What Happened at the RCA Convention?

April 29, 2010

The RCA convention is over, and everybody’s gone home. Back to the work we do, the work, with God’s help, of healing and helping, teaching and inspiring. The convention was – for me – a two day stroll in the twilight zone, to a place far removed from the daily realty of rabbinic life, a place which sometimes vibrated with a palpable sense of historic significance, and other times was permeated by an exaggerated sense of self-importance. We, the members, recognized that there were many outside the walls of the convention who’d be anxiously awaiting the outcome of our deliberations concerning women’s roles in Orthodox leadership. But we were also at times candid enough to admit that the anticipation was at least partly for the Jewish community entertainment value we‘d provide, as we added the next chapter to this juicy ongoing saga of gender, power, politics and personalities.

A couple of important things did actually happen.  Many great rabbis worked very very hard to keep the “big tent” intact, to preserve a reasonable amount of unity within the everybody-except-Chovevai, non-Haredi Orthodox rabbinate. And to their great credit, they succeeded. First, by defeating the amendments that (a) would have rendered the sin of ordaining women a capital crime (in organizational terms), and (b) would have declared the sin of belonging to a group that thinks about women’s leadership roles in an expansive way to be an automatic disqualification for RCA leadership. And second, by crafting a resolution that one the one hand applauded and encouraged progress in  women’s higher Jewish education and communal involvement, and on the other hand drawing a red line at women’s ordination. I can only imagine the number of hours, and the dedication of mental energy that had to have been invested in drafting a document that would satisfactory to so many members. The preservation of organizational unity was an admirable feat, to be congratulated.

But on the day after (who knows? Maybe it’s my jet lag?), I have an overriding queasy feeling. It feels to me that by drawing such a bright red line, by trying to slam the door shut on the ordination question not just for today, but forever, the RCA has placed itself on the wrong side of history, just as Rav Kook did when he opposed suffrage for women in the 1920’s. Rav Kook’s arguments then were almost identical to the RCA’s arguments today (e.g. time-honored tradition, appropriate gender roles, the surrender to value systems that are alien to Torah) But Rav Kook’s world was moving forward, and it was, in retrospect, a time to get aboard the train, not a time to lie down in front of it. It feels to me that the RCA has made the same miscalculation. Tellingly, the RCA resolution on women’s roles contained no specific forward-looking vision for Orthodox women’s leadership. Only the delineation of its limits. It wasn’t about playing to win, rather about playing to not lose.

And there’s a factor that contributed to this outcome that needs to be acknowledged. On my flight back, my thoughts kept returning to the fact that while this resolution had been crafted by so many learned, wise and esteemed rabbis, and then approved by so many others, not a single one of these rabbis was herself a woman. Which of course sets up a mad, closed circuit – the sort that history tends to eventually leave in its dust.

So what happened at the convention? Important achievements for unity and for tolerance. And some cold water thrown on the forward progress of Modern Orthodox women and their supporters. And we go on from here.

What is the Purpose of Zionism, Part 2- By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

April 25, 2010

Last week I wrote that it seemed from the torah that the goal of the Jewish people to be a “blessing to all the peoples of the world” as God tells Abraham, can only happen by going to the “land which I will show you,” and there becoming a “great nation.”  Why is it that being a Jewish landed nation is important beyond the obvious reason that the world and its nations can see us more clearly as a national example on par with other nations?  Is there something uniquely spiritual and holy, something uniquely “torahdik” about being a nation in a land? The following quote from Rav Kook I think may shed some light (my thanks to my teacher Rabbi Israel Samet for the quote):

אורות עמ’ קד

בראשית מטעו של העם הזה, אשר ידע לקרוא בשם הרעיון האלהי הברור והטהור בעת השלטון הכביר של האליליות בטומאתה-פראותה, נתגלתה השאיפה להקים צבור אנושי גדול אשר “ישמור את דרך ד’ לעשות צדקה ומשפט”. זוהי השאיפה, שבאה מכח ההכרה הברורה והעזה והתביעה המוסרית הכוללת והרמה, להוציא את האנושיות מתחת סבל נורא של צרות רוחניות וחמריות ולהביאנה לחיי חופש מלאי הוד ועדן, באור האידיאה האלהית, ולהצליח בזה את כל האדם כלו. למלואה של שאיפה זו צריך דוקא, שצבור זה יהיה בעל מדינה פוליטית וסוציאלית וכסא ממלכה לאומית, ברום התרבות האנושית, “עם חכם ונבון וגוי גדול”, והאידיאה האלהית המוחלטת מושלת שמה ומחיה את העם ואת הארץ במאור-חייה. למען דעת, שלא רק יחידים חכמים מצויינים, חסידים ונזירים ואנשי-קדש, חיים באור האידיאה האלהית, כי גם עמים שלמים, מתוקנים ומשוכללים בכל תקוני התרבות והישוב המדיני; עמים שלמים, הכוללים בתוכם את כל השדרות האנושיות השונות, מן רום האינטליגנציה האמנותית, הפרושית, המשכלת והקדושה, עד המערכות הרחבות, הסוציאליות, הפוליטיות והאקנומיות, ועד הפרולטריון לכל פלגותיו, אפילו היותר נמוך ומגושם.

“At the beginning of this nation’s formation, it knew how to call in the name of the pure idea of God at the time of the controlling ideology of idol worship, there was revealed in it them a desire to form a large human group that would “guard the way of God, to do justice and righteousness.”  This is the desire that comes from the clear, subtle, ethical  recognition of the need to take man from under the terrible burden of physical and spiritual pain and to bring man to a life of freedom full of grace and kindness, in the light of Divine ideology, and through this to redeem the whole person.  But to fulfill this yearning there must be a community that has a politic, country, and culture.  A “big nation that is wise and intelligent.”   This encompassing divine ideology must rule there and enliven the people and its land in its light in order to know that not just wise and holy individuals alone live in the light of this Divine ideology but also whole nation with elaborate cultures and a functioning society, from the intellectual, holy, and esthetic to the vast systems -social, political and economic, to the proletariat and all its sub-sections, even the lowest and poorest of them.”  (Orot 204)

Rabbi Kook here seems to be saying that the torah and a relationship to God and Godly ideas can not be achieved solely as an individual or even as a community.  It takes the complexities and structures of nationhood to truly achieve it.

In addition to this second outwardly oriented national reason for the importance of a Jewish nation state in the Land of Israel, another important reason for the existence of a Jewish nation state I think, is as a light unto itself.  Some have argued that the Torah, though given in the desert, is clearly written for the Jewish nation living as a people in the Land of Israel, and thus can only truly be observed as just that.

The Ramb”n is the most famous opinion who holds that mitzvoth kept outside of the Land of Israel are not truly obligatory mitzvoth.  That settling the Land of Israel is equal to all the mitzvoth and that outside of Israel mitzvoth are done only so we do not forget them but are not really an obligation in the same way as those performed within the land are.

Why is this so?  It’s a holy land but how does that change the nature of specific person oriented mitzvoth such as matza, shofar or tifilin?  Such mitzvot do not seem tied to the land.

Perhaps if the mitzvoth are not just meant to be about an individual’s soul and relationship to God but about a landed nation’s function visa via other peoples, this would explain why each mitzvah, how each citizen acts, is in turn an inextricable part of the whole, like a mosaic or a Surat painting, together coloring the world in the shades of Torah.

A Genocide is a Genocide: Jews at the forefront of recognizing the Armenian Genocide

April 23, 2010

Being True to Yourself: A Genocide is a Genocide

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Several years ago I gave a sermon about people who took risks in their careers to speak the truth.  One of them was Andrew Tarsy regional director of the Anti Defamation League – the ADL – in New England. In August of 2007, Mr. Tarsy spoke openly about Turkey needing to come to terms with the Armenian genocide in its past.  He nearly lost his job by challenging the ADL’s official position of neutrality on the Armenian genocide, and soon after he did resign from his job.  It was a sad moment for the Jewish community, where someone who speaks the truth is punished for doing so.

I am reminded of Andrew Tarsy just a week after commemorating  Yom HaShoah veHagvura, Holocaust Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day.  With three years hindsight, where we see the leader of Iran denying our Holocaust, and the right of Israel to exist, and at the same time being invited to speak in the United Nations, I think we see how serious a blunder it has been for the Jewish people to not speak louder about another genocide, that of the Armenian people during World War I.

I have no doubt that there are differences between the genocides, just as the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Dafur were all unique.  What they all have in common is that the world basically did not care enough to stop them.  Perhaps there was more cheering done by the world when Jews were being sent to gas chambers and killed in Babi Yar, but the world has done a great job being in denial of genocide until it is too late.

After I gave the sermon, one member of my shul castigated me – in a loving way – about the foolishness of the likes of Andrew Tarsy and those like me who supported his courage: didn’t we care about the Jews of Turkey or the Israel-Turkish alliance who could all be damaged by angering Turkey?  Well, again in hindsight, I think we all see how damaging it is to deny truth, to pander to the evil of genocide-denial, even when we do it out of love for Jews or Israel.  Now Turkey is not such a friend of Israel’s.  In addition to supporting anti-Semitic television shows, the government of Turkey is one of Iran’s greatest supporters diplomatically as that great enemy of the Jewish people and the Jewish state appears to be building up its arsenal of nuclear weapons.  Did all this pandering to Turkey do any good?

If our friendship with Turkey, and Israel’s friendship with Turkey, is dependent on a lie, then it is not a friendship at all.  And that is exactly what we are finding out now:  Turkey just a few months ago scuttled a joint exercise between Israel, the US and other NATO forces.  Denying the Armenian genocide, or refusing to recognize its existence, is an attempt to rip out a scab which point to real, national tzara’at.  And when we allow for genocides to be swept under the carper, then our enemies use that to deny the genocides perpetrated against us, and even more malicious, they equate Israel’s struggle for survival, such as the recent war against Hamas in Gaza, as a genocide.  Tragically, we the Jews know what genocide is, and we have the obligation to remind the world about its existence.  We are a Kingdom of Priests (Mamlechet Kohanim): it is our task, always painful and unpopular, to tell the world when there is a blemish, when there is a moral wrong.  If we don’t, not only are we shirking our duty, but the world will redefine morality to suit its needs and to absolve itself of any evil.

Kamal Ataturk, the great founder of modern and secular state of Turkey, was not afraid to call the Armenian massacres a genocide.  We need to push what remains modern and secular in this Muslim state to recognize their past in order to move forward.  Could it be this lingering moral blemish that is holding back Turkey from resisting the fundamentalist Muslim drive that threatens the dream Ataturk had for his people and for Islam as a whole?

Let us Jews not be afraid to be the Kohanim, the priests and teachers of the world we are supposed  to be.  Let us pay tribute to the Six Million murdered as the world looked on by speaking out against immorality and genocide in this world – when it is directed against our brothers and sisters in Israel, or when it is directed against our fellow human beings in the past or in the present.

“Eretz, al tichasi damam” – “Earth, do not hide their blood.”

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Get to Know Sharsheret, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

April 23, 2010

Dear Friends,

Just about a year ago, I was vocal in my disappointment with Susan G. Komen for the Cure for the organization’s response after Egypt denied Israeli research scientists entrance to the Komen conference held in their country.  However, this unfortunate experience produced one positive result: it introduced me to Sharsheret, a national Jewish breast cancer organization that offers a community of support to women, of all Jewish backgrounds, diagnosed with breast cancer or at increased genetic risk.  Hebrew Sharsheret, “chain”, fosters culturally-relevant individualized connections with networks of peers, health professionals, and related resources.  Please learn more about Sharsheret’s programs by visiting their website at www.sharsheret.org.  You can also watch a Fox 5 News (NY) piece that traces the moving story of Sharsheret’s Founder’s, Rochelle Schoretz, personal breast cancer journey by clicking here: http://sharsheret.blogspot.com/2009/10/nj-womans-brave-breast-cancer-battle_9332.html.  If you have any questions or need more information about Sharsheret, please feel free to contact Sharsheret directly at (866) 474-2774 or info@sharsheret.org.


Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Title vs Function

April 22, 2010

Rabba Sara Hurwitz

There has been much written about me, Rabbi Weiss and women’s leadership in general over the past few months.  I know that many are disconcerted about the change in title from Maharat to Rabba.  As we have said before, Rav Avi and I did not intend to cause a firestorm, and certainly did not intend to “set the movement of women’s’ spiritual leadership backwards,” as some have written.  In fact, the opposite is true, and I do believe that the attention on women’s leadership can be seen as an opportunity to enhance the Orthodox community as a whole.

It is heartening that almost everyone who has considered the issue of women in ritual leadership has concluded that there is no halakhic prohibition.  My own analysis has shown that the issue of women functioning as Spiritual Leaders is not just permissible, but I am inspired by our text to continue to serve others. The objection seems to be temporal, tactical or sociological, not halakhic.

Given that there are no halakhic barriers, I would like to re-shift the focus on the issue away from title to function.  Communities that employ women as spiritual leaders in any capacity—as interns, yo’atzot, program, ritual or education directors – are significantly better served than those who are unable to hire women at this time.  It is true that for some, having a woman function as a spiritual leader raises visceral feelings of discomfort, as it appears untraditional. But the functions they are performing and the values that are being perpetuated are entirely traditional. Teaching and learning Torah, guiding others to greater halakhic observance, or being a compassionate listener are in essence the responsibilities of an excellent spiritual leader.  Women who are dedicated to halakha, have the right Torah scholarship and halakhic knowledge, and are interested in contributing, serve as valuable assets to our communities.  I know of countless examples both from my own experience and that of others, of women who have helped congregants come closer to Torah observance and belief in God.

This is simply the reality.  The benefits of women’s communal service are now part of the fabric of our Modern Orthodox lives.  This fact has not been a prominent part of the public discussion of the issue.  The positive aspects of the issue have been ignored.  We have spent much time analyzing and debating the politics of this development and responding to predictions of doom.  I think that the Modern Orthodox community should use this as an opportunity to formulate a position that is positive and not reactive.  A position that includes women in the leadership of our community, as well as part of the conversation about women’s place in spiritual and religious leadership.  I firmly believe that all of our communities stand to gain from this conversation.  It is then, that we will exist in a more spiritually rich community.

Hipster, Hassidim and Morethodoxy – Rabbi Barry Gelman

April 19, 2010

This past Saturday the Wall Street Journal had a story examining the growing tension between the Hassidic and Hipster communities. The tension exists because both groups live in the same neighborhood, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

While the article focuses on turf wars I wish to offer another insight regarding these two groups and, of course, where morethodox Jews come into this brouhaha.

The Hassidim and the Hispters could not be more different from each other. I am not referring to religious practice (in fact, I do not know much about the religious practices or beliefs of Hipsters), I am referring to “belonging”.

Hipsters, in general, do not want to belong to a specific group and they protect their independence and individuality – although it does seem to me that they all dress alike. One manifestation of this preference is that it has been reported that the hipster have not participated in the census. By refusing to fill out the senses the Hipsters are declaring that they do not wish to be labeled or identified.

I am sure that many of us find aspects of this “free- spiritedness” very appealing.  After all, the opportunity to follow dreams and live out fantasies is very attractive. Opportunities to do that are not always available to those who choose to join groups and be conventional.

Hassidim, on the other hand, are the ultimate joiners. Even though Hassidism started as a rejection of the prevalent character of the Jewish community, currently, Hassidism is all about joining and conforming to the norms of the group. Being a Hassid means following the rules of a specific rebee and living in accordance with detailed and strict guidelines of the specific group.  Hassidism is highly symbolic, and virtually every activity is ritualized according to longstanding tradition.

This approach can be very alluring as well. There is a certain confidence that one gains by knowing they are part of a group – a certain strength of conviction. Belonging to a strong group with strong roots, a clear definition of what success means and a proven plan on how to achieve success is very comforting.

While occupying the same physical space, these two groups are very different.

I believe that morethodoxy falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. We must be very careful to guard our past and remain a vital part of the greater orthodox world. At the same time, we must exercise our independence and not fall into the trap of demanding that all things be done the way they always were. Morethodox Jews should be willing joiners of the alliance of Orthodox Judaism and, at the same time, stand a bit outside the club, calling for new approaches and fresh perspectives.

This s the ground that we should occupy.

What is the Purpose of Zionism? –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

April 9, 2010

Although in the modern Orthodox community it is not PC to admit this, I am not a Zionist.   I did not grow up feeling or being taught that Israel, in the modern sense of the term, was essential for the Jews or for being Jewish.  I was taught that though Israel is a holy land, the land God gave to Avrohom and the Jewish people, but the torah is what makes us who we are.  The Jews have lived for as much times in exile as not and the torah has flourished there, in spite of all our persecution.  I grew up looking not to Zion for torah but to Vilna.   Indeed the Jews remain the Jews without Israel, but with out torah we are merely another nationality like all others.

Many years ago when Rabbi Avi Weiss asked me to come to the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and interview to be his assistant, though I had spent many years at Yeshiva University I still did not see Zionism and the modern state of Israel as important.   At one point during the interview I was asked how I saw the place of Israel. I responded that I thought Israel was a holy land, a good place to study torah and keep mitzvot dependant upon the land, but, I said that I did not think it was that important to being a Jew or to the Jewish people.

After the weekend, Reb Avi told me, “Chaim, you can not be a rabbi in America without coming to terms with Israel.”  And so 15 years ago, after that interview my wife and I went to Israel for 6 months.   I had never really learned in Israel, (my education had been mostly in Charedi Yeshivot in America), or lived there before, and I remember at the end of our time turning to Sara my wife and saying, “You know, maybe Israel is the home of the Jewish people.”  Yet a committed emotional Zionist I was not.

And so it is hard for someone like me to feel that living in Israel is important; if torah is more important shouldn’t one decide where to live based on where they learn torah best?   But after a trip I took to Israel a year ago I gave a derasha looking at God’s first command to Abraham, God tells Avrohom to “go to the land, become a nation and then be a blessing to all the people of the world.”  It seemed that a prerequisite to fulfilling the original and ongoing mission of the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations was somehow dependent on becoming a landed nation in the land which “I will show you.”  The only truly valid reason I could see for the importance of aliyah, since I was not taught that the land of Israel would save the Jews from persecution and the halachic question of the need to settle the land is one subject to argument.

This past week I read Rabbi Ian Pear’s book, “The Accidental Zionist” in which he argues precisely this, that to be a blessing to the people of the world, to fulfill the Jewish mission, especially in the modern period it is essential to be a landed nation state.   Only then can we be a model to the other nations on a world level.

The book is well said, interesting, and inspiring, well worth reading.  Of course it seems to me there is a need for a second book.   When the Jews make a nation in the land how do they proceed to be that national model to the world?  It is not enough to say they do it by just keeping the torah since most of the torah we are used to does not address the national questions, and a theocracy is not really doable or productive at this point.  So how do we as a Jewish nation in a land go about being in a conscious and organized way, “a blessing to all of the families (nations) of the world,” as god commanded Abraham when they first met?

Why We Need a Reversion of Conversion-By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

April 3, 2010

A while back I sent a certain Orthodox rabbi a link to Rabbi Marc Angel’s article about conversion which appeared in the Forward http://www.forward.com/articles/11985/ in which Rabbi Angel argues quoting former chief Sephardic Rabbi Uziel, that we should err on the side of accepting converts rather than rejecting them and criticizes the high barriers the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has placed before those who wish to be part of our people.    The particular rabbi’s response to me was, “Don’t get involved with ideas and people which are so extremely liberal, everyone like that wants to hang their hat on Rav Uziel the one minority opinion.”  End of conversation.

Another conversion experience:  Several years ago I brought a very sincere potential convert  to a Orthodox Bait Din which had functioned for many years and whose conversions are widely accepted.   The potential ger had a Jewish father and non Jewish mother, and no Jewish girlfriend or wife that he wished to please.  He just wanted to be an observant, full-fledged Jew.  After about a year of study and several meetings with the bait din the bait din brought him in for what I assumed would be his final meeting and conversion, he was fully religious, studying torah and attending synagogue, had taught himself Hebrew off the internet and was actually studying mishnah and chumash on his own in Hebrew by this point.  A no brainer. 

After his meeting I asked how it went, when would the mikvah be?  He answered that they had given him a test of which he knew practically all the answers, except for all the names of the Hebrew months, and they had sent him back to wait another 6 months before converting him asking him to study more halacha, specifically a book by Rabbi Shimon Eider on the laws of the 3 weeks and a 150 page English halacha book on the laws of yichud, the  laws pertaining to with whom and when one is allowed to be in a room together with someone of the opposite gender.  

Enraged I called the head of the bait din, “isn’t this a violation of “lo tunu et hageer”   (The biblical commandment not to oppress the stranger, which some commentaries applies even to one just considering conversion) I asked?  

“We are volunteers,” he replied, “I will not convert someone if there is a chance they will not observe a law on my account.”

I tell these stories now for two reasons.  Recently I had two experiences that offer at least a bit of indication that things may change.  That we have gone so far to one extreme that we may soon see the light and the Torah’s way and experience a corrective return to the middle.   Myself and several other rabbis met with Rabbi Chaim Amsalem, a member of Kenneset from the Shas party.  Rabbi Amsalem showed us the 2 volume magnum opus he has just published entitled “Zera Yisrael,” “seed of Israel”  which refers to someone who is not technically Jewish by birth but has some connection to the Jewish people, a Jewish father or grandparent, or perhaps lives in the Jewish country fighting its wars and casting their lot with its people.  

Such people are not halachically Jewish but are not like other non-Jews either, they occupy an intermediate space in Jewish law referred to as zera yisrael, much as the person in my story above or the myriads of Jews I see on a daily basis in America who due to an entire generation assimilating have a Jewish father or grandfather and a non Jewish mother.   In his book, which he says Rabbi Ovadiyah Yosef is willing to support, he argues that the opinion of Rabbi Uziel that someone, especially a person with a previous connection to the Jewish people, should be able to convert even without full acceptance of the commandments, is actually the opinion of tens of rishonim, early halachic commentators.    Not just a minority opinion ”upon which liberal hang their hat”.

Another experience was a speaker I heard today, Rabbi Telushkin, who has just written a book on the sage Hillel.  Well known are the stories in which a person wanting to convert but with outlandish demands, such as convert me while I stand on one foot, convert me on the condition that you make me a kohen gadol, convert me on the condition that I accept only the written torah and not the oral one, is rejected outright by Shamai and immediately accepted and converted by Hillel.  Only afterward did Hillel teach them the torah.  Rabbi Telushkin put it well, “Though Hillel always wins in the gemara, it is Shamai who wins in Jewish life.”  That just about sums it up I think.  

And so perhaps soon we will realize that though the words of Shamai are also the words of the living God, the law is like Hillel who is almost always lenient.  It seems this is what our tradition is supposed to be, leniency that results, as the converts say of Hillel, in lovingly bringing others underneath the wings of the divine presence.