Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
This one goes straight into my memoirs (if I ever write them).
This past Sunday, I had the privilege to officiate at the headstone unveiling for one of our shul’s most beloved members, who died just about a year ago. For privacy’s sake, I’ll call her Rose.
The unveiling ceremony opened with Rose’s daughter reading a letter she had found in her Mom’s house a few months earlier. It was a letter to her children filled with practical advice for living. Everything from how to dress for certain occasions, to how to hold on to Jewish tradition. Prominently featured in the letter was the advice to not get into squabbles and arguments with family members. “Always ask yourself”, Rose instructed, “whether you are quarrelling over something that’s really trivial”. Family bonds were precious as gold, Rose wrote, and should be treated as such. All of us present in the cemetery that morning had known Rose well. And we smiled through our tears as we could hear her voice saying all those things that were in her letter.
As is my custom when I officiate at unveilings, I asked everyone assembled to share his or her favorite memory of Rose. Some recalled the Passover Seders at Auntie Rose’s home, others remembered the birthday gifts she sent cross-country, a granddaughter recounted going shopping with Bubbe Rose. And then, without warning, it happened. One member of the family, roughly of Rose’s generation, stood up and faced the group. She said, “I always wanted to be like Rose when I grew up”. She then turned to a younger woman in the crowd, also a member of the family, and asked if they could finally reconcile, right there and then. And as we all watched silent and spellbound, the younger woman took several steps forward as well, and then literally over Rose’s grave, the two women embraced and wept. I heard myself simply whisper,”wow”.
We all aspire to be a source of blessing to our family and friends. And what I see now, as I never saw before, is that this aspiration need not be confined to the span of time when we actually walk the earth.
12.12.13 at 12:42 pm | Life and Joseph and his brothers.
11.20.13 at 8:41 pm | 75% of Jews who, according to the Pew report, do. . .
11.11.13 at 1:50 pm | Appreciating the words of a Morethodoxy non-fan
10.31.13 at 12:08 am | We can't afford to be distracted
10.30.13 at 12:06 pm | Why nothing is neutral
8.18.13 at 4:46 pm |
November 17, 2012 | 9:10 pm
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
Recently I was involved in two great Modern Orthodox events.
Two weeks ago the American Jewish Committee honored the four senior Rabbi Emeritus of the Houston Jewish community, Rabbi Joseph Radinsky (Orthodox ), Rabbi Roy Walter (Reform), Rabbi Jack Segal (Conservative) and Rabbi Samuel Karff (Reform). I had the privilege to pay tribute to Rabbi Radinsky as the current Rabbi of each synagogue was asked to speak in honor of their emeritus. These four Rabbis were honored by the Houston Jewish community for their decades of service.
People often talk about how in well the synagogues of all the denominations work with each other and how all of the denominational rabbis respect each other and work well together in Houston. It is true and the reason is it is true is because the four honorees worked very hard on it. They all respected each other and valued what each was doing for the sake of the Jewish community.
I have been to many community dinners, but this one was the most meaningful of them all. The large turnout, the outpouring of love and the deep respect expressed at the dinner was overwhelming.
I consider it a great Modern Orthodox moment as, for me, it served as a vindication of the policy of Modern Orthodox rabbis to work with Rabbis of all denominations and to recognize that non-orthodox institutions are our partners is building and strengthening Jewish life.
The other great Modern Orthodox moment was the show I just returned from. Tonight the Houston Jewish community was treated to Musicals and The Bible. Rav Gal Ben Meir, a very talented musician and singer who is doing shlichut in our community as a teacher, is also a lover of Broadway musicals.
Over the last year, Rav Gal, as he is known, has been producing the show that teaches Jewish themes using some of the best known songs from popular Broadway shows.
Tonights show reviewed 11 key moments in Jewish history through the lens of songs form The Lion King, Wicked, Billy Elliot, Phantom of The Opera, Les Miserables, Oliver and others. The show was a dream come true for Rav Gal.
The narration, done by Rav Gal as well, made it clear that for years Rav Gal suppressed his desire to perform these types of songs, being told that show business, with it’s focus on fame and fortune was diametrically opposed to the inner and contemplative life of a pious Jew. Tonight, Rav Gal proved that aspects of popular culture could be used to teach important Jewish ideas and bring people a greater appreciation of their faith. It also proved to Rav Gal that he could achieve his dream and reminded al of those present that we should reach for the stars and not let anyone crush our dreams.
Kol Hakavod Rav Gal!
October 25, 2012 | 7:25 pm
Posted by Rabbi Mark Goldfeder
The entire debate surrounding the ‘treatment of women in halacha’ seems to me to start with a rather questionable premise, namely that rabbinic law in general is hostile towards women. Take a step back; Jewish Law from the beginning enacted new religious legislation to improve the condition of women. (Just see Babylonian Talmud, Vilna Edition, Kesubot 47a, giving married women additional rights). Some of the grand advances that can be attributed to this legal system include the concept of divorce, the forbidding of marital rape, the idea that women could own property, and mandatory prenuptial agreements specifying a large alimony in the event of divorce. For hundreds if not thousands of years religious convictions were at the forefront of the development of rights for women. Even if you argue that our tradition is no longer at the forefront of democratic development, without the tremendous groundwork that Judaism laid it is very possible that these debates would not exist at all, and so any of these conflicts should be approached with a sense of humility, giving the benefit of the doubt to the ultimately progressive nature of religious morality instead of immediately labeling particular practices discriminatory or unfair. When religious mores conflict with modern perspectives, we must think carefully and decide to what extent human rights are culturally and historically contextual, and therefore to what extent they should be culturally and historically imperialistic; that is, in what situations should modern ideas prevail over existing religious ideas.
The arguments I have read about women in Halacha more often than not seem to define the equality they strive for by simply requiring the removal of barriers to the rise of women to the same status as men and ignore the social and legal structures that have given rise to those different roles in the first place. They seem to accept the general applicability of a male standard and promise a very limited form of equality – equality defined as the ability for women to be just like their male counterparts. What we should really be striving for, ala Catherine Mackinnon, is a separately defined equality wherein women are given the ability to fully express themselves solely as women, without having to also compete for status in a male-centric structure. Women need their own standard, and while the phrase "separate but equal" may not be politically-correct in a post segregation society, when we ask for a standard that is different we by definition are asking for a standard that is in some ways separate. And yet, phrased differently, the application of a separate but equal doctrine in regards to gender is far from controversial. We might wish for a race-blind world, but we do not really want an entirely gender-blind world. Race separate restrooms, for instance, are of course taboo, but gender separate are de rigueur. On a practical legal front, family court judges consistently make custody decisions that favor mothers over fathers. The mere fact that a practice discriminates in some way between the sexes does not always have to imply inequality; it can sometimes be simple recognition of legitimate and appropriate difference. That difference when applied to men and women may sometimes be desirable, which is unlikely to ever be the case when applied to race.
I believe that rabbinic law is not just resisting a single canonical form of gender equality, but instead is expressing an alternate vision of equality, a sincere attempt to ensure that in being handed their equality women are being valued as women, not simply being given the permission and ability to go out and act like men.
The idea has been deeply engrained in Western societal thought that there are very specifically gendered role definitions for the sexes. It is fair to say that, at least until recently, the idea that a woman’s ideal place was in the home and as a mother was a commonly held sentiment. No one can deny that in some areas, such as maternity, in order to combat unfair or discriminatory practices we cannot just ignore the difference between men and women, allowing women to be men. Here we must ask men to make a positive change in how they think and how they act; we need to tell men that having and raising children is not just the responsibility of the mother. Society should recognize that common responsibility and, to the greatest extent possible, share in that task while compensating instead of subtly punishing (and/or holding back) women for the time and the work that they put in.
Jewish Law has recognized this idea for well over two-thousand years. One particularly striking aspect of Jewish law (as defined by the Torah, the Talmud, and the Shulkhan Arukh) is the very noticeable and deliberate absence of a specific role definition for women. Had the Law intended to preclude for women all roles but that of mother, it could easily have done so; just as the Law clearly prescribes the obligations of a husband to his wife and vice-versa, and the obligations of parents to children and vice-versa, it could have also made mandatory for women not only marriage and procreation but also the entire range of household duties which would have defined an exclusive role for them. The law as it stands though is that women are not obligated to marry or procreate, nor to perform any household duties if they choose not to do so.
On the other hand, while Jewish law does not then define a “proper” or “necessary” role for women, it does assume that the continuation of a people depends upon the voluntary selection by at least some women of that role of mother. Recognizing that women could easily be disadvantaged by that position, the Law attempts to even the playing field somewhat and encourage the exercise of that choice. It does so by religiously incentivising motherhood, making sure that women who choose to enter motherhood are societally appreciated and socially compensated to the greatest extent possible. In practice the civil and religious demands made upon Jewish women by Jewish law are relaxed in order to assure that no legal obligation could possibly interfere with a domestic role; if a woman does in fact elect to discover some aspects of her own personal fulfillment in the act of becoming a mother, no law or policy will stand in the way of her performance of that sacred trust.
The primary category of commandments from which women were exempted for this reason were those which would either require or make urgently preferable a communal appearance on their part. (See: Saul J. Berman 'The Status of Women in Halakhic Judaism' Tradition, Volume14:2 1973.) As noted, the underlying motive of exemption is not the attempt to unjustly deprive women of the opportunity to achieve religious fulfillment. Rather, these exemptions are a tool used by the Law to achieve a particular social goal, to assure that no legal or social obligations would interfere with the selection by Jewish women of a role which was at least temporarily centered in the home. Male members of the community are required to pick up the slack by ensuring that there are in fact quorums that regularly meet, and that the communal responsibilities in general are constantly being fulfilled. It is vital to emphasize that despite the exemptions discussed above, the mother role, although a protected role, is not the mandated or exclusively proper role, and that women are also free to participate communally if they choose to do so.
Do not for a second think that Judaism alone as a legal or social system struggles with these questions. The American lawyer, for instance, who is given optional maternity leave, can exercise that right, but because they have only nominal equality and the role of motherhood is not really a common responsibility for which they are compensated instead of subtly punished, they may then still be forced to watch as their male coworkers, who do not have two sets of responsibilities, advance without them. Article 5(b) of CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (perhaps the most prominent international normative instrument recognizing the special concerns of women, insofar as it goes further than simply requiring equality of opportunity and also demands equality of result) tasks member states ‘To ensure that family education includes a proper understanding of maternity as a social function and the recognition of the common responsibility of men and women in the upbringing and development of their children, it being understood that the interest of the children is the primordial consideration in all cases.’ Judaism understood the importance of Article 5 a long time ago.
Which leads us back to the uncomfortable technicalities of dealing with an internally consistent system of law. In Jewish law, any exemption (male or female) from religious obligation necessitates a balancing loss in religious power. The exemption that women have from the commandment to participate in certain forms of communal service, for example, results in their disqualification from being counted towards the quorum necessary to engage in such worship. Similarly, in civil matters, the fact that women are relieved in certain situations of the obligation to testify results in their inability to be part of the pair or team of witnesses who bind the fact-finding process of the court. (Note, however, that women are believed; it just does not fall under the technical category of halachic ‘testimony.’ Most of what we colloquially call ‘testimony’ in Beth Din nowadays is also not technically testimony, and women are able to participate there as fully and completely as men). Such exemptions and disqualifications are not limited to women; for example a Jewish king may not participate in judicial proceedings since he is exempt from being prosecuted by a religious court. The exemptions that women are given from religious obligations are meant to foster women’s ability to productively choose their roles and to spread responsibility more evenly as opposed to simply telling to be men as well as women, to give birth and not miss a day of work or worship. However, whatever the motivations, an internally consistent Jewish law system cannot avoid the technical legal consequences of exemption. The inability of the court to compel a woman’s presence results in the correlative loss on the part of the woman (in certain situations) of the power to compel the court to find the facts in accordance with her testimony, or to serve as a judge and compel others to appear.
Seen in this light, the lack of mitzvot for women in the public sphere is not intended to discriminate; on the contrary, it arises from a particular religious vision of separate but equal gender norms - a vision that allows women the freedom to be fully effeminate and not just occupy male space with identical male communal responsibilities. This is a vision that is likely different than that of the some female members of society, but it cannot be called inherently biased. It is practically impossible to construct a realistically gender neutral society. Gender equality, unlike race equality, must inherently involve some aspects that are separate and unequal, and which must then be balanced carefully against each other. As we noted above, almost everyone agrees to some level of gender discrimination. Halacha is and always has been a prescribed set of values, which defines itself in terms of duties and obligations, not rights. What halacha does, by telling us what is and is not a mitzvah, what we are and are not commanded to do, what is and is not a fulfillment of God’s will in a particular situation such that we receive reward for doing it, is to show us where Jewish law really thinks that line of difference ought to be drawn, rather than just enforcing a canonical vision of equality. This line, in regard to the equality of men and women, cannot be compared at all to other minhagim, where we are more likely to add or subtract non-essential, non prescribed, or non proscribed ritual actions based on new ideas; unlike almost any other accepted minhag, this is a line that is central to halacha’s understanding of the family, and to halacha’s vision of Jewish life.
Yes, any attempt to foster a particular social goal through class legislation, lumping together and defining the status of an entire segment of the community universally and extrinsically by law rather than by contractual agreement is going to be unduly restrictive of some individual self-expression. But that is part of buying into a system and its vision. Regardless, the anger and accusations in this debate are just sad. Genuine and committed people are rushing to conclusions, missing the subtleties of well-reasoned religious analysis. Whether you think that the line should be halachic recognition of a practice as positively good by its definition as a mitzvah, or halacha’s recognition of a practice as an acceptable possibility by virtue of the fact that it is not forbidden, I would hope that people can approach this discussion with an open mind, recognizing that each of these are sincere (and each undoubtedly to some) imperfect attempts to draw a line and find a balance wherein men and women are both able to live their lives and their Judaism to the fullest.
Rabbi Mark Goldfeder, Atlanta
October 15, 2012 | 10:31 am
Posted by Rabbi Zev Farber
Today, the baseline in any Orthodox community is that women do not participate in public ritual at all. In the average Orthodox synagogue, there is not one thing that women do which is part of synagogue performance. Their presence is not felt and their voices are not heard. The paradigm for women’s ritual participation in the Modern Orthodox world must change.
Although what I described above is standard, in some Orthodox shuls women have complained that they feel excluded and marginalized. In the best of shuls there has been an attempt to accommodate their feelings and various solutions have been offered. Some synagogues are unwilling to accommodate the women in the actual prayer space, but allow them to have a separate women’s prayer group, often based around a Torah reading ceremony of some kind. Others have passively recognized women in the synagogue, e.g., meḥitza down the middle, carrying the Sefer Torah into the women’s section, etc. or allowed some active participation, e.g., opening the ark, saying a mi-she-beirakh, reciting qaddish, etc.
Instead of focusing on specific solutions, I wish to describe what I see as the overall problem with the process of coming to solutions. As described above, we begin with the assumption that women currently lead no prayers and play no public role in the synagogue service. If a group of women in a given synagogue feel that this is insufficient for them, they can come to the rabbi with a complaint and he will think about what he may be willing to do to accommodate them. In my opinion this process is seriously flawed, even if in a given case the outcome is satisfactory for the women. Why is it that we have no expectation that the rabbi will work actively to expand opportunities for women? Why is it that the synagogue automatically assumes that the baseline should be no participation and that women need to put themselves out there, at a real risk of humiliation and disappointment, before even the smallest action will be taken on her/their behalf?
I would argue that the reason the impetus for change has fallen so squarely on the shoulders of women stems from the fact that we are still living under an antiquated and obsolete paradigm. Although there are a number of Talmudic pericopae (sugyot) that discuss technical questions surrounding differences between men’s and women’s obligations in prayer and related halakhot, this does not really explain the stark difference between the place of men and women in the synagogue. The larger issue, I believe, is sociological in nature.
In the Rabbinic period, as well as throughout the Middle Ages, the place of women in the social hierarchy was very different than it is now. Women were rarely public figures and were discouraged from receiving too much education, taking visible public roles, participating in the power structure, and generally from being around men. If any woman were to express superior learning or knowledge than a man in front of a group it would have been a serious breach in etiquette. This is why, according to Tosafot (b. Sukkah 38a, s.v. “be-emet”), women do not lead the Grace after Meals for men or read the Megillah for men, since it would be insulting to them (zila milta). For the same reason, R. Israel Meir Kagan, in his Mishna B’rurah (281:4) argues that women should not say Qiddush for men, at least in public. The Talmud offers a similar reason why women do not read from the Torah in synagogue (b. Megillah 23a), although they are apparently eligible to do so, as it would offend the honor of the congregation (kavod ha-tzibbur). This sociological stance, typical of the classical and medieval periods, goes a long way in explaining why the common practice is not only that women do not lead the repetition of the amidah (which requires a man who is obligated in this prayer service) but they do not even participate in p’tiḥah (taking out the Torah) or lead p’suqei de-zimrah (the pre-prayer psalms), neither of which has any halakhic requirements for who should lead it at all.
The sociological realities nowadays are entirely different. In our world, women hold every position of respect and power in the public sphere as men do. Women serve in Congress and the cabinet, women are judges, doctors, lawyers and police officers. The idea that a group of modern Western men would feel offended if a woman were to perform a public function in a synagogue should be laughable, except for the fact that they may think it a religious violation. But it is only a religious violation since the rabbis believed that the men would be offended. It is a vicious cycle that continues nowadays only due to the unfortunate combination of inertia, obliviousness to halakhic sources, and paternalism.
This is where I believe the paradigm shift must occur. To break out of this vicious cycle, we need to shift the paradigm 180 degrees. Instead of saying that since women have never historically participated in public ritual, so each shul and each rabbi will—upon request—think about creative ways to allow women to participate ritually in things that are permitted, we should be saying that all Jews, men and women, can do or participate in any meaningful ritual unless it is clear that halakha expressly forbids this. How to define what halakha forbids will be a question every shul and rabbi will need to answer, but the inertia factor and the women-don’t-do-these-kinds-of-things factor will have to be taken off the table.
In discussing this issue with others, I have sometimes heard the accusation that women are just trying to copy men. For example, in discussing women’s Torah reading ceremonies, which occur in a number of Modern Orthodox shuls around the world, including the shul where I daven, (thanks to the initiative of a number of women and the sensitivity of the rabbi), I have heard people—not from my community—ask “why would women want to read from the Torah anyway? Is it just because men do it?” I have also heard the related claim: “They are just doing this to make a statement. Women should be more tzanua (modest) about such things.”
These dismissive statements are out of touch with the spiritual and sociological reality of the synagogue service. Women do not want to read from the Torah because men do; women and men both want to be called to the Torah because participating in the reading of the Torah is considered an honor (kavod) due to the great respect all Jews have for the Torah and the Torah scroll. Every man who gets an aliyah receives a myriad of hand-shakes and yeyashar koḥakha’s—and this is true on a regular Shabbat. On Simḥat Torah the average shul breaks out all the Torahs so that every single congregant—male congregant—can be called to the Torah. Afterwards, the real kibbudim (honors) begin.
A year or so ago, I received the Ḥatan Torah honor (the aliyah where the last section of the Torah is read). It was quite an honor. There was a speech about the work I do for the shul, there was a very long and overly flattering Hebrew prayer/song sung by the gabbai, and while he was doing so four men held a ṭallit over my head as if I were getting married. Needless to say, only men get this honor. One can use many adjectives to describe this kavod, but tzanua (modest) is not one of them. It seems rather disingenuous for men who receive these honors and take their access to the Torah for granted to then ask what possible reason could women want to be a part of this. It is totally unfair to create a society in which access to the Torah is considered the greatest honor, bar women from it, and then turn around and ask what their problem is.
Another critique that I have heard of women who want more ritual participation is that “most of these women hardly do what they’re supposed to already; they come late to shul on Shabbat, they aren’t punctilious in their own mitzvah observance, they don’t do any extras like shaking the lulav and etrog or praying three times a day. Why should they get to do extras when they haven’t even covered the basics?” I see two basic problems with this critique.
First, they should be granted access to ritual possibilities because it is their right. Since when is the shaking of a lulav the prerequisite to opening the ark, reciting a mi-she-beirakh or dancing with a Torah scroll on Simḥat Torah? Second, even if a rabbi were to say that in his fantasy world he would only give kibbudim to people who were religiously “up-to-scratch,” I do not believe that he would feel that he could implement such a policy with men. For the life of me I cannot imagine a rabbi taking a Torah scroll away from a man on Simḥat Torah on the grounds that he comes late to shul on Shabbat, or announcing a policy that aliyot in his shul would only be given to men who show up consistently for weekday minyan. However, this is essentially what is being done to women who are told that since they do not daven enough, come to shul enough, do enough mitzvot—what have you—their desire to participate ritually in some way in the synagogue will be denied.
This leads to my final point, which is the issue of power structure. Women are finding it very difficult to make changes in their synagogues because they do not really participate in the power structure. In general, women in the Orthodox world are less learned than the men (due to the structure of yeshiva education), and there are virtually no female clergy in the Orthodox world. Happily, both of the above are changing, but the change is slow, and, therefore, it is critical to have men in our synagogues who understand the significance of changing the paradigm of women’s ritual participation. However, the real work will only begin once women are an integral part of the power structure in the Modern Orthodox world. Only then will the important and difficult conversations about the role of men and women in Orthodox Judaism today take place in a fruitful way. Until then I can only call out with my male voice to my colleagues in the Modern Orthodox world: change the paradigm now and let’s feel the presence of the women in our synagogues and hear their voices—the time is way past due.
Rabbi Zev Farber, Atlanta
August 23, 2012 | 2:37 pm
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
As the Elul moon waxes and the peak of our religious year nears, we each begin asking ourselves our “big questions”. This Elul, the big question that’s rattling me is “what, in the end, is our goal?”
We, who put on tefillin every morning (if we are men), and maintain separate sponges and towels for milchig and fleishig, we who tear toilet paper before Shabbat and don’t touch our spouses 12 days out of each month, what, in the end, is our goal? What is that we really want?
Do we want our children to don tefillin, maintain kosher homes and observe Shabbat as we do? Well, yes, this is something we want. But is this our goal? In the end, is the simple perpetuation of religious activity the sum total of what we are striving for? Or is it just the means? And if so, the means toward what?
Along similar lines: we, who daily pray for, worry about, and support Israel, we who send our children to study and to serve there, what, in the end, is our hope? What is that we really want?
Do we want the State of Israel to be physically secure and materially prosperous? Well, yes. But is this it? Are these the totality of our goals?
We are well-practiced in, and passionate about, the sacred activities of our Orthodox and Zionist lives. Yet as my Orthodox and Zionist life goes on, I suspect more and more deeply that the satisfactory fulfillment of these sacred activities does not constitute the goal at all, rather an elaborate set of means. And the big question that is jumping out at me from every corner this Elul is what then, is the goal?
There are surely many possible responses to this question, and please feel welcome to add yours to this discussion! As for myself, I am thinking about the following two statements, the first by the prophet Yishayahu, the second from our Sages. They strike me as articulations of ultimate Jewish goals.
“In the days to come… the many nations shall come and say, ‘let us go up to the Mount of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may instruct us in His ways, and that we may walk in His paths’, and instruction will come forth from Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem”
“Our rabbis have taught: We support the non-Jewish poor with the poor of Israel, visit their sick with the sick of Israel, eulogize their dead, and comfort their mourners, in the interest of the ways of peace.”
Worthy goals for us to place in our sights, for the short and long term. My own challenge for this Elul is to better understand how our various sacred means lead us to them.
August 7, 2012 | 12:08 am
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
The Book of Eicha (Lamentations) offers many grim images as it recounts the destruction of Jerusalem, and the slaughter and exiling of its population. Surely one of the most gruesome is that of parents so racked with hunger that they resort to cooking their own children. It’s an unfathomable idea, one so depraved that we struggle to imagine it.
And yet. And yet it’s becoming clearer and clearer that we are all cooking our children. If not our children, then our grandchildren. Or perhaps it will be our great-grandchildren. But the time seems to be coming closer and closer when the temperature on this earth which God created for us will be too high for life as we know it to continue. We are, slowly, cooking our children.
According to Halacha, we must not wait until we are absolutely certain that someone’s life is in danger before we intervene. In the presence of even the possibility that life is in danger, we are mandated to violate Shabbat, Yom Kippur, or virtually any of the commandments, in order to preserve and maintain life. This is because life is the central value, and we are prohibited to stand idly by when it is endangered. And we are our bothers’ keepers. And our children’s and grandchildren’s keepers.
I think we need to start being scared. And to think about the world our loved ones, the fruit of our loins and of our wombs, the children whom we hug and the grandchildren whom we kiss, will inhabit. And even as we always place our faith in the compassionate and beneficent God, we simultaneously need to remember what God said to Adam and Eve when He placed them in the garden (Kohellet Rabah, 7) “Be mindful then to not ruin and destroy My world, for if you ruin it, there is no one after you to repair it.”
I ride my bike a lot, and my wife and I are installing solar panels on our roof. But this won’t save anyone’s children. Only unprecedented cooperation among God’s nations will. Only the broad willingness to endure hardship today so that our children may live tomorrow will. Only heroic and noble leadership on the part of this, the most powerful and blessed nation in the world will.
Along with the faith that we are not cooked yet.
July 27, 2012 | 11:15 am
Posted by Rabbi Zev Farber
God, Consciousness and the Problem of Anthropopathism: Theological Musings of the Late Shmully Moskowitz z”l
An old friend of mine was buried last week. I haven’t seen him for a few years and did not call to say goodbye. I had heard he was sick but didn’t think he was going to die; pneumonia doesn’t generally kill 50 year old men, but, I guess, sometimes it does.
I am not going to use this post to eulogize him; many have done this and some of the eulogies are even available online. (I will throw in, however, that Shmully was one of the smartest and funniest men I ever knew.) Instead, I will take the opportunity to describe one of our last conversations and the important theological insight that he taught me. As the post is written in my words, and I will not have the opportunity to run it by him, I hope that the post accurately reflects his thinking.
A few years ago, when I was in Israel interviewing Israelis for the Torah Mitzion kollel I ran in Atlanta at the time, I spent Shabbat in my old neighborhood in Ma’aleh Mikhmas. Shmully was renting a house there at the time, and we got together for a seudah shlishit at a mutual friend’s house. The topic of God and religion came up, it often did with Shmully, and somehow we got to speaking about anthropomorphism. (I will explain how we got onto that subject at the end of the post.)
For those who are unfamiliar with the term, anthropomorphism means imputing human physical characteristics to something not human, in this case God. For example, people who imagine God as an old man with a big grey beard would be describing God anthropomorphically.
Anthropomorphism was considered by Maimonides, among other Jewish philosophers, as a grave sin, as it reduced the Almighty to human form. For Shmully and I, these ideas were rather old-hat. We were both trained in YBT (Yeshiva Bnei Torah, popularly known as Rabbi Chait’s Yeshiva), a yeshiva strongly influenced by Maimonidean thought, and being “on the look-out” for anthropomorphism was in our blood; (as Shmully was the son of Rabbi Morton Moskowitz, one of Rabbi Chait’s early friends and colleagues, Maimonidean philosophy was probably in his mother’s milk.) Shmully, however, said to me that he believed that even most Maimonideans haven’t really wrapped their heads around the problem.
At first I thought he was referring to the related problem of anthropopathism. For the jargonly-uninitiated, anthropopathism refers to the imputing of human feelings to the non-human. I was surprised, I said, that he thought that this concept was so little understood. It had been drilled into us at YBT that all descriptions of God having feelings, whether it was love for Israel or anger at sinners, were metaphorical, so it would be hard to imagine that this was the nuance so many of his fellow were not grasping. “What is it,” I asked, “that you think we run-of-the-mill Maimonideans aren’t getting?”
Here is Shmully’s response. Imagining a body is the most obvious “gross” anthropomorphism. Emotions are the next step up, as it makes intuitive sense to assume that the creator of the universe does not have “feelings”. However, there is a more abstract kind of anthro-projection at work that is difficult to notice. When we discuss God creating, for instance, or God’s providence, we inevitably imagine an organized, purposeful mind making a conscious decision. The mind has a thought and a will and decides to do or not do something. Although it is inevitable for humans to imagine this, it is also a form of anthro-projection, as we imagine the organization and function of our minds in the “mind” of the Creator. “Imputing consciousness to God is also a form of anthropopathism,” Shmully argued.
This, he said, is the import of Maimonides’ claim that all knowledge of God is negative knowledge. We cannot really say that God has a “will”, or that God “runs” the world. All such statements are filtered through human mental projection. Although some language about God remains necessary for any philosophical or religious discussion on the subject, all claims must be understood to be poor approximations of the real idea.
The key example we were discussing was God as creator. Although one can say that God created the world, all a Maimonidean could mean by this is that the world is in existence due to God in some way inexplicable to us. God is the ultimate cause of the world; anything more than this inevitably muddles the picture.
Although this point should have been obvious to someone who has read Maimonides’ discussion of God upwards of a hundred times, I found (and still find) the idea almost too abstract to wrap my head around (as Shmully correctly claimed about me at the beginning of the conversation). What struck me more than just the abstractness of the concept, was the amazing way that it solved a particular intellectual problem faced in discussion of modern religions.
The way we got to the issue of anthropomorphism was by way of a point I was trying (unsuccessfully) to make about modern religions. Shmully had been recently studying up on some eastern religions (I don’t remember which) and I said that it seems to me that one major dividing line between western and eastern religions is the concept of God. For Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God is the force behind the universe. For Hinduism and Buddhism, it is an unconscious unifying force (Brahman). I argued—pontificated—that Freud discussed this difference in Civilizations and its Discontents, claiming that the former religions project father-figures onto the world, whereas the latter religions project the womb-experience onto the world.
It was in response to this that Shmully stated that I was making too fine of a distinction between the two sets of theologies. Since even God-based religions must admit that their God cannot be “conscious” in the human sense, assuming they do not subscribe to anthropopathic thinking (some do, of course), the distinction between western theology and eastern theology is overdone.
Years later, I still think about Shmully’s principle of abstract anthropopathism and its many applications. How does one think about revelation and divine providence without imagining consciousness? It was a lot to digest over a couple of ḥallah rolls and hummus, and I still considering the implications.
This was only one of the many conversations I had with Shmully over the years. Shmully, my friend, you will be missed.
Rabbi Zev Farber
July 24, 2012 | 2:24 pm
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
A few years ago, on the last Shabbat of Tammuz, I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly moved during morning davening. Josh, our Mussaf leader that day, was reciting the blessing for the new moon, as the month of Av would be starting that week. For the short middle paragraph of the blessing, Josh chose the mournful melody of “Elli Zion” familiar to us from the Tisha B’av liturgy. And when we reached the words “all of Israel are friends”, a chill went down my spine. Usually this phrase is one of the most difficult and ironic phrases from our liturgy, given the sad and ongoing story of friction within our tribe. But intoned to the melody of “Elli Zion”, which evokes all of the darkest chapters of our history of the past thousands of years, the words rung startlingly true. We do all share the same stories. We have all walked the same tortured path. When it comes to all the things that we remember every Tisha B’av, all of Israel are indeed friends. Brothers, sisters, and comrades.
Which makes Tisha B’av, strange as this might sound, a true gift for us. It is a special and unique annual opportunity for Jews to sit together, remember together, and even articulate aspirations for the future, together. My dear friend David challenged me a few weeks after Josh’s Mussaf, asking, “is there a way that we could observe Tisha B’av next year with a broader swath of the Jewish community? Isn’t that what the day is about?”
Those experiences, combined with the enthusiasm for the idea that came from my neighborhood colleagues, brought forth an extraordinary Tisha B’av observance that it is about to mark its third year. Our (Orthodox) shul, Temple Beth Am (Conservative), and IKAR (non-denominational) now spend the last 2+ hours of the day together in learning, and soulful Tisha B’av singing. Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Rabbi Sharon Brous and I have formed a most wonderful partnership, creating the learning materials and implementing the program. The program takes place at Beth Am where Rabbi Kligfeld has, so magnificently, given the chevra from our shul a beautiful classroom where we set up a mechitza and have an Orthodox davening for Mincha and Ma’ariv, parallel to the minyanim taking place in the chapel down the stairs. And as we break fast together, the sense of family, of peoplehood, of possibility and optimism, the sense that all Israel are friends, is tangible and exhilarating.
I am sharing this with you not simply to praise my colleagues and their congregations (and my own), but to describe the possible. We’d each be happy to help you and your congregation create something similar to what, with God’s help, we’ve created here.
We need not wait for Mashiach to create this kind of meaningful Jewish friendship.
Probably, Mashiach is waiting for us.
A meaningful fast to all.