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Monday, July 15, 2019

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Thank you for publishing (March 14, 2019) “A New Transcription: Surrendering to the Almighty,” by my rebbe, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l. I had the privilege of studying in the Rav’s shiur from 1969 to 1973.

This article is a powerful essay based on a speech delivered to the rabbinic alumni of Yeshiva University in 1975. But because you did not provide the context and purpose of that speech, the general reader may have been confused by the impassioned uncompromising tone of the piece.

This talk was delivered by the Rav as a response to proposals by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman to resolve the problems faced by women whose husbands refused to grant them a Jewish divorce. Rabbi Rackman was also in line at that time as a top candidate to become president of Yeshiva University.

Rav Soloveitchik’s strident remarks in the piece that you published characterized (without spelling this out) that the innovations that Rabbi Rackman wanted to make in divorce law were (1) heretical and (2) liable to “destroy yahadus (Judaism)” and (3) “methods of self-destruction and suicide.” Harsh words indeed.

And to justify his positions against the Rackman modifications, the Rav made several declarations about the nature of women that he called “permanent ontological principles rooted in the very depth of the human personality,” in particular that “the chazaka of ‘better to dwell with two bodies than to dwell as a widow’” (i.e., the presumption of the Talmud that a woman is better off married than single) is a “metaphysical curse, rooted in the feminine personality.”

Now, this was a speech made approximately 44 years ago, and some forceful statements in it like the preceding might sound outrageous and extreme to us today—and perhaps outright wrong. But even if we were to grant that the Rav was perspicacious and sagacious in his insights into human nature, the notion that such essential nature should be a bar to a woman from the right to dissolve an abusive or otherwise non-functioning marriage made no logical deductive sense at all. It was a polemical move in a diatribe that was meant to quash dissent and stifle change.

The Rav’s speech succeeded to suppress Rabbi Rackman’s proposals at the time and to marginalize him at YU, thus ending his chances to ascend to the presidency of Yeshiva University. Rackman went on to become president and chancellor at Bar Ilan University in Israel and to initiate independent innovations in the area of Jewish divorce without the approval of Rav Soloveitchik or other rabbis at Yeshiva University.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy
Teaneck