Women should not be barred from mitzvot — or coerced into them, says Rav David Bigman

THINKER: Rabbi Bigman wrote the paper which allows women to sing solos at Shalhevet.


THINKER: Rabbi Bigman wrote the paper which allows women to sing solos at Shalhevet.

By Noah Rothman, Torah Editor

UPDATED:  The following article appeared in the March print paper in an abridged form.  The final three questions below did not appear in the print edition.

Rabbi David Bigman, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa in Israel and a leading thinker in Modern Orthodox Judaism, sat down with The Boiling Point for an exclusive interview after leading a shiur and answering questions from Shalhevet sophomores Feb. 7.  He had been invited to Los Angeles by B’nai David-Judea Congregation as scholar-in-residence that Shabbat.

A renowned Talmud chacham (Torah scholar), Rav Bigman has written many influential opinions. One of them, about kol isha (women’s voices), was among several cited by Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal when he changed policy to allow girls to sing solos at Shalhevet.

BP: As you may know, your writings helped influence our Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal change our rules to allow girls to sing solos, provided they are dressed modestly and the content is appropriate. Have other schools allowed women to have solos based on your writings?

Rav Bigman: I don’t know of schools but I do know of communities that have changed. In some communities they did this [already] but felt they were wrong halachically, and now feel they are in the right halachically.

By the way, it changed people’s behavior both stringently and leniently. People are now more concerned about the cultural setting, the lyrics and the way they present themselves. I also mentioned that men should be careful about how they sing in front of women.

BP: What inspired you to write the paper on kol isha?

Rav Bigman: The local schools always had women singing on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Hashoah and they always had people knocking on them for that. I wrote the teshuvah as a response, to show that it was appropriate.

BP: Did you know that it would have such an impact on schools and communities?

Rav Bigman: I had no idea. I thought of it as something minor, I had no idea it would blow up like that.

BP: Do you think it is appropriate for someone like Rabbi Segal to make the decision about women wearing talit and tefillin for his school?

Rav Bigman: I think that we are over-centralized, I think that we should let lesser, younger poskim (someone whom decides the law) make decisions but I think they should get advice from their elders. But it is their decision to make. That is what I was taught by my mentors, in the Charedi world.

BP: Is it important for women and men to have equal roles in Judaism? is there somewhere specific you draw the line?

Rav Bigman: I am not adamant about old fashioned feminist equality. I think that we should give more say to women in terms of the final outcome of exactly where we are going. Women should partner in deciding what their role will be in the future.

I don’t think it is an appropriate mode to say that women now all have to do all mitzvot. It is dependent upon them. As we have more and more women who are becoming Talmidot Chachamot (learned women) it is fair for them with the general population to call the shots and see exactly where we are going with them.

I do think more things can be done that are not being done for sociological reasons, like the tefillin issue. I don’t think it is appropriate today to deny women access to this. I think it is inappropriate to say to anybody, “Don’t do this mitzvah that you want to do.”

It is inappropriate to tell people who want to get involved not to do something just because of a custom. We should allow women to be more participatory, and let women decide what course they want, and not be coercive about this.

BP: Do you think it is important for a school such as Shalhevet to allow women to wrap tefilin?

Rav Bigman: I would not make the decision for somebody else.

BP: In considering the halachic process and halachic matters, when do you think it’s necessary for leaders to consult poskim (halachic authorities)  and when is it not?

Rav Bigman: Firstly, I want to refer you to HaRav Broin’s book, Shaarim Mutzaneim BaHalacha. Ideally each individual should go through the halachic source material from the Gemara to the modern poskim and then paskin on his or her own. I like that idea. When I was studying with HaRav Aharon Solovetchik it was clear that that was what he thought — that it would be better for each of us to make their own decision on the basis of source material.

However, in a practical sense it is very difficult. First of all, if you are a student or somebody who is working, you have time limitations and it is very difficult for you to go through all the material. Second, the average layperson doesn’t have a lot of experience weighing different opinions. Experience is a very important advantage of the posek.

Nevertheless, I think we are too centralized. There is a very deep problem. They used to say that when you got s’micha (rabbinic ordination) you would also get Rav Moshe Feinstein’s telephone on the back of the klaf (ordination document). That doesn’t make for developing good poskim.

I would say you should form an opinion yourself as you take advice from your elders and your friends. It is important that you get advice from a posek that can admit that he was wrong. I have had this experience with poskim — where we have been arguing and at a certain point they admitted, “You’re right.”

In sum, we should get advice from the poskim but we should not be so centralized that decisions are made from far away and the posek doesn’t know the particulars of the situation.

BP:  Do you think all Jews should move to Israel, or is there a value in staying in America?

Rav Bigman: When I was active in B’nei Akiva in America, I thought that anyone who didn’t go on aliyah was hypocritical because anyone who said Vtechezena einanoo v’rachamim (may we witness your merciful return), shouldn’t be hanging around here. In those days we knew that Rav Soloveitchik was very against B’nei Akiva in this sense. He said you are going to drain Modern Orthodoxy of its leadership. At that point I couldn’t agree with him; I was young and very ideological. But, I saw the process unfold and a lot of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s later generation of students all came to Israel and left a gap in American Jewish leadership.

I think it is very important for people to now stay here and tend the flock. If all the most committed Modern Orthodox Jews make aliya we become vulnerable to those who have a different approach to Jewish life and we have no way of countering with our approach in a serious vibrant way.

 BP: Why is studying Torah so important? Where do you think it ranks in the hierarchy of Jewish values?

Rav Bigman: It is hard to rank it because everything is dependent on it at a certain point. On the one hand I think in the end the actions of  a Jewish life are more important than learning. However you cannot live a Jewish life properly if you don’t learn. Moreover, when done correctly, learning is one of the most exciting parts of our lifestyle.

So I refuse to rank it. It’s very high up but I don’t think it is more important than Shabbat or lo tirtzach (don’t kill).

I would add that I do think that if you don’t learn, especially Torah sheba’al peh (the Oral Law), you will have a skewed approach to what Yahadut (Judaism) is. As my Rosh Yeshiva in Detroit used to say, some people take Torah sheba’al peh into Torah shebichtav (the written Torah)if you don’t get the dynamics of Torah sheba’al peh, your whole approach to Yahadut will be skewed and you might even view Yahadut as like Catholicism. You don’t view the discussions and the arguments that are really part of our system.

BP: What challenge or question in Judaism keeps you up at night?

Rav Bigman: Agunot. There are many husbands who blackmail their wives; either they don’t give the get (halachic divorce) or they give the get only after they have extorted the woman’s rights beyond what they have coming to them, both in Israel and in America.

In Israel, the rabbinic courts could solve the problem, and they don’t. In America, it is not the fault of the rabbinical courts. Agunot is a very difficult problem and we have to work on this. This literally keeps me up at night.

There is another issue that keeps me up which is halachic infertility, but I am able to contribute to help solving that.

BP: Where do you see Modern Orthodoxy in five years? What challenges need to be overcome?

Rav Bigman: I think we have, in a strange way, to learn something from the Charedi world. The Charedi world has a claim to authenticity. They are not more authentic, in some ways they are less, but somehow their claim gives us the feeling that we are not authentic. They also have vibrancy.

If we act more vibrant and gain confidence that what we are doing is an authentic mode — and it definitely is an authentic mode — then we will be on the track. The other issues will fall in place once we gain confidence that what we are doing is in an authentic form, and do so by writing authentic teshuvot (halachic legal opinions).

We may also need to admit that some of the things that we do may be wrong. Sincerity is essential. If we do things with a sincere passion and vibrancy, with a love for Torah, that will create change.

BP: What inspires you most about Judaism and the Jewish people?

Rav Bigman: Concern, both the physical and the spiritual being of human beings, and yet making a meaningful life in a way that includes serious and open discussion and scholarship.

BP: Do you think there is a value in spending time in Israel learning after high school or do you think students should go straight to college? 

Rav Bigman: There is a double value in studying in Israel after high school. Firstly, one gains a connection with the land of Israel, which to me is very important. Secondly it is very important for people to see Jewish life in another place to gain a certain cultural bearing.

I think it is very important for Americans to see Jewish life in Eretz Israel,  and to see a different point of view that can move you to a different place.

Besides being in Israel, yeshiva education in and of itself is very valuable. Intensive limmud Torah (Torah learning) between high school and university is very, very important, and especially if it is eye-opening Torah that gives you a wider and more vibrant view to Jewish learning.

I think that even though I was impressed by what I saw here today at Shalhevet, for the most part American high school students, when they finish high school, have a very shallow opinion of what Torah is all about. Going to almost any yeshiva for a year will be an eye-opener for most people, even if it is a more rigid place than Ma’ale Gilboa.

BP: Do you think changes are needed in the rabbanut in Israel and if so, what changes?

Rav Bigman: We need changes — either a deep reform of the system or an alternative system. There are so many problems that even if good people come in, they get caught up in the bureaucracy; they inertia doesn’t allow them to bring their goodness to the system. I don’t know if we can actually reform the Rabbanut sufficiently, and that is why I believe that we may have to establish an alternative.