Western Ethical Norms and Halacha by R. Yosef Kanefsky

December 27, 2010

(This essay appeared in the Journal Jurnal of Greater Los Angeles on Friday)

The Orthodox community is rapidly approaching a moment of truth. The many issues that the Orthodoxy community is debating internally are rapidly collapsing into one overarching issue, one macro-question, with which it must grapple head-on. And this is, whether or not the ethical norms of western society should figure into the process of determining Halacha (Jewish Law).

 Consider the issues that have most roiled Orthodoxy just over the past year or so. There is the controversy over the statement of principles concerning the place of homosexuals within the Orthodox community, a document that while upholding the Biblical prohibition on homosexual behavior, mandates that people who are homosexual be afforded full dignity and respect, and that they be included in their Orthodox communities. Signed by 150 Orthodox rabbis and educators, it was flatly rejected by at least as many. There is also the ongoing debate over whether women may serve as synagogue presidents, as well as the sure-to-return debate over women being ordained as rabbis. More recently, we have seen renewed controversy over  whether or not Halacha permits us to donate our organs following our brain-stem death, even as it is clear that we are permitted to receive organs from non-Jews who are brain-stem dead. And most recently, we have witnessed the controversy in Israel as to whether Halacha prohibits the sale or lease of apartments to non-Jews in the land of Israel. Each of these issues is complex in its own way, and none can be facilely decided in the absence of rigorous Halachik analysis. But over and over again, the wedge issue turns out to be whether or not consideration of western ethical norms is relevant to the analysis.

 This emerged clearly last week, as the Rabbinical Council of America registered its objection to the ban on renting to non-Jews in Israel, saying that the Halachik analysis of this issue demands “special sensitivity to societal realities, widely-held ethical principles, and historical injustices”.  Which is to say, that when we examine our universe of viable Halachik alternatives, our choice of alternative can and should be influenced by wider ethical considerations. Yet this is, of course, precisely the point of contention.

 The story is the same with regard to the organ donation issue. Here too, viable and scholarly halachik positions have existed on both side of this issue for many decades. Last month though, a Rabbinical Council of America report (ironically), which preferred the position that effectively prohibits  Jews from donating organs, elicited the following response from Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, a prominent scholar and bio-ethicist (and a longtime proponent of the brain-stem definition of death, which results in the permissibility of organ donation) “Their final conclusion is that a Jew who is in need of a heart transplant can receive a heart from a brain-dead patient but he can’t donate his heart if he is brain dead. Such a ruling defames Judaism and exposes every Jew to the hatred of non-Jews. It is saying that a Jew can take a vital organ from a non-Jew even though Jews consider him still alive — that his life doesn’t count. How could you justify such a ruling?”

 The wedge issue is the same when it comes to the place of homosexuals in the Orthodox community. The opening words of the above-referenced Statement of Principles are: “All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.” While it is of course true that the idea that all people are created in the image is Biblical, its specific application to homosexuals is a distinctly modern historical development. It is our way of clothing in our religious language the modern, western ethical assertion that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. The relevance of such ideas to our halachik calculus is again what stands at the center of the controversy. Similarly, when rabbinic scholars in pre-State Palestine debated whether or not women ought to have the right to vote in Yishuv elections, the old/new “image of God” idea was one of the main pivots of the discussion.  And it continues to play out in today’s controversies over the position of women in the Orthodox community.

 Are the ethical norms of modern western society essential to halachik discussion, or are they irrelevant? Are they to be integrated, or to be shunned? This is, in the final analysis, the central issue that the Orthodox community is grappling with. And the answer will determine Orthodoxy’s long term viability as positive force in the wider Jewish community, and the wider world.

Shopping, Conspicuous Consumption and Jews – Rabbi Barry Gelman

December 21, 2010

Dear Friends,

I found this article about shopping to be very insightful and reflective of some very important values.
I have often commented on the plague of conspicuous consumption that exists in the Jewish community. This article should make us think about how we shop.

Perhaps the references to Christian theology will be unsettling to people so I have included another link to Jewish sources on the ethics of consumerism.

While this is the season during which people focus on shopping, the questions of how we shop, why we shop and how shopping affects our soul is worthy of ongoing consideration.



Were our Avot and Imahot (ancestors) perfect? Did they keep the whole Torah? –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 15, 2010

Often we limit the Torah. We project our own ideas onto it –what we already identify with, ideas we think the Torah should be teaching us. Sometimes we feel the Torah cannot defend itself or be of value as it is, thus we fashion seatbelts for it that, I think, ultimately detract from it.


One example is how we see our Avot and Imahot.  (I won’t even go into the Artscroll illustrations of the Avot wearing schtriemlach.)  Instead of taking the Torah at its word, we remake the p’shat (textual meaning) of the Torah into descriptions of the Avot as perfect tzadikim (righteous people).  In fact, it often seems that a majority of the stories the Torah chooses to tell us of the Avot in Breishit are just the opposite- stories which depict midot that we would not consider refined.


I am not saying the Avot did not make the right decisions in the situations they were presented with; in some instances they perhaps had little choice but to choose the lesser of two evils.   I am saying that we should take care in claiming they were perfect, indeed the Torah, for its own reasons, which no doubt are right, did not choose to paint pictures of our Avot as perfect, but rather as sometimes lacking in midot.


A second important point- I am not denying that if read on a halachic/lomdishe level or on a kabalistic level, the actions of our ancestors cannot be justified- they can.   I am asking the question of whether the Avot as presented to us in the p’shat (and the Torah must be readable on its p’shat  level) are perfect.   Some obvious examples: Sarah throws her son out of the house for playing/laughing, Yosef’s brothers plot to kill him because they are jealous of him, as the Torah clearly states.  Yaakov and Rivka lie to Yitzchak, their blind father/husband.   Noach, the only person called a tzadik in Breishit, turns to drunkenness immediately after being saved from the flood,  etc.   (There is one interesting exception to this trend which is Yosef.  After he grows up, he attributes everything to God, puts God at the center always, and humbly puts himself in check in order to give to others.)


The notion that our ancestors were righteous and kept the whole Torah is taken as p’shat by our day school-educated children.  After all, if they are our examples, how could they be anything but superhuman tzadikim?  The idea that they may not be seems, instead of rendering our Avot more accessible as role models for us,  to deeply threaten people’s faith.


The Torah has many faces and many understandings and to see the Torah as black and white, to say it has one explanation, is to remake it in our image instead of letting it teach us.  Torah is holy and Divine and can protect itself.   It does not have to fit neatly into the theological molds we make for it within our religious comfort zones.  Instead , we must let the Torah challenge us to think outside the box.  Perhaps our Avot were not perfect and there is much to learn from this.


There are actually conflicting notions in Chazal (our rabbis, may their memory be for a blessing) in regard to the question of whether our ancestors kept the Torah.


שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשה ל

מגיד דבריו ליעקב חקיו ומשפטיו לישראל לא עשה כן לכל גוי אלא למי ליעקב שבחרו מכל העובדי כוכבים ולא נתן להם אלא מקצת נתן לאדם ו’ מצות, הוסיף לנח אחת, לאברהם ח’, ליעקב ט’, אבל לישראל נתן להם הכל


According to this opinion in the above Midrash, Noah kept seven mitzvot, Avraham eight, and Yaakov nine.  That’s it.


Here we see the radical opposite Midrash brought in the Talmud.


תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף כח עמוד ב

אמר רב: קיים אברהם אבינו כל התורה כולה, שנאמר +בראשית כו+ עקב אשר שמע אברהם בקלי וגו’. אמר ליה רב שימי בר חייא לרב: ואימא שבע מצות! – הא איכא נמי מילה. – ואימא שבע מצות ומילה! – אמר ליה: אם כן מצותי ותורתי למה לי? אמר (רב) +מסורת הש”ס: [רבא]+ ואיתימא רב אשי: קיים אברהם אבינו אפילו עירובי תבשילין, שנאמר תורתי – אחת תורה שבכתב ואחת תורה שבעל פה.


According this piece of Talmud, Avraham kept not only the written Torah but the oral tradition and even rabbinic fences such as Eruv Tavshilin, a rabbinic commandment that was put in place to allow cooking on Yom Tov for Shabbat, which according to most, is probably only a rabbinic limitation itself.


But how are we to understand this opinion that our Avot kept the Torah, when indeed it was not yet given?


The Nitivot Shalom explains how we can understand the Midrashic idea that our ancestors kept Torah, even if it was not commanded to them, as follows (Hakdamah 3):

“With regard to all things we must ask not only is this permitted or forbidden by law but is it “Good in God’s eyes.”  Even if there is no clear source in the Torah from which to infer what is good or bad in the eyes of God, the human soul can teach us the truth of it.

It is in this way that we can understand that which the Midrash says, that Avraham fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given.  For if it was not yet given, how did Avraham know it?  One could say he knew it through Ruach haKodesh, the Holy Spirit, but in truth he knew it through the meaning of, “You shall do what is good and right in the eyes of God.”

This means we must do what brings us close to God.   How do we know what that is (if one does not have the Torah as Abraham did not, or if it is not all written in the Torah)?  The human soul can teach us how.  The soul within us that is a true part of God above can sense what is good and right in God’s eyes, and, conversely, what will make us distant from God.  This is how Avraham fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given.”


The Nitivot Shalom here is saying that through the human soul and conscience, we can intuit what is good and right in the eyes of God.   This is how Avraham understood the Torah and by extension, since we all have a Divine soul, so can we.   We must not only keep the laws but go beyond the letter of the law to do what is good and right, with the holy, though perhaps less than perfect Avot as our guides.