The Voice of Women in Holy Song and Prayer by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 12, 2018

In the beginning of this past week’s Torah portion,Toldot, the Torah writes, “These are the generations of Isaac…” Surprisingly, we are told in the next verse that there are no generations, that Rivka, like each of our ancestors, was  barren. The Torah comes to describe the empty space of no children and the need for prayer to fill that void. In the next verse Isaac prays for a child opposite Rebecca which Rashi explains to mean that Isaac and Rebecca each prayed on their own, he in one corner of the room and she in the other, – i.e. the first Shul.

 

Though communal prayer is something comparatively recent in Jewish history (since the destruction of the Temple), nevertheless it seems to play a central role in our public Jewish life today, and procedural concerns surrounding it can loom large in a community.   Recently, I was asked about women saying kaddish in shul and whether hearing the voice of a woman saying kaddish is of halachic concern.

 

The question of whether a woman may say kaddish for a loved one has been treated extensively in halachic literature.   Raav Yosef Henkin famously permitted it and this has become the normative practice in many modern orthodox Shuls, and indeed, according to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was always the custom going back many generations.  Even so, for some the voice of women saying kaddish along with men sounds incongruous in an orthodox synagogue.

 

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef wrote the following on the question a woman saying Birchat Hagomel in Shul with regard to the voice of women (Yichave Daat 4:15):

 

….In our times (genders are less separate) and women are together with men in the marketplace, and additionally, a Shul is a place where we stand in awe of the Divine, thus we do not have to worry about hearing kol ishah, the (sensual) voice of a woman (in shul).  As the Bene Yissaschar writes, in a place where the Divine presence is revealed, men and women may sing together. Furthermore, we can prove that a woman’s (singing) voice is not problematic in a synagogue from the following piece of Talmud (Megilah 23a): “All are called up for the seven aliyot to the Torah, even women….Though we do not do this due to kavod hatzibur, we see that in the essence of the law it is permitted.  Why is this not a violation of hearing a woman’s singing voice?…We thus must conclude that in a holy place the Rabbis were not worried that the singing voice of a woman would result in sexual thoughts.”

 

Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote the following regarding women coming to the Beit Midrash to say kaddish where there is no mechitza (Igros Moshe, OC, 5:12):

 

“Regarding the question of the need for a mechiza outside of a Beit Kineset, for instance in a house of mourning or in a Beit Midrash (where there is no mechitza) in which people pray on weekdays or at mincha on Shabbat …In all previous generations the custom was that at times a needy woman would come in the Beit Midrash to collect tzedaka or a woman who was mourning to say kaddish…If a woman will be coming every shabbat regularly to mincha then we should not be lenient and should require a mechiza.  If it is only periodic then perhaps we would permit her to attend without a mechiza, even up to two women, but more than two would require a mechitza.”

 

Recently a visitor in my Shul from a Charedi community in the New York area commented to me:  “I know there is halachic writing both ways about women saying kaddish. I am not addressing that. I am a Chasidisha yid from ____ and tonight as I was leading the davening in your shul it came time for Kaddish.  Suddenly not only were men saying kaddish but women also. In my community men and women do not interact socially at all. But, I thought to put myself in the shoes of the women in your shul work who in the larger world, work with men and lead organizations of men.  For them to walk into a shul and sit behind a mechitza must be very strange.”

 

Several years ago a woman in the process of converting asked me why in my synagogue women sing along with men during the davening while in other Orthodox shuls she had been to they do not.  I told her in Judaism there are opinions which do not allow women to sing in the presence of men and there are opinions which do allow women to sing before men in shul. When it comes to the honor of heaven, to involving all Jews in prayer, we must follow the halachic opinion which allows this.  If we do not, we may think we are being strict with regard to not allowing the voice of women in front of men but we are being lenient on prayer itself and its level of inclusion and inspiration, thus reducing the Kavod Shamayim, the Honor of Heaven.

 

As with all halchic decisions, when strict in one area we are simultaneously lenient in another.  Thus, we must weigh both sides very carefully to be sure we are producing the most kavod shamayim, honor to God, in guiding the Jewish people.

 

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The Secret of Jewish Unity Rabbi Dan Margulies

November 5, 2018

In the days following the Pittsburgh shooting, that tragically left 11 of our Jewish brothers and sisters dead and many others and law enforcement officials wounded, and which brought reports of still further anti-semitic vandalism and other hatred around this country, I have drawn some strength and resolve from a rather odd source: a fantastical legend recorded in a medieval Talmud commentary.

The Talmud, in the midst of the main discussion of the intricacies of the mitzva of tefillin (phylacteries) in tractate Menahot (37a) records that the sage Peleimu raised the following dilemma in a conversation with Rabbi Yehuda haNasi:

?מי שיש לו שני ראשים באיזה מהן מניח תפילין

A person with two heads—on which should he wear the tefila shel rosh?

The student of Talmud is usually prepared for questions and dilemmas which push the envelope, which test how far a law or legal principle can be applied, but even to the seasoned scholar, this seems a bit too much. Really? A man with two heads?

The Tosafot here comment (s.v. O Kum):

בעולם הזה ליכא אבל …

In this world there are no such people; however …

And with that “however” the Tosafot introduce the following story (the full version presented here is preserved in the Shita Mekubetzet of Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi Menahot 37a #18):

The demon-lord Asmodeus (Ashmodai) wanted to test the judicial prowess of Shlomo Hamelekh, so he brought up from the netherworld a man with two heads. And over the years that followed that man married a human woman (with one head!) and had several sons. Some of the sons took after their mother and bore only a single head. And some took after their father and bore two heads. And when their father died, the brothers with two heads tried to claim each a double portion of the inheritance—to be counted as two individuals not one.

To resolve their dispute, they came before the ever wise Shlomo for judgement. How was Shlomo to determine if these two-headed men were to be considered each a single individual or each as two individuals who happened to share a body? Shlomo in his wisdom determined a cleaver plan. He boiled a pot of water, and blindfolded one of the head, and poured the boiling water on the other. He noticed that both heads cried out in pain. Shlomo said, “This is proof that both heads grow from a single root.” Thus the two-headed men were judged each as a single individual.

Shlomo was able to determine what it means to be a single individual, a single entity, to be united by testing the response to suffering. How do we—the Jewish people—respond when some of our brothers and sisters are suffering? When they are mourning? Even if we are not those immediately affected‚ even when we live in New York and the tragedy is in Pittsburgh or when we live in america and the tragedy is in Israel, if there are Jews in pain then we are all in pain. That is what it means for us to be one people. That is what it means for us to be united.


Giving a Voice to the Silenced: #MeToo One Year Later; By – Rabba Claudia Marbach

October 29, 2018

The MeToo movement is a year old, but the abuse of women is much older. Bereshit provides numerous examples of women in uncomfortable sexual situations. As usual, the Torah does not reveal  the interior experience of its characters, so the midrash comes to fill that gap.

When Sarai is taken into the palace of Pharaoh, the Torah tells us only וַתֻּקַּ֥ח הָאִשָּׁ֖ה בֵּ֥ית פַּרְעֹֽה׃the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace (Gen. 12:15). The midrash, in contrast, acknowledges her anguish and her sense of abandonment and violation:

אף היא אמרה רבונו של עולם אברהם בא עמך בהבטחה, מפני שאמרת לו ואברכה מברכיך (בראשית יב ג), ולא הייתי יודעת כלום, אלא כיון שאמר לי שאמרת לו לך לך, האמנתי לדבריך, ועכשיו נשארתי יחידה מאבי ומאמי ומבעלי, יבא רשע זה ויתעולל בי, עשה למען שמך הגדול, ולמען בטחוננו בדבריך!

Sarai, cried out, saying: “Master of the Universe! when I heard from Abraham that You had told him, ‘Go forth,’ I believed in what You said. Now I remain alone, apart from my father, my mother, and my husband. Will this wicked one come and abuse me? Act for Your great name, and for my trust in Your words. (Tanhuma, Lekh Lekha 8).

In the midst of Sarai’s MeToo experience, she calls out to God with righteous indignation. The events that had led her to this moment were not of her own making; God had made a pact with Avraham to which she was at best a passive participant. Now, she demands, it is God’s job to make things right. The outcome is reported in the Torah:

וַיְנַגַּ֨ע ה’ אֶת־פַּרְעֹ֛ה נְגָעִ֥ים גְּדֹלִ֖ים וְאֶת־בֵּית֑וֹ עַל־דְּבַ֥ר שָׂרַ֖י אֵ֥שֶׁת אַבְרָֽם׃

But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account (of the words) of Sarai, the wife of Abram. (Gen. 12:17)

The midrash thus reads Pharoah’s affliction by God as the direct result of Sarai’s demands. The midrashist continues:

אמר לה הקב”ה, חייך אין דבר רע נוגע ביך, שנאמר לא יאונה לצדיק כל און ורשעים מלאו רע (משלי י:כא), ופרעה וביתו אעשה בהן דוגמא

And God said to her, “By your life nothing bad will touch you, as it says ‘No harm befalls the righteous, But the wicked have their fill of misfortune.’(Proverbs 10:21) I will make an example of Pharaoh and his household.

How contemporary it seems that the midrash not only seeks to punish Pharaoh but to publicize his misdeeds. Yet while Sarai was being threatened within the palace, a place with many people, no one answered  her cries — or perhaps they chose to ignore them, out of fear or indifference.

Then, as now, one of the hardest questions was to determine whether consent had been given. If in the field, the Torah tells us (Deut. 22:23-26), consent is presumed not to have been given because if a woman called out she would not have been heard. The clear implication is that a woman who does not cry out must have consented.

Commenting on this pasuk, the Chizkuni (13th century France) doubts this implication, and recognizes a different possibility:

אילו צעקה לא היה אדם מושיעה והיתה יראה פן יהרגנה. אם כן ספק הוא לן אם נתרצית אם לאו ומספק אין להרגה דספק נפשות להקל.

If she had cried out no one would save her and she would fear for her life. Therefore, whenever there exists doubt about the victim of a rape having consented tacitly, no court will punish her.  

Sounding very modern, the Chizkuni recognizes, psychologically, that silence does not constitute consent. But he does not extend his reasoning to the case of the city. The  presumption of the Torah is that when one cries out in a city one will be heard and saved. Today, though, city life seems more isolated and private than the cheek-by-jowl existence of ancient times. Our city spaces can be inaccessible,more like the field of old, and in them, voices are not necessarily heard.

The MeToo movement is giving volume to silenced voices. The Torah instructs us to listen to those with no voice — the stranger, the widow and the orphan — and to address injustice. Just as God listened to Sarai, we should strive to listen carefully not only to what is said, but also to what is unsaid and unable to be said.

 


What Was The Sin of Sedom? By: Rabbi Dan Margulies

October 24, 2018

A perennial question which every commentator must grapple is the question of identifying exactly what was the sin of sodom its people. Why did they deserve to be destroyed? What was the failing of their society? One answer which deeply resonates with me, and which I think can serve as a lens for examining broader hashkafic themes was given by Rav Moshe Avigdor Amiel ztz”l.

As his starting point to answer the question Rav Amiel took the mishna in Avot (5:9):

ארבע מידות באדם: האומר שלי שלי ושלך שלך זו מידה בינונית; ויש אומרין זו מידת סדום. שלי שלך ושלך שלי עם  הארץ. שלי שלך ושלך שלך חסיד. שלך שלי ושלי שלי רשע

שלך ↓          שלי ← שלי שלך
שלי רשע עם הארץ
שלך בינוי או מדת סדום חסיד

According to the mishna there are four archetypal character types based on how one relates to their own possessions and how one relates to the possessions of others. One to whom “mine is yours and yours is yours” is a hasid—pious. One for whom “mine is mine and yours is mine” is a rasha—wicked. One for whom “mine is yours and yours is mine” is an am haaretz—ignorant, foolish, plebeian. These are less interesting than the final archetype. The mishna gives two alternate interpretations of a person for whom “mine is mine and yours is yours.” The stam mishna considers this person a beinoni—an average individual. However, the mishna relates that others declare—yesh omerim—that this is the trait of Sodom.

Rav Amiel was troubled by the fact that the opinion in the stam mishna and the opinion of the yesh omerim are such polar opposites. It seems as if the stam mishna sees this attitude as relatively benign while the yesh omerim condemn it harshly. Rav Amiel suggested a novel way to read the mishna that harmonizes this tension and results in the mishna reading as a singe message. He would have translated  … האומר as “If one person says ‘Mine is mine and yours is yours’ it is an average trait” but …  ויש אומרים “… as soon as there are multiple people who say ‘Mine is mine and yours is yours’ it is the trait of Sodom.” According to Rav Amiel, a society can function and can sustain a basic ethical underpinning if there is a critical mass of hasidim in the society, whose generosity and altruism support the needy around them. As soon as there are too many benonim in the society, as soon as there are many who are guided by indifference and selfishness the society will collapse under the weight of its own iniquity.

I think this four-part classification (so common in Avot) and in particular the ambiguity in the fourth class are a useful lens for examining a core question that lies at the heart of many hashkafic debates today, and for isolating an orienting principle for a Modern Orthodox outlook, based on a story told by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz”l. (N.B. When I posted this story on Facebook on Tuesday it received over 40 “likes” and “loves”).

“A couple of years after we moved to Yerushalayim, I was once walking with my family in the Biet Yisrael neighborhood, where R. Isser Zalman Meltzer used to live. For the most part, it consists of narrow alleys. We came to a corner, and found a merchant stuck there with his car. The question came up as to how to help him; it was a clear case of perika u-te’ina (helping one load or unload his burden). There were some youngsters there from the neighborhood, who judging from their looks were probably ten or eleven years old. They saw that this merchant was not wearing a kippa. So they began a whole pilpul,based on the gemara in Pesachim (113b), about whether they should help him or not. They said, ‘If he walks around bareheaded, presumably he doesn’t separate terumot u-ma’asarot, so he is suspect of eating and selling untithed produce …

“I wrote R. Soloveitchik a letter at that time, and told him of the incident. I ended with the comment, ‘Children of that age from our camp would not have known the gemara, but they would have helped him.’ My feeling then was: Why Ribbono shel Olam, must this be our choice? Can’t we find children who would have helped him and still know the gemara? Do we have to chose? I hope not; I believe not. If forced to chose, however, I would have no doubts where my loyalties lie: I prefer that they know less gemara, but help him.

“… When all is said and done, you have to be guided not by what you love; you have to be guided by Torah. And the Torah tells us what is good: ‘… to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God. (Mikha 6:8)”

I find this story powerful because through the use of a strawman it isolates a core divide between “our camp” and other approaches to Judaism. Indeed, Rav Lichtenstein’s typology can be aligned with the one proposed in the above mishna, and developed by Rav Amiel. Rav Lichtenstein’s ideal, those who would help the man and know the sugya in the gemara we can call the hasidim who say “mine is yours and yours is yours.” Those ignorant of the contents of the gemara who would refuse to help the man are the mishna’s reshaim who say “mine is mine and yours is mine.” Rav Lichtenstein’s critique is thus. There are people who know the gemara, and based on it would refuse to help the man. In his strawman depiction, this attitude is embraced by the haredi street (even if not necessarily endorsed by its leadership). His own humanistic ethical answer to the dilemma is to see this behavior, not as that befitting a benoni but as that of Sodom; to see it not as simply less than ideal but deeply flawed and more problematic than the ignorance of the am haaretz.

In a scenario guided by both universal ethical principles and the laws of God’s Torah, the am haaretz is ignorant of the Torah but guided by enough basic ethics to decide to help the man. One guided by midat Sodom uses the technicalities of the Torah to skirt the ethical imperative; afterall, midat Sodom is not as bad as being a rasha. According to Rav Lichtenstein, the ideal is neither of these. The ideal, somewhat paradoxically, is to know the laws of the Torah well enough to be able to formulate the argument that one is exempt from helping the man. And then to take up the ethical imperative to help him nonetheless. To hold fast to nothing but the abstract law of the Torah, under this model, is not even the bare minimum. It is a failure. In order to achieve the heights demanded of us, to make ourselves hasidim, we need to transcend what is halakhically/legally required and contemplate the ethical requirements we have as well.

In Torah, we can suggest, there is no supererogatory, because in fact the super-erogatory is actually just “erogatory” (cf. Bava Metzia 83a). We have a mandate to exceed our mandate. And so “mine is mine and yours is yours” isn’t enough; it’s significantly less than enough. And the false premise that it could be enough is the kernel of what it takes for a civil and just society founded on Torah principles to decay into the indifference and cruel selfishness of Sodom.  


Be Aware! Posted by Yosef Kanefsky

October 16, 2018

True, it doesn’t come immediately to mind when we think about the qualities we most want to possess. It doesn’t typically top the list of the morally refined character traits that we work to cultivate in ourselves. But let’s not overlook the modest, simple quality of awareness. Because awareness is apparently next to holiness.

The sage Rabbi Hoshaya taught that “at the time that the Holy One created the first human being, the ministering angels erred and sought to say ‘Holy, Holy, Holy….before him (as they do daily before God). So what did the Holy One do? ‘He cast upon him deep sleep’ [Genesis 2:21] and then the angels knew that he was merely human.”  (B’raishit Rabba 8:10)

The internal logic of this teaching is not immediately clear. How would sleepiness demonstrate that the human is less holy than God? The assumption that Rabbi Hoshaya is working with is that holiness is characterized by maximal awareness – awareness of everything that is going on around one, awareness that never flags and is never compromised. God who neither sleeps nor slumbers is therefore holy, and we humans, who have no choice but to surrender to sleep on a periodic basis, are less holy. And it’s not just our sleepiness that hampers our awareness. We each know well from daily experience, that we are highly vulnerable to distractions of all kinds, that we are drawn a little too deeply into the awareness of ourselves and our own needs, and that we’re just plain not very perceptive all the time. Our holiness, Rabbi Hoshaya teaches, is compromised by our lapses of awareness. Thus when first human being falls asleep, the ministering angels are set straight.

But this is clearly not the end of the story. After all, God clearly instructs in Vayikra, “You should be holy, just as I, God, am holy”. This call to holiness is the call to consciously develop, expand, and deepen our awareness of the things and of the people around us. It is a profound call that we can respond to both retrospectively and prospectively. When something has gone wrong on our watch as the result of our having been unaware of the needs of the hour or the needs of the person who was in front of us, we need to resist the temptation to hold ourselves blameless (“after all, I was unaware!”) and to instead realize that our unawareness was probably the outcome of some decision that we had made along the line. God’s call to holiness beckons us to not be defensive in situations like these, to accept critique, and to take a hard look at what it was that we not-so-benignly excluded from our awareness.

And prospectively, God’s call to holiness requires us to actively cultivate our awareness of the people around us, of their needs, their emotions, and their hopes. We do so through making a habit of listening more attentively, through being more curious, through getting outside of ourselves a little more and freeing up energy to be aware of others.

Awareness isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we contemplate the meaning and content of personal holiness. But I’d bet then we think of the people we know who regard as holy, we are thinking about people who are deeply and continuously aware of all that is unfolding around them.


What Is Torah For? By Rabbi Barry Gelman

October 10, 2018

One of the more beautiful and meaningful Jewish customs is the practice of  starting the Torah again right after we complete it on Simchat Torah. The reason we do this is so not to give the appearance that once done with the Torah we no longer have interest in it, that we have lost our love for the Torah.

At first glance, it does not seem to be a realistic fear. After all, before we read the Torah, we will dance with the Torah, hold the Torah close and even kiss the Torah. Such intimacy seems to be enough to remove the suspicion of losing our love for the Torah.

Rabbi Avraham Pam suggests that while all of the affection we show the Torah is lovely, it may not be enough.

He points to a fascinating midrash that talks about,  of all things, kissing.

אָמְרוּ רַבּוֹתֵינוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה, כָּל נְשִׁיקוֹת שֶׁל תִּפְלוּת הֵן, חוּץ מִשָּׁלשׁ, נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל גְּדֻלָּה, נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל פְּרִישׁוּת, נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל פְּרָקִים.

(Shmot Rabbah 5:1)

Our Rabbis of blessed memory have said: All kisses are silly, save three: The kiss of greatness, the kiss of parting, the kiss of meeting.

The midrash goes on to give examples of each type of kiss.

The Kiss of greatness refers to when Samuel anointed Saul as king. The Navis says that after he anointed him, he kissed him. 

.נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל גְּדֻלָּה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמואל א י, א): וַיִּקַּח שְׁמוּאֵל אֶת פַּךְ הַשֶּׁמֶן וַיִּצֹּק עַל רֹאשׁוֹ וַיִּשָּׁקֵ

The kiss of parting refers to when Orpah kissed her mother in law goodbye once she decided to part after he husband had died.

.נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל פְּרִישׁוּת (רות א, יד): וַתִּשַּׁק עָרְפָּה לַחֲמוֹתָה

The kiss of reunion refers to Aaron going out to greet Moshe. 

.נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל פְּרָקִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיֵּלֶךְ וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ בְּהַר הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּשַּׁק לוֹ

Each three of these types of kisses is valued by our tradition as can be seen by the midrash.

Yet, there is one that seems to rise above the others – that is the kissing of greatness – נְשִׁיקָה שֶׁל גְּדֻלָּה. 

According to the Malbim this type of kiss is meant to transfer or to share some aspect of one person with the other.

When Samuel kissed Saul, says the Malbim, he conveyed some of sanctity to Saul.

The kisses of greeting and parting leave the recipient in the same state as they were before the kiss. The kiss of greatness elevates the recipient to greater heights.

Rav Pam continues that on Simchat Torah, all of the kissing may be misunderstood to be either the kissing of greeting or the kissing of parting.

Beginning to read the Torah again, right after we have finished it, defines the kissing of the Torah that we did as a Nishika shel Gidula -a kiss wherein we feel the Torah kiss us back and we absorb some of its greatness. We declare that as we danced , hugged and kissed the Torah, we will never be the same.

This is not only a lovely image, it is advice as to how to approach Torah study. Each time we study Torah, we should do it, not only with an eye towards mastering the material, but also towards absorbing ohw the messages of the Torah influence and alter our worldview.

We will never look at the world the same way again, We will never look at other people the same way again. Our outlook on life will be forever filtered through the lens of the Torah .

This is the plain meaning of the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (6:1) that states:

שָׁנוּ חֲכָמִים בִּלְשׁוֹן הַמִּשְׁנָה, בָּרוּךְ שֶׁבָּחַר בָּהֶם וּבְמִשְׁנָתָם

רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ, זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה… וּמַלְבַּשְׁתּוֹ עֲנָוָה וְיִרְאָה, וּמַכְשַׁרְתּוֹ לִהְיוֹת צַדִּיק וְחָסִיד וְיָשָׁר וְנֶאֱמָן, וּמְרַחַקְתּוֹ מִן הַחֵטְא, וּמְקָרַבְתּוֹ לִידֵי זְכוּת, וְנֶהֱנִין מִמֶּנּוּ עֵצָה וְתוּשִׁיָּה בִּינָה וּגְבוּרָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי ח) לִי עֵצָה וְתוּשִׁיָּה אֲנִי בִינָה לִי גְבוּרָה. וְנוֹתֶנֶת לוֹ מַלְכוּת וּמֶמְשָׁלָה וְחִקּוּר ,

The Rabbis taught in the language (style) of the Mishnah: Rabbi Meir says: Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things, and moreover the entire world is worthwhile for his sake…He is clothed in humility and reverence, and it prepares him to be righteous, devout, upright and trustworthy, and it distances him from sin, and draws him near to merit. We enjoy from him counsel and comprehension, understanding and strength, as it is said (Proverbs 8:14): “Mine is counsel and comprehension, I am understanding, mine is strength.” It gives him kingship and dominion, and [the ability to] investigate in judgement…

When we look at the world via torah tinted lenses, everything is different. Chance meetings becomes opportunities for kiddush hashem, eating becomes an opportunity to elevate what is seemingly plain in life to sanctified act. Even politics can be an opportunity to exercise the Torah value of V’ahavta L’reiacha Kamocha, and to activate the true meaning living in a society where everyone’s Tzelem Elokim – Godly image –  is recognized. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it beautifully when he wrote: “The awe that we sense or ought to sense when standing in the presence of a human being is a moment of intuition for the likeness of God which is concealed in his essence…The secret of every being is the Divine care and concern that are invested in it. Something sacred is at stake in every event”

If we truly connect ourselves to the Torah and take seriously the messages of the Torah then each encounter with it changes our life – like a nishika shel gedula – like the kiss of greatness.


Religious Materialism continued…by Elana Stein Hain

October 8, 2018

In my first post,(here) I asserted the religious value of an upscale Jewish lifestyle.* But this approach raises significant challenges. I would like to outline some challenges here by focusing on questions rather than on answers.

While we often encourage engagement in Jewish life for ulterior motives because it may lead to genuine commitment (mi-tokh she-lo lishmah ba lishmah) in this context we must be wary of the reverse: that what begins as genuine commitment may become vacuous.  What I mean is that the very construction of our Jewish lives may become more about the medium than the message: beautiful shuls, high end schools, fine kosher restaurants.  And being seen in our beautiful shuls, high end schools and fine kosher restaurants.

How can we prevent this from happening, and where this is already happening, how can we change course? I would ask us to consider two sets of questions.

For the first, let’s reach back to Yom Kippur. The Gemara in Yoma 35b relays an incident involving a kohen gadol’s expensive Yom Kippur garb:

אמרו עליו על ר’ אלעזר בן חרסום שעשתה לו אמו כתונת משתי ריבוא ולא הניחוהו אחיו הכהנים ללובשה מפני שנראה כערום

They said of R. Eleazar ben arsom that his mother made him a tunic worth 20,000 minas. But his fellow priests would not let him wear it because [it was so transparent that] he looked naked.

His clothing was immodest, literally and metaphorically.

When does our use of wealth in Jewish life become immodest, more about exposing what we have than about fulfilling religious duty? Avoiding this pitfall means asking honest questions about spending: How much is too much? When does abundance become its own religion, with hiddur mitzvah (beautification of commandments) giving way to naked indulgence? Moreover, if a kosher version seems to always be available, what happens when there is not kosher version, and one must choose between halakhah and material gain or comfort, as in the case of business ethics, for example?

Vigilance about this also means introspection about our religious focus: How often do we discuss spirituality or what and why we believe, with our children and amongst ourselves? Do we do this enough in our homes, or do we leave such conversations too often to outside providers in shul or in school?

For the second set of questions, we return to R. Elazar ben Ḥarsom, who the rabbis depict quite differently outside of the Mikdash:

אמרו עליו על רבי אלעזר בן חרסום שהניח לו אביו אלף עיירות ביבשה וכנגדן אלף ספינות בים ובכל יום ויום נוטל נאד של קמח על כתיפו ומהלך מעיר לעיר וממדינה למדינה ללמוד תורה פעם אחת מצאוהו עבדיו ועשו בו אנגריא אמר להן בבקשה מכם הניחוני ואלך ללמוד תורה אמרו לו חיי רבי אלעזר בן חרסום שאין מניחין אותך

They said of R. Eleazar ben arsom that his father left him an inheritance of 1,000 villages on land and, correspondingly, 1,000 ships at sea. And every day he takes a leather jug of flour on his shoulder and walks from city to city and from state to state to study Torah [from the Torah scholars in each of those places]. Once, his servants found him, did not recognize him, and pressed him into service for the master of the estate. He said to them: I beseech you; let me be and I will go study Torah. They said: We swear by the life of R. Eleazar ben arsom that we will not let you be.

Here, R. Eleazar ben Harsom represents a different extreme. He leaves his wealth to others for the sake of study Torah. In the process, he gets a taste from his own servants of what his life would be like if he was actually underprivileged: pressed into service to ensure someone else’s wealth. Ultimately, he is immune to such problems because of who he really is.

This element of the portrayal raises questions for us that are typical of any upper middle class community: Given the available communal resources, how might we (continue to) relate to the problems of those less financially fortunate and the vulnerable? To be sure, we aim to provide for those in need in our communities in both America and Israel through tzedakah, charity. Moreover, in context of the religious spending mentioned above, many provide housing and invitations for guests to partake along with them.

But how might we also work towards systemic change to make Jewish life more affordable and/or to reduce obstacles to self-sufficiency?** Moreover, how might we consider the urgency of these issues with respect to people outside of the Jewish community, given our need to prioritize our own? And in this polarized political moment, can we consider this deeply religious question in a non-partisan way?

These questions are not meant to be quickly asked and answered, raised and resolved. We must continually resurface them for reflection and discussion.

*I also asserted the religious value of a more tempered Jewish lifestyle. I will return to that topic in a future post.
**See Dyonna Ginsburg, “Re-Anchoring Universalism to Particularism: The Potential Contribution of Orthodoxy to the Pursuit of Tikkun Olam,” Ed. Shmuel Hain, The Next Generation of Modern Orthodoxy (2012) who differentiates between tzedakah as technical charity and tzedek as systemic change.