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 1 month 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 morning brakhot are being recited. Nevertheless, if women are present in the synagogue as services begin, and if there is concern that one or more may take umbrage because she has not read explanations like this analysis and therefore does not know the contextual backgrounds and meanings of these brakhot, a sensitive rav can introduce a practice that the prayer leader recite the brakhah “Who did not make me a woman” in an undertone. The rav can explain: “At this one brief line in the morning prayers, we digress with men reciting one sentence and women reciting another different sentence, thanking G-d for having made them proudly in accordance with His will. In order to avoid cacophony and confusing each other with different utterances, let’s just all recite our respective one-line blessings quietly for the next line.”

Res ipsa loquitur.

Menachem Lipkin
4 years 1 month 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 for Cross Currents. I had never heard of “morethodoxy” nor had many of the people on my e-mail “list” before your post here.

That aside, there are some quibbles with your piece. For example, our liturgy is far from “universal”. This statement is simply not accurate:

A Jew anywhere in the world can enter a proper shul, and she will find that the Hebrew language is the uniform language of prayer, the prayers are identical to home, and that she fits in.

I grew up in Deal, NJ, and, even after many years of occasionally Davening in Syrian Shuls, their Tefillot were like Greek to me. Kadish, Kedusha, Shemona Esrei, etc. are all quite different. And this goes for many other Nusachot as well.

But the most fascinating point is in your last paragraph. After spilling a considerable number of pixels explaining and defending these Brachot and how they do and should stand up to “contemporary cultural overlays and theological apologia” you state:

Nevertheless, if women are present in the synagogue as services begin, a sensitive rav can introduce a practice that the prayer leader recite the brakhah “Who did not make me a woman” in an undertone, with the official explanation: “At this one brief line in the morning prayers, we digress with men reciting one sentence and women reciting another different sentence, thanking G-d for having made them proudly in accordance with His will. In order to avoid confusing each other with different sentences, let’s just all recite our respective one line blessings quietly.”

Not only have you completely validated Rabbi Kanefsky position, but you have also completely undermined everything you worked so hard to establish to that point. What you’re saying here, plain and simple, is that the Bracha, as written, is embarrassing. Now of course, the assumption is that this is only embarrassing in front of those who have not been presented with the ideas in your piece. Maybe. But there are still plenty of “stubborn” people who can and do see much of what you wrote as apologetics and do not truly address the issue.

The fact that even though R. Meir’s wife was “ahead of her time” and yet he still penned this Bracha may only prove that the idea that such a Bracha would be seen as an affront 2000 years later simply was inconceivable to him. (As a Kal V’Chomer Rabbi Slifkin recently posted some ads from the 1950’s on his blog which are incredible in how subservient they portrayed women!)

Again, I’m not saying that Rabbi Kanekfsky’s approach is correct or valid, but the issue he’s addressing is very real and even you have validated that. Maybe your “silent” is more traditional, but let’s face it, that will not work for everyone.

Rabbi Dov Fischer
4 years 1 month 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 1 month 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 to Orthodox Judaism, that’s a terrible choice to make, but they’ll have been the ones to make it, not I.

Rabbi Dov Fischer
4 years 1 month 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 also:

He is sincere. He is driven by the issue and has been for many years. I prefer discussing the concepts, not a person. But this clarifies Mr. Lipkin’s concern. Previously, Rabbi Kanefsky has published that Orthodoxy slanders women as having subversive motives for performing such “male mitzvot” as taking a lulav. He and I respectfully do not agree.

I have published in other venues on other occasions at length on other aspects of the issue. Realistically, Mr. Lipkin, most magazines and newspapers have practical limits on how many words may be published and how many issues may be included in a submission. Editors know their readers. In brief, I point to the comments of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch on Vayikra 23:43 (towards the end) as my starting point for where I come out on the subject that you would like me to address more fully. But, as with my Debating-Obamacare analogy, this was not the article for me to elaborate on Menachot 43b, the Tosefta Brakhot 6:23, Rambam’s Hilkhot Tefilah Prakim 6 and 7, opinions attributed to the GR”A, debates over inaccurate manuscripts related thereto, etc.

BTW — The article is not off the table. Conservative Judaism now is using it to lambaste Orthodox Judaism and effectively to validate their institutional k’firah:

Regarding Noam Stadlan’s insightful comments: New circumstances do indeed confront us with defining boundaries and parameters of halakhic practice. If that were not so, Rav Moshe would not have written Igrot. His greatness, like that of all great contemporary Poskim, stemmed from a unique capability to apply the eternal Torah to fluid life breakthroughs. Yibadlo l’chaim, the shu”tim of HaChakham HaRav Ovadia Yosef are fascinating and brilliant — and just-plain fun to read the sh’eilot he is answering. Who imagined way-back-then such a thing as a “reform” judaism that would send thousands of married Jewish women into second marriages without Gittin? The mamzerim caused by the rabbis of reform Judaism threatened to fill stadiums (back to the Yogi metaphor) — until Rav Moshe bore an extraordinary burden on his shoulders. So, yes, Orthodoxy is flexible, responsive to modernity, and a living, breathing, evolving theological organism. But that does not mean that we have the authority to declare brakhot of 2000 years a Chilul Hashem and to puiblish to the world essentially “Hey, I don’t know about you, but I am not praying this anymore. And I am a rabbi — so there!” To give one brief side example: I cannot support Obama. See, e.g.: But I recite publicly every Shabbat — with a full, complete, and sincere heart — a public prayer for his well-being and that G-d should protect him and all his advisors. Dating back at least to Yirmiyah 29:7, we pray for the welfare of the Government. I am not changing Jewish law or the siddur for the exigencies of the moment.

If women are in shul at the start of birkhot ha-shachar — a rarity, because the only people who come on time to most Orthodox shuls are the non-Jews invited to the Bar Mitzvah who see the time on the invitation and figure they mean it when they say it starts at 9:00 a.m. — and if it is a such an issue in that shul, then the rav can say: “Let’s recite our respective brakhot at this line in softer voices because half of us are saying ‘this’ and half saying ‘that’ so let’s not confuse each other.” Selah.