Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin is President and Professor of Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va'ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which writes responsa and gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel. He is the founder and Director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at The Schechter Institute whose goal is to publish a library of halakhic literature for the Conservative and Masorti Movements. He is also the Director of the Center for Women in Jewish Law at the Schechter Institute whose goal is to find halakhic solutions for agunot or "chained women" who are unable to obtain a get from their husbands.
In part two of this exchange about his new book- The Status of Women in Jewish Law:Responsa- we talk with Rabbi Golinkin about the sources he relies on to reach Halakhik decisions.
(Part one of the exchange can be found here)
Dear Rabbi Golinkin,
Thank you for your answer, on which I'm going to ask my next question. Like in the case of Teffilin, we find throughout your book this 'thorough investigation' uncovering opinions once held and later abandoned to be replaced by stricter rules. In the chapter about Mehitzahs (barriers between men's and women's sections) in synagogues you go back to look at evidence that men and women mingled at the temple in Jerusalem and state that "there is no literary source or archeological proof for the existence of a women's gallery in the ancient synagogue". Yet, at some point Mehitzahs were added to the synagogue – at some point the rules changed. You suggest that changing them back to where they were at previous times is recommended, as "this custom hurts the feelings of many women and keeps them away from the synagogue".
My question is this: When you go searching for evidence from the past on the basis of which you prescribe a change to a certain custom, are you not engaging in a 'pick and choose' mechanism - namely, are you not only using more ancient sources when they serve the goal of less strictness, yet stick to later rulings on other contentious matters?
I am eagerly awaiting your response.
You ask whether I am engaged "in a pick and choose mechanism, only using more ancient sources when they serve the goal of less strictness"? The answer is: not at all. As I explained in the book we are discussing (The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa, Jerusalem, 2012, pp. 112-115), my approach follows that of the Geonim (ca. 500-1000 c.e.), Maimonides, the Rosh (1250-1327), Rabbi Shlomo Luria (16th century), the Vilna Gaon (18th century), as well as important halakhic authorities in the 20th century -- from very different backgrounds -- such as Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook, Louis Ginzberg, Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi. They established the principle that the Babylonian Talmud is the highest authority in Jewish law.
The Rosh said that "one can contradict the words [of the Geonim], because all of the things that are not explicitly in the Talmud arranged by Rav Ashi and Ravina, a person can contradict or build up, even to contradict the words of the Geonim" (the Rosh to Sanhedrin, Chapter 4, parag. 6).
Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi (1924-1998), longtime Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, wrote:
"and if your intent is to hint to me that that great rabbi [an oblique reference to Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef] already ruled and [therefore] one cannot change [what he said]… I will reply to you that that is the power of the halakhah. And there was never a ruling of any great rabbi in Israel after the sealing of the Talmud which was binding, and permission is given to any person to disagree with correct and honest proofs, even with his own teachers… and even Maimonides and Maran [Rabbi Yosef Karo] z"l, were disagreed with both by contemporaries and those who came after them, and in many matters we do not do like them…" (Aseh Lekhah Rav, Vol. 2, pp. 146-147).
This is my approach in the fifteen responsa in this volume, as well as in hundreds of other responsa which I have written. For example, in this volume I prove that according to the Talmud and almost all of the Rishonim, it is perfectly permissible for women to wear tefillin; the "prohibition" was invented by Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg in the 13th century (Chapter 1). Similarly, there is no blanket Talmudic prohibition against women singing; that "prohibition" was invented by Rabbi Moshe Sofer in the early 19th century (Chapter 2). Women are required to recite the Amidah three times a day exactly like men and may be counted in a minyan – on the basis of a very careful reading of the Talmud itself (Chapter 3). Women may read the Megillah in public exactly like men because the Talmud clearly states that they have the same obligation as men (Chapter 7). Finally, women may serve as Mohalot based on the Talmud itself (Chapter 9).
Thus, my method is not about picking and choosing; it is about examining all of the major halakhic sources for a law or custom and giving precedence to the Talmud and the Rishonim (early authorities).