Yeshivat Maharat: Facts on the Ground

December 31, 2009

Rabba Sara Hurwitz

Yeshivat Maharat is a pioneering venture, founded in 2009 to be the first institution in Jewish history to produce Orthodox women rabbinic authorities.

Although there are currently many valuable institutions that provide a place for women to engage in serious study, our institution has gone one step further.  Yeshivat Maharat has a formal curriculum to train women to be rabbinic leaders, bestowing upon women the authority to be poskot (legal arbiters).  Yeshivat Maharat will advocate for women’s full participation in the community as spiritual leaders.

Yeshivat Maharat is dedicated to giving Orthodox women proficiency in learning and teaching Talmud, understanding Jewish law and its application to everyday life as well as the other tools necessary to be Jewish communal leaders.  “Mahara”t” is a Hebrew acronym for manhiga hilchatit ruchanit toranit, one who is a teacher of Jewish law and spirituality.  YM’s students and graduates will inspire the community to realize the benefit of having women in these roles, using their talents and skills which up until now have been excluded.

Yeshivat Maharat accepts women as students who self-identify as Orthodox and want to serve the Jewish community in a leadership position, specifically that of rabbinic leader. YM has an Open Orthodox philosophy. This includes a religious worldview rejecting the approach of daat torah which relies on a small group of Torah scholars to decide all religious, social and political matters; a belief that all knowledge is part of a sacred world so secular culture and knowledge should be embraced; open support for the modern State of Israel; expanded roles for women; pluralism and the importance of political activism.

Yeshivat Maharat was founded this past summer by myself and Rabbi Avi Weiss, after Rabbi Avi Weiss ordained me, following seven years of study under his auspices and working as part of his rabbinic staff at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. YM’s entering class consists of four women studying full time and two studying for their pre-requisites at Drisha Institute. Two of the full time students follow an independent course of study and work with rabbinic staffs in congregations in Chicago and Montreal. They “skype” in for classes. YM is training its students using the best of traditional and innovative methods- a true combination of the ancient and the new!

The Yeshivat Maharat program is a four-year full-time course of training.

Coursework: The YM curriculum is modeled after other Orthodox ordination programs, with the goal of providing all the necessary skills to be spiritual leaders in the Jewish community. Each graduate must be expert in Jewish law, Talmud, Bible and Jewish Thought and have rhetorical facility and counseling proficiency.

Internship: In addition to study, the students will be placed in an internship in a synagogue, school or communal organization. This practical, hands-on experience will benefit the student and the community while also helping community members become accustomed to the idea of women in rabbinic leadership positions.

Job placement: The Yeshiva staff will advocate on behalf of its graduates to place them in positions of leadership in synagogues, schools, campus organizations and community centers.

For the immediate future, the Yeshiva will remain a small program, limited to six women in each one of the classes, who are committed to Orthodox Judaism, have a strong background in Jewish studies, are already proficient in Talmudic text and who want to serve the community in a rabbinic capacity.

If you would like to apply for Yeshivat Maharat, please let me know.

Free God now! posted by R. Yosef Kanefsky

December 30, 2009

 “From the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed is He, has nothing in His world, except for the four cubits of Halacha.” (Berachot 8a). 

This soulful rabbinic reflection is both an expression of grief over Jerusalem’s destruction, and an affirmation of the religious power of halachik study. Only in the places and times where Halacha is being studied, can the Divine Presence that had formerly dwelt in the holy of holies, now be found. 

I wonder whether this rabbinic teaching has been taken way too far in our contemporary context, to disastrous effect.

 It goes without saying that we don’t actually believe that God has abandoned the vast swaths of world that exist outside of Halacha’s four cubits. Every morning we speak the sacred words, “The One who mercifully gives light to the world and all who inhabit it, and in Whose goodness renews daily the work of creation”. After every meal we acknowledge God who “sustains the entire world in His goodness”. And every Monday and Thursday we plead, “have compassion upon us and upon all of Your creatures”. On Friday nights we even call upon the entire Earth to sing to Him. We definitely believe that God is still everywhere, and that His care and concern continue to be universal.

But it’s impossible, of course, to reconcile this conviction that God’s eyes are everywhere and that His mercies are upon everyone, with the awful behavior of Orthodox Jews that has captured public attention over the past months and years. Unquestionably, many factors contribute to a religious person’s (a religious leader’s) decision to behave illegally and unethically. Greed and base temptation figure in prominently. But we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the mindset which confines God to the beis hamedresh, to the four cubits of the yeshiva and to the “heimishe” community, to the exclusion of the wider world which is populated by those who do not enter the beis hamedresh, or who are not part of the halacha-bound fraternity.

 You can’t launder money unless you’ve convinced yourself that God doesn’t really know from the IRS, and doesn’t really care about the beneficiaries of taxpayer-financed government programs. You can’t abuse and manipulate people who are hoping to convert to Judaism unless you’ve concluded that God looks away from the anguish of the non-Jewish “stranger”. You cannot protect men who are utilizing a “get” as an instrument of extortion against their ex-wives unless you believe that women – who in many communities are outsiders to the clique of the beis hamedresh – fall outside God’s concern. And you cannot underpay and otherwise maltreat Guatemalan workers unless you don’t regard them as being God’s creatures in quite the same way that you are.

 It’s a disturbing and dangerous sort of arrogance that can arise from a misreading of the Talmud’s statement that God is only found within the four cubits of the yeshiva. If the great contribution that Modern Orthodoxy makes to Orthodox Judaism is to restore the God of Israel also to the world outside the Beit Midrash, and to speak with clarity about what needs to be fixed – dayenu.

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word – Rabbi Barry Gelman

December 29, 2009

The last two weeks have brought reports of very troubling allegations against Rabbi Leib Tropper, founder of Eternal Jewish Family (EJF), an organization that has sought to influence conversion standards.

I am not the only one outraged by the recent events related to Rabbi Tropper, who has resigned from his position at EJF. While what he allegedly did (he has not denied it yet) is despicable, the EJF train wreck will actually get worse if all we continue to hear from the EJF leadership is silence.

I have heard number of Rabbis call for the disbanding of the EJF, while there are others who are hopeful that the EJF can recreate itself. One thing is for sure, EJF will never recreate itself if there is no apology.

The current EJF rabbinic leadership must do three things:

1.            Repudiate the actions of Rabbi Tropper,

2.            Apologize for the chillul hashem created by the EJF due to Tropper’s actions, and

3.            Come clean about the various claims of financial “funny business” at the organization.

In the words of Marshal Goldsmith, a well-known leadership consultant, apologizing is “the most magical, healing, restorative gesture human beings can make.” He also explains that refusing to say “I am sorry” to someone you may have wronged is the equivalent of saying “I don’t care about you.”

Goldsmith makes the point that when one apologizes, one is in effect saying, “I can’t change the past. All I can say is I’m sorry for what I did wrong. I’m sorry it hurt you. There is no excuse for it and I will try to do better in the future.”

Whether or not the rabbinic leadership of EJF knew about Tropper’s misdeeds is beside the point. (I do find it interesting that so many find it impossible to believe that Tropper duped the rabbinic leadership of the EJF; as if to say that Halachik and Talmudic expertise makes one an expert in human psychology and immune to be tricked by a guy like Tropper.) What is important is that the EJF leadership must take responsibility for what Tropper did if they ever wish to move past this episode.

Finally, I share with you the following from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

God never asked us not to make mistakes. All He asks is that we acknowledge them when we make them, apologize, make amends, heal the relationships we harmed, and commit ourselves not to make the same mistake again. That is what turns failure into a learning experience. It’s the cluster of ideas the Bible calls repentance, atonement and forgiveness. It is what makes biblical cultures more humane than their alternatives.

We owe to the anthropologist Ruth Benedict the fundamental distinction between shame cultures and guilt cultures. In shame cultures what matters is how we are seen by others. In guilt cultures like Judaism and Christianity, what matters is the voice within – conscience, what Freud called the superego, the moral values we internalise and make our own. In shame cultures a person is judged by the honour in which he or she is held. In guilt cultures there is no way of escaping the still, small voice that calls to us as it once called to Adam and Eve saying, “Where art thou?”

Shame cultures seem to lack the idea of forgiveness. If you’ve done wrong, the most important thing is to hope no one will find out. Once they do, there is no way of removing the stain of dishonour or the loss of face. Depending on time and circumstance, the shamed hero either goes off to fight and die in a distant battle, or flees to some remote country, or (in the old British theatrical tradition) disappears offstage to do the decent thing with a loaded revolver in the library of a country house. Shame cultures produce literatures of tragedy.

Guilt cultures produce literatures of hope. King David sins – seriously, as it happens – is confronted by the prophet Nathan and immediately confesses. So do the inhabitants of Nineveh when Jonah finally reaches them and tells them of their impending doom. They are given the greatest gift a culture can confer: the chance to begin again, not held captive by the past.

I urge to EJF leadership to take the path of guilt cultures.

P.B. = Post Blog

After writing this blog post a very sad realization came to me. In the blog I wrote the following: “What is important is that the EJF leadership must take responsibility for what Tropper did if they ever wish to move past this episode.”

After further consideration, I wonder if this will come to pass.  I fear that the Yeshiva world will let this latest scandal slide, like so many others, without calling their leadership to task or at the very least demanding an apology.

I pray that this time, things will be different.

While written before the EJF scandal, the following by Rabbi Avi Shafran certainly applies  –

This one should also ring true –

Mount Morayah: Fulcrum of Exile and Redemption, Sacrifice and Reprieve; and some other thoughts about unity

December 24, 2009

I am on Sabbatical in Jerusalem for 6 months.  Here is the first of several video highlights of the city/Divrey Torah I hope to do for the folks back home.   To Enjoy click HERE

On a separate note I have been davening at a small hole in the wall French-Moroccan shul at which I was today number 10 and yesterday number 8 with no one to follow. I like praying with people with whom there is no expectation to speak andwho are so culturally different from myself. Today into this small room of 6:30am schacharit praying sefardim dressed in jeans and small kippot came a Chasid from a very different neighborhood  dressed in black and while with long payot collecting money. With no questions asked everyone gave there few shekels. In some strange way I think the Orthodox Jews of Israel are actually more unified than those of the exile, though I know many feel differently.   Thoughts?

One More Critical Idea Regarding Israel, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

December 18, 2009

Yesterday I posted my underlying political views re. Israel.  I wanted to add one major point.  And it is so important that it is the one time, that I can recall, that I have talked what can be viewed as politics – Israel politics – from the bima, from the pulpit.  It is regarding the rule of law in Israel, and, specifically, following the law when it comes to the IDF.  I believe that in the case of Israel, not only is the rule of law critical to the moral, ethical and national fiber of the state, but it is crucial for the very survival of the Jewish State.  Therefore, it becomes a religious issue of “pikuach nefesh” making sure that the best defense of the Jewish People – the State of Israel – can operate safely as a state of laws.  That applies to soldiers in the IDF, even if their rabbis tell them otherwise, and to those building communities all over the land.  I would push hard to allow the greatest freedom of expression the law will allow – free speech is important – and for the greatest latitude in letting Jews live everywhere in Eretz Yisrael, the land that God gave us, but we need to follow the laws of Israel.

Our rabbis had an ambivalent – to say the least – attitude towards the Hashmonaim who did not always stick to Jewish law.  They are still heroes, but their state did not last. I hope, and pray and plan to work  hard to make sure the the Jewish state that we have in our days lasts a lot longer, and one of the key ways of doing so is by making sure that all those who live in her holy boundaries, heroes or not, obey the law.

Shabbat shalom, Chodesh Tov and Chanuka same’ach,

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

A Clarification of Rabbi Asher Lopatin’s Political Views on Israel

December 18, 2009


I wanted to clarify by views on Israel by listing my basic views on the State of Israel and how to secure her future as the Jewish State for ever and ever.  Of course, it all depends on God, and we have “bitachon” – trust – that God will bless Israel and ensure her existence.  My list below outlines the efforts we need to make as a people – whether in Israel or in the Diaspora -to support God’s gift to our People.  I do not believe any of these ideas contradict earlier postings I have made on this blog or anywhere else.

So, for the record:

A Summary of Rabbi Asher Lopatin’s Political Views on Israel

1)      Israel is the historic and eternal homeland of the Jewish People, and Zionism is the modern expression of that national, religious and moral expression of the Jews’ connection to the Land of Israel.  The State of Israel is a Jewish State, with all the moral, ethical, national and religious responsibilities that term calls for.

2)      The State of Israel is the bulwark defending Jews in Israel and all over the world: its existence and security is critical to the survival of Jews everywhere.

3)      No part of the historic Israel should be off limits for Jews; Jews should be allowed to live and build communities wherever feasible in the Land of Israel.

4)      Jerusalem has been the political and spiritual capital of the Jewish people since the days of King David.  It has been reunited and restored as the Jewish capital and will, God willing, remain so for all time, under the sovereignty and protection of the State of Israel.

5)      A strong Israel Defense Force, stationed everywhere Jews live or can live, is the best strategic guarantee of peace and security for all the inhabitants of Israel.

6)      Zev Jabotinsky, the great Revisionist Zionist, laid out goals which are true and necessary today, and I adapt those goals to today’s situation:

a)      The State of Israel needs to be a refuge open for Jews from all over the world and encouraging aliya

b)      The State of Israel needs to maintain a Jewish majority – ideally built from gathering Jews from around the world

c)       The Arabs living in the Land of Israel, and everywhere, need to know clearly that the Jews are in Israel to stay, that we intend to remain the majority and that the State of Israel will do whatever is necessary to provide for the security and continued existence of the Jews in Israel.

d)      The needs –  social, economic and national –  of the indigenous Arabs of Israel must be addressed, but only within the framework of the security and continued existence of the Jews in the State of Israel.

7)      The best thing for Judaism in Israel is to look into the separation of “church and State” which works so well in America to allow for passionate religion while maintaining religious diversity.  The free market of religion is a power engine to provide for people’s spiritual needs.

8)      The free market in general, including free trade, is the bulwark of a strong, innovative and diverse economy.

Judith the Jewess

December 17, 2009

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

The Book of Judith is associated with Chanukah. And yet, the book is not canonized as part of Tanach, and therefore, is not studied with any frequency.  There are several reasons given for why the book was not canonized.  The main one is that the dates, names and places are unrecognizable.  This could mean that either names are disguises or, more likely, they were chosen to alert the reader that the Book of Judith is a literary tale of fiction.  The story begins “In the twelfth year if the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who reigned over the Assyrians in Nineveh.” The date, time and place are illogical, giving the impression of beginning a literary story.

I would like to suggest that whether the story occurred or not is irrelevant.  Despite the fact the book of Judith was not canonized, I believe that there is still much to learn from her. You see, Judith in Hebrew is Yehudit, or “the Jewess”, implying that Judith embodies many of the women of Tanach. She is no one and everyone. Indeed, the story is ripe with textual references to the other woman of Tancha. Judith is called Yifath To’ar and Yifat mareh, beautiful and well favored, just like Rachel (Genesis 29:16). She is considered a person of “good understanding” as is Avigail (I Samuel 25:3).  Judith takes off her sackcloth of mourning, and dons feminine sensual attire, as did Tamar (Genesis 38:14).  She summons the leaders of the community, just like Devorah summons Barak to her (Judges 4: 6).  She insists on eating her own food for kashruth reasons, just like Esther, who also only ate her own food (Yalkut Shimnoi, Esther 1053). She prays like Channa (I Samuel 2:1).  She kills Holofernes, in a similar way to Yael (Judges 4:21).  And she sings and praises God with instruments, just like Miriam (Exodus 15:20).

So Judith is a composite of many of the women of Tanach.  The story draws upon the very best characteristic traits of the Biblical women. And so, we study her because she is the Jewess, breaking the mold of any one women while at the same time willing us to aspire, on Chanukah, to combine all the elements of traditional women into one unified whole.  A composite of who we can be.