know, the flowery elaborations of chazanim such as Yossele Rosenblatt and others of the 19th and early 20th centuries, moved many to deep feeling of the prayers. Today, for the most part, such a style of prayer has fallen out of fashion, and R’ Soloveitchik’s plea for an emotional generator of depth-prayer speaks more to us. But the simple fact that styles of prayers have changed, argues against R’ Soloveitchik’s and R’ Twersky’s position that emotional depth is, or should be, the sole motivator of true prayer. Not all of us can conjure up such emotions on command. Many need some kind of external stimulus, be it the familiarity of Missinai tunes (the familiar prayer modes of the holidays, universally recognizable throughout Ashkenazi Judaism), or the heartfelt performance of a cantor, or the presence of similar voices to one’s own raised in prayer.

This approach to the etiology of prayer appears to be subjectivity presented as objectivity. R’ Twersky, based on the opposition to ceremonialism, contrasts tefilla from the depths vs. that which is categorically excluded from it, the desire for performance. Yet ask my father, or other chazanim, if performance qua helping the community's prayers, deepening their spirituality, doesn't aid in one's own experience of the prayers?

At one time of despair in my life, I was asked to lead a service. I told the [Lubavitch-trained] rabbi, “I had this awful thing happen recently, I don’t know if I believe in God right now, so I don’t think I should lead.” He responded, “Go ahead, perhaps this is just what you need right now.” And it was. Subjective expectations shape the experience of prayer, anecdotally (is there any other sort of evidence in this endeavour?)

Perhaps for the Rav, that is how he experienced prayer. Reading the Rav’s posthumous book, “Service of the Heart”, true prayer from the depths comes from depression and despair, existential uncertainty and fear. But not all of us are dominated by these emotions, certainly not on a daily basis, and certainly not before middle age. Perhaps others experience the depths of true prayer from other emotional stances?

* * *

R’ Twersky deals with the Rav’s equivocal language concering WTGs:

The foregoing analysis of the Rav’s axiological opposition to women’s tefilla groups illumines his careful choice of words in expressing his unequivocal opposition. The Rav consistently ruled that these groups were wrong, but did not invoke the term assur.

This article expresses R’ Twersky’s axiological opposition to women’s tefilla groups, while it expresses the Rav’s axiological opposition to synagogue ceremonialism as contrary to his personal experience of prayer. It takes R’ Twersky to apply the one idea to the other situation. The discussion of situations where “ein ruah hahamim nohah heimenu” is also somewhat forced – there seems to be little connection among the various situations listed, but much is made of the Rav’s saying “wrong if not assur” which apparently means, for R’ Twersky, “wrong and that’s it.” This is R’ Twersky’s rejection of the nuanced approach offered orally before the article came out (from R’ Riskin and others), and in writing in the Frimers’ article, without much explanation as to why he feels he [and we] must take this approach. This article appears to be a response to the Frimers, as it appeared in the very next issue of Tradition.

* * *

In one place, R’ Twersky seems to reverse cause and effect: WTGs “nolens volens [willy nilly] inevitably leads to the idea that the Torah has, God forbid, shortchanged women.” From what I can see, it's the other way around, and it's not the Torah that shortchanges women, it's rabbinic and communal attitudes, generated often in socio-religious milieux which are not ours. Torah, in all its ramifications, clearly does allow for this, it is rabbinic and communal attitudes and writings that suppress the maamorei Chazal that argue for greater women's expression in public prayer. While Catholic Israel (puk chazi) does play a role in psak, is it necessarily permanently dispositive? And if it is, the continuing existence of WTGs, while initially transgressive, willy nilly inevitably leads to a communal legitimacy.

* * *

R' Twersky takes the same questionable position that RH Schachter does. Noting that one cannot fulfill devarim shebikedushah in WTGs, which is clearly true, he assumes that women are somehow obligated in them in the first place, and therefore lose out on their mitzvah observance by not participating in a minyan. Which, as far as I can tell, they are not obligated, which is why they cannot constitute a minyan for their fulfillment. Why? It’s an obligation but it’s not?

Further, he argues that Orthodox egalitarianism, to which WTGs lead, is ipso facto contrary to the spirit of Torah, which makes distinctions between the sexes as among other categories. Egalitarianism, yes, and personally I would agree about the recent “Shira Chadasha”-type minyanim, where women receive aliyot and lein, and lead parts of the service which are not devarim shebikedushah. If anything, such services promote the idea that women are second-class citizens by dangling full participation in front of them, yet not permitting them entry. In itself, however, the WTG promotes the distinction - these services can ONLY take place in the community of women; in the community of men, the men take over and run everything.

* * *

The following paragraph neatly illustrates how R’ Twersky’s subjective opinion claims to be the objective truth, denigrating the subjective experience of participants in WTGs:

The testimony, albeit sincere and accurate, offered by some women that the tefilla groups indeed enhance their prayer experience in no way justifies the practice. Subjective experience cannot establish objective truth because often it simply reflects and is pre-determined by one’s a priori hopes and desires. Case in point: if one desires to assume an active, leading role within tefilla, upon achieving that goal one naturally feels fulfilled. This subjective, personal experience however only mirrors preliminary aspirations; it does not establish objective truth.

One’s experience of prayer is not necessarily in line with one’s motivations and expectations. But that point is lost here: “one naturally feels fulfilled.” Not necessarily, but it’s more likely if one is given the opportunity. As Leary said of hallucinogenic drugs, one’s experience of prayer appears to depend on text [drug], set [etiology/expectations], and setting [personal/minyan/WTG]. While R’ Twersky emphasizes the first two as necessary components in the prayer experience, the third component is also important. Variants in all three change the subjective experience of prayer. If prayer is truly to be “from the heart,” ara`i not keva, it is hard to see how one can objectively quantify the proper personal mode for prayer. I fail to see the “objective truth” requirement in the personal experience of prayer.

* * *

R' Twersky's conclusion is imperative on all of us – to work on ourselves, learn the halachot and deeper meanings of the prayers, so that they will speak to us personally. We do not feel the emotional depth that our ancestors did, for various reasons, so we must take steps to make the prayers meaningful.

R’ Twersky expresses his heartfelt conviction that women’s tefillah groups are not only a bad idea, they are against the law as a matter of public policy. His revered grandfather clearly believed that WTGs were wrong as a matter of policy, but not, as a consequence of this policy, against the law. In making his case, R’ Twersky implies that only one path leads to true prayer for all, which in itself elides the distinctions among different types of people. This one true path is incompatible with WTGs, as well as with other extrinsic enhancements to prayers.


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

It seems to me that the Shira Hhadasha style minyans reinforce separate roles because while they mix the leining, everything else is *either* male *or* female. If I go to a Sh.Hh. minyan, since i'm a man, i am not allowed to lead Pesuqey Dezimra, even thought halakhically it's fine (and is of course the traditional way of doing it). That's a woman's role.

Gil Student said...

Can you name one time in which Rav Soloveitchik supported a WPG? Not gave them advice on how to do it in the least problematic way, but said that its existence is a good thing?

thanbo said...

Of course not. But "unwavering opposition" is not the same thing as "toleration when it exists."

Calling it a "good thing", no.
Tolerating it and giving advice, yes. He could also have dismissed R' Riskin and his congregants, as so many online want to do to R' Lookstein - you stepped over a red line, you went against what I said, you're as wrong as Wrackman. But he didn't.

Note that Rackman didn't start doig his thing until after RYBS died, so we can't say what he might have held bedieved there. But we do know what the Rav held bedieved for WTGS - they can happen if you do X Y and Z.