Between February and March 2022, three separate rabbinic letters were penned against R. Eliezer Melamed and his work Peninei Halakha. The first was signed by several rabbis and critiqued R. Melamed on four issues:
1) R. Melamed’s nuanced view on dialogue with Reform leaders;
2) his willingness to support a non-Orthodox prayer space at Robinson’s arch near the Western Wall;
3) certain leniencies that he advanced regarding Jewish family law; and
4) the publication of a volume of Peninei Halakha about the laws of marital intimacy.
The signatories of this letter called for their followers to cease viewing Peninei Halakha as a legitimate code of Jewish law. Around the same time a similar letter was written with additional rabbinic signatures. Beyond repeating the accusations made in the previous document, the letter cited two additional “problematic” positions of R. Melamed. The first relates to R. Melamed’s permissive ruling regarding accepting donations from Evangelical Christians. The second accuses R. Melamed of advocating a non-halakhic view regarding conversion standards.
Both letters explicitly mention R. Melamed and his work Peninei Halakha by name. A third letter released around the same time speaks more generally about the problems of halakhic works written by rabbis who are not sufficiently trained in the nuances of practical Halakhah. The signatories of this last letter accuse certain unnamed rabbis of offering halakhic opinions on their own without consulting with the great Torah scholars of the generation.
While some signatories of the third letter claimed that they never had any intention to single out R. Melamed, the general tenor of the letters points to a trend in some rabbinic circles to see R. Melamed and his codification project as threatening the basic assumptions of traditional Halakhah. In fact, one of the signatories of the last letter, R. Yaakov Ariel, explicitly states that when dealing with “contemporary issues” (“הנושאים החדשים”), specifically the “most recent volumes of Peninei Halakha,” R. Melamed’s writings are not written with proper halakhic methodology. In addition, another letter written in May and signed by many of the same rabbis who signed the previous letters, specifically single out R. Melamed’s view on conversion standards, contending that they possess zero halakhic standing.
What is particularly interesting about the above-mentioned letters, however, is not only their message but also their medium. While some critics offer learned critiques of R. Melamed’s rulings and methodology surrounding the laws of niddah, the letters cited above lack any scholarly back and forth. Instead, they follow the form of the traditional Haredi pashkevil used to access a broad audience, not just the trained scholars who would read a complex halakhic refutation. The pashkevil is a form of halakhic shaming, placing the scholar in question beyond the pale without giving him a forum to defend himself.
What is it about R. Melamed that causes these rabbis to publish pashkevilim against him? Is it simply a dispute about halakhic interpretation, or are there other undercurrents that motivate the hostility to his views?
Before analyzing the substance of these polemical letters, it is important to note the larger context in which these pashkevilim were written. Prior to the publication of these letters, R. Melamed and his Peninei Halakha project were perceived to be part of the Religious Zionist consensus. By 2016, it had sold more than five hundred thousand copies worldwide and had been translated into multiple languages. The rabbinic haskamot at the beginning of the books are from Torah luminaries spanning the Religious Zionist spectrum. Moreover, in Religious Zionist schools today, Peninei Halakha has become the default code used to study religious law. Beyond Peninei Halakha, R. Melamed’s influence is echoed by his popular column in the weekly Religious Zionist newspaper, B’sheva. This publication is given out for free at communities across the country and provides a platform for R. Melamed to address some of the most contentious halakhic issues of the day. Through these two forums, R. Melamed is one of the most influential rabbis in Israel today. This makes his more “controversial” rulings far dangerous in the eyes of his opponents.
Much of the controversy surrounding Rav Melamed began around June 2020 when he agreed to sit on a Zoom panel with a female Reform rabbi during a conference sponsored by Makor Rishon. Many rabbis within the Hardal community attacked R. Melamed, claiming that by merely participating, he was granting legitimacy to the Reform movement. Instead of bowing to public pressure, R. Melamed doubled down on his view regarding dialogue with non-Orthodox leaders and published multiple articles explaining his stance. The optics of a rabbi deeply rooted in the Hardal world on a split screen with a Reform rabbi were too much for some rabbinic leaders in his community to take. It seems that his public breaking with Hardal norms over his meeting with a non-Orthodox rabbi generated a closer examination of some of his printed works, which in turn became the source of the pashkevilim.
While the pashkevilim themselves focus on specific positions of R. Melamed deemed to be problematic, there are some sentences in the letters that point to a broader critique. For example, in the second letter, we are told that R. Melamed “made many mistakes,” “invented rulings,” and crossed boundary lines that were established by previous generations. Similarly, the first letter states that regarding family law, R, Melamed permitted certain things that were prohibited by earlier authorities. Moreover, this letter claims that these leniencies were advocated without proper explanation (בלי לנמק).
One of the consistent undercurrents uniting all these attacks on R. Melamed is the discomfort with his independence. R. Melamed is accused of breaking halakhic protocol. His detractors claim that not only is his bottom line sometimes at odds with Religious Zionist norms, his process of adjudication is also flawed. R. Melamed takes himself to be equally authoritative to rule on matters of Halakhah as anyone else. His opponents assume that this position reflects a hubris and a lack of deference to older sages.
While these letters speak broadly about the challenges posed by R. Melamed’s independence and his unwillingness to defer to requisite sages, a more elaborate and harshly worded critique was written by R. Matanya Ariel. In an interview about the controversy surrounding R. Melamed’s support for certain religion and state reforms, R. Ariel accuses R. Melamed of being a “trojan horse.” He claims that R. Melamed’s external appearance and pedigree are particularly problematic. “He wears a frok, a hamburg… is a settler and is the son of R. Zalman (Rosh Yeshivat Beit El).” Moreover, “he has a Hardali aura,” having learned in Mercaz Harav. R. Ariel implies that people with this background are not supposed to offer liberal rulings on issues that are central to Hardal Orthodoxy. For R. Ariel, R. Melamed’s style confuses the public, as his upbringing and rabbinic stock give traditional credence to his more lenient rulings.
After this interview, R. Ariel published two articles elaborating on his opposition to R. Melamed. He begins by claiming that until recently, R. Melamed’s rulings were consistent with a traditional Hardal worldview, especially on contentious issues. For example, he was one of the founders of Ariel youth movement, which broke away from Bnei Akiva in opposition to co-ed youth programming. Similarly, R. Melamed has been an outspoken supporter of soldiers refusing orders to evacuate Jewish settlements from the West Bank.
While these positions paint the picture of someone deeply rooted in the Hardal world, R. Ariel claims that R. Melamed’s more recent rulings (e.g., how to relate to the Reform movement) reflect a complete ideological change, turning him from a Hardal rabbi into a rabbinic figure who more closely resembles a liberal Orthodox rabbi.
Tellingly, R. Ariel’s primary concern is not so much the substance of the rulings (which he opposes as well), but rather with the fact that a perceived Hardal rabbi is the one providing them. R. Ariel idealizes a halakhic world where liberal rulings are made exclusively by liberal Orthodox rabbis, and therefore the community has a clear tribal choice between different types of halakhic models. As he puts it, “liberal [Orthdox] rabbis should be on their side and me on mine.” Having rabbis from the “wrong side” of the ideological spectrum offering liberal rulings creates the misguided impression that these views could be plausibly supported by other rabbis within the Hardal camp. It also grants unwarranted legitimacy to such views and mistakenly affirms the notion that one can adopt these positions while still being a loyal member of the Hardal community.
Yet as Shlomo Piotrowsky notes, R. Ariel’s critique of R. Melamed is not precise. In fact, R. Ariel does not cite a single case in which R. Melamed changed his mind. Instead, he collects conservative rulings of R. Melamed on certain topics, and then contrasts them with R. Melamed’s more liberal positions in other areas. He claims that R. Melamed has undergone an ideological transformation simply because in certain areas he deviates from the Hardal mainstream (while maintaining the same allegiance in other areas). Moreover, as R. Michael Avraham argues, R. Ariel’s critique assumes that ideology must drive halakhic rulings (especially regarding issues that involve public policy). Halakhah is supposed to be rooted in an a priori committee to a particular tribal identity. The ideological disposition of a given rabbi should remove certain issues from the realm of creative reflection.
Piotrowsky and R. Avraham’s observations highlight the core elements that underlie R. Ariel’s critique. The first relates to R. Melamed’s unpredictability. According to R. Ariel, pesak Halakhah is supposed to follow a specific script, and halakhic independence should accordingly be limited. Secondly, a posek must ensure that his rulings confirm the basic assumptions of the community that he is a part of. In this “tribal halakhic” model, certain areas of religious life are assumed to be so central to a community’s self-identity that they cannot be reexamined.
Yet as R. Avraham notes, there is an alternative (and more authentic) halakhic model available. Granted, a halakhic decisor’s worldview will play a role in his decision making. In most instances, it is likely that a posek will rule in a manner that is consistent with his ideological tenor. This cannot, however, be a consciously motivating factor. If certain positions are unacceptable because they challenge one’s overarching ideology, then Halakhah ends up simply being a vehicle to fortify a preexisting ideological agenda. Instead, in the halakhic paradigm described by R. Avraham, a posek needs to be truly open minded. After all, his search for truth may lead him to adopt a ruling that clashes with his broader worldview.
The model described by R. Avraham parallels the halakhic approach of R. Melamed. After all, he is willing to challenge normative assumptions of the community that he is deeply a part of both from the right and the left. He is neither a liberal nor conservative posek. His halakhic and public-policy positions have been criticized by those across the spectrum of contemporary Orthodoxy. In fact, in contrast to the picture painted by R. Ariel, R. Melamed’s recent rulings don’t reflect a major transformation. Instead, R. Melamed has always been a non-tribal and unpredictable posek committed to a halakhic worldview that is open to challenging accepted communal norms.
While there are many examples of R. Melamed’s unique halakhic posture, I would like to focus specifically on R. Melamed’s unique view on Judaism and gender. This is a particularly fascinating case study since aside from the technical halakhic issues involved, it is one of the most sociologically contentious issues facing contemporary Orthodoxy. As a result, it often falls prey to much of the tribal discourse we have come to expect in the conversations surrounding it.
Judaism and Gender
Given his intellectual training in Yeshivat Mercaz Harav, one would expect R. Melamed to adopt a conservative stance regarding the question of women’s role within traditional Judaism. Nonetheless, as we will see, R. Melamed’s views on gender are almost impossible to categorize.
Rabbi Melamed’s most extensive treatment of women’s roles is found in his nearly twenty-page chapter in Peninei Halakha – Tefilat Nashim, entitled “Ta’amei Mitzvot Nashim.” Here, R. Melamed develops a theology of gender that embraces the physical and spiritual differences between men and women. Just as both genders need each other physically for the purposes of procreation, so too men and women depend on one another for spiritual completion. R. Melamed uses this larger framework to explain why Halakhah exempts women from positive time-bound commandments (PTBC). According to R. Melamed, a woman’s primary role is to serve as a mother and build a traditional Jewish home. This is a religious obligation upon which the Jewish people’s “personal and national future is founded.” Women are uniquely able to successfully serve in this role given the fact that they both carry the child in utero and nurse the baby when he or she is born. Additionally, women have a “feminine and maternal character, which possesses unique qualities suitable for building and nurturing a family. Because of the amount of time it entails to properly raise children and manage a successful home life, the rabbis intentionally exempted women from PTBC in order to provide them the proper time and focus to accomplish their larger religious task.
R. Melamed goes further and uses the same model to explain why women are exempt from the formal obligation to study Torah. The requirement to learn Torah placed upon men is perpetual and demands constant assessment of one’s time in order to maximally succeed in the fulfillment of this mitzvah. Because of the enormity of the responsibility, the Torah “relieved [women] of the constant pressure that accompanies men,” thus allowing them the mental and physical energy necessary to properly focus on building a family.
After providing this general outline, R. Melamed develops a more expansive view of Jewish femininity that additionally explains why women without families are also exempt from PTBC. Quoting his teacher R. Tzvi Yehudah Kook ztz”l, R. Melamed notes that while men and women are fundamentally equal, “the element of intellect is more discernible in men [while], human emotion is more prominent in women.” These innate differences are each independently critical methods to access traditional faith and live a life devoted to classical Halakhah. The intellect allows us to delineate and concretize the principles that govern our religious lives while the emotions provide a more successful entry point to “absorb the faith and vitality of the Torah.” While both genders are endowed with both emotional intuition and intellectual aptitude, the unique strengths of each allows the forging of a more holistic religious union.
R. Melamed argues that a woman’s unique emotional intuitive capacity is rooted in the details of the creation story found in the book of Genesis. While Adam is created from the dust of the earth, Eve is created from Adam’s rib: “Since the substance from which the woman was created is of higher quality, she is more capable of naturally perceiving the divine ideal.”This explains why even single women who lack parental responsibilities are exempt from Talmud Torah and PTBC. Given their more innate connection to the Divine, women can more easily “connect profoundly to the Torah and its purpose.” Lacking this essentialist component, men, by contrast, need added entry points (such as the requirement to study Torah and PTBC) to access the essential messages of the Torah.
In a creative reading of a variety of rabbinic texts, R. Melamed argues that it is women’s more innate sense of belief that allowed them to be at the forefront of all the most significant events in Jewish history. For example, women did not participate in the sin of the golden calf or the sin of the spies. Moreover, the midrash cites R. Akiva that it was in merit of righteous women that the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt. Lastly, he notes that while it may seem to the outsider that men’s roles are more significant than those of women’s, in truth the opposite is the case. He supports this claim by first citing a midrash which states that the religious posture of a wife is more likely to positively affect her husband than the reverse. Secondly, he references mystical sources which allude to the fact that “in the future, the [spiritual] advantage of women will be more apparent.” Given their innate spiritual posture it is not surprising that the Torah tasks women with the primary role of raising the family. Men may have broader halakhic obligations when it comes to Torah learning and fulfilling PTBC; nonetheless, women’s familial responsibilities are “the most significant element in life.”
R. Melamed’s strong advocacy of gender essentialism is significant specifically because there are other traditional models that he could have chosen from. For example, some scholars argue that women’s exemption from PTBC is simply a biblical decree, and any attempt to provide a rationale (such as permitting a woman more time for child-rearing) for such an exemption is simply speculation. Nonetheless, R. Melamed chooses to advance the view of those authorities who see the discrepancy in obligations as indicating a more fundamental spiritual distinction between men and women. In fact, R. Melamed is so adamant in his claim regarding gender essentialism that he cautions against the blurring of the “uniqueness of each sex.” Doing so could have serious consequences, even possibly allowing for “existing family structures [to] deteriorate and collapse.” It is only by embracing the uniqueness of both men and women that “the divine Presence dwells with the couple.” Given the centrality that R. Melamed places upon parenting in general and motherhood specifically, it is not surprising that R. Melamed advocates early marriage for both men and women. Moreover, he is equally adamant about the need to try one’s best to build large families with at least four or five children.
Women and Professional Fulfillment
R. Melamed’s focus on motherhood as the bedrock of female identity makes his position about the value of professional fulfillment for women surprising. For example, in one essay, his support for the importance of women’s professional fulfillment leads him to call for a reevaluation of the standard practice for Religious Zionist women to volunteer for national service post high school. While R. Melamed is clear that he doesn’t oppose sherut leumi, he does think that other factors need to be part of the calculation before a young woman decides what to do after high school. He correctly notes that girls will often complete two years of national service followed by a year of seminary studies, thus only beginning their academic studies around the age of twenty-one. According to R. Melamed, this can create the following dilemma for young women: either they must delay marriage until they complete their degree, or they need to marry young, thereby compromising their academic training and professional success. This latter concern is particularly pronounced for women whose families lack the financial means to help a newly married couple. These women will need to take a job to simply cover monthly family costs at the expense of their professional development (for example, earning an advanced degree).
R. Melamed’s concern about delaying the age of marriage is consistent with his overall vision of gender essentialism and the great religious importance of raising a family. What is surprising, however, is the value he places upon women’s higher education for practical, national, and religious reasons. On a pragmatic level, he argues that in the contemporary world, income levels are proportional to the level of one’s academic training. A woman with a doctorate in engineering, for example, is likely to earn more than a friend of hers who only has a bachelor’s degree. From the perspective of societal advancement, having a more educated populace will create more scientific, social, and economic progress.
R. Melamed also notes that technological changes have reduced domestic pressures on women, thus allowing them more time for professional fulfillment. Additionally, longer life expectancy means that women are likely to live for many years after their period of motherhood is completed. For R. Melamed, these changes are religiously significant. In fact, he argues that with this newly allotted time, the non-actualization of a woman’s unique talents and professional potential is a sin. He explains that this is the case because everyone is required to try and express their God-given talents.
On the surface there seems to be a dissonance between R. Melamed’s strong gender essentialism and his advocacy of professional advancement and fulfillment for women. After all, he claims that the primary reason women are exempt from PTBC is their need to focus on parenting responsibilities. Yet in the context of women’s professional life, he seems to see religious virtue in activities that take women outside the domestic sphere. Aware of this tension, he writes (in bold) that “building a Jewish home is the most important thing and this is where a woman should focus most of her energies.” His more expansive view of professional fulfillment, in other words, is not meant to detract from the essential importance of child-rearing, but is an outgrowth of the new technologies and longer life spans, which provide women with more time to express their unique talents beyond the home.
Another surprising expression of R. Melamed’s endorsement of advanced education for women relates to his ruling regarding the permissibility of birth control before the birth of a first child. As a general policy, R. Melamed endorses the common rabbinic view prohibiting the use of contraceptives upon marriage absent extenuating circumstances. Classic extenuating circumstances would be, for example, maternal health problems or marital problems detected early in the marriage. Both categories would fall into the rabbinic category of “she’at ha-dehak” and would permit the use of birth control. R. Melamed, however, adds a third example which is much more novel and surprising. In his view, birth control may be permissible in circumstances where both the husband and wife are immersed in rigorous academic programs (e.g., medical school) and having a child would force at least one of them to forfeit his or her professional training. Such a concession would prevent the husband or wife from fulfilling “their talents and aspirations” and by extension limit their overall contribution to society. While R. Melamed does insist that such a decision needs to be made in consultation with a rabbinic scholar, he does nonetheless see female professional development as a legitimate variable impacting halakhic discourse.
Women and Ritual
One of the most unique elements of R. Melamed’s halakhic thought is his position regarding women’s relationship to ritual life, especially regarding rituals that are sociologically contentious within many parts of Orthodoxy. For example, in an article published in the journal Akdamot, Yonatan Gershon argued that women and men in the same family should be able to count together towards the quorum of three for the purposes of joining together for a zimmun. His argument was endorsed by R. Baruch Gigi, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion. One of the halakhic challenges towards counting women in a zimmun is the Talmudic claim of “peritzut” (immodesty) caused by the mixing of genders. While this concern should only be relevant to men and women from different families, some authorities prohibited counting women towards a zimmun with men even in the context of a meal with only the core family unit present.
In his extensive essay, Gershon notes that the concern of “peritzut” should not be a relevant variable when discussing a core family unit especially in a modern context where co-ed meals are very common. In a rejoinder to this essay, R. Melamed presents an alternative view. While conceding that Gershon’s conclusion does have halakhic merit (and may be relied upon), he nonetheless recommends adopting the traditional practice excluding women from counting with men towards a zimmun even among immediate family. More broadly, R. Melamed notes that shared meals structurally allow for fraternizing and socializing in a way that can create a breach in modesty, and therefore the rabbis didn’t allow women to join with men in the quorum. While this consideration would not be relevant in a familial context, he argues that the rabbis never instituted any formal obligation to recite a zimmun when one would need to mix the genders in order to create a quorum of three.
R. Melamed adopts a similarly conservative posture regarding the permissibility of women learning Talmud. The Gemara states that teaching one’s daughter Torah (in this case Oral law) is as if one has taught her “tiflut” or frivolity. R. Melamed interprets this phrase in a way that is consistent with his strong sense of gender essentialism that we saw above. Women only have an obligation to study Torah with the goal of knowing how to observe Halakhah. Men by contrast, have a requirement to study Torah for its own sake, understanding its own inner logic and complexities. As a result, women’s education should focus on practical Halakhah and works of religious inspiration. Men, given their different learning obligation, should emphasize the study of Talmud since it helps facilitate a deeper understanding of the conceptual underpinnings of Jewish law. For R. Melamed, teaching Talmud to women is considered “tiflut” since it doesn’t functionally serve women’s larger obligation and can confuse them about their primary purpose. While he does sanction Talmud study for women who deeply desire such learning, his default position remains that female education should focus on aspects of Torah that further his view of Jewish femininity.
Given his stances regarding the status of women joining a male zimmun and studying Talmud, one would think that he would be consistently conservative when dealing with other contentious issues involving Jewish ritual. However, as we will see, the opposite is the case. For example, while R. Melamed discourages the study of Talmud for women, he does demonstrate surprising openness regarding the question of female leadership roles in the Orthodox community. He states that “in principle, it would be ideal for women to be Torah scholars teaching Torah and Halakhah,” with those capable becoming formal educators. Moreover, he notes that as “a matter of principle, there is no religious sphere (תחום תורני) that is closed to women.” Even in those areas of Halakhah that technically require only male participation (such as rabbinic judges) it is possible to appoint “learned and pious women as spiritual leaders and halakhic decisors.” In such cases the woman leader would simply instruct men to fulfill the duties that are gender exclusive. As a proof for this idea, he notes that while Devorah was accepted by the Jewish people as a leader, the midrash notes that it was her husband, Barak who was instructed by her to battle against Sisera.
While he acknowledges the larger educational and sociological challenges with having female Torah leaders, he does say that the proper path forward is to gradually increase female involvement in these realms. Specifically, he thinks that the first stage should be educating “morot Halakhah” who will be able to answer halakhic questions for women. The more that this is successful, the more the Orthodox community will desire to see women in broader roles of religious leadership.
Another example of R. Melamed’s difficult-to-categorize halakhic posture relates to his view regarding women and tefillin. In 2014 a controversy erupted within American Orthodox circles when a Modern Orthodox high school permitted two young women to wear tefillin at school. Roshei Yeshiva from Yeshiva University condemned the decision and said that there is no room for women to wear tefillin within normative Orthodoxy. Around the time of the controversy, R. Shlomo Brody wrote an extensive article examining the halakhic issues associated with women and tefillin. Interestingly, the only contemporary posek quoted in the entire article permitting women to wear tefillin (albeit with certain important caveats) is R. Melamed. While R. Melamed is clear that ideally women should be told not to wear tefillin, he does state that if a woman really desires to perform this mitzvah, she should not be prevented from doing so (if she wears the tefillin in private and not during her menstrual cycle). He similarly permits a woman who desires to wrap herself in a tallit to perform this mitzvah. While ideally the tallit should only be worn in private, he rules that one need not protest if a woman puts on a tallit in public.
Interestingly, in a long footnote, R. Melamed returns to the theme of gender essentialism. He notes that while many women perform PTBC commandments that they are exempt from, common practice dictates that these same women almost always refrain from wearing tefillin and tzitzit (both PTBC). One reason he posits to explain this asymmetry is that these mitzvot are physical reminders intended to activate a more profound connection to God and His laws. Women, who are innately more spiritual, don’t need to place these physical reminders of God on their bodies. One would expect a posek who is so committed to the recurring theme of gender essentialism to prohibit women from performing mitzvot that could easily be seen as an attempt to advocate a more egalitarian ethos. Nonetheless, while not actively encouraging the performance of these practices, he does permit them within certain parameters.
A similarly surprising position of R. Melamed is his lenient approach to the question of women dancing with the Torah on Simhat Torah. Many prominent Orthodox rabbis both in the United States and Israel adamantly oppose this practice. R. Dov Lior, for example, prohibits women from dancing with a Torah on the grounds that it will blur the lines between the different gender roles. For R. Lior, these differences are “essential. Moreover, the different roles are based on mutual respect and appreciation.” Trying to create ritual equality between the sexes will cause each gender “to lose” its sense of uniqueness. One would expect R. Melamed to endorse a similar view. However, when asked whether women may dance with the Torah on Simhat Torah he simply replied by saying “why not?” adding that he didn’t include a ruling on this topic in his Peninei Halakha since it is not a formal halakhic question. While he doesn’t endorse or encourage the practice, he certainly does not oppose it either.
R. Melamed’s views on Judaism and gender are consistently difficult to categorize. On the one hand he is a proud traditionalist who espouses views that are to be expected from someone raised and immersed in the Hardal community. For example, gender essentialism is central to his halakhic vision. As a result, he is quite clear about the centrality of motherhood in the Torah’s vision of religious women and sees family building as women’s primary purpose. Practically, he offers conservative rulings about both permitting women to join a zimmun as well as the propriety of women studying Talmud. At the same time, he sees religious value in women becoming religious leaders and pursuing demanding careers, and he considers academic training to be a factor in calculating the permissibility of birth control for newly-married parents. Moreover, he is quite open to the possibility of women partaking in rituals where concern for blurring gender lines may nonetheless exist. On the surface, these positions seem to be at odds with each other. What we have seen from this essay, however, is that R. Melamed’s unpredictability is part of his larger vision for how Halakhah operates. More specifically, it involves adopting a halakhic paradigm that adjudicates cases individually and doesn’t allow tribal assumptions to automatically close off certain conclusions.
To highlight this point further, I want to return to the example of rabbinic opposition to R. Melamed’s willingness to sit on a panel with a Reform rabbi. One of the most outspoken critics of R. Melamed’s decision was R. Yehoshua Van Dyck. Months after the controversy, R. Van Dyck’s stated that “the Reform movement undermines the Torah and causes assimilation amongst the Jewish people.” Moreover, he added that this assimilation will be a “tragedy for am Yisrael.” In response, the Reform movement tried to sue R. Van Dyck. They claimed that since he should be considered a state employee (as a rabbi of a yishuv), limitations on freedom of speech preclude him from issuing such “hateful” remarks. Surprisingly, R. Melamed came to R. Van Dyck’s defense. R. Melamed is clear that he differs with R. Van Dyck about the proper attitude one should have towards the Reform movement. Nonetheless, he is adamant that if a rabbi truly believes that a group within the Jewish community threatens the future of the Jewish people, he must be able to state his views without fear of legal consequence.
Now that we have seen R. Melamed’s insistence that truth must trump tribal identity, this seemingly surprising defense makes perfect sense. R. Melamed is ultimately committed to rabbinic independence for both his supporters and his opponents. Against his critics, he holds that Orthodoxy is big enough to contain a multiplicity of voices on even the most contentious issues.
There are many other dimensions of R. Melamed’s halakhic methodology that require further research. His views on religion and state, conversion, sexuality, the relationship between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox, as well as Jews and Arabs, are only a few examples of the many areas of Halakhah and public policy where R. Melamed’s perspective deserves scholarly treatment. Additionally, his unique code, Peninei Halakha, also needs to be methodologically studied. One thing, however, remains almost certain. When analyzing any of these issues, it will be difficult to predict his conclusions from the outset. After all, R. Melamed has mastered the art of non-tribal and unpredictable pesak Halakhah.
For an overview of R. Melamed, see R. Elli Fischer, https://mizrachi.org/hamizrachi/peninei-Halachah-a-religious-zionist-code-of-jewish-law/. For a more extensive discussion, see R. Fischer’s series of podcasts on R. Melamed at https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/down-the-rabbi-hole/id1594341746. (The four part series on R. Melamed and his Peninei Halakha series are the episodes dated February 3, February 7, February 18, and March 11, 2022.
While this essay will focus on R. Melamed’s views on gender, I will not discuss this specific issue at length. R. Melamed’s willingness to sanction egalitarian prayer at Robinson’s Arch does not stem from a liberal view regarding the permissibility of egalitarian prayer. In fact, he is quite explicit that egalitarian tefillah is at odds with traditional Halakhah. Rather, his ruling is motivated by other factors that are beyond the scope of this essay. See https://www.inn.co.il/news/499715.
https://www.kipa.co.il/%D7%97%D7%93%D7%A9%D7%95%D7%AA/1134369-0/. In July 2022, a group of Haredi rabbis officially placed a ban on studying Peninei Halakha and called on their followers to avoid bringing R. Melamed’s works in one’s home, study hall, or synagogue. I am not including this in the body of the text since Haredi opposition to Religious Zionist codes of Halakhah is to be expected. What is more interesting is the extent of the opposition within the Hardal community.
Such as R. Shmuel Ariel and Dr. Tirza Kellman. See https://www.kipa.co.il/userFiles/files/3aab53df5ada45cea9c6ccc18679b598.pdf for the learned critique of R. Yigal Kaminetsky. See also https://yhb.org.il/10260/ for R. Maor Kayam’s defense of R. Melamed.
Albeit slightly more elaborate and signed by almost exclusively non-Haredim.
Regarding conversion and kashrut regulations.
https://www.srugim.co.il/586300-%D7%9E%D7%94-%D7%A2%D7%95%D7%91%D7%A8-%D7%A2%D7%9C-%D7%94%D7%A8%D7%91-%D7%90%D7%9C%D7%99%D7%A2%D7%96%D7%A8-%D7%9E%D7%9C%D7%9E%D7%93. His second letter contains many ad hominem attacks and opposes primarily R. Melamed’s independence and unwillingness to defer to older sages. See https://www.now14.co.il/%D7%94%D7%A8%D7%91-%D7%90%D7%9C%D7%99%D7%A2%D7%96%D7%A8-%D7%9E%D7%9C%D7%9E%D7%93-%D7%90%D7%97%D7%99%D7%A0%D7%95-%D7%90%D7%AA%D7%94-%D7%97%D7%96%D7%95%D7%A8-%D7%91%D7%9A-%D7%93%D7%A2%D7%94/.
This argument is not precise, as we will see regarding R. Melamed’s view on gender.
In 1979, R. Melamed challenged the Religious Zionist status quo by working to establish the first separate gendered branch of the Bnei Akiva youth movement in the old city of Jerusalem. Prior to 1979, one of the fundamental assumptions of Bnei Akiva was the belief that co-ed youth programming should be seen as religiously ideal. While some Religious Zionist rabbis such as R. Shlomo Aviner opposed mixed gendered events on halakhic grounds, the head of Bnei Akiva, Amnon Shapira wrote an extensive article delineating the halakhic justification and noting rabbinic support for such a move. R. Melamed’s founding of the separate snif in 1979 caused a rift among Religious Zionist rabbis. While some rabbinic leaders supported the idea of a snif nifrad, the opposition was so fierce from the national movement that then director of Bnei Akiva Amnon Shapira published a letter denying that a separate gendered Bnei Akiva branch had opened in the old city. Despite resistance from Shapira, there was a subsequent attempt by R. Melamed and others to open another separate gendered snif in Givat Shaul. After years of debate regarding the branch’s institutional affiliation, R. Melamed decided to establish a new youth movement named, “Ariel” that would pride itself in exclusively separate gendered divisions. In fact, when asked directly about his involvement in the founding of Ariel, R. Melamed noted that he was never a member of Bnei Akiva in his youth since he viewed coed programming as religiously problematic.
In 2009 there was an incident where a group of religious soldiers protested their unit’s involvement in evacuating settlements. They did so by holding up a protest banner during a swearing in ceremony at the Kotel. Rumors began circulating that R. Melamed had instructed them to protest. Denying the accusation, R. Melamed wrote an article claiming that while he would not have advised this specific form of dissent, he does see value in their actions and in the larger project of public demonstrations of opposition.
- Melamed’s public support for refusing orders should not have come as a surprise as already in 2004, he endorsed the view of R. Avraham Shapira prohibiting religious soldiers from taking part in the evacuation of Jewish settlements. Nonetheless, then defense secretary Ehud Barak and army leaders recommended punishing R. Melamed for his call for refusal by removing his Yeshiva from the rubric of the Hesder Yeshiva system. In December 2009 this decision became official. While the association of Yeshivot Hesder condemned the decision, it was not ultimately reversed until 2013.
The extent to which R. Melamed was perceived to be representative of the Hardal mainstream is demonstrated by a 2010 heated exchange between him and the head of the centrist Orthodox Tzohar organization R. David Stav surrounding the homogeneity of the Religious Zionist community. R. Stav claimed that it was impossible to speak generically using the term “religious Zionism” since he and R. Melamed (both Religious Zionist rabbis) differ on so many fundamental issues. For example, they disagree on the question of soldiers refusing orders as well as the propriety of a woman serving as the chairperson of a community secretariat. R. Melamed replied to R. Stav’s observation noting that he was ok with dividing the Religious Zionist community into two with his followers unified under the banner of “Torani” while R. Stav’s group would maintain the name “religious Zionism.” R. Stav rejected R. Melamed’s suggestion since it implies that those who identify as Religious Zionist, are not “Torani.” Nonetheless, he claimed that while he respects R. Melamed, he thinks that his positions cause great harm to the Religious Zionist communities’ relationship with the army and causes a desecration of God’s name.
It is interesting to note that there doesn’t seem to be any explicit opposition to the more liberal positions that I will cite in this section. I am not sure why this is the case. It could be that these examples are less well known. More likely is the possibility that given his pedigree, R. Melamed was able to avoid major criticism for an extended period. Moreover, much of the recent controversies involve public pronouncements of R. Melamed as opposed to views tucked away in the details of a halakhic discussion.
Based heavily on the thought of Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook and his son, R. Tzvi Yehudah Kook.
Sihot ha-Ritzyah, Numbers, p. 413.
See for example, Torah Temimah, Parshat Bo, 42.
A student in Yeshivat Har Etzion.
https://www.inn.co.il/news/449380. Interestingly, in the context of this article, he does seem to slightly modify his preference for gender essentialism. For example, while acknowledging the differences between men and women, he states that they are not “deep or decisive.” Moreover, he claims that gender differences are not uniform and don’t impact all women equally. Basing himself on a passage in the Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 4:13) he additionally argues that ideally women should voluntarily choose to study Torah “in depth” as a precursor to having a maximally evolved relationship with God.
See for example, https://www.torahweb.org/torah/special/2014/rtwe_tefillin.html.
https://ph.yhb.org.il/07-10-13/#_te01ftn10_11. He also cautions against allowing women to wear tefillin who are not careful about observing modestly laws and use the mitzvah of tefillin as a vehicle to advance certain social agendas.