Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
This week’s torah portion, Lech L’cha begins with God telling Abraham to leave his homeland and go, “to a place which I will show you.” According to the Ramban God took Avrom traveling for a long time from land to land. Why? As Rashi says, “in order to make your nature, (your personality), known in the world.” This nomadism at the beginning of Abraham’s building of our people was done in order to educate the world, for the families of the earth which Abraham was to be a blessing to, to learn from his nature.
But what does Rashi mean by Abraham’s nature? Why not say to learn from Abraham about monotheism or chesed, the things Avrom was known for? Perhaps the answer is that chesed and monotheism are intellectual and moral choices one makes; Avrohom’s nature that Rashi mentions perhaps refers to something else –Avrohom’s personality, his way of seeing the world.
The Rambam and the Midrash depict Abraham as someone who is perplexed by the universe, trying constantly to find the truth about its cause and maker. He is “mishotet b’daato” roaming in his mind. Avrohom’s actions were chesed, his theology was monotheism, but is tevah, as Rashi puts it, his nature and personality are to look for truth even if it means being an iconoclast, even if it means’ taking 40 years, as the Rambam says, to search the world to find the true meaning in it.
Let us learn from Avrohom this Shabbat to accentuate our true nature as a people, of searching and searching for truth, of not being satisfied with the status quo even if that status quo comes from our own communities and even if it comes with much pressure to conform.
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October 29, 2009 | 11:42 pm
Posted by Rabba Sara Hurwitz
I am the co-mesaderet kiddushin at a wedding next week. It is not the first wedding I have participated in. And at each ceremony, I can’t help but feel concerned about how the guests will respond to seeing a woman under the chupah. Will people question whether the couple is halakhicly married? Will some call into question the couple’s religious level of observance? How will my presence impact one of the most memorable days of a couple’s life as well as the future they will make together. And then I get a hold of myself, and I realize that there is very little negative impact that a female presence can have on the wedding ceremony. When one actually analyzes the different components of the wedding ceremony, it is apparent that there is little that a woman cannot do, and much that a woman can contribute.
The mesder/et kiddsuhin’s obligation to the couple begins way before the wedding day.
On a halakhic level, the mesader/et kiddushin ensures that the couple is versed in the laws of niddah (family purity). The mesader/et reviews the components of the wedding ceremony, and must review very carefully the language of the ketubah and the tenaim.
On a pastoral level, the mesader/et meets with the couple to discuss sensitive family dynamics, expectations they each have for their marriage, and to try uncover and acknowledge fears that each may harbor with regards to their relationship.
It seems obvious that a sensitive knowledgeable woman would be in a position to meet all of the above obligations. If the couple has a relationship with a female religious leader, there seems to be no barriers, thus far, to a female mesadert kiddushin.
Which brings me to the ceremony itself. It is true that there are aspects of the ceremony that cannot be performed by woman. Women cannot function as witnesses to the ketubah or to the ring ceremony. There are those who argue that a woman should not say the brikat erusin. And there is some halahkic concern with a woman reciting the sheva brachot. However, the formal definition of the mesdaer kiddsuin is “the one who arranges the betrothal.” Translation—to coordinate the ceremony. Practically this means explaining the components of the ceremony (if the wedding is in a place that needs to be explained), offering meaningful words under the chupah, ensuring that each of the components are recited appropriately and correctly. In most ceremonies the mesader does not read the sheva brachot, and it is common to honor esteemed friends and family with different components of the ceremony.
And so, I ask again: is there really any reason for a woman who has a meaningful relationship with the couple not to officiate at the wedding? I think not.
October 28, 2009 | 11:46 am
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
The Bible tells the story of the Jewish people—who we are and who we are challenged to be. Our national birth occurs in Chapter 12 of Genesis, when God instructs Abraham to leave his family and pagan Mesopotamian culture and journey to Canaan. Here he will start a new life, a new culture and a new people: the Jewish people in covenant with God.
Genesis 12 also signals a literary and theological change of direction. Genesis’ first eleven chapters are a narrative of the cosmos and humanity, suffused with the grandeur of God’s universal concern. Yet from chapter 12 onward, the Bible’s focus narrows dramatically, restricting itself to God’s stormy relationship with a small, particular people—Abraham’s descendants. It is the story of two lovers so smitten with each other that they leave the rest of the world behind. The God of the universe has gone ethnic.
Looking closely, we can still detect the universal plan. A critical part of the particularistic covenant with Abraham is a bold challenge: “Be a blessing…. Through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God calls upon the Jewish people to be a partner in creation and to carry the divine blessing to all humanity. It is so essential to the covenant that the Bible repeats it twice more to Abraham, once to Isaac when he inherits the covenant and once more to Jacob when the covenant is passed to the third generation. Jews are not to be an isolated ghetto people, or an insignificant minority relegated to a footnote to the larger human story. The covenant calls on us to be a major player—the major player—in the culture and history of the world.
The late 19th century Hasidic master, R. Yehudah Leib Alter (“the Sefat Emet”), connected this idea to the Sinai commandment for Jews to be “a kingdom of priests.” The function of Jewish priests is to bestow God’s blessing on other Jews. (Think of the beautiful blessing that kohanim recite every holiday before the congregation.) But if all Jews are a nation of priests, it must be the nations of the world that entire Jewish people is to bless. Indeed, ancient midrashim portray Abraham as a priest among his pagan neighbors, foreshadowing the spiritual role that his descendants received at Sinai.
Unfortunately much of the covenant’s universal dimension has receded into the background of Jewish life. This is understandable given how painfully we suffered at the hands of the Romans, the Church, the Tsars, the Nazis, the Communists and others. It seems that whenever we tried to engage with the gentile world, Jewish blood ran in the streets. Today Jews are a traumatized people still reeling from the wounds from history. Thus survival tops our agenda and our religious lives tend to turn inward to the security of our homes, study halls and synagogues. Yet the Torah demands that the Jewish people not merely survive, but become agents of universal blessing.
We can bestow the divine blessing in two ways—one active, one more passive. Chapter 18 of Genesis relates that Abraham argued with God to save any righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah. This audacious behavior confirmed his qualifications to be the father of the covenant, since it demonstrated Abraham’s commitment to teach “the way of the Lord, doing tsedakah (justice) and mishpat (righteousness).” This is why Jews are the children of Abraham and not the children of Noah. Abraham was righteous in his concern for others, while Noah was self-righteous in caring only about himself and his family. The message is clear: God’s covenant bids us to move the world toward justice and morality.
Rashi and some other commentators opted for a more passive interpretation: The covenant requires Abraham and the Jewish people to be role models for others. When we act righteously, others will be moved to emulate our behavior and adopt “the way of the Lord.” Actually this path is the more difficult personal one because it places a heavy responsibility on all members of the covenant: Each of us is required to act with integrity in everything we do—and to be seen as such by those around us. As the covenantal nation others take special note of our behavior, both good and bad. We cannot be true to God’s covenant and be morally lax. When we fail ethically, we create scandal and bring harm to the world, not blessing. This is the very opposite of the Bible’s dream for the Jewish people.
God’s covenant with the children of Abraham does not allow us to withdraw into isolation out of some mistaken notion of spiritual purity. In the Bible’s vision of sacred history, Jewish religious life is not a parochial or ethnic affair. God has asked Jews to become a charismatic nation—a people with a message to the world. And as the people of the covenant, our behavior should reflect the wide spiritual horizons of our covenantal partner, the Creator of the universe Who is invested in the course of human history.
Whether we choose to actively engage or to be role models, the covenant demands that we be mindful of our role in history and that the Jewish people have a purpose beyond ourselves. In the simple and profound words of the Torah, “Be a blessing.”
Eugene Korn is American Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel and editor of Meorot—A Journal of Modern Orthodox Discourse.
October 27, 2009 | 12:00 pm
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
Sometimes I wonder if the term Modern Orthodox serves as a hurdle for greater and more inspired religious growth. I am not questioning the philosophy of Modern Orthodoxy, I am concerned that the term Modern Orthodoxy is used to support a standard of living that is less than optimal.
Part of the issue is that many Modern Orthodox Jews have chosen a few key definition points on which they stake their entire identity. Examples of this include: saying hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut (with a bracha, w/o a bracha), wearing a knitted kippah, academic scholarship, relationships with the non orthodox and the non orthodox movements, attaining acceptance to the best universities, and women’s issues.
Do not get me wrong, all of the above mentioned issues are very important and deserve attention, but by focusing so much energy on these issues, and by making them the points by which Modern Orthodoxy defines itself, we often lose sight on the nuts and bolts of Judaism.
In order for Modern Orthodoxy to thrive, to be taken seriously and to survive with integrity, we must be focused on our commitments to Torah study, teffila and adherence to halacha, including the precise details of Halacha.
We often talk about not being defensive and not “looking over our right shoulder” when justifying our philosophy. It seems to me that people get defensive when they are hiding something or are not particularly sure of themselves.
Perhaps instead of telling each other not to be defensive, we need to take a good look at ourselves and put in place the tools, communal expectations and ideals that would give us the confidence to declare that we are Modern Orthodox and proud of it.
October 23, 2009 | 6:54 pm
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
I recently went to hear Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski speak of the respect the Torah demands in relationships. He quoted the Talmud, which says, “a man must love his wife as himself and respect her more than himself.” He spoke of the fact that the Talmud forbids rape within marriage, something the western world only began legislating a century ago.
He spoke of how some Jews who are abusive, especially knowledgeable ones, quote things in the Torah to defend themselves, such as from last week’s Torah portion. “…and he (Adam) will rule over you (Eve).” And the Talmud’s statement that a woman must respect her husband by doing what he says.
I asked Rabbi Twersky, how he thought rabbis could help to tweak the Jewish people’s views of relationships so that it would be clear that relationships which are abusive are always wrong? He did not have a specific answer to the question but did add that it is rare to change an abuser.
I would say that even if we can not change individual abusers and control freaks in marriages, how we describe the Torah’s views of men, woman and relationships, how we as rabbis color the glass through which our people look is everything, and can, over time change our views as a people. What we quote from the Torah, what attitudes we depict and which we leave aside, is the way that in their preaching and writing rabbis construct a Jewish worldview for their congregants and for the Jewish nation. In this way, over time, we can change (for the better) the way in which the Jewish people see the Torah’s image of relationships, and for that matter most things.
October 21, 2009 | 2:51 am
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
One weekend. Two gatherings. Two conversations that, in retrospect, are profoundly linked.
Saturday night, a conversation with a man who is new to Jewish practice, but is firmly committed to observance for the long haul. His Hebrew reading has become pretty fluent, but davening – in particular weekday davening in the minyan – is still a spiritually fruitless experience for him. It’s just rapid-fire streams of words that he does not understand, into which even the linear translation cannot seem to breathe life. Too many words going by way too fast. It can’t help but feel like an obligation to be discharged, rather than a religious opportunity to be enjoyed. He’s going to take a crack at Prayerbook Hebrew the Easy Way, (http://www.ekspublishing.com ), and hopes this will help.
Sunday morning. A conversation with an ebullient grandmother who had recently read and lectured on Dr. Aliza Lavie’s Tefillat Nashim: Jewish Women’s Prayers Throughout the Ages. She gushes with excitement and wonder as she describes the religious creativity and spiritual authenticity of Jewish women’s prayer over the last four centuries. Prayers (“techinot”) that women have written for in the hope of finding a good match, before venturing into the marketplace to engage in commerce, or upon the occasion of their daughter’s first menstruation. How exciting it is, she concludes, that this religious art form has been chronicled, and that is has become revivified among Jewish women today.
Men are stuck. For better and for worse, it is our collective male obligation to follow and to preserve the “matbea”, the structure and formula of classical rabbinic prayer. All of the words, all the time. We do it for the greater goods of historical continuity and the unity of our far-flung people. And with God’s help and with years of effort we come to appreciate the spiritual genius that inheres in the “matbea”.
But we should probably also be looking over our shoulders at what our women have been doing with their less rigidly-structured obligation of daily prayer. Not to replace the “matbea”, but to supplement it. Not just to add even more words, but to add some life. We can even insert our male “techinot” right into the “amida”.
Here’s a quick sample that took me only about 10 minutes to compose: A techina upon coming home from work aggravated.
My God, whose name is Peace. I know that I am blessed to have a job, and I thank You for the gifts You have given me, and the insight which you renew within me daily. Since the days of Adam, our work is by the sweat of our brow, and too often I complete the day’s work feeling stressed or aggravated. Assist me, God, in remembering the words of the Ketubah, through which I promised not only to support and maintain, but also to cherish and honor the wife with whom You have blessed me. Remind me of the joy with which I beheld my children at the moment of their birth, and my commitment to their happiness. Furnish me the with the strength to close a door – even if only for a few hours - on the aggravations of the day, and with the wisdom to recognize who I am with, now that I have walked through the front door of my home.
October 20, 2009 | 12:23 pm
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
I flew to NY yesterday on a very early flight – too early to daven before I left so I had to daven on the plane.
I have come to really enjoy davening on airplanes.
First of all, on these early morning flights, as was the case yesterday morning, most people were asleep and it was very quiet. I found it very peaceful and davening at my own pace without the sounds of others. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the sounds of a lively tefilla in shul, but my quiet airplane davenig was a welcome change of pace.
The are so few times in our lives when we actually have the opportunity to be in silence. usually the only time we are alone with potential for quiet time is in the car and then we usually put on the radio. Being alone and in a quiet space is often an unsettling experience as our thoughts may take us places emotionally that we do not want to go. On the other hand, quiet gives us a chance to think and concentrate, if only for a few minutes on important matters and the important people in our lives.
While daveing on the plane and reciting the blessing of “Ata Chonen L’adam Da’at” – “you grace humanity with knowledge” - I was overcome with a sense of gratefulness to God. I thought for a moment about all of the wisdom and knowledge that is involved in airplane travel and feelings og gratitude to God for granting humanity knowledge rushed over me.
It was a powerful spiritual moment, one in which I was reminded that even the most mundane and common occurences can connect us to our creator.
October 16, 2009 | 3:25 am
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
This week Jews in synagogues around the world will begin again reading the Hebrew Bible from the beginning of the book of Genesis to finish the five books of Moses in 52 weeks hence. Reading the biblical story of creation is on one hand enlightening in its stark contrast to many ancient accounts of the creation in which random forces or jealous gods battle each other, rather than an intelligent and merciful creator and lawgiver making the world for a purpose. On the other hand for us who live in a post-enlightenment age of science the biblical account of creation can feel downright childish. What’s a Jew to do?
I am comforted when I reflect on the history of Jewish thought and biblical commentary which has for millennia has allowed much room to see the biblical account of creation as metaphor. I will offer two classic quotes from the most well known of the traditional Jewish biblical commentators both of whom lived over 1000 years ago. These classical Jewish understandings of the Biblical creation story, which hold that the Bible tells us only “Who” did the creating, but tells us nothing about the “how” of creation, stand I think in contrast to, and as a breath of fresh air from, the current either/or creationism/science debates.
The first is Rash”I (Rabbi Shlomo Isaac of Worms, France 1040CE-1105CE) who claims that the bible’s creation story is incorrect since it describes God as having separated the waters before their creation and contains various other inconsistencies. In addition he claims the function of the bible is in no way to describe the story of the world’s creation or for that matter any other story of the characters in genesis: “The bible should have begun not from where it does in describing the creation of the world, but from the first commandment given to the Jewish people as a nation upon leaving Egypt.”
Why then does the bible begin from the creation of the world? Only to tell us that it is God who created the world, should peoples in the future accuse the Jewish nation of taking the land of Israel, they will know it is God that created the world and gave the various lands to whom He saw fit (Rash"I, 1:1).
Nachmonides, perhaps the second most well known of the Jewish biblical commentators argues that we do need the story of the creation so that we can know it is God who made the universe, but says Nachamonides, from the story as it is described in Genesis we can discern nothing about the creation. The actual story of creation, says Nachmonides, was told only to Moses. Those few who know it do not say, and those say do not know it.