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.


Reflecting on Reflecting – Rabbi Barry Gelman

March 24, 2014

The only way we can discuss prayer is on the basis of self-reflection, trying to describe what has happened to us in a rare and precious moment of prayer. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; The Insecurity of Freedom: Prayer as Discipline pg. 255)

 

This is the great paradox of prayer. As Rabbi Heschel says a few lines later: “You  cannot, of course, analyze the act of prayer while praying.” Doing so would be to violate the sacred nature of prayer as total immersion (See pg. 255 in the Essay Prayer as Discipline for more on this). On the other hand, we cannot afford not to spend time self-reflecting on our prayer experiences. Like anything else in life, events that we let go by without contemplation, leave little impact on us.

So, we have no choice but to find time after we have prayed to try our best to recollect how we were feeling when we prayed. Maybe this is the companion to Adonai Sifatai Tiftach….” said before we pray. That statement is actually a request for help that we pray with Kavannah.

After we have prayed, we should look back to see if it worked. Was there a particular time during Tefilla that I felt moved? Was there a particular time I felt distracted? How can I duplicate the times i found moved and minimize the distractions?

We should also do this institutionally. if there was a particular teffila that had the community engaged, consider the elements and see if they can be duplicated on a regular basis. And, if there are elements of tefilla that do not engage the people, it may be time to envision a different approach.

Meaningful prayer is so difficult. We can attain success in prayer more often if we take time to reflect on how we pray, what works and what does not.

 


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.”


Some St. Louis History: Bais Abraham Congregation Celebrates 120 years -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

March 7, 2014

 

The Orthodox Jewish community of St. Louis dates back to the early 19th century.  Though it began small, in the 1880’s and 1890’s waves of Orthodox Jews from Russia and Poland emigrated to the United States and to St. Louis.  By the 1940’s there were close to 25 Orthodox synagogues in St. Louis.  These congregations for the most part did not have official Rabbis at their helm and instead were established and led by laity interested in having a place to pray with a minyan.   Eventually many of these developed into full service synagogues with communal events, cemeteries, and holiday and life cycle celebrations.

 

This model of Orthodox community in St. Louis was akin to that in much of Eastern Europe; small synagogues in which to pray, run by knowledgeable and not-so-knowledgeable laity, all under the auspices and direction of the Chief Rabbi of the city.  In the late 19th century the Chief Rabbi, well known for his scholarship and community leadership, was Rabbi Zacharya Yosef Rosenfeld.   Rabbi Rosenfeld was the first Rabbi to, against much opposition, establish an eruv in a large modern city.  

 

Though by the 1960’s most of St. Louis’ still extant Orthodox synagogues had their own rabbis, St. Louis did maintain the position of Chief Orthodox Rabbi and indeed was the last American city to do so.  Several illustrious Rabbis Held the position and Rabbi Sholom Rivkin, St. Louis’ last chief rabbi , passed away only a few years ago.

 

Most of those early Orthodox synagogues are now gone, their members having passed on and their children and grandchildren, due to the relative lack of Jewish education in America in those days, having assimilated or moved to cities with larger observant Jewish populations.  Only a handful of St. Louis’ Orthodox synagogues remain from that era, – the oldest among them Bais Abraham.

 

Bais Abraham Congregation was founded by 25 members in 1894 in downtown St. Louis.  “Bais Abe,” as it is often known, settled in its present location in University City, near Washington University, in 1973, under the leadership of the much-beloved Rabbi Abraham Magence who served as a Rabbi in St. Louis, a mohel and shochet for close to 50 years.

 

Born in Suvalk, Poland to the Av Bais Din of the city, Rabbi Abraham Magence learned in the Grodno Yeshiva with Rabbi Shimon Shkop.  He left the Yeshiva to flee to Russia from the war, where he was imprisoned and tortured by the KGB for teaching Torah to children.  Ultimately Rabbi Abraham Magence was brought to St. Louis by his brother Rabbi Tzvi Magence, author of the Magen Tzvi, a learned work on the holiness of the Land of Israel, a student of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook and Rabbi of a shul in St. Louis, Beis HaMedrash HaGodol.

 

Rabbi Abraham Magence, Rabbi of Bais Abraham for over 30 years, was famous for his outreach to new Russian Jewish immigrants and to Washington University students, for his love of children, for his inclusion of women, and for open-minded relations with all—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—while maintaining the Orthodox character of Bais Abraham.

 

 Ten years ago I was honored to take over from Rabbi Magence and to continue building on this unique community’s glorious heritage.  Today, with G-d’s help and the community’s help, Bais Abraham is an active, dynamic shul with increasing numbers of young couples and families, a strong relationship with nearby WashingtonUniversity students, and a model for other Jewish communities.  Bais Abe is well known for developing new programming and fostering new relations with Jews previously distanced from synagogue life.

 

Bais Abraham Congregation, presently St. Louis’ oldest Orthodox synagogue, is celebrating its 120th anniversary this year.  The thriving congregation, now located in the Delmar Loop at 6910 Delmar Boulevard, will hold a Gala celebration on March 30th, to pay tribute to its long and notable history. 

 

The gala celebration will recognize me and my wife, Sara Winkelman, for our ten years of service to Bais Abraham.  Lay leaders Keren and Gabe Douek will receive a Young Leadership Award.  A native St. Louisan, Gabe and his wife Keren represent the vibrancy of Bais Abraham’s next generation and its second 120 years of growth.   The evening will feature dinner and musical entertainment by acclaimed new Jewish-klezmer-jazz-garage-punk band, Juez.

 

All are invited to celebrate this historic milestone together with the Bais Abraham community. Please see http://www.baisabe.com for more details.

 

 ImageL

Leaders of Bais Abraham in 1973, standing with then chief Rabbi of St. Louis, Rabbi Menachem Eichenstein, author of Shaylot U’Tishuvot Pri Yehoshuah.

 

 


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.


Ark as Metaphor

February 13, 2014

In synagogues the world over Jewish people are reading the Biblical book of Exodus, with its quintessential moment of Jewish history. The Children of Israel, several weeks after their exodus from Egypt, reach Mount Sinai and there receive the two tablets of stone on which is written the ten commandments, followed by the rest of the laws of the Bible, 613 if you count them all. The moment is a powerful one. The Bible describes God descending on the top of the mountain in a “cloud”, speaking to the people of Israel and giving the tablets and the laws of the five books of Moses, the Torah, to the people.

If we pull back from the theophany, the Divine revelation, and view the scene big picture, it involves Moses on the mountain receiving laws to give to the people, and the Divine presence revealed at the top of the mountain. The law below and God above.

Following this episode, God tells Moses of the many intricate laws and instructions for building the tabernacle, a moving Temple the Jews took with them in their 40 year desert trek. The Bible describes how to make it, essentially a large tent with many intricate details, and many vessels which must be made and placed within this tabernacle and the clothing to be worn by the high priest who would bring the offerings in the tabernacle, light the candelabra (menorah) every day and burn incense.

Nachmanides, a renowned medieval Spanish Jewish scholar and biblical commentator asks what the purpose was of this tabernacle, which stayed in the center of the Israelite camp and moved with the people. He answers that it represented a miniature, movable, Mount Sinai; a way of keeping the experience of Divine revelation with the people throughout their desert travel and ultimately in its permanent place where it stood for 1000 years in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount as a more permanent building.

The central piece of equipment that was kept in the Tabernacle was the Ark of the Covenant. Popularised by Hollywood films, this ark stood in the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the tabernacle. The biblical description of this ark is telling. It was a gold box containing the two tablets of the law, above which was a flat gold cover. Two carved gold cherubs with wings emerging from the cover. According to the biblical description God spoke to Moses from above the ark, from between the two cherubs. Thus, the ark itself is truly a miniature rendering of the experience of the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. The law in the form of the two tablets below and God’s presence resting above, just like at the mountain.

Perhaps this tabernacle, with its ark’s Sainiatic resonances, kept with the jewish people for millennia embodies an essential human spiritual message. That God does not just appear to humans. Rather, it is the law, both ritual law and civil law, that facilitates the connection between the human and the Divine. Not transcending the physical but legislating it, forming a just and holy society here on earth, will enable Divine connection and the Divine presence to be attached to us here in the physical universe.


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.                                        


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