The Ever-Narrowing Orthodox Mind.

December 9, 2009

Another way that we are unnecessarily making Orthodoxy unappealing to folks is by tolerating the perception that Orthodox Jews are bound by a set of religious dogmas, many of which strike the modern mind as being highly implausible and/or deeply offensive. I’m referring to the alleged Orthodox dogmas which our children too often pick up in day school, and which become further propagated and entrenched with every ArtScroll publication that hits the shelves. When we fail to respectfully but vigorously assert that these are not Orthodox dogmas, we become complicit not only in a form of Chilul Hashem, but also in reinforcing the impression that Orthodoxy does best by the narrow-minded. (In truth, the consequences of our silence are more grievous still as these “dogmas” also seem to grant some of their adherents the license to engage in terrible behavior.) 

Here are just a few examples of damaging “dogmas”, each of which is in reality only one opinion among other dissenting opinions that have been expressed in classical (= Orthodox ) sources. Your local Morethodox rabbi will surely be ale to point you to the sources that dispute the notions that: 

(1)   Jewish souls have a superior innate quality relative to non-Jewish souls. And only the former enjoy the benefits of eternal life. 

(2)   Every calamity that occurs on Earth is the result of an express Divine decision as to how and when it should unfold, and that God directly decides who shall survive it, and who shall not. 

(3)   When tragedy strikes, this is invariably the fault of somebody having sinned. 

(4)    Our biblical ancestors, most especially our patriarchs and matriarchs, never erred or sinned. Any act that they performed – including those which would horrify us if our spouses or our children did them – is righteous.

 (5)   It is prohibited to return lost objects to non-Jews, and one ought not extend tzedaka to non-Jewish individuals or causes as long as Jewish need exists. And that it goes without saying that there are no circumstances that under which parts of  Eretz Yisrael could be ceded for the creation of a non-Jewish state.

 (6)   The Midrash and the Aggada are comprised of narratives that were passed down to our Sages from Sinai, to be regarded as possessing the same truth as the biblical narratives themselves, even when they thus compel us to negatively stereotype whole peoples (e.g. Ishmaelites), or require us to morally justify exploiting your twin brother’s weakness for lentils, for your own financial benefit.. 

(7)   It is possible, utilizing mathematics and physics, to prove the scientific authenticity of the Torah’s account of Creation, and that to regard the opening chapters of Genesis as being anything other than literally true, is heresy. 

(8)   Jews who are not Orthodox would be better off not davening at all than davening in a non-Orthodox shul. Cause we know how God thinks about these things. 

(9)   [“Damaging” in the sense that our intellectual honesty is shot by this one..] The book of Tehillim, including the Psalms describing events surrounding the destruction and rebuilding of Jerusalem, were nonetheless somehow authored by King David. And the books of Mishlai and Kohellet were authored by King Solomon –  despite the fact that they are written in a Hebrew that belongs to the Second Temple period. And the issues surrounding Isaiah etc, etc. 

If you’re reading this, the chances are that you’ve been troubled by all of these “dogmas” before. But don’t take them lying down. I believe that if we speak our piece, we can reshape what “Orthodoxy believes”. Artscroll did it. Why can’t we?


On Line Psak – Bad Medicine

December 8, 2009

I am sure that many are familiar with the phenomenon on internet piskei halach – the popular notion of asking halachik questions, usually anonymously, to a rabbi. Often times even the rabbi who is answering in anonymous as the question is sent to a pool of rabbis.

No doubt there is some benefit to this technological option. It saves time as one can send the question and then great on with their life as they wait for answer. It also allows for sensitive question to be asked with minimal or no embarrassment.

On the other hand, online psak share the same pitfalls that so many other online relationships do. There is no doubt that the internet has allowed many to expand the number of people they are in touch with. The flip side is that while we are in touch with more people quantitatively, the quality of many of those relationships has deteriorated.

Online psak is no different. It allows for no relationship between posek and questioner, a very important ingredient in psak halacha. In on line piskei halaca it is very ahrd to flesh out all the detsil of the question. A fundamental ingredient missing in almost all on line pask is the ability for the Rabbi to ask questions to the questioner. The seasoned posek knows the questions that will assist in finding the proper answer.

Psak Halacha is a very personal matter as no two questioners ask the same question. Even thought on the surface it may seem that the very same question is being asked, the specific circumstances of the questioner, their religious background, their financial, and domestic situation all play a role in making a correct decision.

It is interesting to note that a major issue discussed by rabbis is rabbinic autonomy and that in some areas of life, halacha is becoming centralized One of the main objections to centralized rabbinic authority is that the rabbis of the central authority often lack familiarity with those asking the questions. The same shortcoming exists in the realm of internet psak.

A doctor can do a better job diagnosing a treating a patient when the patient’s personal history is known to the doctor and the doctor has time to ask question and clarify matters. The same is true for a rabbi asked to answer a halachik question. All of the factors mentioned above, if known by the rabbi, an serve an important role in rendering an appropriate decision


Unwittingly Desecrating G-d’s Name by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 4, 2009

How should we act as Orthodox Jews?

Today I was talking to a congregant who told me that her in-laws who are Reform and not observant, asked her why Orthodox Jews are badly mannered.   They said, “so and so’s son became a baal tishuvah (newly observant) and now he is mean to, and rejecting of, people who are not orthodox.”

She responded to her in-laws that the baaley tishuvah in her shul are not at all that way, and that perhaps this bad mannered impression is one not caused by Judaism but by the cultures of specific orthodox communities or types of people who tend to become Orthodox.  I wondered if this was a common stereotype and was told it is.

Though stereotypes are often unfair generalizations about the many from the few, there is often something to them.  I offered her a suggestion.  Perhaps insular communities unwittingly cultivate the sense that those in their community are virtuous and those outside of it are not.  This might lead to the unsaid sense that others on the outside might feel that those inside reject them or are rude to them.

I mentioned that we must be vigilant to avoid such feelings since the Talmud (Yoma 86a) says the following:
“What is a chilul hashem (A desecration of god’s name)?  …Isaac, of the School of Rabbi Jannai said: “If one’s colleagues are ashamed of his reputation that constitutes a profanation of the Name (chilul hashem).” Abaye explained:  If someone studies Torah and Mishnah, and attends on the disciples of the wise (talmidey chachamim), is honest in business, and speaks pleasantly to persons, what do people then say concerning him? ‘Happy the father who taught him Torah, happy the teacher who taught him Torah; woe unto people who have not studied the Torah; for this man has studied the Torah look how fine his ways are, how righteous his deeds! . Of him does Scripture say: And He said unto me: Thou art My servant, Israel, in, whom I will be glorified.  (That is a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of G-d’s name)

But if someone studies Scripture and Mishnah, attends on the disciples of the wise, but is dishonest in business, and discourteous in his relations with people, what do people say about him? ‘ Woe unto him who studied the Torah, woe unto his father who taught him Torah; woe unto his teacher who taught him Torah!’ This man studied the Torah: Look, how corrupt are his deeds, how ugly his ways; of him Scripture says: In that men said of them: “These are the people of the Lord, and are gone forth out of His land.” (This is a desecration of G-d’s name)”


Understanding the Rape of Dina

December 3, 2009

We are about to read the disturbing story of Dina, the daughter of Lea and Jacob. The entire chapter 34 of Bereishit, all 31 verses, narrates the events surrounding Dina’s rape and her brother’s response. We will read how after Dina is raped, her father Jacob is silent; then all of Dina’s brothers devise a plan where they convince the people of Shchem to circumcise themselves, and on the 3rd day Shimon and Levi rise up and murder the men of Shchem. Many people may have read the Red Tent, where Anita Diamante reads the text as a love story between the prince of Shchem and Dina—but I believe this to be a misrepresentation of the text. If you look closely at verse 2, it says:

And Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite,prince of the land, saw her; and he took her, and lay with her, and humbled her (“vay’neha”).

He saw, he took, and lay with her and HUMBLED HER, afflicted her, raped her: inui. Diamante ignored this word, thereby making the story more palatable. I too have trouble coming to terms with the story, but it was that very word, inui, that helped me understand the purpose of the Dina narrative and why the torah dedicates so much space to it.

We are told near the beginning Genesis (15:13)  that in order to enter into a covenantal relationship with Gd, Jews must undergo 3 experiences: one must be a stranger in a strange land, enslaved, and suffer: geirut, avdut, and inui.  We see these 3 words appear several times throughout the stories in Bereishit, but it is especially clear in the book of Exodus. (chapter 1, eved 5x, inui, 2x, ger, 1x in chp 2)  Bnei yisrael enters into a covenantal relationship with God only after being strangers in Mizrayim, enslaved by the Mizrayim, and caused to suffer bitterly in Egypt; only after experiencing geirut avdut and inui does Gd redeem Bnei Yisrael.

 The story of Dina is an exact parallel to the story of the Exodus.  Let’s examine what the parallels are.  Dina in Shchem is like Bnei Yisrael in Egypt.  Having newly arrived in Shchem, she is a stranger—so lonely, that in the first pasuk she goes out to find friends,  “Lirot b’bnot ha’aretz.”  But, rather than find friends, she encounters the prince of Shchem.  And, as we already saw he takes her, lies with her and afflicts her. We are told that she suffers. In addition, Shcehm holds her captive, enslaves her in his house for at least 3 days until Dina’s brothers rescue her.  Like Bnei Yisrael in Mizrayim, Dinah experiences geirut, avdut, and inui.

 Jacob, in our story, is as silent as God was for 400 years while the Jews suffered in Egypt. In verse 5 we are told:

“Now Jacob heard that he had defiled Dinah his daughter; and his sons were with his cattle in the field; and Jacob held his peace until they came.”

When Jacob heard that his daughter had been defiled, he kept silent.  He did nothing.

Then, perhaps because their father did not come to defend his daughter, 2 of Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi rise up in anger, and slay the people of Shcehm. The questions is, who do Shimon and Levi represent in our metaphor? Could they be like Moses, who also rises up and kills a Mitzri in defense of his brethren. Rashi (34:25)says that Shimon and Levi merit being called Dina’s brothers (Achai Dina) because they were willing to risk their lives to save her. Moses too risked his life to defend and save the Jews.

Or, perhaps Shimon and Levi represent God, who after so many years hears the pain and suffering of his children.  God rises up and kills the first born in Egypt.  Immediately following the death of the first born, in chapter 12 verse 31of Exodus, God instructs bnei yisrael to get up (kumu) and go out of Egypt so that they could serve and worship God.  And, after Shimon and Levi kill all the people of Shchem in the Dina narrative God says, in ch 35 verse 1: come, get up (kum) go to beit-el, sacrifice to me and worship me.

The story of Dina is an exact metaphor for the experience of the Jews in Egypt.  After the Jews experience geirut, avdut and innui—being a stranger, being enslaved, and being afflicted, only then are they ready to receive the Torah at Mt Sinai.  Here too, Dina’s suffering is the impetus that allows God to bless Jacob, renaming him Yisrael.  The blessing reiterates the promise that Jacob will be the father of Bnei Yisrael, that he will be a great nation, and along with all of Bnei Yisrael, will inherit the land of Israel.


Change Jewish Federation Allocations – Help With Tuition Crisis – Rabbi Barry Gelman

December 1, 2009

Jewish Federations across the nation are scrambling to figure out how to respond to decreasing donations and support. In most communities over the last 50 years, major Jewish institutions such as synagogues, schools, JCCs, and membership organizations work together in what I’ll call “the Federation system” to share resources and coordinate activities.

Young people are not buying into the Federation system and their decisions are being felt on the bottom line. Some even question whether or not the Federation system is sustainable in a Jewish world increasingly moving away from centralization. The current growth of independent synagogues is one example of a widespread trend moving away from centralized Jewish life.

As a member of a Jewish community and a Board member of our local Jewish Federation I see the value of the Federation system and the real impact it has on local and international agencies.

Some suggest that to engage young people in Federation giving the process must be made more transparent, offer more choices and be made easier. All of these are good ideas and should be addressed. With charity dollars more scarce than ever, for example, people should know what percentage goes to which agencies and what percentage goes to overhead etc. Similarly, an easier and more choice oriented giving experience may have a positive impact. Perhaps people would be more willing to give via the Federation pipeline if they could have more choice as to what Federation supported agency to send their money to.

Having said that, these ideas do not address the root issue –fewer and fewer young people are committed to the Jewish community and supporting Jewish causes.

My suggestion is radically simple. It is radical in that it calls for an incentive system implemented by Jewish Federations and it is simple in that it incentivizes the only real solution to Jewish apathy.

Jewish Federations should increase funding, or in some cases begin to offer funds (the individual formula could be decided locally) to Jewish day schools based on the number of students who continue on to the next level of Jewish education. It is well know that the number of Jewish children enrolled in Jewish day school drastically decreases after middle school.

Here is how it would work. For every student who moves from a Jewish elementary school to a Jewish Middle school, the elementary school is rewarded with dollars. The same goes for moving from middle school to high school. High schools would be rewarded for every graduate who marries a Jew.

This will accomplish a number of goals:

1. Day schools will have an incentive to “beef up” their Judaic programs.

2. Jewish Federations will make an important statement that religious education is the priority of the Jewish community.

3. Families may benefit from reduced tuitions and which in turn would lead to increased enrollment.

4. Most importantly, Federations take the first step towards solving the problem of diminished participation and donations. This suggestion may not solve the short term problems in our community (and for those, Birthright and the Wexner program should be continued), but encouraging outcomes instead of processes is the only way to create an ongoing source of committed young Jews.

This model calls for moving away from an allocation model based on the number of students in the school. Such a model focuses on the children upon enrollment. A better measure of the success of the school is one founded on the choices the children and their families make upon commencement or graduation. Successful schools should be rewarded. Such a program will incentivize the schools and offer the larger Jewish community a chance of survival.

We have to start looking at the finished product.


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