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).

The Critic in All of Us

July 16, 2009

Post by Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

In recent months, I have become inured to personal attacks on my religious belief system, shul, community, and me.  Notwithstanding this, I don’t believe everyone should agree. Difference of opinion is healthy and keeps us alive. Disagreement forces us to examine and think critically about other opinions, informing our own beliefs and values.  Yet the spirit in which criticism is given does matter to me. 

2000 years ago, in the Second Temple period, the Jewish people succumbed to their internal strife.  At a time when the Jewish people should have united against the Roman Empire, the Jewish resistance fragmented between upper and lower classes, priestly caste and the masses, fundamentalists and progressives. Sadducees and Pharisees. They fell into a virtual civil war, and Titus and his troops conquered the city and burnt the second Beit Hamikdash to the ground. The Gemara’s rationale for the demise and destruction of the Temple is sinat chinam, groundless hatred between the Jewish people.  It was not their political or religious disagreements that tainted them—it was the venom underlying their disagreements.

The question I find myself asking today is whether history will repeat itself.  Will 20/20 hindsight after the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash awaken us to the tragic consequences of baseless hatred?

I welcome constructive criticism, and with it the opportunity to learn and grow.  But criticism must come from a place of love and respect.  Not anonymous, hateful, unthinking statements.   

The parsha this week opens with a discussion of nedarim, and perhaps the Torah offers a perspective on how we should use our words and the care one should take when making a vow.  There is much discussion about whether taking a neder (vow) is praiseworthy or not.  If everything is truly written in the Torah—that which is prohibited and that which is permitted, who are we to obligate or prohibit something to ourselves?

It is for this reason that Rambam asserts that the motivation behind a neder is of critical importance.   Does the individual take upon himself or herself a new obligation in order to enhance avodat Hashem, service of God, or does the neder perhaps symbolize a rebellion against the Torah? The Rambam reaches this very conclusion, as he formulates his dialectical approach at the end of Hilkhot Nedarim (13:23 — 24):One who takes nedarim in order to stabilize his conduct and correct his ways — this is proper and praiseworthy…But although they are considered the service [of God], a person should not indulge in, or accustom himself to nedarim that add prohibitions. He should rather abstain from those things from which it is worthwhile to abstain without a neder.”

In the right context, done for the right reason, a neder is indeed praiseworthy.  So too, criticism of other people can either enhance avodat Hashem or be a hillul Hashem.

In the case of cricism, the distinction lies in the tone.

I am my prayer before You.

July 15, 2009

Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky


God, open my lips, and my mouth will speak Your praises.

 As I begin this recitation of the amida, and prepare to lay out my requests before You, I do understand the severe limitations that attend this endeavor. I will be asking that You heal me and heal those close to me, and that You provide sustenance to us all. But I know that You are committed to the notion that “the world operates according to its rules”, and that You are therefore generally averse to supernatural interventions (though Your “natural” ones are wondrous.).  I will pray that You bless this world with justice and with peace, even as I acknowledge Your insistence on people having complete freedom of will, including the freedom to act corruptly and violently. I will request that You redeem us speedily from our afflictions, and soon in our days reestablish the throne of David. And though I am profoundly grateful for Medinat Yisrael the first flowering of our redemption, I fully realize that the world, in its present state, is not poised for immediate redemption. There are still too many swords out there, with the market for ploughshares and pruning hooks still severely depressed. 

Yet pray I shall, not only because tradition enjoins me to do so. I will pour out my conversation before You because You are our Loving Parent, the Compassionate One whose mercies never cease, without whom there would be no life, no wisdom, and no joy. I don’t have any idea how You administer the world on a day-to-day, or even on a millennium-to-millennium basis, but I know that all that is precious to me exists only because You willed it into being. If there is hope at all, it is in You. 

And I will pray because in recounting all the things that You are, I will again remember all the things that I must strive to be. A bestower of kindnesses. A lover of righteousness and justice.  One who forgives abundantly. One who raises the fallen, heals the broken-hearted, protects the stranger, and feeds the hungry. I will pray, for it is through looking at You that I become conscious of myself.

And I will pray because it is during prayer that I hear Your voice. Life with people is so complex. So many things happen each day which demand decisions and responses – decisions and responses that will alter the course of people’s lives, not least, the lives of the people whom I love the most, and who count on me the most. Internal passions – of love, anger, jealousy, and pride – cloud my judgment. As I whisper the blessings that I have whispered thousands of times before, I will place my dilemmas and my struggles beneath the light of Your countenance. (I hope this is OK with You.) I will not always know precisely what the right answer is by the time I reach the end and take my three steps backward, but I will always have a much clearer idea. And sometimes, I will know the answer precisely. For You are a God who hears prayers and supplications. And You have taught us, and our parents before us, the laws of living.

 I am my prayer before You.

 May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be desired by You, God who is my Rock, and my Redeemer.

A Vacation From Ideology – Rabbi Barry Gelman

July 14, 2009

I am on vacation in New York and whenever I visit New York I try to make time to visit my favorite Jewish book store, Biegeleisen. You see, I am a seforim junkie and I must get my fix every year. To my mind there is no better dealer that the good people of Biegeleisen. 


WARNING: Do not confuse Biegeleisen with a Judaica store for there are no fancy havdallah sets, no cookbooks and no jewish music for sale there. Beigeleisen is seforim only (almost all hebrew with a few englsih books floating around).


The store is located in Borough Park, Brooklyn, a well known chareidi community. The streets are lined with kosher food stores, clothing stores for women with clothes that meet the modesty standards of that community and many yeshivot and shteibels (small one room synagogues).


Sometime visiting communities like Borough Park makes me feel like I am on a different planet. The ways and customs of that place are so different in so many fundamentally important ways from those that I and my community practice. I have often felt bad about this reality and naively hoped that it could be different. Sort of my own little, “can’t we all just get along” dream. 


For some reason this year’s pilgrimage to my seforim mecca left me feeling differently. Read the rest of this entry »

Modern Orthodox Zionism and Arab Hotels by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

July 13, 2009

I just got back from a trip to Israel to study at the Shalom Hartman Institute for a week or their Rabbinic Torah Seminar with over a hundred other rabbis from all denominations. But that I’ve done for many summers. However, this summer I did something different, which touches on Modern Orthodoxy and travel and leisure. Hotels were so expensive that I looked into a cheap hotel in a bad location and discovered that the food was not under supervision. So it prompted me to do something I’ve never done: I looked at a hotel in the Old City – happened to be owned by Christian Arabs. It was $55, including free WiFi in the room, a good fan, no A/C, but a lovely balcony and a good shower. Even a desk! The New Imperial Hotel was right in Jaffa Gate, right as you enter, across from David’s Citadel, and was surrounded by some nice pubs where jolly tourists were schmoozing and drinking beer till the wee hours of the night. Nice place. But where Morethodoxy comes in is the question: was it right to stay in an Arab hotel vs. a Jewish hotel in West Jerusalem. One side of me feels a little guilty for not giving my $$ to my brother and sister Jews. But on the other hand, I think it is important, if you really believe in a united Jerusalem – and I do – and that this is the capital city of the Jewish people, that we can walk and stay everywhere in the city. Isn’t it strange that we venerate the holiness of Jerusalem, but most of us have not stayed overnight in the Old City – unless we’ve been in Yeshiva? Why should Jews not be able to stay in the Old City? In fact, every time I am in Israel, I make a point of walking all over Yerushalayim – as long as it’s safe – especially all over the Old City, in all quarters, and even on Salah Addin street in East Jerusalem. If we believe it is our city, then we should show some commitment to it with our feet and even where we sleep.

After three days at the hotel, I can say it was a wonderful experience, a warm place where I felt comfortable and safe. And I wore my Kippa with pride going into the hotel, and in the hotel – and it added to my quest for uniting our land and our holy city.

I suggest, as a Zionist, Morethodox rabbi, to “take back Jerusalem” by showing your commitment to a united Jerusalem, where Arabs can stay in hotels in West Jerusalem – and they do – and Jews can stay in hotels in the Old City.

Israel felt safer than ever: it is for us to make the statement how much we love our Land – all of it.

Asher Lopatin

Takes Many Spiritual Tools to Connect to an Infinite God –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 10, 2009

On Prayer and Meditation

My first post on Morethodoxy, entitled “Openness and Passion,” outlined what I perceive to be an important process in living the Torah, being able to adopt the strengths one finds in each community and in the so many different approaches to mitzvoth and Torah, even if they are not our own primary practice. Custom is a powerful thing in Judaism, but sometimes stolidness can be spiritually detrimental.

I think that for many people, Jewish and not, prayer has become a recitation of words.   Several frum (observant) people who take davening (prayer) seriously have commented to me, “I like learning Torah and find it meaningful, but I just can’t relate, beyond the level of fulfilling an obligation, to tefilah (prayer).”

The Talmud (Berachot 32b) tells us that the Chasidim Harishonim, the Ancient Pious Ones, used to wait an hour before prayer (to prepare), pray for an hour, and take an hour after prayer (to recover?;  to return to this world?). They did it three times a day, and in fact the Talmud says we are obligated to do this also.

This prayer system does not sound like ours.  We rush in, pray to fulfill our obligation, perhaps concentrate a bit on its meaning and before whom we are praying, and finish.   It does not take us an hour to prepare or in fact any time to come down.  I am not, God forbid, criticizing the many Jews who are sincere about prayer and make great sacrifices to pray with a minyan at correct times or on their own.  I am no expert at or Tzadik in regard to prayer.  But I think that the Talmud’s ancient method of prayer may have been entirely unlike ours.

I imagine a prayer that takes an hour of preparation and an hour to come back is one that is highly meditative.  Kavvanah, the intent that is required in Jewish prayer, is sometimes understood as just understanding what the words mean or knowing that one is standing before the Almightily, but I think the Talmud here is offering us an important tool that reaches beyond the standard level of kavvanah in Jewish law.  Perhaps prayer is not supposed to be just saying words.  Perhaps prayer and the kavvanah that was seen in the time of the Talmud, as a prerequisite for prayer (one did not pray for three days after traveling according to the Talmud since we might lack concentration, Aruvin 65a), is something much more.

Judaism contains many spiritual tools that are often ignored if they are not part of our own personal or community’s customary practice.   There is a tradition of meditation in Judaism.  Clearly when it comes to prayer there was something deeper going in the Talmud that we have lost.  Even latter in Jewish history we have for instance Rav Nachman of Breslov’s instructions regarding prayer and meditation.  That one should go to the forest, preferably at night, and there speak to God in one’s own words (Torah 52).

I think we must reclaim some of Judaism’s spiritual tools.   In the Orthodox community we sometimes, in our punctiliousness, (and probably in reaction to Reform Judaism) allow the ma’aseh hamitzvah (the act of performing the mitzvah) to overshadow the inner kavvanah (intent), and the perhaps the telos of the mitzvah -connecting with God.

Let us be open to taking a closer look at the spiritual tools that exist within Judaism, even if they are not our own or those of our immediate community or custom; even if they feel foreign.  I would even suggest that sometimes there are Jewish spiritual tools that have become inaccessible or lost to us, such as meditation, and that it may take learning them in a non-Jewish context that has cultivated them well, in order to readapt them into Judaism.

Reasonable Reasons for Performing Mitzvot — Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

July 9, 2009

At the end of last week, Rabbi Hyim Shafner addressed the question of ta’amei hamitzvot,. I too have the question of the efficacy of discovering the reason behind performing mitzvot on my mind. 

I work with a lot of people going through the conversion process, as well as Jews who are exploring observant Judaism.  In our learning together, the inevitable question of “why” comes up.  Why do Jews keep kosher? Why can’t Jews and Non-Jews drink wine together?  Now some laws have logical explanations for why we do them—mishpatim, for example are mitzvot that are universal, ethical laws (Thou shalt not murder).  However, chukim, has no logical explanation. 

Rashi (Vayikra 18:4) explains that chukim are unfathomable by human intelligence, and because these laws are beyond human logic, the Torah tells us “I am the Lord your God.”  We are compelled to perform the mitzvah because God told us to.

I always wonder whether I would be doing a service or a disservice to people new to Judaism by giving them this explanation. On one hand, the explanation that we do them because God told us to should be enough of a reason. After all, often the reasons that some people come up with for motivations behind mitzvot are often lacking. One convert explained that she didn’t mind the prohibition of eating shell fish, because they are “bottom-feeders” and God in God’s wisdom clearly didn’t want Jews to be eating the dregs of the earth.  This may be a reasonable explanation, but what if shell fish were suddenly determined to be the healthiest food in the world?  Now her logical argument has disappeared.

On the other hand, doing things simply because “God says so” is also a difficult concept.  After all, we live in an era of information. Learning facts about any topic, delving into reasons behind anything tends to be our modus operandi.   

So how are we meant to react when we are told to do a mitzvah, a command without any logical reason?  Is it actually necessary to determine reasons and motivations behind mitzvot? Or is it more commendable to accept God’s word as it is?

Read the rest of this entry »

Michael Jackson and God’s Gifts to the World

July 8, 2009

Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

As I write these words, the memorial service for Michael Jackson is taking place a mere 10 miles away, and is being simultaneously broadcast all over the world. I will begin by confessing that I’ve never been a Michael Jackson fan. I haven’t followed his career, and I can only name a handful of his songs. Yet I found myself strongly moved by his death. And I quickly discovered that this was also true for many others in my immediate circle –  people who can more easily identify Maimonides’ greatest hits than Michael’s, who can readily rattle off the names of the Tzlafchad sisters, but not those of the Jackson brothers.

 When I asked friends why they were moved by Michael Jackson’s death, they invariably began talking about his creativity, and his talent. Being on the planet these last few decades is the only prerequisite for knowing that he was uniquely gifted – for knowing that he was the kind of  artist who comes around once in a century, and redefines his art form. In the poem she wrote for his memorial service, Maya Angelou referred to Jackson’s “creativity that came from the Creator”. As I reflected on these words, I thought about Rav Kook’s perspective on the gift of creativity.

Commenting on the phrase “over the works of Your hands I rejoice”, Rav Kook wrote (in my translation that doesn’t do it justice),  “Song is generated by the soul, and is designed to delight the human being with spiritual delight, to increase his joy and well-being. And one who sees the world with a “good eye” will see the goodness in music. He will see goodness in the fact that the human soul has the capacity to enjoy music. And he will thank God for His kindness in having created the human being in this way.” (From Rav Kook’s commentary to Brachot 58). Unusual creativity in music and dance ultimately derive form God’s design of the universe, Rav Kook is asserting. It is part of God’s blessing to humanity. We can actually sense this Divine influence when we behold breathtaking artistic creativity. And when this kind of special gift leaves the world, we can feel bereft, even if we were never fans. 

But only, as Rav Kook says, if we see the world with a “good eye”, an עין טוב .   I am certain that there are many people who are thinking only about the very odd and disturbing dimensions of Jackson’s life and behavior. And they were odd and disturbing indeed. And some may only be remembering the lyrics to one of his songs that contained words that are offensive to Jews. (He quickly apologized and changed the lyrics.)  But as Rav Kook continues, these reactions are the result of seeing the world with “bad eyes”  (עין הרע ) , eyes through which “that which is worthy of being loved and honored, is not seen. Only the evil is seen when one looks at humanity [through these eyes], and people always appear suspicious.” Rav Kook doesn’t recommend seeing the world this way. 

His argument is, that not only is it more pleasant to see the world through “good eyes”, it is more religiously faithful to do so. It’s only in this way that we can perceive the blessings with which God has filled the earth on our behalf. Our sages of old recognized this too. They enjoined us to judge all people favorably, and to recite brachot over virtually every natural phenomenon, for they are all, we believe, manifestations of God’s good creation. Yes, it takes overt effort to see the world and all its inhabitants this way, but it is apparently the path toward knowing God.

Whatever else there may have been in Michael Jackson’s life, there was an enormous amount of God’s love for humanity that found expression in his talent – talent  which he generously shared. With his loss, something important, unique and Divine has left the world. And whether you thrilled to his music or not, you can be sad, and you can mourn his loss.

We need a new code of Jewish Law – Rabbi Barry Gelman

July 7, 2009

It is time for a new code of Jewish Law.

 I know this may sound a bit radical, but it really isn’t.

Some background. For the most part we learn Halacha from codes that were written in Eastern Europe in the 19th Century. Examples are: the Hayyei Adam, Kitzur Shluchan Aruch and Aruch Hashulchan. Add to that the Mishna Berura which is technically not a code but rather a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch and we have an impressive list of halachik source that still guide us to this day.

Most of these codes and commentaries relied on the written word of rabbis who came before them and did not fully consider the social, geographic and political reality of the times. The mishna berura is an excellent example of such a work.

The exception to this rule is the Aruch Hashulchan. According to Dr. Simcha Fishbane, author of The Boldness of An Halakhist, An Analysis of the writings of Rabbi Yechiel Mechel Halevi Epstein, The Arukh Hashuhan, Rabbi Epstein did consider the “social, economic and political reality of the Jews of his period and geographical location, the latter part of the 19th century in eastern Europe. Rabbi Epstein preferred considering his reality rather than basing his rulings solely upon the writings of earlier authoritative rabbinical authorities.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Give New Minhagim a Chance, Rabbi Asher Lopatin

July 5, 2009

Just a quick idea to shed perhaps some new light on Smicha for Women – whether we call it Mahara”t or Rabbi or Rabbanit – and other new phenomena that we haven’t seen in Orthodox Judaism. There is a classic machloket about whether not having seen something is a proof that it should not exist – such as women shochtot – or whether it doesn’t mean anything. Most poskim say that a new phenomenon does have an extra burden of proof, but it is only invalid if we can find a good reason why it did not exist in the past. I would like to add a new status to these kind of things: probation – a lack of “chazaka” or presumption that it is proper, but the right to earn a place as a legitimate new Jewish minhag. The status of Yoatzot might have been such a phenomenon – but in the brief period that they have been around they have proven themselves invaluable to the halachik process. I would argue that they now have a presumption of legitimacy in the Orthodox Jewish world. Let’s wait and see with Mahara”t(s): For now we know that the first Mahara”t is an incredibly committed, frum and righteous religious leader. A great start. Let’s see in ten years whether Orthodox women musmachot get us closer to Torah and halachah, or take us farther away. My guess is much closer. For now, Mahara”t is a great experiment and is on Torah probabation – it needs to prove itself. But it is an exciting experiment, and we need to have confidence in Torah and Tradition to be able to withstand this test, and either embrace women musmachot or turn away from them. Let’s pray that this experiment works – and I, for one, am going to do whatever I can to help ensure that it becomes a new part of the accepted, legitimate, Jewish tradition.