Now What….? – Rabbi Barry Gelman

October 13, 2009

Now What….?

Now that all the “bells and whistles” of the high Holidays and Sukkot are gone, what will be of our spiritual journey? There is a lot that attracts us to synagogue during the month of Tishrei. With the excitement of Rosh Hashana, the awe of Yom Kippur and the joy of Sukkot amnd simchat Torah behind us, what will serve as the attraction to shul and renewed Jewish commitment.

I have a radical answer to this question. Judaism.

Morethodoxy should be characterized by passion for Torah and Tefilla. When one is passionate about something, they do not need external factors in order to act. Passion is self starting.

Instilling passion for Torah and Teffila in our community is a difficult task. Perhapos we can start by looking at our brothers and sisters to the right of us. Our ideological differences are real and ultimately they come to the question of what sort of Avodat Hashem  – service if God –  is preferred, but there are things we can learn from that community.

Here are the words of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein: “Is our commitment to Talmud torah truly as deep as that of the Right, but only modified in practice by the need to pursue other values? Do our students devote as much time and effort to talmud torah, minus only that needed to acquire culture or build a state? Comparisons aside, let us deal with educational issues: What has all the time wasted on television, the inordinate vacations, a system of religious public schools in Israel which shuts down at one or two in the afternoon, to do with culture or Zionism.[1]

While part Rabbi Lichtenstein’s critique is leveled against the Israeli system, much of what he says rings true for the America community as well.

Morethodoxy needs this type of chshbon hanefesh – soul searching- if we wish to thrive.

The months between Simchat Torah and Chanukah and then from Chanukah to Purim and Pesach are bereft of external attractions to Judaism. Passion for Judaism itself and “its moral beauty and spiritual grace[2]” should be enough to inspire us.






[1] By His Light. Addresses by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, pg 242

[2] A Letter In A Scroll.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, pg 24

A great answer to a famous Sukkot question

October 9, 2009

Every child learns the question in Jewish day school.  If the sukkah reminds us of God’s protection of the Jewish people in the desert why don’t we build it in the month of Nisan when the Jewish people left Egypt.  There are many answers but one that Rav Yitzchok Hutner gives in his book Pachad Yitzchak I find particularly meaningful.  One opinion in the Talmud is that the sukkah represents the Divine cloud with which God protected the Jews in the desert.   In the bible this cloud left the Jews after their sin worshiping the golden calf and returned after the erection of the tabernacle.

Rav Hutner writes that the Tabernacle was begun five days after Moses returned with the second set of Tablets on Yom Kippur –namely the beginning of Sukkot.   Thus the sukkah represents not the Divine presence that protected the Jewish people in the desert immediately but the cloud that returned after their sin and repentance.   This divine presence which emerged a second time only after the sin of the Jewish people was much more powerful perhaps than that before their sin.   Indeed Rav Hutner says, this is why Sukkot in particular is called the holiday of joy.  Though all mitvot are a source of holy joy, it is tishuvah, repentance that brings the most organic, the most internal, the deepest most personal joy.

Much blessing for a joyous end of sukkot and a wild simchat Torah!

Spending Money on Lulavim and Etrogim

October 8, 2009

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

I learned an important lesson from a member of our community this past Sukkot.   Dr. Levy (pseudonym) who is blind, came to the lobby of our shul to buy a lulav and etrog.  There he was picking out his set, with a bunch of frightened Bnei Akiva teens trying to figure out how to help a blind man choose an etrog. He ran his hands over all the etrogim for a few minutes and then picked one up. Someone walked over to him and told him that it was the most beautiful etrog and asked him how he chose it. He said something I will never forget.  “People spend hours with a magnifying glass searching for the perfect etrog – looking for spots and specks. But they are missing the entire point. The goal is to be turning that magnifying glass into yourself. We spend so much time looking at a fruit, when we should really be looking into ourselves.”

People do spend a lot of time and money on their lulavim and etrog.  The gemara says that one should spend one-third more of their earnings on an etrog, and after that, God will reimburse you!  However, perhaps the lulav and etrog should be seen as an extension of ourselves.  There’s an often quoted midrash that says that each of the four species correlate to parts of our bodies—the lulav is likened to our spine, the hadass—the eyes, the aravah to the mouth, and the etrog is likened to our heart.   Rather than spend so much time finding the perfect species, we should figure out how to be better people.  We should stand up for others who cannot stand up for themselves. We should use our mouths to praise God and others, we should use our eyes to see the good in this world, and open hearts one third more than we usually do.

The ritual object—the lulav and etrog—is meant to help enhance our performance of the act.  We strive to pick beautiful lulavim and etrogim not for the sake of retaining bragging rites for having the best etrog around town. But as a means to help each of us serve God and others in a more complete way.

On a separate note, there have been some questions with respect to Yeshivat Mahara”t. To read a little more about the Yeshiva, check out

This week Hallel….next week it is up to us. – Rabbi Barry Gelman

October 6, 2009

Yesterday was the Ushpizin of Yitzchak….so let’s talk about Yitzchak.

I just finished reading a disturbing article by an Israeli Rabbinic Scholar that suggesting that the main charter trait of Yitzchak was passivity animated by complete faith in God. After all, when Avimelech tell Yizchak to leave, instead of putting up a fight he moves on and when the shepherds of Gerar claimed the wells Yitzchak had dug as their own, again, instead of defending his rights, he moves on to dig wells elsewhere.

As opposed to Avraham who argued with Avimelech in defense of the wells that he had dug, Yitzchak is passive.

The author also suggests that the reason the binding of Yitzchak is considered a test for Avraham and not a test for Yitzchak is because Yitzchak was so committed to God that he exhibited complete selflessness.

After all, since God is ruler of the world and is constantly directing everything that happens here on earth, how dare a humkan being step in to try and change God’s reality.

The author paints a picture of Yizchak who seemingly is willing to accept every aspect of this world without any initiative. The author praises this approach as one that should be emulated.

Most Morethodox Jews do not live their lives in accordance with this approach. Most do not simply acceot the worlkd as it is and most do not live in accordance with the view that God comtral everything all the time.

What gives us the right to think and live this way? Read the rest of this entry »

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

October 6, 2009

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

Yalta: Encountering Rabbinic Authority

October 1, 2009

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

There are few named women in the Talmud. One of the few is Yalta, the wife of Rav Nachman, a third generation Babylonian Amora, and the daughter of the Reish Galuta, a wealthy and well-respected figure. When I first learned about Yalta, it was like discovering a timeless friend — a soul mate.  Learning the stories in the gemaras that she appeared in was like laughing knowingly, with someone who was trying to break through a cement ceiling in a patriarchal world.

A few stories about Yalta:

The Talmud Bavli Beizah 25b brings an anecdote about Yalta being carried on a “sedan chair” on Shabbat.  As surprising as this may be, the Gemara lists other limited circumstances when it would be permissible to be carried.  An older person can be carried on a “sedan chair.”  And if a number of people need the person for religious guidance, they can be carried.  Also, a well-respected member of the community can be carried.  Therefore, it logically follows that the reason why Yalta was being carried on Shabbat must be because people needed her.  And indeed, Tosefot suggest: “people required her guidance,” and therefore, she could be carried on Shabbat.

The Talmud in Bavli Brachot 51b describes how Ulla refuses to send the “cos shel bracha” the cup of wine over which birkat hamazon (grace after meals) is made.  Yalta gets up “in a passion” and breaks four hundred jars of wine.  What audacity. What waste.  And yet, the Mahrasha says that she was not angry because of the wine per se. She broke the wine to show that drinking the wine was not important to her.    אלא על כוס הברכה שלא שלח לה כעסה

“rather, she was angry because the cup of benediction was not sent to her.”  Yalta wanted to participate in the ritual of blessing the wine. She wanted desperately to be involved—not for the sake of drinking wine—but to bless and honor God in the same way that her male companions were doing.  Yalta refused to accept status quo.  Her reaction, while extreme, is a tribute to the passion she felt towards religious ritual.

Finally, the Talmud Bavli, Nidah 20b, describes how Yalta influenced the psak– Rabbinic dispensation– with regards to a question related to the laws of niddah (family purity). Yalta knew that her bedikah (checking) cloth was clean and rendered her able to be intimate with her husband.  Yet, despite the fact that she had the knowledge to determine her own status, she still went to the Rabbi’s (as one was supposed to do at that time) to get an authoritative decision.  Yalta could have circumvented the Rabbinic system altogether, and made her own decision. However, she took her predicament to the Rabbi, dialogued about it, and in the end, successfully influenced the rabbinic decision. Yalta saw a problem with the rabbinic system, and rather than reject it, she worked within the system towards changing it.

Read together, all three stories weave together a picture of a woman who was well respected for her scholarship, passionate about religious ritual, with the fortitude to encounter and influence rabbinic authority for the better.

How could any women —or any person for that matter– trying to participate in Jewish religious leadership not look to Yalta for strength?