Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
On a recent Shabbat, Bais Abraham hosted a panel speakers from Eshel (www.eshelonline.org), a national organization building communities of support, learning, and inclusion for Orthodox lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews. The three speakers were LGBT Orthodox individuals, two of whom came to observance later in life and one of whom grew up in the Chassidic community. They each shared their personal journey of what it is like for them to be LGBT in the Orthodox community today. A recent Orthodox rabbinic effort to show compassion and support for LGBT Orthodox members of the Jewish family is reflected in the Statement of Principals signed by over 200 Orthodox rabbis. It can be found at http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com .
Over the past two weeks, I received many questions about our Shabbat program from people from different parts of the Orthodox and general Jewish communities. I’d like to share with you some of the questions and my responses:
Q. Why don't we just keep quiet about this? If someone is gay, let them sit in shul like anyone else. Why should we bring this out into the open and discuss it?
To remain silent is to reject people. We, as humans, tend to demonize and stigmatize what we do not know. Individuals who fall prey to social stigmas are forced to feel like outsiders because no one will talk about their issues. Such individuals keep their conditions hidden but the cost will be that they do not feel part of the community. They will hear loud and clear what people implicitly feel, that they are flawed. In addition, there will be no forum or opportunity in which to educate others in the community about the suffering of the stigmatized individuals, thus there is no possibility for sensitivity to their experiences. This can result in a feeling of rejection, and psychological, if not actual, aloneness. When we ignore the challenges of people in our community and ignore our own conscious or unconscious rejection of them, we cannot expect them to feel included, and we cannot love them as ourselves. This is the case for LGBT Orthodox Jews.
Q. How can you feature something that is a violation of Jewish law?
Halacha (Jewish law) is, of course, of central importance to us as Orthodox Jews. Our Shabbat program, however, was not designed to focus on halachic challenges faced in the personal and intimate lives of Orthodox LGBT community members. Every Orthodox LGBT person discusses such challenges privately with his or her rabbi. Our program was about the personal stories of such individuals who are struggling with staying connected with God and with their communities and about moving toward a culture in which LGBT Jews do not have to feel excluded from the Orthodox community. It was to find a place of compassion and inclusion, so LGBT Orthodox Jews do not feel like outsiders, which historically has led to losing them entirely to Yiddishkeit, or worse.
Before we judge anyone who is LGBT or condemn them in the abstract, we owe it to ourselves to humanize this topic and hear real people tell their very real stories, or else we may violate the saying in Pirkey Avot, Al tidan es chavero ad shetagia li'mikomo. Do not judge another person until you have been in their place.
Many would like to pretend that there are no LGBT people in our midst, but the weekend not only showed us that they are members of our community, but also underscored that they are our neighbors, our children, our brothers, our sisters, and our friends. They are in the stories presented to us, devout individuals who truly value Torah and mitzvot.
Q. Rabbi, does having this panel serve any religious purpose for those of us who are not LGBT? What can the rest of us learn from this about our own avodat Hashem (service to God)?
I found it inspiring that when faced with something that would make it so difficult to be observant and to remain within the Orthodox community--a community with little sensitivity to the feelings of those who are gay--they choose, despite feeling alienated, to remain in the community. Their love for Torah, for mitzvot, for Hashem and for the Jewish People is so strong that though it would be much easier to leave Orthodoxy, they do not. Among other things, we can learn from LGBT Orthodox Jews about commitment to Torah even in very difficult circumstances.
Q. If someone LGBT wants to be in our community, do you expect us to accept them? To give them aliyot?
In many shuls, even people who violate mitzvot of various types between humans and God and between humans and other humans, are welcomed. Why should we treat the LGBT Jews any differently? Indeed, it could be argued that not keeping kosher or other important mitzvot is a choice, and LGBT, as we now know, is not a choice. If it were, the vast majority of Orthodox LGBT people would choose not to be LGBT. With regard to people who are transgender, the halachic question arises as to whether to give them aliyot and where they should sit in shul. There are various opinions among poskim as to the status of the gender of transgender people, depending upon where in the transition process they are.
Q. Isn't treating a gay couple (with children) the same as other families in our shul a slippery slope?
As Orthodox Jews, we all try our best to adhere to the halacha in its entirety in our desire to best serve Hashem, and we acknowledge that our fellow Torah-observant Jews strive to do the same or grow continually in that direction. That being said, it is not our responsibility or objective to oversee or judge the quality of everyone's observance, especially in their private lives. Rather than looking to anyone's private life, which is ultimately between those two people and, if Torah-observant, their Rabbi, let us rather enjoy and respect what is going on in their living rooms: welcoming guests, being careful with kashrut, not speaking lashon hara, honoring their fellow Jew, and raising Torah-centered families with Torah-centered values. Throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater by rejecting them, serves no purpose. This is a reality in our community and we need to start taking fundamental steps of inclusion and not persecution and/or condemnation.
Q. Won't having gays in shul influence others to experiment with their sexuality and perhaps decide to be gay?
Orientation is not something that can be influenced by others. It is quite clear that people do not just decide to be LGBT. This is especially so of religious people. All of our panelists testified to being born gay. Who indeed would choose to be gay and have to deal with the inner turmoil and alienation that they described?
Q. Why not suggest gay people get married to members of the opposite gender and stay in the closet?
Many gay Orthodox Jews do marry people of the opposite gender, hoping Hashem will perform a miracle and make it work, but alas, to no avail. We are who God made us. The pressure within the Orthodox community that is upon them, as we keep fixing them up with people of the opposite gender, as we keep assuming that no one is gay, pushes gay people into heterosexual relationships that only end up with both partners deeply hurt. Let’s stop assuming that every person who has not gotten married is looking for a heterosexual shidduch. It can lead to devastating results.
In sum, in most Orthodox communities today, LGBT members face rejection. Instead, imagine an Orthodox community that says to them, we understand you are LGBT and we understand the challenges you face as you try to lead an Orthodox life. Stay in the community. We accept you as a member of our family. Instead of leaving because you feel no compassion from us, stay and build a frum home, feel part of our community, be as whole with your Creator, with the Torah, and the Jewish people as you can. We are here to support you, not judge you. None of us are tzadikim.
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March 23, 2013 | 10:19 pm
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
I recently listened to a shiur on the subject of Pesach wherein the Rabbi insisted that currently we celebrate the spiritual freedom of Pesach (Mitcheila Ovdei Avodah Zara HaYu Avoteinu) and not the physical freedom expressed in the Haggadah (Avadim HeYeinu L’Paroh B’Mitzrayim). He noted that since we are under the jurisdiction of others, we cannot celebrate physical freedom.
I was dismayed at this outlook and wondered how, after the establishment of the State of Israel that someone could suggest that we celebrate Pesach in 5773 the same way we did in 1933, or during anytime since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash.
I felt better after reading Ruth Wisse’s column in Friday’s Wall Street Journal
But the most inspiring incarnation of the exodus has been the one that reversed it: the recovery of the Jewish homeland from foreign occupiers after millennia of exile. Not by the hands of an angel and not by the hands of a messenger, but by the self-reliance that their ancestors had practiced for millennia, and by keeping faith with their vow to return to Jerusalem, the settlers of Israel accomplished one of the greatest national feats in history.
Jews reclaimed their political independence in the land of Israel in the same decade that witnessed the genocidal slaughter of one-third of their people. They did so not only by mobilizing skills honed through centuries of adaptation to foreign rule but by reactivating powers that were dormant for centuries.
Can the legendary crossing of the Red Sea compare with the marvel of several million Jewish migrants and refugees from lands as disparate as Ethiopia and Latvia forging a common, democratic Jewish state? Are the plagues that persuaded Pharaoh to “let my people go” or the miracles in the desert as stunning as Israel’s ability to withstand the preposterously asymmetrical Arab aggression against it? The revival of Hebrew from sacral high status into national vernacular is an unparalleled linguistic feat. Entrepreneurship in Israel has won it the title of “start-up nation.”
The traditional Passover Seder concludes with the pledge, “Next year in Jerusalem,” which the British poet William Blake nationalized in the vow not to rest “Till we have built Jerusalem / In England’s green & pleasant Land.” Yet modern Israel represents an immense human accomplishment that may even go beyond the prophetic vision. Passover today includes a story of national liberation at least the equal of the one in the Book of Exodus that served as its inspiration.
Ruth Wisse understands that history changes the way we think about and experience history.
Rabbi Menachem Mendle Kasher, among others, considers this approach a simple matter of Hakarat HaTov, recognizing the good that God has done. To celebrate Pesach as if there is no State of Israel is to ignore the favors that God has bestowed on us.
Rabbi Kasher recommends adding a fifth cup corresponding the the final word of redemption – V’Heiveiti – “and I will
…and our fathers have told us—we will not hide it from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of the Eternal, and His strength, and His wondrous works that He hath done.” Also, it is said: “Let them give thanks unto the Eternal for His mercy, and for His wondrous works for the children of men.”
And now, in our own time, when we have been privileged to behold the mercies of the Holy Name, blessed is He, and His salvation over us, in the establishment of the State of Israel, which is the beginning of redemption and salvation from the exile of Edom, even as it is written: “And I shall bring you into the land, the same which I have lifted my hand to give unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, and I have given it unto you as an inheritance: I am the Eternal”—it is fitting and proper that we observe this pious act, the drinking of the fifth cup, as a form of thanksgiving.
Just as we have been privileged to see the first realization of ” And I shall bring them,” so may we be worthy of witnessing the perfect and complete redemption, the coming of the Messiah. May we witness fulfillment of the vision of the prophets, that “evil shall disappear as smoke in the wind, and that all the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God.
Even if one does not subscribe to Rabbi Kasher’s messianic overtones, there is still reason to approach Pesach differently than our grandparents did. It’s called Dayeinu.
Each step of that famous song represents an incomplete redemption. Would it really have “been enough” had God brought us to Mount Sinai, but not given us the Torah?
Well, it depends on what we are asking. If we are asking, would it have been enough to be considered a complete redemption, then the answer is no. But, if the question is: Would it have been enough to offer thank to God, then the answer us yes. The answer is yes, because imperfect and incomplete redemptions are also worthy of praise and thanksgiving.
Rabbi Yehuda Amital notes this approach when discussing celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut
How can we not thank the Almighty for all the kindness that He has showered upon us? First and foremost, the State of Israel serves as a safe haven for five million Jews. After the nightmare of the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees wandered around the globe, finding a home and refuge only in Israel. The State has contributed an incalculable amount to the restoration of Jewish pride after the devastating chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) caused by the Holocaust. Today, too, the State plays an enormous role in the Jewish identity of our brethren throughout the world. For so many of them, the emotional attachment to the State remains the final thread connecting them to the Jewish people and to the God of Israel.
I spoke earlier of Rav Kook’s inability to come to terms with the establishment of a state that would not bring to fruition the ultimate destiny of redemption. This led him to claim that the impending State of Israel was to be the ideal State of the period of ge’ula (redemption). But don’t all the critical functions fulfilled by the State of Israel (as listed above) justify its existence, even if it has not developed into the ideal community? After the traumatic destruction of the Holocaust, which Rav Kook could not possibly have foreseen, the State played a critical role in the restoration and revitalization of the Jewish people. It is hard to imagine what the Jewish nation would look like today if, Heaven forbid, the State of Israel had not emerged.
I experienced the horror of the destruction of European Jewry, and I can thus appreciate the great miracle of Jewish rebirth in our homeland. Are we not obligated to thank the Almighty for His kindness towards us? Unquestionably! And not just on Yom Ha-atzma’ut; each day we must recite Hallel seven times for the wonders and miracles He has performed on our behalf: “I praise you seven times each day!” (Tehillim 119:164).
Are things perfect? No. Could things be better? Yes. Would it be that the Messiah would arrive and that all of Israel’s enemies were no longer. But we must not confuse Pesach 5773, being celebrated in a world with a State of Israel with Pesach in the Warsaw Ghetto.
March 7, 2013 | 7:29 pm
Posted by Dr. Chaim Trachtman
Rabbi Freundel's detailed analysis of the halakhic basis for Partnership Minyanim demonstrates an impressive mastery of the relevant texts. But, in assessing this new practice, it is important to examine not only the halakhic responsa but also some of the underlying assumptions about women, men, and the formulation of law within the Orthodox community that are implied in his analysis.
One recurrent theme among those who contend that Partnership Minyanim is not supported by the halakha is that people like me who attend Partnership Minyanim and find them meaningful are ends-driven. That is to say, Partnership Minyanim supporters are thought to act solely on an emotional basis and to use halakha in service of their personal needs and desires, to satisfy ulterior motives. On a very simple level, I would invite anyone who questions the validity of Partnership Minyanim to attend one. After observing the delicate maneuvering around the mechitzah and careful attention to roles during the tefila, I would ask if they cannot recognize the effort to remain firmly connected to Orthodox practice. What kind of ulterior motive would someone have for the spending the same amount of time on Shabbat morning, saying the same tefillot, listening to a Dvar Torah with women doing select portions unless they felt themselves to be Orthodox?
But taking this one step further, it is untenable to assert that advocates of Partnership Minyanim are the only people who are argue their case with a hidden agenda in mind. Everyone comes with a context. Partnership Minyanim supporters are criticized for a failure to engage with the traditional Orthodox sources in an intellectually honest manner and their analyses are seen as an attempt to retrofit the law to their desires. However, I posit that the notion that one can distinguish between purely emotional and rational grounds for halakhic decision making is a straw man. Life is complex and both elements, in varying proportion, motivate religious people to ask questions about their practices and examine their interaction with halakha. The derogation of emotional or subjective factors in religious conduct can be destructive of genuine spiritual striving. It assumes that people’s emotional state can be reliably read and judged. Unfortunately, this presumption is more often made about women than men. Moreover, the contribution of non-legal factors and personal priorities is given much greater leeway in other areas of law that do not impact on the status of women. Witness the vigorous debate between different segments of the Orthodox community in Israel today about how to best observe shmita as evidence that how the Jewish jurisprudence assesses the corpus of law changes dramatically depending on context and personal preferences. All sorts of factors have been brought into play including the viability of Israeli agriculture in a global market and enriching Arab farmers at the expense of Jewish farmers, environmental concerns, public education, and attitudes towards the performance of mitzvot. There are always meta-halakhic issues that are involved in decision making – consider the rabbinic imperative to do whatever is possible to avoid mamzerut. Halakha ideally represents a balance between intellectual clear headedness based on foundational principles and emotional responsiveness to each person and each circumstance. The best psak achieves this objective.
Second, I think the difference of opinion about whether Partnership Minyanim are consistent with an honest and rigorous reading of halakha is one that transcends the interpretation of any single or group of sources and responsa. I read Rabbi Sperber’s work as a legitimate validation of the practice of Partnership Minyanim and opponents of Partnership Minyanim reject his opinion. Perhaps, supporters of Partnership need to press the case more articulately and frame the case in a more compelling manner. But this will not eliminate the conflict. People can and do argue about the nuance of legal opinions in every society and halakha is no different. I propose that there is a larger divergence in the approach used to read sources – static and timeless versus dynamic and contextual. Contextualizing the law does not by its nature render the decision Conservative but is just as much a part of Orthodox jurisprudence. This is not unique to Jewish law and plays out in current arguments about the US Constitution, between those who favor interpretation based on original intent of the framers versus those who favor its application as a “living” document. Suffice it say that, again, I think the situation regarding the halakha is complicated. On occasion, the law is relatively fixed and unyielding. But there is ample documentation of rabbis who, in the face of opposition to change of any kind, have addressed divisive issues in innovative ways. This includes the permissibility of economic interactions with Christians and the heter mechira at the time of the early resettlement of Palestine in the late 19th century. There will be those like Rabbi Sperber who will view the desire for Partnership Minyanim as an authentic religious goal and strive to create a space within the halakha for it. In contrast, there will there be others condemn it as “chadash.”
But that brings me to my third point. I am struck by the overwhelming demand for uniformity of practice that is required by those who oppose Partnership Minyanim and who consider supporters of Partnership Minyanim to fall outside the pale of Orthodoxy. Take a different example. I suspect there is quite a divergence in practice on the second day of Yom Tov among Americans who go to Israel for holidays. Some do not observe the second day at all, some do not observe the second half of day, some distinguish between public and private activity, some are lenient with positive versus negative commandments, and on and on. Ignoring whether they are adhering to the position of their local rabbi or an available source from the Web that supports their preference, I am unaware of anyone describing any of these patterns of observance as un-Orthodox or asserting that they threaten the fabric of Orthodoxy. Is it unreasonable to ask for the same level of tolerance, and I use that word explicitly, towards those who attend Partnership Minyanim?
Finally, with regard to the view of women and men that would prohibit participation in Partnership Minyanim, I think it is worth stating clearly that there are laws that have provoked profound moral debate over the millennia. The command to annihilate Amalek is one. In 1904, Rabbi Avraham HaCohen Kook responded to a question about the status of black people (Letter #89). He asserted that, in fact, maintaining blacks in a state of servitude is for their betterment because that condition is their essential nature and is hard wired into things. The Rav taught that the status of women is cosmically fixed and determined. I will simply say that these are hard positions for some modern people to accept and that failure to embrace them does not disqualify someone as an Orthodox Jew in 2013.
In closing, as a doctor, I realize that medicine and religion are two very different activities. But, there is much that one can teach the other. In this age of blogs, social networks, and instant communication, there is much available information and people feel empowered to make decisions for themselves. Specialists in all fields may bemoan this development. Doctors are no different and many dread the patient who comes to a visit armed with ammunition from the Internet. But, in medicine, this has lead to the realization that doctors are not the end all and be all in health care. There is a growing recognition that patients’ experience of illness is a critical component in the evaluation and treatment of disease. Failure to acknowledge the patient’s perspective can cause even the best laid medical plans to fail. Why should this be? Doctors spend many years learning their craft and why wouldn’t patients simply follow the advice and prescriptions of doctors? The obvious answer is that every patient comes with a story and their disease unfolds over time in a rich context of family, friends, community and work. The wise doctor knows he/she better pay attention for the patient to have the best chance of getting better. I would ask Rabbis to listen to congregants, whatever minyan they go to.
March 1, 2013 | 9:48 am
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Orthodox Jews believe that men and women are fundamentally different. They have different characteristics, different strengths, different obligations and different ways of seeing the world and approaching life. Thus, it follows that especially for us, (as opposed perhaps to more liberal Jewish movements in which the boundaries between the genders might be more blurred), it is vital that we have both genders leading our people. If men and women see the world differently and have different voices then to have only male leaders is to limit the Jewish vision by fifty percent.
I would like to caution us against seeing women spiritual leaders in the way that liberal Jewish movements have in the past, that of expecting women to be rabbis just like their male counterparts. That a Rabbi is a Rabbi, a role blind to gender. In fact men and women are very different and we would be losing out on hearing women's unique voices of leadership and Torah if we expect them to be just like male rabbis.
I would like to propose the Maharat as a new brand of Jewish spiritual leadership. In Judaism there are many kinds of leaders and none is more important or more powerful than the other, just very different. The prophet, the priest, the lawgiver, the rabbi, the rebba, the shofet, the judge, and now the Maharat. Moshe the lawgiver could not do the job of Aaron the Kohen and vice versa. There were aspects of their roles which overlapped and each was equally important and respected, but they and their positions were wholly dissimilar.
The Maharat will be no less powerful, no less influential, no less important, no less respected than the Rabbi, but what kind of leadership the Maharat will be exactly remains to be seen. I think it vital that we not expect them to push themselves into a rabbinic box, they must have the freedom to develop their own type of leadership. I await it with excitement. Surly this is to see the hand of G-d in the ongoing growth and deepening of the Jewish people and the Torah.
February 28, 2013 | 1:13 pm
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
Quinoa has been a breath of fresh culinary air in the non-kitniyot Pesach kitchen, and has restored dietary sanity to us Ashkenazim. But the kitniyot zealots are lurking. The OU, for example, is equivocating on quinoa’s non-kitniyot status . The battle for quinoa is underway, but if we all work together, we can win this one.
Remember when peanuts were not considered kitniyot? Probably you don’t. But when Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l was asked about peanuts in 1956, most Ashkenazim were eating them on Pesach. And not only that, but Rav Moshe argued clearly and unequivocally that peanuts should remain permissible, and that they should NOT be lumped in with beans and legumes. (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 3, 63) The only reason we don’t pack up peanut butter and jelly on matzo for our Chol HaMoed outings today, is that our forbearers buckled before the kitniyot zealots of their day. And those of us who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
The kitniyot zealots of Rav Moshe’s day used arguments quite similar to those being raised by the forces conspiring to deprive us of quinoa today. The rabbi who posed the peanuts question was “astonished” that Ashkenazim were eating peanuts, for “he had heard that there is a place somewhere in which people are making flour ” out of peanuts, and further, “he had heard that peanuts are planted in fields in the same manner as other kitniyot are (i.e. they too share uncomfortable proximity to grains) ”.
But Rav Moshe, while acknowledging that these are the concerns that motivated the custom of not eating kitniyot, nonetheless dismissed the idea that the peanuts ought to now be added to the prohibition. To begin with, he points out, not everything out of which flour can be made is kitniyot, with potatoes being exhibit “A”. Additionally, not everything that may come into contact with grain is considered kitniyot, as pointed out by Taz and Magen Avraham, the classic commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch. In short, Rav Moshe concludes, the category of kitniyot includes only those items which “were explicitly prohibited, and those which are widely known [to be included]”. Further, he states, “the Sages of recent generations did not want to add new items” to the kitniyot basket, even as they would not permit that which already was customarily not eaten. . Rav Moshe continued, “and accordingly, in many places the rabbis did not want to prohibit peanuts. And in places where there is no custom prohibiting them, one should not prohibit them, for in matter such as these one should not be machmir (stringent).” Rav Moshe spoke. But we just didn’t want our peanuts badly enough.
The quinoa game is ours to lose my friends. To win, all we need to do is to keep eating it (and to check the raw quinoa for any foreign matter before cooking it, the same way Sefardim check rice). If it becomes our minhag (custom) that we eat quinoa, then the halachik argument is settled. So let’s fight for our quinoa! And then turn our attention to cooking up the most meaningful, inspiring Pesach that we can.
Chag Kasher v’same’ach to all!
February 26, 2013 | 11:56 pm
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
Dr. Ruth Calderon’s Knesset speech has created more buzz around the Jewish world than any speech like it in the history of the State of Israel. Probably because nothing remotely like it has ever happened before. The unexpected, unprecedented, yet incredibly moving sight of a non-Dati woman passionately teaching Gemara in the Knesset has captured the attention of Jews everywhere. Most of the reaction has been extremely enthusiastic. I think it might turn out to be one of the most pivotal moments in the last 300 years of Jewish history.
As a religious people, we still haven’t figured out how to engage modernity. Since the mid-18th century we have been trying to figure out how Judaism should respond to the opportunities and challenges presented by the Enlightenment and Jewish political equality. To this end, we have created political Zionism and Haskallah, Reform and Reform’s counterpoint Orthodoxy, Historical Judaism, Conservative Judaism and host of other movements and frameworks, each one intended to help us live Jewishly either in concert with, or despite, modernity. None of these approaches has proved completely successful, which is why there are so many Jews who are not connected to their roots, but each has made contributions, some of enormous historical import.
For the most part, the State of Israel has known only two of the models, Orthodoxy and secular Zionism. Both have contributed enormously to the strength and vitality of Israeli society and the rebirth of our people in its land. At the same time though, each is irremediably limited in its ability to forge a Jewish-Israeli identity that can carry the country forward. Even as we are eternally indebted to secular-Zionist ideology for creating and building the State of Israel, its weakening grip on successive generations of Israelis is well-documented and a cause of great concern. And while Orthodoxy can rightly claim credit for numerous important achievements, such as Israel’s living by the Jewish calendar in a meaningful way, and largely preserving Jewish tradition around life-cycle events, it has not – and by its internal rules frankly cannot – accommodate the thinking, the needs and the choices of most Israelis. As an Orthodox rabbi here in the States, I know only too well that the Orthodox community lacks the halachik tools and the theological leeway to satisfactorily address many people’s principled, ethical concerns around issues of universalism, intellectual honesty, and the religious inclusion of women and of gays. I obviously believe that Orthodoxy nonetheless has enormous contributions to make (through, for example, its joyful acceptance of the Divine will, and its willingness to be counter-cultural in its approach to standards of physical modesty), but like secular Zionism, it will not lead the Jewish people to redemption, at least not in the foreseeable future.
With the emergence of people like Ruth Calderon however, and with the emergence of self-described “secular” institutions of classical Jewish learning such as Alma, and Elul, and Bina, we are seeing a development that just might step into the breach. A new way of thinking and learning and behaving as a Jew in the modern world which can actually serve as a vital partner and ally of traditional Orthodoxy, living in dynamic intellectual and spiritual interchange with it, and with it weaving a net of Jewish life that will capture so many who might otherwise fall through the cracks.
It takes great courage of course to enter this kind of partnership and alliance, but the first signs of a willingness to do so where on display as Ruth Calderon offered her “shiur” in the Knesset.
February 12, 2013 | 7:39 am
Posted by Rabbi David Wolkenfeld
The first time I heard Rabbi David Hartman speak was in the summer following my “shannah aleph” year in Israel between high school and college. After spending a year in the yeshiva one of my teachers invited me to accompany him to a panel discussion taking place one evening at the Machon – the Shalom Hartman Institute – in Jerusalem’s German Colony. I barely remember what was said that evening by any of the panelists – including Rabbi Hartman. But I do remember the thrill of encountering a vibrant Jewish intellectual conversation that was taking place outside the walls of my Orthodox beit-midrash. Hearing about his death this week, at the age of 81 (an age that does not seem old when considering a scholar with so many insights left unsaid), has caused me to reflect on his legacy within my own life and work.There are two ideas that have become central to my own worldview and teaching that I learned from Rabbi Hartman. Additionally, his place within (and outside of) contemporary Orthodoxy has an additional message for the future.
The quest by Jews, in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, to translate the message of Judaism into something with universal significance was, to Rabbi Hartman, a mistake. The Torah is not a universal book with universal significance to all people. Rather, the Torah should be understood as a particular book about the relationship between the Jewish people and God. One therefore cannot turn to the Torah for guidance about other nations, other religions, and their place in God’s universe. That just is not what the Torah is about.
The Torah is a book for Jews to learn about our relationship with God and our responsibilities to God. We need to look elsewhere to learn about other people. In his “Heart of Many Rooms” Rabbi Hartman explains:
When revelation is understood as the concretization of the universal, then “whose truth is the truth?” becomes the paramount religious question and pluralism becomes a vacuous religious ideal. If, however, revelation can be separated from the claim of universality, and if a community of faith can regain an appreciation of the particularity of the divine-human encounter, the pluralism can become a meaningful part of Biblical faith experiences…
This passage, quoted in Professor Alan Brill’s excellent book “Judaism and World Religions” is a core text when I teach about the possibility of inter-religious pluralism from a Jewish perspective. It always strikes a chord with students and I believe it offers a productive way forward for Jewish understandings of other religions.
Rabbi Avraham Kook had imagined the State of Israel as a messianic synthesis of traditional Orthodoxy and the vitality and creativity of secular Jewish nationalism. A utopian visionary, Rabbi Avraham Kook wrote that only in the aftermath of the First World War (“the war to end all wars”) was it appropriate for sovereignty to return to the Jewish people. Rabbi Avraham Kook died in 1931 and it was left to his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook to interpret his father’s messianic hopes for the State of Israel in light of the actual State of Israel that arose in the aftermath of Holocaust and war, and that continues to fight wars for its survival. For Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, and his students – many of whom occupy positions of influence throughout Israel today – the existing State of Israel can be identified entirely with the messianic state of Rabbi Avraham Kook’s writings. This Messianic Religious Zionism has fueled the idealism, energy, and fervor of the Israeli Religious Zionist community and has brought it from the margins of Israeli society to its center. But there has been a steep price as well. Messianic Zionism has coincided with an intransigent stance regarding territorial compromise as a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Whether one has a more right-wing or a more left-wing political orientation, one can see the problematic nature of a theological position that locks the Religious Zionist community into absolute rejection of all territorial compromise. Coming as the Religious Zionist sector achieves political prominence, Israel’s leaders are denied the flexibility to act proactively on behalf of Israel.
Rabbi Hartman’s book “Israeli’s and the Jewish Tradition” articulates an alternative theology for Religious Zionism that is not connected to identifying the State of Israel as being located on a specific point in the process of redemption.
Today we have an opportunity to reestablish the normative moment of Sinai, rather than the Exodus story, as the primary framework for evaluating the significance of Jewish history. To be religiously significant, a historical event does not have to be situated between the moment of the Exodus and the coming of the Messiah. It can be significant by encouraging us to discover new depths in the foundational moment of Israel’s election as a covenantal people… In reestablishing the Jewish nation in its ancient homeland, Jews have taken responsibility for all aspects of social life. The divine call to become a holy nation committed to implementing the letter and spirit of the Torah must influence our economic, political, and religious institutions. Through the establishment of the state of Israel, we are called upon to demonstrate the moral and spiritual power of the Torah to respond to the challenges of daily life.
In the aftermath of the Six Day Way, the Messianic Religious Zionism of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook gained increasing ascendancy within the Religious Zionist community in Israel. Rabbi Hartman has been one of the most vigorous and articulate opponents of Messianic Religious Zionism and has offered a compelling theology of Religious Zionism that is rooted in the rebirth of Jewish peoplehood in its fullest expression and not in the expansion of Jewish settlement throughout every inch the historic Jewish homeland.
Rabbi Hartman’s final book, The God Who Hates Lies, written with Rabbi Charlie Buckholtz was the subject of a critical review in Tradition “the journal of Orthodox Jewish thought.” The review was intelligent, respectful, and raised objections to Rabbi Hartman’s thesis that I thought were cogent and compelling. However, reading the review left me with a feeling of sadness. In publishing the review, the editors of Tradition (a group that includes many of the individuals I most respect) were acknowledging that responding to and evaluating Rabbi Hartman’s ideas was a priority for the “journal of Orthodox Jewish thought” but it had been many years since Rabbi Hartman himself had been published in Tradition. In the fifteen years or so that I have been a reader of Tradition, the journal has published erudite rejections of partnership minyannim, a respectful and thoughtful critical review of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s theology of Jewish-Christian relations, and a scholarly rebuttal of Tzvi Zohar’s book on the history of conversion standards. All of these episodes illustrate that the Modern Orthodox intelligentsia recognizes that there are ideas and phenomenon taking place at the periphery of our community that demand a response. But, the advocates for these new paths and ways of thinking are relatively absent from our journals, our schools, and our synagogues.
No idea deserves acceptance just because it’s new. And I personally often sympathize with more conventional and traditional ways of thinking and behaving. But it seems that we have become more afraid of the “wrong idea” in contemporary Orthodoxy than we are excited about discovering the next “right idea.” Too often our scholars devote more effort to rebutting a solution they dislike than they devote to using their Torah scholarship to create new solutions to the problems facing our community.
Figures of great influence and authority within contemporary Orthodoxy, (such as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on religious pluralism and Rabbi Yehuda Amital z’l on non-messianic Zionism) have shared ideas that Rabbi Hartman had developed years earlier. His intellectual legacy is broad within Orthodoxy and his ideas are easy to find. But it is harder to find the voice of Rabbi Hartman himself. There is much to celebrate in his legacy after such a productive and rich life, but for the Orthodox community, the absence of Rabbi David Hartman from our communal discourse is a warning for the future.
January 31, 2013 | 7:55 am
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
News of the suspension from school of Ophir Ben-Shetreet, for performing on the Israeli hit show, “The Voice” in violation of her school’s policy of Kol Isha (the ban of women singing in public) is now well known.
The school’s decision to suspend Ophir is theirs alone. It is also true that schools have the right to discipline students for breaking the rules. No one should fault the school for implementing a standing policy.
Having said that, this story does offer an opportunity to discuss an issue that is present when rendering Halachik rulings.
This particular ruling on Kol Isha is an example of a ruling that, given the current social reality, may very well result in people feeling alienated from Halacha. On this concern I quote Rav David Bigman, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa from a full treatment of Kol Isha: “The assertion of the Maharshal, (accepted as practical halakha) that psychological and spiritual need is considered an important concern that justifies reliance upon a lone or minority halakhic opinion. And according to reliable accounts, there are women in certain communities who are so offended by the ruling forbidding them to sing in public that they turn away from the Torah and commandments due to it.”
Writing about Kol Isha (Techumin Vol. 32), Rav Moshe Lichtenstein noted this point and rightly points out that as far as many in the public are concerned, a strict ruling on Kol Isha, is a rule that sheds light on the entire system of halacha, i.e. a system that discriminates against women by restricting their self expression.
There are legitimate and well-substantiated alternative views regarding the nature of the Kol Isha prohibition.
Rav Bigman notes that according to some authorities, the prohibition of Kol Isha only applies in the context of the recitation of the Shema.: “Important Rishonim held that the main prohibition of listening to a woman's voice is only during the recitation of the Shema and other core parts of the prayer service, in accordance with the intuitive context of Shemuel's statement "the voice of a woman is erva."
Rabbi Avraham Shammah wonders why the stricture against Kol Isha is upheld with such vigor while other prohibitions meant to limit contact with women and possible transgression are not. For example, he notes that Shulchan Aruch rules as follows: “ A [male] person has to distance himself from women, very very much” and then asks: “Do all of those who arise to forbid hearing the voices of women uphold everything that is written in this halahka? Do they distance themselves from women very, very much? The answer is “absolutely not!”; certainly not [according to] the intent of our teacher [R. Yosef Karo]. It should be expressed in clear language: in our day, society is mixed (men and woman). And even in the most stringent haredi groups, there is a mixed society at various levels. Work places are mixed, even in the haredi sector, and married men and married women meet there on a daily basis for the course of hours. The grocery stores in this sector are completely mixed, at banks married men and married women work and meet; likewise, in the markets, the streets, and every locale. We find, then, that this halakha has been dismissed and ignored, until it is no longer regarded strictly. Go out and see what people do in the market.”
His answer is insightful: “From a logical point of view, this [inconsistency] is intolerable, especially because those same people who rule stringently are not generally known for deficiencies in [halakhic] judgment. It seems to me, and this should be said as a generalization, that what is being considered is not really a matter of [women’s] modesty. Rather, halakha is being used as a religious marker. That is to say, in a situation where it is quite impossible to be stringent, such as distancing oneself from women very, very much, people aren’t careful. But it is very easy to be stringent in forbidding hearing a woman’s voice, while – in the best case - the added value of an internal sense of religiosity is great. In a less positive light, it is a minute effort for a huge return of being able to externally demonstrate one’s religiosity. This phenomenon, that generally is quite widespread, is worthy of penetrating criticism, and the words of the prophets are brimming with such [criticism].”
Rav Shammah makes another interesting point about how Halacha considers subjective reality. “Centuries ago, the Ritv”a relied on this principle, [and wrote] at the end of Kiddushin: “ … and so is the law that everything is according to what a person knows about himself, if it is appropriate for him to maintain a distance [from women] because of his sexual urges, he should do so, and [for him] even to look at women’s colored clothing is forbidden … while if he knows that his sexual urges submit to him and are under his control … he is permitted to look and to speak with a woman who is forbidden to him and to ask the well-being of another man’s wife, and that was the situation with Rabbi Yohanan who sat near the gates of the mikve and was not concerned about his evil inclination, and [with] Rabbi Ammi,
in front of whom the king’s maidservants went out [to sing and praise him], and [with] several of the Sages who conversed with those ladies, and [with] Rav Ada bar Ahava of whom it is said in K’tubot that he lifted a bride on his shoulders and danced with her and did not concern himself with [unseemly] thoughts- [all these behaved as such] for the reason that we stated …”.
In addition, in spite of all the complexity and difficulty with the matter, one should not easily dismiss the [concept] of the public becoming accustomed [to mixing with women], or that [the public] does not perceive a woman’s voice as [provoking] lewdness. This [aspect] of being accustomed [to mixing with women] has significant weight in general reasoning, and the poskim have relied on it, each according to his method.”
Others have limited the prohibition to circumstances when one intends to enjoy forbidden pleasure (Sdei Chemed citing Rabbi Aharon De Toledo. This is also the opinion of Rambam according to Rabbi Yechiel Yakov Weinberg) or only to women whom the listener knows personally.
The Orthodox establishment should consider these views as L’Chatchilla rulings in the service of the overarching goal of making Halachik living accessible and tolerable to as many people as possible.
I will close with a quote form Rav Chaim of Volohzin reminding us of the difference between theoretical Halacha and the very real people affected by Psak Halacha.
“I see that regarding most things we are headed in the same direction. It is just that you incline toward stringency, since the matter is not cast upon you. Just like you, I too did not turn to the allowances that emerge from study before the burden of decision-making was placed upon my shoulders. Now, however, as a result of our many sins, our environs have been orphaned of its sages, and the yoke of ruling for the entire area was placed on my shoulders … And I calculated with my Maker, and I saw it a personal obligation to gather all my strength in order to persevere in finding a remedy for the agunot. (Responsa Chut Ha-meshulash I:8) (see here - Halakha and Morality Part 2)
How Ophir will react to a very strict interpretation that ostracizes her by marginalizing other, equally valid, interpretations, in anyone’s guess. What is so disappointing here is that Halacha is being used to drive people away from observance instead of being used to bring them closer.