Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
Torah Min Hashamayim: Some Brief Reflections on Classical and Contemporary Models
Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is on the faculty of the SAR High School and serves as the Chair of the Bible and Jewish Though Departments at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. He is the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ and is on the steering committee of the Orthodox Forum. He is a member of the RCA and an officer of the IRF. He is most recently the author of Mikra and Meaning: Studies in Bible and Its Interpretation (Maggid/Koren, 2012).
He is also the author of Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Ktav, 2006) and served as the editor of Or Hamizrach and the assistant editor of the Meorot Journal.
1. For the last two centuries theories of higher Biblical Criticism have challenged traditional notions of the Divine authorship of the Torah. Classical academic theories claimed multiple human authors composing various portions of the Torah at different points in history, as a purely human creation.
This directly flies in the face of traditional notions of revelation and authorship of the Torah. The challenges of academic theories of the authorship of the Torah continue to engage the thinking of many believing Jews who struggle in their attempt to reconcile their faith commitments and the serious questions and dilemmas posed by critical study of the Torah.
At the heart of any traditional notion of Judaism lies the principle of Torah Min Hashamayim- the truth claim that the God is the source and origin of the Pentateuch. The Mishnah at the opening of the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin which states “Haomer Ein Torah Min Ha-Shamayim Ein Lo Cheilek Leolam Haba” itself does not spell out what the exact meaning of the phrase “Torah” is. In classical rabbinic literature the phrase Torah has a range of meaning from a narrow reference to the Decalogue, to the Five Books of Moses to the entirety of the Bible to the whole corpus of the written and oral law. From the Talmudic discussion it emerges that Hazal understood this unique dogma to refer specifically to the Torah proper. In one formulation in the sugya that discusses this concept, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a) asserts that one violates this principle if one maintains that the entire Torah comes from God except for “one verse which was not said by God but by Moses on his own”. This phrase is ambiguous as it may be interpreted to be focusing only on the Divine source of the Torah, or that notion plus an insistence on Mosaic authorship. In other words, is the Talmud insisting only on the Divine authorship belief or that this must be coupled with Moses being the vehicle for all of that communication. The practical ramification would be if one maintained that part of the Torah was directly from God but not through Mosaic authorship. (The original and primary valence of this passage has been discussed in the writings of Rav Hayim Hirshcenson z”l and in a seminal essay by the Jewish philosopher Shalom Rosenberg printed in the classic volume “Hamikra Va-anchnu”. This dispute in interpretation is at the heart of the famous dispute in the Talmud in Bava Batra (15a) as to whether the last eight verses in the Torah were written by Moses in anticipatory prophecy or were written by Joshua subsequent to Moses’ demise.
2. As is well known Maimonides in his Introduction to the commentary to the Mishna on the Tenth Chapter of Sanhedrin takes a very unequivocal position on this matter. In his famous 8th principle he maintains that Torah Min Hashamayim (Rambam's language-never uses the phrase Torah Mi-Sinai in the introduction to Perek Cheilek) asserts both the Divine origin of the Torah and its total and complete authorship by Moses as a conduit of God’s direct revelation of the text to be copied down. He further asserts that the text that we posses today is exactly the same text that was handed down to Moses. This last assertion touches on the question of what is termed lower Biblical criticism. This issue has been discussed at length by generations of masoretes, rishonim and aharonim and has been examined in various essays and books by Profs. Yeshayahu Maori, Menachem Cohen and R. Mordechai Breuer in the volume :Hamikra Ve-Anachnu and the Orthodox Forum Volume on “Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah” and in the volume by Prof. B. Barry Levy, “Fixing God’s Torah”. It is not my intention to discuss those issues below.). Maimonides rejects any and all claims that even one word of the Torah is post-Mosaic in its origin (including rejecting the position of those Tannaim that claim that the last 8 p’sukim of the Torah-were written by Joshua.)
There is no doubt that this position came to be the derech hamelech of traditional thought from the Rambam's time on throughout the ages and certainly was affirmed vigorously in the polemical wars of the 19th and 20th century between Orthodoxy and the heterodox movements.
3. We, today know that this position, while dominant, was not universally held by all rishonim. From the careful study of Ibn Ezra and his supercommentaries such as R. Yosef Tov Elem (Tzfnat Paaneach), and portions of commentaries from some rishonim in Ashkenaz such as R. Yehuda Hahasid we know that alongside the Maimonidean position there were other minority voices in the tradition that went beyond the explicit position of one of the Hazal in Bava Batra (15) that claimed that the last right psukim were written by Joshua (ostensibly in prophetic mode). These rishonim were willing to maintain that other words, phrases, psukim, and small parshiyot were also post-mosaic in origin, introduced into the text by later prophets. This material has been brought to the attention of the public in the last fifty years by rabbis, thinkers and scholars such as R. Yisrael Lange, Profs. Yisrael Ta-Shma, Louis Jacobs, Shnayer Leiman, Marc Shapiro, and most recently has been analyzed in the new volume by my dear friend, R. Amon Bazak, “Ad Hayom Hazeh” (Michelet Herzog, 2013) Ch. 2 and presented as two legitimate positions within the tradition. It is, of course, clear that rishonim such as R. Yehudah Hasid or Ibn Ezra, spoke of small passages and seem to have maintained that these passages had their origin in prophecy - (In contrast to the false claim of Spinoza that Ibn Ezra believed the Bible as a whole was not the work of God but the work of man without any divinity.)
The contemporary question, that has arisen in the last decades is the legitimacy of extending the basic principle laid out by these rishonim, that certain passages are post-Mosaic in origin, written by others in prophetic mode, to whole parshiyot and large swaths of the Torah. In other words can one claim that the Torah is Divine, but was composed of a number of prophetic revelations, some directly to Moshe and others to later prophets which were then edited finally into one book in the prophetic mode. This touches directly on the interpretation of the beraita in Sanhedrin 99 that we discussed above. This view of multiple authorship of the Torah by various authors who were prophets writing in the prophetic mode and thus does not undermine the notion of the Torah's divinity.
4. In dealing with the challenges posed by higher Biblical Criticism, I personally do not adopt this more radical view of revelation. I believe that the resolution of many of the issues lies in adopting a combination of some of the important work of U. Cassutto, Benno Jacob, R. David Tzvi Hoffman together with the basic approach of my teacher, Rav Breuer z”l and his shitat habehinot, (without signing off on each and everyone of his readings. This eclectic approach coupled with the insights of my teachers Rav Shalom Carmy and Rav Yoel Bin Nun and the literary-theological school can provide an intelligently cogent and religiously meaningful reading of Torah that seeks to understand the dvar Hashem with integrity and honesty.
I also was heavily influenced by Rav Breuer who very strongly rejected the more radical reading of the notion of Torah Min Hashamayim outlined above. He vigorously against it in the first part of the essay that was published in the Orthodox Forum Volume “Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah”. A decade later he returned to this topic in an essay in Megadim 30. In that essay he strongly critiques this expanded view of Torah Min Hashamayim as having no basis in traditional Jewish sources and being a “new belief system that has been entirely fabricated out of whole cloth”. A number of issues later in Megadim 33, Dr. Israel Knohl took issue with R. Breuer and forcefully argued that were solid sources for this expansion of the notion of Torah Min Hashamayim. This essay was printed together with a rejoinder from R. Breuer in that issue. A decade later Prof. Uriel Simon wrote an important piece in Megadim 51 analyzing the use by both R. Breuer and Dr. Knohl of the writings of Ibn Ezra on this topic and the merits of each one’s readings of Ibn Ezra. The reader is encouraged to read these important pieces which engage the issues in a serious manner.
5. Given all this background where does this leaves us today. The vast majority of Orthodox rabbinic leaders and thinkers, both Hareidi and Modern, at least publically, affirm the traditional notion of Torah Min Hashamayim as outlined by the Rambam. In addition, some writers and thinkers go further and maintain that the weight of Jewish history and the “consensus” of rabbinic statements in the last five hundred years have rendered the discussion moot. They maintain that Rambam’s view has been adopted as the only legitimate view and any other approach is heretical. Others do not take such a strong position, and thus while affirming the Maimonidean view, believe that someone who maintains the actual view of that the last 8 verses of the Torah are post –Mosaic from the pen of Joshua or that other isolated verses were post-Mosaic, are not maintaining heretical views. Indeed, Rav Breuer himself, while rejecting Dr. Knohl’s expansion of the view of Ibn Ezra and others, writes explicitly:
“I do not know if these words (of Ibn Ezra) were to the liking of the rabbis. In any event, they were uttered by Ibn Ezra, and we can therefore not reject their legitimacy”.
6. The more challenging issue is the attitude towards the view that expands and builds upon the view of these medieval rishonim to include wide swaths of the Torah. As in the previous paragraph, the mainstream Orthodox view maintains that such a position is out of the pale and cannot be part of traditional Jewish thought. On the other hand there are thinkers who do not take this view and have articulated a more nuanced view. Rav Hirscenson z”l almost a century ago, already noted that the Rambam’s read of the Talmudic passage in Sanhedrin was not the plain sense of the words. In recent years, Rav Yoel Bin Nun (in personal conversation) and Rav Yuval Cherlow, two leading thinkers/leaders in the Dati Leumi community, while not personally advocating the expansive understanding of Torah Min Hashamayim articulated by Dr. Knohl have maintained that someone who does has not violated the parameters of Hazal’s dictum of “Haomer Ein Torah Min Hashamayim”. This view has also been cited in print by a number of writers to the noted Rosh Yeshiva Rav Shlomo Fisher of Yeshivat Itri. Namely, he does not believe that maintaining such a position does not put one out of the pale. The key in this formulation is as Rav Yuval has written: ל כן, בשעה שמאמינים במוצא העליון המוחלט של כלפסוקי התורה אין איסור להרחיב את מה שאמרו חכמינו על הפסוקים האחרונים בתורה לעוד מקומות בתורה, בשל העיקרון הבסיסי הקיים בדברים אלה – התורה היא מוצא “פיו” המוחלט של ריבונו של עולם.
7. Given all this, and my general inclusivist inclinations, I would argue that we not write, people who maintain this more radical position, out of traditional Judaism. This is especially the case given the fact that if I were to look at large swaths of Orthodoxy today, there are hundreds of thousands of Jews who believe things about God and His actions, or His emotions and feelings or about prayer to intermediaries or the nature of the sefirot that would clearly put them outside of the pale in the eyes of the Rambam. I, of course, realize that the 8th principle of the Rambam was one of the central points of contention between Orthodoxy and heterodox movements in the last two centuries and thus has greater resonance and emotional power. However, if we are not going to read out of orthodoxy those who directly violate the fifth ikar of the Rambam or his clear words in the Guide to the Perplexed- Section 1:36 than I am reticent to do so in the case of those who do not adopt the Rambam's formulation in the 8th ikar, especially if they conform to the notion of the Divine origin of the Torah, a principle that has been rejected in-toto by so many modern Jews.
1. See, however, the formulation of R. Breuer in Megadim 33, pg. 131-132.
2. Many of the direct citations of Rav Fisher , Rav Cherlow and others can be found in the blog post of Prof. Marc Shapiro at: http://seforim.blogspot.com/2013/03/torah-mi-sinai-and-more.html
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July 7, 2013 | 12:40 pm
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
Between September 1977 and June 1981 I attended Yeshiva University High School, commonly known as MTA. During that time Rabbi George Finkelstein was the principal, and Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm - a once and forever hero of American Orthodoxy - was the President of the University.. I of course knew during those years, that there were certain students whom Rabbi Finkelstein aggressively invited into his office to “wrestle” with him. I “of course” knew, because everybody knew. Everybody already knew about it in the years before I got to MTA, and everybody continued to know about it in the years following.
For 30 years after graduating MTA I never thought about any of this, until this past December when the stories of what we now call sexual abuse - committed by Rabbi Finkelstein and one other faculty member - were detailed in the Daily Forward. Also detailed by the Forward was Rabbi Lamm’s eventual decision to quietly dismiss the abusers, without either reporting anything to the police, or telling their subsequent employers about what he knew. The months that followed the Forward’s revelations brought only half-apologies and mumbled rationalizations from YU. But this past Monday, Rabbi Dr. Lamm, now 85 and in failing health, resigned as university chancellor, and spoke at length about the scandal in his resignation remarks. A few representative sentences:
“At the time that inappropriate actions by individuals at Yeshiva were brought to my attention, I acted in a way that I thought was correct, but which now seems ill conceived. [I submitted to] momentary compassion in according individuals the benefit of the doubt by not fully recognizing what was before [me]. And when this happens—one must do teshuvah. So, I too must do teshuvah. True character requires of me the courage to admit that, despite my best intentions then, I now recognize that I was wrong.”
I am writing about this today neither to applaud Rabbi Lamm for his honesty and courage, – although such applause is appropriate – nor to point out what was missing from his statement – which spokespeople for the victims have already quite correctly done. I am writing rather, in order to open the question as to how it hapenned that an entire generation of MTA students – including me – failed to speak up about what we knew was happening (even if we didn’t yet have the vocabulary to describe it)? And even more to the point, how is it that faculty members - our teachers! – as well as members of the administration remained silent, never raising their voices? Why did we remain silent, and what responsibility do we have now?
There are surely at least a half-dozen different explanations that can be offered for why people remain silent in the face of these kinds of things. They range from fear of ridicule or even reprisal, to apathy and indifference to the problems of others. But there is also our deep-seated - and not incorrect – belief in the vital importance of our basic religious institutions, and the tradition, stability, and reassurance that they provide. Consciously or perhaps sub-consciously, we are afraid to do something that might destabilize the couriers of our faith and identity, the shepherds of our historical continuity. Which is why we have a long-standing habit of overlooking institutional flaws and even misdeeds, in the name of preserving stability and continuity.
My father, my sister, all 4 of my brothers-in-law, my son and I are all graduates of one or more YU school. Every single member of the Modern Orthodox community is directly or indirectly a beneficiary of YU, its educational vision, and the services it provides. We all owe a historic debt of gratitude to the institution, and to Rabbi Lamm in particular. Which is precisely the reason why there are people, even as the investigation is going on, who feel that the most important thing to do is to continue to protect the institution. And which is undoubtedly why there were so many who remained silent back in the 70’s and 80’s when Rabbi Finkelstein’s bizarre behavior was a completely open secret within the school. But what must be obvious to us now is that it is both folly in practical terms, and corrupt in spiritual terms to think that we are in any way strengthening Judaism through turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cries of the innocent. Indeed, if Judaism means anything at all, only the precise opposite could possibly be true. Rabbi Lamm, in his final act of leadership, opened this discussion. It is upon all of us to continue it.
I have come to realize that as a schoolmate of many of the victims I have my own teshuva to do as well. It is my hope and intentions to begin organizing my MTA classmates, not God forbid to bash our alma mater, but to communicate to the University that it still has the opportunity to model for the Orthodox world how an institution investigates itself and how it cares for the victims of its past failures. And to organize my classmates to offer our own apology to those whose distress we ignored.
If you are an MTA alum, and would like to join me in this, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
May 24, 2013 | 9:43 am
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
“Halachikly alive.” It’s a term that, ironically enough, is only used when we’re in a situation of death and dying. My mother-in-law, who until a few months ago was a vivacious wife, mother, grandmother and Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Nutrition, is today, heart wrenchingly, only halachikly alive. This, the result of a stroke and its aftermath, which have left her without consciousness, yet breathing on her own.
No matter how many times I’ve been called upon for pastoral and halachik counseling in situations like this, it looks different when you’re a member of the immediate family. I’m thinking about different things, asking different questions.
Is “halachikly alive” simply a legal category? Is it just the mathematical sum of our sacred imperative to preserve life and our legal definition of death? Or, might it be a spiritual category as well? It would a great help if it were.
During davening this morning I was thinking about the times I’ve stood on the beach and watched the sun setting over the ocean. There always comes that point at which the setting sun no longer serves any function. It is too close to the western horizon to be providing warmth or light any longer. But we are nonetheless transfixed by it. It is the reminder, even as it disappears, of the gift that we had been given, the gift we had barely thought about, the miracle that was. It is a melancholy moment. And also wondrous.
There is something there. Something to be near, and to touch and to wonder at. In between the letters and the words, the laws and the principles, there is the spirit.
April 24, 2013 | 9:29 am
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
On a recent Shabbat, Bais Abraham hosted a panel speakers from Eshel (www.eshelonline.org), a national organization building communities of support, learning, and inclusion for Orthodox lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews. The three speakers were LGBT Orthodox individuals, two of whom came to observance later in life and one of whom grew up in the Chassidic community. They each shared their personal journey of what it is like for them to be LGBT in the Orthodox community today. A recent Orthodox rabbinic effort to show compassion and support for LGBT Orthodox members of the Jewish family is reflected in the Statement of Principals signed by over 200 Orthodox rabbis. It can be found at http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com .
Over the past two weeks, I received many questions about our Shabbat program from people from different parts of the Orthodox and general Jewish communities. I’d like to share with you some of the questions and my responses:
Q. Why don't we just keep quiet about this? If someone is gay, let them sit in shul like anyone else. Why should we bring this out into the open and discuss it?
To remain silent is to reject people. We, as humans, tend to demonize and stigmatize what we do not know. Individuals who fall prey to social stigmas are forced to feel like outsiders because no one will talk about their issues. Such individuals keep their conditions hidden but the cost will be that they do not feel part of the community. They will hear loud and clear what people implicitly feel, that they are flawed. In addition, there will be no forum or opportunity in which to educate others in the community about the suffering of the stigmatized individuals, thus there is no possibility for sensitivity to their experiences. This can result in a feeling of rejection, and psychological, if not actual, aloneness. When we ignore the challenges of people in our community and ignore our own conscious or unconscious rejection of them, we cannot expect them to feel included, and we cannot love them as ourselves. This is the case for LGBT Orthodox Jews.
Q. How can you feature something that is a violation of Jewish law?
Halacha (Jewish law) is, of course, of central importance to us as Orthodox Jews. Our Shabbat program, however, was not designed to focus on halachic challenges faced in the personal and intimate lives of Orthodox LGBT community members. Every Orthodox LGBT person discusses such challenges privately with his or her rabbi. Our program was about the personal stories of such individuals who are struggling with staying connected with God and with their communities and about moving toward a culture in which LGBT Jews do not have to feel excluded from the Orthodox community. It was to find a place of compassion and inclusion, so LGBT Orthodox Jews do not feel like outsiders, which historically has led to losing them entirely to Yiddishkeit, or worse.
Before we judge anyone who is LGBT or condemn them in the abstract, we owe it to ourselves to humanize this topic and hear real people tell their very real stories, or else we may violate the saying in Pirkey Avot, Al tidan es chavero ad shetagia li'mikomo. Do not judge another person until you have been in their place.
Many would like to pretend that there are no LGBT people in our midst, but the weekend not only showed us that they are members of our community, but also underscored that they are our neighbors, our children, our brothers, our sisters, and our friends. They are in the stories presented to us, devout individuals who truly value Torah and mitzvot.
Q. Rabbi, does having this panel serve any religious purpose for those of us who are not LGBT? What can the rest of us learn from this about our own avodat Hashem (service to God)?
I found it inspiring that when faced with something that would make it so difficult to be observant and to remain within the Orthodox community--a community with little sensitivity to the feelings of those who are gay--they choose, despite feeling alienated, to remain in the community. Their love for Torah, for mitzvot, for Hashem and for the Jewish People is so strong that though it would be much easier to leave Orthodoxy, they do not. Among other things, we can learn from LGBT Orthodox Jews about commitment to Torah even in very difficult circumstances.
Q. If someone LGBT wants to be in our community, do you expect us to accept them? To give them aliyot?
In many shuls, even people who violate mitzvot of various types between humans and God and between humans and other humans, are welcomed. Why should we treat the LGBT Jews any differently? Indeed, it could be argued that not keeping kosher or other important mitzvot is a choice, and LGBT, as we now know, is not a choice. If it were, the vast majority of Orthodox LGBT people would choose not to be LGBT. With regard to people who are transgender, the halachic question arises as to whether to give them aliyot and where they should sit in shul. There are various opinions among poskim as to the status of the gender of transgender people, depending upon where in the transition process they are.
Q. Isn't treating a gay couple (with children) the same as other families in our shul a slippery slope?
As Orthodox Jews, we all try our best to adhere to the halacha in its entirety in our desire to best serve Hashem, and we acknowledge that our fellow Torah-observant Jews strive to do the same or grow continually in that direction. That being said, it is not our responsibility or objective to oversee or judge the quality of everyone's observance, especially in their private lives. Rather than looking to anyone's private life, which is ultimately between those two people and, if Torah-observant, their Rabbi, let us rather enjoy and respect what is going on in their living rooms: welcoming guests, being careful with kashrut, not speaking lashon hara, honoring their fellow Jew, and raising Torah-centered families with Torah-centered values. Throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater by rejecting them, serves no purpose. This is a reality in our community and we need to start taking fundamental steps of inclusion and not persecution and/or condemnation.
Q. Won't having gays in shul influence others to experiment with their sexuality and perhaps decide to be gay?
Orientation is not something that can be influenced by others. It is quite clear that people do not just decide to be LGBT. This is especially so of religious people. All of our panelists testified to being born gay. Who indeed would choose to be gay and have to deal with the inner turmoil and alienation that they described?
Q. Why not suggest gay people get married to members of the opposite gender and stay in the closet?
Many gay Orthodox Jews do marry people of the opposite gender, hoping Hashem will perform a miracle and make it work, but alas, to no avail. We are who God made us. The pressure within the Orthodox community that is upon them, as we keep fixing them up with people of the opposite gender, as we keep assuming that no one is gay, pushes gay people into heterosexual relationships that only end up with both partners deeply hurt. Let’s stop assuming that every person who has not gotten married is looking for a heterosexual shidduch. It can lead to devastating results.
In sum, in most Orthodox communities today, LGBT members face rejection. Instead, imagine an Orthodox community that says to them, we understand you are LGBT and we understand the challenges you face as you try to lead an Orthodox life. Stay in the community. We accept you as a member of our family. Instead of leaving because you feel no compassion from us, stay and build a frum home, feel part of our community, be as whole with your Creator, with the Torah, and the Jewish people as you can. We are here to support you, not judge you. None of us are tzadikim.
March 23, 2013 | 10:19 pm
Posted by Rabbi Barry Gelman
I recently listened to a shiur on the subject of Pesach wherein the Rabbi insisted that currently we celebrate the spiritual freedom of Pesach (Mitcheila Ovdei Avodah Zara HaYu Avoteinu) and not the physical freedom expressed in the Haggadah (Avadim HeYeinu L’Paroh B’Mitzrayim). He noted that since we are under the jurisdiction of others, we cannot celebrate physical freedom.
I was dismayed at this outlook and wondered how, after the establishment of the State of Israel that someone could suggest that we celebrate Pesach in 5773 the same way we did in 1933, or during anytime since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash.
I felt better after reading Ruth Wisse’s column in Friday’s Wall Street Journal
But the most inspiring incarnation of the exodus has been the one that reversed it: the recovery of the Jewish homeland from foreign occupiers after millennia of exile. Not by the hands of an angel and not by the hands of a messenger, but by the self-reliance that their ancestors had practiced for millennia, and by keeping faith with their vow to return to Jerusalem, the settlers of Israel accomplished one of the greatest national feats in history.
Jews reclaimed their political independence in the land of Israel in the same decade that witnessed the genocidal slaughter of one-third of their people. They did so not only by mobilizing skills honed through centuries of adaptation to foreign rule but by reactivating powers that were dormant for centuries.
Can the legendary crossing of the Red Sea compare with the marvel of several million Jewish migrants and refugees from lands as disparate as Ethiopia and Latvia forging a common, democratic Jewish state? Are the plagues that persuaded Pharaoh to “let my people go” or the miracles in the desert as stunning as Israel’s ability to withstand the preposterously asymmetrical Arab aggression against it? The revival of Hebrew from sacral high status into national vernacular is an unparalleled linguistic feat. Entrepreneurship in Israel has won it the title of “start-up nation.”
The traditional Passover Seder concludes with the pledge, “Next year in Jerusalem,” which the British poet William Blake nationalized in the vow not to rest “Till we have built Jerusalem / In England’s green & pleasant Land.” Yet modern Israel represents an immense human accomplishment that may even go beyond the prophetic vision. Passover today includes a story of national liberation at least the equal of the one in the Book of Exodus that served as its inspiration.
Ruth Wisse understands that history changes the way we think about and experience history.
Rabbi Menachem Mendle Kasher, among others, considers this approach a simple matter of Hakarat HaTov, recognizing the good that God has done. To celebrate Pesach as if there is no State of Israel is to ignore the favors that God has bestowed on us.
Rabbi Kasher recommends adding a fifth cup corresponding the the final word of redemption – V’Heiveiti – “and I will
…and our fathers have told us—we will not hide it from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of the Eternal, and His strength, and His wondrous works that He hath done.” Also, it is said: “Let them give thanks unto the Eternal for His mercy, and for His wondrous works for the children of men.”
And now, in our own time, when we have been privileged to behold the mercies of the Holy Name, blessed is He, and His salvation over us, in the establishment of the State of Israel, which is the beginning of redemption and salvation from the exile of Edom, even as it is written: “And I shall bring you into the land, the same which I have lifted my hand to give unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, and I have given it unto you as an inheritance: I am the Eternal”—it is fitting and proper that we observe this pious act, the drinking of the fifth cup, as a form of thanksgiving.
Just as we have been privileged to see the first realization of ” And I shall bring them,” so may we be worthy of witnessing the perfect and complete redemption, the coming of the Messiah. May we witness fulfillment of the vision of the prophets, that “evil shall disappear as smoke in the wind, and that all the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God.
Even if one does not subscribe to Rabbi Kasher’s messianic overtones, there is still reason to approach Pesach differently than our grandparents did. It’s called Dayeinu.
Each step of that famous song represents an incomplete redemption. Would it really have “been enough” had God brought us to Mount Sinai, but not given us the Torah?
Well, it depends on what we are asking. If we are asking, would it have been enough to be considered a complete redemption, then the answer is no. But, if the question is: Would it have been enough to offer thank to God, then the answer us yes. The answer is yes, because imperfect and incomplete redemptions are also worthy of praise and thanksgiving.
Rabbi Yehuda Amital notes this approach when discussing celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut
How can we not thank the Almighty for all the kindness that He has showered upon us? First and foremost, the State of Israel serves as a safe haven for five million Jews. After the nightmare of the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees wandered around the globe, finding a home and refuge only in Israel. The State has contributed an incalculable amount to the restoration of Jewish pride after the devastating chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) caused by the Holocaust. Today, too, the State plays an enormous role in the Jewish identity of our brethren throughout the world. For so many of them, the emotional attachment to the State remains the final thread connecting them to the Jewish people and to the God of Israel.
I spoke earlier of Rav Kook’s inability to come to terms with the establishment of a state that would not bring to fruition the ultimate destiny of redemption. This led him to claim that the impending State of Israel was to be the ideal State of the period of ge’ula (redemption). But don’t all the critical functions fulfilled by the State of Israel (as listed above) justify its existence, even if it has not developed into the ideal community? After the traumatic destruction of the Holocaust, which Rav Kook could not possibly have foreseen, the State played a critical role in the restoration and revitalization of the Jewish people. It is hard to imagine what the Jewish nation would look like today if, Heaven forbid, the State of Israel had not emerged.
I experienced the horror of the destruction of European Jewry, and I can thus appreciate the great miracle of Jewish rebirth in our homeland. Are we not obligated to thank the Almighty for His kindness towards us? Unquestionably! And not just on Yom Ha-atzma’ut; each day we must recite Hallel seven times for the wonders and miracles He has performed on our behalf: “I praise you seven times each day!” (Tehillim 119:164).
Are things perfect? No. Could things be better? Yes. Would it be that the Messiah would arrive and that all of Israel’s enemies were no longer. But we must not confuse Pesach 5773, being celebrated in a world with a State of Israel with Pesach in the Warsaw Ghetto.
March 7, 2013 | 6:29 pm
Posted by Dr. Chaim Trachtman
Rabbi Freundel's detailed analysis of the halakhic basis for Partnership Minyanim demonstrates an impressive mastery of the relevant texts. But, in assessing this new practice, it is important to examine not only the halakhic responsa but also some of the underlying assumptions about women, men, and the formulation of law within the Orthodox community that are implied in his analysis.
One recurrent theme among those who contend that Partnership Minyanim is not supported by the halakha is that people like me who attend Partnership Minyanim and find them meaningful are ends-driven. That is to say, Partnership Minyanim supporters are thought to act solely on an emotional basis and to use halakha in service of their personal needs and desires, to satisfy ulterior motives. On a very simple level, I would invite anyone who questions the validity of Partnership Minyanim to attend one. After observing the delicate maneuvering around the mechitzah and careful attention to roles during the tefila, I would ask if they cannot recognize the effort to remain firmly connected to Orthodox practice. What kind of ulterior motive would someone have for the spending the same amount of time on Shabbat morning, saying the same tefillot, listening to a Dvar Torah with women doing select portions unless they felt themselves to be Orthodox?
But taking this one step further, it is untenable to assert that advocates of Partnership Minyanim are the only people who are argue their case with a hidden agenda in mind. Everyone comes with a context. Partnership Minyanim supporters are criticized for a failure to engage with the traditional Orthodox sources in an intellectually honest manner and their analyses are seen as an attempt to retrofit the law to their desires. However, I posit that the notion that one can distinguish between purely emotional and rational grounds for halakhic decision making is a straw man. Life is complex and both elements, in varying proportion, motivate religious people to ask questions about their practices and examine their interaction with halakha. The derogation of emotional or subjective factors in religious conduct can be destructive of genuine spiritual striving. It assumes that people’s emotional state can be reliably read and judged. Unfortunately, this presumption is more often made about women than men. Moreover, the contribution of non-legal factors and personal priorities is given much greater leeway in other areas of law that do not impact on the status of women. Witness the vigorous debate between different segments of the Orthodox community in Israel today about how to best observe shmita as evidence that how the Jewish jurisprudence assesses the corpus of law changes dramatically depending on context and personal preferences. All sorts of factors have been brought into play including the viability of Israeli agriculture in a global market and enriching Arab farmers at the expense of Jewish farmers, environmental concerns, public education, and attitudes towards the performance of mitzvot. There are always meta-halakhic issues that are involved in decision making – consider the rabbinic imperative to do whatever is possible to avoid mamzerut. Halakha ideally represents a balance between intellectual clear headedness based on foundational principles and emotional responsiveness to each person and each circumstance. The best psak achieves this objective.
Second, I think the difference of opinion about whether Partnership Minyanim are consistent with an honest and rigorous reading of halakha is one that transcends the interpretation of any single or group of sources and responsa. I read Rabbi Sperber’s work as a legitimate validation of the practice of Partnership Minyanim and opponents of Partnership Minyanim reject his opinion. Perhaps, supporters of Partnership need to press the case more articulately and frame the case in a more compelling manner. But this will not eliminate the conflict. People can and do argue about the nuance of legal opinions in every society and halakha is no different. I propose that there is a larger divergence in the approach used to read sources – static and timeless versus dynamic and contextual. Contextualizing the law does not by its nature render the decision Conservative but is just as much a part of Orthodox jurisprudence. This is not unique to Jewish law and plays out in current arguments about the US Constitution, between those who favor interpretation based on original intent of the framers versus those who favor its application as a “living” document. Suffice it say that, again, I think the situation regarding the halakha is complicated. On occasion, the law is relatively fixed and unyielding. But there is ample documentation of rabbis who, in the face of opposition to change of any kind, have addressed divisive issues in innovative ways. This includes the permissibility of economic interactions with Christians and the heter mechira at the time of the early resettlement of Palestine in the late 19th century. There will be those like Rabbi Sperber who will view the desire for Partnership Minyanim as an authentic religious goal and strive to create a space within the halakha for it. In contrast, there will there be others condemn it as “chadash.”
But that brings me to my third point. I am struck by the overwhelming demand for uniformity of practice that is required by those who oppose Partnership Minyanim and who consider supporters of Partnership Minyanim to fall outside the pale of Orthodoxy. Take a different example. I suspect there is quite a divergence in practice on the second day of Yom Tov among Americans who go to Israel for holidays. Some do not observe the second day at all, some do not observe the second half of day, some distinguish between public and private activity, some are lenient with positive versus negative commandments, and on and on. Ignoring whether they are adhering to the position of their local rabbi or an available source from the Web that supports their preference, I am unaware of anyone describing any of these patterns of observance as un-Orthodox or asserting that they threaten the fabric of Orthodoxy. Is it unreasonable to ask for the same level of tolerance, and I use that word explicitly, towards those who attend Partnership Minyanim?
Finally, with regard to the view of women and men that would prohibit participation in Partnership Minyanim, I think it is worth stating clearly that there are laws that have provoked profound moral debate over the millennia. The command to annihilate Amalek is one. In 1904, Rabbi Avraham HaCohen Kook responded to a question about the status of black people (Letter #89). He asserted that, in fact, maintaining blacks in a state of servitude is for their betterment because that condition is their essential nature and is hard wired into things. The Rav taught that the status of women is cosmically fixed and determined. I will simply say that these are hard positions for some modern people to accept and that failure to embrace them does not disqualify someone as an Orthodox Jew in 2013.
In closing, as a doctor, I realize that medicine and religion are two very different activities. But, there is much that one can teach the other. In this age of blogs, social networks, and instant communication, there is much available information and people feel empowered to make decisions for themselves. Specialists in all fields may bemoan this development. Doctors are no different and many dread the patient who comes to a visit armed with ammunition from the Internet. But, in medicine, this has lead to the realization that doctors are not the end all and be all in health care. There is a growing recognition that patients’ experience of illness is a critical component in the evaluation and treatment of disease. Failure to acknowledge the patient’s perspective can cause even the best laid medical plans to fail. Why should this be? Doctors spend many years learning their craft and why wouldn’t patients simply follow the advice and prescriptions of doctors? The obvious answer is that every patient comes with a story and their disease unfolds over time in a rich context of family, friends, community and work. The wise doctor knows he/she better pay attention for the patient to have the best chance of getting better. I would ask Rabbis to listen to congregants, whatever minyan they go to.
March 1, 2013 | 8:48 am
Posted by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Orthodox Jews believe that men and women are fundamentally different. They have different characteristics, different strengths, different obligations and different ways of seeing the world and approaching life. Thus, it follows that especially for us, (as opposed perhaps to more liberal Jewish movements in which the boundaries between the genders might be more blurred), it is vital that we have both genders leading our people. If men and women see the world differently and have different voices then to have only male leaders is to limit the Jewish vision by fifty percent.
I would like to caution us against seeing women spiritual leaders in the way that liberal Jewish movements have in the past, that of expecting women to be rabbis just like their male counterparts. That a Rabbi is a Rabbi, a role blind to gender. In fact men and women are very different and we would be losing out on hearing women's unique voices of leadership and Torah if we expect them to be just like male rabbis.
I would like to propose the Maharat as a new brand of Jewish spiritual leadership. In Judaism there are many kinds of leaders and none is more important or more powerful than the other, just very different. The prophet, the priest, the lawgiver, the rabbi, the rebba, the shofet, the judge, and now the Maharat. Moshe the lawgiver could not do the job of Aaron the Kohen and vice versa. There were aspects of their roles which overlapped and each was equally important and respected, but they and their positions were wholly dissimilar.
The Maharat will be no less powerful, no less influential, no less important, no less respected than the Rabbi, but what kind of leadership the Maharat will be exactly remains to be seen. I think it vital that we not expect them to push themselves into a rabbinic box, they must have the freedom to develop their own type of leadership. I await it with excitement. Surly this is to see the hand of G-d in the ongoing growth and deepening of the Jewish people and the Torah.
February 28, 2013 | 12:13 pm
Posted by Rav Yosef Kanefsky
Quinoa has been a breath of fresh culinary air in the non-kitniyot Pesach kitchen, and has restored dietary sanity to us Ashkenazim. But the kitniyot zealots are lurking. The OU, for example, is equivocating on quinoa’s non-kitniyot status . The battle for quinoa is underway, but if we all work together, we can win this one.
Remember when peanuts were not considered kitniyot? Probably you don’t. But when Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l was asked about peanuts in 1956, most Ashkenazim were eating them on Pesach. And not only that, but Rav Moshe argued clearly and unequivocally that peanuts should remain permissible, and that they should NOT be lumped in with beans and legumes. (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 3, 63) The only reason we don’t pack up peanut butter and jelly on matzo for our Chol HaMoed outings today, is that our forbearers buckled before the kitniyot zealots of their day. And those of us who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
The kitniyot zealots of Rav Moshe’s day used arguments quite similar to those being raised by the forces conspiring to deprive us of quinoa today. The rabbi who posed the peanuts question was “astonished” that Ashkenazim were eating peanuts, for “he had heard that there is a place somewhere in which people are making flour ” out of peanuts, and further, “he had heard that peanuts are planted in fields in the same manner as other kitniyot are (i.e. they too share uncomfortable proximity to grains) ”.
But Rav Moshe, while acknowledging that these are the concerns that motivated the custom of not eating kitniyot, nonetheless dismissed the idea that the peanuts ought to now be added to the prohibition. To begin with, he points out, not everything out of which flour can be made is kitniyot, with potatoes being exhibit “A”. Additionally, not everything that may come into contact with grain is considered kitniyot, as pointed out by Taz and Magen Avraham, the classic commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch. In short, Rav Moshe concludes, the category of kitniyot includes only those items which “were explicitly prohibited, and those which are widely known [to be included]”. Further, he states, “the Sages of recent generations did not want to add new items” to the kitniyot basket, even as they would not permit that which already was customarily not eaten. . Rav Moshe continued, “and accordingly, in many places the rabbis did not want to prohibit peanuts. And in places where there is no custom prohibiting them, one should not prohibit them, for in matter such as these one should not be machmir (stringent).” Rav Moshe spoke. But we just didn’t want our peanuts badly enough.
The quinoa game is ours to lose my friends. To win, all we need to do is to keep eating it (and to check the raw quinoa for any foreign matter before cooking it, the same way Sefardim check rice). If it becomes our minhag (custom) that we eat quinoa, then the halachik argument is settled. So let’s fight for our quinoa! And then turn our attention to cooking up the most meaningful, inspiring Pesach that we can.
Chag Kasher v’same’ach to all!