More on “The Ever-Narrowing Orthodox Mind”

December 16, 2009

I thank all of my friends and new friends who have shared comments on the “Ever-Narrowing Orthodox Mind” . There are numerous ways in which I’d like to engage and respond, though I’ll begin with two:
(1) providing sources in opposition to two of the closely-related non-dogmas (with more to come in subsequent posts)
(2) addressing the question as to whether it any longer matters that opinions on these issues range dramatically in our classical sources, given that “most Orthodox Jews today” believe the alleged dogmas.

In the previous post, I asserted that Orthodox Jews need not embrace the following two ideas, as many of our classical thinkers did not embrace them either:
(1) Every calamity that occurs on Earth is the result of an express Divine decision as to how and when it should unfold, and that God directly decides who shall survive it, and who shall not.

(2) When tragedy strikes, this is invariably the fault of somebody having sinned.

The classical thinkers I had in mind include both Ramban (Nachmanides) and Rambam (Maimonides). In his commentary on Humash (Braishit 18:19) Ramban writes that God only extends providential protection to the righteous. “God’s Providence in the lower world is general , and even human beings are subject to random events (“mikrim”) … Only for His righteous ones (“hasidav”, like Abraham, who is the subject of the commentary), does God devote His heart to know them in detail”. Ramban’s comment is a milder version of Rambam’s, as it appears in the latter’s Guide for the Perplexed, 3:51. There, Rambam limits personal Divine Providence to people who have achieved perfect intellectual apprehension of God, and even for these, only when they are actively engaged in thinking about God. When distracted, they become “a target for every evil that may happen to befall” them.  The writings of Ralbag (Gersonidies) go even farther than Rambam’s. The Midrash too reflects this opinion in the voice of Resh Lakish, who taught that God had to give up on properly guarding over the righteous in this world, although He will certainly reward them in the next world. (Eicha Rabba, 3:1, “Oti Nahag”) In the views of these indisputably “Orthodox” thinkers, random events all too often do in fact overtake ordinary, or even extraordinary, human beings.

Equally if not even more mainstream is the Talmud’s discussion about the permissibility of healing people who have taken ill. (Bava Kamma 85a) The Talmud considers the possibility that healing should be prohibited on the grounds that a person’s illness is presumably an act of God, Who is afflicting the person on account of his or her sins. (See Rashi’s commentary.) But the Talmud then cites a Biblical verse permitting healing nonetheless. While there are many nuances in the interpretation of the Talmudic conclusion, one way or another, the Talmud is stepping away from the premise that illness is the direct outcome of sin.

It is not difficult to marshal sources which oppose alleged dogmas which are really not dogmas at all. The more difficult task, I have discovered over the last week, is to convince people that the exercise is worth it.  Whether believing that contemporary Orthodoxy has effectively rejected all of the above thinkers, or believing that tampering with people’s security dogmas undermines their piety, folks have expressed that we should  throw in the towel. There are at least two reasons why we must not. The first is that people’s beliefs affect their attitudes and actions. Think about attitudes we saw in our community years ago – and sometimes still today – toward people who contracted AIDS. Think about the claims made by Orthodox rabbis concerning why New Orleans was almost wiped out by Katrina, or why some people survived on 9/11 and others did not. And think about how these kinds of attitudes belittle us as a religious community, and turn us away from people in need.

And the other reason is simply that when you love something, it kills you to see corrupted and warped. It one’s Orthodox commitment means anything, it means wanting to see it healthy and productive, being the source of blessing it is designed to be.


Open Your Eyes – Rabbi Barry Gelman

December 15, 2009

Chanukah Candles are a unique mitzvah is that they differ from other Mitzvot that require candle lighting.

Shabbat candles are lit to provide light and to honor the Shabbat meals (think candle light dinner)

The Candles in the Beit Hamikdash we lit to honor the Beit Bait Hamikdash and to symbolize God’s presence.

Chanukah candles are a bit different:

We are told that we are not allowed to use them for light but rather “Lirotam bilvaad” – we are only allowed to look at them.

This is a strange and unique mitzvah. What good does simply looking at the candles do for us?

Rabbi Shalom Noach Brusovsky, the late Slonimer Rebbe teaches that simply looking at the candles has spiritual potency. He recalls that one of his predecessors used to stare at the candles from the moment he lit them for hours on end. He goes on to explain that simply looking at the chanukah light can combat spiritual malaise, that looking at the chanukah candles has spiritual healing power.

There is something very beautiful in the idea that seeing a mitzvah object has the power to religiously transform us. This approach bespeaks a willingness to b e inspired.

I would like to expand this idea beyond mitzvah objects to the general question of inspiration.

It seems to me that one of the great challenges that we face is that it is very hard to be inspired. It is almost as we have a force field that “protects” us against inspirational moments.

Here are a few examples:

What is our reaction when we see someone praying with great fervor – I mean really getting into it. Many tend to think that the person is over the top, even a little embarrassing.  This is especially so if the person is wearing a black hat – then we really think he is crazy. A defense mechanism kicks in that that blocks us from the realization that this person may really be tapped into something special. Instead of being inspired, or even jealous of that, we tend to get cynical.

What we should do is ask that person what has so inspired them. If our praying is lackluster, we should seek inspiration from those who pray with a sense of purpose.

Another area where we can open our hearts to inspiration is in the ever growing area of women’s participation in orthodox life. There are ever emergent developments including women being ordained on some level to minyanim that maximize women’s participation even as far as participation in the main torah reading and of course the popularity of programs offering women opportunities to study Torah at the highest level. Whether or not one approves of  or is comfortable with these development, it is time to stop judging motives and allow ourselves to be inspired. Here is a group of people who actually desire more religion. In the face of people leaving Judaism in droves, this group represents an opposing trend.

 Many of these women suffer all sorts of verbal insults, people walking out on them and second guessing their piety. This type of cynicism blocks inspiration. Instead of dismissing it as some fad, we can embrace it, even as many may disagree with the conclusions, as a legitimate desire for religious growth and be personally inspired by it.

A third area from where we should glean inspiration is from people who take on more religious practices. I sense that in the world of morethodoxy the reaction to those of our friends and acquaintances that take on more rigorous halachik practice is one of disregard or worse, disdain.

As an example, consider Lashon Hara. What is our response when someone tells us they would rather not continue the conversation because the talk has become gossip. We may think such a person has gone mad. Maybe we get insulted or feel guilty. Seldom do we feel inspired by this attempt to be more religious.

This attitude is bad for morethodoxy.

This idea of being able to remove blockages to inspiration is part of the chanulah story. After all, one of the miracles of chanukah was uncovering the one jar of oil. It was hidden away from all and then finally revealed.

This is what Chanukah is all about; uncovering what is hidden within us and the ability to look at some event, phenomenon or even person and to become inspired.

Women of the Wall respond

December 10, 2009

Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz

My post entitled “Arrested for Wearing a Tallit” evoked quite a passionate reaction.  In response, I want to point out that “Women of the Wall” is a non denominational organization, looking to provide women with the right to pray at the kotel.  Advocating for this right does not make me Reform.   I believe that one of Morethodoxy’s principals is inclusivity— engaging all kinds of Jews—those with special needs, disabled, divorced, widowed, Shabbat observant, and those who are still on a journey. Women’s participation, within the framework of halakha, is central to the principal of inclusivity.  I understand that the circumstances surrounding Nofrat Frenkel’s arrest in complicated.  However, that does not change the fact that women should have the right to daven peacefully at the holiest site in the world. Their presence does not exclude men from praying. There is a mechitza separating men and women. No one is advocating for its removal.  So, in the spirit of inclusisvity, why can’t men and women find a way to pray harmoniously side by side?

I have included a letter calling on women to gather together in each of our communities on Thursday December 17th in solidarity with WOW.

Dear Friends,

The arrest of Nofrat Frenkel for wearing a tallit at the kotel on Rosh Hodesh Kislev compels us to raise our voices and engage our communities in joint action.  We invite you to join in a community-wide Day of Solidarity and Support for Women of the Wall (WOW), to take place on Rosh Hodesh Tevet, Thursday December 17th, the sixth day of Chanukah.  With this national grassroots initiative, we will express our support for the rights of the Women of the Wall to assemble at the Kotel and to pray there with dignity, in safety and in shared community.
As with many other women’s grass roots efforts, each community, organization and institution shall develop its own program of prayer or study and shall reach out as widely as possible to its constituencies. For some groups, this day of solidarity and support will be in the manner of WOW, including tefillah and the reading of the Torah. For others, the
program may be a “lunch and learn” text study session; or a women’s Chanukah observance.  For yet others, it might be a gathering of three or more friends in a living room or office who will dedicate their joint prayer and/or study to the Women of the Wall.  Some communities may want to add to their programs a screening of Yael Katzir’s film, Praying in Her Own Voice.
We ask that you convene a program that shows your support for this initiative.  Please share your plans and document your activities by sending an email to We also ask that you send a photo of your gathering to Judith Sherman Asher,  Please caption the photo with the names of the participants, the date, location of, and information about your program.  Feel free to add a short message of support for Women of  the Wall.  This will greatly strengthen the morale of our sisters is Israel.

We hope you will join in a groundswell of support of American women for the Women of the Wall.  We encourage you to send this letter to any other women’s groups who might want to participate.   As Rosh Hodesh Tevet takes place during the week of Chanukah, the holiday of religious freedom, what better time to affirm the right of women to raise their voices in prayer at the Wall!

Sincerely yours,

Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson
Director, Women’s Rabbinic Network

Rivka Haut
Women’s Tefillah Network

The Ever-Narrowing Orthodox Mind.

December 9, 2009

Another way that we are unnecessarily making Orthodoxy unappealing to folks is by tolerating the perception that Orthodox Jews are bound by a set of religious dogmas, many of which strike the modern mind as being highly implausible and/or deeply offensive. I’m referring to the alleged Orthodox dogmas which our children too often pick up in day school, and which become further propagated and entrenched with every ArtScroll publication that hits the shelves. When we fail to respectfully but vigorously assert that these are not Orthodox dogmas, we become complicit not only in a form of Chilul Hashem, but also in reinforcing the impression that Orthodoxy does best by the narrow-minded. (In truth, the consequences of our silence are more grievous still as these “dogmas” also seem to grant some of their adherents the license to engage in terrible behavior.) 

Here are just a few examples of damaging “dogmas”, each of which is in reality only one opinion among other dissenting opinions that have been expressed in classical (= Orthodox ) sources. Your local Morethodox rabbi will surely be ale to point you to the sources that dispute the notions that: 

(1)   Jewish souls have a superior innate quality relative to non-Jewish souls. And only the former enjoy the benefits of eternal life. 

(2)   Every calamity that occurs on Earth is the result of an express Divine decision as to how and when it should unfold, and that God directly decides who shall survive it, and who shall not. 

(3)   When tragedy strikes, this is invariably the fault of somebody having sinned. 

(4)    Our biblical ancestors, most especially our patriarchs and matriarchs, never erred or sinned. Any act that they performed – including those which would horrify us if our spouses or our children did them – is righteous.

 (5)   It is prohibited to return lost objects to non-Jews, and one ought not extend tzedaka to non-Jewish individuals or causes as long as Jewish need exists. And that it goes without saying that there are no circumstances that under which parts of  Eretz Yisrael could be ceded for the creation of a non-Jewish state.

 (6)   The Midrash and the Aggada are comprised of narratives that were passed down to our Sages from Sinai, to be regarded as possessing the same truth as the biblical narratives themselves, even when they thus compel us to negatively stereotype whole peoples (e.g. Ishmaelites), or require us to morally justify exploiting your twin brother’s weakness for lentils, for your own financial benefit.. 

(7)   It is possible, utilizing mathematics and physics, to prove the scientific authenticity of the Torah’s account of Creation, and that to regard the opening chapters of Genesis as being anything other than literally true, is heresy. 

(8)   Jews who are not Orthodox would be better off not davening at all than davening in a non-Orthodox shul. Cause we know how God thinks about these things. 

(9)   [“Damaging” in the sense that our intellectual honesty is shot by this one..] The book of Tehillim, including the Psalms describing events surrounding the destruction and rebuilding of Jerusalem, were nonetheless somehow authored by King David. And the books of Mishlai and Kohellet were authored by King Solomon –  despite the fact that they are written in a Hebrew that belongs to the Second Temple period. And the issues surrounding Isaiah etc, etc. 

If you’re reading this, the chances are that you’ve been troubled by all of these “dogmas” before. But don’t take them lying down. I believe that if we speak our piece, we can reshape what “Orthodoxy believes”. Artscroll did it. Why can’t we?

On Line Psak – Bad Medicine

December 8, 2009

I am sure that many are familiar with the phenomenon on internet piskei halach – the popular notion of asking halachik questions, usually anonymously, to a rabbi. Often times even the rabbi who is answering in anonymous as the question is sent to a pool of rabbis.

No doubt there is some benefit to this technological option. It saves time as one can send the question and then great on with their life as they wait for answer. It also allows for sensitive question to be asked with minimal or no embarrassment.

On the other hand, online psak share the same pitfalls that so many other online relationships do. There is no doubt that the internet has allowed many to expand the number of people they are in touch with. The flip side is that while we are in touch with more people quantitatively, the quality of many of those relationships has deteriorated.

Online psak is no different. It allows for no relationship between posek and questioner, a very important ingredient in psak halacha. In on line piskei halaca it is very ahrd to flesh out all the detsil of the question. A fundamental ingredient missing in almost all on line pask is the ability for the Rabbi to ask questions to the questioner. The seasoned posek knows the questions that will assist in finding the proper answer.

Psak Halacha is a very personal matter as no two questioners ask the same question. Even thought on the surface it may seem that the very same question is being asked, the specific circumstances of the questioner, their religious background, their financial, and domestic situation all play a role in making a correct decision.

It is interesting to note that a major issue discussed by rabbis is rabbinic autonomy and that in some areas of life, halacha is becoming centralized One of the main objections to centralized rabbinic authority is that the rabbis of the central authority often lack familiarity with those asking the questions. The same shortcoming exists in the realm of internet psak.

A doctor can do a better job diagnosing a treating a patient when the patient’s personal history is known to the doctor and the doctor has time to ask question and clarify matters. The same is true for a rabbi asked to answer a halachik question. All of the factors mentioned above, if known by the rabbi, an serve an important role in rendering an appropriate decision

Unwittingly Desecrating G-d’s Name by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 4, 2009

How should we act as Orthodox Jews?

Today I was talking to a congregant who told me that her in-laws who are Reform and not observant, asked her why Orthodox Jews are badly mannered.   They said, “so and so’s son became a baal tishuvah (newly observant) and now he is mean to, and rejecting of, people who are not orthodox.”

She responded to her in-laws that the baaley tishuvah in her shul are not at all that way, and that perhaps this bad mannered impression is one not caused by Judaism but by the cultures of specific orthodox communities or types of people who tend to become Orthodox.  I wondered if this was a common stereotype and was told it is.

Though stereotypes are often unfair generalizations about the many from the few, there is often something to them.  I offered her a suggestion.  Perhaps insular communities unwittingly cultivate the sense that those in their community are virtuous and those outside of it are not.  This might lead to the unsaid sense that others on the outside might feel that those inside reject them or are rude to them.

I mentioned that we must be vigilant to avoid such feelings since the Talmud (Yoma 86a) says the following:
“What is a chilul hashem (A desecration of god’s name)?  …Isaac, of the School of Rabbi Jannai said: “If one’s colleagues are ashamed of his reputation that constitutes a profanation of the Name (chilul hashem).” Abaye explained:  If someone studies Torah and Mishnah, and attends on the disciples of the wise (talmidey chachamim), is honest in business, and speaks pleasantly to persons, what do people then say concerning him? ‘Happy the father who taught him Torah, happy the teacher who taught him Torah; woe unto people who have not studied the Torah; for this man has studied the Torah look how fine his ways are, how righteous his deeds! . Of him does Scripture say: And He said unto me: Thou art My servant, Israel, in, whom I will be glorified.  (That is a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of G-d’s name)

But if someone studies Scripture and Mishnah, attends on the disciples of the wise, but is dishonest in business, and discourteous in his relations with people, what do people say about him? ‘ Woe unto him who studied the Torah, woe unto his father who taught him Torah; woe unto his teacher who taught him Torah!’ This man studied the Torah: Look, how corrupt are his deeds, how ugly his ways; of him Scripture says: In that men said of them: “These are the people of the Lord, and are gone forth out of His land.” (This is a desecration of G-d’s name)”

Understanding the Rape of Dina

December 3, 2009

We are about to read the disturbing story of Dina, the daughter of Lea and Jacob. The entire chapter 34 of Bereishit, all 31 verses, narrates the events surrounding Dina’s rape and her brother’s response. We will read how after Dina is raped, her father Jacob is silent; then all of Dina’s brothers devise a plan where they convince the people of Shchem to circumcise themselves, and on the 3rd day Shimon and Levi rise up and murder the men of Shchem. Many people may have read the Red Tent, where Anita Diamante reads the text as a love story between the prince of Shchem and Dina—but I believe this to be a misrepresentation of the text. If you look closely at verse 2, it says:

And Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite,prince of the land, saw her; and he took her, and lay with her, and humbled her (“vay’neha”).

He saw, he took, and lay with her and HUMBLED HER, afflicted her, raped her: inui. Diamante ignored this word, thereby making the story more palatable. I too have trouble coming to terms with the story, but it was that very word, inui, that helped me understand the purpose of the Dina narrative and why the torah dedicates so much space to it.

We are told near the beginning Genesis (15:13)  that in order to enter into a covenantal relationship with Gd, Jews must undergo 3 experiences: one must be a stranger in a strange land, enslaved, and suffer: geirut, avdut, and inui.  We see these 3 words appear several times throughout the stories in Bereishit, but it is especially clear in the book of Exodus. (chapter 1, eved 5x, inui, 2x, ger, 1x in chp 2)  Bnei yisrael enters into a covenantal relationship with God only after being strangers in Mizrayim, enslaved by the Mizrayim, and caused to suffer bitterly in Egypt; only after experiencing geirut avdut and inui does Gd redeem Bnei Yisrael.

 The story of Dina is an exact parallel to the story of the Exodus.  Let’s examine what the parallels are.  Dina in Shchem is like Bnei Yisrael in Egypt.  Having newly arrived in Shchem, she is a stranger—so lonely, that in the first pasuk she goes out to find friends,  “Lirot b’bnot ha’aretz.”  But, rather than find friends, she encounters the prince of Shchem.  And, as we already saw he takes her, lies with her and afflicts her. We are told that she suffers. In addition, Shcehm holds her captive, enslaves her in his house for at least 3 days until Dina’s brothers rescue her.  Like Bnei Yisrael in Mizrayim, Dinah experiences geirut, avdut, and inui.

 Jacob, in our story, is as silent as God was for 400 years while the Jews suffered in Egypt. In verse 5 we are told:

“Now Jacob heard that he had defiled Dinah his daughter; and his sons were with his cattle in the field; and Jacob held his peace until they came.”

When Jacob heard that his daughter had been defiled, he kept silent.  He did nothing.

Then, perhaps because their father did not come to defend his daughter, 2 of Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi rise up in anger, and slay the people of Shcehm. The questions is, who do Shimon and Levi represent in our metaphor? Could they be like Moses, who also rises up and kills a Mitzri in defense of his brethren. Rashi (34:25)says that Shimon and Levi merit being called Dina’s brothers (Achai Dina) because they were willing to risk their lives to save her. Moses too risked his life to defend and save the Jews.

Or, perhaps Shimon and Levi represent God, who after so many years hears the pain and suffering of his children.  God rises up and kills the first born in Egypt.  Immediately following the death of the first born, in chapter 12 verse 31of Exodus, God instructs bnei yisrael to get up (kumu) and go out of Egypt so that they could serve and worship God.  And, after Shimon and Levi kill all the people of Shchem in the Dina narrative God says, in ch 35 verse 1: come, get up (kum) go to beit-el, sacrifice to me and worship me.

The story of Dina is an exact metaphor for the experience of the Jews in Egypt.  After the Jews experience geirut, avdut and innui—being a stranger, being enslaved, and being afflicted, only then are they ready to receive the Torah at Mt Sinai.  Here too, Dina’s suffering is the impetus that allows God to bless Jacob, renaming him Yisrael.  The blessing reiterates the promise that Jacob will be the father of Bnei Yisrael, that he will be a great nation, and along with all of Bnei Yisrael, will inherit the land of Israel.