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Rabbi Lamm on Woman and Tefillin

On April 9, 1972, Rabbi Norman Lamm, then serving as Rabbi of the Jewish Center in Manhattan,  delivered a sermon titled “As If Things Weren’t Bad Enough” that expressed his opposition to an Orthodox Rabbinic coalition that was lobbying against the Equal Rights Amendment.  An aside in that sermon, which was edited out of the version published earlier this year, spoke approvingly of women forming minyanim and wearing tefillin.

Understandably, the most immediate reactions to the rediscovery of the aside were understandably framed by its potential role in contemporary controversies.  (See here and here.)  In the process, I think a chance was lost to introduce a new generation to Rabbi Lamm in his own terms, as the aside seems to me a quite wonderful introduction to what he was like in his prime (granted that the period in which I could claim to be his student, and on which the following speculations are based, was 18 – 20 years later) – creative and courageous, yet cautious and humble; serious, and intellectually playful. 

Let me show you what I mean, and what I think he meant, and I will of course happily accept corrections.

Here is the most relevant section (the paragraph immediately after this one will be the topic of a subsequent post iyH).    

The principle of separate seating in the synagogue must not be thought of as representing any claim of inequality of inferiority. Its purpose is to remove the distraction that may come because of erotic stimulation. If the purpose of coming to a synagogue is for American Jews to indulge in a kind of social ritual of self-identification as Jews, then there certainly is no reason for men and women to sit separately. But that is not our conception of prayer. For us, is the presentation of oneself before God, the focusing and concentration of all his thoughts on the One before Whom he stands, and hence any distraction must be banished. The ideal for prayer, so conceived, is kedushah or holiness; and the bane of holiness is eroticism. Kedushah is perishah mearayot. If ten women so desire, they may organize a minyan, and conduct tefilah be-tzibbur, public services; and in such a case, if men straggle in to such a synagogue, it is they who are guests sitting behind the mechitzah. 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. There was a time that (according to Rema) 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

Here is my commentary:

Was Rabbi Lamm issuing a psak halakhah?  For sure not – I can’t see him making a ruling for people who had their own rabbis and had not turned to him, especially without specifically invoking the advice and counsel of the Rav.  But I believe he was stating what he thought was likely the Halakhah, not merely engaging in a rhetorical flourish.  In classical terms, he was speaking lehalakhah but not halakhah lema’aseh.

But exactly what did he intend to say leHalakhah?  Rabbi Lamm as a darshan considered it proper to use words that were literally true in a narrow sense, but would be misunderstood by his audience as having a much broader reach.  Note for example his famous description of nonOrthodox denominations as valid, with the subsequent and I believe sincere explanation that “valid” understood in light of its Latin etymology is a descriptive/sociological  term – “strong” – and must be contrasted with the prescriptive term “legitimate”.

His 1972 sermon must also be read carefully and hyperliterally.  Rabbi Lamm says that “If ten women so desire, they may organize a minyan, and conduct tefilah be-tzibbur, public services; and in such a case, if men straggle in to such a synagogue, it is they who are guests sitting behind the mechitzah”.  He was well aware that the Rav (among others) distinguished tefillah be-tzibbur from tefilat hatzibur.  Tefilah betzibur is the act of praying as a group, and refers to the silent amidah said by each individual in the presence of a praying quorum.  Tefilat hatzibur refers to the repetition said by the sheliach tzibbur on behalf of the unified quorum.  I suggest that Rabbi Lamm meant that women who prayed their individual amidahs together were considered to be praying betzibbur, but in no way meant to endorse their instituting a chazan’s repetition, or saying devarim shebikedushah.

Where would this suggestion have come from?  Rabbi Lamm was presumably aware that according to some positions ten women constitute a quorum for the purposes of Kiddush Hashem, keriat megillah, and birkat hagomel.  His novel idea was that this worked as well for tefillah betzibbur, and yet that a men’s minyan as still essential for chazarat hashatz.  But his audience would not have been expected to grasp that nuance – they would simply have heard him asserting women’s ritual equality.  The very quick-witted might have noticed that he failed to explain why, when both ten men and ten women are present, it is the women who are presumptively guest.  But generally it took some time for the effect of his rhetoric to wear off so that one felt comfortable raising such detail questions.

What about tefillin?  Rabbi Lamm makes the suggestion that the prohibition of yuhara, spiritual arrogance, is the basis for RAMO discouraging women from wearing tefillin.  He borrows this rationale from RAMO’s position regarding tzitzit (although RAMO’s sources do not indicate that it was the rationale re tefillin).  Rabbi Lamm then argues that this prohibition applies only to individuals and not to groups.  I believe his basis was Magen Avraham’s position that women as a class have accepted counting the omer upon themselves as obligatory, even though they are Biblically exempt since it is a time-related commandment.  Why should tefillin be any different than counting the omer in terms of yuhara?  Answer:  There is no difference.

As per above, it is likely that yuhara is not the basis for REMA’s position regarding women and tefillin, which would limit Rabbi Lamm’s suggestion to tallit.  One could also argue that Magen Avraham asserted that all Jewish women had accepted the mitzvah of the omer, so that none was being holier than any other when fulfilling the mitzvah, whereas a subgroup that began accepting tefillin would be engaged in mass yuhara.

In sum:  I do not think Rabbi Lamm’s halakhic authority, however far that may extend, can be invoked based on this sermon.  However, it does record two innovative halakhic theories that deserve further investigation.




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