Guest Post by Rav Ysoscher Katz: A Response to Rav Herschel Schachter shlita

February 12, 2014

Guest Post by Rav Ysoscher Katz: A Response to Rav Herschel Schachter shlita

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is chair of the Department of Talmud at YCT Rabbinical School. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for over ten years. A graduate of the HaSha’ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz has taught at the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School.  He was a leading teacher of a daf yomi class in Boro Park for over eight years.

R. Herschel Schachter recently published an essay on partnership minyanim, here is Rabbi Katz’s response. An English version is forthcoming.                                        


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.


Different Roles-by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 29, 2014

I came across THIS ARTICLE by Rabbi Avi Shafran, my old 10th grade Rebbe.  There is a lot he writes in the public arena that I do not agree with, but this one I really did.  I articulated a similar notion in my post in this blog about Maharats HERE.  Indeed when our Maharat here at Bais Abraham asked me if she was expected to go to the weekday Schacharit minyan, I told her that of course she could but it was not expected, and perhaps she would like praying at home better and spending the time with her young children or learning.  

 

Men and women have different halachic obligations and as Orthodox Jews we believe that men and women are different.  Because the genders bring very different voices and points of view to the table is precisely why we must empower women to be Jewish leaders, to be learned, but we must take care not to push them to be the same as men.  This could send  observant Judaism down a dangerous path of erasing the distinctions between the genders, much as has happened in some more liberal Jewish movements.  Ultimately such a path does not honor women and their leadership, their power, and uniqueness nor does it honor men’s, but rather takes something precious away and creates fewer opportunities for both genders to bring their strengths to the community.  


Raising Consciousness about the Agunah Crisis -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 28, 2014

This past Sunday  our congregation, Bais Abraham in St. Louis, Missouri, hosted a post-nup signing event with the aim of prompting the whole shul and much of the community to sign the RCA post-nup and to raise consciousness for the plight of Agunot, women chained in a marriage by a recalcitrant husband who refuses to grant them a religious divorce.  The event was co-sponsored by two other local Orthodox synagogues, Young Israel of St. Louis and Nusach Hari B’nai Zion.   Rabbi Yonah Reiss, the new head of the Beit Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council spoke at the event followed by a mass post-nup signing and a party. I think as shuls and communities host more and more public post-nup signings the entire Orthodox community will follow suit and this will serve as a bulwark against get recalcitrance.  Chazal, the Rabbis of the Talmud, instituted the Kitubah precisely to protect women financially, emotionally and physically in case of divorce.  If they lived today they would be standing with us and requiring all Rabbis to ensure every couple has a pre or post nuptual agreement.   HERE is a link to some of the press.


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”.


Of Fish Tacos and Otherness –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 3, 2014

I grew up in the 1970’s in one of the only Orthodox Jewish families in a small Connecticut town.  I did not know then that kosher keeping Jews could eat in a restaurant.  I never had eaten in one and the thought of doing so did not even cross my mind.   Once a year we would make the three hour drive to Manhattan where there were, I think three or four kosher restaurants.

 

I was recently in Los Angeles walking along Pico Boulevard near Robertson where almost every restaurant, perhaps 20 or so, is kosher.  Sitting in one of the LA kosher Chinese restaurants as my company critically evaluated the food, I remembered myself as a child eating my once-a-year lunch at Moshe Peking, eating such “exotic” food, and thinking, this must be the best food in the entire world, how lucky am I, how lucky are the Jewish people to have such a gift, a fancy restaurant to eat at in New York City. 

 

Fast forward to last week, eating fish tacos on MalibuBeach where the only restaurant, and indeed prominently located across from the Malibu Pier, is kosher.  One would not have known if they did not look for the hashgacho, the kosher supervision symbol, that it was kosher, and no doubt the many non-Jewish Asian tourists eating there did not. 

 

It seems in 40 years the relationship of Jews to restaurants has revolved 180 degrees.   To sit in one of the few kosher restaurants in the 1970’s was to feel that one had been given a perhaps all too indulgent gift, taken a bit of the non-Jew’s ambrosia.  Now the restaurant itself is Jewish and it is the non-Jew who must enter our domain if they wish to have the most trendy food on the trendiest beach. 

 

Perhaps there is a danger in this, the Jew riding at the crest of the popular wave, the Jew becoming the measure of society instead of the outcast who is allowed periodically to feel a bit like everyman when eating out.  Perhaps suddenly, the other has become everyman, the outsider can now feel not only like the insider but like the measure of all things.  I wonder how this might take its toll on what it means to be a Jew in exile, on what it means to be a Jew at all. 

 

Perhaps the greatest irony is in that our rabbis created certain food laws to keep the Jew separate from the non-Jew, for instance not eating their cooking or their bread and so making it more difficult to socialize with them, in their world.  Never did they imagine that those boundaries would erode due to the non-Jew eating the cooking of the Jew, that the Jew would become the measure of society at large, or at least of the trendy fish taco joint in the most prime location on Malibu beach.  


All Rabbinics Is Local – Rabbi Barry Gelman

December 30, 2013

The most basic question is – who is a real leader? And the pertinent question for our generation is: are the rabbis, the contemporary leaders of Jewry, truly the leaders of this generation?

This quote, from this article by Rav Adin Steinsaltz reminded me of a conversation I was involved with a few years ago at a meeting of the Houston Rabbinical Association.

An internationally known, media savvy Rabbi spent a 1/2 hour telling a group of 20 or so communal Rabbis that focusing our attention on communal needs (visiting the sick, kashrut, Torah classes, counseling etc.) was not the best use of our time. Really what we should be focusing on is how we could be impacting the general community. If only we could show the world that Judaism had a universal message, we would be successful.

While Rav Steinsaltz’s article is more far reaching, there is a connection between his search for a “head” and the role of community Rabbis.

Rabbi Steinsaltz relates this touching episode in his article.

My sandak, Rabbi Avraham Chen, wrote a very emotional book about his father, Rabbi David Zvi Chen, who was a great man in many ways and the rabbi of Chernigov, in the Ukraine. In this book he relates how a young man came to his father to register for marriage. While formally examining his documents, Rabbi Chen discovered that the young man, who was also a Torah scholar, was actually a mamzer. There was not a shadow of a doubt in his mind that this man was indeed a mamzer. It was not even a question. He held the papers in his hand, and the young man, who realized that something was amiss, asked: “Rabbi, what about my match?” and the Rabbi said: “It cannot be.” The young man said: “I understand that there is a reason why this match cannot work, so what do you suggest I do?” At that point the rabbi had to reveal to him that the match could not be, not because the specific bride was unworthy of him, but because, being a mamzer, he could not marry at all. At this point, the son discloses that eventually he found the young man sitting in the rabbi’s lap and both were weeping.

 

Local Rabbis are the ones who know about the personal challenges of community members. Community Rabbis understand family dynamics and relationships precisely because of the time spent locally as opposed to on the road. Community Rabbis are the ones who can sincerely cry with their members.

This is one of the challenges of a centralized Rabbinate/Rabbinic authority. Local Rabbis are best suited to establish local halachik practice. All too often communities look for what “other communities” are doing, without considering that what they do may not be best for their community. Lay leaders should encourage Rabbis to lead locally by first and foremost focusing on what is really needed for religious growth within their community.

While this approach may not help identifying “The” head – that Rav Steinsaltz is looking for, it does remind us that if we are to have any hope of meaningful rabbinic leadership that Rabbis and community members should focus on local needs.  Neither Rabbis or community members should judge success by how they “play” in the media, but by how well they address local religious and pastoral needs.


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.


Making sense of our world –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 12, 2013

We have just finished reading the story of Joseph and his brothers.  In it Joseph’s brothers experience confusion, despondency, and powerlessness as their brother secretively manipulates them, falsely accusing them of being spies and thieves.  One can imagine being in their shoes and asking: Why?  Why are all these terrible things happening?  Ultimately their worst nightmare comes true, Joseph threatens to take Benjamin hostage. 

 

We, the readers, see both sides of the story.   We see Yosef pulling the strings orchestrating the entire situation.  But for the brothers, for the Jewish people of the time, it is one inexplicable tragedy after another.   They search their deeds and ask: Why is this happening to us?  They blame themselves.  Ultimately they engage in self scrutiny, in repentance, in self sacrifice and as people and Jews development themselves from those who sold their brother to those to suffer to save a brother.

 

With one climactic sentence all the times of pain and confusion collapse into focus:  “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive?”   This might not remove all the pain, the suffering, the confusion, and the self blame, but it does, in one fell swoop, make sense of the seemingly nonsensical series of episodes through which they have lived and suffered.  

 

The Rabbis tell us that Yosef and his brothers go down to Egypt to, “pave the way” for the Jewish people’s exile and ultimate redemption; an exile of much darkness and confusion ultimately culminating in exodus, and perhaps, in hindsight, making some meaning of the years of darkness.  Perhaps this is one reason the story of Yosef and his brothers is told just before the exile and redemption of the Jewish people, for in it the Jewish people are like Joseph’s brothers.

 

This all feels a lot like our world.   We are Yosef’s brothers too.  We live lives that are anything but simple and clear, anything but controllable.  Perhaps the lesson is to have hope and faith that ultimately those six words will be spoken, “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive,” and things will come into focus, things will make sense.  And through it all not to give in but to utilize the experience as a catalyst for self reflection, and as the brothers and especially Yehudah do, for personal, interpersonal, and religious growth.   If we find meaning in the darkness and care for others in it then perhaps we can avoid the strife that led the brothers down to Egypt in the first place.  Though redemption is not a solution or an erasing of the exilic past, perhaps it is a making of meaning from the past, and ultimately, through it, we can hear, speedily in our days, the six words of explanation that bring all into focus: “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive?”

 

 


Concentric Circles of Victims

December 10, 2013

In 2010, my teachers, Rabbis Nati Helfgot, Yitzchak Blau, and Aryeh Klapper, drafted a “Statement of Principles” on the place of homosexuals in the Orthodox community. The statement was signed and endorsed by dozens of Orthodox rabbis, mental health professionals, and educators. The document was carefully drafted, edited, and revised before publication, and the success of this consensus document can be seen in the list of contributors. The list includes many names of Liberal Orthodoxy’s “usual suspects” but also quite a few names of individuals with significant reputations within the Centrist Orthodox establishment. At the same time, the list generated a fair amount of controversy, even inspiring a reactionary “counter-statement,” which suggests that the statement was sufficiently significant to generate controversy. 

In my recollection, the most controversial element of the Statement of Principles was paragraph 7 which reads:

“Jews struggling to live their lives in accordance with halakhic values need and deserve our support. Accordingly, we believe that the decision as to whether to be open about one’s sexual orientation should be left to such individuals, who should consider their own needs and those of the community. We are opposed on ethical and moral grounds to both the “outing” of individuals who want to remain private and to coercing those who desire to be open about their orientation to keep it hidden.”

Some of the critics of the Statement of Principles argued, as I recall, that a benign regime of “don’t ask, don’t tell” could enable gay Jews to join our communities with subtly, but that openly gay Jews should not be integrated into our communities, shuls, and schools.

The New York Times published an op-ed this past Sunday that provides some quantitative support to the assertion of the Statement of Principles that encouraging individuals to be open about their identity and orientation is a positive step for Orthodoxy. 

The article by Seth Stephens Davidowitz cites research showing that while the number of openly gay men is greater in regions of the country with greater acceptance of homosexuality, relevant Google searches suggest that the percentage of the population that is homosexual is common among the fifty states (about 5%). The element of Davidowtiz’s article, however, that was most evocative for me was the description of the different Google searches in different parts of the country:

“In the United States, of all Google Searches that begin “Is my husband…,” the most common word to follow is “gay.”  “Gay” is 10 percent more common in such word searches than the second-place word, ‘cheating.’ It is 8 times more common than “an alcoholic” and 10 times more common than “depressed.”  Searches questioning a husband’s sexuality are far more common in the least tolerant states.”

When individuals are pressured, by their community, to treat core elements of their identity as a shameful secret, the circle of suffering expands, claiming new victims.

 


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