Making Sure Judaism is Fair -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 27, 2009

One of the tenets of Morethodoxy as I see it is finding as many and as wide a range of opportunities as possible within halacha for all Jews to engage in Judaism and connect to God.   In the case of women this means finding greater room for women’s leadership, women’s learning, women’s expression, and women’s teaching within Orthodoxy.  My collogue Rabbi Kanefsky has written that not finding enough room for women’s voices makes orthodoxy not only less palatable but less inspiring .

I would like to go a bit farther.  I think it’s important we have women’s voices expressed in Jewish leadership, Jewish teaching and in guiding the Jewish people because women have a unique voice. Over half of the human population is female.  Isn’t it possible that if we only hear the voice of men in Torah and in leadership that perhaps we are missing something very basic?  Perhaps the way that Devorah led the Jewish people was not the same as the way Moses led the Jewish People?  Maybe both voices are essential in order to have a complete whole.

If such an approach requires leniencies then those are the places that leniency is appropriate.  As my colleague Barry Gelman has written and as I have written leniency can be a very important halachic factor and indeed a stronger one than strictness.   Indeed, often stricture creates leniencies we have not intended.

Another reason that it is important we make room for women in Jewish leadership is that it is just not fair to say to 50% of the population, your talents cannot be used for holiness in every way.  In fact, we find this argument of “It is not fair” in the Torah itself.  “It is not fair” is a valid concern that was addressed by the highest levels of Jewish leadership.

When the Jewish people are told of the mitzvah of Passover some come to Moses and say “We are impure. Our relative has passed away and we have had to bury them, and so cannot bring the Passover offering.  It is not fair!  Why should we miss out?”  Moses doesn’t know what to do when “it is not fair” is in conflict with the law that God has given.   So Moses turns to God and God responds –Let’s find a way; let’s make a second Passover for them.

Read the rest of this entry »

International Rabbinic Fellowship – Press Release

November 26, 2009

Contact: Rabbi Jason Herman, Executive Director Phone: 917.751.5265 Email: FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 9 A.M. EDT, November 20, 2009


Rabbis from across the United States, Canada, South America, Israel and Hong Kong came together last week to officially establish a new and long awaited organization of Orthodox Rabbis. The International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), several years in the making, is the brainchild of Rabbi Avraham Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in Riverdale, the Bronx, New York, and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and Rabbi Marc D. Angel, Rabbi Emeritus of New York’s oldest Jewish congregation, Shearith Israel, and director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

A board and officers was elected consisting of the next generation of Orthodox Rabbis who have shown themselves to be at the forefront of modern Orthodox leadership. The organization’s 120 or so founding members elected Rabbi Barry Gelman, Rabbi of the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, Houston, Texas, as the IRF’s first President, Rabbi Hyim Shafner, Rabbi of Bais Abraham Congregation, St. Louis, Missouri, as Vice President of Education and Communication, Rabbi Nissan Antine, Rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah, Potomac, Maryland, as Vice President for Membership and Conferences, Rabbi Joel Tessler, Rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah, Potomac, Maryland, as Vice President, Rabbi Saul Strosberg, Rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel, Nashville, Tennessee, as Treasurer, and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, Rabbi of Congregation B’nai David-Judea, Los Angeles, California, as Secretary. A code of ethics that will bind the new group was provisionally adopted.

This first conference of the International Rabbinic Fellowship included the voting into reality of several new initiatives that promise to transform the Orthodox community and perhaps the Jewish world. A committee to formulate new procedures for Orthodox conversions, so much in the news in Israel and the United states as of late, was appointed. The committee is tasked with presenting to the IRF a final outline of requirements and processes for Orthodox conversions to be adopted by the membership in June at its annual meeting. The committee’s chairs are Rabbi Dov Linzer, Head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York City and Rabbi Joel Tessler, Senior Rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah, Potomac, Maryland.

Though Orthodox Judaism does not ordain women as rabbis, several Orthodox women who serve in a handful of Orthodox congregations in rabbinic capacities were present. A long discussion was held at the conference on the question of admitting women acting in a rabbinic capacity as full voting members among the Rabbis. The group voted to task the membership committee with creating criteria for the potential consideration of admission of women. If the IRF votes to admit women, criteria for membership will also be voted on in June. The IRF recognizes that there are highly capable women serving in rabbinic roles and as such the group might benefit from their presence, ideas and guidance.

This heralds the first time that an Orthodox rabbinical group has entertained the possibility of admitting women as full members into its ranks.

For more information about the International Rabbinic Fellowship and the proceedings of its seminal inaugural conference held this past Tuesday and Wednesday November 17-18, please contact any of the following members: Rabbi Barry Gelman, tel. 713.723.3850, email

Rabbi Hyim Shafner, tel. 314.583.4397, email

Rabbi Nissan Antine, tel. 301.279.7010 x 209, email

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, tel. 310.276.9269, email

Rabbi Marc D. Angel, tel. 212.724.4145, email

Rabbi Jason Herman, IRF Executive Director, tel. 917.751.5265, email

Arrested for Wearing a Tallit?

November 26, 2009

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

I was outraged and shocked to read of the recent arrest of Nofrat Frenkel, a woman who was arrested at the Kotel, the Western Wall, for wearing a talit and carrying a Torah.  Now, I know that the issue of women praying publicly at the kotel is complex.  Yet, I was outraged at the thought that religious fundamentalists have cornered the right of religious and spiritual expression at one of the holiest sites in the world. And I was shocked that after all these years, we are still fighting the same battles for women to have equal access to all the gifts that Jewish ritual offers.  There are days when I think that the Orthodox movement has made tremendous strides towards greater inclusion, finding ways for both men and women to express their religious selves.  And then there are days, like last Wednesday, where I find myself disappointed and distraught at what the future holds.  Those of us who embrace an Open Orthodoxy, let’s help each other continue to strive for greater inclusion for men and women to express their religious selves, both here and in Israel.   

I asked Rivka Haut, one of the co-founders of Women of the Wall, and a beloved congregant at my synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, to respond to last Wednesdays’ incident.  Rivka writes: 

On Dec. 1, 1988, I had the privilege of organizing a halakhic women’s tefillah at the Kotel. Now, almost exactly  21 years later, after countless legal proceedings, resulting in  three Israel Supreme Court Decisions, two films, an anthology, and many other public and private events,  Women of the Wall are still embattled, struggling for the right to pray as a halakhic group at the Kotel, to wear tallitot and to read from a sefer Torah.

On Rosh Chodesh Kislev, Nofrat  Frenkel, while praying with WOW, was detained by the police, interrogated for more than an hour, because her donning of a tallit at the Kotel constituted a criminal act. We do not know what further consequences she may yet be subject to.

The Reform and Masorti Movements in Israel are struggling to secure the religious rights of non-haredi Jews to pray at the Kotel according to their custom. They are stepping forward to defend the right of Nofrat, and of all Jewish women, to wear a tallit, openly, while praying at the Kotel, without being physically abused by extremists or arrested by the police.

I ask that the leaders of Open Orthodoxy join in this struggle. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld has written a sharp and eloquent piece, a letter to Israel’s ambassador to the US, which was published in the Washington Post, defending the rights of women to don tallitot at the Kotel.

Let his courageous voice  not be the only one emanating from the Orthodox world.

Can Orthodoxy get better market share? PART 2

November 25, 2009

In my previous post,  , I listed four ways in which we, the Orthodox community, are shooting ourselves in the foot. That is to say, at a time in Jewish history when it’s particularly important that we find ways to attract Jews to halacha and tradition, these are four ways in which we seem to bending over backwards to make Orthodoxy unpalatable to the Jewish masses. Having already discussed the first way, namely that we make Orthodoxy harder than it has to be, I’ll now elaborate on way #2, namely that we seem to be hooked on non-halachik, ideological anti-egalitarianism. In numerous instances in which we have solid halachik ground for being inclusive of women, we nonetheless tend to reflexively, self-righteously, and anachronistically just say “no”, in fealty to some vague ideological notion that Orthodoxy and “equal treatment” are locked in a battle to the death. And in pursuit of this dubious ideological but not halachikly indicated end, we wind up locking the gates of Orthodoxy to many otherwise interested women – and men.  Yes, in many of these instances halachik arguments can be made in favor of excluding women, but these are arguments of the same order and rank as the ones that prohibit non-chalav Yisrael milk, or which disqualify virtually any eruv. We can acknowledge the existence of these arguments, and proceed with confidence in our own solid halachik footing, knowing that we have sound, Judaism-positive reasons to be doing so. Here are but two examples of our self-defeating tendencies:


(1) Excluding women from opportunities to lead our institutions: Whether this be something as simple as the opportunity to deliver a Dvar Torah to the congregation on a Shabbat morning, or things more involved, like serving on or chairing the shul ritual committee, or being elected as president of the shul or school, we tend to rule out these kinds of things on grounds that are halachikly unpersuasive, and often socially primitive. The truth is that a little bit of creativity in terms of time and space can obviate any mechitza-related issue, attire that would be expected of any religious man or woman can lay to rest any tzniut (modesty) concerns, and invoking the significant poskim who see no halachik bar to women holding any elected position no matter how high, neutralizes halachik opposition. The only obstacles that remain to be overcome are inertia and ignorance. What is at stake is not only rectifying a fundamental unfairness, but also encouraging – rather than discouraging – bright, leadership minded Jews to consider joining Orthodox communities.

(2) Fudging on the Judaic studies curriculum in our day schools. I can still remember the Shabbat morning when I asked my congregation what they would do if they discovered that their sons and daughters had unequal math or science curricula in school. How would they feel if their boys were being given the skills to do sophisticated work in their futures, while the girls were being prepared for a lifetime of pressing their noses against the glass of advanced learning? While we’ve grown to accept nothing less than equal education leading to equal opportunities in general studies, we’re still not routinely demanding the same in Judaic a, in particular in the area of rabbinic literature. (Not all of us live in NY!)  The plain fact is that families decide against Orthodox schooling for their children (girls and boys) on this basis alone. What is our hesitation? Do we not have faith in the assertions of Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Lichtenstein and two generations of rabbis and teachers of various stations that it is our halachik obligation to open the world of Talmud to our daughters as well as to our sons? Do we really believe that Orthodoxy wins some kind of ideological victory over radical feminism (whatever that is) through rendering the mothers of our grandchildren unable to engage in sophisticated conversations about halacha? For our children, and for the betterment of the Orthodoxy that we are committed to, we need to stop fudging and accepting half-measures, and instead insist on what’s halachikly and educationally right. (In 13 years here in Los Angeles, I have seen more than enough evidence that parental insistence in this area makes a concrete difference.)

A third way we hurt ourselves is through failing to seriously evaluate the options for being more inclusive of women in the delicate but front-and-center area of communal davening (prayer). This though, is a post (next week’s) unto itself.


Saying Kaddish Over Kaddish – Rabbi Barry Gelman

November 24, 2009

A well known phenomenon of American Jewry is the widespread recitation of kaddish in memory of deceased parents. Even those Jews who are not particularly observant find deep meaning in reciting kaddish for deceased parents. Even those Jews who otherwise rarely come to weekday minyan find the time to come to synagogue almost every day, three times a day to say kaddish. It strikes me as odd that before and after the death of a parent, these folks had no time to come to services, but as soon as a parent dies, time is found.

I wish there are another way to honor our parents in death. Because it is related to honoring parents after death, saying kaddish has become the most widespread ritual on the American Jewish scene and often the perceived hallmark of piety. It has come to the point where people think that, almost to the exclusion of all other ritual and concern for Jewish law, all that a person has to do is say kaddish for their parent upon their death.

It is interesting to note that kaddish does not speak of death, but rather of sanctifying God’s name and faith in times of distress. Ironically, reciting kaddish has lead to the de-sanctification of God’s name and less faithful activity as people ignore other mitzvot in favor of kaddish.

Saying kaddish is an important for children way to reflect the values and ideals their parents stood for. When a child recites kaddish the deceased parent may be judged more favorably as the faithful recitation of kaddish stands as testimony to the parent’s spiritual legacy.

But here again we must wonder if there is a better way. Certainly greater merit can be brought to deceased parents if their spiritual legacy is more than eleven months of kaddish.

In light of this analysis, I wish to highlight a suggestion made by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch – The Concise Code of Jewish Law. In Chapter 22 (Laws of Mourners Kaddish) he writes: “Though kaddish and prayers are helpful to the departed, they are not of primary importance. What is most essential is that their children proceed in the path of righteousness and, in the manner, bring merit to their parents…A person should command his children to be scrupulous in the observance of a particular mitzvah. Their practice of it will be considered more important than their recitation of Kaddish.”

Along these lines, I recommend a new mourning custom – one that hopefully will have more lasting spiritual and religious staying power. I propose that all parents whose children are not Sabbath observant tell their children that either instead of (or in addition to) saying kaddish for a year that their children should remember them by observing Shabbat for a year.

In the scheme of mitzvot, Shabbat observance is more important than the recitation of kaddish, so if one mitzvah is going to be focused on for the year, better Shabbat than kaddish.

Another, perhaps more compelling reason to focus on Shabbat over kaddish is for the benefit of the grandchildren of the deceased. Children who grow up in a home where Shabbat is observed on a regular basis stand a much better chance of marrying another Jew and building a home where Jewish traditions are observed. Additionally, for all those other than the mourning child, saying kaddish goes largely unnoticed in the home. Shabbat observance encompasses the entire home and atmosphere of the family.

It is time to say Kaddish over Kaddish and welcome new Jewish life.

Defining Morethodoxy (a re-posting of an earlier essay)

November 20, 2009

Morethodoxy.  One more label to add to an already thinly divided Jewish world?

In subtitling our blog “Exploring the Breadth, Depth and Passion of Orthodox Judaism,” I think we aim to overcome the limitations that labels impose.  To see Jewish life not as it often is seen today as a linear spectrum from insular to open, tolerant to judgmental, committed to uncaring; but with the complexity and subtlety that “divarim sh’omdim b’rumo shel olam,” things upon which the world hangs, require.

Moving away from labels and defined Jewish groupings can help us be open to the treasures within each Jewish community that can help us serve God, while identifying the weaknesses of each community or theology and setting those aside.

For instance, the strength of more insular “Charedi” Orthodox communities is their passion.   One learns a lot of Torah when it is undiluted by time studying about the world in a university; one is little influenced by the beckoning of secular society’s evil inclination if one is wholly separate from it.   Payer in Charedi circles, especially Hassidic ones, is often passionate, focused and fervent.  We must learn from these strengths and adopt them.

On the other hand there are the weaknesses of more insular Orthodox communities.  They can not benefit fully from the wonders of Gods universe since they do not study about them in depth (which Maimonides says brings us to love God).  They can not fully welcome the Jewish people into Judaism since their welcoming is only on their own terms.   They can not fully be a light unto the nations since their interaction with “the nations” is minimal and often rejecting.

Modern Orthodoxy’s strength lies in its openness to the things listed in the paragraph above and its attempt to synthesis that openness with Torah.   But its weaknesses are many.   There is a widespread lack of passion in prayer.  To be present in a Modern Orthodox synagogue during prayer is sometimes to wonder who people are conversing with, God or their neighbors.  The Kiddush club, a phenomenon which afflicts some modern orthodox synagogues on Sabbath morning in which members leave the service to drink alcohol and eat a meal instead of listening to the full Torah service.

I would propose that Morethodoxy be a philosophy of taking the ochel (the edible) and leaving the p’solet (the shell).  Of integrating both, breadth and depth, openness and passion.

Let us be passionate in Torah study, and open to all tools possible in pluming its depths, from biblical criticism to kabbalah.

Let us be passionate in prayer, and open to studying the works of Rabbi Nachaman on utilizing meditation and nature to find God, perhaps even open to learning from non-Jewish instruction about kavanah, and a thousand years of eastern meditative practice.

Let us be passionate about protecting our children and ourselves from the materialism and superficial values so prominent in the wider culture, and open in the extreme to all our brethren the Jewish people and to our cousins the non-Jewish world.   Let us be so passionate about welcoming and loving others that the homeless person who wanders into our house of worship feels like one of us.

Let us be passionate about connecting to God so that there is no idle chatter in our shuls, and open, even in the middle of prayer as Abraham was, to any new person that walks into shul.

Programs that Modern Orthodox Synagogues Should be Running

November 12, 2009

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz 

This past week, we commemorated Kristallnacht, Night of Broken Glass.  It is a day that we think about the loss of six million Jews. But this year, at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, we commemorated 6 million and one. This past June, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns, gave his life defending shoah memory.  In the presence of his wife, Zakiah Johns, this is the speech that I gave to open up the program:

Kristallnacht. The Night of Broken Glass.  It is a name, I believe, that is meant to force us to hear the traumatic and heartbreaking sounds of that fateful night on November 9 and 10th 1938.  And if I close my eyes, I can almost hear the broken windows of store fronts. The shattering of glass in synagogues and in homes.  I can hear the crackling of paper, the reams of holy words, burning in shuls, of Torah scrolls being consumed, licked up by flames.   I can hear the cries of fathers being separated from children.  The gasps of women who watched their homes being destroyed.  And, if I listen closely, I can hear the moments of heroism yes heroism, by all those who had to sacrifice their lives on that night, and all those who were given the gift of continuing to live that night.

Tonight, we also remember the sounds of June 10th, 2009.  Sounds of that day ring in my ears as well.  First the swish of the door that is held open by a museum guard, followed by the sounds of gun shots. I hear the frantic screams of people running. The chaos. And if I listen closely, I hear the heroism of one man, of Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns, who gave his life so that others would not perish.  A man that for six years stood outside the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, defending the memory of the sounds of Kristallnacht and the sounds of horror evoked by the shoah. 

 In Judaism, sound is central to some of our foundational rituals.  It is the shofar, the sounding of the rams horn, however, that ushers in for us varying emotions. On one hand, the shofar blasts are meant to sound like a deep and painful cry.  Perhaps it is the cry of death and destruction that we as a community have experienced through out our history.  The sounds of sobbing are a symbol of the hurt and pain that each of us as individuals and as a community have experienced.  But the shofar is also meant to evoke in us a sense of redemption. It is a sound that conveys triumph—and so the shofar used to be sounded at the end of a battle to signify victory.  For in that moment of glory it is a cry of joy and hope for the future.  A sound that will usher in peace and joy for all eternity.
As we listen to the sound of the shofar in just a few moments, let all the sounds of the past—the sounds of brokenness and destruction as well as the sounds of hope for the future wash over us.  And let us recall the sounds of death intertwined with the resounding sound of life. And let’s hear the shofar as a call—a call to each of us to live our lives in harmony attempting to perpetuate the memory of all those who could not stand with us here, tonight.