Progress to Redemption by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 20, 2017

This Shabbat we begin the second book of the Torah in which we read about the enslavement in Egypt and the subsequent redemption process. On Passover we drink 4 cups of wine to symbolize the four steps of redemption mentioned here. I will take you out, I will save you, I will take you culturally out of Egypt, and I will redeem you. Some even say there’s a 5th cup – and I will bring you to the land of Israel.  

The question is asked why 4 cups of wine to represent the four steps of redemption? Why not four matzos or four pieces of meat?  Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin explains that this was a process the Jews had to go through in order not just to be taken out of Egypt but to actually change from being slaves to becoming to Jewish people.  
Wine is like that. It is a progression. We drink one cup and we feel it a little bit, we drink a 2nd cup and we feel it more and more. it builds on itself and takes us from one place to another if done correctly. 
The point is an important one – that change and redemption does not happen in the blink of an eye, it happens rather through a process. Human beings don’t change easily but they can change. Each of us is more flexible than we realize, though often we are afraid of change.  
And so part of the message of these parshiot and the redemption from Egypt is that God is there with us to help us and that there is a process to undergo. Positive change doesn’t just happen overnight. So too with our own spiritual lives. we have to engage in the process, we have to cry out to God to begin the process, but then God will help us. What process can we begin this Shabbat to help us to progress toward becoming more morally and spiritually developed human beings and Jews?


Parshat Vayeshev – Being a Tzadik, by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 20, 2016

Murillo_Josephandhisbrothers.jpg

This week’s Torah portion, Va’yeshev, begins by describing the relationship between Joseph and his brothers when Joseph was 17 years old. The Torah tells us that when Joseph was tending sheep with his brothers “…Joseph brought slander about them to his father. Israel loved Joseph more of all the brothers….and they (his brothers) were unable to speak with Joseph peacefully…” Certainly everyone, no matter how righteous, sins at times. But why does the Torah specifically tell us this sin of Joseph’s, that he spoke badly of his brothers to his father? In addition, how could he, Joseph the Tzadik, the righteous one, be guilty of such a crime?
Some commentaries justify Joseph’s actions, proposing that perhaps he saw evil in his brothers and meant to tell their father in order that Jacob would discipline them. Some also judge the brothers favorably explaining that what Joseph saw was not what was actually happening. Still others (the Seforno) blame Jacob for his bad parenting in favoring Joseph over his other children and thereby causing hated among them.
The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, does not apologize for Joseph’s, or his brother’s, or their father’s actions. He says that indeed Joseph was guilty of the sin of slander and that this is the reason he must descend to Egypt. Latter he will become Joseph the Tzazadik, Joseph the Righteous. The job of the tzadik, the righteous Jewish leader, says the Sefat Emet, is to take the good deeds of the Jewish people and bring them before G-d, ignoring the people’s evil deeds. Joseph needed to learn this in order to create unity among his people. This is the lesson he learns in Egypt through the trials and travails, the tests and his time in prison. Only after the experience of Egypt is he complete and ready to be Joseph the Tzadik.

What adversity and what sins do we need to navigate in order to become the tzadikim that can help to facilitate the true end goal of Jewish unity?


Make America Civil Again by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 9, 2016
Clinton, Trump pick up big wins

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are tightening their grips on the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.

One of my congregants watched the presidential debates with their 9 year old child. After a few minutes the child stood up and said, “we are not allowed to watch this.” When they inquired why she replied, because it is lashon hara, (Hebrew for evil speech, slander), which the Torah forbids (Leviticus, 19:16).
Judaism teaches us that leaders should be examples of nobility, caring, and humility. It is no coincidence that Moses was, “the most humble man who ever lived.” That God chose him not because Moses had a plan for leading the people, or because he had the skills for leadership, he did not. God chose Moshe because Moshe cared about individuals and was willing to put himself on the line for them. He killed an Egyptian who was beating a Jew, stopped two Jews from fighting and rebuked one for hitting the other, and defended the powerless among the Gentiles when he protected the daughter of Yitro from shepherds who refused to give her access to the local well. These three stories are all we know about Moses the individual before he was elected leader by God.
To Jews who believe that nothing is more powerful than speech, nothing more sacred than our character, and nothing more precious to God than how we care for the orphan, the widow and the foreigner, how should we relate to an era which produces candidates who, a child reminds us, speak words to which it is forbidden to listen because they are so malicious? How should we react to living in an era when ego, not humility, wins the day? When candidates who propose to lead us are being investigated by the authorities? When we cannot allow our children to hear the misogynistic words spoken by the leader of the free world? How do we teach and learn nobility and respect in such a world? How should we respond to living here, to living now?
Finding ourselves in a place whose culture produces bad models for us and our children, Maimonides recommends moving to another society or living alone in a cave (Hilchot Deot 6:1).
I would like to suggest a third approach. As my brother-in-law put it, “Instead of mourning – organize.” I think this means that we can feel empowered to build a society with a more noble vision than the one our leaders paint through their actions. We can use what feels like a time of strife, and for half of America, disappointment and fear, to empower ourselves and others by coming together to make something better. You may not be able to fix Washington but you can impact the world around you, and by extension, America’s acrimonious culture which has dominated the public square these many months.
Here is a suggestion. Make a list of the 3 values you hold most dear, the ones you would like to inculcate in your children. Then make a list of 2 ways you can live out those values. Call someone you know to discuss ways to actualize one of them, maybe each of you in your own way, or by teaching them to people around you, or by joining with people or an organization who are committed to the same value.
Instead of feeling the anger, strife, slander, and suspicion of these many electoral months, become empowered to act. And every day ask yourself: Am I closer to or farther away from the life I think I and my neighbors should lead?


The Seder as a Tikun for the Sin of Joseph and his Brothers -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

May 4, 2016

Our seders are held primarily in homes and involve families discussing the Exodus and eating the symbols associated with it.  Without relating to another, no seder is complete. The child must ask, and the parent must answer. If there is no child, adults must ask each other. Jewish law, in fact, sees dialogue as so intrinsic to the seder that even if one is alone, that person must ask and answer the questions, creating a kind of interrelating even where there is none.

Why all this emphasis at the seder on familial relationships?

Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of Passover itself.   According to the Midrash, the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt due to the sin of Joseph and his brothers. The sale of Joseph eventually resulted in, and some say was a punishment for, the exile in Egypt.

If we look closely at the Passover seder, we see that it is a reenactment not only of slavery and freedom but of the story of Joseph and his brothers that led the Jewish people to Egypt in the first place.

We begin the seder with the strange custom of dipping a vegetable into salt water. This dipping is called karpas. The word karpas means “colored cloth” (Esther 1:6). This recalls Joseph’s colored coat that his brothers dipped in goat’s blood and brought to their father when they sold him into slavery saying that he had been eaten by an animal.

In preparation for the karpas, we wash our hands but without a blessing. This looks like we are washing for bread, but we do not eat bread or matzah; it is a different kind of ritual washing than we are used to. This recalls that the first thing Joseph’s brothers did after they threw him in the pit was sit down to eat bread. They eat bread, but the Torah does not record them washing their hands, so we wash our hands, after which we do not eat bread (or matzah).

We then break the matzah. Generally, the bread one blesses should be whole. On this night, we bless a broken piece.   Perhaps this recalls, in addition to slavery, how that which should have been whole, the Jewish family, was broken.

We drink four cups of wine. The Talmud says that we drink four cups because when Joseph was sold into Egypt and ended up in jail, it was through interpreting the dream of Pharaoh’s wine steward that he was eventually freed from bondage, and in this dream narrative the phrase “cup of wine” is mentioned four times.

We then begin the story part of the Haggadah, which strangely does not include the verses of the story of the Exodus from the book of Exodus but instead a four sentence summary of the story of the Jewish peoples’ descent into Egypt and subsequent redemption as told by the farmer who brings his first fruits to the Tabernacle in the book of Deuteronomy.

This recitation begins, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father, and he (my father) went down to Egypt.” We usually assume this is talking about Laban the Aramean, who tried to overwork Jacob, and Jacob, who many years latter went down to Egypt.

But the word “Arami,” “an Aramean,” can also mean a “deceiver.” There was a person whom “Arameans,” that is, deceivers, tried to destroy, and then he immediately went down to Egypt, namely Joseph whose brothers deceived him and sold him into Egyptian slavery.

Perhaps, in addition to the telling of the story of the slavery and redemption, we are also telling the story of the strife among Joseph and his brothers and hoping that through bringing families and the Jewish people together in a remaking of this encounter we can create peace and ultimately undo the cause for which we went to Egypt in the first place, hatred, which is indeed the cause of all exiles.


The Mystery of Sacrifices by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

March 23, 2016

In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, the torah continues its description from last week of the sacrifices and their rituals.   For us who live in the current period of time in the Western world animal sacrifice is fairly foreign and seems in many respects barbaric.   To us perhaps reading about the sacrifices in the Torah , imagining the most central national Jewish space as a place of burning animal carcasses, flowing blood, incense burning and priests bathing, seems very…well, un-Jewish.   How are we to understand the fact that the laws of the tabernacle and its sacrifices take up such a large portion of our holy Torah?

 

In the history of Jewish thought several well known approaches to sacrifices are presented.   I will discuss two classical ones and one modern.

 

Nachmonides (b. 1194) saw the tabernacle and its sacrifices as a continuation of the Mount Sinai experience.  God was revealed to us at the mountain and in the tabernacle and its successor the temple, God “dwelled” among the Jewish people.  Sacrifices were used to atone for sin according to Nachmonides in order that the one who brings the sacrifice will comprehend that, “there but for the grace of God go I.”  Since human deeds are committed with thought, speech and action, the hands are first laid upon the sacrifice, verbal confession is then said, and the animal’s body itself sacrificed before God, utilizing metaphorically all one’s facilities for goodness in place of their use for the sin committed.

 

Maimonides (b. 1135) in his book of Jewish philosophy, The Guide for the Perplexed (3:32), in contrast to Nachmonides, sees prayer as the true mode of relating to God, but he says, God gave sacrifices to the Jewish people at that time since after living in Egypt they were used to the idea of idol worship. And so God said, instead of sacrificing animals and bringing incense to idols do it for me in a temple of God.   But sacrifices, while required by that generation of Jews, is by no means the best way of connecting to the Divine.

 

Lastly, I would like to quote the words of a modern Reform Jewish commentator, Rabbi Gunther Plaut who emphasizes the sanctity garnered from the sacrificial rite: “I object vigorously when I hear people say that we moderns have progressed beyond such practices (of sacrifice)….we have retrogressed in essential areas upon which biblical sacrifice was founded…Most of the offerings were shared meals…in an atmosphere of prayer and devotion…an experience in an awe inspiring religious setting which impressed itself more on the participants than a mumbled berkat hamazon (grace after meals prayer)…offering the olot (totally burnt offerings) meant to give a valuable animal without deriving any measurable human benefit from them, purely for the love of God.  How often do we do this in any form or fashion?”

 

Though we do not have sacrifices today, and perhaps that is for the best according to Maimonides, it seems we have much to learn from our Torah’s teachings about sacrifices.


Book Review: “Halachic Positions: What Judaism Really Says About Passion in the Marital Bed”

March 14, 2016

(The following guest review article does not constitute an approbation of the book by the editors of Morethodoxy.)

A Book Review by Talli Rosenbaum and Rabbi Rafi Ostroff

“Halachic Positions: What Judaism Really Says About Passion in the Marital Bed” An Outline, Analysis and Candid Discussion By Yaakov Shapiro

A collaborative review by:

Talli Rosenbaum,  Individual and couples therapist and certified sex therapist Academic advisor – The Yahel Center http://tallirosenbaum.com/

Rabbi Rafi Ostroff, Founder of the Yahel Center www.facebook.com/JewishIntimacy

“Halachic Positions: What Judaism Really Says About Passion in the Marital Bed” is the cleverly chosen title of a new book recently self-published by Yaakov Shapiro. It is the first volume in a promised series of more books by Shapiro about sexuality and Jewish law, which are the result of the author’s self-described search for a “balanced approach in Torah.” The author’s website which includes videos of his shiurim can be found at sexualityandjewishlaw.com.

Shapiro’s biography describes him as having experienced the pluralistic gamut of Judaism, as he was born into a Conservative family that returned to Jewish observance in his youth. He was subsequently schooled, and at various times identified, as modern Orthodox, Lithuanian-Charedi and Chasidic Chabad. He earned rabbinic ordination through the Chabad system.  Regardless of his social identity within the various streams of Jewish life today, Shapiro is clearly a Torah scholar.

The author appears to have set several goals in writing this book. In comprehensively examining nearly every Jewish textual source referring to marital sex, Shapiro sets out to challenge the accepted consensus of what is halachically sanctioned in the bedroom between married couples. Moreover, he sets out, and succeeds in offering a historical perspective as to how rabbinic attitudes about sex have changed over the generations. Finally, the author admits as well to a personal objective.

Like many young Orthodox men, Shapiro reports receiving sexually restrictive premarital education as a groom and fundamental sex-positive rabbinic opinions were ignored, dismissed or distorted. He subsequently researched extensive modern-day Orthodox “family purity” and marital intimacy literature. These he found to overwhelmingly emphasize that when it comes to sex, only one path is that of the righteous and anything “out of the norm” is regarded as spiritually or physically deviant. Furthermore, he suggests that many, if not most, of these sources maintain thatcouples should be guided not by sexual passion, but rather by holy aspirations and the will to do the “right” thing in the eyes of God.

Shapiro recounts hearing stories of marital disharmony in his Chasidic community that possibly resulted from such messages.This led to a ten-year investigation culminating in a lengthy halachic discourse, meant to providecouples with what he believes to be a halachically sound “tikun.”

Shapiro examines every source relevant to the marital sexual halachic discussion, and adds a new perspective to the halachically-sanctioned sexual conducts that are believed by many to deviate from the norms of Halacha. Quoting Maimonides, the Tosefot, the Rema  and dozens of other sources, Shapiro challenges what is classically thought to be the mainstream approach of Judaism to marital sex.

Specifically, Shapiro challenges the fairly universally accepted idea that within marital sex, male ejaculation must occur only through the act of penile-vaginal intercourse. Furthermore, he tracks historically how rabbinic attitudes regarding extra-vaginal ejaculation were influenced by Kabbalistic sources.

The need for a balanced approach to extra-vaginal ejaculation restrictions has been addressed by both authors of this review.[1]. We appreciate that couples may need or want varied expressions of sexual pleasure, due to any number of reasons having to do with physical and emotional needs or desires. Therefore, the permission of varied sexual acts, as desired by both partners, may be a great source of relief and provide anxiety reduction for couples, concerned about doing the right thing. Shapiro, somewhat apologetically and with sensitivity to the female partner’s sensitivities, also emphasizes that while the language of the Talmud does not specifically address consent, (“the same way that a man may eat meat in whichever manner he pleases – whether it be salted, roasted, cooked or seared – so too may a man do with his wife whatever he pleases,”[2]), consent is always implied.

The author, relying on a combination of textual sources and logical reasoning, concludes that various sexual actsare permitted.However, one of the most pervasive topics of his discussion,mirroring a pervasiveness found in the classical rabbinic sources themselves, is the subject of  “biahshelokedarka” which the author asserts refers specifically to anal sex. While the author proves that anal sex, even to the point of ejaculation, is permitted by a majority of medieval halachic writersand by numerous key post-medieval opinions, hemight have acknowledged that the general Jewish perspective on anal sex is a negative one, even if it is permitted.[3}The author does acknowledge the potential discomfort to the woman, but he relegates such discussion mainly to the endnotes. He does note (p.16), however, that his purpose is not to encourage anal sex, per se, but toclarify the grounds of this heter[4]in order to enable the discussion on the legitimacy of ejaculation between limbs, “derech evarim,” which provides for varied and possibly more comfortable and acceptable “adventurous” sexual acts such as oral and manual stimulation to point of ejaculation.

The Talmud, while unabashedly addressing sexuality and sexual conduct of men and women, often uses “lashon sagi nahor”, as the virtue of modesty of speech is inherent in our Jewish value system. While the author acknowledges this model, he clarifies from the onset (p.16) that he purposely writes in a clear and straightforward manner, both when relating to the halachic sources and when writing about sexual conduct and behavior. He defends this approach by explaining that in matters of practical Jewish law one must speak clearly and unambiguously,and suggests thatcenturies of halachic argument over the accurate meaning of certain Talmudic sexual euphemism potentially contributed to painful marital discord. This assertion, as well as his graphic language, may not sit well with some readers.

Shapiro brings a straightforward and much needed discussion of sexuality to the orthodox Jewish world. He is a proficient ‘swimmer’, both in the ‘sea’ of the Talmud, as well as in the the thousands of additional sources that he researched for this study. For readers who appreciate halachic discourse and “seek the truth”, this book delivers what it promises; a rational and balanced approach to sexuality that will provide evidence based “permission” for couples to express their sexuality with one another, as they feel fit. For others for whom “Daat Torah” has the ultimate say, Shapiro, unfortunately, lacks the broad-shouldered credentials and the required rabbinic approbations.

As a Rav and couples/sex therapist dedicated to helping couples create and achieve passion and intimacy within a Jewish framework, we are hopeful that through this book and the discussion it facilitates, couples will claim and reclaim meaningful sexuality in their married life.

[1] See BavliEiruvin 100b, Ran Nedarim 20b BneiEima, BneiAnusa

[2] The term “shelo kedarka” translates as “not the normal way.” It is associated with the rape of Dinah (Rashi‘scommentary to the word tortureBereishit 34, 2) and compared to animal sexuality (Bechorot8a) (RO).

[3] See “I am his vessel”: Influence of male ejaculatory restrictions on women’s sexual autonomy in Orthodox Jewish marriages.http://tallirosenbaum.com/en/node/201

andהוצאת זרע לבטלה בהקשר הזוגי)  (http://www.zoogy.org/#!הוצאת-זרע-לבטלה-בהקשר-הזוגי/c16wr/5523bbc30cf21e26badc5363)

[4] One point on which I disagree with the author is in regard to his analysis and conclusion about the viewpoint of Rabbi Yosef Karoin relation to intra-anal ejaculation, (pp.135-151). From my readings of the texts, I believe it is clear that he opposes such sexual conduct even according to baseline Jewish law. (RO)

 

A Note from the Author, Yaakov Shapiro:

I want to sincerely thank Talli Rosenbaum and Rabbi Rafi Ostroff for their excellent book review.

Please note one correction: My website does not currently feature any video lectures, but one can find a link there to look inside the content of the book.

I would also like to respectfully point out in regard to footnote 2 of the review: a) The way I understand Rashi’s commentary on the verse in Genesis 34:2, “biah shelo cedarcah” and “biah cedarcah” are equally associated with the rape of Dinah. Indeed, the simple context of rape in Biblical and rabbinic literature is associated with “biah cedarcah;” b) I believe the translation of the Hebrew term “inoi” as “torture” in this context is perhaps extreme (see also, in this regard, end note 269 in the book); c) The way I understand the passage on Bechorot 8a, it is not speaking about “biah cedarcah” vs. “biah shelo cedarcah,” but to the nature of most animals to breed “face-to-back,” whereas humans and some animals breed “face-to-face.” All that being said, it is acknowledged in the book that “biah shelo cedarcah” is generally considered to be less than ideal even by the sources that permit it, and the distinction between baseline law versus sanctification is stressed throughout (though see page 68 and endnote 271 in regard to the express opinion of Tosfos Yeshanim, Nedarim 20b).

In regard to footnote 4 in the review, see the discussion in the book referenced there, where the analysis and conclusion are developed based on comments of well-known halachic authorities.

Finally, the review focuses on marital activities that may perhaps be associated more with interests of a husband. It should be noted that the book addresses numerous activities that would be associated with a wife’s interests as well.

 

 


For the Friend I Buried Today. By Yosef Kanefsky

February 24, 2016

I buried a friend today. A friend, who four weeks ago was healthy and well, and was living the life of kindness, friendship, community, and family that had endeared her to everyone. A tower of emotional strength and personal determination, a person whose love was both fierce and tender. A friend, who suddenly and without warning tumbled into a coma, then hovered for four weeks between this world and the next, until finally, on Monday night, leaving us completely. At this very moment, as I look at my shoes still covered with cemetery dirt, I – together were an entire synagogue community – am not only pained and saddened, but also shattered and stunned.

I can’t help but also think about the family and friends of David Wichs a”h, a man described as an angel, who lost his life in the blink of an eye about three weeks ago when a huge construction crane hurtled to the ground exactly where he happened to be standing. How surreal and startling, how impossible-seeming it surely sounded to his loving wife, to his co-workers, to his synagogue community. What an unfathomable loss. May his family somehow, at some point, know comfort.

It is at moments like these – and they seem to come with almost numbing regularity these days – that we gently check our notions of individual Divine Providence at the cemetery door. For while the idea that God knows and responds to each of us individually in accordance with our deeds is often both inspiring and spiritually useful, there are just times when we need to place it in a quiet corner for a bit, as we recognize with pain and sorrow, that life, Judaism, and God are just a whole lot more complicated, and a whole lot more inscrutable than that. There are just times when we must hang our theological hats on the teaching of the Talmudic sage Rava, who said that “length of life, children and sustenance depend not on merit, but on Mazal.” (Moed Kattan, 28a)

Which is not to say that events like these simply plunge us into a religious vacuum. Really just the opposite. This is when Jewish practice, with its overwhelming and unvarying emphasis on גמילות חסדים (acts of love and kindness) achieves the apex of its religious strength. We are battle-ready and trained. To visit the sick, to comfort the mourner, to cook the meals, to drive the carpools, to hug and embrace our fellow the way we would ourselves want to be hugged and embraced. Yes, in quieter and happier times, we can afford the luxury of the doctrine of individual Divine Providence. But on days like today, we just thrust ourselves headlong into the holy trenches of the hands-on mitzvot.

There’s a peculiar choreographic moment at the end of the daily Tachanun prayer. After petitioning God to forgive us our sins and to save us from bad occurrences, we come to the words “we don’t really know what to do”. We don’t really know the magic formula either for obtaining forgiveness or for securing protection. But remarkably, precisely as we say these words which carry such an air of resignation about them, we ritually rise from our chairs and stand upright. Yes it’s true that we don’t really know. But when confronted with not knowing, with not understanding, we respond by rising to the occasion, by embracing the certitude of goodness and kindness practiced toward those who are suffering the most.

For even Mazal can bend to Chesed.