Posted by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
For the past four years, my synagogue has cosponsored, along with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, an Iftar in the Synagogue, which usually gets about 20-30 Muslims and 60-80 Jews. I feel it’s in the tradition of Middle East Friday Night that we did at the Oxford Jewish Society twenty years ago when we had Israelis and Palestinians reading poetry over a Shabbat dinner that followed davening. Iftar in the Synagogue also consists of schmoozing, then a teaching by a rabbi (me) and an Imam about the dates for Jews and Muslims, then Mincha – and this time almost every Jews stayed – then our Muslims friends go downstairs to break their fast, to pray Salat – usually in the JCC – and then we all feast together on Halal food from the best kosher Middle Eastern restaurant in Chicago. The dinner ends with Bircat Hamazon: which talks about the Land, Jerusalem and the future of the Jewish people. However, as we know, there are also universal parts to benching. It seems that at Iftar in the Synagogue everyone is looking at things that we have in common, that bring us together, rather than things that pull us apart.
But I wanted to point out that as concerned I am for peace in Israel, and for Muslims and Jews to get along and learn from each other in Chicago and America, as much of a believer I am that different people can come together and get a lot out of each other’s company, sometime the most rewarding part of an event like this is to see how it brings out the Jews. There were Jews at this Iftar – dozens – who only get to daven mincha in a shul, or only step into an Orthodox shul, when we can show them that we are open to Muslims coming to our synagogue as well. And if this is their path to Judaism, is this is the way we affirm that their heritage can speak to them as well, that’s great. That is what Morethodoxy is all about: showing people that despite what they may have been led to believe, Judaism is relevant in their lives. Judaism has a power to touch them.
I wish all of us, that just as doors to Judaism opened for some through Iftar in the synagogue, that we find ways to open the gates of Judaism, the gates of Mitzvot and Torah, which were closed to us this year. We have to be creative about finding those gates and figure out how to get through. Maybe even more creative than Iftar in the Synagogue. But we cannot afford to ignore all the doors that await us. We need to find those keys and those doors and allow ourselves to be led to new depths in our Yiddishkeit.
May we all have a year filled with open doors to grow closer to Hashem, our People and our purpose in life. A 5770 with more good, more opportunities for good, more appreciation of Hashem’s good and infinite gifts for us.
G’mar chatima tova l’chulan ul’chol Yisrael,
11.20.13 at 8:41 pm | 75% of Jews who, according to the Pew report, do. . .
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8.15.13 at 2:54 pm | Understanding the message of Yom Kippur
12.2.09 at 11:12 pm | (22)
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1.31.13 at 6:55 am | The Orthodox establishment should consider. . . (11)
September 11, 2009 | 1:34 pm
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
In a few days, on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah many of us will fulfill the once a year commandment of hearing the sound of the Shofar. The mitzvah of the Shofar, as reflected in the blessing we make upon it, is not to blow the shofar, but to hear its sound.
There are primarily two shofar sounds, the tekiah (one long sound) and the teruah (a series of shorter sounds). The tikiah is the main blast blown on the Yovel, the jubilee year, to declare freedom throughout the Land of Israel, and in a war to call the people to battle. It is a declaration, a public address system. But on Rosh Hashanah the main sound of the shofar is the teruah, the shorter staccato series of sounds.
The Talmud in tractate Rosh Hashanah tells us that this teruah blast is the sound of crying. We blow two versions of the teruah sound, three medium blasts (shevarim) and nine very short blasts because we are unsure what type of cry to mimic, a waling cry (medium blasts) or a more staccato cry (short blasts) so we blow both on Rosh Hashanah. All of these teruah blasts on Rosh Hashanah are for one purpose, to express through the shofar horn, the sound of crying.
What is the purpose of this crying; this teruah blast? The Torah tells us (Lev. 23:24) that it is “zichron”, memory. But what are we to remember through the cry of the teruah and how does crying shofar sound help us to remember?
The medical and psychological literature on crying tells us that crying results from changes in, and usually losses of, intimate interpersonal relationships. As Don Quixote once said, “He loves you well, who makes you weep.”
What purpose does crying serve? Many people facing the loss of such a relationship report feeling less sad after crying. Though the relationship they were lamenting has not changed their crying was a kind of catharsis, a shedding of armor allowing deeper emotions and true feelings to emerge into awareness. Crying is a state that is quite vulnerable, one in which we become more ourselves, exposed and real. True crying is perhaps the most genuine of acts.
“Zichron,” or memory, is thus an essential part of crying. Without memory there is no change in relationship. Without memory things are only as they are. There can be no regret without memory, no hope for the relationship to be or have been other than it was. No feelings of loss for the past and no feeling of hope for the future.
Our Shofar sound, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy relates, also recalls two historical shofar blasts. That of the shofar at Mount Sinai when the Jews first received the Torah and became a godly nation, and the future shofar blast that will be sounded at the heralding of the messiah. We first recall the shofar of the past, the memories of our most intimate moment of relationship with God, the moment of our wedding as a nation to God at Mount Sinai.
Weddings are the most photographed and remembered moments. From no other event is cake saved for years to come only to recall the past, dresses preserved and videos watched. But weddings, as ours with God at Mount Sinai, are only one day. A wedding’s function in memory is to remember how the relationship can be, the intimacy that was possible in the past and can be again for the future. The intimate present of our relationship with God, facilitated by our memories of Mount Sinai in the past, will lead us hopefully to a deeper relationship in the future and ultimately the shofar of the Messiah.
Memory itself is an intellectual act, but crying along with memory, the teruah’s cry, helps us not only remember but for the memories to become real, to be emotionally overwhelming even in the present. To then relive and reestablish the relationship we remember, in the present and ultimately into the future.
Yes, Rosh Hashanah is about judgment and forgiveness but only as a tool to reestablish our intimate relationship with the Infinite one, from the past, in the present, and hopefully with God’s help, into the future.
Shanah Tovah! A Sweet Year!
September 10, 2009 | 8:40 am
Posted by Rabba Sara Hurwitz
Today is the opening day of Yeshivat Mahara”t, a day I believe, that will go down in history. It is the first program open to Orthodox women that is willing not only to train, but to ordain women as spiritual leaders— as rabbinic leaders— in the Orthodox community. This is the message that I hope to impart to the inaugural class:
At the conferral ceremony just a few months ago, where I became a Mahara”t, almost everyone who rose to speak declared with joy, “zeh hayom asah Hashem, nagila v’nismacha vo.” This is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad on it. And it truly was an inspiring moment, a day to rejoice and be glad. But for me, this day, today, September 10, 2009, 21st day of Elul, 5769, carries far more import. This is the dream that I have been waiting to see come to fruition. It is the dream, to quote this week’s parsha, of “kulchem:” “Atem nizavim hayom kulchem lifnei Hashem.” You are standing today, ALL of you, before God.” Kulchem includes all people, elders, officers, men, women, and children all standing together to accept and be included in God’s covenant.
The Alshich, a Biblical commentator living in the 16th century in Safed, notes that everyone—kulchem, were standing “equally in the presence of the Lord, simultaneously.” What an idyllic image, where one’s gender or status was irrelevant; for men, women and children, old and young, rich and poor, alike were standing together, in partnership before God.
Women’s learning and leadership has made tremendous strides over the past century. This space, this place that we are sitting in now, Drisha Institute for women, has been on the forefront of fortifying and nourishing women with knowledge, courage and confidence to become Jewish scholars. But, we cannot stop there. The time has come, the day has come, for women to transform their knowledge into service, to be able to stand together, with our male counterparts, as spiritual leaders of our community. And not because women should have the same opportunities as men – although they should – and not because women can learn and achieve on par with men – although they can. But because women, as Jewish leaders, have so many singular and unique gifts to offer, so much to contribute to the larger Jewish community.
So let us not let this day pass by without taking a moment to acknowledge and celebrate how much we have actually achieved, and to look forward to the achievements and milestones to come.
September 9, 2009 | 3:17 am
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
When we conjure up the typical profile of a “religious person”, one of the qualities that leaps to mind is temperance. In some religious traditions – not ours – this quality dictates the severe discouragement or outright prohibition of any alcoholic consumption at all. In many other traditions – including ours – temperance means careful moderation in consumption, as the state of drunkenness that would otherwise result is incompatible with the state of Godliness. Beginning when Aharon and his sons were forbidden to drink while on duty in the Temple, and continuing through Nachmanides’ oft-quoted characterization of drunkenness as the antithesis of holiness (see his commentary on “You Shall be Holy”, Leviticus 19:2), our religious tradition presents us with the assertion that we may enjoy the presence of God, or the buzz of inebriation - but not both. They simply can’t occupy the same mind simultaneously. And since we are told to stand in God’s presence at all times (shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid), drunkenness at any time is a sacrilege. Ibn Ezra likened habitual drunkenness to heresy (see his commentary to Deuteronomy 21:20). Rabbi Yosef Karo, writing in his Bet Yosef, ruled that drunkenness is prohibited even on Purim, for “drunkenness is an absolute prohibition, and there is no greater sin that it…” (Siman 695)
Tragically though, drinking, well beyond the simple “l’chaim”, has become something of a pastime among many males in the Orthodox community. Contributing to the nature of the tragedy is the fact that much of the drinking is specifically taking place under the guise of religious activity. The OU’s highly publicized recent campaign against shul-based “Kiddush clubs” provides ample testimony to the wide-spread nature of the phenomenon. Simchat Torah has somehow become synonymous with excessive alcohol consumption, in willful ignorance of what is allegedly being celebrated. And the drinkers seem to get younger and younger with each passing year.
This is tragic for many reasons. It disfigures and distorts religious life. It introduces the high statistical likelihood that the children of these men will also begin to drink. And it testifies to the troubling reality that many of our community’s men are enjoying little to nothing in the way of authentic religious experience. When davening itself (or learning, or acts of chesed) makes you feel good, it doesn’t occur to you to supplement your experience artificially.
While the Hasidic movement has contributed many great things to mainstream Orthodoxy, the contribution of “religious drinking” – rightly condemned by non-Hasidic scholars as thoroughly foreign to us – has been a disaster.
For the sake of the children, for the sake of the families, for the sake of God and the Torah, don’t smile and pretend that somehow it’s all harmless. Don’t wait till God forbid, something unspeakably terrible happens.
September 8, 2009 | 8:29 am
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
There have been a number of interesting reactions to my call of orthodox Jewish groups to support universal health care. Two themes have emerged: 1. Most people are covered by insurance they pay for, other enjoy Medicare or Medicaid coverage and those who are not in these categories do not deserve coverage. The logic goes something like this. If one cannot afford coverage it is because they have made bad life choices and therefore should not be bailed out by the Government. 2. Religious groups need not enter this discussion, as it is a political issue and not a religious/moral issue.
As for #1, I put this under the category of cruel and misinformed. There are millions of people (growing in this economic recession) without health insurance simply because they cannot afford it and are still not covered by any Government plan.
I wish, however to focus on reason #2; the claim that the health care debate is a political issue and not a religious/moral issue. Nothing could be further form the truth. Put simply, when human life is at stake and when the less fortunate are at a disadvantage and when there are ways to make it better – it is a religious/moral issue. This is the very definition of a religious/moral issue and our tradition is full of calls to make sure that the most vulnerable are cared for.
One of the highlights of my week is the teaching I do for the Florence Melton Adult Mini School. THE FMAMS is the world leader in adult Jewish education and they have created a powerful model of adult Jewish education across the country.
In preparing for my teaching I came across the phrase “citing God against God”, coined by Emil Fackenheim.
One very good example of this is when Abraham challenge God about His decision to destroy Sdom. After hearing God’s plan, Avraham cries out: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked….shall the judge of the whole earth not do justice?”
Another popular reason given as to why Jews need not come out in favor of universal heath care is based on the complexity of the issue in terms of the ultimate cost of universal care. After all, what will become of research since so much funding is generated based on the current system. “Won’t small business be burdened by crippling costs?”
These are important questions and they should not be ignored, but they should not be the cause for the end of the discussion. After al, the Torah does not record Avraham weighing the “costs” of saving Sdom. He could have hesitated to argue with god, reasoning that saving Sdom for the sake of a few tzaddikim would mean the continued existence of evil in the world and a reprieve for those who did not deserve it…but he did none of that. It is not that the details are unimportant; it is that it is the duty of the religious person to make sure the world keeps their eyes o the ideal.
The willingness to challenge God has become part and parcel of Jewish tradition.
In his book, Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition, Rabbi Anson Laytner highlights this idea that appears frequently in Chassidic literature.
One of the best-known practitioners of this is Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, one of the early Chasidic leaders.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak once summoned a tailor and asked him about an argument he had with God. The tailor said: “I declared to God, ‘You wish me to repent my sins, but I have committed only minor offenses.” I may have kept leftover cloth, or I may have eaten non-kosher food, or not blessed my meal. But You, O God, have committed great sins: You have taken babies from their mothers and mothers from their babies. Let’s call it even; may You forgive me, and I will forgive You.’”
After listening intently, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak rose in anger and said, “Why did you let God off so easily? You might have forced God to redeem the whole world!”
Perhaps more well known in is the kaddish of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak:
Good morning to You, Lord of the world.
I, Levi Yitzchak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, am coming to You in a legal manner concerning Your people of Israel.
What do you want of Israel?
It is always, “Command the children of Israel.”
It is always, “Speak to the children of Israel.”
Merciful Father! How many people are there in the world?
Persians, Babylonians, Edomites!
The Russians, what do they say?
Our emperor is the emperor.
The Germans, what do they say?
Our kingdom is the kingdom.
But I, Levi Yitzchak son of Sarah of Berditchev say:
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name.
And I, Levi Yitzchak son of Sarah of Berditchev say: I shall not go hence, nor budge from my place until there be a finish
until there be an end of exile—
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name.
Judaism has never accepted the position that we could sit back and let events unfold without a struggle to make things better. Any act of chessed that one person does for another is essentially a rebellion against God. After all, God made it one way and we, with out kindness and good will, desire to change the reality. Surely, if we can speak out against God’s plan we can speak out about social injustice.
This is why it is so important for Orthodox Jewish groups to enter the discussions about heath care. Not doing so is “un-Abrahamic” and ignores a tradition of speaking out on moral issues.
September 6, 2009 | 10:16 pm
Posted by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
Many of you know that my wife and I, and our four kids, plan to make aliya in the summer of 2011 to a new town being built 20 minutes north of Beer Sheva, Carmit. The vision for Carmit is that it should be a diverse, pluralistic town eventually growing to over 10,000 people, with affordable, quality, environmentally sensitive housing. We want to attract Americans, Anglos and Israelis, datti’im of all stripes and chilonim of all stripes – just as long as people are willing to live happily in an open-minded and non-judgmental community.
My plan is to be a community rabbi in this town, to be a Rav Kehilati of a shul that reaches out to all Jews, and believes in actively programming for the community and creating an environment of togetherness and growth. There is a new appreciation in Israel, especially amongst rabbanei Tzohar, that the shul has to be a welcoming place for everyone in the community, not just the regulars or those who feel that have to come to find a minyan or a place to hear Torah reading. I want to be part of that new trend. A group of us in Chicago, including a wonderful couple Dan and Rosie Mattio – and their young baby – have formed a non-for-profit called CIPF (Chicago Israel Philanthropic Fund) whose mission it is to bring Americans to Israel by creating diverse and pluralistic communities. If you want more information see the web site: CIPF.org.
Already, without even starting any official publicity, we have over 35 families – from just out of college to retirement age – who have expressed strong interest in moving to Carmit. We hope that Carmit becomes a cultural, educational and religious destination in Israel – perhaps the pluralism capital of the Holy Land. I sincerely hope that the environmental groups in Israel welcome Carmit because the type of people moving to Carmit are excited about sustainable, green living and will be the best advocates Israel has for caring for the environment. Likewise, I hope that Carmit is seen as a friend of the Jewish and Arab population – especially the Bedouins – of the Negev, because we truly will be: we will be the advocates for all populations of the Negev, and we have already had ideas about how to reach out to Bedouins nearby, to Ethiopian Jews not too far away, and to the students who are part of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, who are eager to engage in social action.
Carmit, just one hour from Tel Aviv (by train) and a bit over an hour from Jerusalem, will God willing be a town representing the best of Avraham and Sarah’s open, welcoming tent and will provide a model for Jews and human beings all over the world of how to live together in harmony, learning from each other, respecting each other and benefiting from diversity and different ways of being descent human beings.
September 4, 2009 | 1:28 pm
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
The Rambam writes in the Laws of Tishuvah (return) about this season before the holidays that, “All people should see themselves as half guilty and half meritorious, if they do one sin now they tip themselves and the entire world with them to the side of guilt and cause destruction, if they do one mitzvah they will tip themselves and the whole world with them to the side of merit and will cause for themselves and the world return and saving…Because of this the Jewish people are accustomed during this time of year to give much charity, and increase their kind deeds and mitzvoth. (3:4)” I have always felt that this expressed a beautiful tension within Judaism. On one side this notion puts a great deal of pressure on each individual, on the other hand each individual is infinitely significant.
In contrast around this time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we may be inclined to see ourselves as sinful and lowly, as nothing. As we say on Yom Kippur in the viduy (confession), “Dirt am I while alive, certainly in death…” My favorite High Holiday piut (liturgical poem), which is said on Yom Kippur at the musaf service speaks I think to this dilemma and conflict.
“Vi’avitah Tihilah” -“You Desire Praise”
“Your awe is upon the angels, who are mighty and exalted, who dwell in beautiful heights.
And You desire praise from those stained with sin, passing shadows who dwell below — and that is Your praise.”
The human is both, a combination of Godly spirit and dirt (Genesis 2:7); the highest and the lowest. In infinite irony, what God-the-Highest truly desires is the praise of the lowest — humans; and not from our Divine image identity but from our sinful, fleeting, creaturely selves. Precisely on Yom Kippur, the day on which we are most prone to feeling like sullied failures, do we have the most potential, precisely from our lowness, to meaningfully praise the Highest.
September 2, 2009 | 10:26 pm
Posted by Rabba Sara Hurwitz
Elul is not only the season of teshuvah. It’s also the season of love! Ani l’dodi v’dodi li. I am my beloved and my beloved is for me ( אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי). It is the season of weddings. I spend quite some time each summer preparing couples, the chattan and the kallah for the wedding day. The focus, of course is on the laws of niddah—the code of laws of “separation” between husband and wife while she is menstruating, and for seven days following.
But, over the years, I have come to realize that focusing solely on the 2 weeks where a couple are restricted, sends a negative message about Judaism’s view on marriage and sexuality. And so, after carefully going through the halakha, (Jewish law) with each couple, I spend one session on “envisioning a healthy Jewish sex ethic.”
Let me begin with 2 images of a marital relationship in the Torah: Adam and Eve, and Moses and Tzipporah.
The Torah in Genesis 1:24 says:
על כן יעזב איש את אביו ואת אמו ודבק באשתו והיו לבשר אחד
Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall be one flesh.
“basar echad—one flesh,” according to Ramban means that a couple becomes one flesh, in both a physical and emotional realm. This places sex at the center of the marital relationship.
The other image, of course, is Moses and Tzipporah. After starting a family, Moses chose to separate from his wife to achieve greater spiritual heights. As the only person who would see God face to face, he could not imagine remaining married.
So which model prevails?
Both mentalities—the Adam and Eve model on one hand, and the Moses and Tzippora model on the other hand, found their way into Jewish practice. There is a strand of rabbinic literature that teaches that sexuality is central to a healthy, committed relationship, and a strand that teaches that sex should not be the focal point of ones relationship.
The Talmud (Nedarim 20a) teaches that Rabbi Yochanan ben Dahabai, preached that married couples should limit their sexual practices, and value asceticism. Marital relations should not be for the enjoyment of the couple, but rather solely for procreative purposes.
But, the Talmud in Nedarim (20b) continues. After quoting the lone ascetic opinion of Rabbi Yohanan ben Dahabai, the gemara quotes the majority, common held position that places no sexual restrictions on a couple in a committed loving relationship.
And yet, not all communities could embrace this open view on sexuality. The Ger Chassidic community, for example, believed that being meticulous in the keeping the laws of nidadah as well as limiting ones sexual practices would usher in the messiah. So, the community became entirely insular, creating schools, yeshivot, and social opportunities, so that their community members would not have to step into the real world. But, women had no interest in marrying Ger men, for their marriages tended to be void of love and compassion.
In response to this crises, in 1973, Rav Yosef Kanievsky (the Steipler) wrote quite a lengthy and explicit letter as a polemic response to the Ger Chassidic community’s ascetic sexual practices. He writes:
If as a result of this (ascetic approach) he does not fulfill (lit. nullifies) the tiniest bit of his Biblical obligation, then his actions go to the Other Side, God forbid, and he will not achieve the paths of life. Although he might think that he is rising to great heights, but in truth deep inside of him is buried a desire to consider himself a person of spiritual heights, while in fact he damages others and is himself damaged, and frequently his actions lead him to shame….”, but God forbid for one to act in an ascetic manner when it pains his wife, who is dependant on him and who has not given a remission with a full heart on what is her due.
He goes on, on the other hand,
One who engages in physical intimacy and touching and the like for the sake of heaven, because he is compassionate and does not want her to be in pain and miserable, this does not bring him in any way to a weakening of his fear of heaven or to a descent into pleasures (hedonism). To the contrary! It brings him to holiness, and he fulfils a Biblical mitzvah of “You shall walk in His paths” – just as He is compassionate, you too must be compassionate.
Rav Kanievsky is merely emphasizing that sexual fulfillment when consensual, is central to a healthy and happy marriage.
Now, you may be wondering how I can so freely write about such a sensitive and intimate topic. The truth is, I speak to many women and couples who are struggling in this realm. And very often there is so much pain and embarrassment revolving around their marriage, that I realized how important and central talking about the importance of sex within marriage is. I began dedicating a session to teaching couples about sex as part of the curriculum for preparing them for marriage. And the Modern Orthodox community in general is beginning to see the importance of teaching and helping couples deal with very intimate aspects of their lives.
Two years ago, I helped organize a conference, sponsored by Drisha, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and JOFA, where we brought together 15 kallah teachers from around the country and Isreal. We spent four days teaching these women how to strike a balance between teaching halakha, teaching the laws of niddah, as well as emphasizing the importance of enhancing their marital relationships. The women were floored by the frankness and openness with which the topic was dealt with, and I think we helped break down some of the taboo associated with talking about, in the appropriate context, the centrality of sexuality within marriage.
In recent years Tzelem, has been formed; created by YU alumni Jennie Rosenfeld and Koby Frances, who identified a need for an honest examination of sexuality and gender relationships in the Orthodox community.
And, I hope in my own small way, with the help of specialists in the field, I have give couples permission to explore and ensure that their marriage is not void of physical and emotional fulfillment.