Is it All In a Name?

October 15, 2009

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

I am sitting on a panel tomorrow night with some of my esteemed female colleagues for a discussion about female spiritual leaders in the Orthodox community. (Beyond the Glass Ceiling: New Orthodox Leadership Roles for Women.)  I know that the question of title will come up. While I believe that the job – functioning as a spiritual leader, connecting with people, having the opportunity to teach Torah to others—is of primary importance, title is relevant.  It has been almost 7 months since the initiation of the title Mahara”t, and I am curious to hear people’s reactions now to the title.  I am still not sure if Mahara”t is simply a place holder for another more rabbi sounding title, like “rabah” or even “rabbi,” or if it has come to mean Rabbi, and thus will stick.  I know that for at least the people in my community, the title seems to carry with it some significance. It has been easier for me to appropriately respond and act in a rabbinic role, as people have associated the title with a certain level of scholarship and authority.  We have even called the new school that will ordain Orthodox women as rabbis “Yeshivat Mahara”t.”  At first, the criticism from the left was that we were capitulating to political pressure and selling ourselves short. Anything less than Rabbi would not do.  And yet, on the other hand, the title Mahara”t has allowed women from both ends of the Orthodox spectrum to dream, even realistically consider pursuing a path of religious spiritual leadership.  What do you think the future holds? Is the Orthodox community more likely to hire and accept Mahara”ts as their spiritual leaders? Or is the only legitimate path to advocate for women to be called rabbis?

The Naked Sukkah

October 14, 2009

It started raining on Monday night, so I had to scramble to get the Sukkah decorations down before they got ruined. (Incredibly, even though we’re in a drought in Southern California, the rain is “bad” because it might cause mudslides. It’s hard to know what to pray for…) I knew I wouldn’t have time to get the walls and the bamboo down, but figured that they’d eventually dry out and be fine. When I had completed removing all of the various plastic fruits and the child-crafted ushpizin posters, I noticed something quite striking. An undecorated Sukkah is a pretty stark sight.  I guess I had never sat and stared at it in that condition before. Slowly though, the recognition swept over me that far from being a post-holiday letdown, this was actually a profoundly religious moment. Over the last day or so, I’ve become convinced that removing the Sukkah decorations, and taking a good long look at the stark and naked Sukkah, is the perfect exit ritual for Sukkot. 

We’re all familiar with the idea that the Sukkah is intended to be a temporary dwelling – a metaphor for our lives and for our world. Nonetheless, as Sukkot is “the season of our joy”, we want to insure that its messages of “temporariness” and “fragility” don’t inadvertently induce depression within those who sit beneath its shade. Such a development would, as they might have said in the old country, fashtair the simcha. Big time. This is the genesis, I imagine, of the mandate to decorate the Sukkah – to transform our potentially dreary metaphor into a spectacular display of holiday cheer. How else to explain the otherwise frivolous-seeming interest that Jewish Law takes in the decorations, and in their halachik status? 

But the day after Sukkot, when we are no longer in legally-mandated happiness, is a good opportunity to see the metaphor that is the Sukkah, in all its unspectacular glory. Let’s face it. The world is a fragile place, one that despite its size and grandeur carries the hint of temporariness about it – especially in light of modern scientific knowledge, and modern human capacities to wreak enormous destruction. The end of Sukkot doesn’t merely mark the close of the holiday period. It marks the beginning of the post-holiday period – the period of many, many months during which we encounter the world not through the holy rosy lenses of one of our Festivals, but with a clear vision as to the fragile state of all things. This is period during which we are religiously enjoined to make a difference for the good in a sector of this fragile world about which we feel passionate. To try to shore it up a little. What then could be a better transition ritual than to strip the Sukkah down to its unadorned true fragile self, and to absorb this picture for a few minutes?  To see things as they really are. And then after that, to take a deep breath, and to say to God, “Here I am. Reporting for duty in this crazy, fragile, glorious sukkah that You call Earth.”

Hooray! I Have Found A Home in the Israeli Political World! by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

October 14, 2009

If you have read this blog, you know that all of us, rabbis and Maharat, think out of the box and sometimes unpredictably. You may have seen my views of the One State solution, one democratic, Jewish and Palestinian State allowing all self declared Jews to return and Palestinians to return. You may have also seen my desire for separation of church and state in the Jewish state of the future – in Israel. Feel free to dismiss me as naïve, foolish, crazy, irresponsible, etc. However, the last laugh is on those who mock me: I can say will full confidence that I am in the tradition of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism. And… as a follower of Jabotinsky, I feel at home in the party of Menecham Begin, his heir, Herut and Likud. Yes, I see myself as part of Likud.

Huh? A One Stater in Likud? Well, let’s look briefly at the principles of Revisionist Zionism:
1) Jews returning in the millions to the homeland. Jabotinsky hoped European Jews in the 1930’s would fill up both sides of the Jordan with Jews; in the 21st century, we have to look to Africa and Asia – and still not give up hope in America – to bring in those huge numbers so that Jews remain a majority culture in our land.
2) The right of Jews to live in their homeland – even more important the getting the State. Herut opposed partition in 1947, giving up our rights to our land, as we should oppose partition in 2009. In the 21st century, our priority should not be demographics or a homogeneous state; no, our priority must remain a solution where Jews can live in Tel Aviv or Hebron, or Gaza or Shechem or Modiin. Everywhere! Palestinians can by homes or start communities in these places as well. Anyone who has any suggestion that gives up Jews returning to Gush Katif should be rejected as compromising the essential rights and dreams of the Jewish people.
3) Liberalism in terms of freedom of the individual: open and free markets, capitalism rather than socialism.
4) Being strong and demonstrating strength: Any solution in the 21st century needs to involve the army – the IDF – not tolerating any pocket of terrorism or fiefdom outside the control of the One State – no Gazas controlled by rogue, terrorist regimes.
5) When you look at the writings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, he has different attitudes towards the indigenous Arabs. Everywhere he wants them to know that the Jews are staying. However, in some places he writes that once the Jews are established in their land, they can allow the Arabs to be full participants – including voting – in a liberal democracy. Yes, Jabotinsky understood that if the Jews are strong and confident, they have nothing to fear from Arabs/Palestinians getting the vote.
6) It is clear that while Jabotinsky wanted a Jewish state – designated for the Jews and filled with Jewish culture – he did not want a state with rabbinic control. He had European democracies in mind, where the look and feel is Christian, but the power resides in the government of the people, not the church leaders.
I am planning to move to Israel because I believe that God wants us to live in the Holy Land and God wants us to build a moral and ethical state where Judaism can flourish and have an impact. With the vision of Jabotinsky I hope we can all gain the strength to build communities anywhere in the land and that that land should be a full democracy which will allow Judaism to flourish in all its diversity and creativity, taking the best from cultures dwelling alongside of us, including Palestinian, Arab culture. Likud – here I come!

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

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 »