Mahara”t to Rabba

January 28, 2010

Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote the following statement this week:

It is almost a year since Sara Hurwitz was given the title Mahara”t at a conferral ceremony.  I indicated at that time that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our clergy staff.

Over this past year, I have, on numerous occasions, in talks and symposia around the country, said as clearly as I could that Mahara”t means rabbi, and that Sara Hurwitz has received semikha.  Having studied the same curriculum as any man would study for ordination, she has achieved this goal.

 We decided when Sara Hurwitz was conferred that we would be assessing whether the title Mahara”t has taken hold in the community.  After a year, what we have seen is that it has gained traction within our own community, at the Bayit. But outside our community, when Sara Hurwitz has officiated at funerals or visited hospitals or when the title Mahara”t appears in newspapers, it has not resonated.  Moreover, at times the term Mahara”t has been used inappropriately in a disrespectful way.

And so, after consultation with Rabbi Daniel Sperber, who is signing the klaf with me, we have decided that Sara Hurwitz’s title will now be Rabba.  This will make it clear to everyone that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff, a rabbi with the additional quality of a distinct woman’s voice.

 The klaf will now read,

Sara bat Mordechai HaLevi U’Batsheva

has studied and toiled in our holy Torah for many years.  She has studied Torah and many halakhot from important rabbis and halakhic decisors, and has been tested in the laws of Shabbat, the laws of kashrut, the laws of niddah and the laws of mourning.

She has been found well versed in these laws, in the rulings of the rishonim and the achronim, and is qualified to respond in these areas of halakha with good judgment and clear reasoning.

It is thus, that we declare to the public, that she is worthy

לענות לכל שואל ושואלת בדבר הלכה


Behold, Ms. Hurwitz has been serving for many years as a Madricha Ruchanit to an important congregation, is skilled and experienced in communal leadership, in officiating at lifecycle events, and in spiritual and pastoral counseling.  She is well qualified to teach Torah to the larger community and to lead the congregations of Jacob, and we are certain that her awe of Heaven precedes her wisdom. 

We therefore find her worthy to serve as a Halakhic, Spiritual, and Torah Leader (MaHaRa”T)

and she shall receive the title of



Fortunate is the holy community that will choose Rabba Sara Hurwitz in honor, to bask in the glow of her wisdom.  The authority of the Torah will rest upon her shoulders, to spread the knowledge of God throughout the land.

In testimony of which, we affix our signatures below,

On this day, 26 Adar, 5769,

which corresponds to March 22, 2009

Rabbi Daniel Sperber                                            Rabbi Avraham Weiss

A Rabbi’s Dilemma – Rabbi Barry Gelman

January 26, 2010

I am sure I am not the only rabbi faced with the dilemma of teaching torah to a population that does not have all the skills necessary for in-depth study.

 Morethodox communities with mixed demographics are ripe for this type of question.

 Spending time in Yeshiva one learns the importance of slow meticulous study with time to analyze the texts being studied. Torah students require patience as the answer to questions is not always clear. We are taught that the “pay-off” for all the hard work and frustration comes when we solve the riddles of what we are studying. Suddenly everything becomes clear. We have learned the importance if living with uncertainly and the reward to persistence.

This is indeed a wonderful experience but difficult if not impossible to replicate in a community setting.

Many community members do not have the time or the background to study original sources. There are so many who are eager to learn and I marvel at the efforts made to study Torah, but the yeshiva style study is illusive to many.

In place of that there are English sources, shiurim that provide information instead of time to analysis. Learners are often eager to get to the final answer and skip the analysis. I am not opposed to English sources, I am simply pointing out that their existence indicates a reality.

What are some approaches to this dilemma. I consider it a dilemma as I do not  believe one experiences a “top shelf” learning encounter absent the ability to analyze and decipher sources.

Part of the reality is the “instant” culture that we live where data is available to us with delay. I liken the current trends in community learning to daily blog with have baked information and no time to check sources as opposed to a well researched magazine or newspaper article. (Yes, I know I am writing on a blog).

Do others see this as a dilemma?

Is there a way, short of having community members spend time in yeshiva to learn those skills, to create the beit madras experience?

Schools must also struggle with a similar issue, that of deciding how much time to  spend on practical halacha – teaching the rules balanced with teaching our students how to learn “beit madras style”. Taking time to teach learning skills means that our students have less time to master practical of Jewish living (how do I make a salad on Shabbat).

It is clear that not every helacha can be taught in school, but what is the proper balance?

Do We Have A Prayer (for Haiti)? R. Yosef Kanefsky

January 20, 2010

As Shabbat approached this past week, two things were immediately obvious. One was that we needed to daven for the people of Haiti in shul on Shabbat morning. The other was that there is nothing remotely close to a “Prayer for non-Israelites who are Suffering” anywhere in our siddur. Same for the book of Tehilim, to which we always instinctively turn at a time of crisis.

Sure enough, a Mi Sheberach prayer composed specifically for the catastrophe in Haiti soon began making its way through the Jewish internet. The Mi Sheberach’s modern Hebrew was flawless and the sentiments it expressed were profound, urgent, and moving. But I knew that I wasn’t going to use it in shul the next day.  For starters, too many of my congregants would not understand the Hebrew. And even for those congregants who would understand them, the recitation of these words, beautiful as they were, wouldn’t resonate in their souls as “davening”. “Davening” involves reciting words that are old, that conjure up memories, that join us instantly to generations past, that appear in a book whose pages are worn with use.

It was getting late, and I still didn’t have a prayer.

Thankfully, a line from selichot that that so pointedly related to the tragic plight of the earthquake survivors, surfaced in my head. “Perhaps He will have compassion upon the poor and impoverished nation. Perhaps he will have mercy.” (It’s a refrain – concerning ourselves – which we repeat in the Selichot on the third day before Rosh HaShana). Suddenly, in my mind’s ear, I could hear the kahal (congregation) davening this line, in response to the ba’al tefilla davening the middle verses of Ashrai, which speak of God’s compassion over all His creation. And finally, we had a prayer.

After Shabbat, I lingered over the fact that our books of song and prayer do not contain prayers for people other than ourselves (with the exception of a few paragraphs from the Rosh HaShana machzor.) And as I’ve done before, I worked on persuading myself that this fact is not as telling as it might seem, that it doesn’t reflect some kind of fundamental religious position of ours that the goyim can worry about themselves, that we need not, or perhaps even should not be davening for them in their time of distress. After all of the greatest figures in our history davened for non-Jews. In the parsha we had just read, literally minutes before we davened for Haiti, Moshe cried out in prayer three separate times asking God to relieve the suffering of Pharaoh and the Egyptians of all people! (He does it again this coming week.) And the prophet Jonah is specifically sent to save Assyrians from calamity. And there’s Avraham praying for the people of Sodom of course. And we have a long, long tradition of praying for our host government (though there is a touch of self-concern in this prayer as well). It worked, and I felt reassured, “precedented”.  Yet, there is a residual shadow. Shouldn’t there be something, somewhere in our canon of prayer that can be easily whipped out in cases of non-Jewish calamity?

 What do you think about all this?

A Prayer for Haiti

January 15, 2010

Written By Rabbi Steven Exler

I offer this for your use or for building off of. I wrote it with great
support and help and revision by Mishael Zion and a touch by Josh Frankel
(current YCT students and haveirim).
Shabbat shalom,
Steven Exler

מי שברך אבותינו אברהם יצחק ויעקב ואמותינו שרה רבקה רחל ולאה
הוא יברך וירפא את כל הנפגעים ברעידת האדמה בהאיטי.
הרחמן אשר כוחו וגבורתו מלא עולם,
הוא יציל ויושיע את הנלכדים
ישיב את הנעדרים
ויחזק וינחם את משפחות הנפטרים
הרופא חולים והסומך נופלים, הוא יחזק את ידי מנהיגי האיטי ורופאיה,
ואת כל העוזרים והמצילים בעת הזאת,
ויתן בלבם חכמה בינה ודעת.
כן יהי רצון ונאמר אמן

More on Rav Samet’s Yeshivah in Lod and the Creativity of Talmud Study –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 15, 2010

There are several Torah scholars who derive creative philosophical, psychological, and quite modern thoughts from the Tanach and Midrash.  Among these authors is most notably Aviva Zorenberg, and I think she herself would argue, the Midrash itself.  There are also those commentaries that take the same approach to Agaditah, the narrative sections of the Talmud.  These thinkers include Immanual Levinas, as well as, I would say, the Mahara”l, and many others.    To read these authors is to see all of the great ideas even of the world reflected in our texts and moreover to see ourselves in them.

Few though have used these methods to delve into the halachic sections of the Talmud.   I think this is because when we approach a halachic section of Talmud our aim usually is not to see ourselves reflected in the sugyah, but more as a scientist; objective, linier, and above all logical.   The approach in the yeshiva in Lod is unique in that in addition of course to the classical study of the rishonim and achronim (earlier and latter commentaries) the Talmud is analyzed with an eye to the psychological, the philosophical, the human and the personal.  In this way one can sense an added level of relevancy in these halchaic sections.

For instance, in the process of studying the halachic sections of Baba Kammah regarding the required compensation for injury that one who damages another must pay, the much deeper questions of what it means to damage another human was dealt with in depth.   Though I came to the yeshiva only toward the end of their study of this section of Talmud, the first day I attended was actually a field trip related to the sugyah, the halachik section of the Talmud they were learning.

The yeshiva visited a residential facility for individuals with disabilities to interact with them and to understand from their point of view what it is like to not posses all the  physical abilities of the average person.   This was then related back to a central question underlying the halchic sections of this chapter in Baba Kamah.  If one person damages another physically, say by cutting off their hand, they must compensate them monetarily.  Is this truly compensation for lost use or have they inflicted upon another person something that in truth can not be compensated?  Have they taken from them part of their humanness, part of what it means for them to be themselves?   What does it mean then to halachically compensate another for physical damage we have inflicted upon them.

Though in many yeshivot such questions would be seen as beside the point, the object usually being to invent new ideas in a removed intellectual manor,  rather than to be ourselves present to what the Talmud says, I think Talmud studied in this way opens a door to the Talmud and Jewish law changing the way we see ourselves in the world; not just fulfilling the commandment to study torah.   Ironically, as in psychotherapy, Rabbi Samet pointed out, to uncover one’s own discomfort, one’s own personal feelings and the baggage they bring to the Sugyah, enables one actually to be more objective in the end.

“You Shall Walk with the Lord:” In Commemoration of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

January 14, 2010

Rabba Sara Hurwitz

I was recently asked to recall my most inspiring teaching from our wisdom.  In light of the tragedy in Haiti, and hoe each of us can help, as well as the commemoration of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. this coming Monday, and all that he stood for, I cannot help but think of the teaching of R Hama son of Rabbi Hanina, recorded in the Babylonian Talmud Sotah 14a

I’ll paraphrase:

Our Bible teaches: You shall walk with the Lord. How, one may ask, is it possible for a human, for each of us, to walk with God? The rabbis in their wisdom explain that the way to walk with god, is to not physically walk by God’s side, but rather to emulate God’s actions.  Just as the Lord clothed the naked, as he dressed Adam and Eve, so too must we provide clothing for those in need. And just as the Lord visited the sick, as he visited Abraham, so should we visit the infirm.  Just as God comforted the mourners, as he comforted Isaac, so should we do our part in comforting those who suffered a loss.

The key to being Godly is to be a decent caring human being.  We don’t only strive to walk with God through prayer and song, although, as we know that uplifts the soul, but we walk with God by caring for all of Gods creations, with love.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr., in his lifetime, walked with God.  Yes, he was a preacher, and he inspired many through song and prayer.  But his most godly attribute was his deep sense of responsibility for others.  When Dr King died, On Tuesday, April 4, 1968 many words were said in his honor. But the words that touched people the most were spoken by King himself. A tape recording was played as part of the last sermon Dr. King made in his church:

” If any of you are around when I meet my day,…I’d like someone to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others . . . I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that I did try in my life to clothe the naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”

Dr King walked with God in his lifetime. And now, in his passing, his memory inspires each of us to walk with God as well.  To take a close look at our lives, and to think how we can strive to serve God’s creatures with love.  We must clothe the naked—perhaps by sending clothes to those who have been left destitute after the earthquake in Haiti.  We must visit the sick—look around this weekend, and take note of who are not in our places of worship, and visit them in their homes.  And we must comfort the mourners—reach out to those who have lost loved ones, and show them that you care.

Dr. King walked with God in his lifetime. He continues to inspire us to walk with God today. And it is easy to imagine Dr King at this very moment, walking with God.

The Converts In Our Midst – Rabbi Barry Gelman

January 12, 2010

The following is a digest of the sermon I delivered in my Synagogue on Shabbat, January 9th, 2010

I feel compelled to address the recent conversion controversy in my sermon. I do so because two things changes.
1.    The woman at the center of the controversy converted.
2.    The Houston Jewish community has been painted with broad strokes as not welcoming her ad questioning her conversion.
Let me say at the outset that the Beit Din that performed the conversion is an unimpeachable Beit Din and therefore I consider the woman at the center of the controversy to be Jewish and fully welcomed in this community.
I have also informed her that I would be willing to convene a Beit Din to convert her son (all he needs is immersion in the mikvah).
I want to share with you a number if halachik considerations. These halachot apply equally to all converts.
1. The biblical obligation to love the convert.
This obligation is spelled out in the biblical verse
“Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Maimonides points out that the commandment to love the convert to Judaism actually is doubly powerful as it is superimposed on the existing obligation to love one’s fellow Jews.

Here are Rambam’s words:

“Loving the convert who has taken refuge (lit., ‘came and entered’) beneath the wings of the Divine Presence [comprises] two positive obligations, one because he is included in ‘fellowship’ (and so is included in the obligation to love one’s fellow as himself (Levit. 19:18)), and two because he is a convert and the Torah said, ‘You shall love the convert’ (Deuteronomy 10:19). [The Torah] commanded to love the convert as it commanded to love G-d (lit., ‘His Name’), as it is stated, ‘And you shall love the L-rd your G-d’ (Deut. 6:5). G-d Himself loves converts, as it is stated, ‘…and loves [the] convert’ (ibid., 10:18).” (Hilchot De’ot Chapter 6, Law 4)
Notice that Rambam also compares the love due a convert to the love due God and that God himself loves converts.

In a Responsum, Rambam writes that the obligation to love a convert is even more intense than the obligations we have towards our parents. In relation to our parents we are obligated to respect and fear them – both of which can be accomplished without loving them. In fact, the Torah never commands the love of parents. However, regarding the convert we are obligated to develop actual love for them.

Perhaps the Torah especially commands us regarding loving the convert because it is not always so easy to do so. Often converts come from different cultures, look differently and speak differently than those they are trying to join.
There are often cultural barriers that make it difficult for converts to be fully embraced by the Jewish community.
To all of this, the Torah says: Love the convert – we must work on it and develop love in our hearts.
2. The biblical prohibition of oppressing a convert

This prohibition is spelled out in the biblical verse:

“And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The Sefer Hachinuch elucidates two very important ideas related to how we treat converts in our midst.

First he notes that the capacity to sanctify God’s name or to desecrate God’s name is in our hands in terms of how we treat converts.

“At the root of the precept lies the reason that the Eternal Lord chose the Israelites to be a holy people to Him, and wished to make them meritorious. He therefore guided and ordered them onto the ways of kindly grace and compassion, and adjured them to adorn themselves with every desirable and precious trait of character, to find favor in the eyes of all who behold them, that they should say, “These are the people of the Lord.”

The Sefer Hachinuch ascribes great power in terms of how communities accept and treat converts. Certainly in this local controversy their has been a tremendous chillul Hashem – desecration of God’s name. We have the capacity, to a degree, to reverse the chilul Hashem by carefully adhering to the Torah commandments of loving and not oppressing theconvert.

Secondly, the Sefer Hachinuch sensitizes us to the challenges overcome by a convert. “ Well, how much a way of gratification and delight it is to adopt loving kindness and do good for a person who left his nation and the entire family f his father’s and mother’s house, and came to shelter under the wings of another nation, in his affection for it, and in his preference for truth and hatred of falsehood.”

Many of us are aware of the great personal, social and economic struggles endured and sacrifices made by converts to Judaism. It is no easy task to leave behind the religioun on one’s upbringing, family customs and social network. Those who do that must be treated with dignity, respect and maybe even awe.
3.The obligation to pray for the welfare of converts.
The thirteenth blessing in the Amidah includes an explicit prayer for righteous converts. According to some the phrase “Tzadikim” – “righteous” is that blessing refers to converts as well. We are obligated to prayer for the welfare and wellbeing of the converts among us.
Finally, I wish to clarify something very important: There have been press reports painting all of Houston Orthodoxy with one brush in their claims that she has not been welcomed and that her conversion is being questioned. While I do not accept those media reports as being entirely accurate, I do wish to make it clear, that the UOS community fully welcomes her as a member of Am Yisreal.

The famous Ovadiah the convert to whom Rambam famously ruled that he, even as a covert, may recite: “Our God and God of our forefather” in the amidah once complained to Maimonides that his Rabbi has been mocking him for tings he said. In response Rambam addresses Ovadiah ad says: ” He who blessed Abraham your teacher, and gave Abraham his reward in the world and the world to come, should bless you and give you your reward in this world and in the world to come and lengthen your days…”

These words should direct our approach to all Jews by choice in our midst.

The Importance and Value of Creativity in Talmud Study –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 9, 2010

I and my family are living in Israel for the next 5 months on sabbatical.  Though we are living in Jerusalem I commute each day to the city of Lod to learn torah in the kollel of Rabbi Israel Samet.  It is a small group of mostly young married men who have finished their army service and have chosen to learn in Lod with Rabbi Samet due to his unique and creative approach to Gemara (Talmud).

Often we see Gemara, especially the Halachic (legal) parts, as just legal discussions interspersed with quotes from the Torah.  We usually see the function of these interspersed verses as proofs for laws or as derashot (exegetical sources), for deriving laws from Biblical verses.   If there is anything in the halachic Talmudic sugyah (legal section) beyond the law, in the realm of philosophy or spirituality, in most yeshivot that is left to kabbalists or academics.

The approach in Rabbi Samet’s yeshiva is different.  Every halachic sugyah is seen as a hot bed of not only legal ideas and categories, but of philosophical and even human existential and psychological ideas and viewpoints.  Many of these are accessed by looking closely at the biblical sources for the halachic section not as a source of legal proofs or derashot but looking at the biblical narrative and context and using this as a wedge with which to open the (seemingly hidden) more philosophical and literary aspects of the sugyah.

From my experiences in the many yeshivot in America in which I learned, from branches of Lakewood and Ner Yisrael to Chofetz Chaim and Yeshiva University it seems that in America there are only 2 ways to study gemara.  In yeshivot it is studied using the method of Rabbi Chaim Solovetchik, the “Brisker method” of conceptual categorical analysis, and in universities it is studied with an academic approach, either viewing the page historically with an eye to its development over a period of time and the layers which comprise it, or with an eye to the social and cultural surroundings that influence the legal progression of the sugyah.   Rarely is there anything in between.

In Israel in the world of religious Zionism, in contrast, it seems thee is an openness to much subtlety in Talmud study, a lack of fear in bringing many varied methodologies to bear on the Talmud.

Over the next few weeks I will write more of this creative approach to Talmud and how I think it can open our minds as Morethodox Jews to the personal psychological and existential relevancy of the Talmud’s (seemingly) solely intellectual and legal sections of questions and answers.   If we are to make sure that the Talmud remains personally relevant to each of us, to our children, and to our people as a whole, I think such openness will be highly important, and can help us to see the Talmud with even more depth than that with which it is usually presented.

The Times They Are A’Changin – R. Yosef Kanefsky

January 6, 2010

For the last 14 years, I have been leading a Sunday morning discussion group with our Bnai/Bnot Mitzvah. It’s one of the highlights of my week. Every year, I devote one of the Sunday morning sessions to exploring the kids’ thoughts and feelings about the changing roles of girls and women within Judaism generally, and within Orthodoxy in particular. It’s always an interesting and thought-provoking session, but this year’s was exceptional.

The items that I (literally) put on the table for discussion each year include women dancing with a Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah, women leading their own zimmun, reciting Kiddush for the family on Friday night, learning Gemara in school, delivering Divrai Torah in shul, and becoming rabbis. I always emphasize that the point of the session is thoughtful discussion, not the reaching of any particular conclusion. I do my level best to keep my own feelings out of the proceedings, while challenging the kids to think deeply about their positions on this or that contemporary innovation. In past years, the kids took the direction of distinguishing between the practices that they were “comfortable” with from those which “felt wrong” to them. This year, their whole approach was different.

Rather than wanting to focus on the details of particular practices, they drove the discussion in the direction of overarching principles. The ideals that emerged as being most important to them were equality in educational opportunities, and freedom to pursue one’s passions, including the passion to be a religious teacher / leader. The kids talked about according respect to all, and recognizing the dignity of men and women alike. It was obvious to them that the only criteria that ought be relevant – even for the rabbinate – are the talent and capacity to do the job. I was blown away. The majority of the kids in the group attend self-described “centrist” Orthodox day schools, and haven’t grown up in families in which feminism is a value per se. They are tomorrow’s Orthodox kids on campus – halachik commitment runs in their veins – and then, with God’s help, they’ll be the rank and file members of Orthodox shuls. 

What’s changed? A few things, I think:
(1) This is the first wave of kids who were born and raised in our shul, and who thus take it for granted that the pulpit is open to women (and girls celebrating Bat Mitzvah), and that women do hakafot in the same way that men do. These girls have all attended numerous Bat Mitzvah celebrations at the Women’s Tefilla, and have seen their fathers and mothers alike take leadership positions in all facets of shul governance.
(2) By the time this group of kids arrived in middle school, Mishna and Gemara had already taken firm hold in the girls’ curriculum. (In historical terms this is a new development in most of our LA Orthodox schools, but what do these kids know from history??)
(3) They are very aware of the many women who have achieved prominent positions in US government (I’m sure they can’t name the last California Senator who was male), and their lives are filled with women who have accomplished impressively in every professional field.

If this year’s class is not a fluke – and I think it’s not – then it provides an inspiring testament to the power of quiet perseverance, the patient pursuit of a communal vision, and the fact that over time, communal norms can really change. I have no illusions as to the likelihood that some will soon wrangle with the halachik limitations on women’s participation in public tefilla, but I’m confident that they will be equipped to sort those issues out in a productive way.

So hang in there Morethodox communities. The future is bright.