Monday, March 13, 2006

Purim (Halakhah)

Can Women Read the Megillah for Men?

In recent years, with the emergence of religious feminism, one of the focii for practical halakhic change has been the festival of Purim, and particularly the reading of the Megillah. Gatherings in which women read the Scroll of Esther publicly for other women have become almost commonplace in certain parts of the Orthodox world, the argument being that, women being obligated to read the Megillah in a manner identical to or similar to that of men, they can certainly read the Megillah for other women.

But if women are in fact obligated to read the Megillah, why can’t they read it for men as well? I was asked that very question by my oldest daughter last week, when she was asked to lend her services as ba’alat keriah to just such a group. I would like to share here with my readers the rather interesting results and broader implications of that investigation.

The first source dealing with this question is a Talmudic passage, in Arkhin 2b-3a, which explicitly states that “All are obligated to read the Megillah; all are fit to read the Megillah, including women; as in the words of R. Yehoshua b. Levi, [who] said, ‘Women are obligated in reading the Megillah, for they too participated in that miracle.’” Rashi on this passage explicitly states that woman may read for men as well as other women. The Rambam (Hilkhot Megillah 1.2) states that one fulfills the obligation so long as one hears it read by one who is obligated: “Therefore, if the one reading were a minor or a mentally defective person, one who heard from him did not discharge his obligation.” The Maggid Mishneh concludes, from the pointed omission of women from this category, that they may read on behalf of both men and women.

The problem stems from the Tosefta (Megillah 2.7) which, diametrically opposed to the passage in Arkhin, states that women are in fact not obligated to read the Megillah. The Halakhot Gedolot, in an attempt to harmonize the Talmud with the Tosefta, states that women have a different kind of obligation then men: to “hear” the Megillah rather than to “read” it (the Talmud, he implies, refers to the former; the Tosefta to the latter). Hence, they cannot read publicly on behalf of others, certainly not for men. This distinction is cited approvingly by the Tosafot to Arkhin 3a (s.v. la-atuyei nashim), by Rabbenu Asher, and is described by the Tur as “the principal view.” The Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 689.2) cites both views, while the Ram”a (i.e., the glosses of R. Moses Isserles, which are generally normative for Ashkenazim) even states that a woman who reads for herself may need to recite a different blessing, “to hear the Megillah,” because she is not obligated to read it. (One should note that the Tosefta does not always function as a major factor in the halakhic process; as a collection of lesser authority than the Mishnah, containing uncodified or rejected tannaitic opinions, it is often simply ignored.)

How then, in the final analysis, is one to decide? Or, to phrase it more strongly, given the rule-of-thumb that Ashkenazim generally follow the Ram”a, is there any room for a Jew of European descent to dissent from the his negative ruling on the subject? At this point, I had two rather interesting phone conversations on the subject.

First, I called an old friend, an Orthodox academician who might well be described as an embodiment of the ideal of modern Orthodoxy, one who lives “Torah im derekh eretz”: a professor of science at one of the universities; a strongly committed Zionist, part of an extended American family that made aliyah; a talmid hakham who gives regular shiurim in his community and often writes on halakhic topics. Essentially, he adopted the traditional approach, barring a woman from reading to a mixed group. His argument was that we must follow the approach of the Ram”a; that, in general, the path of halakha in our day is to take into consideration the opinions of all the relevant rishonim (medieval authorities); and that one should generally be reluctant to take a lenient opinion which as not been accepted by previous generations, even if it is supported by cogent halakhic arguments.

We then discussed the similar issues raised by Shira Hadasha, the new minyan in my neighborhood in which women read the Torah and receive aliyot—the first such weekly minyan of its kind in Israel. He suggested that there was something tendentious in the paper, written by a mutual acquaintance, which provides the halakhic underpinning for their approach. He felt that many of those writing on behalf of Orthodox feminism seem to have a predetermined agenda, and that, in the course of analyzing the relevant sources, at a series of junctures always took that path which would lead to a heiter (a permissive position). More generally, he felt that the advocates of such halakhic change, who in recent years have suggested introducing a whole gamut of hitherto unknown approaches to women’s issues, are guilty of using improper methodology (darkei hakhra’ah).

Meanwhile, I heard of an interesting case some years ago, at which a Bat Mitzvah girl from a prominent Orthodox family read the Megillah at the celebration held on Purim night for all those assembled. At the end, the girl’s grandfather, a prominent jurist and talmid hakham, stood up and said, “My granddaughter has read the Megillah, and I am satisfied that I have been yotsei (fulfilled my obligation).” I overcame my shyness and called the grandfather, whom I have met over the years on half a dozen occasions. His argument was quite simple: “There is more than ample precedent upon which to rely—an explicit Talmudic passage, Rashi, Rambam, etc.” He added that, since Purim came about because of a woman, we should lean towards maximizing women’s involvement in its celebration.

Reflecting on these two conversations, it seems clear to me that the controversy goes well beyond the technical issue of the nature of women’s obligation, to three larger areas—halakhic methodology; philosophy of halakha; and public policy. It is these that underlie many of the current controversies over women’s issues, and halakhic change generally.

Methodology: The traditional attitude, reflected by my scientist friend, is one of reluctance to rule between conflicting positions among rishonim, or even among aharonim (authorities from 1500 on), and especially to oppose the decisions recorded in the Shulhan Arukh. The pro-change position, represented by the jurist, is willing to reopen issues, to analyze the primary sources, and to take a new decision, so long as it is based upon precedents from accepted authorities.

Philosophy of Halakha: My scientist friend accused the advocates of change as having a specific agenda rather than seeking the “emet” (truth) of halakha. His model seemed to be that of a kind of Platonic, empirical truth innate within the halakhah. The opposite view, by contrast, seemed to see the process of halakhic decision making as just that: a process whereby human beings decide— of course, within the parameters of halakhic methodology and precedent—among different legitimate options, based inter alai upon their understanding of the cultural and social context within which the question is being asked, their underlying values, etc. Halakhic decision making is thus a kind of interface between the Divine Torah and human understanding and input—a point that I find implicit, for example, in the numerous passages in the Sefat Emet dealing with the dialectic between Written Torah and Oral Torah.

In my conversation with him, the prominent jurist agreed that, historically, the halakhah was far more flexible in the Middle Ages, and even in the early modern period. The fear of deciding between venerated authorities from the past (“putting our head between these great mountains”) is relatively new, a product of the emergence of a self-conscious Orthodoxy that sees itself functioning in reaction to and defending the tradition against secularism, assimilation, and the emergence of other streams within Judaism. It is commonplace in these circles for any slightly more lenient approaches to be immediately put down with the canard, “You are talking like a Conservative!” (I would argue that the failure of the Conservative movement as a halakhic school is rooted in sociological factors, rather than upon anything inherent in its theoretical premises or halakhic methodology—but that is a discussion for another time.)

Public Philosophy: Who has the authority to make halakhic decisions: the laity or the Rabbinate? Advocates of rethinking various areas of halakhah argue that, in the past, halakhic change often originated in the community, even on the grass-roots level. Its opponents will no doubt describe this as “rebellion against halakhic authority”; its proponents will see it as “democratization” of the halakhic process, enabling a fuller engagement with modernity of an atrophied system led by hyper-conservatives.

Thus, a recent draft position paper of the Yedidya community in Baka, written by Debbie Weissman, articulates this position. She speaks of developing a “new model for the halakhic decision-making process,” as a conscious alternative to the “Da’at Torah” model prevalent in yeshiva circles. Among other things, this paper suggests a model of:

a small committee of men and women, rabbis, educators and lay people, who would take it upon themselves to research certain halakhic issues that arise in the life of the community… Many halakhic questions are essentially questions of policy, involving meta-Halakhic judgments. They deal with issues of politics, sociology, psychology, business administration and other disciplines. In these areas, the rabbi’s opinion is not necessarily superior to that of any informed adult member of the congregation, male or female… Jews do not have a binding hierarchical authority system, as do some other religious cultures. For much of Jewish history, the kehilla or local congregation held a great deal of decision-making power. It was they, for example, who chose the rabbis who led them…. Today, when Jewish communities often have universal higher education, when women have the opportunity to study Torah on an advanced level… how much more so should the community assume responsibility in the Halachic process.

Shoalin ve-Dorshin: Hallel on Shabbat Purim

(written for Purim in Jerusalem, 2005)

When Purim Shushan falls on Shabbat, one is supposed to “engage in the laws of Purim,” as a way of involvement in the Purim spirit even though one cannot perform any of the practical mitzvot on that day. In that spirit, I would like to discuss a custom, mentioned by Rav Ovadiah Yosef, of reciting full Hallel, albeit without a blessing, on the Shabbat of Purim in Jerusalem, as kind of substitute for the reading of the Megillah, based on the statement in the Talmud that “the Megillah is its Hallel.”

I had never heard of such a ruling or custom before (indeed, as it turns out, Rav Yosef’s ruling was only intended for certain very specific cases). Indeed, the most obvious reason why Hallel is superfluous is that has in fact already read the Megillah during this Purim; the reading on Friday is, so to speak, “credited” to the actual Purim-Shabbat. Indeed, reflecting on Purim Meshulash, it seems to me that this halakhic anomaly may best be understood as a single day, the fulfillment of whose mitzvot are spread out over three days for technical reasons, a bit like the two days of Rosh Hashanah that are called yoma arikhta, a single “long” day in halakhic terms.

But in fact, there are three reasons given by the Talmud for not saying Hallel on Purim. The source is a discussion in the Talmud, in b. Arkhin 10b (//b. Megillah 14a), surveying all those holidays on which we do and do not say Hallel, and the reasons why. The first opinion given there for not saying Hallel on Purim, which is dismissed out of hand, is that of Rav Yitzhak, who states that one does not say Hallel for a miracle that occurred outside of the Land of Israel. (But what about the Exodus? his interlocutors retort) The second is that of Rav Nahman, cited by Rav Ovadiah, namely: “the reading (of the Megillah) is its Hallel.” (It is interesting that the Rabbis were reluctant to see the reading of the Megillah simply as the retelling of a narrative, as a way of refreshing the public’s awareness of an important historical event; they prefer to interpret it either as a form of praise and extolling God or, to the contrary, as a kind of prayer in distress. A discussion of this point will have to await another Purim.)

The third reason is that given by Rava, who states that “even then [i.e., even at the endpoint of the Megillah, when the Jews were vindicated and Mordecai was catapulted into high office] we were still servants of Ahashverosh”—that is, we weren’t really free, but only enjoyed a more benevolent form of Gentile rule, and not that of God. This contradicts the spirit of the very first verse of the Hallel, “Praise the Lord, all you servants of Hashem” (Ps 113:1).

What is this sugya really saying? To my mind, it is making a statement about Jewish existence in Exile: that so long as Jews do not enjoy political independence and self-rule, their lives are somehow incomplete; that sovereignty is a necessary precondition of a truly free spiritual life. I do not me to sound like a dogmatic Zionist ideologue here (I will discuss what it means to be a Zionist today another time), but I really don’t see any other interpretation. One might elaborate that the idea expressed here also implies is that the two components of Jewish identity—the national-ethnic-political and the religious-spiritual-value one (which we modern Jews are so fond of discussing, viz. which of the two is the real “essence” of Judaism)—are one and inseparable.

The second point, which follows from this, is that Purim is seen as a paradigm, a kind of template, for Exilic existence. (May the association between Purim and the acceptance of Oral Torah also be related to this, Oral Torah being in some sense characteristic of what Rawidowicz calls “Babylon” or “the Second House”?) Purim symbolizes the Jewish destiny of marginal, exilic existence. The story told by the Megillah portrays delivery from the threat of destruction as being brought about by a highly improbable confluence of events. The essence of Purim is contingency. Indeed, the very name of the holiday, Purim, comes from the word pur or goral, “lot.” Thus, the feast of Purim is in at least some sense the festival of randomness (shades of chaos theory!), and as such a well of inspiration for radical theology. Thus, in Hasidism, teaching after teaching celebrates the paradoxes of Purim, Purim as the day par excellence celebrating the presence of God within the hidden (see, e.g., R. Zaddok Hakohen in Resissei Laylah, translated in HY IV: Purim).

In political terms, the plot of the Megillah may be summarized as the replacement in the office of viceroy—the power behind the throne who essentially determined what the king would do, the latter being rather stupid, and in any event more interested in wine, women and song than in matters of statecraft—of a virulent anti-Semite by “one of our own.” Interesting, this pattern is a familiar one in Jewish history—from Joseph in Egypt (a role he fulfilled earlier in the house of Potiphar and in the prison), and many other figures, from Shmuel Hanaggid and Don Isaac Abravanel in medieval Spain and (the latter in) Portugal, through Disraeli, Bernard Baruch, Kissinger and (Heaven help us) today’s Neo-Conservative intellectuals.

And yet—it is also a day of uninhibited joy, not only of eating nearly to the point of bursting (as on virtually every Jewish holiday, at least in the old tradition of the Polish/Hungarian/Iraqi/Kurdistani/Moroccan, etc. Jewish mother), but also of imbibing string drink: it is definitely a mitzvah to reach a state of somewhat altered consciousness, although exactly how much is a point of debate. But also: costumes, disguises, frivolity, hilarity, joking, even to the point of a certain degree of ribaldry or even bawdiness.

Yet, so long as we are in Galut, our joy is somewhat Pyrrhic: uncertain, insecure, even transient; we are able to rejoice in present deliveries, and that has to be enough. The very nature of our existence is seen as insecure, contingent, dependent upon the good graces of others. Hence, the bottom line of this sugya—and the reason why we read such a heavy, somber psalm as Psalm 22—is that, somewhere in a corner of our Purimdik consciousness, this reality places a certain limitation on our joy. And this is also why, in terms of its symbolism, the Purim Feast cannot be held on Shabbat: for while Shabbat represents the unlimited, perfected world, “a taste of the World to Come,” Purim is a festival of pure hullin, of the mundane, unredeemed world of actuality. Purim thus exists entirely within the realm of real, unredeemed history, in which Jews have to survive by, to put it bluntly, clandestinely manipulating events to their own benefit—and praying for Divine help.


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