Rabbi Hershel Shachter’s Rav Revisionism

Marc B. Shapiro blogs:

It is common to hear among YU figures the expression “hakhmei ha-mesorah,” referring to authoritative rabbinic spokesmen. Readers can correct me if I am mistaken, but I don’t think that this expression, with the meaning currently applied to it, is part of the traditional rabbinic vocabulary. I also don’t recall ever seeing it in haredi writing. (When the words appear in rabbinic literature they refer to Masoretes.) The first mention of it that I know of appears in R. Soloveitchik’s famous attack on R. Emanuel Rackman regarding nullification of marriage. Needless to say, the expression makes an appearance in R. Schachter’s new book, Divrei ha-Rav. See e.g., p. 233.

This latter reference is part of an article that R. Schachter earlier published in Beit Yitzhak 38 (2006). The reprint in Divrei ha-Rav has two changes from the original. On p. 237 a sentence is added, according to which the Rav stated that in Europe he never heard the expression “Daas Torah.” The second change is that one entire paragraph, on pages 5-6, has been removed.

From this paragraph we see that the Rav’s strong personal opposition to prayer in a synagogue without a mechitzah was not shared by all other rabbis, and that the Rav was willing to show some flexibility in this matter. The case discussed here was not like the other times that the Rav gave permission for a rabbi to take a position at a synagogue without a mechitzah. In those cases the heter was for a rabbinic appointment designed to be for a few years, and during that time the rabbi was supposed to try to convince the synagogue to install a mechitzah. The issue discussed in the Beit Yitzhak article was simply a High Holiday position at a non-mechitzah synagogue in order to make some money.

This paragraph provides important testimony that can balance some of the Rav’s more strident statements in this matter. If anyone can get a straight answer from R. Schachter as to why the paragraph has been removed, please share it with us. I would hate to think that we have here an example of revisionism—in other words, R. Schachter decided to delete the paragraph because he concluded that it is best that people not know this information, or he was responding to others who criticized him for including the paragraph.

With regard to the larger issue of how R. Schachter presents the Rav, Lawrence Kaplan has already noted that there are revisionist aspects of R. Schachter’s presentation of the Rav’s legacy. See his “Revisionism and the Rav,” Judaism, summer 1999, available here.

One aspect of this revisionism that Kaplan does not mention is that while Nefesh ha-Rav has an entire chapter on the State of Israel, there is no mention of the Rav’s view—which was expressed on a number of occasions, as well as publicly before hundreds of people—that there is no halakhic prohibition for Israel to return land to the Arabs.

It certainly says something about the transformation of American Orthodoxy in the last generation that R. Schachter became the one to carry on the Rav’s legacy. Unlike the Rav, R. Schachter is a talmudist and posek, and has no involvement with the broader philosophical and cultural issues of Western Civilization. Yet despite this, he is, by far, the most important and influential rabbi in Modern and Centrist Orthodoxy. When it comes to matters of halakhah, I wonder if there is anyone in the American haredi world who can compare to his wide-ranging knowledge. I have heard him in person and on tape many times, and I continue to be amazed at how he can speak for long periods, without notes, on literally any topic of halakhah. I have never seen anything like it. It is all at his fingertips, and he presents it in a fashion that keeps the audience’s attention. As for the liberal Orthodox, who oppose R. Schachter because of his strong stand against feminist innovations, even they must applaud his leading role in dealing with husbands who refuse to give their wives gittin. This has earned him the opprobrium of the Orthodox lunatic fringe, and one member of this group, Abraham Samuel Judah Gestetner, who styles himself a dayan, has even placed R. Schachter in herem (together with two well-known California rabbis). See here.

Gestetner is also the author of the ridiculous book Megilat Plaster, which attempts to show that R. Jacob Emden’s Megilat Sefer is a forgery perpetrated by the evil maskilim.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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