Halacha as Business-My Take on the Rotem Bill-By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 29, 2010

The recent (now tabled)  bill submitted to the Kenesset by MK Rotem expands the range of whom under law in Israel has the authority to perform conversions, and in addition severely limits anyone’s ability to retroactively undo a conversion performed in Israel.

The bill was formulated by Israel Baytenu, a non-religious party, to facilitate the conversions of hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews who are Jewish enough to make Aliyah, (they are defined as a Jew according to the Nuremberg laws) yet are not halachically Jewish, such as someone with a paternal grandfather or father who is Jewish.   That the handful of more liberal rabbis of cities who are part of the Rabbanut (but who until this point were either unable to do conversions or the conversions they did do were undone by their more religiously rightwing counterparts) can help to solve the gargantuan dilemma of so many Jewish people who can not under law marry in their own country, is wonderful.

What did this secular party have to offer the other side, the Charedi Rabbanut, in exchange for the possibility of Russian Jews who are not fully observant converting without having their conversions subsequently undone?   The answer of course, as with all things political, is power.  In exchange, the Rabbanut will be the arbiter of all questions of Jewish status.   This possibility has caused the Reform and Conservative movements to become up in arms, at the future possibility that their conversions will no longer be accepted under law for purposes of Aliyah as they are now.   Weather this new bill will effect the ability of someone born of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother to make Aliyah (that is who is a Jew based on whom Hitler would have killed) is not clear to me.  I have heard different answers to the question.

Maybe I am naïve but what bothers me most about the bill is the reduction of Halachic concerns to the level of a business dealings.   Give us the Russians and in exchange you can have the Conservative and Reform….etc.   If Charedi Rabbis really believe that the conversion of the Russians is outside the bounds of halacha, why are they willing to go along with the bill in exchange for more exclusive power over the definition of who is a Jew?   Practice is then not based on one’s intellectual assessment of halacha but on a political negotiation, which gives something, in this case more jurisdiction, in exchange for halachic compromise.

The beauty of a Jewish country should be that Jewish attitudes and halchic concerns inform all the workings of the state, from the lofty to the mundane.  But this should not work the other way around.  Though Judaism should, I believe, influence politics in Israel, when the opposite is true and politics influences Judaism and Halacha we are going down an appalling path.   Instead of Torah sanctifying the mundane it quickly becomes, in the words of our rabbis, deker lachkor bah, a shovel to dig with.   The mundane sullying Torah.   May the holiness of torah and its ethical and religious teachings color all aspects of life in the holy land and not itself become low, speedily in our days.


We Did it on Tisha B’av. You Can Too. by Yosef Kanefsky

July 28, 2010

It wasn’t about making a point, or advancing an agenda. Nobody invited our local Jewish journalists, and even the one who was there never entertained the idea of writing about it. Because even though it had never happened before, we weren’t doing it in order to make local Jewish history. The beauty of the event lay in its being completely un-self-conscious. 

On the afternoon / evening of the Tisha B’av just past, three shuls – one Orthodox, one Conservative, and one non-denominational – got together to learn in havruta, to sing “If I forget you, Jerusalem”,  and to break fast together. When planning the event, my rabbinic partners and I were unsure as to how many of our congregants would actually show up. After all, it would already be 7:30 PM at the end of long day of fasting. And you never know what will happen when invite people to leave the comfortable “four amot” of their own shul, and to make their way over to another. But not only did people come, they came in numbers far exceeding our expectations. We literally had to bring in dozens of chairs from an adjoining room. 

For me and for our shul, this get together was the compliment to a gathering that we have been doing for years on the morning of Tisha B’av. For years and years we have been davening and reciting the kinot together with our brothers and sisters from the Young Israel down the boulevard from us, alternating venues each year. This year, we were joined (and hosted) by the third of the three major Orthodox shuls in the neighborhood, generating a truly powerful expression of communal unity and Jewish love. It’s indescribably moving. Which is what led the president of our shul, just after Tisha B’av a year ago, to encourage me to think in wider Jewish communal terms as well.    

And now, a year later there we all were.  As soon as we got everyone seated for our first-ever inter-denominational Tisha B’av afternoon program, the atmosphere turned magical, as the space filled with the intense din learning and discussion (we learned Brachot 3a, an aggada set in the ruins of Yerushalayim – you can email me at ravyosef@bnaidavid.com for the source sheet). People were learning with fellow Jews whom they had never met before, and remarkably, yet unsurprisingly, it all felt so natural. This was at least in part because it was Tisha B’av, and on Tisha B’av our sense of being family is particularly intuitive. 

As the end of the day was approaching, we broke for Ma’ariv. As had been pre-arranged, our chevra davened in a room that had been set for us with a mechitza, as the balance of the chevra davened in an egalitarian setting in a different room. It’s what we do for one another when we’re a family. 

I believe this is something you can do in your community too. It’s deceptively easy. 

Over the break fast, I heard only one complaint: “Next year, we need to have more time”. To which I would only add, “Next year in Jeruslaem”.


Free The Hurva!!! – Rabbi Barry Gelman

July 19, 2010

I was in Israel last week and attempted to visit the rebuilt Churva shul in the old city. I was with a friend and we were told that it was closed to tourists except for tefilla time and after 7PM. We were told that it is used for torah study during the day. We finally convinced the guard (and this was no easy task) that we would like to enter in order to study as well. When he said yes it was only on the condition that we would not walk or even look around to see the remodeling. I even saw him peeking back at us to make sure we were not actually looking around. I must admit that I took my eyes off of the mishna berura for a few minutes to look around. It is beautiful! Being that is such a wonderful reconstruction it is even more of a shame that it is not open to the public on a regular basis.

I wonder who made this deal and how it is that a place that the government spent millions of dollars refurbishing is closed to the public and only open to yeshiva bochurim.

BTW – If you want to get in  – I recommend black pants and a white shirt. it will make it easier for you to make your case that you can actually learn. I had a hard time with my gold shirt and khaki pants. Ladies, I am afraid you are out of luck…

For more in this see here


Rabbi Lopatin Responding to the Arrest of Anat Hoffman at the Kotel – for carrying a Torah

July 15, 2010

R. Leibowitz’s view of the Kotel as Avodah Zarah rings so true here. However, everyone, both Chareidim, Dati Le’umi, Chilonim and Reform have a right to worship Avoda Zara in the modern State of Israel. After all, Chacham Ovadia writes that it the State of Israel has to protect churches under its domain, and he holds like the Rambam that they are places of Avoda Zara.

That being said, I have long pushed for those who want to daven differently than the norm to free up Robninson’s Arch: there is no reason it has to take second fiddle to the “Kotel”. It is still the Western Wall and has more interesting Roman-era artifacts. It needs to get security and be open 24/7 like the Kotel and just leave the Kotel – for now – to the chareidim and the shnerrers who bother you when you try to daven there. Start putting kapitlach in the Southwestern Kotel! The Israeli Supreme Court has said that any kind of Jewish worship is permissible there, so those of us who want to try non-normative, and even more pleasant, services should concentrate on consolidating and building up Robinson’s arch, and then, if necessary, move on to the Kotel.


Do Zealots make Good Jewish Leaders? -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 4, 2010

This past week we read in the Torah of Pinchus, someone who stands up to fulfill what is written in Pirkey Avot (The Ethics of Our Fathers), “In a place where there is no one, stand up and be someone”.  He is the classic zealot for God.  Several paragraphs latter when God tells Moses that Moses will die, Moses asks God to choose someone as a new leader.   The obvious question is why not Pinchus?   The obvious answer is that Pinchus is a zealot and while God gave Pinchas His covenant of peace, he is not fitting for Jewish leadership.

In asking God to appoint a leader Moses calls God a name with which he has not been referred to before.  “God of the spirits of all flesh (creatures).”   Rashi comments, God of “ruchot” spirits of all flesh- “Appoint someone who can tolerate the individual spirits, personalities, of each of your people.”   “So that your people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

Moses feels a good leader for the Jewish people is one that is a shepherd, knows each as an individual and is willing to tolerate each individual’s personality.  Perhaps like Aaron, who does not oppose the Jewish peoples’ desire to make the golden calf but goes with their request trying along the way to curb their idolatrous desire toward something better.   The opposite perhaps of Pinchus, who stands up and attacks when wrong is being perpetrated.

God tells Moses to pick Yehoshuah, a man who, “has the spirit in him.”  Rashi comments here that the spirit referred to is the ability to stand in opposition to the ruach, the spirit and personality, of the people when he must.   Yehoshuah of course is neither Pinchas nor Aaron, neither one who only tolerates the desires of the people nor one who trounces them.  Thus he is a good Jewish leader.  Joshuah like Moses, is a balanced leader who is both shepherd and admonisher, who can tolerate the people’s ruach and also stand against it.

We live in world where Pinchus seems to have won.  Whether Muslim zealots who blow themselves up, Christian zealots who reneg on the kindness and understanding of Vatican II, or Jewish zealots (lihavdil) who revoke sincere peoples conversions, today it is the extremists who hold the day and the media.  May we merit that the God of the, “spirits of all creatures,” bring us leaders well balanced like Moses and Yehoshua.