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Friday, May 24, 2013

Zealotry for Whom, May I Ask?

About a dozen or so years ago I was approached by a woman asking to have a pair of tefillin checked. As it happened, I met her in her brother's home which was in a charedi section of Jerusalem. Upon concluding that the tefillin were not kosher she ordered a new pair as well as a used pair for her husband. She did not tell me who the new pair were for.

Her brother walked me outside afterward and told me not to sell her the tefillin as he knew they would be given to her niece for her bat mitzvah. When I pointed out that halacha, while discouraging women from putting on tefillin, does not forbid them from doing so, either (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 38:3, see the RaMa's comment). He became very heated, going on about how terrible things were happening in the States with women's minyans where they put on tallitot and tefillin.

I exited but received a call from him the next day. He told me that he had tracked down my original sofrut teacher (who by then was living in the US) and claimed that my teacher told him that if I sold tefillin for a woman's use he would have no choice but to publicize the matter and see to it that others didn't buy from me. I actually checked with my teacher and while he assured me he didn't say those things I understood that this brother was essentially blackmailing me with the threat of smearing my name in the Orthodox world.

After a bit of rage and bit of shock, I decided to speak with Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, a world renown posek and one whose opinion I greatly respected not only for his halachic mastery but also for what I knew was a sensitivity to the people he rendered halachic decisions for.

I explained the situation to Rav Scheinberg and then asked him two questions:

  1. Was I allowed to sell the tefillin to this woman?
  2. Was this brother in violation of the prohibition against lashon hara for having spoken about me and this matter to my teacher?

Rav Scheinberg answered that in principle halacha would not bar me from selling the woman the tefillin. However, he told me that in this instance I would not be allowed as doing so would risk my livelihood given the threat from this man.

Regarding the question of lashon hara on the brother's part he paskened clearly that, yes, he violated the law of speaking lashon hara.

Lashon hara is not simply gossip; rather, it is specifically speaking ill of someone even though what it is said is true.

I sat back after this conversation in amazement. This brother violated what Chazal considered to be the most severe prohibition of the Torah (see Tosefta Peah 1:1) in order to prevent his niece from fulfilling a mitzvah!

While women are exempt from the mitzvah of tefillin, and in fact the RaMa specifically discourages them, they are allowed to fulfill it if they wish. According to Ashkenazi custom, in fact, they are allowed to say the blessing and include the words 'Who has commanded us to lay tefillin.”

I was reminded of this incident recently with the brouhaha over The Women of the Wall. I have heard various accusations against them including that what they are doing is for their own liberal minded agenda and not l'shem shamayim (for the sake of heaven). I have heard people challenge them about wearing tallit and tefillin and make the claim that they only wear them at the wall in order to incite and provoke and don't wear them every day.

I am puzzled by the uproar, the criticism and especially the attacks, both vocal and physical, against this group of women for a number of reasons.

The one I want to emphasize here is simply this: If the point of the Torah is to become closer to God through his commandments and women voluntarily decide that they want to adopt wearing tallit and tefillin and praying together, why is that so bad? Shouldn't the Orthodox world be encouraging this type of behavior?

After all, I didn't hear the brother go on about how terrible it is that parents in the US (and even here in Israel) spend lavishly for bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, many of which are devoid of any spirituality and often violate shabbat and kashrut laws.

I am puzzled because these Orthodox people who object so loudly and crudely feel that their priorities dictate ignoring specific prohibitions of the Torah in order to prevent women from taking upon themselves mitzvot.

I see a bit of a parallel in this week's parsha. In Numbers 11, after Moshe complains to God that it is too much for him to bear the full responsibility of caring for the children of Israel, God sees fit to transfer some of Moshe's spirit to seventy elders in order to spread that responsibility around.

As it happens, a couple of the newly formed prophets, Eldad and Meidad, under the influence of this Holy Spirit they had just received, continued to prophesy in the camp publicly even as the others had stopped. This was reported back to Moshe and Yehoshua whereupon Yehoshua said to Moshe his master:

במדבר פרק יא : (כח) ויען יהושע בן נון משרת משה מבחריו ויאמר אדני משה כלאם:
(כט) ויאמר לו משה המקנא אתה לי ומי יתן כל עם יקוק נביאים כי יתן יקוק את רוחו עליהם:

Numbers 11 : (28) And Yehoshua the son of Nun, an attendant of Moshe from his youth, replied and said, “My master Moshe, imprison them!” (29) And Moshe said to him, “Are you zealous on my account? And would it be that the Lord would make all of the nation prophets when the Lord would give His spirit upon them!”

Yehoshua saw Eldad and Meidad taking up the mantle of prophecy as a threat to his master Moshe and wanted to suppress that threat. Moshe, about whom we'll learn a bit later that he was the most of humble of men, not only did not perceive a threat but welcomed the spreading of the Lord's spirit however the Lord saw fit.

This word that Moshe uses, המקנא, which I have translated as “are you zealous,” is the same root word used later to describe Pinchas (Numbers 25; 11, 13). In the case of Pinchas, such zealotry was de facto sanctioned by God Himself. However, we see from this story that zealotry is not always a welcome thing.

What is the nature of the zealotry here? Perhaps it is simply that Yehoshua's zealotry in this case was not לשם שמים (for the sake of Heaven), but rather was serving the more narrow purpose of maintaining Moshe's exclusive position as a prophet.

While readers may be quick to point out myriad differences between this story and the current events regarding the Women of the Wall, consider this: Why are the Women of the Wall in particular and women who choose to wear tallit and tefillin in general seen as such a threat by parts of the Orthodox establishment? The halachic argument against their practices is weak at best. Moreover, what provokes some to violate clear halachot in their protests?

I cannot speak on behalf of either side in this controversy. But what it feels like, and what I felt in my own story above, is that these protesters confuse the Torah with their particular lifestyle. What these women choose to do does not fit into a traditional Orthodox narrative as they see it. These women's actions threaten to change norms within the Orthodox world which include changing leadership roles and decision making, just as Yehoshua saw a threat from Eldad and Meidad.

Perhaps Yehoshua thought that maintaining Moshe's position as the exclusive prophet to the people was a pursuit for the sake of Heaven and perhaps those who oppose the Women of the Wall feel themselves to be acting on behalf of Heaven, as well. Perhaps Yehoshua felt that Eldad and Meidad were acting out of self interest just as those who oppose women laying tefillin may feel that they are acting out of self interest.

What we learn from Moshe, though, is that when we see others who are fulfilling mitzvot we should not stop them based on our assumptions. At the very least, until we know otherwise for certain, we should let them be.

Who knows? Maybe their desire to fulfill these commandments, for whatever reason, may bring renewed interest and spirit to the Torah in our day just as Eldad and Meidad must have electrified the crowd around them.


  1. So, I realize this post is over a year old, but this is the first I see of it. Anyway, that is a crazy story; that is, the one about the brother of the woman. The story about Eldad and Meidad is also crazy, but for so many reasons, and we all already knew it was.

    Anyway, I thinking I read that Michal bat Sha'ul put on tefillin and the sages didn't forbid it. Interesting woman, this Michal.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks for commenting now. I decided not to go into all of the halachic history and aspects of women and tefillin in this post. Since last year, though, a big controversy sprang up when a principal at an Orthodox high school allowed two girls to put on tefillin at school prayer. Consequently, a number of people on the net weighed in with detailed halachic discussions. Of course, Michal (and the wife of Yonah, also mentioned in that gemara) were mentioned. But the fact that they put on tefillin can be interpreted in two ways: 1) If even Michal and Yonah's wife put on tefillin, then any woman should be allowed to do so, as well. 2) Only women of great stature can put on tefillin like Michal and Yonah's wife, but 'regular' women can't.

      For the purposes of this post, I felt it sufficient to point out that one of the major decisors of halacha in our time agreed that women are allowed to put on tefillin.

      PS -- the deleted comment was this one with a minor edit. The site doesn't let me edit already posted comments.