Framing Gender and Tefillin: Rabbi Aryeh Klapper Responds to Raphael Magarik's Critique
In the context of a recent flurry of articles about gender and tefillin, Raphael Magarik recently published here in Jewschool a critique of Rabbi Aryeh Klapper’s critique of a legal analysis by Rabbi Ethan Tucker. Here is Rabbi Klapper’s response. –aryehbernstein
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, Instructor of Rabbinics and Medical Ethics at Gann Academy, and a member of the Boston Beit Din. You can find out more about his work here.
Several mutual friends have forwarded your response to me, and I really appreciate that you read and cared about what I wrote, and your desire to defend your teacher’s position. My instinct was to let my article speak for itself, but they have persuaded me that at least a brief response is appropriate.
So with maximal brevity, and apology if that generates apparent curtness:
1) I suggested that there is room for masculine and feminine ritual, and as an example cited the liturgical conception that wrapping tefillin around the fingers symbolizes G-d placing a ring on the finger of His betrothed Israel. You moved from there to the claim that I must believe that women “cannot partake in the experience of being betrothed . . . a woman cannot be the servant of G-d, because she is already the servant of men.”
However, footnote 4 of my article says:
“Women can play that religious role as well or better than men; my point is that it would not be the same experience for women as men, and that the power of the tefillin-liturgy for men may stem precisely from its requirement that they experience a female role in the context of a ritual only men are obligated to perform.”
2) You say – “the suggestion, as I take it, is that the male role is dominant, the female submissive”.
Why do you take it that way? I do not see these as the only way to conceptualize male and female differences. Do you? If yes, of course you will see all gender differences as embodiments of evil patriarchal dominance.
This is what I meant by writing, “Failure to imagine the hava amina – to treat one’s own position as unproblematically peshitta (so obvious that it goes without saying) – results in a vicious cycle: texts are read exclusively through the lens of ideology, and then cited as evidence for that same ideology.”
3) Dr. Alexander’s argument, if I understand your summary, was long anticipated by among others Rabbi Saul Berman, who noted that the exemption from mitzvot aseh shehazman garman is not a predictive principle. I agree wholeheartedly that the Talmud does not construct R. Meir’s position that women are obligated out of concern for gender issues. That is exactly the point – the Talmud is unconcerned about constructing a position that women are obligated in tefillin because it does not see the issue of whether women are obligated in tefillin as important to the construction of gender.
We do part ways as to whether it is legitimate in any discipline to claim that the authors of a text could not imagine something that they state explicitly and repeatedly. This claim seems to me obviously the product of a priori conviction, so I say again:
“Failure to imagine the hava amina – to treat one’s own position as unproblematically peshitta (so obvious that it goes without saying) – results in a vicious cycle: texts are read exclusively through the lens of ideology, and then cited as evidence for that same ideology.”
But perhaps here my imagination is lacking as well.
I do wish to note for the record that I appreciate and practice academic Talmud, but that I respond allergically to the claim that a particular academic Talmudist established beyond question the true meaning of a text, or that there is only one historical conception of Talmud that qualifies as academic. But that is a tangent.
4) I argued that to believe that chiyuv [obligation] is a metaphysical state of being means that it is not a social convention. I think you understood this as a claim that it cannot be socially alterable or legally constructed. But that was not my intention. Rather, I argued that the law (which may be different in different times, and whose specific form is generally humanly constructed) creates a metaphysical state of being – if one is chayav according to the halakhah as it stands, then one is chayav, and if not, not. Changing the law to make women chayav makes them chayav, and therefore makes them sinners if they do not change their practice accordingly.
5) What remains is the question of whether there is a way of constructing gender differences noninvidiously. This question has nothing to do with tefillin specifically – indeed, our discussion has really been about the qiddushin ceremony. But the heterosexual marriage metaphor for the relationships among G-d and Israel, and Israel and Torah, and Israel and Shabbat, etc., as you note, pervades Tanakh and rabbinic literature, so that to claim that it is morally untenable is to reject large and central chunks of the tradition outright while simply dismissing many of the deepest religious experiences of committed Jewish women both past and present as the products of false consciousness.
I prefer not to do so, and I also prefer not to tell women what their “proper” experience of religion should be. So here, I think, it is appropriate for me to abandon the stage and encourage learned women to come forward and teach.
For those interested, a model of the discourse I think is needed can be found by reading my article on Tzeniut, included in the 2012 CMTL Reader and found here, and then Miriam Gedwiser’s beautiful, powerful, and challenging response, included in the 2013 CMTL Reader. The really dedicated can go on to this article.