—Rabbi Israel Chait—
Pirkei Avos Lecture 1990 Transcribed by a student
While on the subject of society and its influence, I wish to mention a few questions that were raised. One is regarding gender equality. Another concerns equality between Gentile and Jew. How does Judaism treat an apikoress [Torah denigrator]? There is a tragedy which occurred due to translations of the rabbis’ writings from the times of the Talmud through the Rishonim and Acharonim. Translations have caused many problems. Chazal say they instituted a fast when the Septuagint was translated [the Greek version of the Bible]. The gemara says there were three days of great darkness [sorrow]. This tragedy was that Torah was now out of the rabbis’ control. Anyone could now pass judgment on it with his preconceived notions. And it turns out unfortunately that to understand certain matters in Judaism, essential matters, a certain mindset is a prerequisite. If one approaches Torah with a distorted mind, it is almost impossible to remove the distortion. That is why Chazal guarded Torah She’baal Peh, the Oral Law. They did so because the masses could not understand it. Attempting to offer explanations for certain statements made by the rabbis would not be productive, as some people are too attached to their own understandings learned since youth. It is akin to a child asking a parent for ice cream, knowing that the parent will say no. The parent will offer a sound reason why she cannot give the ice cream, but the reason will never register on the child. That is today’s situation. I would like to give a few examples.
Anyone who thinks that Judaism places women on a lower status, is, by necessity, vicious or totally ignorant. [When adhering to Torah principles] it is impossible to make such a statement as the matriarchs are most prominent [role models of perfection]. This is proof of Torah’s value of women. The Rav said,
Torah says, “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27).
Meaning that it is impossible than one should be inferior to the other.
There is a mistake in this society which is based on the false notion that ostentatiousness is a good. People are convinced that through fame one achieves a great good. Judaism holds that a person is worse off when famous. We have a prayer which is so beautiful that we attach it to the Shmoneh Essray:
My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceit. To those who curse me, let my soul remain silent and my soul be like dust to all, open my heart to Your Torah, then I will pursue Your commandments. As for those who design evil against me, quickly nullify their counsel and disrupt their design.
This is a recognition that man’s evil takes place through his verbalization. Speech expresses and satisfies man’s instincts: ego, aggression, sexual desires, etc. Speech is the medium through which man satisfies all his instincts. This is why Lashon Hara is the worst thing.
To those who curse me, let my soul remain silent.
This means that if an entire society curses you, you should be quiet. This is the proper level. One should be unconcerned with what society says. A perfected person needs only to walk in the proper path and that is sufficient for him. He needs nothing more [he does not need society].
…and my soul be like dust to all
This is an unbelievable prayer. This means that a person should want one thing: to be alone in the world of reality and not care about anyone. Others should not affect a person whatsoever. Chazal say that King David was persecuted not only by evil people, but even by Torah giants of his generation, but he did not care. This prayer shows the ultimate level of the person living in the world of reality and not society.
…and my soul be like dust to all
If a person truly desires this, that it does not disturb him [that society thinks nothing of him, for he thinks nothing of society] and he does not care about what people say about him, [this discard for society’s approval is a prerequisite for greater attachment to Torah, as the next statement says]:
…open my heart to Your Torah, then I will pursue Your commandments.
To feel as dust is the basis [for greater attachment to Torah]. That desire to be satisfied and happy, even though others view him as dust, will drive him more towards living a Torah life, learning for learning sake alone. And the Torah says so:
He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your God (Micah 6:8).
One should be modest in how one serves God; service to God is a totally private matter. That is the halacha of not presenting oneself in a haughty light [overly righteous], mechzi k’yihurah. This is a flaw in a person and not merely a social concern. A person endangers himself when he acts to appear as a holy person. The perfected individual abides by Micah’s lesson to be humble. This is the ultimate level God demands of man. The ideal of Judaism is the exact opposite of society’s ideal, and we pray for it.
This level of modesty was given to a woman more than to man. “The honor of the daughter of a king is internal” (Psalms 45:14) refers to the congregation of Israel and that is why there never was the institution of a Bas Mitzvah. “They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he replied, ‘Behold, she is in the tent’” (Gen. 18:9). A distorted society does not view modesty as a perfection, but as a detraction. But in our system, it is the highest level. Moshe did not want to be in the foreground, but God did not permit Moshe. Jacob was referred to as a “simple man who dwelled in tents” (Gen. 25:27). Man’s highest perfection is not attained publicly, but privately and humbly. Talmud Yoma 71a refers to Torah scholars as women because they are modest like women, but with the strength of men.
A woman was given that perfection of representing that idea of modesty. Historically, it was not necessarily given to a woman per se. Sometimes, a woman will need to act out the role of the man. Esther originally rejected going before the king. But the situation demanded she do so. Therefore, she engineered a plan to save the Jewish people. Therefore, she switched roles. Devorah too switched roles. Only in certain situations a woman must take on the man’s role. It is not called Megillas Mordecai, but Megillas Esther. But on the whole, man leaves the tent [home] more than a woman because his nature is more in line with accomplishment, and a woman’s nature is less inclined this way. That is why she usually does not leave that state of perfection. But it is absolutely absurd to suggest that Judaism views a woman as inferior.
Today’s talmidei chochamim too sense a certain male superiority. But this feeling is no different than how the rest of society feels. Anything that partakes of this feeling is wrong.
When Chazal say that talmidei chochamim are like women, it means that they are the opposite of the macho image.
Three people died the highest level of death—kiss—and one was a woman, Miriam. This means that no man reached her level. Only Moshe, Aaron and Miriam died through the “kiss” [a kiss is a very light thing, implying that the death of these most perfected people was a very slight change. They lived so perfectly, that there change at death from a human into a pure soul was minimal]. Miriam surpassed all other men. It is impossible to say that Judaism views a woman as inferior.
That is the problem: much knowledge of Torah and Judaism is available to the masses. They learn something that catches their attention and a draw [false] inclusions. For example, Mondays and Thursdays we say V’Hu Rachum which has three parts. The first part refers to the mikdash. The second part refers to the Jews’ troubles while living among other nations in exile. And the last part is a prayer that includes the phrase “they have despised us like tumah of a menstruous woman.” People then derive a falsehood that a menstrual woman is on a low level and is despised because of her menstrual state. People say, “That is the low esteem Judaism has for a woman.” They say this because they have no idea whatsoever about the meaning of this prayer. But immediately, people associate to some primitive notion in their mind and become convinced of their understanding.
First of all, menstrual tumah is not a stringent form of tumah. [Had this prayer intended to be degrading] the prayer should have referred to tumah of a corpse. The danger is drawing philosophical conclusions from a different area of halacha. And this is [compounded] without even understanding halacha. People think tumah is uncleanliness. But there is no translation for the word tumah. In the English translation there should be a blank space. In our society there is no parallel for tumah. If one suggests that tumah is a terrible thing, why is it that a Gentile cannot become tamei? A dog cannot become tamei. Ignorance of halacha allows one to draw false conclusions.
The one thing we can say about tumah is that, as Maimonides says in his Guide, it has one purpose: that a person should not have unrestricted access to the temple. Those associating feelings to tumah are baseless, as tumah is purely a halachic phenomenon. There is no prohibition to become tamei. There is one commonality between tumah vis-à-vis temple and woman: separation.
They have despised us like tumah of a menstruous woman
Our prayers are based on a verse [a Torah source] as we do not rely on our own ideas. Judaism is very careful with how man relates to God [prayer/tefilah] where we stand before God. There is a danger, for if one is wrong in this area of relating to God, one is wrong in all areas of life. For our entire lives revolve around our idea of God. 120 chochamim we’re very careful in the words they employed when constructing prayer and it was all based on Torah verses. The verse above is a citation of Ezekiel 36:17:
O mortal, when the House of Israel dwelt on their own soil, they defiled it with their ways and their deeds; their ways were in My sight like the tumah of a menstruous woman.
Rashi says the metaphor is of menstrual woman, for she is awaited by the husband until he can reunite with her, for the husband desires to return to her. And this verse is a metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel. Throughout Prophets, God’s relationship to Israel is depicted as the relationship of husband and wife. With the phrase “like the tumah of a menstruous woman” the prophet wishes to convey an idea: as bad as the Jews are, Israel is like a menstrual woman for whom God waits for her to become permitted to Him. That is the reason for the metaphor. It is a beautiful metaphor because the prophet did not want to say that the Jews were distant from God. The tumah of a menstrual woman is not a degradation. On the contrary, it depicts God’s love for His bride Israel to return to him.
Something that a person can view as a pejorative can be the exact opposite. People on a low level turn this into a degradation. But Rashi’s daughter used to answer her father’s responsa. If one would ask why there were not as many women knowledgeable of Torah as there were men, I cannot answer such a question. I can only say that in no way does Torah belittle a woman who has knowledge. The proof is Devorah; Sanhedrin sought her advice. We respect any person with knowledge. And such [knowledgeable] women did not seek attention, but Devorah could not remain anonymous as she was needed by the nation. But I would also say that a woman who truly desires to learn Torah can do so, and therefore she must demand knowledge.
In general, we believe it is a principle of Judaism that there are two types of intuition. One type is nothing more than feelings pertaining to a certain matter because we become used to understanding something in a certain light. That kind of intuition is nonsense. There is another type of intuition which is an intellectual intuition for which we have the highest respect. This intuition is that which makes up the disputes among the rabbis of the mishnah. Maimonides explains this in his Guide. A person dismissing the [true] idea that a table is primarily space [not solid matter] uses common intuition, which is nonsense. But the intuition the mind has from studying an area and can sense what is right is proper intuition.
One cannot draw any inferences from the halachic system, as it functions in its own orbit. One cannot draw philosophic conclusions from halacha. The Rav gave an example: a woman cannot give testimony, and neither can Moshiach. [An incorrect inference would be to suggest a philosophical equivalence of these two parties in areas besides testimony.]
Someone asked that as a society that prohibits Jews from holding office is viewed as discriminatory, what do we say the Judaism that restricts women from many areas? No doubt, the society discriminates against Jews. But the same [discriminatory] conclusion that is drawn about society cannot be drawn about Torah [which restricts women from certain areas]. Halacha is a different system as it is a system based on very wise men, whereas in general, a society isn’t run by intellectuals.
Another support for gender equality is that the mitzvah of loving God is commanded on both men and women. Maimonides explains that love of God refers to Torah study. It is also a Siphre. Women are not exempt from loving God, but they are exempt from the responsibility to transmit the mesora. But personally, they are not exempt [perhaps referring to such cases like Devorah]. The mesora is man’s responsibility because on the whole, the male personality is more successful in outgoing activities than the female personality.
In the morning, man recites the blessing “…that You did not create me as a female.” This was instituted because people felt they would be happier with less mitzvos. This blessing intends to correct that notion. Chazal also included the blessings “that You did not create me as a Gentile” and “that You did not create me as a slave” as they too have less mitzvos than a man, and therefore [following this theme of thanking God for more mitzvos than others] it is not sexist to thank God for not creating oneself as a female. It is absurd how people think it is, as they approach the area without any understanding. The genders are not the same in terms of goals, but they are equal in value.
The matriarchs and patriarchs had different roles as is seen in the difference between Rivkah and Isaac. Isaac gave Jacob the blessings of Abraham, and Rivkah sent Jacob away. The woman guards the child. Rivkah saved Jacob’s life from his brother Esav. That was her role in establishing the tribes. Each played a unique role. The Rav once mentioned a beautiful idea. Abraham produced Isaac who then carried on [monotheism] and it [this transmission] had to be only from Sarah and not from Hagar. It was necessary for Isaac to result from both Abraham and Sarah. Sarah was just as important in this capacity as was Abraham. And if you have any sensitivity, you see that after Abraham buried Sarah, his role in establishing the nation was over. He then lived on as a private individual. Sarah equaled Abraham in bringing about the nation Israel.
Miriam brought about the Jewish savior [Moses]. She argued with her father and her mother and she was correct. [Miriam’s parents had separated due to Pharaoh’s decree of killing males. They viewed procreation as sacrificing life. Miriam told the parents that Pharaoh decreed only against the males, but that her parents decreed against females as well. The Parents agreed and reunited and then had Moses.]
It is absolute nonsense to say that Torah looks down upon woman. But due to this distorted society where the only value is being in the limelight, people come to the wrong conclusion of gender inequality. [Since man’s role is more outgoing and accomplishment oriented, this is interpreted by today’s society as the good, and the modest role of the woman is degraded.] But with any depth of understanding one immediately sees the fallacy of the claim that Torah degrades women.
Our society influences us with prejudices. Capital punishment is an example. To our society, malkus [whipping] would be viewed as brutality. But because no capital punishment was inflicted, society has no problem jailing a person to rot in a cell for the rest of his life. But there is no question that malkus is a much better system. Prison destroys people and there’s no improvement in the criminal. Whereas malkus is momentary and then the person is right back into society and it does not destroy his life. It is also a better deterrent than prison. But modern man feels a false sense of sophistication: “I would not touch another person.” The electric chair [or lethal injections] are acceptable but beating someone is not. What is the difference? But people cannot hear such arguments because of the prejudice accepted from society. People may feel better about prison versus malkus, but a better punishment is not determined by feelings but by reason.
Marriage is another example. Society says that it is only about love. If love is gone, one is justified to end a marriage, and this trumps considerations about the responsibility towards the childrens’ well-being. Judaism prioritizes responsibility over love. Man is obligated to support his wife and the wife has her domestic obligations. Neither one is more nor less [important]. Judaism has a division of labor in marriage. If one partner fails to fulfill their responsibility, bais din forces that party to fulfill their obligations. It is a machlokess rishonim whether bais din can employ physical force. The question that was raised is how can bais din force a woman to fulfill her obligations. First of all, the wife has the right to reject her obligations in exchange for the husband not supporting her; she will support herself. A rishon says that a woman can get divorced whenever she wants if she finds her husband intolerable. In this case bais din will use physical force to make the husband give a get. So why is physical force okay when bais din coerces the husband, but people find fault if bais din forces the wife to fill her obligations? If a person today would know only about the halacha that a wife can be forced, they would criticize Torah because they don’t view the halacha [and the full picture].
Historians and Bible critics had no knowledge of the depths of Torah and drew absurd conclusions based upon their ignorance, which was idiotic, vicious and unfair. They refused to recognize the wisdom of Torah.
The last point is the saying that “women’s intellect is light.” People draw conclusions based on the conclusion. Women libbers don’t like such statements because of the conclusion. But if it is true, you cannot fight reality. One cannot say that a mouse is as big as a giraffe. It is ridiculous. One must investigate reality and accept its findings. What Chazal meant by this statement that women’s intellects are light is that everyone has a struggle in life between their emotions and the world seen through their mind’s eye: reality. Man’s struggle is to follow his mind in spite of the emotion’s strength. And when a person reaches a high level [of perfection] the struggle ends. Maimonides says that there are two types of tzaddikim: the one who must suppress his instincts and who is in constant conflict, and then there is the one who worships God from love which is the highest level [he has no conflicts]. This person is the objective of the entire Torah. Also, as Maimonides says that very few people attain this level [in all areas], it is possible to reach this level in certain areas. One can worship God from love in an individual mitzvah. In one area a person can have a struggle, and in another area, one finds enjoyment in what was once a difficulty. Shabbos might have been difficult to observe when younger. But as one matures, he enjoys it and observes it out of love. Of course, Abraham served God out of love. We strive for that level, but we do not think practically we will attain it. Nevertheless, we strive for it.
All that Chazal meant by women having light intellects is that they have a greater difficulty in the struggle between following the mind over the emotions. In certain respects, the struggle is more difficult for women. It does not discount their capacity for success or equate their success to man’s success. It means that due to women’s emotional nature, in certain respects, their struggle against the world of the emotions is more difficult. The gemara’s case referred to the comparative duress women can tolerate under interrogation, as compared to men. Men can take more punishment than women before breaking under pressure. In certain situations, it is more difficult for a woman to stay on a rational course because they can’t tolerate a high degree of pain. Again, the woman’s greater struggle does not discount her capacity for success. Men too have struggles in certain areas that are more difficult than for women. But the gemara is not discussing women’s intelligence [as some people wrongly accuse]. It is only addressing their comparatively greater difficulty to endure physical torture.
Women possessing greater understanding (bina yeseira) is very much in line with this as it means that this very emotional attitude gives a woman a certain sensitivity that man does not possess. It is a double edged sword: in one area the woman’s emotional sensitivity is a very valuable tool; it was responsible for the success of Isaac. But on the other hand, that same emotional attitude causes difficulties in other areas. This is not a degradation of women but merely identifying the reality of a woman’s nature. A woman’s emotional sensitivity is much keener than men. This is [only] a general rule, as we see when Rabbi Meir lost his sons, his wife Bruria was stronger than he was. But typically, due to the woman’s greater sensitivity, she will have greater anguish over a child’s death than a man. These are generalities and do not speak about specific people.
Prejudice is not in terms of universal characteristics but in specifics. If a person will say in specific that an individual is a certain way because he was raised in a certain place, that is prejudice, for one is not judging the person on his own merit. But to deny general psychological truths and trends in human nature is not being prejudice. Rather, it is a denial of reality. There are clear differences between men and women. Chazal were pointing out such differences.
On this topic, I wish to denounce a fairly common view that is very dangerous for Judaism in general. There is an approach that offers a reason for women’s exemption from Torah study and time bound positive commands. This view suggests that women are intrinsically superior and do not require the mitzvos that men require. This view maintains that when man blesses “You did not make me a woman” that he is accepting God’s decree upon his ill fate, he is lamenting: “Unfortunately, God did not make me perfect like He made a woman.” On the other hand, when the woman blesses “You made me according to Your will” this view maintains that God created woman in the most perfect way possible: “I, woman, am intrinsically superior to man, I do not require [many] mitzvos like men, and I can reach love of God through my own intuition and not through Torah.” To my mind, this is a very dangerous Jew from several standpoints. Philosophically, to say that anyone can intuit what perfection is, or what love of God is, is basically idolatrous. A basic principle of Torah is that we cannot trust human intuition, male or female. The only way to reach God is through His Torah, using the intellect, which is man’s ability to perceive God’s wisdom as stated by all Rishonim. The moment we say that we can trust human intuition, you throw away the entire Torah. Not a single concept and Judaism has ever been forged based on pure intuition, only upon halacha, rationality and wisdom. Whether the originator of the idea was male, or female makes no difference.
From a logical standpoint, female superiority fails to answer the question: it is unfair that man should be treated in a superior fashion. But this view suggests it is very fair that the woman is superior. You might as well retain the original question where man was superior [the issue of inequality remains regardless of which gender is superior]. Obviously, this answer is illogical if the concern is with justice.
Aside from these considerations, this approach is dangerous because it negates the halachic system and destroys it. I wonder what this view would do with the mishnah at the end of Horiyus (13a):
When saving a person’s life, the man is saved before the woman.
This means that if a ship is sinking—contrary to Western society’s “Women and children first”—the halacha is that men are saved first. The same applies to returning a lost object. It depends: in certain cases, the woman takes priority. Concerning clothing, poverty and redeeming captives, women are given priority. But we cannot deny the halacha. In his commentary on the mishnah, Maimonides says the reason men are saved first is because of his comparatively greater sanctity. And this is not Maimonides’ own idea because this is a continuation of the previous mishnah: “Whomever is of greater sanctity than his friend, is prioritized over his friend” (Ibid. 12b). But according to the approach we have rejected [female superiority], the mishnah and Maimonides were bigoted and harbored primitive ideas, while the view we rejected is more enlightened. That view rejects the mesora. The misunderstanding also opposes the blessings said by each gender each morning as this view renders “You made me according to Your will” as the main blessing. However, it was not yet a blessing in the time of the gemara. The blessing did not yet exist in the time of Chazal, and furthermore, many don’t even recite this blessing. Aruch Hashulchan says our custom is not to recite this blessing because of the question of its source. Others who recite this blessing, say it in a manner of accepting God’s decrees [matzdik hadin]. Meaning, the woman says the blessing as an acceptance “of what God gave me.” “Just as one blesses on the good, one blesses on the bad” and this is not due to superiority. For if it was, one could not make this blessing to begin with because we cannot invent new blessings after Chazal. But to matzdik the din is universally accepted, so a woman has a right to make this blessing. Therefore, from a halachic standpoint, this view holds no water.
Menachos 43b says:
Man is obligated to make three blessings every day and these are them: “that you did not make me a Gentile,” “that you did not make me a slave,” “that you did not make me a woman.” But is not the slave and the woman identical [in terms of their respective commands, so why then need both blessings]?
Why is the slave and a woman the same? This is because these blessings were established in order that man looks forward to mitzvos. Mitzvos should not be viewed as a burden, but on the contrary, one should view them as the greatest blessing. Therefore, Chazal established that one should rise each day feeling fortunate for his mitzvos. Man, who has the most mitzvos, should bless God for having them. But the gemara asked why both blessings are required [“that You did not make me a slave” and “that You did not make me woman”] seeing that both individuals have the identical amount of mitzvos. One answer is that the slave is inferior. Therefore, this series of blessings progresses from one with the least amount of mitzvos to the one with the most [from gentile, to slave, to woman]. One explanation why the slave is inferior is that his fewer mitzvahs are due to his lower status as a member of the Jewish nation, whereas a woman does not have lesser sanctity in Israel than men. But she is exempt from certain mitzvos.
The second explanation why both blessings are needed is because they are two separate cases of individuals with fewer mitzvos. But according to the view that a woman is superior, and “You did not make me woman” is a lament, whereas “You did not make me a slave” is a praise [for having greater mitzvos than a slave] the gemara should not have had any question of a man reciting both blessings, as they are two separate matters. However, the gemara equates a woman and a slave, which renders this female superiority philosophy in opposition to the gemara. This shows that empty philosophizing without halacha is in improper, unless one wishes to deny the Baalei Hamesora [leading Torah transmitters] and the gemara. This should serve as a warning against apologetics, which, in order to answer questions raised against Torah by our modern neurotic society, will go to any length, even if this means distorting Torah and opposing our Baalei Hamesora and the gemara. This is unfortunate.
The gemara in Horiyus that man is saved first is not a value judgment; it is simply a matter of halacha. When a man and woman are in danger, there is no method of determining whose life should be saved. It is ridiculous to even attempt to develop a formula to determine this. Western society’s “Women and children first” is equally absurd. A human life is an invaluable object. But saving the man first is because the Jewish nation accepted that in such a situation, the order of saving lives should reflect the high priority we place on mitzvos. Since there is no way to make a determination [of whom to save first], the way it was decided was in a manner which reflects Israel’s commitment and love for mitzvos. As man has greater [more] mitzvos, he is saved first to reflect this idea. But, in no way does saving a man over a woman indicate that man possesses greater value than a woman.
Regarding who is given preeminence, this is determined by the individual. Devorah the prophetess possessed the greatest knowledge of Torah. Therefore, it is stated, “Devorah, wife of Lappidos, was a prophetess; she led Israel at that time” (Judges 4:5). Sanhedrin were subordinated to her. The system of the nation of Israel is not a democracy or any aristocracy. It is an intellectual aristocracy, a democratic aristocracy. Judaism states that anyone who possesses wisdom is in the forefront; such a person holds the highest position. Who is honored first? A mamzare [the product of illicit relationship] precedes a convert because he has the sanctity as a member of Israel, and the convert [once] did not. One of the worst things one can do is to pain or oppress the convert for being a convert (Lev. 19:33). Today, people try to hide their status as a convert, but there is nothing inferior about him or her. [Kings David and Solomon and the messiah all descend from the convert Ruth.] How then can a mamzare precede the convert? It is because the system is not based on a personal evaluation. And we see that the mamzare who is a Torah scholar comes before the high priest who is ignorant. But such [flawed] high priests existed only in the Second Temple when there was corruption. But in the First Temple they ensured that the high priest was not ignorant, an “am haaretz.” Thus, wisdom is elevated [highly valued]. We give honor to people by reflecting our most valued matter: the sanctity of the Torah. The mamzare who is a Torah scholar reflects this greater than the high priest who is ignorant, as does a mamzare over a convert. Our commitment to the system of Torah demands that we [first] honor a person who was born as part of the system. Thus, the mamzare precedes the convert. We are not honoring the person of the mamzare, but Torah. And this is not a pain for the convert for he loves Torah and desires to see Torah performed where allegiance and respect to Torah are displayed. Furthermore, it is not a personal matter that we honor a mamzare before a convert, and therefore we do not cause the person of the convert any pain.
The problem with today’s society is that an honor is viewed as a personal matter. When Rav Aharon Kotler entered the yeshiva he always carried a sefer: “They’re standing up for the sefer, not for me.” The halacha of honoring a rebbe is also not a personal matter. The dispute whether it [his wisdom] is his Torah is not regarding Torah as a possession. Rather, the dispute is whether the system was established in a way that he has the right to give rulings. But people today are so tied to the physical and the tangible that they cannot perceive such an idea where we honor an objective concept, where these people are only players in reflecting an idea. We are not honoring the people. But people strongly desire honor for themselves. So, when Torah honors people, the public interprets that honor in their own personal [incorrect] terms and they cannot conceive of an honor for Torah, and not the person.
Returning back to our discussion of genders, due to woman’s modesty, there are far more women engaged in Torah than we know. These women are not interested in parading their knowledge. But this does not mean that they don’t have this knowledge. Regarding converts, the gemara says that most don’t convert for the proper reasons. But if they do, they are on the highest level. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said he was greater than a born Jew because he accepted Torah voluntarily, while we accepted it out of coercion.
The gemara says that a wise man precedes the king of Israel because if the former dies, there is no replacement, but a king can be replaced by anyone. This reflects Judaism’s true value system. In this framework a woman [of wisdom] comes first.
Women are exempt from time bound mitzvos based on the Torah. But based on reason, a women’s role in establishing the nation of Israel precludes them from the burdens of technical obligations [mitzvos]. And even older women who no longer raise children are exempt because halacha has a design. It takes years of learning to develop an appreciation for how halacha is structured and how it operates. It is structured in a very logical, abstract and beautiful design. Beauty in halacha is a necessary component. The gemara says, “Honey and milk under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11) refers to words of Torah. This means that if one has a Torah idea and it is not sweet like honey and milk, one should not share it. [One should only say an idea when it is well-formulated and beautiful.] The concept that halacha has a certain intellectual aesthetic is not just a drasha, but God constructed halacha in this manner. Halacha must have beauty and logic. These are the determinations God used to determine halacha’s ultimate structure. Since that is the case, halacha cannot reflect philosophy. Of course, ultimately halachos have reasons. Once halacha starts with a reason, it [then] operates in its own system. It has its own criteria and a certain logic and beauty in its structure. Therefore, its operation deviates from its [original] reason which was the starting point of the halacha. Halacha cannot go hand-in-hand with a philosophy in every step. This is because halacha is a special type of subject, and once engaged in it, it demands a certain beauty, logic and structure because of the nature of the subject itself. This is so, as part of man’s perfection is that he appreciates the halachic system. Just as one needs a sense for mathematics and physics, one needs a sense for halacha, for halacha is different than all other subjects. As halacha is a separate subject, it must be separate intrinsically from philosophy. It only has certain points of contact with philosophy.
In order that your generations know that I caused the children of Israel to dwell in succahs when I took them out of Egypt, I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 23:43)
The reason for the mitzvah of succah is that we know that God caused us to dwell in huts. Thus, a succah higher than 20 cubits is invalid, as the person is unaware that he is sitting under the schach [the roof], the main part of the succah [as it is beyond his field of vision]. Until today we have no decision [psak] on whether a mitzvah requires intent [kavana]. According to this view [that intent is not required], if one does not know that he is sitting in a succah, he [nonetheless] fulfills the mitzvah. This is regardless of the reason given, “that your generations know…” Again, if one blows a shofar on Rosh Hashannah but he is unaware that it is Rosh Hashannah, he fulfills the mitzvah of blowing shofar. Philosophically, both cases seem absurd. The point is that halacha and philosophy are two separate worlds. If philosophy dictated halacha, such halachos [above] would be absurd, that one can be disengaged philosophically and still fulfill his obligation. But the person who knows halacha knows that the definition of a mitzvah requires a rigid definitive formulation. It is incorrect to say, “A mitzvah is that which brings one close to God.” That is a philosophical definition and not a halachic definition. Rather, one must approach defining a mitzvah by asking, “What in the structure of this action defines X as a mitzvah?” From the theoretical and logical standpoint, it makes perfect sense to say that the mere fact that the action one performed conforms perfectly to Torah’s description, that itself renders the act a mitzvah. Many Rishonim are of this opinion. It is a logical concept; it has nothing to do with [philosophical] reasons or one’s intent. It is an objective reality. That is halacha. While it is true that God gave the mitzvah of succah to recall the succahs in which God caused us to dwell when we left Egypt, once the mitzvah was given, halacha defines if one acted according to the description of the mitzvah, and one’s philosophy is no longer a factor.
Halacha is a unique concept which God gave to man and it is not something any human being would create, not even the most brilliant mind. No other religion has an idea anything like halacha. Even minds like Plato always developed ideas related to philosophy because a human being can’t manufacture anything beyond that. Man has a goal, so he does something that is in line with that goal. No person could have invented the idea of halacha; it is a God-given logical system of abstraction of infinite depth. That is why we cannot deduce philosophical conclusions from halacha. Maimonides can because he knows halacha. People who, over the past century have a philosophized Judaism, acted absurdly. Modern Jewish philosophers offer philosophical views, but they are ignorant of the essence and core of Judaism, which is halacha, and which permeates every aspect of Judaism, from time immemorial until today. As these philosophers are ignorant of halacha, how can they philosophize a system when they don’t know what that system is? The entire form—every aspect—of the system of Judaism is from halacha: the commitment Jews have to Torah, the way they daven, the way they read Torah, everything they do is halacha. And yet, people philosophize a system of which they are totally ignorant of the system’s core and essence. It is absurd.
However, in the world, this question is not a question. Historians ignorant of halacha come along and philosophize Judaism. They have no credentials to do so. But the Rav could philosophize Judaism because he knows halacha. Only one who knows the points of contact between philosophy and halacha can philosophize halacha.
Another example is tzitzis, where the reason given is that one will see them and recall all mitzvos: “And you will see them, and you remember all God’s mitzvos” (Num. 15:39). However, there is no halacha that one must see his tzitzis; one fills the obligation without seeing them. (The only reason one must be aware of tefillin is not because one can’t fulfill the mitzvah without awareness, but because one cannot remove his attention from tefillin due to their sanctity.)
Why isn’t honey used in sacrifices? Maimonides says that idolaters gave their gods tasty cakes; they thought their gods enjoyed them. Therefore, Torah prohibited offering anything sweet to teach that man does not benefit God through sacrifice.
The system of halacha itself could never have been man-made because it is a commitment to a system of wisdom, and part of that system is its infinite depth and a commitment to try to ponder and understand it as far as we can. Any man-made system cannot be greater than the intellect who created it, and it cannot contain infinite wisdom. Those equally as wise as the originator would immediately see its limitation. Unfortunately, the rest of the world today is ignorant of what halacha is and they associate halacha to some familiar notion [in their feeble attempt to grasp it]. Their ideas of course must be wrong as they are removed from any concept of halacha of which they have no real knowledge since it is a unique system.
A person’s commitment to the science of halacha perfects him, perfects his character, his mind and his life, and earns him Olam Haba. When Maimonides discusses the perfection bestowed upon people by the halachic system, he mentions women:
The life of the world to Come may also be inherited, and be accessible to all, little and great, men and women (Hil. Yesodei Hatorah 4:13)
To say that a woman is removed from halacha opposes Maimonides.