Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
Reading the book of D’varim (Deuteronomy) can be a tumultuous experience. These last few Shabbat mornings have been roller coaster rides, as the sacred text has repeatedly ascended to lofty ethical heights, and then without any particular warning, has seemingly plunged into territory that is ethically jaw-dropping.
On one Shabbat morning we were urged to cleave to God who “upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him bread and clothing”, and on the next week we were commanded to completely obliterate any town in our midst whose inhabitants are discovered to be engaged in idolatry, “destroy it, and everyone who is in it.” Minutes later we were enjoined to “open [our] hand to the one who is in need”, were forbidden to harden our hearts toward the needy, and were even required to extend loans that will likely be canceled by the Sabbatical year before we have a chance to recoup them. But when we came back to shul a couple of weeks after that we were told that – within certain parameters – it is permissible to seize a woman captured in war, and take her to wife without her consent. We then held on tight as we scaled the inspiring twin peaks of the command to treat even our animals with sensitivity, and God’s declaration that dishonesty in commerce is an abomination. These in turn were followed immediately by the command to kill any and every Amalekite, now and forever, wherever we may chance upon them.
Not surprisingly (I hope), the Torah’s ethical “highs” continue to shape our practice of Judaism to this day, while the jaw-droppers have uniformly all fallen out of practice. The Rabbis of the Talmud in fact insisted that the law of the idolatrous town (as well as the command to stone a rebellious child) were never intended for implementation at any point, and are recorded in the Torah as hypotheticals, recorded for academic purposes only.
Yet, the lingering questions are large and unavoidable. Do we, or do we not, consider the Torah our ethical code? Do we, or do we not, regard God as the source and paradigm of moral behavior? If we have been ethically cherry-picking for the last couple of millennia, what are we really saying about the moral integrity of the Torah - and of our God?
I’ll here offer three thoughts that admittedly only serve to get the conversation started. One, is that as tempting as it may be to simply ignore these questions, we would be doing so at our considerable peril. To have no response at all is either to implicitly concede that we are no longer actually practicing Judaism, or, at the other extreme, to have to accept the propriety of practices that are beyond the pale of widely accepted moral behavior (Other examples would include the holding of slaves, and the possession of concubines.)
The second thought is that the Torah itself presents conflicting sentiments about some of the jaw-droppers. Our father Avraham distinguished himself as righteous precisely when he objected to the collective punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah. The apex of Moshe’s heroism comes when he does the same (twice) on behalf of the children of Israel in the desert. God Himself seems to do this after the flood. To seize and attempt to marry a women against her will would place one in the company of Pharaoh and Shechem, who respectively took Sara and Dinah, are who are not remembered well for this. In the narratives of Tanach, polygamy and concubinage are invariable presented as troubled situations, best avoided. The legal sections of the Torah spend much more time discussing the laws of how and when to free Hebrew slaves than it does on the laws of maintaining them. In short, Tanach conveys multiple and sometimes contradictory messages as to the standard of acceptable moral behavior, presumably reflecting a genuine sense of internal conflict, and implicitly encouraging further discussion as the generations unfold.
And finally, a corollary of sorts to the previous thought, morality is a moving target, and we have always known this. (How long ago was inter-racial marriage considered immoral?) Talmudic sages severely limited the practices of arranged marriages for minor daughters, levirate marriage, and the use of capital punishment, all on moral grounds. They couldn’t have thought that the Torah, or God, were less moral than themselves. But they knew that as humanity develops and changes, so do moral standards. God spoke at one time. We live – and are commanded to live morally – at another. We turn to the Biblical mitzvah to “do the right and the good” as the North Star which guides our journey into and through times of intellectual and societal change.
These are broad, general thoughts about a set of questions that has an infinite number of particulars. They are questions that many would like to avoid altogether I know, and that some readers will wish I had never brought up. But in various ways, they are questions that we have been asking forever, because we know that these are the precisely the questions that have enabled us to continuously blaze our trail toward holiness and moral piety. To avoid them, or to offer apologetics in response, is a certain way to ascend to the perilous edge of a moral abyss.
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September 1, 2009 | 11:31 am
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
Sounds like strange advice. Let me explain.
According to Rabbi Solovetichik there are two kinds of Teshuva (return). One type of Teshuva calls for a complete obliteration of the past. “Certain situations leave no choice but the annihilation of evil and for completely uprooting it. If one takes pity and lets evil remain, one inexorably pays at a later date an awesome price…Repentance of the individual can also be the kind that requires a clean break, with all of man’s sins and evil deeds falling away into an abyss, fulfilling the prophecy, “An thou will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). Not only are the sins cast into the depths of the sea, but, also, all the years of sin – ten or twenty or even thirty years of the sinner’s life. It is impossible to sift out only the sins and leave the years intact.
Many have experienced this feeling or the desire to erase parts of our life. We feel nothing good can come out of those particular experiences or memories. We blot out the memory completely. We may be so successful at this that we really cannot remember the event even if asked about it or reminded of it. This type of Teshuva is useful and neccesary in certain situations.
There is another type of Teshuva. Says Rabbi Soloveitchik: “…there is another way – not by annihilating evil but by rectifying and elevating it. This repentance does not entail making a clean break with the past or obliterating memories. It allows man, at one and the same time, to continue to identify with the past and still to return to God in repentance.”
On one level, this is very simple to understand as a person who sins is able to redirect the passion to sin in a positive direction. Sinning actually uncovers spiritual forces within a person. A repentant person has the ability to sanctify those forces and use them for good. Again, in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words: “…I am not a different person, I am not starting anew; I am continuing onward, I am sanctifying evil and raising it to new heights.”
There is a more radical understanding of this idea. In Halachik man Rabbi Soloveitchik talks about a “living past”. Psychologically, the past can be kept alive and changed.
Rabbi Chaim Navon, in his book Ne’echaz B’Svach, offers an analogy of two people who were in a car accident. One of them may decide never to get back on the road, while the other becomes a driving teacher in order to rain a new generation of careful drivers. They had the same experience – but the affect of that experience differed greatly between them.
The person who swore off driving had a dead past – a past that set up the future.
The person who became a driving instructor has a live past – a past that is defined by the future. This person’s past is defined by decisions of the present.
Living a life of dead pasts is depressing as we look back on life and see it littered with mistakes, troubles and regret. Such a life is a fleeting moment as the past is gone, the future has not yet arrived and the present is like the blink of an eye.” Such a life feels feeble as we cannot get a grip on time.
A life with a “living past” is uplifting and exhilarating and allows us to control time – all of time. Such a life recognizes the inner strength of a person to redirect their life. Such a life empowers us with the joy of knowing that God believes in our ability to sanctify past deeds. Such a life makes us masters over our entire life, not just what we do now or in the future, but what we have done in the past.
So, I come back to where I started. Do not let a goo sin go to waste. No one is perfect and we all make mistakes. The worst mistake of all is letting the past define our future instead of the other way around.
August 31, 2009 | 7:35 am
Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
We have been hearing the sounds of the shofar every morning since the month of Elul began. And within its wordless cry we already hear the echoes of the liturgy of Rosh Hashana. None more than the echoes of Nitaneh Tokef’s, “Who will Live, and who will die? Who by water, and who by fire?”
The terror of fire has arrived at the doorstep of thousands of homes, and may change forever the lives of thousands of families. The terror of fire has already claimed the lives of two heroes, who responded to the Torah’s call to not stand idly by at a time of danger.
We pray before you God, Creator and Master of all nature’s forces, that You grant strength and comfort to those who fear losing their homes and possessions, and courage and protection to the fearless souls who are doing Your work on the firelines. And please open my heart, and the heart of everyone who sees and knows of the crisis of fire that is upon us, to respond to the calls for help that will soon come. Calls from relief organizations, calls from firefighting fraternities who need to support the families of the fallen. May our hearts be sensitive and our souls generous.
The shofar has awakened us. And we will not disappoint.
August 28, 2009 | 2:44 am
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
We call the process of repentance tishuvah or “return”. This is very telling. The process we engage in during this Jewish month of Elul and through Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot is not a process of becoming someone we are not, but rather a more organic process of getting in touch with who we really are -humans who are made in the image of God, who are at our core moral and good, and who are, even if it is difficult at times for us to connect to, spiritual, endowed with the ability to imitate and cleave to the infinite and harmonious Divine.
The process of tishuvah involves, according to Maimonides book of Jewish law, 4 stages. First we must feel charatah, regret; then we must verbally confess our sins or lack of mitzvoth to before God; next we must ask and receive forgiveness from those we have sinned against, whether other people or God. Lastly we must change, becoming people who are different than before, people who are not drawn to the sin in the same way as before. Its not change from who we essentially are, rather change back to who we are and can be. During the year lots of spiritually detrimental things cover over our Divine soul -money, desire, selfishness, ego, etc. During this time of year we are challenged to slowly uncover our soul from under all those things that are not really us, that cover us over, to be able to let go of the sinful things that we have come to take hold of during the year.
My best wishes for much love, returan, inspiration and insight during this High Holy Day season.
Rabbi Hyim Shafner
August 27, 2009 | 10:04 am
Posted by Rabba Sara Hurwitz
This past week I spoke and participated in a rally in vicinity of the UN. The purpose of the rally was to protest the recent decision by Scottish justice officials to release the terrorist responsible for the bombing of PanAm Flight 103 in 1988 over Lockerbie, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi. The bombing killed all 259 passengers on board and 11 residents of Lockerbie. The rally was emotional and moving; a number of the victim’s relatives joined us in raising a powerful and tender voice in condemnation of this decision.
This decision by Scottish official to release al-Megrahi is troubling on a number of levels. In today’s post, however, I wanted to explore briefly the official predicate for al-Megrahi’s release and to cite a Jewish source that perhaps places the rally I attended in proper context. Al-Megrahi was reportedly released on compassionate grounds: he is suffering from late-term cancer is expected to live only a few more months. This reasoning – showing compassion on a hardened and unrepentant killer – calls to mind a comment made by Rashi in last week’s parsha, parshat Shoftim. The Torah, in teaching some of the laws relating to warfare, begins this section with the introductory statement, “When you go out to battle against your enemies ….” (Devarim 20:1). The words “your enemies” are superfluous. When one declares and goes out to war, it is by definition a war against one’s enemies. Rashi, remarking on this apparent superfluity, derives the following teaching from the words “your enemies.” Rashi states, “they shall be in your eyes like enemies; do not show compassion on them for they will not show mercy on you.”
This sentiment is a bit jarring to modern ears, and our tradition’s attitudes towards our enemies are certainly more complex than this. But Rashi – who witnessed the first crusade in 1096 – is right in this essential point. It hardly serves the goals of justice to show compassion on a true enemy of civil society. The families of al-Magrahi’s victims are the ones deserving our compassion. And when we gathered in protest, we also gathered to show compassion to Babette Hollister, whose daughter Katherine, would have celebrated her 41st birthday this week. Compassion for Hope Asrelsky who is certain that her daughter Rachel, who was just 21 when she died, would have been in Washington today, advocating for a better more just world. It is cruel to betray these families on a fleeting and groundless gesture of mercy. Al-Megrahi and his Libyian enablers would certainly not have done the same.
August 26, 2009 | 1:10 am
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
Last Saturday night, I finally saw “Milk” on DVD. I had been wanting to see it when it was in theaters last year, both because of the critical acclaim that it had won, and because the film’s trailer yanked me back to a memory from teenager-hood, of hearing the breaking news that the Mayor of San Francisco and a County Supervisor had been shot and killed. It was that news flash which introduced me to a world and to a set of issues about which I had known nothing before.
Despite this however, I never made it to the theater. In large part because it’s always hard to find time to get out to the movies. But possibly also because I was not looking forward to dealing with the inner conflict that watching the film would generate. As an Orthodox rabbi and Jew, I knew I’d be on the “wrong side” of the film.
Not because Orthodox Jews should oppose equality in housing and employment for gays and lesbians, the issue around which the movie is centered. Quite to the contrary, there is no basis in Halacha for favoring such discrimination. But having been produced in 2008, the film was really about the ongoing struggle for full legal equality for gays and lesbians. And especially here in the land of Proposition 8, this means the struggle for the legal recognition of gay marriage.
I cannot and will not perform a gay marriage, just as I cannot and will not perform the marriage of a Jew and a Gentile, or a Kohen and a divorcee. When I received my Orthodox ordination, I signed up to lead my community by the strictures of Halacha (and at Sinai I personally accepted the same commitment.) But when Harvey Milk poses the question to Californians as to whether or not homosexuals are also included in the declaration that “all men are created equal” and are therefore deserving of equal treatment under the law, I am left awkwardly and unpersuasively claiming clergy exemption. Why would I have paid 10 bucks plus parking and a babysitter only to wind up feeling like that?
Now that I have seen the movie though, I am reminded that there is a reality that I can not, and do not desire to deny. I am an Orthodox Jew and rabbi .And I am also a human being. A human being who deeply appreciates the spiritual values of human dignity and civil rights that are the foundation of our democracy. Almost all of the time these two essential components of who I am reinforce and encourage one another. Here though, they are in conflict. I know what the Torah says of course, and its words are binding upon me. But as a human being reared on democracy, I cannot articulate for myself a convincing argument as to why the legal recognition of civil marriage should be withheld from citizens who, by dint of how they were born, are only able to form bonds of love and commitment with members of their own gender.
As an aside, I know that the domestic partnership laws afford almost all of the same rights and privileges that marriage does. But domestic partnerships belong to that category of “separate but equal”, suffering from the same kinds of unofficial inequalities that racially segregated schools did. It seems to me that we’re still left with a straightforward claim for “equality under the law”.
In the end, I’m glad I watched the film, despite the fact that it produced a solid sleepless hour later that night. Thank God we have a tradition in which we can - and do - live with tensions that we cannot resolve. We can come to the end of a discussion and say, “kashya”, “I don’t know what to say”. It is tempting to think concluding this way renders the entire preceding discussion a waste of time. But this could not be further from the truth. The lives of human beings are ultimately the subject of this discussion, and there is nothing more religiously irresponsible that to not recognize that the tension exists. The discussion is important to have, even when the final word is “kashya.”
August 25, 2009 | 3:09 am
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
There have been very few public statements from Orthodox groups regarding the Heath Care debate that is raging in this country.
Agudath Yisrael of America recently stated that President Obama’s efforts to “make health care more accessible to the uninsured and underinsured should be applauded” and that “promotion of good health and well being are religious imperatives.”
The Agudath Yisrael should be commended for stepping into the debate and making a statement based on Jewish values.
Where are the other Orthodox groups….especially the Modern Orthodox? It seems that we are comfortable letting the Jewish position on Health Care reform be staked out by the right wing and let wing of Judaism.
For so many, Orthodoxy remains irrelevant because in our shuls and schools we hear about the minute details of how to keep kosher and debate how long a woman’s sleeve must be and ignore serious discussions on societal and moral issues of our day. Here was our chance (maybe there is still time) to appear relevant by formulating an approach on the most significant issue facing America and we have remained silent.
Participating in the universal questions of our time and contributing to the general welfare are commitments that the morethodox should take very seriously.
In 1964 Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik expressed our responsibility in this realm very clearly when he said: “We Jews have been burdened with a twofold task; we have to cope with the problem of a doub!e confrontation. We think of ourselves as human beings, sharing the destiny of Adam in his general encounter with nature, and as members of a covenantal community which has preserved its identity under most unfavorable conditions, confronted by another faith community. We believe we are the bearers of a double charismatic load, that of the dignity of man, and that of the sanctity of the covenantal community. In this difficult role, we are summoned by God, who revealed himself at both the level of universal creation and that of the private covenant, to undertake a double mission - the universal human and the exclusive covenantal confrontation.”
The quote is from Rabbi Soloveitchik’s “Confrontation” where the Rav expresses guidelines for interfaith dialogue. While Rabbi Soloveitchik limits the types of theological discussions we Jews can have with non-Jews, he also notes that dialogue and participation in the no theological realm is permitted.
Our community has taken less seriously the charge Rabbi Soloveitchik gave in terms of actually engaging with the universal community for the greater good.
Rabbi Soloveitchik identifies the common “antagonist” to be contended with as a reason for involvement in universal social issues.
In an addendum to Confrontation Rabbi Soloveitchik calls concern and discussion of issues facing the public as “essential”
“When, however, we move from the private world of faith to the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavors, communication among the various faith communities is desirable and even essential. We are ready to enter into dialogue on such topics as War and Peace, Poverty, Freedom, Man’s Moral Values, The Threat of Secularism, Technology and Human Values, Civil Rights, etc., which revolve about religious spiritual aspects of our civilization.
Since we are approaching Rosh Hashana we can look to the liturgy for guidance in this realm as well.
It is interesting to note that the three main sections of the Rosh Hashan Mussaf, Malchiyot, Zochronot and Shofarot begin by establishing the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people and ends by extending that relationship (and eschatological hopes) to all humanity. God’s sovereignty (Malchiyot), Divine Providence (Zichronot), and Revelation (Shofaros) are experienced by all. The universal nature of these teffilot ahould remind us of our obligation to engage universal issues and express concern for the welfare of all.
We must get into this discussion. If not for the sake of participating with our fellow citizens of an issue of great concern, then for the sake of our communities that will, once again, be confronted with the perceived irrelevancy of our communal institutions and our faith.
A word on quality: Many have argued in favor of Universal health care “as long as quantity does not jeopardize quality”. I wonder about this. Is this even possible? Here is what Rambam wrote:
“One may provide for the poor of idolaters as one does for the Jewish poor for the sake of the ways of peace (Darkei Shalom = pleasant relationships) and nor do we prevent them from taking any of the gifts of harvest for the poor, for the same reason, and one may enquire after their health, even on one of their festivals, for the same reason.”(Laws of Idolatry and Idolaters, 10:5).
At the very least Orthodox groups should be making statements in favor of Universal Health care. Whether we base it on Pikuach Nefesh (saving lives), Tzedakah, or the biblical mandate to take care of the less fortunate, we must make our voices heard. To be sure, the devil is in the details, but by not making a simple statement that every human being is entitled to health care, orthodox groups are missing an important opportunity.
August 25, 2009 | 12:51 am
Posted by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
Travelblog: 24 hours of Jewish Cincinnati with Rabbi Lopatin
My wife and I and our kids packed up the car and headed on Saturday night for the great city of Cincinnati. Just about five hours from Chicago, Cincinnati is in Ohio, but only minutes from Indiana – which feels like Illinois – and from Kentucky – the South! Reform Judaism is still big in this town, and the original HUC branch has been given a lease on life only recently, and the great Reform synagogue, the Isaac Wise Synagogue (formerly Plum Street Synagogue) is still glorious. But I want to point out three highlights of this trip that highlight some exciting things from the Orthodox and Conservative movements.
We went to a wedding at Adath Israel Congregation, which has been led for the past 18 years by Rabbi Irvin Wise (Reb Irv). You have to see this shul: I’ve seen a lot of shuls of all movements, but this shul is stunning because for a shul of 600 members (or so I was told) it is huge! It has a Hebrew school building that would be reasonable for a nice sized day school; it has a parking lot bigger than Detroit, Motown Conservative synagogues, and there is a totally unused grassy lot next to the parking lot that is equally as large. The shul is even more beautiful inside, with a six year, multimillion dollar renovation recently completed. Stunning and contemporary stained glass windows in the sanctuary, granite counters in the bathrooms, with a combo of automatic faucets and manual ones as well, presumably for those who don’t use electricity on Shabbat. There were rooms and rooms, and a huge social hall where each table had its own spotlight to shine on the centerpiece. This shul is a living monument to the glory days of the Conservative movement. I have no illusions that Adath Israel must have its challenges which affect all Conservative shuls, and especially in the Midwest, but I urge you to go to Cincinnati and see this shul, and you will be taken back 50 years to the days when it seemed that Conservative Judaism would lead all Jews into a beautiful future as proud Americans. Again, we all know the difficulties all American Jews face, but especially the Conservative movement, but you won’t feel it when you go to a wedding at Adath Israel in Cincinnati.
But don’t only go to Cincinnati to relive the glory of Conservative Judaism. Go there for the kosher places under the supervision of the local Orthodox Va’ad. I have heard that Orthodoxy in Cincinnati is struggling and splintered – and my friend Rabbi Hanan Balk of the Orthodox Golf Manor Synagogue was not in town for the one day I was there, so I could not delve further into the challenges for the Orthodox community in Cincinnati. But I must say that the Vaad has its act sufficiently together to supervise three unique kosher eateries that are worth the trip: First, the quaint Kinneret Kosher that is the quintessential mom and pop dairy restaurant: The pop took our order and provided coloring sheets and crayons to my four kids. The mom was in the kitchen cutting up the tomatoes for the tuna Panini that I ordered. Actually, the Panini did taste exactly the way they tasted in Paris, but the quality of the food was not the star here: the grace of a small operation, and the love and sweetness of the owners were what was really unique here. Second, Marx’s bagels – it’s a chain, but only one has hashgacha : They have the most amazing French toast bagels – that taste exactly like French toast. OK, you say, fine, but not worth flying to Cincinnati for. Maybe, but the final place I tried is a fantastic, low keyed, kosher vegetarian Indian restaurant called Amma’s. They have a great lunch buffet, all you can eat for $8.99, including taxes and dessert and the place is filled with real Indian people, not just a bunch of Jews who think they know authentic Indian. Amazing! Amma’s is the vegetarian equivalent of Kohinoor in the Crown Plaza in Jerusalem, which is the best meat Indian I have ever had. But meat, anyone can make tasty; vegetables are a different story. I’ve had a lot of vegetarian Indian – including a lot in India when Rav Ahron Soloveichik said I could trust the strict vegetarianism of India, but this food in Cincinnati was by far the best. I am already thinking of ways of getting back to Cincinnati to get some more of this great Indian cuisine, and to go back for seconds of the rice pudding dessert. Kudos to Orthodoxy in Cincinnati for getting this places under Hashgacha. This city is a gem – great museums, skyline, great people and between Adath Israel and Amma’s Indian cuisine, it will take you to a different place as a Jew and a connoisseur of style and good food. Someone is doing something right in Cincinnati.