Jewish Law Stands for Itself: A Response to The Jewish Week

By: Blanche Haddad  |  February 22, 2015

Birth control, Feminism, and a Rabbi.

These four words glare throughout a recent article published by the The New York Jewish Week written by Stern College alumnus Hannah Dreyfus. She addressed a shiur given by Rabbi Moshe Kahn, talmud and halacha scholar at Stern College for Women.

By reading the title of the article alone, “Birth Control, Jewish Law Collide at Stern,” a reader may be under the false assumption that a controversy had taken place. This is far from the truth.

During this shiur, which was attended by both men and women, Rabbi Kahn spoke at length about the article he authored titled, “The Halakhic Parameters of Delaying Procreation.” The abstract of the article states, “there is strong halachic basis to allow a childless couple to postpone procreation temporarily and without an arbitrary time limit imposed.”

However, Dreyfus’ article painted a skewed depiction of the context and forum in which the shiur was presented, misconstrued the motives of Rabbi Kahn, and compromised the integrity of the deep halachic basis for the article which was presented.

Dreyfus’ article never addressed the halachic reasoning that guided Rabbi Kahn to reach his conclusion about the allowance to postpone procreation; namely, the personal issues between a couple that causes them to deliberate if or when they decide to postpone.

During the shiur, Rabbi Kahn spoke at length about his halachic reasoning which led him to the conclusion that there is grounds for halachic allowance to delay the mitzvah de’oraita, the commandment from the Torah, of procreation. He cited the rulings of the Rivash and the Rema, delved into the Hazon Ish’s writing on the topic of delaying a mitzvah de’oraita, and addressed the applicability of the concept zerizin makdimim, the notion that Jews demonstrate a love of mitzvot by immediately performing them.

Nowhere in the article does Dreyfus mention the extensive time Rabbi Kahn took during the shiur for the students in attendance to understand his thorough halachic process. Rabbi Kahn, first and foremost, was there to educate and present his alternative understanding to this specific halachic practice: which is left out of Dreyfus’ article entirely.

Rabbi Kahn addressed the fact that couples are not necessarily obligated to consult a halachic authority, such as their local or family rabbi, in order to receive a “heter” which enables the couple to postpone procreation and for the woman to begin using oral contraceptives upon the approval of the rabbi. Rabbi Kahn argues that this practice of asking a rabbi for a heter is due to an overall misunderstanding of how delaying a commandment from the Torah is understood within the framework of halacha.

While Dreyfus did note that Rabbi Kahn stated that “no rabbi can know a couple well enough to make this decision,” she fails to elaborate on Rabbi Kahn’s extensive explanation regarding a couple’s autonomy being undermined, or overridden, with regards to their making life decisions for themselves, together. Rabbi Kahn argued for the allowance of all Orthodox couples to reach major life-decisions together, and not for “female empowerment [which] underlies the [use] of birth control” as Dreyfus writes.

Dreyfus further writes that “birth control…represent[s] a badge of pride and autonomy,” which is certainly interesting, considering that “[females] taking control of their bodies” was a sentence never uttered by Rabbi Kahn within the context of his shiur. It is true that one ‘effect,’ as it were, to decide to utilize oral contraceptives is that a woman is “taking control” of her body, but this is not the impetus which drives that decision, and Dreyfus fails to make that distinction.

The article also blatantly disregards the setting in which Rabbi Kahn spoke, namely, a halacha shiurwhose attendees came to hear from Rabbi Kahn, who embodies a great commitment to halacha. There was no backlash expressed, nor was there any “colliding” of students with a respected Rabbi, as implied by the article’s title.

Dreyfus also misinterprets the implications of Stern student Sarah Robinson’s statements in her article. In the article, Robinson’s quote insinuates that the Talmud student, 22, is far more aware of the “inherent” connection between birth control and feminist ideology than what Rabbi Kahn would “admit to.” For someone with great respect for Rabbi Kahn, this is plainly false.

Do not be mistaken: I am not arguing that halacha and feminist ideals are inherently separate and can never be reconciled; to me, this is rarely the case. However, the two are not inherently linked in our case of postponing the mitzvah de’oraita of procreation; rather, there is space within halacha for a couple to make the decision to delay procreation due to a couple’s pressing concerns, and not a “feminist ideal of personal choice” as Dreyfus puts it.

Another blatant inaccuracy is that the “talk” (shiur) was “the first public presentation at Stern on birth control and Jewish law since 2006,” implying that this topic is taboo in an institution with an all-female student body–many of whom are of marriageable age. However, Professor Nechama Price and Rabbi Saul Berman teach semester courses on the topic, providing an in-depth outlook on the evolvement of the halacha and presenting multiple halachic opinions on the matter– including, but not restricted to, the opinion presented by Rabbi Kahn. The expansive presentation of this halacha in Stern courses allows students to gain an educated insight to an extremely relevant halacha.

Upon speaking to Rabbi Kahn, he pointed out the two main aspects of the article that he personally took issue with: First, the misrepresentation of the shuir, as the article inaccurately presented the shiur as geared towards pushing an agenda of women’s rights and taking control of their bodies, and second, that the statements of students were skewed.

As I do humbly consider myself a student of Rabbi Kahn, I am deeply disturbed by this representation of a man who fully embodies halachic integrity.