Painting the Bull’s-Eye Around the Arrow


In more than 2,000 years of published halakhic analysis, it is not surprising that our greatest Poskim imbued with the deepest access to the Torah’s loftiest meanings have published deep thoughts and rulings that sometimes conflict with those of other Poskim. Every student of Gemara has learned of the “Eilu v’Eilu” disputes between Rava and Abaye, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, and other famous disputants. The Raavad’s dissents in the Yad. The variant Ashkenazic practices brought by the Rama as notes on the M’chaber’s Code. Differences among the greatest parshanim, as exemplified by the many opinions brought down in the classic Ramban on the reason HKB”H chastised Moshe and Aharon at Mei Merivah. The traditions of different viewpoints carried through the Ages and into more contemporary times comes home with particular clarity in teshuvot penned by The Chakham HaRav Ovadiah Yosef in Y’chaveh Da’at, evidencing the volume of contradicting opinions throughout the centuries, each substantively grounded in the deepest devotion to the word of the Torah and faithful to the process of Mesorah.

In that halakhic process by which psak adheres with fealty to Mesorah, there is a presumption – it goes without saying – that in delving through the Codes and the shu”tim, we plumb with trepidation and awe when we search for room to permit something. We do not merely dispense with laws or practices to satisfy a passing fad. We wrestle; we struggle. Even when a rav finds a heter for someone with a critical need, sometimes relying on a less mainstream opinion, the Mesorah of psak finds him doing so quietly. He advises the individual that, in light of a particular issue or need, perhaps do this with a shinui. Perhaps try this, avoid that. “And remember: do not go around telling others that ‘Rav XYZ said I can do this and that.’ Rather, this ruling is unique to this situation, at this moment, and neither you nor anyone else may rely on it next time unless you come back to me again.” Only the greatest of Poskim have the halakhically broad shoulders on which to bear the burden of publishing teshuvot to hundreds or thousands of questions, knowing those answers will be read by others in different contexts. Even then, it was known that Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik zt”l came from a family tradition that discouraged writing. Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l did not want Igrot Moshe translated into vernacular. The process of Psak is very sensitive, ever exposed to potential misuse and arrogation.

Surprisingly to many, Conservative Judaism in its early years a century ago was not particularly deviant from halakha. Many of its founders aimed at saving Torah practice in America from the radical extremes of “Reform.” They were concerned that Torah foundations at the turn of the last century lacked strong American-grounded bases. They wanted to resist, even to stop reform, and to save religious commitment and Torah traditions for the public-school children of the East European immigrants of 1881-1914 who spoke only Yiddish, and they defined themselves as the opposite of the Radical left. They were holding the right: Conservative Judaism. They did not permit driving on Shabbat. They universally believed that Jews had been enslaved in Egypt and had assembled at Sinai, were quite committed to kashrut (reflected, ironically, by the great debates of the 1950s over the few areas where they diverged from the Orthodox, such as the swordfish and sturgeon scales debates). They officially adhered to most halakhic practices. Indeed, bona fide Orthodox rabbinical leaders like Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes, who helped found the Orthodox Union – he even was an early President of the O.U. – also helped establish the JTS. Conservative Judaism was literally conservative about its Judaism.

In time, Conservative Judaism lost it all because, although they – as we – truly could find a minority opinion, an honest da’as yachid, for so many areas of deviation from the halakhic norm established by our Poskim, they abandoned Mesorah in the search for the da’as yachid. With American Jews coming home from World War II and buying homes in Levittown under the G.I. Bill in droves, Conservative Judaism decided to permit suburbans to drive on Shabbat to temple. Having shot their arrow, they then undertook to paint a bull’s-eye around it, cutting-and-pasting any opinions they could find. It was not a sincere search for halakhic truth but a Jewish scavenger hunt for clues, a game. Decades later, retiring JTS Chancellor Gerson Cohen rued the day that Conservative Judaism took that fateful plunge off the halakhic cliff. Where the fight over swordfish was driven by interpretation and understanding of Torah she-b’al-peh, as well as fealty to the greater authority of Chazal, the Saturday driving ruling was driven by a determination that, no matter what the halakhic literature revealed, those Conservative rabbis were going to come out permitting driving on Shabbat. And so the bull’-eye painting process continued: an Assyriologist was invited to sit with Conservative rabbis and to find that women count in a minyan. From there, Torah aliyot, women chazans, women rabbis, gay rabbis. Along the way, they found a Mordechai to quote. A Gemara here. Always a Prozbul reference. By now, after half a century of painting bull’s-eyes, their temples often are so indistinguishable from Reform that, in these economically harsh times, many merge comfortably. And every time a Jewish Republican describes his politics, he has to say “I am a conservative Jew – that’s with a small ‘c’.” Because Conservative Judaism, having abandoned an halakhic mooring, now is Very Liberal Judaism. In time, that Conservatism has found sources to stop praying for korbanot – archaic, barbaric.

This is the Way of the new challenge to Mesorah emanating from “Morethodoxy,” the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), and the Chovevei Torah seminary (YCT). As new demands from them emerge to ordain women rabbis, to conduct mutual ring exchanges at weddings, and so much else, they tell us that they have sources for all. We have seen this before in Conservatism, and we had a rare honest glimpse at the parallel Morethodoxy process in the recent affair when one of their number, for a brief moment, brought us into his thinking. Something upset him greatly. He had written about a lady, “rebbe” to a newly marrying couple, who was capable of reading the Ketubah under the chupah. But the right wing does not go for that, and he had much to say. He no longer would recite the brakhah “shelo asani isha.” In quite fulminating tones, he described the brakhah as a Chilul Hashem, wrote of the “cages” where all Orthodox women supposedly are incarcerated at prayer, alleged that batei din universally are corrupt against women in divorce situations, attacked several Torah giants of the past.

He came under withering criticism, soon posting a follow-up article, apologizing to the public for his prior tone, indeed withdrawing his prior article completely. And then he came forward with a new article – this time, a kinder and gentler tone, and with a few sources of questionable merit cut-and-pasted together. Having publicly first shot his arrow at a tree, he now had been advised by allies to get the paint brush and paint some bull’s-eyes around his shots.

It is all so random and invites countless new opportunities to paint – a few examples for starters:

Gay Jews feel uncomfortable during the layning at Yom Kippur Mincha. Should we change it?

For non-Jews: Because non-Jews enter the shul at bar mitzvas, or as relatives visiting gerei tzedek, should we delete (i) “shelo asani goy” (ii) “asher bachar banu mi-hol ha-amim” and (iii) “ki vanu vacharta v’otanu kidashta mi-kol ha-amim”?

For women: Should we modify the matbe’a tefillah for the Amidah (as have Conservative and Reform): “. . .Elokeinu vEilokei Avoteinu v’Imeinu, Elokei Avraham v’Sarah, Elokei Yitzchak v’Rivka, vEilokei Yaakov v’ Rachel v’Leah.”

For women: In the Musaf Kedusha, should we alternate: “Hu Elokeinu, Hee Imeinu. Hu Malkeinu, Hee Moshi-einu”?

For women: Should we stop being so demonstrative about kissing our tzitzit at Sh’ma, and our tefillin at Sh’ma and at “Potei’ach et yadekha” because such actions manifest overt insensitivity that we have the mitzvah and they don’t?

Should we not recite the brakhah “pokei’ach ivrim” if someone in the shul has a blind relative? Should we delete “zokef k’fufim” if someone without an erect back walks in?

Should we delete the second paragraph of U-n’taneh Tokef out of sensitivity to those who have lost relatives in the past year?

For the animal-rights activists: Should we stop praying at Musaf for restoration of korbanot and stop reading Maftir on Yom Tov from the sections in Pinchas?

In a shul where most everyone is shomer mitzvot, should we take out “hashiveinu Avinu [Imeinu] . . . v’hachzireinu b’teshuvah shleima l’fanekha”?

When a local judge walks in, should we stop praying for “hashivah shofteinu k’varishonah”?

Should we just re-censor Aleinu and delete most of the first half?

Do we have the same power to create brakhot as did Chazal? If I am hankering for pizza, may I say a brakhah with Shem u-Malkhut: “borei minei okhel k’mo pizza”? At Baskin-Robbins: “she-natan li chaim b’dor shel g’lidah”? At a deli: “she-natan li basar”?
Chazal had authority to establish mitzvot and invoke G-d’s name as though it had been He Who commanded (e.g., hadlakat ner Chanukah, k’ri’at megillat Purim). May we? It all is so random and endless. “I shot an arrow in the air, and where it landed I know not where.” Solomon Schechter could not have imagined where his arrow ultimately would land. And so it begins again.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, rav of Young Israel of Orange County, is an adjunct law professor, a member of the national executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, and author of Jews for Nothing: On Cults, Assimilation, and Intermarriage (Feldheim). He blogs at

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Rabbi Dov Fischer
4 years 3 months ago

Thank you, Mr. Lipkin. My final paragraph in my extensive 18-page analysis at , reads as follows:

“A Postscript: A Practical Suggestion For the Congregational Rabbi Whose Congregants Have Not Read This and Who Therefore May Take Umbrage Because They Do Not Understand the Brakhot’s Context . . .

“In most shuls, unfortunately, the only people who arrive at services on time are the non-Jews invited to that Shabbat’s Bar Mitzvah, who mistakenly assume that services begin at the time printed on the invitation. Shul often is empty in the woman’s side of the aisle when the first… Read more »

Menachem Lipkin
4 years 3 months ago

Rabbi Fischer,

Thank you for linking to your piece on the negative Brachot. It was interesting and informative.

While I understand the “meta-issue” you and other writers here are trying to deal with, it would have been, IMO, much better to start off with something like this rather than the way this “exploded” on the scene. (And continues to do so with R. Shafran’s latest piece where he would define who is and who is not an orthodox Jew.) And I’ve got news for you all, the issue would have been barely a blip on the radar were in not… Read more »

Rabbi Dov Fischer
4 years 3 months ago

Meanwhile, for those like Mr. Miller and Mr. Lipkin, who would like to read “a rational, intellectual response to the issue at hand . . . [with] intriguing source material and ideas, [c]ounter[ing] those arguments with better arguments,” I invite you to read further at:

(I would post it here, but it is a full-length 15-page, single-spaced treatment.)

David F.
4 years 3 months ago

“David F. is too willing to jettison folks who don’t tow, what he perceives as, the Mesoraitic line.”

G-d Forbid! I’d shed tears over each and every one of them and my active support for kiruv organizations and weekly involvement with Partners in Torah are proof enough of that fact. I would never jettison a single one. My point was that they may just be doing it to themselves by trying to tamper with the Mesorah and seeking our approval. We’re not going to approve of it and if it means as you insinuated that this may just turn them off… Read more »

Rabbi Dov Fischer
4 years 3 months ago

For Mr. Lipkin’s follow up: We both know from “Twilight Zone” so we enjoy common language. I infer that, in this exchange, there will be no more talk of “shrill” or “nasty” or “scare tactics.” I also enjoy an aspect of common language with Rabbi Kanefsky. He and I have spent time together — like an hour or two — at the Coffee Bean near the Office Depot on the Pico strip. He is a wonderful guy, but we do not agree on several things. Previously, we exchanged on Jerusalem:
See… Read more »

Benjamin E.
4 years 3 months ago

Just to set the record, if you go and read the infamous driving teshuva inside, it’s pretty clear that what they were really doing is being melamed zchut on people who are *already* basically non-observant but go to shul – and they do so by driving. They basically say explicitly that the teshuva does not apply to anyone who does not fall into this category and the clear lechatchila position is that it is assur to drive to shul.

Now, I won’t deny that lots of people just skipped to the end and said, “Hey, we can drive! Hooray!”,… Read more »

Rabbi Dov Fischer
4 years 3 months ago

I thank Tal Benschar for highlighting someone else’s sentence worth a further observation: “Maybe Rabbi Fischer doesn’t realize it, but there are growing numbers of young people who’s, to use the term of Rav Kook, natural morality are causing them to question much of what we take for granted.”

There is a fellow who made some noise a year ago, writing for “The Daily Beast” or another publication of that persuasion, arguing that Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Likud, those living in Judea and Samaria — all are driving young people away from Zionism and from caring about Israel. Many articles… Read more »

Menachem Lipkin
4 years 3 months ago

Rabbi Fischer, I would have to say that “scare tactics” is in the eye of the beholder. (The name of another great TZ episode. :) I remember that episode of TZ you mentioned from around the same age and it didn’t bother me all that much. To many in the CC crowd, hauling out the the “C” word is akin to seeing the Wicked Witch attack Dorothy for the first time. Be that as it may, your concern is not invalid, on broader issues of focusing on trees vs. forests and slippery slopes, your words are well taken. I just… Read more »

Noam stadlan
4 years 3 months ago

The comparisons that rabbi Fischer makes are not justified. The first issue here is: does someone accept the commandments as binding? The Conservative ranks and file do not, and even 60 years ago the views of Reform and Conservative rabbis were indistinguishable on this and related faith topics(see the survey published I think in commentary magazine in the 60’s). So the analogy immediately does not hold. The actual point of disagreement is not regarding commandedness, but what exactly are the commandments, and more specifically, what to do when science, society and our ideas of morality have changed… Read more »

Tal Benschar
4 years 3 months ago

My first reaction when I read the original Kanovsky piece was, how trite, another “rabbi” realizes that the Torah does not match the latest P.C. notions of what is good and what is not. The second piece is no better, its more of the same pablum: halakhah has always “evoloved,” and after all Hillel instituted prozbol, so why can’t I institute the desired change du jour. We have heard this already again and again.

The correct halakhic term for what Kanovsky wrote is makchish magideihah shel Torah. The idea that a 21st century pulpit rabbi is morally superior… Read more »

Rabbi Dov Fischer
4 years 3 months ago

Thank you for your comments, Mr. Lipkin. I respectfully offer you an analogy: President Obama’s healthcare legislation. Someone — call him Reuven — defends it by writing that it serves a need to insure those who are not covered by a health plan. A second person — Shimon — then writes a Constitutional analysis, arguing that the legislation transcends the proper boundaries of the Commerce Clause, and that Washington has no right to impose an individual mandate on people to purchase a product they choose not to buy. Reuven then writes back: “But you are not… Read more »

4 years 3 months ago

Kissing tzitzit et al are interesting minhagim, but, IIRC, not exactly a halachic requirement.
I seem to also recall that some who wear their tzitzit “out”, tuck them in when at a kvurah so as not to “offend” those buried there (because they can no longer perform that mitzvah).

Like the challot we cover to avoid ’embarrassing’ them as we prioritize kiddush, the meitim are beyond the point at which they can be embarrased. Such actions are designed to elevate the actor, not the inanimate (or no longer animate) object of our supposed concern.

Perhaps then, where others find the kissing of… Read more »

Charlie Hall
4 years 3 months ago

“Indeed, bona fide Orthodox rabbinical leaders like Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes, who helped found the Orthodox Union – he even was an early President of the O.U. – also helped establish the JTS.”

JTS was solidly Orthodox in its early years. Its very first graduate became the Chief Rabbi of the UK. I’m aware of a solidly Orthodox synagogue hiring a JTS grad as its rabbi as late as the 1960s. (I don’t think that would happen today.)

And while we are at it, we should note that from other parts of the Orthodox world we are finding significant halachic innovations of… Read more »

L. Oberstein
4 years 3 months ago

There is an ocean of difference between the Conservative Movement and the Open Orthodoxy of Riverdale and elsewhere.There has never been a critical mass of observant Conservative Jews, the rabbis may have once cared what the halachic rational for driving on Shabbos was but that never bothered the vast majority who were riding before the permission was granted. Conservative Judaism was late in establishing Day Schools and producing a laity that was literate and observant, and didn’t have much success,even afterwards. Many of those who started as committed Conservative Jews moved over to orthodoxy because they craved a community of… Read more »

4 years 3 months ago

Rabbi Fischer, you’ve stated your opinion, but how should I evaluate it? How do we know how to distinguish between legitimate, farseeing criticism and hysterical, even vicious rhetoric?

Presumably you’ll agree that it was wrong, so wrong, to call R. Ezriel Hildesheimer a rasha, as he was called in Hungary (See Teshuvos Beis Hillel by R. Hillel Lichtenstein #13, which is so vituperative that it is literally *missing* from the version on How do I know that you’re not doing that?

4 years 3 months ago

Menachem- instead of avoiding R. Fisher’s point by dismissing it as a scare tactic, maybe step back and give it some objective consideration? The truth is that while I concede your point that he avoids directly responding to the sincere issues raised, your dismissal is no better. There is plenty of historical similarity between the “Moerthodox”movement and the beginning of the Conservative movement, and without pointing that out there would be many many people who disagree with Conservativism who would fall for the more traditional trappings of Morethedoxy, while in reality its a slippery slope from where they stand today… Read more »

Bob Miller
4 years 3 months ago

Menachem Lipkin,

Do you personally believe that “Shelo Assani Isha” was once a valid reason for men to praise HaShem, but no longer is? Or are you just upset that some modern positions about this are dismissed here by Rabbi Fisher without a properly supported, ad-hominem-free argument.

Toronto Yid
4 years 3 months ago

I just came across a recent fascinating responsum from the Mesorati (Conservative)movement in Israel to someone asking whether they can drive to shul in Israel because the wife is uncomfortable in an Orthodox shul and there is no local Mesorati shul for them to attend. See here .

It refers to the original responsum that permitted it in the U.S. and forbids it now in Israel. Note that in doing so, they make mention of the rationale for the US decision, and at first say that the circumstances are different in Israel today so the US decision doesn’t… Read more »

4 years 3 months ago

Beautiful article. R’ Fischer eloquently explains what most orthodox jews believe.

David F.
4 years 3 months ago

“less than serious hypotheticals”

I’ve actually seen/heard/read four of his hypotheticals. Some of these suggestions were advanced by Orthodox Jews on Hirhurim and others by Conservative Jews who’ve written to me inquiring about the possibilities.

Menachem may not realize it but sad it would be to lose some of the audience, if that’s the price we’ll have to pay to ensure fealty to our Mesorah, it may well be the better of the two options. I hope it never comes to that, but if the left-wing of MO insists on making changes to long-standing practices [and that’s what Rabbi Fischer has been… Read more »

4 years 3 months ago

Kudos to Rabbi Fischer for another excellent article. People need to realize what the YCT/IRF grouping stands for and the potential threat they are in leading certain segments of the frum community away from the Yiddishkeit of our Mesorah and towards an emotionally driven Yiddishkeit which is appealing to them but not actually Halachic. Ultimately the goal of the YCT/IRF crowd is controlled assimalation. They want to appear modern and western and not be embarrased by Torah values which may not be compatible with western values. They want to hold onto a certain level of technical… Read more »

4 years 3 months ago

Here you go again. Don’t mix legitimate criticisms of the man with silly ones. He is 100% RIGHT to point out that women’s sections in MANY shuls are not nice, and you look foolish when you say he was foolish to complain about women praying in cages. Many women’s sections are HORRID! Why don’t you say, “While the man had some legitimate criticisms, such as complaining that some shuls have terrible women’s sections, and we in the Orthodox community should work to change this, he had other criticisms which were nonsensical…”

Menachem Lipkin
4 years 3 months ago

It’s so unfortunate, given a second chance to right his wrongs of the previous article, that Rabbi Fischer seems incapable of letting go his acrimony and nastiness. In two lengthy attempts, Rabbi Fischer has yet to provide us with a rational, intellectual response to the issue at hand. In addition to Rabbi Kanefsky, we also have Rabbi Asher Lopian and Rabbi Zev Farber weighing in on the subject with well thought out and sourced pieces on the subject of the bracha of Shelo Assani Isha. We’re still waiting for something of that caliber to appear here on Cross Currents.

Maybe Rabbi… Read more »

dr. bill
4 years 3 months ago

one has the right to criticize and strongly disagree. OTOH, assumptions about the motive of others, weak analogies, less than serious hypotheticals, etc. etc. contribute little to a serious debate.

and for some irrelevancies, i recently finally heard two orthodox rabbis who read a ketubah as well as a famous women professor. As the woman read a few years back, i turned to an orthodox graduate of the yeshiva in Lakewood, with whom i was sitting, and asked if anyone will think she read the same text; he laughed and we discussed how to pronounce a word. at another… Read more »