Sleeping Over in the West Bank -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 21, 2010

Two weeks ago I traveled with 40 Rabbis, Rabbinical students and educators to Bethlehem, and spent two days talking with Arabs in the West Bank who have committed themselves to solving the looming problems of the Israeli Palestinian conflict peacefully.  I slept overnight in the very nice home of a Christian family in Bethlehem.  None of us visitors were Israeli citizens since they are not allowed in Bethlehem which is part of Area A, the Oslo section of the West Bank that is solely under PA control.

I., as many Anglo Jews and perhaps Israeli Jews, always imagined that to enter the West Bank was to take one’s life in one’s hands; that all West Bank citizens want most of all to kill Jews.   Hearing Arabic or seeing it would sometimes make me afraid.

While there is usually some truth in stereotypes, which is how they get to be stereotypes, it is also true that there are real people on the other side of the wall, Christians and Muslims, who do not fit the stereotype.  Though the situation did not become any clearer while I was there, and even less so after I returned to discuss my findings and experiences with Israelis I know, I did become more convinced that peace can only happen if real individuals are in touch with, and experience as people, other real human beings on the other side of each.

The following video is a 5 minute account of some of my experiences in Bethlehem.


Pay it Forward on Purim

February 17, 2010

On Purim day, we open our hands to the Jewish poor. Of course on every day of the year we also open our hands to the Jewish poor, but on Purim day there is a specific mitzva to do so, for we are required to see to it that everyone has the capacity to partake in at least some kind of Seudat Purim, a festive Purim meal. This mitzva is clearly inspired by the 16th chapter of Devarim, in which we are twice commanded to include the stranger, the Levi, the widow and the orphan in our Yom Tov joy. Thus Purim was ordained to be not only a day of feasting and sharing portions with our friends, but also a day of Matanot L’evyonim, gifts to the poor. Our shul, like so many around the world, fulfills this mitzva through sending funds to organizations in Israel who distribute the funds to the Israeli poor on Purim day. 

But what about the non-Jewish poor on Purim?  A few months ago one of my dearest congregants and friends proposed to organize an “Open Purim Seudah” on Purim day, here at our shul. For years we have been running regular lunches that serve our neighborhood’s poor and homeless, but for whatever reason, we had never done one on Purim.  I recognized right away that there would be many Jews in our area who would benefit from such a Seuda, and if they were to come we’d have the opportunity to fulfill the objective of Matanot L’evyonim in a very direct way. So without hesitation, we laid the plans and began advertising. Now, while our expectation is that Jews will comprise the lion’s share of our Open Purim Seudah guests, I’m equally sure that many non-Jewish poor will also arrive, and they will obviously be included fully. (At out regular community lunches, between 50 and 60 percent of our guests are not Jewish.) Are they too part of the mitzva of the day? Does Matanot L’evyonim in some sense extend to them as well? 

This question soon took on a more pressing quality when two more of my dearest congregants and friends proposed that – in the spirit of Matanot L’evyonim –  we set up tables after megillah reading on Saturday night, invite people to make PB&J sandwiches, and then deliver them to LA’s and Santa Monica’s homeless on Purim day. Is this kind of effort in fact in the spirit of Matanot L’evyonim, or is it a sort of misplaced generosity on Purim day?

 On the one hand, a very logical argument could be made that the tzedaka we do on Purim is – and should be –  just about our fellow Jews. The focus of the day is on facilitating the Purim celebrations of those who otherwise wouldn’t have them, and it would therefore seem that at least on this day, all of our efforts ought be directed toward this goal. And not surprisingly, the Halacha makes it clear that we in fact only fulfill the actual mitzva of Matanot L’evyonim through giving to fellow Jews. The purpose of the Miztva clearly defines the pool of potential beneficiaries.

 On the other hand, is it necessarily the case that the specific mitzva to support fellow Jews on Purim discourages us from practicing wider charitable activity on this day? Does the front-and-center focus on fellow Jews on Purim day imply that we should harness all of our charitable resources for this purpose exclusively? Or to the contrary, does Matanot L’evyonim generate a halachik ripple effect, rendering Purim day a time of generally heightened charitable activity?

 Interestingly, the Shulchan Aruch addresses this question directly. “We are not overly particular with the Purim funds; rather we give to whoever extends his hand. And in a place in which it is customary to give to non-Jews as well, one gives to them.” (694:3) R. Yechiel Epstein explains (in his Aruch HaShulchan), that this is done “for the ways of peace, in the same manner in which we include non-Jews in all of our tzedaka, as [the Rama] rules in Yoreh De’ah 291”.  Interestingly then, our question comes down to a community’s ordinary charitable practices. A community that routinely practices the Halacha of including non-Jews in tzedaka does so on Purim as well. My congregants and friends had hit the nail on the head. (By the way: R. Epstein notes that if the broader tzedaka can be performed with funds other than the official Matanot L’evyonim collection, this is preferable, but not technically necessary.) 

There is a principle stated in Pirkai Avot that “one mitzva begets another”.  As communities whose custom it is to support our own, and then also beyond our own, we render this literally true in the case of Matanot L’evyonim.


Take Back the Kotel Part II: Open Up Robinson’s Arch by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 16, 2010

Take Back the Kotel Part II: Give Us Robinson’s Arch!

We’ve talked about problems at the Kotel before, and the incident of a woman putting a tallit on and being arrested – or “detained” – for that mitzvah has certainly raised awareness that something has to be done.  Rabbi Helbraun, a Reform rabbi in Northbrook, IL, put it well when he asked Effy Eitam how they could explain to the children of their shul that while they encourage boys and girls to put on tallitot and t’fillin – in this Reform shul! – they need to know that they can be arrested for doing so in the Jewish state!  But I want to suggest an easy solution to the issues at the Kotel: Open up the Robinson’s Arch area of the Kotel for free to all who want to pray there, celebrate there, even just to meditate there.

Robinson’s Arch is a dramatic part of the Western Wall – actually the southern part of the Kotel Hama’aravi – as opposed to the “other” wall area, the Western Wall plaza, which is the south-central part of the Kotel Hama’aravi.  It was excavated since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, and I remember they were working on it forever in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Now it is part of the Davidson Center – a museum that charges money for entry, unless special arrangements are made.  I am not asking for free admission to the wonderful exhibits underground that are uniquely part of the this museum.  What I am calling for is for free, 24 hour access by anyone who wants, to the above ground parts of the Wall.  It is our national heritage, and we should not be denied access.  We have a right to the Western wall and the Southern wall which the area includes as well.

Sources tell me that the Masorati movement, the Conservative movement in Israel, has rights to it – I’m not sure, but that’s what I’ve heard from a few sources.  Maybe the Israel antiquities authority has some control over it.  However, to the best of my knowledge the Rabbinate or Religious authority of the Kotel does NOT have control over it.  That’s why now, people can have B’nai Mitzvas there however they daven, and women can read Torah there.  But that is only in limited ways, and I have heard that you can’t bring tables or chairs there – everything that makes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in the main part of the Kotel – to the north – feasible and more substantial.  And if a group of Reform tourists or from the local Reform shul – Kol Haneshama – ended up there on Shabbat after a stroll around the walls on Shabbat, they couldn’t just go in and daven.  In fact, I don’t know if you can go in at all on Shabbat morning!  I am calling not for freedom at the “old” Western Wall; I am calling to open the “real” Western Wall – the Southern Bend of the Western Wall!

Yes, in an ideal world the religious authorities and the government would be pluralistic and would allow all sorts of davening, even in different sections, at the main plaza of the Kotel.  But until that moment comes, we have something we should be able to do right now: Open up Robinson’s Arch to all davening, all the time.  If you come from Dung gate, it where many of the buses leave you off, it is actually the first “Kotel” you see: people don’t even have to know that there is a Wall where women get arrested for wearing a tallit or pelted for reading a … Torah!  At the real wall, you can daven how you want to daven, and there are wonderful areas for different groups to gather and celebrate.  But we need the cooperation of the Masorati movement, or the Davidson family, or whoever controls Robinson’s Arch!   Maybe would could ask the Davidson family to endow this area for davening, so that the museum would not lose out on their dues.  One way or another, we can easily open up this place of t’filla.

So on this one I say, don’t blame the chareidim!  We don’t need that frum, restricted, non-inclusive wall.  We already have a Wall, a genuine, dramatic Western Wall, where we can have everyone daven the way they want to.  Let’s use it and let others use it.

Open Up Robinson’s Arch!  Let Us Pray!  Let Us Wear Our Tallitot!  Let Us Read Our Torah! Let Us All, Men and Women, Sing Hallel Out Loud!

And I would not be surprised if soon enough the people who put t’fillin on at the other Wall, will come to the new, inclusive Wall, and the men and women will be waiting outside the new Wall for our tzedaka, and people can start putting notes in the new Wall, and we can start bringing Barbara Streisand and any other celebrity or politician to the new Wall.  Let’s continue to fight the good fight for separation of government from religion, but in the meantime let’s make sure that anyone who wants to daven to Hashem, in any way, has a way to do it at the Wall.  As the famous telegram said in June 1967,  “HaKotel Biyadeinu” –“The Kotel is in our hands!”  Indeed it is , we just have to open it up to all.


Bread And Butter Orthodoxy – Rabbi Barry Gelman

February 16, 2010

Modern Orthodox Jews have a tendency to offer pronouncements on controversial issues. Some of those issues are the definition of orthodox, the ordination of orthodox women and the place of homosexuals in the orthodox community.

As I have noted before, it seems that these issues and other “hot button” items exercise the emotions of many within the modern orthodox camp. These issues are important; my concern is that they tend to overshadow the “bread and butter” of Orthodox Judaism.

There are many who are quick to make bold statements on either side of the big issues, but who are silent and absent when it comes to Tefilla B’ Tzibbur (davening with a minyan each day) and regular Torah study.

There are two things about this pretense that concern me.

  1. It does not ring true: Our brothers and sisters to our right mock us (rightfully?) when we pronounce on issues while we do not “walk the walk” of Orthodoxy. What good is all the talk if our Modern Orthodox statements are not backed up by Orthodox living?

 

  1. We believe our own hype: Spending our time making declaration on these issues blinds us from the more important fundamental aspects of Orthodox life and leave us believing that as long as we are on the correct side of the argument on the cutting edge issue, even as we fail to excel in the primary and essential aspects of Judaism, we are OK.

We need to redirect our energies so others will take us seriously and so we can take ourselves seriously.


National American Inclusion Month

February 11, 2010

Rabba Sara Hurwitz

February has been designated as National American Inclusion Month, a program embraced by Yachad and the OU to focus on raising awareness and developing sensitivity to what it means to live with disabilities.  Now, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale built ramps before anyone else did. We have ramps leading up to the lobby, a Shabbat elevator, and a ramp up to the bimah in the main sanctuary.

But then, a few months ago, I read an eye opening and heart wrenching article by 2 of our beloved leaders of the community— calling for the larger Jewish community to do better:

They wrote: “We have been forced to accept that we will not find a place for our children in the Jewish day schools, but we can no longer tolerate that this extends to our synagogues as well. For our children, inclusion in the prayer services and programming at synagogue is a last chance to be part of the Jewish community, and they are being pushed out with both hands.”

In essence, they implied, ramps are just not inclusive enough.  You see, it’s simpler to accommodate those who are confronted with physical disabilities. However, there are many people, children in particular, who suffer from invisible disabilities—who have no obvious physical impediments, and to the outside observer seem “typical.” And yet, these children may struggle to fit into social situations, or struggle to keep up in school. 

It is these children who often cannot control their actions in shul. Who are perceived as acting inappropriately or who cannot figure out how to whisper. And it is these parents, who don’t feel welcome—opting to not to bring their children to shul, despite being desperate to inject them with some Jewish content and spirituality, lest people stare disapprovingly at the parent or child.  I learned about one family whose children refuse to step foot into shul after being chastised by another parent.

Invisible disabilities are just that—it is hard for us to know when a child is being purposefully mischievous OR if it’s a child who cannot control their impulses.  And as a community, we have an obligation to rise above our knee jerk reaction to judge and criticize children and parents. We must become sensitized to the needs of families who have invisible disabilities, so that our bayit is more than a shul with ramps.

Lat week, we read about the “Mizbeach adamah” the alter of the ground.  One can also translate adamah from its root adam—the alter of the person.  This alter, one in which a ramp is required to ascend, is a metaphor for people—and is a message to each of us how we should strive to treat the mizbeach adamah—how to be sensitive to our fellow peers.    

The article in the Jewish week—which brought to light the Jewish community’s lack of sensitivity to children with invisible disabilities was an important wakeup call for me.  It spurred me to begin talking to families with children with disabilities. We have to try harder.  Our shul has begun to implement a few solutions—last week we launched an early tefilah that caters to the needs of many of our children, lead by an expert in the field of invisible disabilities.  We are trying to become sensitive to tweaking our current youth programming to accommodate the needs of all our children.  But we still have a long way to go, and much to learn.

There’s a debate within families who have children with disabilities about whether it is best to provide additional programming that specifically meet the needs of these children, or to find a way to make all children feel welcomed and embraced in any program. And perhaps the ideal is for all of us—with all of our limitations—and we each have them should be able to gather together in one space.  At least this seems to be the model of Sinai. There’s a famous midrash that describes that at the moment of revelation at Sinai, all the blind could see and the deaf could here.  I can’t help but wonder… were these people actually cured—did the fire and brimstone—the shofar blasts and the thunder cure everyone’s disabilities? Or at that moment of heightened spiritual purity—all of God’s creations—with or without a disability, were seen by god as whole, as shalem—bzeom elokim, in gd’s likeness.     

We don’t know if they were cured, but Sinai was a true model of an inclusive experience. There was a way for everyone to access the revelation and that is what we should strive to achieve. We can’t make the deaf hear and blind see, and we can’t make those who struggle to sit for 45 min sit—but we can attempt to create a bayit that meets each of us where we are.

And so friends, National Inclusion Month is a small attempt to help sensitize each of us to the visible and invisible needs of our community.  It’s an attempt to remind us not to shush so quickly, those children around us, without understanding the needs of the child that we are shushing. It’s an attempt to understand the variety of people that makes our community that much richer, and try to reach out and embrace those who have different struggles. Our goal is to make the bayit an experience of Sinai—accessible for all.  We do have physical ramps, ensuring greater accessible to people. But we must not forget the meaning behind the ramps—the need to have a deep sensitivity to needs of others, specially those with invisible disabilities.

In doing so, we can only be lifted higher.


Not Your Dad’s Reform: Rabbi Lopatin’s amazing breakfast of discovery in a Reform shul

February 10, 2010

I’m still flying from a great breakfast I had a big Reform shul on the North Shore, Temple Beth El. What made is so special was that I expected some kind of a left-wing speaker on Israel, food that I couldn’t eat because while it might be dairy, wouldn’t be under hashgacha, and a sleepy, small Sunday morning crowd. Instead, a packed house of 200 energized congregants of all ages clapped and cheered as General Effy Eitam, a member of the right wing of Likud, spoke about heroism and miracles of God in Entebbe and today. While Effy Eitam is a strong advocate for all soldiers, on the right and on the left, following the policy of the state and IDF, he is also known in Israel by his strong stances on Judea and Samaria and for the Palestinians not being ready for their own state. Some on the left in Israel have tried to get him convicted for inflammatory statements against Arabs. Many his positions and some of his statements would have made him a stretch for my, albeit Modern and progressive, Orthodox shul. But it was mind blowing to hear a huge Reform audience cheering him on as he talked about the need to say to everyone that, “We Jews are here to stay; go fish somewhere else!” – a reference to what you need to say to grizzly bears when they encroach on your territory. The rabbi of the shul said that Temple Beth El was probably the most right wing Reform shul in Chicago, and someone said that Linda Gradstein – last year’s speaker- of left wing NPR fame – was a lot more controversial!
Wow! As you may know, I see myself all over the map, when it comes to politics, on the right and on the left. But if you read Norman Podhoretz’s book on Why are Jews Liberal, you might think that Reform Judaism is the religion of American liberalism. Well, he needs to come to Temple Beth El. I am happy for Jews to take any political stand which they feel speaks to their Jewish convictions, but I learnt from this breakfast never to judge Jews by their cover, title, or movement affiliation.
Many readers may know of the fiasco – which is historically true – of the shrimp served at the reception for the first graduating class of Hebrew Union College, the rabbinical college of the Reform movement. Apparently, it was not done on purpose, but it scandalized the movement in the eyes of the Orthodox Jews who attended and for generations of Orthodox and traditional Jews till this very day. So let me report: the breakfast at Temple Beth El was catered by Zelda’s, with CRC (the Orthodox Chicago Rabbinical Council) supervision, and not only was it catered by Zelda’s, but each table (at least my table!) had a sign on it that it was catered by Zelda’s, CRC. Thanks to the new Reform movement I downed five or six delicious “mini” muffins – oy! I would have been much safer with shrimp! But this breakfast speaks to a new reality: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox have new ways of coming together, of learning from each other, of growing together. We can never take each other, or each other’s positions, for granted. Here at Temple Beth El, I was downing CRC muffins, listening to a speaker with a big knitted kippa, and learning how much of a divine miracle the existence of Israel really is! Only in a America!

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


More on learning with Rav Samet and the Yeshivah Gedolah of Lod -Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 7, 2010

We are learning the beginning of Baba Kama which speaks of 4 avot, “parents” (meaning parent categories) of nizikin, of damages -the ox, the pit, the maaveh and the fire.

Typically in all books of the Talmud we find an interweaving of halachic, legal sections, and agaditah, narrative sections.   In many yeshivot these narrative sections are seen as beside the point, and in some of the yeshivot I attended even skipped over entirely; viewed as irrelevant to the halachic, or legal sections of the chapter.

The approach in Lod is just the opposite.  The narrative and legal sections must not only both be read but seen as an integrated whole.   When I asked Rabbi Samet about this he answered that this interweaving of law and narrative was the way in which chazal, our rabbis, wrote because it was their (and by extension Judaism’s?) world view.  The reason for the constant presence of agadah in what we usually see as primarily a legal book is not just to pepper the halacha with stories which would teach musar and hashkafah, ethics and Jewish thought, but because for chazal halacha and agada are one and the same.

In fact, he said, agadah is in a way actually the main item.  Our story, an understanding of our world and the world around us is chazal’s thrust, halacha is one part of that story.   Indeed he said this is true of Tanach, the Bible, which is mostly narrative also.  When I asked about the first Rashi on the torah which seems to indicate that laws are the main purpose of the torah, and that the torah should have thus begun from the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people, Rabbi Samet answered that not only does the torah not start with law but with narrative, but in fact the torah is mostly narrative, with law interwoven.

Indeed, he replied, this precisely is Rashi’s answer, the torah had to start from birashit (Genesis) so that people would know that God created the world and thus had the authority to give the Land of Israel to the Jewish people.  Why is this the answer?  Because the story of the Jewish people as a nation in a land IS the story and point of the Torah.   There is no bifurcation of law and story, it is one.  The law is but a part of the story.   Thus when we study Talmud we must look closely at how the rabbis phrased what they did, often it is not for legal purposes but because they are looking at a much larger narrative, that of life in general and of the Jewish people in particular.

When I asked why it is only now that this approach has come to light, he replied that the reason we can recognize the intention of chazal is that it is we who live in their land and speak their language and thus are closest to the lives they led and the perceptive they had of the universe.   Halacha is not meant as a series of actions but as a life lived, as a national story, as the life and thought of a people and nation, halacha is part of this.  Thus each halachic concept must be seen as integrated with the agadah because it is agadah (I do not mean by this that it is not binding or not literal).

For instance, the point of labeling the “pit” as a “father “of damage has not only to do with it technically being a way to damage, for there are may ways and many “avot” of damage not listed in the Mishnah of the four Avot. The “pit” is more than a method of damage; it is an idea that plays a role in the Weltanschauung of chazal and in our vision as Jews.   When seen it this way, the answer to why Baba Kama begins with specifically these 4 “father” categories of damage when actually there are many more, becomes clear.   The rabbis were not only making a statement about the technicalities of damage but about central notions in the life of the Jewish people.  This is their program, their method and goal.

Thus the 4 “fathers” of damage, (which the Talmud says also have “children” categories or generations), the pit, the fire, the walking and the ox, loom large in our mishna not because they are the only ways to damage but for much bigger reasons that have everything to do both with damage and with who we are as a nation.   For example the “pit” is not only a place of potential damage but just the opposite also, the source of life in the Land of Israel.   Israel is a land in which it only rains during the rainy season, there is no large Nile River to irrigate the land, as the torah says in Devarim chapter 11, it is a land irrigated by the rains.   The only way to store rain is the bor, the pit.     Each source of damage is not only a damager, but its opposite also, a source of creation and life, reflecting the fragile nature of our universe and our mission in it as Jews.  Thus are these categories quite aptly referred to as “Avot” parents with “toldot” children.