Jewish Strength and Jewish Beauty in a Time of War by Yosef Kanefsky

July 25, 2014

There is no strength like the strength which emanates from one’s moral core. There is no beauty like the beauty which radiates from one’s innermost soul. The Jewish moral core and innermost soul are the ones that have been shaped and formed over thousands of years by the words of our teachers and sages.

Consider the following rabbinic teaching. When the Biblical King Avimelech was warned by God to not touch Sarah for she was a married woman, the king promptly returned her to Avraham in the morning. But as a residual consequence of God’s displeasure, all of the women of Avimelech’s household became infertile. Avraham prayed for then, and in response to Avraham’s prayer, God restored their fertility.

The Torah’s next chapter begins with God remembering Sarah, and blessing her with conception. As our Sages read the stories, Sarah conceived precisely during that short window between when Avraham prayed, and when God restored fertility to the women of Avimelech’s household. From which we are to learn that, “Whoever requests mercy for another, and is himself in need of the same mercy, he is answered first” (Bava Kamma 92a). Which is to say, that what  God admires most in a human being, what makes a human being worthy of God’s response, is his ability to pray for someone else who has the same need that he does. In this case, the need was for fertility. But it could equally be the need for one’s children to be protected from dangerous explosives that are dropping out of the sky. This is what our sages intended for us to understand. That the most beautiful tehillim gatherings are the ones which also include prayers for the protection of all the innocent Gazans who are in harm’s way. This is the beauty that radiates from our innermost soul, the soul shaped by the teachings of our Sages.

Another sage whose teachings have shaped our soul is Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg, the Rabbi of Königsberg in the 19th century, and the author of a Torah commentary called HaKetav V’HaKabbalah. When Rabbi Mecklenberg reached the 16th chapter of Devarim, he puzzled deeply over 4 particular words there, part of Moshe’s instructions concerning the conquest of the Canaanites. Instructing the warriors Moshe said,  לא תחיה כל נשמה, “leave no soul alive”. Not woman, not children. Though not the first sage to be stunned by the moral implications of this command, Rabbi Mecklenberg invested an unusual amount of energy in struggling with it.

“It appears”, he says, “to be an act of great cruelty to spill the blood of innocents. If the men sinned (took up arms) what sin was committed by the children or by the women??” And after reviewing earlier rabbinic grapplings with this question he proposes a radically new interpretation. He first points out that the Biblical verb used here (l’hachayot”) often means “to sustain”. And then he proposes that Moshe was here reacting to the then-common practice of taking the vanquished women and children, and sustaining them with food and clothing only to then utilize them as maid-servants and slaves. Moshe is here prohibiting this practice, urging Israel to “send them free so that they can flee outside the places of  Israelite settlement.”

Recognizing the novelty of his interpretation, Rabbi Mecklenburg concludes, “And even if you do not accept my interpretation…you have no choice but to agree that the meaning of the verse cannot possibly be that they were to kill all the people (even the men) in the city without distinction. Did all of them agree to initiate hostilities?? There are times when the army imposes its will upon the population. Could it even enter your mind that in such a situation the Torah would say “Leave no soul alive?!”

This is our moral core, as shaped by our Sages and as codified in the IDF’s ethical code.  As Professor Moshe Halbertal wrote (in his 2009 critique of the Goldstone Report)

Three principles are articulated in the IDF code concerning moral behavior in war. The first is the principle of necessity. It requires that force be used solely for the purposes of accomplishing the mission…The second principle is the principle of distinction. It is an absolute prohibition on the intentional targeting of non-combatants…. The third principle, the most difficult of all, is the principle of proportionality. Its subject is the situation in which, while targeting combatants, it is foreseeable that non-combatants will be killed collaterally. In such a case, a proportionality test has to be enacted, according to which the foreseeable collateral deaths of civilians will be proportionate to the military advantage that will be achieved by eliminating the target” (The New Republic, 11/18/09)

One final teaching, this one from the Mishna. Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages disagree as to whether a man may wear his sword on Shabbat in a place where there is no eruv, in the same manner that a woman may wear jewelry under such circumstances. Rabbi Eliezer notes that the social stature achieved by the warrior and the glory that battle accords him, and rules that implements of war are indeed to be deemed as ornaments and may be worn on Shabbat. The Sages however cite Isaiah’s vision of the day when people “shall beat their swords in to ploughshares and learn war no more”, and on that basis rule that weapons are not ornaments, rather implements of shame.

Obviously, Rabbi Eliezer was also aware of the passage from Isaiah. But he could see no reason why a vision of a world far in the future should impact the Halacha in the here and now.  But the Sages taught that the vision of a future world can and must inform the way we see and understand the present world. Yes, in this world, war is necessary. In circumstances like the ones we face today, the refusal to fight would constitute a reckless abdication of moral responsibility. But the Sages insist that we must never confuse the necessary with the good.  Even as we fight, the battle screams of how unredeemed the world is, of how spiritually undeveloped humanity still is.  And when the battle ends, they contend, we are bidden to go back to the drawing board and search for a new paradigm – as stubbornly elusive as it may be – in which people can live with each other without lifting swords. According to our Sages, weapons do not qualify as ornaments. They are reminders that we are a yet-unredeemed species. Here again, our teachers are molding our moral core and shaping our innermost soul.

It is not easy at times like these to pray for the other, to care for the non-combatant, to experience the sword as necessary but not good. What we need to remember though is that we must do things not in order to adhere to modern western values, or to respond to international pressures that often come dripping in hypocrisy or wrapped in barely-concealed anti-Semitism. We must do them in order to remain faithful to our own moral core and innermost soul, which our teachers and sages have painstakingly curated for us over thousands of years.

A few days ago, I davened and recited Tehillim with our teenagers, and toward the end I asked them to share what they are thinking about, what they are feeling. One precious young man, just back from Bnei Akiva summer camp, simply said, “How could anyone have thought that it made sense to kill a Palestinian teenager?”

There is no strength like the strength which emanates from one’s innermost moral core. There is no beauty like the beauty which radiates from one’s innermost soul.

May God give strength – and beauty – to His nation. May God bless His nation with peace.


Muslim and Jewish Leaders Jointly Reject Violence posted by Yosef Kanefsky

July 8, 2014

Late yesterday, my LA-based Muslim and Jewish colleagues and I released the following spiritual statement. Remarkably, it wasn’t difficult to put the statement together or to gather signatures. In fact, it was very easy. A testament, I think, to what years of patiently cultivating Muslim-Jewish relationships can achieve.
In a dark and difficult time (may God protect Israel and our chayalim), I hope that it gives you a moment of light.

(You can also view the statement at

http://www.jewishjournal.com/israel/article/muslim_jewish_statement_on_the_murder_of_innocents_in_israel

and at https://www.facebook.com/scmjf )

Press Release from the SoCal Muslim-Jewish Forum regarding the murder of Israeli and Palestinian Teens

We are a group of Muslim and Jewish community and religious leaders in Los Angeles and Orange County. Although we have important disagreements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it ought to be resolved, all of us together affirm that the murder of innocent people, be they Muslim or Jewish, is a desecration of God’s name and violation of the most basic tenets of our faiths. There is no possible justification for such acts and we utterly reject them. We are all children of Abraham and are beloved of God.

We together extend condolences to the families of Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir. We pray that their memories serve to spur both of our communities to loudly and definitively reject the paths of violence and revenge, and to embrace negotiation in the spirit of mutual respect as the only way forward.

Signed,

Melissa Balaban, IKAR

Rabbi Karen Bender, Temple Judea

Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR

Noor-Malika Chishti, Sufi Order International

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, Beth Shir Shalom

Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, Orange County Islamic Foundation

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom

Rabbi Susan Goldberg, Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Senior Claremont Lincoln Fellow for Interreligious Curriculum

Rabbi Judith Halevy, Malibu Jewish Center

Atilla Kahveci, Pacifica Institute, Westwood

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, B’nai David-Judea

Mohammed Khan, STOPP. Society To Offer Prosperity And Peace.

Rabbi Peter Levi, Temple Beth El of South Orange County

Mohannad Malas

Dr. David Myers, Chair, Department of History, UCLA

Dr. Sadegh Namazikhah, Iranian-American Muslim Association

Rabbi Laura Owens, B’nai Horin and The Academy for Jewish Religion California

Barrie Segall, Segall Consulting

Imam Jihad Turk, President, Bayan Claremont, an Islamic Graduate School

Shepha Schneirsohn Vainstein MA LMFT, reGeneration

The SoCal Muslim-Jewish Forum was convened in association with the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, Rabbi Marc Schneier, President


Will We Look in the Mirror? posted by Yosef Kanefsky

July 6, 2014

We did it. We carried out the revenge killing, just like we shouted we would. We slowly, over time, slid down the poisonous chute of racism and dehumanization, until murder could be rationalized. We tolerated the writing of Halachik treatises permitting the killing of non-Jews, and then, as we always do, followed the dictates of Halacha. We did it.

The only question now is whether we will look in the mirror. There are definitely alternatives to doing so. We can say that it was extremists; it wasn’t us. We can say that it’s all a conspiracy in which Obama pressured Israel to arrest Jews, but in fact Muhammad Abu Khdeir was killed by his own family because he was gay. We can say that given the intensity of the hatred that is directed toward us, any act of introspection on our part will be perceived as dangerous weakness. We can say these things and some of us undoubtedly will.

Kol Yisrael areyvim zeh l’zeh. We are all responsible for one another.

Will at least some of us look in the mirror?


Judaism in the time of Climate Change. Posted by Yosef Kanefsky

May 25, 2014

A spiritual reflection one of the biggest elephants in our room.

It’s basic to our religious system that when human life is in danger, we stop and pay attention. This is true not only when human life is clearly and certainly in danger, but also whenever there is a reasonable possibility that life is in danger. We set aside Shabbat and virtually every other law in order to address even these possible dangers. Equally indicative of this religious attitude are the stories told in Mishna Ta’anit about the circumstances that prompted the Sages to declare days of communal fasting and prayer. On one occasion they declared a day of fasting because a tiny amount of wheat in Ashkelon had been ruined by shidafon, a dry, destructive wind. On another occasion they declared a communal fast when two wolves- capable of killing children – were merely spotted in an inhabited area. This is the way we live. When a real possibility of danger to life lurks, we don’t avert our eyes. As a matter of spiritual course, we take notice, and consider how to respond.

We’re at an interesting and challenging juncture right now in humanity’s journey on Earth. There’s at least a reasonable possibility, and many respected voices insist that it is more than just that, that in the coming years and decades, we will be dealing with a natural world that is less accommodating, and more hostile to human life, than the one we’ve come to know. We will experience bigger and more destructive storms, longer and deeper droughts, more frequent wildfires, and the spread of crop-threatening insects and fungi to places where they didn’t use to appear. These are reasonable enough possibilities that normative Jewish law and thought indicate that we are obliged to pay attention to them – and to their possible consequences. Accordingly, simply as a regular Jew doing what regular Jews do, I recently began the process of trying to place these possibilities into a religious framework, into a framework of appropriate spiritual response. Here are three ideas, drawn from our classical sources, that I believe serve to create this framework, both for today, and more importantly for tomorrow and beyond.

The first idea is SOLIDARITY. Back in the 41st chapter of Genesis, Yosef accurately interprets Pharaoh’s dream about the years of plenty and the years of famine that will come, and then finds himself charged with the awesome responsibility of storing food in the good years that would be eaten in the bad ones. In the middle of that story, we find the report that “two sons were born to Yosef, before the years of famine came”. The Talmud wonders about the significance of that last phrase. Why did the Torah specifically point out that the sons were born during the years of plenty? The Talmud then concludes – and this conclusion is codified into law with only with slight modifications – that we are to learn from Yosef’s behavior that it is prohibited to engage in marital intimacy during years of famine. There is a limitation on pleasure-taking during times of suffering.

The medieval Tosafists though challenged the Talmud’s analysis, pointing out that Yocheved the daughter of Levi was born just as Jacob and family were entering Egypt. Clearly, she must have been conceived during the years of famine! And while many answers are offered to this question, one of the most compelling is the one given by a 19th century thinker, Rabbi Boruch HaLevi Epstein. There would have no purpose in Levi’s refraining from marital relations, Epstein explains. The Talmud’s teaching is specifically about people like Yosef, who due to their own personal social or economic circumstances, are not personally affected by the famine. The Talmud is teaching us to vicariously experience other’s people’s suffering, and to consciously cultivate a sense of solidarity with people whose lives have been turned upside down by nature’s unfortunate surprises. And out of this solidarity, to develop the will and the strength to make political and economic decisions which respond to the challenging circumstances being experienced by others.

The second idea is PRIORITY, i.e. giving priority to human life over all other considerations. Here we’ll draw upon the example of a halachik decision made by Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spector in the spring of 1868, in the midst of drought that had dramatically affected numerous crops, leaving peas and beans among the few foods readily available, especially to the poor. Rabbi Spector decided that the custom forbidding kitniyot would be lifted for Pesach of that year. While this may sound like a no-brainer of a decision, we know that rabbis face numerous pressures around decisions such as these. Would he be accused of overstepping his authority? Was he setting a dangerous precedent for the waiving of other time-honored customs? Was such a move especially perilous at a time when Jews in other parts of Europe were abandoning Jewish practices with abandon? Rabbi Spector might have decided differently based upon any of these considerations. But he did not. Because human life and welfare had to be given higher priority than any of the political or historical considerations that in other circumstances might militate against taking action. In times of trouble, human life must the highest priority.

And finally, we come to PRAYER. The model here is the prayer attributed to Avraham on the morning after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the prayer which our morning Shacharit is modeled upon. The Torah records that in the morning Avraham returned to the spot overlooking the cities, and saw nothing but smoke. The feared destruction had occurred. We can’t help but wonder, “What kind of prayer would he have said at that point?” I think that we must assume that it was a prayer similar to the one that we ourselves say each morning. “Place in our hearts the ability to understand and discern”. Teach me, God, what I should be doing differently. What changes I need to make in the way I conduct my own life, in the way that my household and my society conduct their lives, so that next time the outcome will be different, so that destruction can be averted? “You, who shine light upon the earth and its inhabitants with compassion”. You, God, are a benevolent God, who created out of love, and who does not desire the death of His creatures. Standing in Your presence, we do not despair. We continue to look forward, for we know we stand before God who desires life.

This is the prayer of our time and for the decades to come. It is the third element of the spiritual framework. We know before whom we stand. And we know what He expects of us, when we live in challenging times.


Israel Meir Kin is a Threat to all Jewish Women, by Yosef Kanefsky

March 25, 2014

A little over a thousand years ago, Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz, the leading scholar of Ashkenazi Jewry, enacted bold legal measures to protect Jewish women from abuse.

Last week a fellow named Israel Meir Kin poked his finger in Rabbenu Gershom’s eye, and now every Jewish woman is at risk.

In his day, Rabbenu Gershom began to notice a disturbing and outrageous trend. Husbands, who found that they now fancied another woman, were taking advantage of the Biblical law allowing them to divorce their wives unilaterally and virtually without cause. And with the stroke of a pen, and the cold delivery of a divorce document, they were shattering the lives of their wives and families. Rabbenu Gershom strode into the breach and proclaimed a ban of excommunication against any man who divorced his wife without her consent. And to insure these husbands who lusted after another woman wouldn’t simply marry their new love without divorcing their first wives, he placed the same ban of excommunication on any man who married more than one wife, effectively ending the practice of polygamy in Ashkenaz. Rabbenu Gershom was determined that Jewish women would no longer be subject to this kind of abuse at the hands of their husbands.

In our day, Israel Meir Kin has undone Rabbenu Gershom’s work. This past Thursday, as about 30 of us stood in protest, he blatantly violated Rabbenu Gershom’s ban, by marrying a second woman without divorcing his wife. As if it were not enough that for the past 9 years he has spitefully been refusing to grant a Jewish divorce to his wife Lonna (allegedly unless she were to pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars), he has now completed his journey of shame by toppling the age-old ban on polygamy. (See the articles in this past Saturday’s New York Times, and the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/22/us/a-wedding-amid-cries-of-unfinished-business-from-a-marriage.html?_r=0″; and http://www.jewishjournal.com/bloggish/item/modern_orthodox_protest_against_agunah_wedding_in_vegas”>)

Make no mistake. Israel Meir Kin’s actions are not merely outrageous and despicable. His actions threaten all of our daughters and all of our sisters. I can guarantee you that at this very moment there are men who are watching, waiting to see whether Israel Meir Kin gets away with this. And if he does, there will be more Israel Meir Kins. And every single married Jewish woman will be shorn of the protection Rabbenu Gershom had afforded women for the past millennium.

If you know Israel Meir Kin, a physician’s assistant now residing in Las Vegas, Nevada, or if you know someone who knows him, you must act now. Bring whatever legal form of social or economic pressure to bear on him that you can. This is a moment that has the potential to wreak havoc and misery for generations to come. Unless we act to stop it.


My Teacher and My Mentor. A Tribute to Rabbi Avi Weiss. by Yosef Kanefsky

March 17, 2014

This coming Sunday evening Rabbi Avi Weiss will be honored by Yeshivat Chovevai Torah. As this is the first time Rav Avi has ever allowed himself to be publically honored, the tribute speakers will have decades and decades of monumental accomplishments to select from. I’m suspecting that lost among these numerous accomplishments will be the powerful influence that he had upon the young rabbis who were lucky enough to learn the rabbinate from him. I was one of those lucky ones, having served as Rav Avi’s assistant rabbi for six years. Even today, 18 years after I left his professional side, there is not a single day that unaffected by what he taught me. So I’ll try to sneak this in now, alongside the many tributes that will be coming.

What did I learn from Rav Avi (and still don’t do as well as he does)? Here are just a few things:

(1) No matter what else is going on in the world, in the moment that someone is sharing his or her personal struggles with you, there is nothing else going on in the world. For each person is a world unto himself.

(2) Try your utmost to love everyone. If you can’t, the rabbinate’s probably not for you.

(3) Don’t be afraid to be different. Especially when you are being different in the name of including and embracing those who would otherwise be left out.

(4) A shul is family. And like any family, it has older people, and younger people. Healthy people and sick people. People who are more typically “abled” and people who are in some way disabled (and we are all in some way disabled). People whose Judaic knowledge is strong and people who are just now learning. When you look around shul on a Shabbat morning, it’s got to look like a family.

(5) Not everyone who is ritually observant is religious, and not everyone who is religious is ritually observant. Rabbis need to deeply understand this.

(6) Don’t sit on the bima. That’s not where the Jews are.

(7) It’s (almost) never a bad time for a niggun.

(8) Lifecycle ceremonies are teaching times. They are precious moments when people’s hearts are open in an unusual and wondrous way. Don’t let these moments become mechanical rituals.

(9) It makes no difference whether you’re teaching a class of 3, or giving a sermon in a room of many hundreds. You always give it your all.

(10) Your wife is the most important person in the shul.

Thank you Rav Avi. As I recently affirmed to the blessed members of Bnai David –Judea, “what is mine and what is ours, is yours.”


Lincoln and the Jews….. And Us by Yosef Kanefsky

February 21, 2014

As Lincoln’s birthday approached, I was feeling curious about the relationship between President Lincoln and the Jewish community. And as it turns out, there were indeed two significant episodes in which Lincoln asserted his presidential authority on behalf of the Jewish community. And as it also turns out, there is something fascinating about the way that the Jewish community did – and didn’t – think and speak about Lincoln. About this, I will share not a judgment of the community, rather an observation that I think is important and instructive.. But first, the two episodes.

The first episode began in July of 1861 when Congress adopted a bill authorizing the Union’s regiment commanders to appoint regimental chaplains, provided that they were “ordained ministers of some Christian denomination”. The bill’s wording – which was pointedly different than the Confederate law authorizing the appointment of any “minister of religion” – drew little Jewish attention at first. But when one Pennsylvania regiment specifically elected a rabbi as their regiment chaplain, and his credentials were rejected, the issue was taken up by the American Jewish press, which labeled the law an unconstitutional promotion of Christianity above other religions. The rejected chaplain, the reverend Arnold Fischel of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in NY, personally met with President Lincoln about the issue, and he secured Lincoln’s promise to instruct Congress to amend the wording of the law. And indeed the amended wording was passed on July 17, 1862.

The second episode is somewhat better known. It began on December 17th 1862 when General Ulysses S Grant issued General order #11, expelling all Jews from the areas under his command, which encompassed Mississippi and Kentucky. Grant blamed “Jews, as a class” for the widespread smuggling and cotton speculation that was affecting the area. One of the expelled Jews, accompanied by congressman from Cincinnati, went directly to the President, who had not heard of Grant’s order, and who immediately ordered the general-in-chief of the army to send a telegram to Grant stating that “if such an order has been issued, it will be immediately revoked”.

Both of these episodes were of course consistent with Lincoln’s broader attitudes and philosophy. Even before becoming President, he was well known for his belief that the US ought be more true to its credo declaring all men equal, had spoken forcefully about the unjust oppression of the Negro slaves, and opposed efforts to block Catholics and immigrants from achieving citizenship. These same views extended to the Jewish community as well.

Now for the non-judgmental observation about the Jewish community at the time. It struck me as I was reading excerpts from Jewish eulogies that were offered during the deep and dark mourning following President Lincoln’s assassination in April of 1865, which occurred on the Friday night of Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Pesach. Certain themes were ubiquitous in these eulogies. Lincoln is remembered for his character and for his leadership through the country’s most difficult hour. Rabbi Bernard Illowy mourned, “thy hands were never bound by the wiles of others… thou didst hear nothing but the wishes of thy people, thou didst fear none but God, who alone was thy guide and trust”. Over and over Lincoln was compared to Moses, as by Rabbi Max Lilienthal who proclaimed that “like Moses, he was ever thoughtful of the duty allotted to him, to bring his people back to enjoy the whole land.” Many others extended the comparison, noting that the President too had died as he stood on the precipice, as he was about to finally see the fruits of his hard labor. And, of course, he is remembered and thanked for his efforts on behalf of the Jewish community. Isaac Lesser, who led Cong Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia for many years, referenced both the chaplain episode and General Grant’s order #11 in his eulogy. Col. Philip Joachimson, who had been invited to a New Orleans synagogue to deliver a memorial address said, “We, as Jews, had a distinct ground to love, respect, and esteem him…. His mind was not subject to the vulgar clamor against Jews…” The president of Bet El Emet in Philadelphia spoke of the way that Lincoln “ was never appealed to by us, in vain. On every occasion he promptly recognized our claims as a religious body…. And acceded unhesitatingly to our just demands..”

What’s interesting, and upon reflection striking, is that, despite the frequent comparisons to Moses, and the proximity to Pesach with which all of these eulogies were delivered, very few Jewish eulogizers praised Lincoln as the emancipator of the slaves. This part of his legacy didn’t, generally speaking, have any special resonance for us. Which points to the simple reality that we, as a community, didn’t make any connections or draw any parallels between the story of the black slaves and our own story. We just didn’t go there.

Even the few eulogizers who did highlight Lincoln’s role as emancipator, did not do so in the context of Egypt and the Exodus. Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise alluded to the teaching of Isaiah , as he exhorted his audience, “let us effect and perpetuate the great desires which heaved in the breast of Abraham Lincoln… Let us break asunder, wherever we can, the chains of the bondsman, the fetters of the slave,” And Rabbi Sabato Morias, of Mikveh Israel of Philadelphia, alluded to the teaching of Hillel in declaring, “To forbear doing unto others what would displease us, was his golden rule. It was this maxim that he illustrated in the immortal document of emancipation that bears his honorable signature.” Isaiah, Hillel – but no citations from the book of Shmot. Even while we were comparing Lincoln to Moshe, and even while we were doing so in the weeks following Pesach. The black slaves themselves made the connection all the time of course, “Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land, Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go.” But we did not.

And in truth, this is all perfectly explicable given our cultural and historical circumstances in 19th century America.. In the south, slavery was a deeply-rooted cultural and economic institution, where Jews relied on slaves no more – but no less – than their Gentile counterparts did. And while Jews in the north, like Gentiles in the north, were anti –slavery, this was not the war was about. The war was about preserving the Union, which for people like us – immigrants from Europe who were living in freedom for the first time – was very very important. And as Jews we were actually disinclined toward the abolitionist cause, as the die- hard abolitionists tended to be Protestant evangelicals whose mission included converting Jews, and – because history is a crazy thing – some of whom were pretty anti-Semitic. And when we did hear our rabbis talk about the slavery, the issue they were often discussing was the politically-tinged question as to whether or not slavery was sinful. And for the record, some argued that it was not. B’nei Jeshurun’s Rabbi Morris Rafall (in New York) for example, after cataloging all of the great Biblical figures who owned slaves, asked, “Does it not strike you, when you declare slavery to be a sin, that you are guilty of something very little short of blasphemy?” The cultural and historical circumstances of the time just didn’t take us to the place where we’d draw a parallel to – or experience empathy with – the situation of the black slaves.

It’s not a judgment. Rather an observation. But it’s an observation that reminds us that we must never rest easy, or be complacent about the level of religious and moral insight we’ve achieved. Our religious and moral insight need to be always be progressing. And we need to possess the openness and courage that this process demands, for there are always higher and more refined insights and realizations to reach. And this too, is part of Lincoln’s legacy. His attitudes toward abolition famously evolved as well. In this way too, he is a hero and a model.


A Miracle: Looking Back After 13 Years, by Yosef Kanefsky

February 5, 2014

“It’s your miracle child!” I hadn’t heard anyone refer to our youngest son that way for a decade or more. But several people did so this past Shabbat, as this youngest son of ours “leined” and shared a Dvar Torah, in celebration of his Bar Mitzvah. Until these friends invoked the “miracle child” phrase, I honestly hadn’t thought about it at all. But quickly, it all came cascading back.

Twenty years ago, about a year after giving birth to our second child, my wife developed breast cancer. Many months of radiation and chemo followed. And then a little bit of anxious quiet. And then cancer again, and surgery and chemo again, a mere 3 years later.

As could be expected, her life, and our life, her plans, and our plans, were deeply affected. The only really important plans now were the plans to get cured, and to not allow fear to overshadow and paralyze our lives and family. Not easy things.

And then, a couple of years later, the “miracle child” came. We named him Yakir Simcha – precious joy – both because this name alluded to a verse from the soon-to-be-read Megillat Esther, and because, well, under the circumstance, this is what he was. In public we didn’t focus at all on Yakir’s place in our story of illness and recovery, and I don’t think that he is himself even conscious of it. But the quiet impact of his birth upon his parents was, as could be expected, quite profound.

And yet, I think it was only this past Shabbat that I realized just how profound. Specifically, at the moment when others lovingly invoked the “miracle child” memory, and it struck me that I had not thought about this at all. I had not thought of it because his birth had transformed us – in one incredibly important way – from being a “cancer family” to being a more regular family – a family that in time stops thinking about the fact that it has a “miracle child”. Yakir had, completely unwittingly of course, erased one of our deep scars, and this ultimately, was the true nature of the miracle.

As I write these words, I am thankful to God all over again, for the healing that He bestowed upon us. And I am also recognizing and reflecting upon the fact that there are many people who have scars that are never erased. That many people suffer traumas from which there is no real recovery. The normalcy they eventually achieve is forever a compromised normalcy, impacted permanently by their illness or loss or misfortune. And it’s often hard for even their close friends to remember, and to realize.

I know I need to work harder on this. I hope I now can.


Is Tolerance in the Orthodox Lexicon? by R. Yosef Kanefsky

January 14, 2014

There is no classical Hebrew word for “tolerance”. The modern Hebrew term is “sovlanut”, but this word never appears with this meaning in rabbinic literature. This isn’t surprising of course, as the contemporary notion of tolerating differing views is born of modern humanist perspectives, and democratic political systems. Our classical literature blossomed long before those concepts were current.

But does this mean that there is no equivalent to tolerance within Orthodox thought and discourse? This question takes on increasing urgency as the practice of publically excoriating and debasing one’s ideological opponents has become de rigueur in Orthodox circles, particularly in the blogosphere. This trend has developed even among those of us who proudly regard ourselves as possessing modern sensibilities. Is there nothing in our tradition that constrains us from mimicking the broader culture’s increasingly intolerant and debasing discourse, in which the invalidation and delegitimization of others is routine?

I’d argue that there is, in fact, a classical Halachic articulation of the imperative to exercise tolerance, one which is listed by Rambam and by Sefer HaChinuch as a Biblical commandment, and which is codified as such in Jewish law. It is recorded immediately following the Biblical Mitzvah to rebuke one’s fellow for misdeeds that the latter has committed (Vayikra 19:17). That same verse concludes with the admonition to “not bear sin on his account”. There are two primary interpretations of this phrase:

(1) Yes, rebuke your fellow, but do not do so in a manner that will result in the sin of humiliating your fellow publically. In the Talmud’s words, “I might think that you should rebuke even in a manner which causes his countenance to redden. Therefore Scripture adds, ‘you shall not bear sin on his account.”

(2) Yes, rebuke you fellow, but do so as an antidote and alternative to hating him. (“Thou shall not hate your brother in your heart” are the Biblical words that immediately precede the Mitzvah to rebuke.) The underlying idea is that if we remain silent about the misdeeds that we perceive in the other, we will slowly, but surely, grow to hate him. Whereas, if we privately address these issues with him, we are far more likely to step off the road toward enmity and hatred. The prevention of hatred is the intended outcome of – and the implicit justification for – the directive to rebuke.

Jews are going to disagree. Orthodox Jews are going to disagree. It is only when we are able to ultimately tolerate one another, i.e. when we are able to disagree and offer rebuke that neither humiliates nor fosters hatred, that we are permitted to speak. If we cannot exercise tolerance, the Biblical permission to rebuke is withdrawn. This is the Halacha.

No one captured the danger and folly of intra-Orthodox vilification and intolerance better than Netziv did, in his introduction to Breishit. Netziv’s understanding of the sin of the generation of the Second Destruction – a generation filled with Torah scholars – is that “they presumed that anyone who differed from their particular way of fearing God, was a heretic or a Sadducee. And as a result [of this intolerance] they came to bloodshed (in a figurative sense) and to all of the evils in the world, until finally the Temple was destroyed.”

The good news, is that together, we can stem this tide. Together, as we read what’s being written out there, and listen to what’s being said out there, we must discriminate between legitimate, crucially important debate, and degrading, debasing, intolerant attacks (not to mention the terribly destructive practice of painting entire groups with broad brushes). And, privately and discreetly, we can rebuke our teachers and friends, who are unquestionably well-meaning and sincere, but who have fallen into the same bad habit as did their predecessors of two millennia ago, and are routinely violating the Torah’s constraints on the Mitzvah of rebuke. We can still save and sanctify our intra-Orthodox discourse, if together we simply draw the line where God drew the line.

The last Mishna in Shas teaches that God identified exactly one vessel that can hold Israel’s blessings, preventing these blessings from all coming to naught. And that vessel is peace. Had the word existed in Mishnaic times, that blessing would have been “savlonut”.


Partnership Minyanim: Let’s Live and Let Live. by R. Yosef Kanefsky

December 24, 2013

I might be wrong, and hope that I am. But I have a growing sense that a full-scale assault on Partnership Minyanim is brewing, the goal of which is to define these Minyanim as being “over the red line”, outside the pale of Orthodoxy. I do understand what might motivate such an effort, and I recognize the religious sincerity and constructive intentions of colleagues who might feel it’s an important thing to do. And at the same time, I am absolutely positive that doing this would constitute a terrible, even tragic mistake. And I would plead that they reconsider.

The reason that it would be a terrible and tragic mistake is that it would have precisely the opposite effect than the one intended. The move to write Partnership Minyanim, and the Orthodox Jews who daven in them, out of Orthodoxy is animated by the desire to prevent a slide toward (non-Halachik) egalitarianism. But the reality is that Partnership Minyanim are precisely the greatest bulwark against exactly that slide.

Contrary to common assumption, people who choose to daven in Partnership Minyanim are not doing so because they are seeking to evade or erode Halacha. They are choosing to daven in Partnership Minyanim davka because they are seeking to live within Halacha. Partnership Minyanim are the one and only way that these Orthodox Jews can simultaneously affirm their commitment to Halacha, and be true to their deeply held ideals concerning the religious dignity of both men and women. The Minyan is a lifeline.

But is the Halachik argument which supports Partnership Minyanim correct? This is the subject of passionate debate, with many Orthodox rabbis having written in opposition to it, and a small number having written in support. When determining our communal policy however, the pertinent question is not whether the halachik argument supporting Partnership Minyanim is correct. It is rather whether the Halachik argument supporting Partnership Minyanim is viable, is defensible. Because this determines whether these Minyanim are a threat to – or a safeguard of – people’s Halachik commitment.

And the answer to the question of Halachik viability is a firm “yes”. The Halachik argument is built upon a viable, defensible reading of the Talmud in Megilla, which in principle includes women among the public readers of the Torah. And it is built upon ample evidence that the concern for the “dignity of the congregation”, on which basis the Talmud rejects the inclusion of women as Torah readers, is a concern that is subject to change. Numerous Halachik sources in a variety of other contexts support the idea that a congregation may decide that its dignity is not compromised, despite the Talmud’s concern. There are, of course, other ways to interpret these sources. But the salient points here are that Partnership Minyanim conform with a viable reading of the Halachik sources, and that they are deliberately and thoughtfully conceived, designed and brought to life within a commitment to the Halachik framework. One may disagree with the interpretation of the sources. But one cannot deny the conscious Orthodox quality of the endeavor.

As such, Partnership Minyanim are clearly serving as the place within the Orthodox tent where people are able to remain faithful both to Halacha and to their commitment to the spiritual and ethical value of equal dignity. Take these Minyanim away, and you create a new and forbidding landscape in which young people raised with these twin passions are left with nowhere in the Orthodox world to turn. And even more tragically these young people will conclude, with justification, that the Orthodox rabbinate knowingly denied and suppressed viable halachik readings in order to bar women from greater participation in Jewish ritual life.

In 1956, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l expressed his opposition to Bat Mitzvah celebrations, and ruled that it is forbidden to mark a Bat Mitzvah in shul. We must count ourselves fortunate that Rav Moshe didn’t go so far as to draw a “red line” and categorize any shul in which a Bat Mitzvah ceremony took place as being “not Orthodox”. It’s hard to imagine the kind of hemorrhaging from Orthodoxy that such a decision would have caused over the ensuing decades.

We all need to be responsible and realistic about the consequences of our actions. The vocal opponents of Partnership Minyanim should of course, for the sake of Heaven, express their opposition, and explain their halachik objections. But I urge with all my soul that they resist the calls to draw a “red line”. Nothing good will come of it, and a huge amount of damage would certainly be done.


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