Halakhic Discussions

“She Should Carry Out All Her Deeds According to His Directives:” A Halakhah in a Changed Social Reality

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Yosef Bronstein


Thus the Sages commanded: A man should honor his wife more than himself and love her as himself… Thus the Sages commanded: A woman should honor her husband too much, and have awe of him, do all of her actions according to his word. He should seem to her like a minister or king, walking in the desires of his heart, and distancing herself from what he hates. This is how holy and pure Jews behave in their marriages. These paths should be their pleasant and praiseworthy lifestyle. (Rambam, Hilkhot Ishut 5:19-20)

In his description of the ideal Jewish marriage, Rambam differentiates the interpersonal relationship between the husband and wife from the proper hierarchy that is to be put in place. While on the interpersonal level marriage is defined by love and mutual respect, the decision-making authority remains with the husband. The wife is enjoined to act in accordance with her spouse’s will, even in instances where she disagrees. Practically, this would mean that if a couple disagrees on issues ranging from where to live, choosing a school for their children, to simply whether or not to invite guests to a Shabbat meal, the final word would be the husband’s.[1] Obviously, this description does not accord with the manner in which Western society conceives of an ideal marriage.

As is often the case, Orthodox rabbis in modern times have grappled with this problem. Does Rambam really mean what he seems to imply? If so, are his words binding for all generations? Out of this conundrum, at least three distinct interpretive approaches emerge. Part I of this essay will outline these interpretations. Part II will then use this case study to analyze a broader conceptual issue. Though these interpretations originate in an attempt to resolve a single point of conflict between one line of Rambam and a social reality, important methodological and theological assumptions can be identified in each approach. In particular, I will analyze a central debate between R. Soloveitchik and R. Kook regarding how to navigate conflicts between the words of Hazal and a changed social reality.


Part I: Three Approaches

Rav Avraham Erlanger 

The simplest approach to unraveling the tension between the Rambam and contemporary mores is to undermine the validity of one of these two poles. In this vein, R. Avraham Erlanger, the former Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Kol Torah and the author of the popular series Birkat Avraham, forcefully rejects Western society’s conception of the authority-dynamic within a marriage and instead advocates adhering fully to the words of the Rambam. He writes the following:


In Tanna de-Vei Eliyahu [it states] “a proper woman is one who performs the will of her husband,” and it is cited in Rema in Shulhan Arukh (Even ha-Ezer 10:9). It appears that, since this is the way Hazal defined a proper woman, and without this quality she is not acting properly, it is fitting to educate girls from their young age for this [role], against the spirit of the time that women are partners with equal rights. Rather, they should act in accordance with the wisdom of Torah in all matters, i.e. that they are secondary (tefeilot) to men. Modesty regarding clothing is insufficient; [women] also need modesty of the mouth and heart, recognizing that in the future they will act based on their husband (see Rambam, Hilkhot Ishut 15:20), even regarding cases where her father’s behavior is different than the husband’s.[2]


Several pages later he concludes:


The contemporary custom where the wife is an equal partner in the leadership of the house is the opposite of the Torah’s opinion. Even regarding “matters of the house” a woman is obligated to perform her husband’s will. Although in regard to these matters Hazal counselled that he should consult with his wife, at the end of the day she is obligated to act in accordance with his will (as is explained in Rambam at the end of chapter 15 of Hilkhot Ishut), and he is the leader and the decision maker in all matters.[3]


It is important to note that R. Erlanger does not allow the husband to act like a tyrant. Rather, he spends pages exhorting the husband to take his wife’s feelings into account in all decisions. However, ultimately it is the husband alone who holds the authority to guide the family. In essence, this approach simply chooses Rambam over Western sensibilities.


R. Aharon Lichtenstein

A second approach disentangles the tension by neutralizing the import of Rambam and relegating this halakhah to the realm of rabbinic advice which is not normative. While most of Rambam’s Code is clearly intended to be binding law, the above passage is introduced with the relatively rare phrase “the sages commanded.” R. Mordechai Willig, among others, surveyed Rambam’s usage of this expression and concluded that it refers to rabbinic advice as opposed to “a formal issur.”[4] Therefore, while Hazal, the Rambam felt, counselled a wife to ultimately submit to his opinion, this is not an obligatory model for Jewish marriage. As much as the original model was based on the counsel of the sages and not strict halakhah, a contemporary Torah sage can offer differing advice based on the changed societal circumstances.[5]


R. Aharon Lichtenstein presented a similar line of interpretation, though one broader in its scope.[6] He notes that there is little material in the Gemara regarding the proper relationship between husband and wife, and much of what does exist is internally contradictory. Even regarding the stories and statements that are recorded, R. Lichtenstein writes that traditional Jewish interpretation has not deemed them to be fully normative:


There exist, admittedly, some directives regarding some of these concerns. For the most part, however, they have been relegated to the realms of devar ha-reshut, an area not axiologically neutral but neither fully normative, with regard to which personal preference, with a possible eye upon meaningful variables, is characteristic. In a word, they are subject to the discussion, predilection, and decision of individual couples … My point is simply that there is room for flexibility and mutual choice. Whether the character of a marriage is dictated by convention, contemporary mores, or conscious limning is another matter.


R. Lichtenstein, then, illustrates how this general stance would affect one’s interpretation and application of some directives that are provided in Hazal:


Thus, the familiar description of an isha keshera as a wife who performs the will of her husband (retson ba’alah), in no way precludes a husband’s declaring that his ratson is precisely a desire for understanding and consensus. Or again, the Gemara’s suggested division between general and domestic, or between celestial and mundane, matters, as the domains of the husband and the wife respectively, does not obviate a desire to cross those lines where the proper qualifications exist.


According to R. Lichtenstein, rabbinic statements that designate the husband as sole decisionmaker were never intended to create a single ideal of marriage. Rather, even within the traditional system of Hazal and Rambam, flexibility exists to embrace alternative models.


R. Yehoshua Shapira

A third approach contends that the Torah allows for—and even anticipates—major developments in the husband-wife relationship over the course of history. Rambam, in the twelfth century, wrote that the husband should have the final word when disagreements arise. Situated as we are in a different stage of history, this position maintains, we need to find our marital guidance embedded in other Torah statements. For example, R. Yehoshua Shapira, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ha-Hesder Ramat Gan, was asked the following question:


“A proper woman performs the will of her husband.” [Does this mean that] a woman needs to be completely nullified without desires?


He responded as follows:


The Torah’s statement “and he will rule over her” is a curse and not a blessing. Throughout all of history this curse lay strongly on humanity and diminished the female personality. In a non-negligible way it caused the male to act like a ruler, causing, at times, the development of bad character traits. Towards the redemption we merit the removal of the curses in Genesis. [The curse] “[b]y the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread” is continuously dissolving.[7] Also, a large percentage of the dangers of childbirth and the pain of “in pain you will bear children,” is being solved with the help of medicine. So too regarding the verse “and he will rule over you.” We correctly feel that the change is taking place in our midst, but nowadays it is accompanied by a sense of anarchy as is the way of any fruit that the hard shell precedes the growth and only afterwards comes the sweet fruit about which the prophet said that in the future “female will encircle male.”[8]


R. Shapira sees the changes in Western society’s conception of the ideal power dynamic between husband and wife as the slow dissolution of a divine curse. Rambam records that a wife should submit to her husband’s will in part because of Eve’s punishment. This was reflected in the structure of marriages throughout history. Much, though, has changed. Nowadays, as the ultimate redemption draws near, the power of the curse is waning and the “pre-curse” reality of the ideal, separate-but-equal relationship is set to emerge. In such a reality, clinging to older sources as our sole navigational tools would be a rejection of redemption’s social manifestations.


R. Shapira concludes his brief response with the verse “female will encircle male,” taken from Jeremiah 31:21. In the context of Jeremiah’s prophecy, the female refers to the Jewish people who will return to the Land of Israel and seek out God, the male. However, an ancient kabbalistic tradition that became particularly important in Chabad Hasidut understands the female to represent the lowest sefirah of malkhut, which has feminine characteristics. In the end of times this sefirah will rise in prominence and become even higher than the male sefirot.[9]


For centuries, this tradition remained an esoteric prediction regarding the eschatological hierarchy of the spiritual worlds. However, since the middle of the twentieth century several messianically oriented Jewish thinkers, most prominently the Lubavitcher Rebbe, have connected the rise of the feminine sefirah with the feminist movement and the rise of the stature of women in society.[10] According to R. Yehoshua Shapira, these developments are part of the ultimate correction of Hashem’s curse to Eve “and he will rule over you.”


Part II: Conceptual Framework

While the sources outlined above are narrow in their scope, they intertwine with broader methodological and ideological issues. The first approach is fairly simple in its methodology and execution – we must understand our corpus of Torah sources and live by what it tells us even if this entails a wholesale rejection of contemporary social norms. The second and third approaches, though, both allow for deviation from the words of Rambam, but for very different reasons. R. Willig and R. Lichtenstein in principle agree with R. Erlanger that the directives and attitudes of Hazal as recorded by Rambam should always be binding. However, in this particular instance, Hazal never set this as law and we are therefore free to diverge from the models that they provide.

On the other hand, R. Shapira works within a system that allows for historical development in certain areas of the Torah’s value system. While at first glance this seems to be an interpretive move representative of Judaism’s more liberal denominations, it is important to note that this development is not attributed to the pressures of sociological changes that occur around us. Rather, these sociological changes themselves are understood as manifestations of the pre-messianic era in which we find ourselves. Once it is determined that we are in the process of redemption, kabbalistic statements and ancient prophecies require us to recalibrate certain aspects of our avodat Hashem.


This difference between R. Willig/R. Lichtenstein and R. Shapira is indicative of a broader debate between the philosophies of R. Soloveitchik and Rav Kook. R. Lichtenstein was a student of R. Soloveitchik who described the halakhic system—including both practical injunctions and attitudes/values—as being a constant throughout history. Rav Soloveitchik often compared Torah to scientific disciplines, leading to the assertion that from the time of Sinai to our day, the halakhic system has changed no more than the rules governing any other scientific discipline.[11] While R. Soloveitchik might have appeared to some as being strikingly innovative, in his own self-evaluation and in the eyes of his students he was merely applying the same Rambam to a different playing field, never deviating from the masorah that he had received from his father and grandfather.[12] Within such a framework, the only way to diverge from the words of Rambam is to argue that they were never meant to express a normative halakhic practice or value.


R. Shapira, however, is part of the Religious-Zionist world which looks to Rav Kook as its ideological founder. The latter’s messianic philosophy was one that saw shifts in emphasis regarding certain values of Judaism over the course of history, and forecasted a recalibration of many aspects of our avodat Hashem in anticipation of the ultimate redemption.[13] 

To illustrate this contrast, it is instructive to review a passage from Rav Kook describing a necessary shift during the pre-messianic era:


I see with my eyes the light of Elijah’s life rising, his power for God being revealed, the holiness in nature breaking forth, uniting with holiness that is above coarse nature. We fought nature and emerged victorious. Material nature crippled us, struck us in our thigh, but the sun shone to cure us of our limping. Judaism of the past, from Egypt until now, is a long battle against the ugly side of nature, be it human nature in general, or the nature of the nation and of every individual. We fought nature in order to subdue it. It succumbs before us; the worlds are increasingly refined. At the essential depth of nature a great demand swells for holiness and purity, for delicacy of the soul and refinement of life. Elijah comes to herald peace, and in the inner soul of the nation a life stream of nature breaks forth and approaches holiness. … Nature is conquered before us and its demands are increasingly consonant with our noble demands from the source of holiness. The youthful spirit that demands its land, its language, its freedom and honor, its literature and strength, wealth, and feelings, is flooded with a flow of nature, which within is full of holy fire.[14]


Rav Kook contrasts “Judaism of the past” with the Judaism that must exist with the rising light of Eliyahu which embraces the newfound supernal holiness of nature. Among other things, this “demands” a return to the land and the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language.


How would a Soloveitchikian react to such a passage? When R. Soloveitchik spoke of the constancy of halakhah throughout the ages he only rejected (explicitly) the “psychologization, historicization, or rationalization” of Jewish law. To him, “this is something foreign, something extraneous.”[15] However, one would imagine that R. Soloveitchik would still be uncomfortable with Rav Kook’s application of the kabbalistic system to allow halakhah to deviate from the values of earlier generations, albeit, perhaps, with less ferociousness than his attack on those whose desire to deviate stems from the psychologization of halakhah.[16]


The different rationales provided by R. Lichtenstein and R. Shapira are reflective of their schools of thought. Similar differences relating to this ideological and methodological dispute can be identified throughout the writings of R. Soloveitchik, Rav Kook, and their students. Even in instances where R. Soloveitchik and Rav Kook agree, they will often offer differing rationales along the lines of the above analysis. This broader methodological difference helps explain why adherents of Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rav Kook end up with different methods in solving these sorts of problems, both in the context of this Rambam and more generally.

[1] It is important to note that depending on the matter under discussion, the husband might have an obligation to consult with his wife. See R. Yosef Epstein, Mitzvot ha-Bayit (New York: Torat Ha-Adam, 1966), 311.

[2] R. Avraham Erlanger, Birkat Avraham: Ma’amarim ve-Hadrakhot, 326.

[3] Ibid., 338.

[4] Recording on YUTorah, R. Mordechai Willig (4:45 f.). He develops this idea at greater length in an earlier shiur in the same series (17:40 f.). There, he cites Prof. Yehudah Levi who reached the same conclusion. See Professor Yehudah Levi, “Da’at ha-Rambam al Talmud Torah le-Nashim,” ha-Ma’ayan 34 (1994): 11-14. See also Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, Yad Peshutah to Rambam Hilkhot Ishut, 15:16. R. Willig also argues that this is the intent of the Hafetz Hayim (Likkutei Halakhot, Sotah 21b) in his famous note advocating teaching girls Tanakh and Masekhet Avot.

[5] In his shiur regarding Torah study for women, R. Willig argued that the Hafetz Hayim in his capacity as a leading Torah sage was able to modify what the rabbinic counsel should be for his generation.

[6] R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Of Marriage: Relationships and Relations,” in Gender and Relationships in Marriage and Out, ed. Rivkah Teitz Blau (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 2007), 2-5.

[7] See Rav Kook, Orot ha-Tehiyah, ch. 16, where he mentions that the “aspect of work that is a curse” is dissipating. See there for the ramifications of this change.

[8] R. Yehoshua Shapira, Karov Elekha, vol. 94, Parashat Bereishit, 2015. Also available here. See also, a transcription of a lecture by R. Yehoshua Shapira.

[9] See the writings of the Alter Rebbe of Chabad in Torah Ohr, 44d and Likkutei Torah, Shir Ha-Shirim, 15c.

[10] See Eldad Weill, “Tehilatah shel Tekufat ha-Nashim: Nashim ve-Nashiyut be-Mishnato shel ha-Rebbi mi-Lubavitch,” Akdamot 22 (2009): 61-85 (available here); and Elliot Wolfson, Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 200-23. This argument is also the main thesis of Devorah Heshelis, The Moon’s Lost Light (Southfield, Michigan: Targum Press, 2006).

[11] R. Soloveitchik uses scientific study as a conceptual model for Torah study throughout his writings. See, for example, Halakhic Man chapter 6; Mah Dodekh mi-Dod chapter 3; Reflections of the Rav, 147. For an analysis of Rav Soloveitchik’s approach to this matter and its ramifications see Lawrence Kaplan, “Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Philosophy of Halakha,” The Jewish Law Annual 7 (1987): 146-154, 175-192; Chaim Saiman, “Legal Theology,” Journal of Law and Religion 21 (2006): 76-90.

[12] See R. Hershel Schachter, Nefesh Ha-Rav (Jerusalaem: Reshit Yerushalayim, 1994), 12-58; and R. Dr. Yitzhak Twersky, “The Rov,” Tradition 30 (Summer 1996): 24-26, and 32-36. One of the only exceptions was R. Soloveitchik’s embrace of Religious-Zionism, which he justified by arguing that in the wake of the Holocaust, “Divine Providence ruled like [Mizrachi]” (The Rav Speaks: Five Addresses on Israel, History and the Jewish People [Toras HoRav Foundation, 2002], 36).

[13]  In Rav Kook’s thought, this recalibration is connected with his general theory of the ascent of the world and the effect that this has on the avodat Hashem of each generation. For sources regarding the general notion of the ascent of the world and how it intersects with the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel see Yaron Edori’an, “Binu Shenot Dor ve-Dor: Al ha-Yahas she-Bein ha-Dorot be-Mishnat ha-Rav Kook,” Asif 3 (2016), 684-700. However, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was an advocate of similar recalibrations based on messianic aspirations but definitely did not have a parallel notion of the general ascent of the world. It is important to note that Rav Kook’s personal record as a traditionalist on women’s issues is unequivocal. See, Hanan Kehat, “Nashim- Mahutan,Yi’udan, ve-Derekh Hinnukhan be-Mishnat ha-Rav Kook,” Akdamot 22 (2009): 39-60. However, my argument is that Rav Kook’s general theoretical approach provides the framework for comments such as Rav Shapira’s.

[14] See Rav Kook’s Orot ha-Tehiyah, ch. 30. Translation is from Bezalel Naor, Orot (Spring Valley, NY: Orot Inc., 2004), 187.

[15] From a transcription of Rav Soloveitchik’s famous 1975 speech to RIETS’s Rabbinic alumni.

[16] In his major work, Halakhic Man, R. Soloveitchik writes that “[Halakhic Man] does not search out transcendental, ecstatic paroxysms, frenzied experiences that whisper intimations of another world into his ear. He does not require any miracles or wonders in order to understand the Torah. He approaches the world of Halakha with his mind and intellect, just as cognitive man approaches the natural realm.” It would seem, therefore, that R. Soloveitchik would be against the intersection of Kabbalah into the halakhic system. See also, R. Mayer Twersky’s review of The Moon’s Lost Light.


Yosef Bronstein received rabbinic ordination and a PhD in Talmudic Studies from Yeshiva University. He teaches Halakhah and Jewish philosophy at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim (MMY) and online for Yeshiva University’s Isaac Breuer College. His books, Engaging the Essence: The Philosophy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Reshimot Shiurim shel Maran ha-Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik al Masekhet Kiddushin are forthcoming.