Innovation in Halacha – Rabbi Barry Gelman

November 3, 2009

Our tag line – Morethodoxy: Exploring the Breadth Depth and Passion Of Orthodox Judaism means different things to different people. For me, it is a call to educate the Morethodox public, and others, about the fundamental ideas of Modern Orthodox Judaism. One of the foundations of Modern Orthodoxy is that the Torah does not have a limited warranty. The reform movement essentially clams that the rituals of the Torah does not speak to the modern Jew and are unnecessary to live a full Jewish life. On the other hand, certain segments of the Orthodox community believe that (or act as if) when it comes to ritual and practical halacha there is no room for the Torah to expand to incorporate modern sensibilities and concerns. Read the rest of this entry »


Appreciating the P’sak of Rav Elyashiv, sh”lita, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

October 6, 2009

There has been a lot of misguided criticism of the “anti-Croc” p’sak of Rav Elyashiv two weeks ago before Yom HaKipurim, when the great Ashkenazic sage and halachik authority suggested that people not wear comfortable Croc shoes on Yom Kippur, even though they are not leather a do not violate the letter of the law – the prohibition of wearing leather shoes. Some on the left and even in the right might view this negatively as part of the “chumra of the month” club. But if they do, they are missing out on two important aspects of Rav Elyashiv’s p’sak, which give important direction to all Jews, and certainly for passionately committed Morethodox Jews.
First, Rav Elyashiv was careful to distinguish between the halacha itself, which allowed any non-leather shoes, even comfortable ones like Crocs, and his personal opinion, his “gut” feeling, as it were, that it was in keeping with the atmosphere of Yom Kippur which is about being a little less comfortable – and fancy and trendy, I may add – than usual. Frankly, the subtlety of Rav Elyashiv’s p’sak is rarely seen in Centrist Orthodox or even in Modern Orthodox p’sak, where everything that is prohibited has to be a Torah violation, or a rabbinic decree going back 2000 years. Rav Elyashiv evinces confidence – reminiscent of Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l – that he can suggest something without needing to back it up from Sinai.
Second, Rav Elyashiv is willing to break from the status quo. He is willing to be creative – though it is to be machmir, to restrict, in this case – and to think outside the box. Just because we have always focused on whether a shoe is leather or not, doesn’t mean that that is the only criterion to think about on Yom Kippur. This is refreshing creativity that I believe appears frequently in chareidi p’sak. Again, it is usually used to restrict, and sometimes in an almost cruel manner as in the case of retroactively nullifying a get – a divorce – that the court granted, however, at least a great Torah sage is willing to say something new, something unheard of in a previous generation. That should be a hallmark of the halachik process, and it means all the more coming from a frum posek, and a revered chareidi leader such as Rav Elyashiv, sh’lita.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Rav Elyashiv realizes that Yom Hakippurim, as any holiday or halachik practice, needs to be meaningful. The restriction on wearing leather needs to mean something: and in Rav Elyashiv’s opinon, wearing comfortable, cool shoes which many people prefer to leather shoes anyway, takes away from the meaning of Yom Hakippurim – to afflict your selves (nafshoteichem). Morethodoxy needs to learn from Rav Elyashiv and be on the forefront of reading Torah and halacha in a way that gives meaning to Jewish practice, rather than turning it into an ossified, bizarre tradition. For Rav Elyashiv, afflicting yourselves, and not wearing leather shoes, is a living tradition – part of the Living Covenant that Rabbi David Hartman writes about so eloquently.
Not that Rav Elyashiv, sh’lita, needs my approval, but I hope someone tells him that somewhere in galus, in the city that didn’t get the Olympics, is a Morethodox rabbi who is inspired by his p’sak, a rabbi who wore uncomfortable canvas shoes all of Yom Hakippurim.
May we continue to be inspired by our great leaders to continue to see the meaning, creativity and relevance of the Torah and Mitzvot that God gave us.


Man In Search Of Heschel – Rabbi Barry Gelman

August 18, 2009

If you understand the title of this post you are ahead of the game.

I wonder why the Modern Orthodox community does pay more attention to and study the works of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Aside from his book The Sabbath, much of his work goes unnoticed and certainly unstudied in our community.

Rabbi Heschel wrote and spoke about so many of the challenges of religion in a free society. He concentrated the need and difficulty of balancing the regularity of Jewish religious practice with spontaneity, referring to these to contrary principles as kevah and kavanah, the religious ideal of living a life of, what he called, “wonder” and “radical amazement” by never taking God’s world for granted and fundamental importance of Halacha as an ingredient of the life of a spiritually healthy Jew.

While many are familiar with Rabi Heschel as the rabbi who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma Alabama, many are unaware his focus on Halacha. I sometimes wonder if the popularity of the picture of Rabbi Heschel with King in Selma has diminished focus on the other aspects of his career.

Part of the reason why Heschel goes unnoticed in the Orthodox community is because he spent most of his career at the Jewish Theological Seminary – the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism. As such he is deemed “treif” by large segments of our community. To my mind this is a terrible shame and we continue to ignore his writings and teachings to our own peril. We should be teaching Heschel in our schools and in our shuls. Read the rest of this entry »


Taking a Critical View at Modern Orthodoxy, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

August 3, 2009

Rabbi Asher Lopatin calls for Modern Orthodoxy to embrace Torah halachic rigor and fidelity to tradition as the third pillar of contemporary Orthodox Judaism.

Friends,

A few weeks ago I started outlining what I see as five pillars of contemporary Orthodox Judaism. I am not trying to displace the Maimonidian 13 principles of faith, nor the four principles of Rav Yosef Albo. I’m just trying to point out what I think are the key ingredients in being an Orthodox Jew today – and in maintaining our way of life for the future. The past few weeks have been particularly difficult, at least in the media, for our Chareidi brothers and sisters, and I have certainly done my share to point out the challenges I believe they face in working to sanctify God’s name. However, we Morethodox Jews have to look inwards as well, and I think the third pillar of Orthodoxy might serve also as a critique of Modern Orthodox Jews – at least in the way we normally see ourselves. The other two principles, Torah from Sinai and Innovation (Chiddush) from Sinai, are great rallying cries for Modern Orthodoxy. But now #3:

Intellectual and halachic rigor and discipline: When we closely observe our detailed laws of Kashrut, of davening, coming to minyan and making sure there is a minyan in our communities, of kavana (concentration, focus) in our davening , of the Shabbat, as it is expressed in its myriad of rituals and ethical aspects, of family purity in its own ritual and social aspects, the laws of gossiping and loving our fellow Jews and respecting our fellow human beings, then we become the vessels through which Torah can be interpreted and even rethought. The Netziv puts it in terms of the two words: “Lishmor ve’la’asot” – from Parshat Va’etchanan: We need to first be the preservers of the Torah and practice we inherit from the previous generation, then we can move on to relooking at everything with fresh, innovative eyes, and understand Torah for our generation. When we are preservers of Torah and Torah practice, then we become safe space for God’s infinite word – we become the rightful heirs of the tradition which we are obliged to re-examine for ourselves. Only through this rigor and commitment to Halacha, minhag (custom) and tradition can our lives reflect the living Torah which God gave us at Sinai.

Do we as Modern Orthodox Jews have this religious rigor in our lives? Do we have the passion? I think we see it in the Chareidi and Yeshivish world, but we need to see it in our world. MOREthodox – we have to be the one that are not only innovative, creative and responsive to our generation’s needs, we also have to be the ones that people can look to for all the strength that has come down to us from Moshe and Sinai.

I know that is an area that I work on, and perhaps in Israel our Modern Orthodox brothers and sisters do it better. But we have to make sure that Modern Orthodoxy is not lazy Orthodoxy. If it is, we will lose our right to be the innovators of Torah and we will lose our right to redefine what a Torah Jew is in 2009.

Let’s go to work!

Asher Lopatin


The Voice of Women-The Importance of Leniency and the Leniencies that come from being Strict -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 31, 2009

Yesterday someone asked me why women on the women’s side in my Shul sing-along with the congregation whereas at the previous synagogue the person had attended the women had not been permitted to sing.  I explained that even though the Talmud says the voice of the woman is considered sexual, within Jewish law there are opinions that in holy places and in holy instances it is permitted.  For instance Rabbi Ovadiyah Yosef and and others who at times permit the voice of a woman in a religious context, do this based on the gemara that states that women can read the torah in the synagogue and receive aliyot and the gemarah does not see this as a violation of the halacha (the Jewish law) of hearing the voice of a woman singing (Talmud Bavli Megilah 23a).  Thus I explained that to take the strict approach would actually produce a leniency.  To be strict about not letting the women sing would be to be lenient about women’s involvement in prayer and their full participation in the congregation’s service of the heart, which according to the Mishna women are equally obligated in just as men.

This reminds me of the famous story of Rabbi Chaim of Brisk.  One Yom Kippur, there was a cholera epidemic in the city of Brisk.  After Kol Nidre Rabbi Chaim made kiddush and ate and made everyone else in the Shul eat.  Afterwards people asked him, wasn’t he being more lenient about the laws of Yom Kippur than the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) allows?  The Shulchan Aruch writes that one may only eat on Yom Kippur if their life is endangered, but no one yet had contracted cholera?  Rabbi Chaim answered, “I am not being lenient about the laws of Yom Kippur, but on the contrary I am being strict about the laws of guarding one’s life.

It is important for us to realize that the power of leniency, as the Gemara says, is very strong.  In fact, in almost every argument between Bais Shami and Bais Hillel, Hillel is more lenient and the law is like him.  Wouldn’t it be better, “more religious,” to be strict about Jewish law?   Yet we follow the more lenient opinion of Bais Hillel and in the several situations in which Shami is more lenient we follow Shami.  Perhaps the power of leniency is greater than the power of strictness.

There are times when we should be strict in hlacha.  But to think that we should always be strict, that this is better and more religious, is a mistake that many in our community make, I imagine out of ignorance.  They also do not realize that the other side of the coin of every strictness is another leniency, a leniency which might be inappropriate, a leniency that might distance us from God and Torah.  According to the Talmud Hillel knew more than Shami, Hillel knew his opinion and that of his opponent.  The same is often true today, those that are able to be lenient may in fact know more about halacha than those who are always strict, as the Gemara says, “kocha d’hetera adifa” the power of leniency is greater.


Bridging Religious and Secular Jewish Life in Israel -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 24, 2009

What Tzohar is doing to engage non-observant Israeli Jews and is there such a thing as Religious Zionist P’sak (jewish legal decisions)

I spent the past week in Israel at a meeting of Tzohar Rabbis.  Tzohar is an organization of several hundred rabbis, mostly Israeli, who want to create a “window between worlds,” -between the world of religious and non-religious Jews in Israel which right now is more of a wall.  Unfortunately not only has living in a Jewish country not led to residents finding a place for themselves in torah (or finding a place for torah in themselves), but it has alienated many from the torah.

It is not easy for an American, who takes freedom of religion, the right to self determine what my religious life will look like and to pursue it in a personal way, for granted, but it is hard to imagine the government making religious demands of me or regulating how my religious life must look.  If it did we can imagine how that religious life would not only become subsumed within the political arena but how working on a uniquely personal relationship with God could be difficult and perhaps become beside the point.

An interesting approach to Judaism and halacha (Jewish law) emerges when one sees their Jewish responsibility and the halchic decisions they make as pertaining not only to themselves, their family and their religious community, but to the entire Jewish country, religious and not-religious, as well.   Since the place in which religion meets the average secular Israeli is within life cycle events and things that define Jewish identity in the eyes of the state, Tzohar has begun with these.  Instead of a wedding or funeral being, in the eyes of secular Israelis, only about the government’s requirements and the Rabbanut’s procedures, Tzohar has tried to help make life cycle events more than just bureaucratic for the public but to facilitate bringing personal religious meaning and understanding to events such as weddings and funerals.

This focus on the whole Jewish people also demands a special approach to pesak (Jewish legal decisions).  This was well summed up by a festinating statement of Rabbi Yuval Cherlow and highlighted well the difference in approach and outlook between the rabbis of Tzohar and other more insular rabbis who see only their own community as the purview of their religious decisions.  The question under discussion was to what extent the utilization of lenient positions within halacha over strict positions should play a role in halachic decisions, and as related to this the meaning of the Talmud’s statement kocha d’hetera adifa (the power of leniency is stronger).

Outside of Israel rabbis may find themselves leaning toward a more lenient position when the repercussions of a more strict position will compromise the welfare of the asker or their spiritual life.   For instance in a question of nida (the forbidden nature of sexual contact after menstruation and before mikvah waters) if one can be lenient and not keep husband and wife from postponing the mitzvah of sexual union, many rabbis will try  to rely on a more lenient position rather than finding one that is strict.

In Israel the need to make halacha a part of the lived life of a whole country makes such lenient approaches even more pressing.  For instance explained Rabbi Cherlow, if a leniency is not utilized (which apparently some rabbis are not willing to do) enabling the police to fully do their jobs on the Shabbat, for instance taking fingerprints on the Shabbat then in a Jewish country where the police are all Jews, criminals will run free.

It is not enough to tell religious Jewish police to refrain from taking fingerprints in Israel we must take into account all Jews even those that are not religious.    The torah must thus be accessible to the entire Jewish nation.   In this sense indeed we must say, as I’m sure Bais Hillel would agree, kocha d’hetera adifa-the power of leniency is greater.


A Profound Disagreement on How to Live Jewish Lives –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 17, 2009

The Mishna in Berachot (53b) states: “With regard to one who ate a meal and forgot to say the bircat hamazon (grace after meals), Bais Shamai says they must return to their place and say the grace, Bais Hillel says they should say grace in the place they are when they remember.”

The Talmud on this Mishna comments: “We learned in a Berita (an uncannonized Mishna), Bais Hillel said to Bais Shamai, “According to your opinion, if one ate on top of a hill, are you saying they would have to climb back up to recite the grace after meals?”  Replied Bais Shamai to Bais Hillel, “If someone forgot their wallet on top of a hill would they not climb back up for it?  If one would return up the hill for their own honor, for the honor of heaven how much more so should they.”

This is an interesting and surprising argument between Bais Shamai and Bais Hillel.   Isn’t Bais Shamai right?  If we would go back up the hill for ourselves, should we not return to say the grace after meals for God?  What is Bais Hillel’s reason for disagreeing with Bais Shami’s opinion?

The following piece of Talmud (Betza 15a) may shed some light: “They say about Shami the elder that all his days he would eat in honor of the Shabbat.  If he found a nice animal one day he would say, “This one is to eat for Shabbat.” The next day if he found another one that was better than the first he would put aside the second one to save for Shabbat and eat the first animal.  But Hillel the elder had a different path, all of his deeds were for the sake of heaven, as it says in the verse, “Bless god each day.”

Though Hillel and Shami were both great sages they had very different takes on how to live a Jewish life.  To elucidate I will rewrite the preceding two arguments in the form of a conversation.

Bais Hillel: You can bench (say grace after meals) wherever you remember.

Bais Shami: No, you must bench where you ate.

BH: That may be better, but I’m sure you don’t really believe that, for, what if someone ate on a hilltop, surely you would not ask the person to schlep back up the mountain to bench?

BS: Wouldn’t you do that for your wallet?   So certainly you should for God’s honor; to bench!

BH: Who says this is about honoring God by schlepping?  Maybe we honor God by benching well, not after sweating up a mountain (with Yiddish accent)!

BS: Eating is very physical, Shabbat is holy, let us use the holiness of Shabbat to sanctify even the weekday meal.

BH: God is right here, everywhere, in every step, in every meal, not just on Shabbat and not just back up on the mountain top.  God must be an inherent part of our everyday lives!

BS: It’s better to go back up the mountain to bench….

BH: No, it’s better to let people bench and have some kavanah and not hock them to climb back up a hill…

BS: Climbing back up a hill is a great religious act since it enables one to bench in the best way.  Shouldn’t we make that sacrifice for a mitzvah?

BH: No, benching is a great religious act since by it we thank God for our food.  Yom Kippur for instance or giving up one’s life for the sanctification of God’s name, these are acts of sacrifice, benching though is thanking god for our everyday food in our everyday, real lives.  God is already a part of that.   Its what benching is.

BS: We fundamentally see religion and the way in which it can effect life differently, don’t we?

BH: Yes we do, at least we agree about that.

Both opinions are the word of the Living God, but the halacha (the law, the path) follows Bais Hillel, (Aruvin 13b).


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