Thursday, March 29, 2007

Abra Cadabra

Halacha (Jewish law) is the “bridge over which the Torah moves from the written word into the living deed.” There tends to be a built in tension between the two, because whereas the Torah is the written word and static, life is organic, forever in motion and evolving. There are many Jewish laws which were rendered as such resulting from the Talmudic ruling that “minhag din hoo” (custom has the power of law). Many of the customs and traditions in Jewish life which we may understand as halachic in nature and origin are merely a reflection and expression of the society and culture which it sought to bridge. What happens when society continues to evolve and no longer is in need of certain customs and traditions that have evolved into halachah from earlier times? Do they fall by the way side since they no longer are meaningful or are they to be practiced with the same intensity as in the past when they genuinely reflected its culture and thus had relevance?

Many halachic references sited in Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish Law) have become arcane due to the change in how we as Jews live our lives. Here I am not referring to Toraitic (d’oreita) law, but many laws which are the product of the geonic (Babylonian exilic) period and forward. For example, according to Jewish Law men should not have heir hair cut by a non-Jewish barber. The reason for this law was made sense at one time, in particular in the middle ages, but no longer carries any value. Initially the law was instituted because in the medieval period, the barber was also the surgeon and licensed to practice blood letting. Blood libel was of major concern to the Jewish communities of Eastern and Central Europe and there was a question of Sacanat Nefashot (imminent danger), or perhaps Pichuach Nefesh (life threatening circumstances) by having your hair cut by the local barber. The barber as a result of anti-Semitic feelings could cut your hair and at the same time cut your throat. So the rabbis, in their wisdom, instituted a Jewish law whereby men should refrain from having their hair cut by a gentile barber.

I would assume that today many halachically centered Jews have their hair cut by gentile barbers. The law however is on the books and the obvious question is ought Jews be allowed to have their hair cut by a gentile since there is no question of imminent danger. If they can, then Jewish law forbidding a haircut by a gentile ought to be reevaluated, as well as many other laws.

Many of the laws handed down to us originated during the geonic and medieval periods. Many of these laws were based on superstitious beliefs that were prevalent at the time. To be sure, when these laws were legislated, they were not seen as a response to superstition, but reacting to their cultural norms. Spirits and demons were considered real, and thus to be contended with. Concepts such as “Ayin Harah,” (evil eye) were as real to our ancestors as bacteria is real to us today.

It was quite prevalent and part of the norm for people to seek protection through the use of amulets and charms. Rashi (French Rabbinic commentator and decisor during the early middle ages) was known to hang his tefilin on the bed post in order to protect his wife and unborn child from evil spirits. The mezuzah (amulet affixed to door post) was also perceived as a type of amulet. Many contemporary rabbis consider an improper mezuzah as the plausible reason why tragedy befalls a family. I would assume that most of us do not use tefilin in this same fashion because we do not believe that hanging tefilin from a bed post will do offer protection. I merely mention this as a way of demonstrating that norms change, and as a result the way we behave “Jewishly” changes as well—but not with any consistency.

There is a Jewish law that states that a corpse should optimally be buried the same day it expired. The reason commonly given is that it is out of our sense of kavod hames (respect for the dead). However, if we examine the practice, we will soon note that its origins were based on superstitions which are no longer relevant. It was believed in the medieval period that demons would do harm to the deceased, thus it was better to bury the deceased as soon as possible.

Demons played a very significant part in of medieval Europe. There is much haggadic discussion over “even and odd” numbers. There were many in the Talmudic period that believed that “even” numbers invited demonic attacks. Tosafot (commentart on Talmud-middle ages) in T.B. Pesachim discuss the merit of the fifth cup of wine as protection against demons. Naturally this has been masked with it being the Cup of Elijah, but the thirteenth century R.Samuel b. Judah Hazan speaks of the value of the fifth cup precisely to ward off the demons.

Whereas the fifth cup of wine at the Passover Seder based upon superstition can be masked by calling it the Cup of Elijah, not so can we mask the tradition of Kapparot (waving a chicken as a sign of repentance) on Yom Kippur eve. The intent of the custom is to transfer the sins of the individual on to the fowl. Fowl happens to be closely associated with magic and the numbers three and seven are also part of magical rites. Hence the waving of the chicken seven times over your head. Other similar based customs is that of Tashlic (casting bread crumbs in the water on the first day of Rosh Hashanah) which is traced back to the Maharil in early fifteenth century Germany. The waters were believed to be a place where demons thrived and throwing bread crumbs to them was a way of placating the spirits.

Spirits were very much a part of what fueled the psyche of a world seeking to make sense out of a world that they had little understanding of. The Havdalah service (Saturday night service using a candle, wine and spices to mark the termination of the Sabbath) was also fraught with concern over he spirits and the need to satisfy them through libations. Wine was poured on the ground as a good omen for the rest of the week. This originated in the Geonic period. During the Talmudic period the symbol of wine overflowing represented blessings already enjoyed. The Geonim did not like the custom of pouring wine on the floor but it nevertheless took hold. One final example is the custom sited in Shulchan Aruch for covering mirrors in the home of mourners. This custom emerged as an expression of fear that the soul projected out of the person in the shape of his reflection in the mirror might be carried off by ghosts of the departed, which is commonly understood linger about the house until burial.

I am not suggesting that as a result of these reasons we should abandon our traditions, It is important however, to understand how our rich tradition evolved, so that we can keep in perspective the practice of Jewish law.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Pesach Cleaning: Too Little Too Late

Jonathan Rosenblum’s article published in Yated Ne’man, March 21, Who’s Cleaning for Pesach was forwarded to me after I had written my essay entitled A Bintel Brief. While not wanting to whip a dead horse there is a need for clarification. I have no intention of letting Jonathan Rosenblum off the hook because he is of the persuasion that bochrim, bein hazemanim should do some work around the house, (especially if we can categorize the work within the framework of performing a mitzvah) because it will enhance their growth as well as dull their sense of entitlement.

The central thesis to his argument is that by thrusting on the yeshiva bachur bein hazmanim domestic responsibilities he will learn humility and thereby blunt his sense of entitlement. Entitlement in and of itself according to his essay is not so bad. It only becomes problematic when his sense of entitlement morphs into egocentric behavior and selfishness that may lead to family disharmony and even divorce. He concludes his essay with what I believe to be a mistaken conclusion that “for no other reason than to help prepare our sons for the next stage of their lives, we owe it to them to make sure that they make themselves available for a few hours of helping with Pesach cleaning. Not for our good, but for theirs.”

The problem of entitlement amongst our yeshiva students is symptomatic of a much greater problem. And this problem is systemic within the entire Jewish community of both young men and young girls. It isn’t limited to yeshiva students, but to the preponderance of young men and women who have grown up in the orthodox community. It doesn’t matter if they grew up in the ultra-orthodox or modern orthodox communities. It is part of the educational process that upon graduating high school one goes to Israel for at least one year of study in a yeshiva. Rarely does one of our yeshiva students volunteer for army service or sherut le’umi.

The fact of the matter is that most American Orthodox Jews view Israel as a camping experience. Israel is there for the good times, good memories, or a place to go for Pesach or Succot. Sometimes it’s the place where we conveniently dump our problematic children that don’t fit in to the norm. They may have an addiction or learning disability. The convenient thing to do is hide the problem in Israel. Few American Orthodox Jews feel an all encompassing, total and penetrating responsibility towards Medinat Yisrael (the emphasis on Medina). Few if any ask the proverbial question “ask not what Israel can do for me, but ask what I can do for Israel.” At best, the responsibility ends with a check to an orthodox educational institution in Eretz Yisrael.

It is better to give than to receive. So we have been raised as a people and we, as a nation have done incredible things, almost impossible achievements as a result of this approach. But why do we translate giving into currency. Why don’t we translate it into giving of ourselves. Without sounding too rabbinic, isn’t that what Vayikra is all about? Lhakriv, means to sacrifice of ourselves, to give of ourselves, not only of our money, but something more significant – to give of ourselves. L’hakriv, also means to draw nearer to God. What better way to draw closer to God than by presenting ourselves to our people and saying Hinenei—here I am, ready and able to help my people.

For those who argue that they are helping Israel by learning in yeshivot “yomim v’leilot,” is disingenuous. With all due respect, the average yeshiva bachur arriving at the doorsteps of a yeshiva factory is diluting himself and his family. For the few exceptional ones who are truly masmidim and thoroughly pious, maybe, just maybe there ought to be an exemption. But even then I would argue that as talented as they are they still have an obligation to Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael. They shouldn’t feel any entitlement above and beyond anyone else. Yet we extend this feeling of entitlement not only to the rare few who are truly gifted, but to the rank and file whose learning is banal at best.

Their learning won’t impact on the world, but there service to their people will impact not only on the world but also on themselves. It is in the butterfly effect. The effect of one Yeshiva student serving his people and his country with honor, mesirat hanefesh v’goof will have a ripple effect on all of us and impact most profoundly on his own soul.

After all, impacting on ones soul is what it is all about, isn’t it? Don’t we want to enhance the spirit of the young and impressionable, so that when they grow into adult hood they too will become role models to their own offspring? Making this sort of significant sacrifice and commitment will be the stuff that will turn our kids around. Having them spend a few hours cleaning the house erev Pesach won’t impact on them or anyone else and certainly won’t make even a small dent on their feeling of entitlement.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Bintel Brief

Recently an “open letter” from a young rabbinical student appeared in the Jewish Press. Without the endorsement at the end of this “open letter” it could easily have been mistaken for “A Bintel Brief” published in the Jewish Forward in the 1920’s. (The Bintel Brief, in the format of questions and answers, was a weekly column appearing in the Yiddish Forward, depicting the struggles and tribulations of the Jewish immigrants on the lower east side of Manhattan). The note at the end of the article stated the following: “Endorsed by these Gedolei Hatorah( Torah Sages): Moshe Wolfson, Yaakov Perlow, Aryeh Kutler and Yechezchel Ratah.”

The text of the letter is disturbing considering that it was not written in the 1920’s but at the end of 2006, not by an Eastern European immigrant, but by an American youth. Due to his father’s chronic illness and lack of money the anonymous yeshiva (rabbinical student) student is literally begging the public for money in order to raise the necessary funds to get married. In his open letter he claims desperation and the “lack of other options…” He continues to write in his letter that raising sufficient money for the wedding will be comforting for his sick father: “I hope that when I tell my dear father of this, his stress of the financial burden will decrease in intensity...” He concludes his letter with “Please rush your tax deductible contribution to...”

There are three things which are quite striking about this letter. An apparently healthy young man in an educational setting is begging when he can be working. His need to beg, not for essentials, such as food or medicine, but for the non-essential and optional wedding, which could have been postponed to a more fortuitous time. The knowledge or assumption that his father would be relieved that his son raised the money for the wedding by begging brought the student a modicum of comfort.

What is most revealing in his letter is his attitude towards living a productive life. There is a disturbing sense of entitlement, apparently because he sees himself as a yeshiva student and thus in the European tradition is entitled to praise and financial support. I seem to recollect hat when I was a yeshiva student with little means of financial support, I as well as many others found supplemental income by working as teachers in the classroom, tutors of Hebrew studies, math, English or bar mitzvah lessons. There were those amongst us who served in paid positions as Torah readers, or sextons and there were those of us who worked in the slaughter houses doing work that converted some of us into life long vegetarians. No one I knew in those years pan handled or appealed to the public via the Jewish press.

Rather then judge the young man for his behavior it behooves us to consider the system and its values and environment within which he was raised. Coincidental to his troubling letter, an article appeared in the same newspaper written by an educator, Avraham Birnbaum entitled “A Few Words About Limudei Chol (secular studies).” In this article he argues that secular studies are undervalued by the yeshiva system and the parent body: “…the dearth of knowledge that our children come out with after eight years…is disheartening…” While he ponders the problem of why this is, Birnbaum, in a very cavalier fashion writes …”of course we attach far less importance to limudei chol than we do to limudei chodesh (religious studies). This is the way it should be….limudei chodesh and limudei hatorah are the only things that ultimately count...”

Birnbaum is obviously conflicted because he nevertheless laments the fact that an eighth grade yeshiva student cannot write a coherent sentence in English. But why should he be expected to? What can be expected of students if teachers such as Birnbaum can comfort a parent upset that his son doesn’t know basic math by telling the parents don’t worry “ that in 120 years they will ask your son if he knows Bava Kama not trigonometry.”

This pervasive attitude reflecting a chronic problem in the ultra orthodox community is what created the problems for the anonymous letter writer. At the turn of the twentieth century, when thousands of eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States it is understandable that they would have need to write to the Jewish Forward’s “A Bintel brief” for advice and help. They had little education, scant knowledge of the English language and little understanding of our culture. With all their hardships, few resorted to begging, many opted to make an honest living by hard work in the infamous sweat shops. It is hard to imagine that a healthy, intelligent young man today would have to resort to begging. Like his ancestors he obviously has little education, few opportunities but unlike them, no self respect. The likes of Birnbaum is not responsible for this problem, he too is a product of their system.

The rabbinic sages which lead these communities are the ones that need to be held accountable. Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, one of the Torah Sages endorsing the author of the anonymous letter is himself a recipient of higher education. Rabbi Perlow was not always the Admor (Grand Rabbi) of Novarminsk. He was my teacher, my rebbe. He was dynamic, charismatic and extremely effective, in part as a result of his academic credentials. If higher education was important enough for Rabi Perlow should it not be required for his followers? I wonder if Rabbi Perlow is proud of the fact that his imprimatur was given to the anonymous letter writer.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Tefilin Wrap

Recently, Rabbi Ovadia Yoseph (the spiritual mentor of Shas - Sephardi political movement), was quoted in an article in Maariv in which he maintains that the mechitza (partition between men and women) was unnecessary at simchas (joyous occasion), such as weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs under certain circumstances. A question was asked, “If the mechitza caused family tension was it necessary?” Rabbi Yoseph responded, “Sometimes a family is not so pious, does not want a mechitza, and prefers that everyone sit together at one table. This is not something to fight over. If a mechitza is possible, then it should be erected, but if it is not, it can be done away with.” This approach to Jewish law is refreshing, especially considering the mounting chumras (stringent interpretation of the law) we see developing almost daily. Some of the chumras are especially burdensome and bothersome because they usually affect the shalom bayis (family harmony).

What makes the p’sak (religious ruling) even more interesting is that the rabbi is Sephardi, a Gadol (sage), and living in Israel. I never would have expected this “kula” from an Ashkenazi Rav of that stature. For a Gadol of that caliber to take such a position could only be possible if it was made by a Sephardi, because their fundamental “gestalt” differs dramatically from their Ashkenazi brothers.

The differences between a Sephardi and an Ashkenazi become apparent when one experiences Sephardi culture in Israel. I say Israel, because in America, the Ashkenazi influence is too overpowering and overbearing. Sephardi Jews attend Ashkenazi based synagogues and yeshivos, for the most part. Even if you are part of a Sephardi community with their infrastructure of shuls and yeshivos, they are still conscious of the Ashkenazi perception of them—thus tailoring their behavior based on standards of the Ashkenazim. Many of the Sephardi rabbis in America studied in Ashkenazi yeshivot so their hashkafah (religious outlook) was certainly influenced by the Ashkenazi dominated culture. Thus, the only place to get a pristine picture of Sephardic religious culture is in Israel.

As a rabbinical student studying Yoreh Deyah (section of Jewish Law) the text was rarely referred to as the Beis Yoseph, but rather by the moniker of Mechaber (general term for an author). Interestingly, when there was a distinct difference between the two, it was presented as a machlokis (difference of opinion) between the Mechaber and Ramah (minority opinion), not a machlochis between the Beis Yoseph and the Ramah. By doing this, indirectly the Beis Yoseph was depersonalized, while the Rama had a name and thus became personal. The issues weren’t presented as a difference between Sephardi culture and Ashkenazi, but between the Mechaber and Ramah. So that we never received a picture of an intellectually vibrant and effervescent culture that needed to be contended with. It was nameless and faceless. Interestingly, when Sephardim study the same text, they refer to the Mechaber as Maran Habet Yosef!

Even in Israel, the cultural differences between the two ethnicities are difficult to distinguish because of the Ashkenazi dominance of religion and culture. This seems to be changing, but the change is slow and sometimes barely perceptible. One of the most offensive images I ever had of a Sephardi rabbi in Israel was to see him behave as an Ashkenazi at the expense of his own rich heritage. It is bad enough to be a rabbi in Israel—because for the most part they are employees of the state, reduced too being seen as “pekidim” (common clerics). By definition, there is an immediate loss of status. Turning a Sephardi into an Ashkenazi adds insult to injury. The most glaring example, is to see a Sephardi rabbi dressed as an Eastern European rabbi, outfitted in a black suit, white shirt, no tie and a black hat. In time, their own identities will become stronger and they will shed the trappings of the Ashkenazi world.

What the Sephardim never absorbed into their cultural/religious heritage was the Ashkenazi approach to religion. At the risk of getting pummeled by both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, I do believe that Sephardim have a more wholesome and healthier attitude and approach to religion. Ashkenazim view religion as exacting and technical, with more chumras, less loving, less overlooking and less forgiving. Sephardim are very much the opposite. Of course, it really depends on what kind of Sephardi you are. By and large, they all have a more inclusive approach: more loving and forgiving minus much of the chumra mentality of their eastern European brothers. This is not to say that Sephardim are less pious or righteous than their Ashkenazi brothers—it’s that they have developed over the centuries a “rhythm” to their Jewishness that Ashkenazim can learn from. Their religiosity is not their second skin, but their primary skin. They have a genuine quality that defies replication. Ashkenazim, for some reason always appear as though they are trying to replicate what was lost. There is this constant adulation for years gone by and an eternal attempt to rebuild a culture that was, but is no more.

How is it, that the level of tolerance is obvious among the Sephardim, but visibly absent among the Ashkenazim? It goes back to the fact that Sephardim feel more comfortable in their skin because it is their only skin, while for Ashkenazim it is their second skin. As a result they are less comfortable and less tolerant. Perhaps the difference in the way the two edot (communities) wrap tefilin (phylacteries) is telling. Sephardim tend to wrap their tefilin around their arm outwardly while Ashkenazim wrap them inwardly. Would this in some way symbolize the difference between the two cultures? The Sephardim wrap the tefilin outwardly, in a sense being more inviting and accepting of those from the outside. In contrast, the Ashkenazim wrap the tefilin inwardly, representing themselves being insular and not open to those outside of their surroundings. This recent p’sak of Harav Ovadia Yosef isn’t earth shattering, but nevertheless very revealing of his empathy for Am Yisrael and the need to reach out and bridge the chasm whenever and however possible.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Anyone for Kiddush?

We humans are programmed to filter out our memories of pain. If we didn’t we would be emotionally paralyzed and perhaps basket cases. How can the human sustain the memory of pain? Women wouldn’t give birth a second time, nor would Jews attend synagogue services after the painful experience of attending a Bar Mitzvah as I did and as I’m sure many of you have.

In the Beit Kenesset there are two kinds of Jews-- talkers and those who want to talk. At the outset let me say that I understand the need to talk and socialize in shul as I shall explain later. I do however also believe that a shul isn’t a market place where hawkers sell their wares. That is what I felt like on the particular Shabbat that I attended a particular Bar Mitzvah. I had to pinch myself just to make sure that I wasn’t imagining that I was at the shuk Mahane Yehudah on a Friday afternoon instead of shul on Shabbat morning. Hamavin Yavin.

Having spent this past week reviewing and studying for the first time in twenty years laws pertaining to hafsakot during davenning I realized that talking was going to be inevitable. Something like the prohibition era. It just isn’t going to work. All the halachot and all the castigation in the world wouldn’t change this phenomenon. Whereas the same yid was makpid on every little detail of shmiras shabbos, kashrus and davening three times a day, come shabbas in shul he was destined to talk. He was going to talk because essentially he was bored and I think somewhat resentful of the powers that be. There was a time that I thought that compulsive talkers suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder, but having reviewed the halachic literature pertaining to hafsakot (From a halachic point of view, it is important to distinguish between those portions of the davening where talking is prohibited because of hefsek i.e. birchos kerias shema, shema,shemone esrei, kedusha etc., where a word can’t be uttered regardless of need, and those portions where the prohibition of talking is used more on decorum issues, i.e. chazoras hashatz, where exceptions for talking can be made.) I realized that the problem wasn’t so much with the davener but with the establishment and structuring of tefillah.

In reality, the davener wants to daven, but the mechanism to do so has been corrupted by the rabbinic establishment who were control addicts. When I studied the development of the siddur it struck me that our rabbis were in need of controlling the “amcha” for better or worse, resulting in a seder teffilah that is totally different than how it all started out.

Initially in the period of the first and second century every synagogue in Palestine had their own version of the tefillah. There was innovative language by design or default since the shaliach tzibur may have forgotten what and how he said it the day before. Please keep in mind that there were no printed texts and prayers were committed to memory. The emphasis was on oral performance very much like good jazz players who never play the same piece of music twice. This improvisation of tefillah was called kavannah because it came from the heart or from the depths of one’s soul. What was important however was that the tefillot were said in the right way. This is very different from the systematic, institutionalized format of the prayer book.

Improvisational prayer is nothing new to us. The Bible is peppered with such moving tefillot. Moses beseeches G-d for Miriam’s cure when he prays Kel Na R’fa Na Lah. Let us not forget Hannah’s extemporaneous bargaining prayer to G-d, or Solomon’s prayer for wisdom. However by the last century B.C.E. the Rabbis began the process of changing this extemporaneous style of prayer to something regulated by time, how to do it and structure. kavannah yielded to keva, predictability, possibly resulting in rote and tedium. By the second century C.E. the rules had grown and multiplied to the point that the keva was growing at the expense of kavanah. Sages such as Rav Papa in 400 C.E. resisted the rigidness that tefillah was becoming and Rav Ashi when visiting a town and asked to recite the Kiddush Rabbah improvised rather than give the standard one. In essence then ad hoc oral improvisation gave way to structure imposed by the rabbinic elite, developing regulation and standardization. Much became fixed, but much still wasn’t, because there were still no prayer books to speak of not until the ninth century and that with the help of Islam.

The emergence of the Abbasids in the 8th century and their standardization of Islamic law and prayer, provided impetus to the Gaonim to do the same and by the ninth century they were in the process of standardizing performance of mitzvot and making tefilla uniform. The Palestine Jewish community resisted these efforts claiming that local custom outranked law. It was however with the confluence of events and the rise of the Gaon Amram in that the standard prayer book became regularized. Palstinian Jews resisted for as long as possible, relying upon their improvisation and piyyutim. They refused to canonize any single version of their prayers as the proper one. They were content with balancing fixity with creativity. Whereas they abandoned the previous purely improvisational form of tefillah they allowed for considerable variation. Amram did not because he had the model of the caliphate which molded universal Muslim practice. With the onset of the crusades, the Jews of Palestine fled to Europe. They retuned to Palestine a century later in time to adapt to the Amram prayer code and forgot the way their ancestors prayed.

Let’s face it, the rabbis, in their quest for control regulated and institutionalized prayer, and in the process sucked the life out of he extemporaneous tradition of pouring out ones heart to Hashem. Its no wonder than that there is so much talking in shul. It reminds me of a boring history teacher in an unruly high school class, whose only weapon for class discipline is to threaten students with demerits, etc. Bad and boring teachers never succeed in the classroom. That is the system the rabbis employed when setting up the elaborate set of halachot, making allowances for the hafsakot. The system doesn’t work and the noise continues. On the other hand to punish a yid for talking in shul by insisting that he stay away from the synagogue is like depriving him of oxygen. He needs the shul, it is the life line to his community and his G-d and tradition.

There is a solution. True tefilla can only be uttered if the heart and mind are on the same path. To perfunctorily mumble tefillos without kavannah is like reading without comprehension. I would urge those that have a compulsion to talk in shul to rise early Shabbat morning with the purpose of davenning at home, (but arriving in shul for kriyas hatorah). Before davenning at home, however, I would strongly recommend that one prepare properly with either saying tehillim or serious meditation inorder to achieve mindfulness. I prefer meditation which can prepare the psyche for serious tefilla. If the aforementioned remedy fails, come for Kiddush.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Resurrecting the Dead

On February 5, 2007, Ave Shafran filed a posting in Cross Currents dealing with the issue of cremation. There really is nothing new on the subject, nor should there be. For the most part, and as he points out most Rabbis regardless of denomination do not approve of the cremation process. Halacha emphatically prohibits the practice and there isn’t much wiggle room on the subject. As everything else in halachic Judaism, those who practice, practice, those who don’t, don’t. As such, it puzzles me why Shafran is concerned that Israel has a crematorium. If I was Shafran I’d be more concerned about the imminent crematoria that is threatening all of Israel (including the believers), compliments of Iran.

At the outset let it be clearly stated that I am in agreement with the position that there really is no place for cremation within normative Jewish practice. I do, however take exception with two points underscored by Avi Shafran. The linkage of the belief in the Resurrection of the Dead with the fundamental prohibition of cremation, and his concern with the new crematorium in Israel.

In his delineation of reasons against Cremation, Shafran argues that “although the idea of resurrection of the righteous may be surprising to some, it is one of Judaism’s most important teachings….even though we are to consign our bodies to the earth after the death, there is a small bone…that is not destroyed when a body decays and from which the entire person…will be rejuvenated at some point in the future….”

For the sake of intellectual honesty I would have thought that Shafran would have presented a comprehensive picture of the concept of the resurrection of the dead in halachic literature rather than the slanted view which he personally identifies with. To be sure there is an abundance of literature that takes issue either with the idea of the resurrection, or treats it with a non literal approach. To quote rabbinic literature out of context without presenting the full discussion surrounding the issue is disingenuous, simplistic and misrepresents our rich culture.

I am in good company with the many scholars, sages and rabbis who don’t believe in the literal interpretation of the resurrection of the dead. For one thing there are many scholars of Maimonides who don’t believe that the Rambam accepted a literal interpretation of the belief in resurrection.. Many believe that when the Rambam used the term “resurrection” he really meant “the world to come”- eternal spiritual life. R.Shehshet Benveniste ( 1131-1209) buttressed this point of view when he claimed that literal understanding of resurrection was only applied “for the sake of fools”with limited understanding and intellectual grasp. Judah ben Simeon, the student of the Rambam for whom More Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) was written also interpreted Rambam’s position as a figurative one. R. Meir Abulafia agrees with this position. More recent rabbinic scholars agree with this interpretation of the Rambam. For example, R. Shem Tov Gaguine (1884-1953) Av Bet Din of the Sephardi communityof London understands “resurrection” as another buzz word for the world to come. R. Joseph Kafih, a great scholar presented a new and novel interpretation of the Rambam. According to him, “resurrection”, for the Rambam meant that God imparted a new life force to the body, separate than what the body previously possessed - a new soul for the dead. Those who have left the world are never return to it, but reincarnate as pure intellect. Returning to a physical body would be degrading.

The author of Akedat Yitzchak,R. Isaac Arama (1420-1490) also denied physical resurrection and believed that the term “resurrection” is synonymous with spiritual eternity based on the B.T. Kiddushin 39b. I mention this in particular because just as Shafran chose a Talmudic passage by which to buttress his point of view there are eminent scholars with opposing points of view citing Talmudic passages to support their positions. Truth be told, no one possesses the answer but there ought to be intellectual responsibility for presenting the full gamut of theological positions as long as they are within the purview of normative Jewish rabbinic literature. My intent here is to illustrate that the issues aren’t black and white, cut and dry. For Shafran to present the issue in such a simplistic manner does disservice to those who read him, and assumes that they are uninformed and uneducated.

The other issue which I take exception with is his criticism of Israel for allowing a crematorium to operate. Israel happens to be a modern, secular state with a view to religious values as one of many elements that contribute to the rich tapestry of Israeli life. It isn’t a religious state, and although there may be a “talibanesque” quality to some of the religious parties they certainly don’t represent the will of the majority. As far as I understand they are tolerated due to a flawed political system. Religious practice in Israel ought to be viewed as a personal preference-not something foisted on the public. While I personally find cremation abhorrent and counter to Halacha, Custom and Tradition, I honor the right for the individual to chose how he wishes to live and how he wishes his remains to be to be disposed, regardless if his presence is in Israel or the Diaspora.

Lihyot O Lo Lihyot Am Hofshi B’artzenu

Israel, throughout its short and tumultuous history has managed to chart a balanced and level course in spite of its wars and many waves of immigration because of its vision and sense of destiny. The State of Israel, founded on Zionist ideology coupled with the underpinnings of democratic principles have been the defining central values of Israel. A balance was created whereby these values were complimented with a deference to halacha. Halacha was never viewed as a core value our founding Zionist fathers, but was seen as an adjunct, a qualifier with respect to particular issues. Elements within the ultra-orthodox / haredi community are intent in altering this delicate balance with the intent of shaping a state never envisioned by its founding fathers. Rather than have as its ideology Zionism and democracy as its underpinning, they would prefer the rule of halacha.

Menachem Porush,( in an opinion piece in the Jewish Press, Dec. 15, 2006) is unhappy with Yossi Beilin’s attempt at redefining “who is a Jew” to include anyone who as one Jewish parent or has undergone “a secular conversion”. In Porush’s signature style of melodrama he calls this “a knife in the heart of the Jewish identity of the state” and is violating halacha. Halacha, he maintains, was one of the identifying markers of the state and sites the negotiations between the Jewish Agency and Agudas Yisrael. In that agreement a Jew was to be defined halachically. The question is whose version of the halacha? And although the complexion of the state was agreed upon to have halachic overtones, never was it determined that the interpretive guidelines would be orthodox or of a particular flavor of orthodoxy.

Menachem Porush and others of his ilk seem to believe that they have a monopoly on halacha. Society isn’t static and halacha, for it to be viable and serve society must sculpt itself to meet the norms and demands of a dynamic country. He would be wise to understand that the state wasn’t founded on the underpinnings of halacha (it being incompatible with democracy), but upon Zionist ideology and democratic principles. If halacha is to be applied effectively it will require enough creative flex in order to meet the needs of the culture it seeks to compliment. Israel isn’t a theocracy and the application of halacha ought not be thought of as the gold standard by which to mold and model the country.

The liberal movements of Judaism maintain halachic standards and apply them as per their interpretive guidelines. To refer to their standards of conversion as “secular conversion” is inflammatory, condescending and disrespectful. Their interpretation of halacha is no less valid than that of the ultra-orthodox / haredi variation.

Another issue that the religious establishment oftentimes points to is the corruption of the political leadership. The original version of the Hatikva, Emanuel Feldman (former editor of Tradition), in an opinion piece (International Jerusalem Post, Jan.19-25, 2007) points out, was amended and “lashuv leretz avoteinu” was replaced with “lhiyot am hofshi b’artzenu”. “Hofshi” according to Feldman meant not only political freedom, but freedom from the past. He couldn’t be more wrong!

The ultra-orthodox / haredi community, for some unexplainable reason, believes that they have a monopoly on truth, history and religious values. Most Israelis however are very committed to their history and tradition, understand it and accept it with all its warts and foibles. How they chose to express our tradition is part of the beauty and dynamics of a free society which treasures and values democracy, freedom of thought and expression. The haredi community, on the other hand, understands history according to their scheme of things revising it as a justification for their raison d’etre.

Feldman points to the critical standards of Isaiah. Had he read our prophets critically he would have realized that society then was probably more corrupt than contemporary Israeli society. Yes, there is corruption in Israel, but unlike the monarchical system of ancient Israel, we have the checks and balances to detect and correct those problems. King Saul was corrupt, so were Kings David and Solomon. Some would even call into question Solomon’s commitment to monotheism. Many of our high priests were nothing more than political appointments, lackeys to the ruling power.

To place contemporary Israel within historical context is to appreciate the great success of Zionism. Feldman contends that the founding fathers of Zionism wanted to create a “new Jew”. Wrong. The Zionists wanted to create a normal Jew. The normalization of the Jew was the goal of Zionism. They wanted to create a country that could raise its own army of defense, productive citizens, and a political system that would give us relative control over our destiny. They sought to socially engineer a people who for too long were accustomed to having others “do” for them while they studied in yeshivot incapable of providing for their families, relying upon the haluka and other charities for sustenance. Where would you be, Mr. Porush, and what would your life be like Mr.Feldman without the great success of Israel? You had better pray that Israel continues on its course; otherwise you and your descendants won’t have a future.

I’m happy that the original Hatikva was amended to “lhiyot am hofshi b’artzenu”. Every time I say those words my eyes well up with tears. I’m proud of what we are and who we are – too bad you’re not!!

The Greening of Agudah

Until recently, I was sort of luke warm when it came to global warming. I wasn’t buying into the theory that we were slowly destroying our planet. Somehow, I believed like so many others raised in the mid twentieth century, that if we could conquer the “last frontier” we could take care of our own planet. If we made mistakes, than we could correct them. Recently I read a paper published in Science that indicates that by the middle of the 21st century our fish population will have been depleted to the point that our food source from the waters will have collapsed. We are talking about a food source that is primary and essential for our survival. This isn’t an American problem or a European problem. It isn’t a Jewish problem or a Muslim issue. This is a serious concern that affects us all.

We’re all in this together, whether we are white, black, Jew, Christian or Muslim. The time has come when the religious establishment needs to take a leadership position in something beyond their "daled amos"(narrow purview)-precisely because this is their daled amos- it is the daled amos of the planet. Who else but the religious Jewish leadership should take the lead role in becoming more environmentally sensitive? After all, our sacred text teaches us that during the creation, man was given stewardship over the planet. It is our responsibility to take care of it in a manner befitting those entrusted with God's creations. According to the research published in this article, 29% of fish and seafood species have collapsed under our watch. Nothing to be proud of!

For too long the religious establishment has been and perhaps rightfully so preoccupied with pushing their narrow agenda exclusive of anyone else’s concerns or interest. They were on a mission and nothing was going to stand in their way nor were they intending to compromise. Their agenda important as it was, did not take into account the broader concerns which impact on all of us-regardless of religious affiliation. Their concerns revolved around issues of chinuch(education), kashrus(dietary laws) and family matters (inyonei ishus). Lately, and to their credit (and not to belittle their other achievements) they have concerned themselves with complicated and complex issues in areas of medical ethics, abortion, stem cell research, cloning, end of life issues, etc. They are to be lauded for this and I am extremely proud of the leadership in Agudah and the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah(council of sages). But they cannot stop here. While these are important, and halacha has and should have something to say- I believe that the religious establishment needs to throw its collective weight and prestige into the issue of our troubled environment.

The paradigm that we have known hitherto has shifted and we need to rethink the models we have designed to navigate this new reality. Until now our halachic systems have been primarily concerned with how the Jewish person navigates through the world he lives in. Throughout the ages ranging from the Talmudic period through the “achronim”(later day sages) halachic concerns have revolved around real human issues and concerns ranging from the birth to the grave and everything in between. But now the paradigm has changed. The issue is no more the Jew in his environment, but whether or not humanity will exist in the way we have been been accustomed. Halacha hitherto has developed in order to meet those ethcal and legal challenges we faced confronting modern science and technology. But now there is something new that is challenging our ability to adapt. The question is can and will halacha respond to this new reality?

Environmental issues have not been on their agenda hitherto, because these issues were not critical nor is there a significant body of halachic literature relating to these issues. Our history and halachic approach heretofore hasn’t had to deal with environmental issues that threaten our existence or our quality of life. I do believe however that the time has come when we need to adjust our halachic models to include the threatening affects of global warming and other factors negatively impacting our environment.

Since halacha is all encompassing and does guide us through life halacha ought to have a lot to say about our environment. An issue as important and pressing as the disappearance of our food sources and global warming ought to become a real and major halachic concern of the major orthodox organizations such as Agudas Yisrael and the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah. Assuming that I am right and that there are serious halachic concerns which need to be addressed, I believe that if the major players within the religious establishment put their weight behind this issue a significant difference could be realized.

Imagine what the impact would be if Daas Torah (torah mentality) encouraged its adherents to become environmentally concerned with energy saving devices and the use of technology that would cut down on the use of domestic water waste. Imagine if there was a Kol Korei (public letter) by the Moetzes Gedolei Hatoreh that encouraged its followers to vote for candidates committed to saving and enhancing the environment as mandated by halacha. Imagine if Agudah were to put its political clout behind this effort citing our mandate that as stewards of the planet we have no choice but to come out and support those candidates committed to saving God’s planet. The ripple effect would be staggering and felt throughout the country.

There are those who will say don’t worry; the problems will be addressed by others (politicians, technologists and scientists), who have found in the past cures for diseases which threatened our existence. To these people I say, it is our ethical and religious responsibility to address these very issues. It is our mandate. There will be those who believe that we ought not tamper with God's unfolding plan. They are fatalists and to them I say that if God didn’t want our direct and active involvement in such a critical issue why were we entrusted with the welfare of the planet as its custodians?

It was a time long ago, when we accepted this mandate seriously. We were once the original green party-it’s time we acted responsibly, and out of love for God's incredible creation we need to reclaim our right and legacy.

In Your Face

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. I wonder if this same Law can be loosely applied to social science as well. The midrash comments that the exodus from Egypt was predicated on three things: they didn’t change their names; they didn’t change the style of their garments; and they didn’t change their language. By not abandoning their given names, style of clothing and language the Hebrews cleaved to their cultural social and religious identity, refusing to assimilate into mainstream Egyptian society. The biblical account of the exodus story can be understood as the struggle between two competing cultures. It is a beautiful text because it doesn’t give a one sided version of the events, but explains too the concerns of the Egyptians. They were worried that the Hebrews were becoming too numerous and too influential and would one day threaten their political/culture hegemony.

From the text it isn’t clear what exactly their fears were. Were they afraid that the sheer numbers of the Hebrews would turn the Egyptians into a minority? Were they concerned over their rising political influence? Were their fears simply that they didn’t wish to deal with a fifth column, a parallel and perhaps competing culture developing within their midst? We’ll probably never know for sure what their fears were but we can assume that whatever they were, the Egyptians resented the Hebrews because apparently they were “in their face”. This is reinforced by the biblical account that the Egyptians were concerned that the Hebrews were Rav V’atzum Mimenu: much too powerful and numerous. I also believe they were becoming too influential, otherwise why say Rav V’atzum? The antidote of course was to get a handle on their proliferation, and the rest as they say is history.

This story of the Exodus isn’t hard to conceive. If we fast forward to America in the twenty first century we find a similar trend. After all, aren’t Americans concerned that the illegal immigration of Mexicans and others challenging our porous borders might result in a ‘take over” of Anglo-Saxon culture or pose a security risk? In fact there are several states that have passed legislation making English the legal language. Many Americans are concerned with the issue of foreign population control within the borders of the United States. Could you imagine American culture falling under the influence of Mexican /Hispanic culture? Is it possible that we are beginning to experience a backlash to Mexican “in your face” presence with current proposed legislation? What about Jews? We are disproportionately represented as Members of Congress and disproportionately hold academic posts in our best universities as well as a disproportionate presence in the national media. Do you think that we may be “in their face”? Could you imagine if all 5.5 million Jews in the United States were all wearing shtriemels, capotes or “litvishe” style attire –and all speaking Yiddish? How would that impact the way Americans view us? Do you think that there is some truth to Newton’s third Law of Motion within a societal context?


Our history, unfortunately is riddled with terribly ugly shades of anti-Semitism and my intention here is not to exonerate the predators but to pause a moment and check whether or not we may have indirectly become enablers-enabling them to perpetrate their evil. A minority group too visible in its host society is begging for a backlash. Could this be the lesson of the enslavement of the Hebrews? It is very easy to assess the African American or the Hispanic community in the USA through this prism and see the forces of prejudice coalesce in response to the minority groups’ growth politically and socially.

The Jewish community isn’t exempt from this phenomenon. A generation ago the Jewish community wasn’t as strong as it is today, politically or financially and assumed a modest posture within the American cultural/political matrix. We did well, prospered and our children benefited from the best education and living standards in the world. But with the growth of our political presence we became more aggressive and more “in their face”. We began making demands in terms of legislation based upon equality and religious freedom. For example, it became illegal for an employer to deny employment to Sabbath observers. I’m not suggesting that this legislation was flawed I’m only suggesting that there are no free rides and sometimes there are consequences. And I wonder if we can apply Newton’s Third Law of Motion? Sometimes you can push for what is legitimately right but we have to be prepared for the consequences.

I never thought that I would witness anti-Semitism, but in Europe it has once again begun to raise its ugly head. Many of the pundits and Jewish intellectuals are quick to point out that this isn’t your garden variety anti-Semitism that we have experienced in Europe in the past, but something different. It is linked to Zionism and Israel’s position vis a vis the Palestinian problem. Frankly it really doesn’t matter to me what the etiology of this years version of anti-Semitism is. A dead Jew is a dead Jew. Apparently there is enough concern that the rabbinate in France has counseled the Jewish community to be less noticeable, to blend in more to the general population. Rather than wear a kippah on the street one should wear a hat. In a word, the rabbinate is cautioning the Jewish community to be less “in the face” of their gentile neighbors.

What’s upsetting in all this is that we just don’t seem to learn from history. We, the people of the book, scholars who have made it our mission throughout history to be the recorders of history, perhaps more than any other people haven’t learned from history. We may be researching, writing and analyzing, but we lack fundamental intuition and understanding. Apparently we have a tendency that when conditions are welcoming and we seem to aggregate a little power and money we get “in their face”. It happened throughout our experience in Europe and it’s happening again in Europe as well as in America.

Every year after Thanksgiving, I get a little queasy. Queasy, because the war against Christmas becomes a prominent issue among many Americans. Why they argue is it ok to have discussions about Ramadan and Hanukah but not Christmas in the public school system. Why is it ok to display a Menorah in a public building or property, but not the nativity scene?

I have often wondered how is it that we are able to not only display the Hanukiah on public, federally funded property but not have a scene of the Manger. The answer that is most commonly given is that the manger scene is clearly a religious icon and therefore can’t be displayed; however the Menorah isn’t religious but rather cultural. This is news to me! As far as I understand, the Hanukah is clearly a religious article. There is a significant amount of halachic literature written on the Menorah: How it is to be lit, which berachot to say, where should it be lit, how it should be constructed etc. If this was a cultural ceremony, there wouldn’t have been brachot(blessings) associated with it, nor would there have been so much discussion on the nature of the chag(holiday) itsef. To religious Jews the center piece of the chag wasn’t the victory of the Macabim but the miracle of the oil. The emphasis here is on the miracle, which in itself is a religious concept. So I ask myself again, if this is a religious holiday and one is yotzei (fulfills the commandment) by saying the berachot over the Menorah, how is it that it can be placed in public buildings?

Chabad(Group belonging to the hassidic Lubavitch sect) in reality is doing a disservice to the Jewish community by making the public lighting of the Menorah located in federally funded buildings one of its raisson d’etre. Why do they feel the necessity of being in their face? The mitzvah of pirsum(publicly displaying the Menorah) relates to Jews not Gentiles. We are expected to place the Menorah in strategically noticeable places so that other Jews can see it. Gentiles seeing the Hannukiah(menorah) aren’t part of the mitzvah(commandment) formulary. The halacha(Jewish law) also states that if there is an issue of sacanat nefashot(danger) than you shouldn’t publically display the menorah. In other words, in a perfect world we should prominently diplay our Menorot at our doorposts opposite the Mezuzah for other Jews to see. But we don’t live in a perfect world and the halacha recognized this. Besides, if we lived in a perfect world, we would all be in Eretz Yisrael(Israel), and I wouldn’t be writing this essay.

Halacha recognized that “in your face” Judaism is ill advised. The exodus story gives testimony to that. The Ramban(Nacmanides) understood it. The rabbinate in France has slowly come to the same conclusion. We in America still haven’t figured it out. Chabad in particular, is living in a fool’s paradise if they don’t think that one day there may be a heavy price to pay for having been “in their face”. Newton’s Third Law of Motion may, unfortunately, one day prove to be a valid concept when applied to social science.

True Beliefs vs. Necessary Beliefs III

In my essay this past week entitled True Beliefs vs. Necessary Beliefs II, Zach in his comment raised several issues that merit an essay. The reader will be wise to understand that thee are no quantifiable or empirical answers to these concerns. In issues of faith there can only be speculation in the never ending search for reaching a comfort level, a point where faith and reason intersect.

Judaism doesn’t have an exclusive hold on Divine Revelation and through the ages there were other manifestations of Divine Revelation as evidenced by other faiths. (There may even be instances of Divine Revelation today). With the competing faiths each claiming Divine Revelation there is for the Jewish people, nevertheless, the moral, social and religious imperative of adhering to Torah. Because all faiths claim Divine Revelation each of them carries the universal message of recognition of the One God. This universal message in Judaism as evidence by the Alenu in which we pray that “kol b’nei basar yikreu b’shmecha……yakiru v’yadu kol yoshvei tevel, ki lecha tichra kol berech…then all humanity will call upon your name……All the worlds inhabitants will recognize and know that to you every knee must bend….”is central. The concept is beautiful. The problem I that somewhere the message was side tracked by over obsessing details. And as the aphorism goes the “devil is in the details”. There are times when unfortunately we loose the message for the details.

On the other hand the details are important because without them there would be chaos in society. Man has always been in need of order, otherwise our society would be dysfunctional. Without the design of nations, languages, religion, custom and tradition there would probably be more chaos than what there is currently. Prof. Neil Gillman in his book Sacred Fragments believes that man from earliest times had the constant need to make order from chaos. Religion, its customs and traditions was the earliest attempts at doing so. Humanity on a certain level breaks down into national, religious and social groupings. We are born (sometimes chose) into these various groupings, and in the process of socialization we become intimately comfortable with the messages, mores, taboos and totems of what we were raised into. While we may all be praying to the same God, as Jew we have a certain comfort level in praying in a certain format, style, accompanied buy certain customs and traditions. To pray in any other way would cause us to loose the natural feeling and comfort that we have.

Having been raised in an Orthodox home and learned to daven before I could read English, I found myself in a very foreign and profoundly uncomfortable position the first time I attended a Reform service. This is not to deligitimize their service. I however learned to talk to God and my people through davening, which included less decorum, less formality, swaying to a certain rhythm inculcated and part of my psyche from the time I was in preschool. The reverse I am sure applies as well. Reform Jews probably feel uncomfortable in a shteibel, assuming that they were raised in the language and tradition of Reform Judaism. Their prayer is no less valid that that of an orthodox Jew.

The prayer of Jews is no less valid than that of a Muslim or Christian. The reverse holds true as well. Our methodology in part, of reaching a level of spirituality is through shmirat mitzvoth. Other faiths have their methodology and practice. One isn’t more authentic than the other. It is a question of what is authentic for you. Being a Jew would indicate that authenticity for our tribe is through shmirat mitzvoth. Thus, practicing your method doesn’t deligitimize the methods of other faith communities who have been raised in other religions.

Every faith has a series of totems that without which they can’t survive. We have ours and I believe are based upon a clear moral value system. Without these totems our civilization, the Jewish civilization can’t survive. The three cardinal principals by which we are asked to surrender our lives rather than commit these heinous crimes are what binds us as a people. If we were to compromise with any of them our culture would be seriously threatened. There will always be extenuating circumstances and situations where it isn’t clear cut. There are unfortunately many, too many Teshuvot regarding the issue of Gilui Arayot and Sheficat Damim during the holocaust.

The beauty of Judaism is that our Sages and Rabbis recognized that Torah wasn’t, nor could it ever be treated as a literal document without interpretive guidelines. Torah Shel Baal Peh is ingenious and catapulted our civilization into the renaissance and enlightenment before the rest of the world understood that they were still living in the dark ages. Our Sages and Rabbis understood that the text had relativistic values and thus would need interpretation. An Eye for an Eye, may have been treated literally as part of an emerging culture, but quickly evolved into something else entirely. It was treated as part of a legal system that would take into consideration such things as Tzar, Repui, Boshet and Shevet. This could never have happened had the text not been understood as a document reflecting relativism. How is one to assess Tzar, Ripui, Boshet and Shevet? During the period of the Talmud Boshet was probably very different than our understanding of it today.

Another example would be the injunction against allowing a witch to be live in our communities. What constitutes a witch? Was there ever such thing as a witch, or was that our prejudice speaking against someone a little different than us. How do we respond to this mitzvah today? Relativism is a reality and part of Jewish Theology. The only real issue is how honest are we going to be in admitting this.

Our interpretive guidelines, Torah Shel Baal Peh, are divinely inspired. Being divinely inspired places those interpretations in a very sacred place with in our religious conscience. However that too must be seen as tools by which we can learn from the axioms and apply them to situations arising in our lives. To view them as documents frozen in time does them great injustice. Originally, Torah Shel Baal Peh wasn’t supposed to have been reduced to ink and paper. The sages were afraid that this would bring us into the ice age, the ossification of ideas. Torah Shel Baal Peh was supposed to keep open the channels of religious and intellectual inquiry, keeping us creative, so that Judaism would grow and develop organically. On some level the fear of our Sages was justified.

Our sages recognized and understood relativism. Why do you think that the wisdom book Koheleth was incorporated into the canon? We however, have been educated (especially those of us who learned in Orthodox yeshivot) to believe that there are clear and unequivocal standards and answers, founded in platitudes such as Bitachon and Emunah. I am here to tell you that we don’t have the answers. To believe that there is one answer that fits all is to believe in cookie cutter Judaism.

True Beliefs vs. Necessary Beliefs II

Question: If it is true that the Torah, written with Divine inspiration, but not dictated word for word by God and therefore not immutable, (as evidenced by the various versions of masoretic texts and tikunei soferim, coupled with variants in texts even during the Talmudic period)than is our halachic system flawed, since its foundations do not rest on bedrock?

Answer: There is a well known Baraita (T.B. Hagigah 14b) that relates the story of four sages who entered Pardes (BenAzzai, Ben Zoma, Acher-Elisha Ben Abuya, and Akiva). Ben Azzai gazed and died, Ben Zoma went insane, Elisha became an apostate and Akiva came out in peace. According to some, the sages entered “Pardes” in order to achieve an absolute and total understanding of Torah. Kabbalists interpreted their experiment as a journey into the Pardes –an encounter with the divine truth. It would appear that the kabalistic version holds merit in view of the Talmud’s discussion of Elisha’s encounter with the angel Metatron and subsequent apostacy. When Elisha saw Metatron sitting and writing in heaven, he assumed he was a deity (since only God was allowed to sit) and proclaimed there are indeed two powers in heaven. (There are those that say that it was this statement earned Elisha the reputation as a heretic. Rabbi Tsadok HaKohen of Lublin believed that ultimately he became a heretic not because of the dualism, but because as the result of his encounter with God he believed he no longer had to obey the law).

The search for truth demands the questioning of all previously held assumptions that we have learned and believed. It means that nothing can be assumed or taken for granted. It may also mean that there is no ultimate truth and that the nature of truth is that it is constantly being revealed within different contextual frameworks. Something like a hologram-every angle producing a different image. The search for truth requires abandoning religious rhetoric and nomenclature that has been accepted and popularized by different religious denominations including but not limited to the orthodox. For example, standard fare is to claim that the Divine revelation at Sinai is irrefutable because there were 600,000 Israelites who were witness to the event. This argument is obviously disingenuous because those witnesses are no longer present and their testimony isn’t verifiable. They left no documentation attesting to the epiphany, nor were there any secondary sources who recorded what they were told by the primary witnesses. All we have is the Pentateuch which in effect serves as its own witness attesting to its own veracity and as we have demonstrated wasn’t an accurate document. Its lack of accuracy raises a host of other questions which have far reaching implications such as our halachic system and its development. An example of this might be the rules governing the mixing of meat and milk products. The torah text mentions “lo tivashel gdi bachalev imo” three times. Because of this redundancy our Rabbis instituted a host of dietary laws that have defined the Jewish people throughout our history. If there were inaccuracies in the text, than why would we assume that this wasn’t an inaccuracy? Perhaps it should have been repeated only once or perhaps not at all, thus changing the dynamics of the laws pertaining to mixing meat and milk. Another consideration is the correct usage of the word “chalav”. Is it “chalav” – milk, or perhaps “chalev”- fat, both spelled the same in Hebrew. A critical approach to the text would have impacted on the development of Jewish law.

Elisha Ben Abuya’s (known as Acher in Talmud) odyssey poses several questions which are very important in the search for truth. What are the limits of searching? Who sets the limits? Why are there limits if one is to find the truth? What kind of questions can we pose? Are we entitled to draw conclusions based upon our observations? Do we have to accept dogma even if we can’t accept those principles? Does it make us hypocritical or at least inconsistent if we continue to practice “halacha l’maaseh” even if we are still questioning? These are important questions for consideration.

There are many who believe that if one “questions” than one is on the path of Elisha Ben Abuya. Not necessarily. If we don’t question than how can discovery ever be made and how can we ever honestly validate our religious convictions? Surely we all agree that it was God’s plan to have man designed with a brain with incredible potential for discovery. The purpose of mankind is to increase and maximize his potential for transcendence. As in every field of the sciences and humanities mans advancement can’t be expected without framing intelligent questions and seeking the answers. It stands to reason that in the discipline of philosophy and theology we are presented with the same challenges. To regurgitate the same litany of beliefs as held for thousand of years doesn’t necessarily validate them as.

Many years ago, having completed studies for Rabbinical Ordination and pursuing graduate studies, these were the issues that consumed me. Corresponding with my professor of Philosophy, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz I raised these issues, fearful that I was on the doomed trajectory of Elisha Ben Abuya. His answer which developed into a series of letters encouraged me to continue questioning and searching. Framing and articulating the questions, he maintained, would ultimately prove to be more important than the answers. I do believe that no matter how much we question there remains an indelible qualitative linkage between the questioner, his questions and the tradition which he questions.


There is, to be sure, a moral, ethical and historical imperative to honor the Torah and to practice its teachings. It really doesn’t matter who wrote it. It isn’t important whether it was dictated word by word by God to Moshe Rabbeinu, or whether it was a Divine revelation which latter went through many emendations, and permutations in the form of Tikunei Soferim and various versions of the Masortic text. The sheer weight of history, our cultural and ethical development based on Torah and the sacrifices made over the generations justifies in and of itself honoring the Torah as it has come to us through the generations in the form of shemirat mitzvoth. The tragedy of Elisha Ben Abuya was that he didn’t relate to Torah within the complex context of historical imperative. Even when in the process of questioning and searching, the “practice” of Mitzvoth is what ultimately will contribute to discovery and self discovery.

True Beliefs vs. Necessary Beliefs

Question: Why isn’t a bracha made before writing a sefer torah?
Answer: Because of the uncertainty of being able to execute the mitzvah without error, since we don’t know the correct spellings or orthographic notation.

Driving home one day from my office I took notice of the fact that I was humming a tune that I learned decades ago, probably in kindergarten or first grade. It’s the tune set to “Yigdal”. It’s a great and catchy tune, probably one of the most popular poems in our literary history, written and composed by Rabbi Daniel Bar Yehudah of Rome in the early 14th century, about one hundred years after the death of Maimonides. It is a poem affirming the thirteen articles of faith as articulated by Maimonides. Yigdal never enriched its composer financially, but enriched the Jewish people and continues to do so six hundred years after its composition. It’s a prayer chanted by hundreds of thousands of Jews every morning, included in all prayer books and is an integral part of the morning tefillah.

It created however, in the hearts and minds of millions of Jews through the ages facts that really can’t be substantiated. It brought into the consciousness of millions of people a dogmatic belief system that is questionable. It was ingenious, because nothing stated in the Yigdal can ever be substantiated, nor does it have deep roots in any of our primary texts. On the contrary, there were many great scholars through the ages that took exception with the dogma articulated by the Rambam, and artistically phrased in the Yigdal. Their voices, however, never received the exposure, popularity and acceptance that Yigdal received.

The popularity of Yigdal reminds me somewhat of the psychology that says “if you say something long enough you begin to believe it”. If you say the Yigdal long enough you begin to believe it. But not everything in the Yigdal is as clear as the poem states as Menachem Kellner comented on Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith in his book Must A Jew Believe Anything. One example of this is the eighth of the thirteen principles of faith that the Rambam insisted was critical basing this and the other 12 principles on the first Mishneh of the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin.

But before getting into specifics let me point out that the Thirteen Principles of Faith are universally accepted by the traditional Jewish community. Even the early maskilim such as Judah Leib Ben Ze’ev accepted the thirteen principles. The early reform movement and even some of their rabbis today are in acceptance of these principles. But to paraphrase Gershom Scholem, how is it possible that something so universally accepted can be so wrong? To be sure there were traditionalist that questioned the thirteen principles, such as R.Luzzatto(1800-1865) , R. Reuven Amar and R. Bezalel Naor. Incidentally, even the Artscroll, the final word for today’s orthodox community, refers to the thirteen principles as “virtually universally accepted”.

The eighth principle of faith states: “I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that we now have is that which was given to Moses”. The Yigdal, reflecting these sentiments reads: “God gave a true Torah to his people, through his prophet trusted in all His house.” Essentially, all this principle does is to authenticate the masoretic text edited and brought to light by Aaron ben Moses ben Asher which was in the tenth century. Prior to that there was a string of edited texts many of which are referred to as masoretic texts, or tikun soferim. One is led to believe that according to the Rambam the text we have today of the Pentateuch is the same one given to Moses at Sinai three thousand years ago, in spite of our knowledge of the masoretic text and tikun soferim. Ask any child with a day school education, or your typical yeshiva bachur and he will tell you that the torah we have today is that which was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. How does he know? He will answer because it’s one of the thirteen Ikarim. Not to believe it is tantamount to being a heretic.

Regarding the tikun soferim, as Marc Shapiro points out in his book The Limits of Orthodox Theology, there were significant textual changes in the Pentateuch. In many cases the soferim made changes if they felt the existing text was inappropriate. For example, Genesis 18:22 ought to read that God stood before Abraham, since it was God who came initially to Abraham. However, the tikun soferim reversed it to read and Abraham stood before God, because in their opinion it wasn’t appropriate for God to be depicted as standing before Abraham. In this vein, there is scholarly evidence that supports the thesis that Ezra, while not changing the intended mitzvoth, took the liberty to embellish the text. Incidentally, Ibn Ezra believes that significant verses of the text were written after Moses departed from the scene. He doesn’t dispute the fact that it was written with Divine intervention, he just maintains that it was someone other than Moses.

The picture becomes more complex when one takes into account the fact that there wasn’t one masoretic text, but many. Furthermore, as far back as the Babylonian period when the Talmud was edited there was awareness of gross errors in the Torah text regarding spelling and orthographic notation. As Shapiro suggests, there were halachic discussions on what happens if the Torah text differs with that of that quoted in the Talmud, or a discrepancy between texts quoted in Talmud and that of the masoretic text. An example of this is found in the Ten Commandments. In the Talmud Yerushalmi, the first commandment spells the word “hotzesicha” without a “yud”, but the masoretic text in Exodus and Deuteronomy spell it with a “yud”.

These aren’t minor errors. Sages of the Talmudic period were aware and concerned with the multiple discrepancies in the Torah text. Midrash Rabbah comments that the Torah texts of R. Meir differed from that of R. Akiva. In Genesis 1:31 the words Tov M’od appeared as the wording in R. Meir’s text , but in R. Akiva’s Tov Mavet appears in place of “Tov Me’od”. In genesis 3:21 the word “Or” appeared with an “ayin”, meaning clothing, but in R. Meir’s text it appeared with an “aleph”, thus rendering the word to mean light. Furthermore in T.B. Makot 11:a the opinion is expressed that Joshua and not Moses authored the last eight verses of Deuteronomy. This is just an abbreviated list of the inconsistencies of the text. The point is, since we have these inconsistencies how could the Rambam compose the eighth principal, in effect, rendering the sages as heretics?


Obviously, the Rambam was aware of all this. How can he still posit this eighth principle of faith as one of the thirteen ikkarim? Arthur Hyman, a Maimonides scholar and author of several texts on medieval Jewish philosophy (referenced by Marc Shapiro) suggests that the Rambam worked with two systems: “true beliefs” and “necessary beliefs”. According to Hyman, when the Rambam formulated this principal, he knew that Moses didn’t write the entire Torah. His overriding concern was for the welfare of Am Yisrael at a particularly difficult time in Muslim Spain and felt the necessity to perpetuate this idea for the sake of the “amcha”. By perpetuating this and other notions, it would keep the Jewish community from straying and help maintain their abiding faith. Keep in mind that at this time Muslims were accusing Jews of intentionally altering the text of the Pentateuch. So it was all the more important for the Rambam to underscore the divinity and pristine nature of the total text.

Having said all this I will conclude with another question which unfortunately has no simple answer.
Question: If it is true that the Torah, written with Divine inspiration, but not dictated word for word by God and therefore not immutable, (as evidenced by the various versions of masoretic texts and tikunei soferim, coupled with variants in texts even during the Talmudic period)than is our halachic system flawed, since its foundations do not rest on bedrock?
Answer: To be addressed.

Past, Present and Future

Rabbi Harry Maryles posted on Friday, January 12, 2007 a bold and intriguing essay entitled Shmuel and Yiftach. The comments following his essay either missed the point or didn’t do justice to the intent and thought of this gutsy essay. I don’t agree with Rabbi Maryles’ secondary claim that the holocaust in this matter was the main factor resulting in the different caliber of gedolim. However, his primary thesis statement that there is a distinct difference in quality between gedolim prior to the holocaust and those after the holocaust, reminded me of an essay written by none other than Asher Ginzberg better known as Ahad Ha’am in 1894 entitled Imitation and Assimilation. While this essay was written in connection with Baron Hirsch’s project to establish a Jewish national center in Argentina, it bears relevance to Rabbi Maryles’ primary thesis position. Ahad Ha’am maintained that the main contributing factor to a decreased caliber of intellectual and spiritual Jewish leadership was an inevitable evolutionary process induced by our own national psyche.

Ahad Ha’am believes that contemporary generations build by imitating earlier generations. Specifically there is a tendency to imitate the visionaries – the shakers and movers. As this occurs in progressive generations there is a point where society becomes super-saturated. That is to say that progress is limited and while the leaders aspire to perfection it cannot be achieved. At a certain point in the development of ideas there comes this realization.

Until that point of self realization one generation builds on another all the while striving for perfection. At a critical moment the process of building on from one generation to another begins to taper off. The process of imitating the past, ironically takes on greater relevance. They are imitating their ancestors whom they cannot best, and so these ancestors become their obsession. According to Ahad Ha’am this process produces a by-product which he calls self effacement. Without the self effacement the process of imitation of the ancestors cannot be self sustained.

Ahad Ha’m bases this analysis on the Gemara T.B. Shabbat 112b: Rava Bar Zima said “Im Rishonim b’nei malachim anu b’nei anashim. V’im rishonim b’nei anashim – anu k’chamorim” if our ancestors (rishonim) were the son of angels we are the children of men, and if the rishonim were the children of men – we are like donkeys. However, he takes it one step further and says that once we arrive at our saturation point the quality of the imitation deteriorates. Because of the self effacement we no longer can focus on the significant issues and become distracted with the inconsequential. “That self effacement which is the result of reverent awe, no longer finds a suitable object in the present, which is living entirely on the past; and so the impulse to imitation of the living by the living is now given by competition…..”

Borrowing from Ahad Ha’am it would seem as though one could apply some of his reasoning to the conundrum which Rabbi Maryles poses. It would appear that the classification of the periods between Rishonim and Acharonim is arbitrary. It is basically the dividing point of before and after the writing of the Shulchan Aruch. The period from approximately 1250-1500 C.E. is that of the Rishonim and after the writing of the Shulchan Aruch until today known as the Acharonim. According to many rabbis, Acharonim could not dispute the rulings of rabbis of previous eras without supporting rulings from rabbis of those earlier periods. There are, however, orthodox scholars that take exception with this practice. Menachem Alon wrote that this tradition contradicts a ruling from the Geonic period (predating the Rishonim) called Hilketha Ke-Vatraei. In short, it means that rulings after the 4th century C.E. onward, halachic opinions of that current period would prevail over opinions of previous generations. Unfortunately, it would appear to be a loosing battle, since we believe that generations ago, when we classified the periodic growth between Rishonim and Achronim, mores were established by which this standard was etched in stone thus limiting the contributions of anyone post dating the Shulchan Aruch.

Menachem Alon points out that there is a somewhat arbitrary distinction between the Rishonim and Acharonim. Similarly, the Holocaust as a demarcation line vis a vis intellectual/halachic development fails to exists. The holocaust may be a watershed historically and theologically - not in the area of halacha. Criteria ought to be given to creative thought and their contribution to the growth and development of halacha and its impact on society. Referring back to previous generations is a necessary and absolute criterion for contextual understanding and perspective. However, self effacement as a result of arbitrary demarcation between Rishonim and Acharonim or viewing pre-holocaust gedolim as superior and unsurpassable has harmed our growth and development in creating rabbinic leadership and gedolim “meshichmo v’maale”(distinctive caliber). In essence, we created this problem and we now find ourselves in a blind alley with no exit. All we can do is poorly “imitate” past generations preserving them in ultimate veneration, all the while practicing self effacement resulting in trivial and inconsequential contributions whose long term effect on the Jewish people has yet to be felt.

Let The Women Be Breadwinners

I’ve been called a Haredi basher, but after reading the latest rabbinic decree against haredi women’s education in Israel, it seems that it is less important what I am called and more important to note that these poor (literally) women are being bashed and degraded by their own rabbanim. According to a new decree issued under the auspices and influence of Harav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, shlita, haredi women can no longer pursue academic degrees in education in Beis Yaakov. This new policy will limit their earning power and potential as well as their career development. Naturally, this will keep these Torah families in the cycle of poverty which they had hoped to break.

This decree has nothing to do with yiras shamayim and it has nothing to do with tznius. It has nothing to do with halacha, it has really nothing to do with hashkafah. It has nothing to do with the threat of the zionim or chilonim infecting these nashei chayel. The decree has everything to do with the ability of the rabbanim to maintain their control over these bright and motivated women. There is a rabbinic adage that says “bina yeteira nitna l’nashim”. Roughly translated this adage means that women have a greater native intelligence than men. The Rabbinic Committee for education took this adage seriously enough to feel the threat of women once empowered by education. These rabbis have probably taken note of the fact that modern orthodox women, after being out in the cold for so long, have finally come in. They are well educated, in both secular and Jewish subject matter and are pressing for serious scholarly positions within the Jewish community framework where they can impact the most.

To avoid this paradigmatic shift in the haredi community the Rabbinic Committee for Education apparently felt the need to take this draconian measure for the following reasons:

· There was a growing aspiration for careerism among women, a trend that was against religious principles.
· Rabbi Elyashiv told Yated Ne’eman that teachers will take all sorts of courses with out the “great rabbis being involved in every detail of what is being taught and who is teaching. Without supervision and a direct setting of the curriculum, it is inevitable that courses might be littered with heresy.”
· Israel’s Minister of Education recently set a new guideline that teachers in seminaries must have a master’s degree. This limited the number of haredi teachers who could teach in seminaries, since few hold master’s degrees. As a result more and more courses were being taught by “foreign lecturers.” “Some of these lecturers belong to the Mizrahi stream, and others to great shame, are secular through and through…there is danger here of contamination”.

The reasons provided by the committee are the excuse for the action. If you read, however, between the lines, the subtext indicated that there is a palpable fear within the hierarchy of a paradigmatic shift within their community as was among the modern orthodox women. How is careerism in conflict with religious principles? What in Jewish Law proscribes a man or women from achieving knowledge and skills? On the contrary, the better her skills the better the teacher she becomes and the more effective. On the contrary, our tradition (Rambam) teaches that the highest form of tzedaka is not in giving money but providing a means whereby one is no longer dependent on handouts. This would include cultivating careers with opportunity for growth. A person wishing to achieve a B.A. and acquire more and better skills as a teacher ought not to be misconstrued as careerism. And whom are they teaching. These devoted and dedicated women aren’t, for the most part teaching the “chilonim” or the “zionim”. They are staying within their own communities, teaching their own, raising a new generation of yirei shamayim, but with the better skills than before. How is that contrary to religious principles?

The rabbis are employing the tactic that without their direct involvement in curriculum and course selection heresy will infiltrate the curriculum heresy. That is an old canard used in order to instill fear and to bolster the siege mentality. That tactic was used unsuccessfully in resisting the use of the information highway and the internet. This has clearly failed. One only has to take note of the customers at internet cafes around Israel and one will see that there is a huge and growing number of haredim buying time at these internet cafes. As a matter of fact there are caf├ęs where for the sake of privacy, each computer is now set into a cubby hole, to guarantee the privacy of the user. This was designed for the haredim. One only has to visit the main reading room at the National Library at Givat Ram’s Hebrew University Campus to see haredim using the internet in order to access information. This was unheard of twenty years ago! Clearly then, scare tactics don’t work. It accomplishes nothing other than drive people into the underground creating a subculture.

The need for these rabbis to micro mange the curriculum reminds me of some kind of inquisitorial standards being applied. The intent isn’t altruistic, but indicative of the need to exercise their control for no other purpose than to prevent progress. I’ve written about this in three previous postings: A Trojan Horse, Dec. 21, 2006; Dissent and Daas Torah, August 17, 2006; and The Hubris of Daas Torah, August 7, 2006.

The Rabbinic Committee for Education fears that as a result of the new criteria for being an instructor established by the Ministry of Education, their pupils will be exposed to teachers who are affiliated with Mizrahi or worse. All this tells me is that these rabbis have little or no confidence in their own seminary students. If the rabbis are afraid that their own student - teachers can be that easily “turned” by teachers of another political/religious persuasion, then they have a transparently flawed educational and religious system. The rabbis should welcome the challenge. Perhaps their own seminarians can convert the shmootznikim to their camp!

All of this points to their true motive. The rabbis believe that if the present trend continues they will have created an educated class of women raised with some critical thinking, exposed to knowledge and the wisdom of teachers. That could result in an intelligent and vocal group of people who in the future will voice their growing disaffection with the inequality of life predetermined for them by the rabbinic leadership. As one haredi teacher cried out after hearing of this decree said “The humiliating decision to shut down courses landed on me like a thunder on a bright day….I cry out: You give the men, who study Torah, no chance to provide for their families….I am not trying to decide in this loaded issue, the purview of this generations great rabbis, but everybody is saying ‘let the women be the breadwinners’ and I have no qualms with that. I’d just like to honorably provide for my family and earn my daily bread.”

Poked Avon Avos

In a Teshuva which I recently received via e-mail the question was asked whether a yeshiva may accept a child born to a Jewish mother and a non – Jewish father. The Rabbi, Eli Monsour in seeking an answer quoted a p’sak of Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l. Apparently Harav Moshe Feinstein, was asked if a yeshiva can refuse to accept such a child, or whether a synagogue should not allow the bar mitzvah of such a child.

Rabbi Monsour quoted the Iggrot Moshe (O.C. 2:73) which states that a yeshiva should not accept such a pupil, nor should a congregation host the bar mitzvah celebration. The reasoning according to Monsour’s understanding of Rav Moshe Feinstein is that in accepting this pupil to the Yeshiva or by hosting his Bar Mitzvah seems to be giving implicit approval to his parent’s lifestyle.

Rendering a p’sak halachah of this nature is a very complicated process. As the Jewish community grows more diverse and complex so do the She’elot. It would seem that Rabbinical institutions prior to granting Semicha ought to incorporate a course on how to approach the rendering of a p’sak halacha or an opinion referencing a p’sak halacha. Furthermore, in rendering a halachic opinion one also has to be aware not only of the short range effect but also on its long term impact. Clearly Rabbi Monsour was correct in consulting with previous literature on the subject in order to reference previously held positions. However, doing so doesn’t absolve him of exercising his intellect in the appropriateness of applying this particular teshuvah.

It would appear to me that when Harav Moshe Feinstein rendered this particular decision it was within a very different context. This particular position was probably rendered twenty five to thirty years ago when the American Jewish landscape was quite a bit different than what it is today. Thirty years ago, in the early 1970’s, intermarriage and assimilation, while talked about wasn’t an existential threat to the Jewish people. Intermarriage was probably in the 15-20% range. Although this number certainly wasn’t negligible, it wasn’t an astounding number. When someone intermarried thirty years ago, it made waves and emotionally devastated families, even non-orthodox families. Few Rabbis, even within the reform community performed such ceremonies. Thus, for Harav Moshe Feinstein to render such a position was pretty much in line with the prevailing conditions.

Harav Moshe Feinstein’s concern in rendering such a position was to stem the tide of intermarriage, or at least not to indirectly lend support to it. His position of refusing the children of intermarried couple’s entry in yeshivot, may discourage people from intermarriage. Today however the situation is reversed. Instead of a relatively low number of intermarriage, the relative number is alarmingly high. So the question is, given this high rate of intermarriage do we want to bury our heads in the sand and live in denial or do we need to be more proactive in confronting this threatening and growing reality.
Why would we want to turn a yiddishe neshama away from Judaism by barring him from a yeshiva or a synagogue? By doing so, one wouldn’t be achieving Harav Feinstein’s goal of deterrence- it can’t be done because intermarriage and assimilation has run rampant. All one is achieving is driving this intermarried family who seeks help to the other liberal movements. Harav Moshe Feinstein was concerned that by educating this child a message would be sent out whereby, there is a legitimating of his parents union. In the world we live in today, the issue isn’t whether their union is being legitimized. It is what it is. The only question is what of the off spring. Are we to behave as “rigorists”(zealots), writing them out of Judaism or are we going to assume more of a paternalistic, loving role and help save a neshama b’yisrael.

If anything, Harav Moshe Feinstein wasn’t a “rigorist”. He had a unique sensitivity and tenderness when it came to Deenei Ishut. One can’t know what Harav Moshe Feinstein’s rendering would be today. I do know that any rendering of his would have taken into account the complexity of the Jewish world. He would have also considered the religious practice of the family. He would consider the circumstances that would prompt an intermarried family the unique desire to have their child placed under the influence of Torah and Jewish hashkafah. He would consider what long term impact the Jewish education on this child would perhaps be.

I would urge Rabbi Monsour to reconsider his approach and to keep in mind the issues raised here. Should there in fact be a blanket refusal to accept such a child into the Jewish mainstream based upon this p’sak, or is there an alternative to avoid losing a Jewish soul. Surely there must be another way. I would also add that prior to rendering such a life altering decision it behooves the Rabbis involved to meet with the mother and child in order to develop a clear picture as to the family’s, attitudes, expectations, their attachment to Judaism and how the education of this child can impact on them.

Educating Tami

It takes a trip to Israel; I don’t mean a UJA mission, but an intense few days where one has the opportunity to engage in serious conversation with old friends. It’s sobering, and at the same time also confusing. Confusing, because accepted norms and values formatted in chutz laaretz are necessarily discounted when put in the context of Israel. Do issues such as assimilation, intermarriage, ritual Judaism loose their significance when framed within the context of a modern state? Do these loaded issues in chutz laaretz (living outside of Israel) pale when seen through the lense of Medinat Yisrael?

Last month I took my daughter for a week long exploratory visit to Israel as she intends to follow in her parents footsteps and study at Hebrew University. Most of our time was spent in Jerusalem and although she had been to Israel dozens of times in her 18 years, I was determined that she would see Jerusalem like she never had before. Her education was to include exposure to intense discussion and conversations between me and my friends regarding our perceptions of the future of the Jewish people and Eretz Yisroel.

In the many years that I lived in Israel I cultivated deep friendships with three types of people. Atheists, Agnostics and Believers. Not surprisingly, all three were very important to me because they all reflected the deep conflicts running through my soul then as well as now. Interestingly, when I surf the net and read various blogs I’m amazed at the amount of thought that goes into issues of orthodoxy or quirky behavior from my Haredi (ultra-orthodox) brothers. Rarely do I pick up on serious conversation from admitted atheists and agnostics. In the years that I lived in Israel, while these belief issues were of primary importance to me they began to recede into the background once living in America.

Living in Israel didn’t require personal manifestos because by living in the land one fulfilled his Jewish destiny. What more was there to say! I remember the visits I had from some frum (ultra-religious) American relatives, while serving in the IDF, and their questions regarding personal religious practice. I remember how I categorically discounted them because while they were living contentedly in chutz laaretz, I was living out the Jewish destiny in Eretz Yisrael. It didn’t matter whether I was mechallel Shabbat-- it was in defense of the moledet. What greater Mitzvah can there be? Doesn’t hatzolos nefashos (saving lives in defense of ones country) trump all other mitzvoth. Wasn’t that one of the sublime messages of the Macabbees, (“v’chai b’hem velo yamus-you shall live by them and not die)?

Living in chutz laaretz puts a whole different slant on things. The mitzvah sometimes, becomes the end in itself rather than a means to an end. That being the case we begin to obsess over performance of mitzvoth. But it is the nature of people to obsess, and so when during the years I lived in Eretz Yisroel, I too obsessed-not over performance of mitzvoth, but in fundamental belief systems. Was there a G-d, and if there was, what had he planned for us – the human race, and did we as Jews have a special role?

Coming back to Israel with my daughter and walking the campus of H.U. triggered once again these timeless and precious questions. In particular and because of the debacle of the last war and the looming threat of Iran I was deeply concerned and so searched out my friends to investigate once again and possibly resolve those questions plaguing me.

I met with my frum friends, who happen to be haredi in practice as well as politically. It was comforting to be with them because they were so complete and at peace in their emunah. They knew Hashem had a plan and that they were there to play out Hashem’s will. Will there be a secure Eretz Yisroel in the years ahead? It didn’t matter to them. Whatever Hashem’s will, they would be his willing tool. They understood the issues in stark colors of black and white. There weren’t any hues of black or white. They really had no questions. To them, the current government did a botch job, and that there would be a day of reckoning when we would have to deal with the muslim populations in Eretz Yisroel. They were utterly convinced that they were on the side of zivaot hashem ( army of G-d). No matter what happened this was the place to be.

Coming away from that conversation with a renewed sense of clarity and purpose I met with a dear friend who defines himself as agnostic. He can’t say he believes in a G-d, nor can he deny G-d. He obviously is not religious and doesn’t seek any guidance through sacred text or ritual observance. I prompted him with some leading questions about the direction Israel was taking regarding the Muslim populations in the west bank in light of the last war and his response was startling. Also in the back of my head was the fact that two of his sons fought in the past war, one as a reserve tankist ,the other as a conscript in the tanks. He believes that it’s his destiny as a Jew to live in the land of his forefathers. It is the only place where he can express himself fully as Jew, even if he doesn’t practice ritual Judaism. It is his belief that as a Jew he has no choice but to live on the land. If he were to leave, there would be no reason to maintain his Jewish identity. His identity as a Jew is inextricably linked to the land. As such, he doesn’t understand, given our common history, how I can live as a Jew in good conscience in chutz laaretz.

My third conversation was with an atheist. She was absolutely convinced that there was no G-d and that it was purely man’s creation. When I asked her why she lived in Israel if the Bible, had no credibility, she countered with a startling argument. Her position was it made no difference what the bible promised. The bible was irrelevant because it was fictitious. What wasn’t fictitious was her attachment to Israel based upon recent history. Her grandparents fought and won the right to live and build a country. Might makes right, and as long as we are strong it will remain ours. She too sees her destiny in Israel. Interestingly, while she is a pure secularist and atheist she defines her Jewish identity through culture and history—not religion.

Needless to say my daughter who passively participated in these conversations came away from it all with greater clarity and a deeper appreciation for the Jewish people. What was crystal clear was that the Jews of Israel are totally different from the Jews of America. The Jews of America are obsessed with the assimilation trends amongst the liberal end of the spectrum. In Israel, the issues do not revolve around assimilation but how we as Jews will fulfill our destiny and under what circumstances and conditions.

Regardless of the fact that we aren’t monolithic in our belief system, we all value a priori the deep fundamental core attachment to the land. It didn’t matter if you were haredi, agnostic or atheist. Israel belonged to the Jewish people—the only issue on the table was the quality of Jewish life and how was that to be defined.