Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
A congregant of mine was confounded by the reports of Rabbis who were arrested for illegally trafficking in human organs. One person in the group said that some might justify their acts claiming the money would be used for yeshivahs and other important Jewish organizations. They turned to me and demanded to know if there really is a way to justify such things through the Torah?
I answered that Judaism, whether the Torah or the Talmud, contains many diverse ideas, not just one opinion and not just one way of thinking about God or the world. For instance, regarding the question of how we should view non-Jews and how we should act toward them we could look at Abraham. Abraham left a conversation with God, the Torah tells us, in order to run out into the desert and welcome three nomads who were not Jews. Abraham was the first Jew and these nomads, as far as Abraham knew, were idol worshipers. This would be one way to answer the question of what our attitude could be toward non-Jews. On the other hand, one might look at the book of Deuteronomy in which Moshe commands the Jewish people to destroy those who are idol worshipers. (No doubt the two cases can be seen in different lights and many lomdishe hairs be split, never the less it is the divergence in general attitude expressed by both sides that I am calling attention to.)
Another example of the variety of theological stances within Judaism is with regard to the question of asceticism. A statement in the Talmud tells us one will have to give an account for every pleasure they did not take advantage of in this world (Tal. Jer. 4:12). Additionally there is an opinion that the Nazir (Nazerite) brings a sin offering at the end of his Nazarism to atone for the sin of forbidding upon himself that which the Torah permits. On the other hand there is a second opinion in the Talmud that the sin offering of the Nazir is due to his leaving behind a higher ascetic state. The rabbis tell us, “Sanctify (separate) yourself even from that which is permitted.” In Jewish history there were of course whose central practice was extreme asceticism such as Chasidey Ashkenaz in the 12th century. Which direction should we take?
Direction can not come only from reading the Torah or even the oral tradition, these are varied and can be used to rationalize anything, including selling human organs for gain. In the end Torah, written or oral, (at least in their written forms), are not enough to guarantee that we will live a life that is right and good in the eyes of God or others, -our own moral worldview and personal theology must be brought to bear upon Torah as a meta guide. And this too must be part of the Torah and mesorah (oral tradition). What we quote from the Torah will be filtered based on who we are and what our world vision is, so we must thoughtfully cultivate a correct worldview. In Judaism today there are many world views: Zionist/non-Zionist, Torah u’Madah/Torah Im Derech Eretz, Open Orthodoxy/Insular Orthodoxy, etc., etc.
Morethodoxy does not claim to change anything in Torah (God forbid), rather to help present a set of glasses through which to see the Torah, a guide for balancing the varied approaches which are within the Torah. It is a path accentuating an attitude of rachum v’chanun, first and foremost merciful and loving. When faced with two approaches within Judaism it is a guide and path for choosing the approach that is, (within halacha), more inclusive not less. It is not, God forbid, a path of molding the Torah to our selfish desires or to the vagaries of modern life and low brow chapters of western culture, but of opening our eyes and souls to the Torah in ways that Torah alone may not allow us to see.
The Ramba”n said it long ago (v’etchanan and k’doshim) . It is not enough to keep the Torah. If one only keeps the law one may still be a disgusting person. Jewish law demands that we go beyond the law to do what is right good at the eyes of God and people. Ours is a religion that is quite legally based yet if one were to just keep the law that would not be enough in our relationship with others or in our relationship with God. V’asita Ha’yashar V’hatov –“Do what is right and good”- go beyond the letter of the law with regard to how you treat others and Kidoshim Tihiyu, -“You shall be holy”-sanctify yourself beyond the letter of the law in your relationship to God.
The Torah alone does not a Mench make. It requires also spectacles through which to see the Torah, ones ground from the glass of things like moral training, philosophy and musar, learning the great ideas of other religions and moral and philosophical systems, chassidut and kabbalah, reading the great secular books, seeing the great works of art, appreciating the natural world God has made and its aesthetic and scientific beauty, exploring the important human ideas and insights -within humans in general and within ourselves in particular (usually through psychotherapy)- so that we can move beyond their own needs and see those of others more clearly.
In the end if our glasses through which to see the Torah and the world are placed correctly and our filters though which to sift the torah and our experiences are honed well we will achieve the goal of being Jews, to be merciful and gracious in imitation of the Divine One and to be a “light unto the nations”; we will not be selling illegal goods to further spiritual life.
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August 6, 2009 | 12:09 am
Posted by Rabba Sara Hurwitz
I recently got a taste of what it would be like to have my own pulpit, to be the rabbi of my own shul. My esteemed colleagues Rabbis Avi Weiss and Steven Exler were on vacation, which left me in charge. Alone. In a 850-family shul.
Of course, as soon as everyone left, there was suddenly a funeral to officiate, a shiva to run, a bris to lead, and Shabbat services to orchestrate. I did it all, and the craziest thing is that no one batted an eyelid. It just seemed natural.
From this whirlwind experience I gained an even fuller appreciation of the deep and far-reaching modes of activity that constitute the rabbinate. And if I could distill the one common ingredient in these tasks it would be presence. Showing up. Reaching out and making personal connections with individuals.
This point was driven home to me in two distinct ways. When an adult son of one of our members died, they called the shul asking to speak to one of the rabbis. So I dropped everything and went to sit with them, navigating the family through the complicated hospital bureaucracy and funeral arrangements. Towards the end of the day, as I broached the topic of who would be officiating at the funeral, explaining that I could find a male, more traditional looking rabbi, she looked at me as if I was crazy. Of course you should do it, she said. By the end of the week, she was telling anyone who would listen (between her moments of grief) that I was a rabbi.
And on the other end of the life cycle, I was asked to advise on and coordinate a bris. I showed up at the couples’ home, explained the bris ceremony, and envisioned with them how the service would be run. By the end of the conversation, it was hard to imagine the day without my participation.
You see, until recently, I assumed that lifecycle events were closed off to me as a woman in a rabbinic position. People associate these events with male rabbis. But as I officiate at more and more of these ceremonies—in sadness and gladness—I realize that gender is less important to members of my community than simply being present, engaged and building a relationship.
That is what being a rabbis is about. That is the rabbinate 101.
(Since I wrote this post, two additional members of our community have passed on. It’s been a busy couple of days).
August 5, 2009 | 2:02 am
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
This is written as a prayer for the full and speedy recovery of Margalit bat Miriam, who was struck and thrown from her wheelchair by a driver who did not see that the light had turned red, because he was speaking on his cellphone.
The Federal government has begun the slow process of determining whether or not there ought to be national laws regarding cellphone use while driving. All of us who are committed to living according to halacha need not wait for a government decision. The verdict is already in.
The halachik analysis of this issue proceeds in a very linear fashion, beginning in the classical discussion concerning unintentional murder. The Torah, as we read just recently, commands that we create cities of refuge for people who have unintentionally taken the life of another person. By fleeing to the city of refuge, the one who unintentionally took the life is protected from the impassioned wrath of the “blood-avenger” (the kinsman of the victim). In addition to being protected, he also will be paying for his act, as he will remain confined to the city of refuge until the High Priest dies.
In its analysis of this passage from the Torah, the Talmud makes it clear that not all unintentional murder is the same. (For a quick summary of the Talmud’s discussion, see Maimonides’ code, Laws of the Murderer, Chapter 6). Sometimes the death of the victim is truly the result of a freak accident. In this case, the person who caused the accident does not flee to the city of refuge. In the eyes of the law, he is completely innocent. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the instance in which again, there was no intention to kill anyone, but the person who caused the death of the other acted with such carelessness and recklessness, that his actions are classified as “approaching the intentional”. This person as well does not flee to a city of refuge. To quote Maimonides (paragraph 4):
There is also the case of one who kills unintentionally, but his act approaches the intentional, as it involves an act of negligence, or is in an instance in which he should have been cautious but was not. He does not flee to the city of refuge for his sin is too great to be atoned for through his exile… Therefore if the blood avenger finds and kills him, he (the blood avenger) is exempt form punishment.
Putting aside for a moment any uncomfortable feelings we may have about the law of the blood avenger, the larger point concerning the perpetrator’s act is clear. To cause the death of another through an act of gross negligence – albeit unintentionally and without any premeditation – is categorized as a “great sin”, one which legally approaches intentional murder.
What do we know about the likelihood of a driver causing a car accident when he or she is speaking on a cellphone (not to mention texting)? As reported in the NY Times on July 19, the likelihood that a driver holding and talking on a cellphone will crash, is equal to that of a driver whose blood alcohol level is .08 percent – the legal definition of driving while intoxicated. As the Times article put it, “drivers using phone are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers”. The article goes on to quote a Harvard study estimating that cellphone distraction causes thousand of deaths, and hundreds of thousands of injuries per year. The potential for committing a “great sin” is astonishingly high. And the research is not showing that using a hands-free phone significantly reduces this potential either.
As halachikly observant Jews, we go to great lengths to lower our risk of sinning. We do not climb trees on Shabbat lest we inadvertently violate Shabbat by breaking a branch. Many of us do not eat corn or beans on Pesach, lest we come to eat inadvertently eat chametz. On the first day of Rosh Hashana this year, we will actually set aside the Biblical mitzva of blowing shofar, lest we inadvertently carry the shofar through the public domain, thus violating the Shabbat. It is self-evident that our system demands that we not drive while distracted by our cellphone, lest we, God forbid, God forbid, inadvertently injure or kill someone. It’s that straightforward.
If for no other reason though, do it for Margalit bat Miriam.
August 4, 2009 | 10:41 am
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
Olam Chessed Yibaneh - the world can be built through kindness”. This statement sums up the great potential inherent in acts of kindness.
We live in a community where many are deeply involved volunteer organizations of some sort or another. These activities fall under the category of chessed – acts of kindness that we do for others. Our tradition puts a high value on chessed. In fact, the well known rabbinic statement – “Derech Eretz Kadma L’Torah - Good Character comes before Torah” teaches that before the Jewish people could receive the laws of the Torah, the importance on good character, including chessed, had to be taught. According to some, this is why the Torah starts with the stories of our foremother and forefathers, stories that, by example, teach right from wrong.
At the same time, chessed that we do for those outside our immediate circle may impede our ability to do chessed for those closest to us.
The following is a question posed to Rabbi Shlomo Aviner regarding the balance required between doing acts of chessed for the general community and one’s responsibilities towards ones family.
Question: “My husband devotes many hours each day to learning Torah, communal activities and spreading Judaism at stands. At home, he is spent. When I am speaking with him, he falls asleep… He does try to stay awake but without success. “
Answer: “Tell your dear husband in your name, in my name, in the Name of the Master of the Universe, and in the name of human conscience that “the poor of your house takes precedence.” Even though you bring great benefit to humanity, and it is your glory, your wife takes precedence over the rest of humanity. Remember the story of King David, who refused to accept the kingship, as long as not everything was arranged with his wife Michal. All humanity is important, but it has other saviors. There were those who were concerned about it before you and there will be those who will be concerned about it after you. But your wife only has one savior: you. She therefore takes precedence. She relies on you. Do not betray her. All of this is written in the Ketubah, which is read under the chuppah, that you will cherish her and all sorts of other things. Before we add stringencies, one must fulfill his basic obligations. This is the general rule: your wife takes precedence. And, of course, I also say to you: your husband takes precedence.”
The examples given in this particular instance are simply those that relevant to the questioner. There are other family related responsibilities that should take precedence over our communal action. Making spending time with children a priority over communal responsibilities is one that comes to mind very easily.
There are many good reasons to be involved in communal affairs. In fact, if our community did not have so many dedicated volunteers we would simply not be able to function. This is why it is so important to find the proper balance to make sure that while we do volunteer our time for our community; our family is not being neglected. It goes without saying that communal responsibilities should never be taken on or extended as a way to avoid family obligations.
The Torah does not wish our love for those in the wider circles of our life to be built up at the expense of our omission of our obligation to those nearer to us. Nechama Leibowitz, writing about the biblical commandment to give Tzedakah, teaches: One who goes beyond his natural circle, into which he was born (family, birthplace, nation) and flies to distant climes to heal the misfortunes of humanity, the downtrodden and wretched of remote communities, whilst his own home, neighborhood, city and homeland cry out for assistance, ignoring them in the conviction that their plight is too circumscribed and petty for him to bother about… - charity begins at home.”
August 3, 2009 | 2:03 pm
Posted by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
A few weeks ago I started outlining what I see as five pillars of contemporary Orthodox Judaism. I am not trying to displace the Maimonidian 13 principles of faith, nor the four principles of Rav Yosef Albo. I’m just trying to point out what I think are the key ingredients in being an Orthodox Jew today - and in maintaining our way of life for the future. The past few weeks have been particularly difficult, at least in the media, for our Chareidi brothers and sisters, and I have certainly done my share to point out the challenges I believe they face in working to sanctify God’s name. However, we Morethodox Jews have to look inwards as well, and I think the third pillar of Orthodoxy might serve also as a critique of Modern Orthodox Jews - at least in the way we normally see ourselves. The other two principles, Torah from Sinai and Innovation (Chiddush) from Sinai, are great rallying cries for Modern Orthodoxy. But now #3:
Intellectual and halachic rigor and discipline: When we closely observe our detailed laws of Kashrut, of davening, coming to minyan and making sure there is a minyan in our communities, of kavana (concentration, focus) in our davening , of the Shabbat, as it is expressed in its myriad of rituals and ethical aspects, of family purity in its own ritual and social aspects, the laws of gossiping and loving our fellow Jews and respecting our fellow human beings, then we become the vessels through which Torah can be interpreted and even rethought. The Netziv puts it in terms of the two words: “Lishmor ve’la’asot” – from Parshat Va’etchanan: We need to first be the preservers of the Torah and practice we inherit from the previous generation, then we can move on to relooking at everything with fresh, innovative eyes, and understand Torah for our generation. When we are preservers of Torah and Torah practice, then we become safe space for God’s infinite word – we become the rightful heirs of the tradition which we are obliged to re-examine for ourselves. Only through this rigor and commitment to Halacha, minhag (custom) and tradition can our lives reflect the living Torah which God gave us at Sinai.
Do we as Modern Orthodox Jews have this religious rigor in our lives? Do we have the passion? I think we see it in the Chareidi and Yeshivish world, but we need to see it in our world. MOREthodox - we have to be the one that are not only innovative, creative and responsive to our generation’s needs, we also have to be the ones that people can look to for all the strength that has come down to us from Moshe and Sinai.
I know that is an area that I work on, and perhaps in Israel our Modern Orthodox brothers and sisters do it better. But we have to make sure that Modern Orthodoxy is not lazy Orthodoxy. If it is, we will lose our right to be the innovators of Torah and we will lose our right to redefine what a Torah Jew is in 2009.
Let’s go to work!
July 31, 2009 | 9:52 am
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Yesterday someone asked me why women on the women’s side in my Shul sing-along with the congregation whereas at the previous synagogue the person had attended the women had not been permitted to sing. I explained that even though the Talmud says the voice of the woman is considered sexual, within Jewish law there are opinions that in holy places and in holy instances it is permitted. For instance Rabbi Ovadiyah Yosef and and others who at times permit the voice of a woman in a religious context, do this based on the gemara that states that women can read the torah in the synagogue and receive aliyot and the gemarah does not see this as a violation of the halacha (the Jewish law) of hearing the voice of a woman singing (Talmud Bavli Megilah 23a). Thus I explained that to take the strict approach would actually produce a leniency. To be strict about not letting the women sing would be to be lenient about women’s involvement in prayer and their full participation in the congregation’s service of the heart, which according to the Mishna women are equally obligated in just as men.
This reminds me of the famous story of Rabbi Chaim of Brisk. One Yom Kippur, there was a cholera epidemic in the city of Brisk. After Kol Nidre Rabbi Chaim made kiddush and ate and made everyone else in the Shul eat. Afterwards people asked him, wasn’t he being more lenient about the laws of Yom Kippur than the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) allows? The Shulchan Aruch writes that one may only eat on Yom Kippur if their life is endangered, but no one yet had contracted cholera? Rabbi Chaim answered, “I am not being lenient about the laws of Yom Kippur, but on the contrary I am being strict about the laws of guarding one’s life.
It is important for us to realize that the power of leniency, as the Gemara says, is very strong. In fact, in almost every argument between Bais Shami and Bais Hillel, Hillel is more lenient and the law is like him. Wouldn’t it be better, “more religious,” to be strict about Jewish law? Yet we follow the more lenient opinion of Bais Hillel and in the several situations in which Shami is more lenient we follow Shami. Perhaps the power of leniency is greater than the power of strictness.
There are times when we should be strict in hlacha. But to think that we should always be strict, that this is better and more religious, is a mistake that many in our community make, I imagine out of ignorance. They also do not realize that the other side of the coin of every strictness is another leniency, a leniency which might be inappropriate, a leniency that might distance us from God and Torah. According to the Talmud Hillel knew more than Shami, Hillel knew his opinion and that of his opponent. The same is often true today, those that are able to be lenient may in fact know more about halacha than those who are always strict, as the Gemara says, “kocha d’hetera adifa” the power of leniency is greater.
July 30, 2009 | 3:11 am
Posted by Rabba Sara Hurwitz
On Tisha b’Av, we are given permission to ask Eicha—How. Or why. How could you do this to us, God. How could you allow so much destruction and tragedy to enter our lives. Although Jeremiah himself challenged God, these questions feel quite blasphemous. We are not supposed to ask such questions when we suffer a personal loss. So on this national day, how can we possibly question God and boldly ask Eicha?
And yet as I sit writing this, I cannot help but ask God, Eicha? Why? Today, I sat with two Holocaust survivors, as they were trying to come to terms with and understand the sudden and tragic loss of their son. As I sat with the mother, and then later sat to write a eulogy, her question kept floating up to me: Why do bad things happen to good people?
I am not sure that we will ever reach a comforting explanation to this deeply theological question. But at least for this one day of the year, on Tisha b’Av, asking eicha is entirely acceptable. And, despite the pervading, even accusing question, that Yirmiyahu asks, even the Book of Eicha ends on an optimist note, as does almost every kinnah that we read on Tisha B’Av morning.
In life tragedy sneaks up on us. But in every tragedy, we must learn how to turn eicha into the question of ayekkah. It is the question God asked of Adam and Eve in sefer Bereishit. Where are you? How can you live life as a truly good person, and contribute to making this world a better place.
You see, questions and questioning is part of being Morethodox. We challenge, seek, and then challenge again. But within every question, we must look deep within ourselves and challenge ourselves with the very same questions that we ask of God.
July 29, 2009 | 1:24 am
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
All that has been said about the scandal emanating out of Brooklyn and Deal, N.J. is true. Yes, it’s time that (especially) Orthodox schools and communities focus our educational attention on instruction in ethics. Yes, we have to make sure to distinguish between Judaism – which teaches honesty and uprightness - and individual Jews – who too often shamefully neglect these teachings. And maybe even yes, we should be outraged over this Chilul Hashem, though frankly I’ve begun to doubt whether there is much left of God’s name to publicly desecrate any longer. Having conceded all of this, I still believe that the main issue is not being addressed, that of root causes.
Everyone seems to be scratching their heads about why scandals like these are occurring with such regularity in our community, given how ostensibly learned and religious the main players are. A huge part of the answer, I think, lies in the basic strategy for confronting modernity that most segments of the Orthodox community adopted in the 19th century, and still intensely practice today.
Given the choices of exploring the wider world that the dawn of modernity made accessible to us, but risking the dilution of our values and our numbers, or doing everything possible to shut out that world and its inhabitants in the name of preserving out precious inheritance, we have massively chosen the former. We have generally chosen to minimize or altogether avoid meaningful contact with the ideas, the books, the cultural trends of the wider world (though we seem to have recently absorbed its materialistic tendencies and its styles in music). And this policy has in turn necessitated our minimizing or altogether avoiding meaningful contact with non-Jew people and non-Jewish society. It is the norm in most of our Orthodox communities that outside of commercial or professional contexts, adults have no significant personal relationships with non-Jews, and children have no such relationships period.
Our strategy of consciously building insular societies has achieved some remarkable results. A century ago, who could have believed that the US would become the home to one the largest, most developed and institutionally successful Orthodox communities in the world? We have to credit our strategy of insularity in large measure for this. And while we have also paid the price for our insularity in many ways (we are probably the religious community that positively impacts the least on our wider society’s pressing social and economic ills), the price that is most embarrassing is the too-frequent involvement in illegal activity.
What’s the connection between the two? There is a subtle mind game that we need to play in order to justify our insistent insularity. We, and our children, do encounter non-Jewish people and non-Jewish families in the simple contexts of everyday living- in stores, in parks, at medical and dental offices. And most often, they are nice people. They aim to be helpful, are frequently intelligent and cheerful, and have nice families. And the questions occur to us and to our children: Why then do we draw such impermeable social lines between us? Is there anything so wrong with they way they live? In order then, to justify our strict insularity, we cultivate a somewhat vague – and usually benign – sense that the others, outside of our world of Torah and Miztvot, are somehow lesser. They are – and hear the word as I’m writing it – goyim. And as such, it must be that our way is better than their way, our God is better than their God (we avoid even having to deal with this issue by consistently substituting “Hashem” for “God”), and our communities are holier than their communities. That’s how we justify our decision to keep ourselves socially and intellectually at arm’s length. And with only one more step, this mindset moves from being overly simplistic but benign, to being very dangerous. That step? That our Laws are better than their laws, and not only better, but are the only laws that really matter. After all, what ultimate significance could goyishe laws have? Of course the justification for the strategy of insularity need not produce such a dismissive attitude toward secular law. But as we’ve seen over and over again, it frequently does, and this price of the strategy of insularity gets paid on a regular basis.
The solutions before us are straightforward. They are either to find a more sophisticated and honest way to understand and explain why we choose our social and intellectual insularity, or to embrace all that is good and valid in God’s wider world, not only without compromising our own religious integrity, but as an expression of our religious integrity. The latter is of course more challenging. But as the headlines are screaming to us, it is the path whose time has come.