Modern Orthodoxy To The Rescue – Rabbi Barry Gelman

June 30, 2009

Gabi and I recently watched Religulous,a 2008 documentary film starring comedian Bill Maher that satirizes organized religion.

If only Bill Maher had interviewed a Modern Orthodox Jew…

I used to get very upset when cynics like Maher went public, but more recently I have come to appreciate the importance of the questions that Maher posses. I have realized that challenges to religious claims ultimately can be of great service to religion. Encountering and considering challenges like those presented by Maher makes faith stronger and richer.

Maher is merciless in his interviews of people he considers religious fanatics. He has clearly done his homework and seems to know the contents of the bible better than the subjects he interviews.

To be fair, he spreads his mockery equally between Christianity, Judaism and Islam…no faith is safe from his barbs and jibes.

There are a few aspects of the film that strike me as very important for Jews to consider.  I will share my take on three of them. Read the rest of this entry »

Goodbye “Shelo Asani – God didn’t make me a …” Hello “She’asani Yisrael” – “God made me a Yisrael” Rabbi Asher Lopatin

June 29, 2009

First a Halachic Discourse -scroll down for a more “warm fuzzy” approach:

In our versions of Talmud Masechet Menachot, 43b, Rabbi Meir says that a person, “Adam”, has to say three blessings every day: She’asani Yisrael, Shelo Asani Isha and Shelo Asani Bur. On the next line Rav Acha Bar Ya’akov replaces “Shelo Asani Bur” (God didn’t make me an ignoramus) with “Shelo Asani Aved” (God didn’t make me a slave).

The G’marra questions why we need to say both Shelo Asani Aved and Shelo Asani Isha, and Rashi, in his second explanation of that answer, says that we need to say both in order to come up with the required daily allowance of 100 b’rachot. The Bach (O.C 46) argues that the main reason for saying all three is to increase the number of b’rachot we say to 100, and that is the main reason for saying three b’rachot in the negative (shelo asani): if you would say the positive “She’asani Yisrael” then you could not say “Shelo asani aved, isha”. The Aruch HaShulchan (46, yud) like the Bach that rules that  if you say She’asani Yisrael, you cannot say the other two negative b’rachot – you would be “stuck” having said just one, positive, B’racha.

The Rosh (Rabeinu Asher) in the back of Masechet B’rachot, upholds the version that we have in Menachot – “She’asani Yisrael”. The Gaon MiVilna affirms it is the correct language to use in his Biur HaGra on the Shulchan Aruch.

Even though the three negative blessings have prevailed in our traditions and siddurim, and She’asani Yisrael has not, the Magen Avraham of three centuries ago and the Mishna B’rura of one century ago mention that in their respective periods there were siddurim – perhaps many of them – that had the b’racha of she’asani Yehudi or Yisrael, but that that is a mistake of the printers.

In fact, many of the classic halachik commentators feel that the negativity of the traditional b’rachot is strange – and they work to come up with answers. Moreover, even according to the Shulchan Aruch, the positive b’racha of She’asani Yisraeli may have its place – with a convert – and even those who reject the positive version of “She’asani Yisrael/Yehudi/Ger” for a convert, do not reject it because it is not a legitimate formulation (matbe’a), but, rather, because it does work for a convert who has made himself a Jew, rather than being made so by God.

Therefore, I suggest that we follow the b’racha according to the G’ra and the Rosh and our Talmud, and say, “She’asani Yisrael” instead of the negative, and that a woman says“She’asani Yisraelit” instead of the negative. Once the first b’racha is said in this way, the way it appears in the G’marra Menachot, then we have no choice, based on the p’sak of the Aruch HaShulchan (from the Bach) , to avoid saying the final two, negative b’rachot of “Shelo Asani Aved” (God did not make me a slave) and “Shelo Asani Isha”(God did not make me a woman), since they become unnecessary after such an all encompassing, powerful, and positive statement of Jewish identity of “She’asani Yisrael/Yisraelit”.

Now for some “hashkafa” – philosophical context:

She’asani Yisrael/Yisraelit” is a beautiful b’racha, thanking God for making me Jewish – proud to be Jewish, excited to begin the day as a Yisrael.

Rather than beginning the day with negative b’rachot, which accentuate the G’marra of “noach lo la’adam shelo nivra” – it would be truly better for a human being not to have been created at all – maybe it is now time to begin the day with a positive b’racha “k’mo sha’ar b’rachot shemevarchim al hatova” (Magen Avraham, 46, 9) – like all other b’rachot that we say blessing God for good things. How do you want to wake up in the morning: happy to be alive, or frustrated that you are still stuck in this world? Perhaps it depends on the day!

But “She’asani Yisrael” matches very well with the story of the angel’s fighting with Jacob in Genesis 32, 26: “Vayomer, Shalchein ki alah hashacher”, as Rashi interprets: Send me away, Oh Ya’akov, for I have to say the morning blessings of the angels. These angels, presumably, are happy to have been created! Then two verses later, the angel gives Jacob his morning blessing: “Lo Ya’akov ye’ameir shimcha, ki im Yisrael”! Your name will not be the negative Ya’akov any more, but, rather, the positive, glorious Yisrael! Can’t you imagine Jacob there and then saying: Blessed are you God who has made me Israel!

There is no better way to bring Jacob’s early morning transformation to life than by us, too, saying every morning, with pride and optimism, the way our G’marra has it: “She’asani Yisrael” – proud to be a “Yisrael – and through that sweeping away – halachically – centuries of the three negative birchot Hashachar that perhaps were desperately waiting for the day when proud, committed Israelites, would feel blessed enough to push them aside for a brand new morning, just as Jacob’s name was changed so many years ago.

Asher Lopatin

Welcoming Gay Jews in the Orthodox Community, by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

June 26, 2009

In the series of posts that I have been writing about welcoming various populations of Jewish people, I am not purporting to address the halachic (Jewish legal) implications of the lives of populations of Jews, I am rather exploring how we as an Orthodox community can tweak our vision of the world and of people, in order to cultivate more welcoming Orthodox communities that can in turn be open to the widest range of Jews.

Last week I wrote of welcoming intermarried families and this week I would like to address how we see another population of Jews that often feels unwelcomed -Jewish people who are not physically attracted to people of the opposite gender, but only to the same gender, and how we as communities observant of halacha can welcome them and to what extent.

Various studies estimate that anywhere from 4%-20% of the American population is homosexual.  It would be dangerous for us to believe that Orthodox Jews are an exception.  That the torah forbids men from having sexual relations with each other is testament that in the Torah’s preview such a desire does exist.

My community encompasses several gay members, some are open about it and some are not, some have partners or are married and others are not, some live a celibate life alone (or have tried to) and others do not.   Just as there isn’t one type of heterosexual person so too there is not homogeneity among homosexuals.  Ultimately people are individuals (an entire universe of their own, as the Mishna in Sanhedrin says), and must be attended to as such.

What should an orthodox Rabbi do when a congregant comes out to him?  What should an Orthodox community’s attitude be toward their gay brethren?   Should we reject them?  Accept them?  Tell them they can never live a life with a family and have children?  Find them a proper partner?

Read the rest of this entry »

The Dangers of Populism–Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

June 25, 2009

There is a fascinating Midrash, one of many attempts by chazal to try to understand Korach’s critique of Moses’ style of leadership, and the arguments Korach uses to incite others to join his rebellion. 

Korach, the compassionate storyteller, describes a widow who must support her two daughters.  She owned one field, and when she was about to plow, Moses said to her, “Thou shalt not plow an ox and an ass together” (Deuteronomy 22:10).  When she was about to sow, Moses quoted the pasuk,  “Thou shalt not sow thy field with two kinds of seed” (Leviticus 19:19).  When she was about to bring her harvest to the granary, Moses was there saying, “Give the first tithe and the second tithe offering.”  She submitted to the law, thereby forcing her to sell her property in exchange for two sheep. However, at every step Aaron was there to take the first males (Deuteronomy 15:19) or the first portion of shearing (Deuteronomy 18:4), until she had to give up her sheep, as well, to the Beit Hamikdash, leaving her weeping, destitute with nothing.  Korach ends his argument with the cry, “All such evil things Moses and Aaron do on their own; but they hang the blame on the Holy One!”  (Midrash Tehillim/Shoher Tov 1:15)

Put this way, it is difficult to see the Torah as a compassionate code of laws, intended to protect those in need.  According to Korach, the Torah, and those who embrace Torah precepts are nothing more than narcissistic individuals, with little regard for the welfare of others.  Halakha is not designed to enhance our lives, but rather to bring about our demise.   Read the rest of this entry »

Trying to Raise Modern Orthodox Kids

June 24, 2009

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

On Sunday, with God’s help, we’ll be marrying off our first child. And so, for better or worse, I’ve been in the let-me-share-some-life-wisdom mode for the last several weeks. In that vein, I offer the following reflections that our son’s impending nuptials have aroused, regarding raising Modern Orthodox children in a not-so-Modern-Orthodox world.

Though he is different from his parents in numerous ways, our son is a Modern Orthodox young man. He thrills to his traditional learning, and also loves his academic Jewish studies as well as the study of literature.  He is a model of personal halachik observance, who wrote his college entrance essay about the crisis of urban homelessness. He attended a high school with a distinctly yeshivish Judaic studies faculty –  a faculty that cultivated his love for learning, something for which we are deeply grateful. It was also a faculty that often expressed ideas that were very different from our Modern Orthodox thinking. 

We had many interesting, challenging, even exciting family dinners. Our son would often sit down and share opinions and thoughts that had been offered in school that day. Sometimes these were in the form of negative assessments of non-Orthodox movements, or criticism of secular Israelis and their attitudes toward religion, or suspicions concerning the motivations of Orthodox woman who were taking on mitzvot and ritual practices that have traditionally fallen within the male domain. Sometimes these opinions and ideas concerned the appropriate place of secular studies in the life of a Ben Torah, and where in our value system we place interaction with, or taking responsibility for, the non-Jewish world. The opinions and ideas expressed made sense to him, and the message implicit in his bringing them up with us seemed to be that we, his parents, were religiously misguided in our more accepting and open attitudes.

Now, I am not a parenting expert (though, in honesty, my wife is), but I think that the techniques we developed over time for constructively engaging in these discussions with him were generally successful,  and might prove helpful to others. Here are the main tools:

Read the rest of this entry »

Mergers. Are They Good For The Jews? – Rabbi Barry Gelman

June 23, 2009

Recently there have been reports of Conservative and Reform synagogues merging in order to deal with the difficult economic situation in America.  

In towns where the Jewish population cannot sustain both a conservative and reform congregation these mergers are necessary. Some of the arrangements have been very creative and credit is due to those who negotiated these mergers. It is heartening to see cross denominational cooperation and people thinking outside the box to sustain Jewish institutional life in times of crises.

There is another side of the story. While for years people have been talking about the closing of the gap between Reform and Conservative Judaism, with Reform Judaism becoming more traditionally minded and Conservative Judaism taking more liberal positions, these mergers represent a leaving behind of ideology. (see link to merger article below)

Now, before readers get all upset… I know that in some of these cases it was either merge or close…I am, however, interested in analyzing an underlying reality that allowed these mergers to happen.

My point is that synagogues and movements with strong ideologies would make for very difficult merger partners. Synagogues with strongly held beliefs, nuanced opinions and unique character are not easily folded into other synagogues. Read the rest of this entry »

Take Back the Kotel by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

June 22, 2009

A few days ago a congregant asked me how he should approach the Kotel as it was his first time seeing the Kotel (Western Wall) and he was bringing his children there for the first time. Instead of talking about different meditations, or Psalms or prayers to say, I started with:
“Don’t let anyone “help” you, and don’t look at any of the people who come up to you asking to be your guides. Don’t give anyone any money, or you’ll be inundated. Pretend you are in New York City of the 1970’s: just walk up to the Wall with an attitude and don’t look like a dazed tourist.”
Oy! The shneurers at the Kotel have become hustlers and people who prey on those who are week. Yes, they “prey” on people who are “praying”! This is a bother if you are there regularly, but if it is your first time to the Kotel for a long time, they are terrible. They have ruined for many people I know what could be a spiritual experience, an experience more powerful than any other davening experience they have had in any other setting. Yes, it is important to give tzedaka during and around davening, but not to be hustled into giving it to people who are aggressively pushing out many other needier people and needier causes. It is rewarding aggression; it ruins the sense of personal safety that a place of prayer should have. I have witnessed fights that broke out between Kotel regulars because a shneurer would not leave people alone.
About two years ago, the authorities tried to clamp down on the shnuerers, and I got excited, but then when I came back a few months later, they were back.
So I have a modest proposal: Since the rabbanut cannot control the Kotel properly, and all they do with their control of the Kotel is not allow women to read Torah and not allow Conservative, Reform and other Jews to pray at the Kotel as they are used to – mixed men and women, it’s time to take operational authority away from them. Wow! Can this ever happen? Well, we can just make it an experiment in the One State solution I discussed in last week’s blog: Operational Authority of the Kotel and the Temple mount will be removed from the Jewish and Muslim religious authorities, and will be put into the hands of a new Holy Land Antiquities Authority, which will be a mixed body of Jews and Arabs, mostly archeologists but some business minds as well – starting with a majority of Jews, but with a significant Muslim presence.
These holy places should not be run by parochial, self-interested authorities; their mandate should be how to make these places as meaningful and welcoming to as many worshippers as possible. The new authority will work on how to enable Jews to appreciate the Temple Mount more – including regular services – and how to make Muslims and other religions appreciate the Kotel more. The Kotel area should be divided into four sections: one for strictly traditional men’s Jewish services, another for strictly traditional women’s services, another for any kind of Jewish services – and there could be multiple services going on a one time, even in this third section – and a fourth section for anyone who wants to worship God in any way – as long as it’s not violent or anti-Semitic. The Temple Mount area might be divided the same way, or in a more relaxed way.

And the police would be both at the Kotel and the Temple Mount – as they are now – but their biggest challenge will not be Muslims and Jews, male prayer leaders and women prayer leaders; their biggest challenge will be keeping the shneurers away. That will be the true test of the potential for a One State!

Asher Lopatin

Changing Attitudes-Engaging Intermarried Jews and Their Families – By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

June 19, 2009

What should our attitude be when an interfaith family comes to our Shul or community?  Should we actively try to engage interfaith families or might this give people the impression it is OK to intermarry?  What should a Rabbi do when a couple comes to him who perhaps knows little about Judaism, and may not even realize intermarriage is frowned upon?  Should the rabbi reject them?  Rebuke them?  Accept them?  Help with their wedding, since they will certainly be marrying?  Does it make a difference if the man or woman is the Jew?

The word intermarriage rings for many in the Jewish community like the sound of a (wooden) coffin nail; and indeed, 75 years ago in America it was.  A whole generation of American Jews to whose parents Jewish life and Jewish tradition were important, viewed marrying a non-Jew as their ticket to becoming an American instead of a Jew, the way to a safer, freer and more prosperous life without Judaism.   Appropriately, parents tore their clothing and sat shiva for intermarried children because often those intermarriages did signify a Jewish end.

As an Orthodox rabbi I believe Jews should marry other Jews.  Never the less I think we do damage to the Jewish people if we react to intermarriage today no differently than we did in the past generation.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Wisdom of Kidneys, Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

June 18, 2009

Susan Smelin, a 54 year-old nursery school teacher in Riverdale, desperately needs a live kidney donor.  We have been running this call for help in our shul bulletin for a few weeks now, and few members of our community are considering donating their kidneys to this complete stranger.

Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, in the Tsits Eliezer (Vol. 9:45) says where there is clear possibility of mortal danger, one is prohibited from donating a kidney, deeming one a “chasid shoteh” a “pious fool” for doing so. However, Rav Ovadia Yosef’s research shows that the “danger in the removal of a kidney is minimal and that roughly 99 percent of kidney donors recuperate fully.” Thus, one is required to donate a kidney to save someone’s life. (Yehave Da’at 3:84). 

I know that the halahkic debate on both live and brain dead organ donation is more complex (see for a more in depth halakhic analysis).  But the decision to donate a kidney extends beyond halakhic considerations.  It is the ultimate dilemma: What moral bases is there to demand that we jeopardize our lives for another?  Conversely, can we justify standing idly by while someone is in mortal danger?  How can a moral society allow its members to turn a blind eye on someone in trouble?

Read the rest of this entry »

Of Telling Tales and Banning Books

June 17, 2009

Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky


The discrepancies between the story of the spies as narrated in Shlach, and the way that the story is retold in the first chapter of Dvarim are significant and numerous.  They include (but are not limited to):

(1)   Whose initiative was it to send the spies? (God’s or Israel’s?)

(2)   What was the nature of the spies report when they returned? (Negative or positive?)

(3)   Who chastised the people when they depaired of being able to enter the land? (Caleb or Moshe?)


Every major parshan (exegete) addresses these discrepancies, each in his own way. I often wonder whether Abarbanel’s effort in this arena contributed to his commentary on humash being banned (or its use highly discouraged) in many quarters of the Orthodox world.


Abarbanel’s alleged heterodoxy here begins with the general observation that he makes about the first several chapters of Dvarim. Abarbanel states concerning these chapters, that “Moshe himself spoke them”, and that it was only through a subsequent Divine decision that they were included in the Torah (see pages 11 and 12 in the standard edition of Abarbanel on the Torah). He proceeds from this premise of human (albeit the greatest of human prophets) authorship of these chapters, to explain the genesis of the discrepancies between the telling and the retelling of the spy incident. Read the rest of this entry »