We Have Arrived: Orthodox Spiritual Leadership is Gender-Blind. By Yosef Kanefsky

November 3, 2015

Over the past few days, many folks have asked me what I think about the RCA’s latest broadside against Orthodox Female Spiritual Leadership. Especially as the broadside contained several lines directed fairly personally toward me, an RCA member who has hired an inspiring and endlessly creative Maharat graduate as my fellow spiritual leader.  So here’s what I think: This is one of the most gratifying and satisfying moments of my life. A cause that emanates from the very root of my faith, from my passion for Torah and Mitzvot, and from my commitment to truth and to justice, has been acknowledged – however grudgingly –  as being on the cusp of changing the face of the Jewish people.

But I am myself, of course, only the tiniest of cogs in all of this. This is something we have all achieved together. So to all the visionaries who first imagined the possibility of Orthodox women serving as Spiritual Leaders, to all of the women who are preparing themselves for  these positions, to all of the Jews who are supporting these efforts, to all of the rabbis and shul boards who are contemplating hiring female spiritual leaders: Let us all be strong and of good courage. Let us all appreciate the historic moment in which we now live.Let us all recognize that the stammering bluster of the RCA resolution, which seeks to limit rather to expand the number of teachers of Torah, which seeks to reduce rather than to enlarge the pool of people who can respond to Halachik questions, which seeks to minimize rather than to maximize the number of religious role models and leaders that our communities can have, marks the complete abdication of the RCA’s stated mission, “to make Torah great and glorious”. This mission has today been fully transferred to us. Let us work at it tirelessly. Let us be true servants of Torah and of God. Let us be strong and of good courage.

And the Lord God Said, “You’re not about sex”. by Yosef Kanefsky

October 24, 2014

The topic this time is not one I would have chosen, rather one that’s been thrust upon us all: the story of a religious leader who has grossly violated the trust that his community has placed in him, and who has grossly violated the dignity and the sacred humanity of his parishioners.

There are a million different things that could be said here, and you can already find almost all of them in the Jewish blogosphere. One facet that mustn’t ever be lost or overlooked is the humiliation and outrage of the victims. Every community is obliged to be on alert for potential abusers in its midst, and to both be vigilant, and to maintain sound precautionary policies.  (Please see http://www.jewishjournal.com/los_angeles/article/l.a._rabbis_seeking_to_reassure_mikveh_users_of_facilities_privacy )

But there’s another facet of this story that I want to share some thoughts about. And this has to do with the value and importance of our religious commitments. I could blame no one for reacting to this unseemly spectacle by disparaging religion generally, and Orthodox Judaism in particular. Religion generally, for the hypocrisy that regularly percolates to its loftiest levels, and Orthodox Judaism in particular for its halachik policies that potentially place women into the hands of powerful men who might take advantage of them. And in truth, both of these claims must be taken seriously. (I am working now with my colleagues in the IRF to revamp our conversion guidelines so that it is NEVER only men who hold a woman’s conversion fate in their hands. The RCA is doing the same. And it is high time for Orthodox women clergy!) Yet, as crazy as it may sound, I believe that it’s precisely times like these which reaffirm the importance of religion generally, and of one of Orthodoxy’s cultural/halachik norms in particular.
In a naïve-seeming, countercultural way, we religious folks insist that encounters with other human beings need not have, and to the greatest extent humanly possible must not have, a sexual dimension. We instead strive – religiously! – to see and perceive every person as a Divine creation, a creation whose voice God hears, and whose welfare God seeks. And when we take this religious view seriously, we do not see or perceive other human beings as objects to be used (or abused) for our pleasure, and we do not encounter them as sexual beings at all. This is Biblical religion’s great “chiddush” (revolutionary innovation). And our Orthodox “tzniut” norms, which I know we struggle with sometimes (and chuckle at sometimes), are precisely aimed at helping us maintain this quality of human encounter. And anyone who believes that “tzniut” pertains to one gender any more than the other, has entirely turned the whole thing on its head, cynically rendering it a tool of oppression.

Obviously, religious people including Orthodox rabbis, perversely fail at this religious task sometimes, must be held accountable for their crimes when they do, and deserve every ounce of the humiliation they experience when they are caught.  And equally obvious, at least to me, is that the uniquely religious notion that there is an intense human-Divine relationship ,and the uniquely religious behavioral imperative to  “Be Holy, for I God am holy” are our beacons in the darkness.

The Waning Moon of Elul by Yosef Kanefsky

September 15, 2014

A couple of years ago I read an essay entitled The ‘Busy’ Trap written by a fellow named Tim Krieder. Although I hadn’t thought about the essay much since then, it came flooding back to me in a sudden torrent last week, as I watched the moon of Elul wane.

Here’s the essay’s opening paragraph:
If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Yeah, that’s me. That’s probably a lot of us. Crazy busy. And it’s probably not such a good thing. Especially this time of year.

I’ve often thought, that in an ideal world a total stranger would be able to look at our appointment books and our to-do lists, and through these alone understand who we are, and what our life is about. He’d be able to describe our most cherished goals, maybe even catch a glimpse of our deepest dreams. In this ideal world, our daily calendar would be the concrete expression of our life’s vision, and the entries therein would be the pixels which together form a snapshot of our highest aspirations – the contributions we want to make, the impact we want to have, the progeny that we want to be able to offer to the world. But in this world, the one we actually inhabit, this “stranger” experiment wouldn’t work out. I can tell you that were a stranger to have tried this with my appointment book and to-do list this past week, he’d have concluded that my most deeply cherished goal is to replace the burned out fluorescent bulbs in our kitchen fixture, and that my grand personal vision revolves around securing an appointment for a colonoscopy.

There are two reasons for the disparity between what ideally might be, and what is. One is that we are basar v’dam. We are human beings with material needs and material problems that we need to spend time addressing. No less a giant of the spirit than Rambam divided God’s Mitzvot between those which are aimed at developing our moral and spiritual/intellectual selves, and those intended to improve our society’s material conditions. There’s no shame in this. This is the way we were created.

But the other reason that our daily schedules don’t tell the story of who we are and what our life’s vision is, has nothing to do with our flesh-and-blood composition per se. It is rather that we have all become – to one degree or another – crazy busy. We have, usually out of sheer necessity, surrendered to the un-time bound nature of modern-day work. And it now fills out our daily calendar wall-to-wall. It’s not that work isn’t meaningful. It should be, and hopefully is. But as we’re all keenly aware, work cannot all by itself constitute the story of a life. Work cannot all by itself comprise a vision for our short time here on this planet. You and I alike have experienced that dreadful feeling of running through life at break-neck speed, but without a firm handle on where we’re going, or what we really want to achieve. To borrow Moshe’s image from last week’s parasha, we often feel like the fully-sighted person who is “groping around beneath the noontime sun, as a blind person gropes in the darkness”.

And it might even be even a little worse than just that. At the end of his essay, Kreider alleges that as a society we’ve not only allowed busy-ness to steamroll our living with vision, we’ve actually adopted busy-ness in place of living with vision. He describes “Busyness” as serving “as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously our lives cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if we are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day”. This is a rather pointed allegation, taking “groping in the light” to a whole other level. Of course it may be that he was referring to other people here, and that this isn’t true for us. Or maybe, it’s a little bit true for us too.

The moon of Elul is already waning. And what the waning Elul moon means for us is that the time has come, today, right now, to step out of our Busyness, and to reacquaint ourselves with our personal vision. To ask, “what is my story? Where am I going? How can I find my way back to those things, the mere thought of which causes my heart to pulsate and my soul to vibrate? What are my dreams? What is my vision?

It’s that time of year again. The moon of Elul is waning.

There’s Enough Room in the Heart. by Yosef Kanefsky

August 4, 2014

I know it’s an absurd question.  So I’ll only entertain it for a moment.

The eighth verse of Eicha (Lamentations) simply and plainly states that the Jews of Judea were themselves responsible for the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile from the land.  “Jerusalem sinned grievously, and therefore became an abandoned outcast”. This assertion is central to the theology and religious worldview of Eicha, and is consistent with the predictions and pleadings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and virtually all of Israel’s prophets.

Nonetheless, despite this clear assignment of blame and responsibility, despite the assertion that the military defeat was justified in spiritual and moral terms, the book immediately proceeds to mourn over the loss of all the children who were caught up in the war. “For these I weep, my eyes run down with water. My children are lost, for the enemy has triumphed.”

On then, to the absurd question:  Why does the book mourn? Isn’t this sort of mourning misguided and wrong? Doesn’t it reflect ignorance and willful disregard for the larger moral narrative? Isn’t it an expression of a dangerous – even threatening – emotional softness, when what it required is a hard, unflinching focus on the right-and-wrong of the story?

I know. It’s an absurd question. It’s an absurd question because the death of children, no matter how it happens, is a profound tragedy.  Woe for the horrible waste of it. The undeserved suffering. The loss of innocence and beauty. What heart is there that can look the other way?  The book of Eicha reflects what we all know. That no matter how compelling or morally weighty the explanation for it may be, the death of children is still heart-wrenching.

Each one of us has privately quietly mourned, after seeing the pictures and reading the stories of children who have died in Gaza. We have mourned because we are humans, and because we are Jews. And we have mourned thus, despite our knowledge that the blame and responsibility for these deaths lie squarely with the enemy, an enemy which holds children on its own lap while it fires at ours. We have mourned, because this knowledge does not make the outcome less tragic.

But while we have mourned in our hearts, we have been afraid of admitting to others that we have done so. We tend to feel that we mustn’t say it out loud. That we mustn’t include Gazan children in our public prayers for Divine protection.  Because we think that this would be perceived as a betrayal of our people, a betrayal of our selfless and courageous soldiers.  While in reality of course, such a failure to mourn would only be a betrayal of our own souls, of our deepest nature.

Each one of us is mourning the loss of every precious fallen chayal. Which of us could not see his own child in the sweet face of Hadar Goldin, or in the smile of Yuval Dagan? And we have, all of us together, just now completed the shloshim for Naftali and Gilad and Ayal. And the mourning for our own will always be more profound and more wrenching than the mourning for the other. But chevre, let us not be afraid to say publically that we also mourn for the dead children of Gaza. Because what kind of Jewish heart would not? What kind of Jewish nation could not?

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
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.


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?


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