Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Empty Empathy

There is a story famously told about Rav J.B. Soloveitchik, zt"l, being approached by a woman who wanted to wear tzitzis. As the story goes, he advised her to start by wearing a simply four cornered cloth under her clothes.  Once she got used to that, he reasoned with her, she could move up to a genuine tallis koton.  She followed his advice and when he spoke with her a few weeks later she was gushing.  The garment had given her such a feeling of spirituality she felt ready to put tzitzis on it.  The Rav retorted that the spirituality was a sham.  The garment she was wearing had no halachic significance.  It lacked tzitzis so it was just a piece of cloth.  He told her to stop pretending and worry about those mitzvos she did have to keep.
I've always had a problem with that story because the anonymous woman in it comes across as completely stupid.  She didn't ask what the point of a four cornered garment without tzitzis would accomplish?  She didn't figure out that she hadn't actually done anything by wearing it?
That story came to mind when reading Rav Avi Shafran's latest piece of condescension on Cross-Currents.  In it he describes a guest at his Shabbos table, there no doubt to experience the "authentic" Jewish Friday night experience.  The guest is clearly bothered by the planned activity later in the evening, a tisch where the men will be sitting at the table eating while the women will be relegated to the gallery to watch the spectable.  No mention is made if there will be snacks for the watching women or if they will be expected to nourish themselves from the spiritual vibes wafting up from below.
It's Shafran's answer to her contention that she is going to be a spectator at the religious event when she'd rather be participating that makes one gag. 
For some reason, I resisted the reflexive urge to offer my shiur. I paused for a moment – always a good thing to do – and responded instead from the heart. “You know, I totally understand how you feel,” I said. “That’s the way things are done, and the way they need to be done. But I can really relate to your feeling as you do.”

Had the answer been "I'm sorry you feel that way but that's how the game is played around here" or something that effect, I'd have rolled my eyes and moved on.  But the answer is annoying on a few levels and I don't just want to let it pass.
Let's start with the first obvious point: he has a shiur for those who don't get why women are relegated in Augdah-style Judaism to spectator status whenever it comes to Jewish practice outside the house.  Never mind that most of the modern day separation of men and women in public by the Agudah and those to the right of it is an innovation only a few centuries old.  Rav Shafran actually has a shiur that no doubt it meant to disabuse the uninitiated of the notion that Judaism was ever any different. 
Add to that his statement that he understands how she feels.  A follower of Rav Shafran's writings knows what that statement means: he doesn't know how she feels.  He knows how he thinks she should feel and really does believe she feels that way but given his answer (I'll get to that next) he doesn't actually seem to have a clue.
Finally there is his explanation - that's the way things are done.  Well yes, in some quarters it is.  That's the way they need to be done?  No, that's not true.  Again, the demotion of women from equal partners in Jewish life to unclean objects that need to be photoshopped out of pictures and are only really around in Orthodox life because the men haven't figured out parthenogenesis yet is not that old an innovation in Jewish life.  Shafran and his ilk may like to pretend that the way they practice Judaism now is the way it's always been, the easier to not have to explain why their Jewish behaviour is quite different from even only a few centuries ago when nothing is every supposed to change.  Again, this is untrue and needs to be challenged.
Finally there's the answer the young lady ostensibly gives
:“Nobody has ever said that to me before,” she finally said. “Being validated in my feelings means more than you can imagine to me.”

Really?  That's it?  Rav Shafran looks at her, says something dogmatic with absolutely no evidence to support it and she just rolls over because he said he knows how she feels?  Did she spend the night sitting and watching the tisch below thinking "Well maybe I'm being excluded from participation in a spiritually fulfilling activity but hey, the guy who gave me dinner understood me so it's okay!"?  Kiruv is that easy?  Will we next here about him meeting with a Maharat from YCT and telling us that after telling her he knows how important Torah is to her that she shaved her head and is now a Satmar rebbitzen?
What's really worse here?  The cheap line Rav Shafran used or the simplistic way he portrayed his guest?

1 comment:

RAM said...

What we need is an approach faithful to our Mesorah that does not pass off innovations to the left or the right as having some absolute pedigree and therefore needing no convincing rationale. Where communities and recognized spiritual leaders have differed from one another in the past, we should recognize that. Treat us all like mature Jewish adults capable of making distinctions, resentful of spoon-feeding.