Can Orthodoxy get better market share?

November 11, 2009

Despite the best and sincere efforts of numerous Orthodox kiruv organizations, the vast majority of world Jewry will never become Orthodox, at least as Orthodoxy is presently conceived. This is not to say that we should throw in the “kiruv” towel (though a less condescending word would certainly be beneficial to the effort). It is rather to say, that if we truly believe that it would be beneficial for the Jewish people if more of our numbers were observant of Halacha, then it behooves us to take a hard look at the primary reasons that we remain but 10-15% of the population. Some of these reasons (such as “Lots of Jews don’t believe in God”, or “Lots of Jews just like eating shrimp”) suggest little to us in the way of remedial steps. By the same token, there are reasons for Orthodoxy’s demographic underperformance that do in fact lend themselves to remediation. In some cases, not coincidentally, these remediations would be welcome purely for their own sake as well. Their potential for making Orthodoxy more attractive would be an additional windfall. 

What then are the remediable reasons that the great majority of Jews don’t and won’t consider Orthodoxy?  I’ll list the four that come to my mind, and elaborate on each of them over the next few weeks. Please accept them in the spirit in which they are being offered – as food for thought.    

(1)   Orthodoxy is simply too hard, but in part because we’ve made it harder than it needs to be.

(2)   We impose ideological, not Halacha – based, non-egalitarianism (or anti-egalitarianism).

(3)   We convey the impression that honesty and universal empathy are not among our core religious values.

(4)   We’ve unnecessarily narrowed the spectrum of acceptable “Orthodox belief”.


(1)   Orthodoxy is simply too hard, but in part because we’ve made it harder than it needs to be.

 Halacha – as it is designed to do – regulates every aspect of our lives. But within these regulations, there are always layers of restriction, historical layers, and legal layers. If in fact, the sheer difficulty of Orthodoxy is a factor in consigning halachik observance to permanent minority status among the Jewish people, it would seem that it’s incumbent upon to peel back some discretionary layers, and make it easier. The Halachik concepts “it is a time to do for the Lord”, and avoiding “stringency that brings about [non-halachik] leniency” come to mind as useful tools. I’m suggesting, for example, that we wager that invoking legitimate leniencies regarding the duration of the niddah period, or concerning the acceptability of dishwasher use for both dairy and meat (not simultaneously), might pay off handsomely in terms of total number of Jews observing total number of mitzvot. And what about applying this calculus to “kitniot”? Have we reached the point in history at which the prohibition of kitniot is resulting in more chametz being eaten (by those who now won’t even try to observe), rather than less? And how big might our gain be if we made a point of providing communities with reliably kosher non-glatt (= less expensive) meat? (And for God’s sake, can we stop taking back long-standing permissive rulings about Shabbos elevators?!) With genuine humility I hasten to add that these kinds of decisions would require significant community consensus, as well as the careful deliberation of minds much greater than my own. But the absence of these deliberations and consensus building seems like a dereliction of duty in the present frame.


More to come.  



Being Machmir (stringent) about being Meikil (lenient) – Rabbi Barry Gelman

November 10, 2009

Being Machmir (stringent) about being Meikil (lenient) – Rabbi Barry Gelman

What is the value of lenient Halachik decisions?

Issues of monetary expense, shalom bayit and kavod habriyot (human dignity) are well documented as factors in applying lenient halachik rulings. This blog entry begins a discussion on applying lenient Halachik decisions as a way to open the gates of observance to as many people as possible. I argue that once a person is shown that they can live a halachik lifestyle in certain areas where they may have been challenged, they will be more able to adopt halachik living in other areas. Rabbi Chaim Hirschenson stated that: “If the rabbis in America fifty years ago were as great as today’s halakhic authorities, able to see clearly and anticipate developments, they would have found ways to permit, on the basis of the Shulhan Arukh and the decisors…and we would not have come to the sorry situation that prevails today. “

In this passage Rabbi Hirschenson is pleading for Poskim to Halachikally ease the situation of those who find it difficult to observe Shabbat as it had been understood in his time. I understand this approach to be in the spirit of what Hillel taught in Pirkei Avot: Hillel says: “Be like the students of Aaron. Love peace and pursue peace. Love humanity and bring them close to Torah.”

One responsibility that religious leaders (but not exclusively religious leaders) have is to bring people closer to Torah. One way of doing that is by interpreting Halacha in a way that makes Halachik living accessible to as many people as possible.

Here is an example from my experience. A few years ago I met with a couple who were slowly but surely adopting an observant lifestyle. During the course of our conversation this couple mentioned that they had a set of china dishes that were a family heirloom. The dishes were given to them by a family member who did not keep kosher and were most probably used with either treif food or interchangeably for both dairy and meat. They then told me that they were under the impression that the dishes could not be “koshered.” They told me as well that the dishes had important sentimental value to them, and that they were saddened by the notion of not being able to use them. After seeing how difficult this decision was for them, I shared with them the view of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who allowed kashering china in circumstances very similar to theirs and told them that I thought that they too could kasher their dishes. At that moment the wife turned to her husband and said with a gleam in her eye, “See, I told you we could do it.” She went on to explain that they had been bombarded with so many strict interpretations of Orthodox Judaism that her husband began to doubt whether or not they could pull off a total assimilation into orthodoxy.

In hindsight, I could have tried to convince the couple that their attachment to the dishes should not serve as a barrier for further religious growth and counsel them how to best integrate themselves into orthodoxy –just without the dishes! –but instead, I simply removed the barrier. Removing barriers to religious growth can be a very effective tool towards increasing religious observance and we see that this method has, in fact, been used by great poskim. This is being a student of Aaron.

In the response that records Rabbi Feinstein’s permissive ruling about china he invokes the idea of takanat ha-shavim, regulations or enactments made in order to help those who wish to repent (literally: return). Rabbi Feinstein understood that the use of permissive rulings in cases such as this would make the road to observance easier to navigate for those who wish to embrace an orthodox style of religious observance.

A related phenomenon is the common occurrence that halacha guidebooks often offer the more stringent opinions as the only or highly preferred options. One example of this is the issue of making egg salad or tuna fish on Shabbat. There is an impressive list of poskim (Rav Shlommo Kluger, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, Rav Avraham Borenstein, known as the Eglei Tal and Avnei Nezer), who rule that the prohibition of mixing substances into one mass only applies to items that grow from the ground, therefore excluding tuna fish and egg salad from the prohibition entirely. Notwithstanding this, the contemporary shabbat halacha guides reject such an option. This may seem like a small issue but it is precisely rulings like this that make observance very hard to accept. Marginalizing positions like these is an error that will ultimately lead to less observance.

When discussing leniencies and stringencies, we should not focus on the spectrum of less stringent or more stringent, but rather on the strategic use of leniency to encourage greater observance. Put differently, when rendering halakhic decisions, rabbis should not focus on whether or not a decision is in line with the most stringent approach or is in accord with as many opinions as possible, but rather on the long term affects the particular decision will have on an individual’s level of observance.


Making the Law of Return Work for All Jews, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

November 9, 2009

On Friday an Op Ed appeared in the Jerusalem post, written jointly by Rabbi Seth Farber – Orthodox – and Rabbi Ed Rettig – Reform – where together they excoriated the Israeli government and its bureaucratic arms for preventing Jewish converts from becoming Jewish citizens under the Law of Return.  Rather than recognizing all Jewish converts as Jews, as the Israeli Supreme court ordered over a decade ago, the relevant ministries are requiring converts to jump through multi-year hoops in order to gain acceptance.  I would add to it, that I was involved in an Orthodox  conversion that was flat-out rejected since the Interior ministry did not recognize the Beit Din of Evanston as a legitimate Beit Din.

Rather than getting angry at the government of Israel or the ministries or the individual bureaucrats involved, I suggest there is a systemic problem that has a simple solution.  The problem is once again: “Who is a Jew?”  True, Israel  years ago veered away from defining that halachically, but still – is anyone who is converted by anyone, or anyone who just claims they are Jewish with no evidence to be admitted under the Law of Return?  If not – and  on the surface it seems we need some control – then who determines the criteria? The Rabbanut doesn’t, but now secular ministries do, and that is worse!

I say the only way for the Law of Return to work the way it is supposed to – to protect every “Jew” in the world from potential persecution and to allow any “Jew” in the world to return to the Land of the Jews is if yes, Israel accepts anyone who converts to Judaism in any way, and anyone who declares that they are Jewish. Wouldn’t the Nazis kill anyone who claimed to be Jewish?  Wouldn’t the crusades kill anyone who claimed they were Jewish?  Would the Muslim mobs in Morocco or Yemen kill any Muslim who declared they had become Jewish no matter who converted them or how?  Of course.  So the Law of Return should apply to anyone who claims they are Jewish and who is willing to have “Yehudi” stamped on there Te’udat Zehut – their Israeli identity card.  Yes, we may get millions from around the world, from Africa and Asia and South America declaring they are Jewish – Oy gevalt!  More self identifying Jews in Israel!!  That is exactly what we want.

Yes, if you are racist, or bigoted or xenophobic you will be afraid of these “Jews” coming to Israel.  But that is what Ben Hecht claimed some of the early Jews living in Israel felt about the masses from Europe – were they the right kinds of Jews to bring to the Holy Land?  That is was some of the Gedolim told Rav Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg when he wanted to save the Hildesheimer Yeshiva in Germany from Nazi destruction by bringing it to Palestine – they felt it was the wrong type of Yeshiva and Torah for the Holy Land of Israel.  So they perished at the hand of the Germans.

Just as the system works today, the Jewish and religious community in Israel will have to sort out “Who is a Jew?” from a Halachic point of view.  Following the Mishna B’rurah’s p’sak for minyan and leading services, anyone who shows up in shul will be counted (males, that is, for the Orthodox) and can daven, because of the law of the majority.  When it comes to weddings, anyone who wants to get married will have to convert – if they haven’t already – based on the standard of that community: chareidim, Modern Orthodox, s’faradim, etc.  No hard feelings. If I can verify to the community I want to live in and marry in that I am Jewish, fine.  Otherwise, that community should welcome me if I meet their standards of conversion.  But no one in the world who self identifies as a Jew should be denied admission to Israel as an Israeli citizen.

We need the Law of Return to work to save Jews and bring them home to Israel.  Let us welcome all Jews – anyone who says they are Jewish should be welcome in the Jewish state.  And maybe if those masses of self-identifying Jews come back to the Homeland, in all their shapes and colors, then maybe those Jews from America and Europe, who have the proof that they are Jewish, will return as well.  Then Israel will  be the safe-heaven for Jews which the founding fathers of Israel, such as Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky  envisioned.

What does one need to be a Jewish leader?

November 6, 2009

Is talking to God a prerequisite for being a Jewish leader?   If so Adam would have been the first Jewish leader; but he was not.  Is being a tzadik, a righteous person a prerequisite for Jewish leadership?  If so Noah would have been first Jewish leader; but he was not.  It is Abraham in our Torah portion this week who is the first Jewish leader.  Abraham is a very contradictory figure.  He has two very different experiences and reactions in this week’s portion.

God tells Abraham that He is going to destroy the city of Sodom and Abraham argues with God.  Perhaps there are 50 righteous people in Sodom?  Maybe 40? maybe 30?  Will the Judge of the universe not do justice?  In the end of course it turns out that there aren’t even 10 righteous people.  Abraham brings Lot his nephew, the one righteous person out of Sodom.

Here we see Abraham fighting for the world and even questioning God, showing justice to the world.  Being a blessing to the nations, teaching them justice as God commanded him to.   On the other hand, just a few paragraphs later, Abram is told by God to “take your only son and bring him up as a burnt offering.”  What does Abraham say?  Nothing! Abraham is the dutiful servant of God, spiritually turned it to the Divine and God’s command.  Abraham is both very outwardly directed, concerned about the welfare of the world and its nitty gritty, and about being a blessing unto the nations and teaching them justice, about feeding he hungry, saving the people of Sodom and welcoming the stranger yet at the same time Abraham lives a profound spiritual life completely tuned into God, completely dutiful, so much so that he is willing to sacrifice his only son when God says to.

In Moses we see the same thing.  He concerns himself with the welfare of the people, getting them food and water, rebuking them, deciding cases of justice between them.  He is the leader of the Jews and must concern himself with the structure of the people, the nitty gritty of taking them through the desert.  The same Moses goes up on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights, does not eat or drink for those full 40 days and descends the mountain on such a high spiritual level that he has to wear a veil to protect the people from the the light rays which emerge from him.

The same is true of Rabbis and Jewish leaders today.  The rabbi might have to change  the light bulbs in the shul, make peace among congregants, feed the hungry, cloth the naked and council the downtrodden.  At the same time we must cultivate a deep, dutiful and elevated spiritual life and relationship to the Divine.  It is from that spiritual place that our ability to be a blessing to the nations, to take care of the Jewish people and the world must emerge.

Seeing That Which is Right Before our Eyes.

November 5, 2009

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

Avraham Aveinu, and the Akeida story have much to teach us about the important interplay between sight and self-examination.  In fact, the word “ירא” – to see – is repeated throughout the Akeida story.

In Bereishit chapter 22 verse 4, the Torah says

וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת־הַמָּקוֹם מֵֽרָחֹֽק

Avraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar”.

Avraham is described as a man who is able to see into the distance.  His level of perception was so keen, that Chazal explain that he was able to  “see” God, as it were.  The word Hamakom in the above-cited verse, commonly translated as “the place,” is also one of God’s many names (typically invoked in the house a mourner), and therefore the verse would read that Avraham raised his eyes and saw God from afar.

Read the rest of this entry »

Innovation in Halacha – Rabbi Barry Gelman

November 3, 2009

Our tag line – Morethodoxy: Exploring the Breadth Depth and Passion Of Orthodox Judaism means different things to different people. For me, it is a call to educate the Morethodox public, and others, about the fundamental ideas of Modern Orthodox Judaism. One of the foundations of Modern Orthodoxy is that the Torah does not have a limited warranty. The reform movement essentially clams that the rituals of the Torah does not speak to the modern Jew and are unnecessary to live a full Jewish life. On the other hand, certain segments of the Orthodox community believe that (or act as if) when it comes to ritual and practical halacha there is no room for the Torah to expand to incorporate modern sensibilities and concerns. Read the rest of this entry »