Are We There Yet…?- Rabbi Barry Gelman

June 24, 2011

Are We There Yet….?

Is our Judaism something that causes us to aspire to certain goals or does it cause stagnation and the belief that one has arrived at their final destination.

Yehsayahu Leibowitz points out that it is not a coincidence that the word “holy” appears at the end of last week’s Torah reading, Parshat Sh’lach and at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Korach. For him, the two uses of the word is meant to focus us in on the different ways it is used.

At the end of Parshat Sh’lach, the Torah states: “So that you remember and perform all My commandments, and become holy to your God.” Leibowitz stresses that this verse represents an aspirational approach to holiness in that the purpose of the Mitzvot is to help a person achieve holiness.

Korach, on the other hand hands declares: “…the entire assembly  – all of them – are holy.” What Korach is saying is that holiness is a given and exists simply by virtue of the fact that one is a Jew.

On one level, Korach’s claim of innate holiness is empowering as it bespeaks a special status and perhaps a desire to live up to that rank.

Leibowitz, on the other hand, warns that such an approach cheapens holiness, as it need not be earned. It also leads to laziness and conceit as one may then claim that there is no work to be done on character and /or relationship development.

Living life as if one has already reached the pinnacle is the Korach way, as opposed to God’s decree to live life in constant aspiration of doing more and being better.

This idea is especially true in the area of personal character traits. Alan Morinis is his book, Climbing Jacobs Ladder, teaches the following about the goal of mussar practices. “ It assures us that we are not condemned to live forever with every aspect of the personality we happen to have right know, but that we can make changes that will set free the radiance of our inner light.”

The idea of aspiring for more is an important way to view the development of Halacha. For example, Eliezer Berkowitz in his book, Jewish Women in Time and Torah, distinguishes between stances that the Torah tolerates and those that the Torah aspires to. More recently, this approach has been adopted and expanded by Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch.

Their claim is that some of the laws within the Torah itself are not the “end of the road” since they represent positions that are tolerated by the Torah due to historic realities while rabbinic legislation helps Halacha get closer to the ideal position.  For details of Rabbi Rabinovitch’s application of this idea go to –

God had to show that Korach’s approach was doomed to moral, ethical and even legal failure. It was an approach that could have only left the Jewish people, and anyone who accepts such an approach, stuck and stalled in their present condition. Perhaps the punishment of being swallowed up by the earth was God’s way of showing that Korach’s approach was the equivalent of getting stuck in the sand, with an inability to move forward and aspire to even greater heights.


The Scotch Counter Boycott is Moral and Just: It Is about Drinking Responsibly! By Rabbi Lopatin

June 23, 2011

I love Scotch, and I paskin like the London Beth Din that every single Scotch is kosher.  But I love Israel as well, and I particularly don’t like people picking on Israel. So, I support fully counter-boycotting against Scotch’s made in the area where their local council is boycotting Israel.   From the best analysis I have seen, Auchentoshen is the Scotch to boycott.  Now, Auchentoshan is not my favorite Scotch, so I’m kind of happy that it is really the only Scotch, readily available in America,  that is clearly  produced and distilled  in the West Dunbartonshire (WDS) part of Scotland, where a majority of the local council has voted various boycotts of Israel – including not allowing Israeli books in the local library.  The most precise report of what is and is not produced in this shire comes from Joshua E. London, of the Jewish Single Malt Whiskey Society, who is critical of the boycott.  But even he admits the viciousness of  the WDS local council toward Israel, and that Auchentoshen, while owned  by a Japanese conglomerate, is distilled and produced in WDS.  

I don’t like boycotts because of policy differences, but when someone boycotts Israel, we must send them a clear message that not only will they suffer, but all their supporters suffer.  People in WDS need to understand that if their elected officials pick on Israel,  it is their responsibility to remove them from office.  I want the world to know that there are millions of consumers and advocates who will fight against any boycott of Israel.  These boycotts are not only ignorant and vicious, they are immoral as well.  The distillers and producers of Scotch, have to tell that to elected and unelected officials: if you live in a place that discriminates against Israel, or if you are a school which allows students to harm pro-Israel students and speakers, your competitors will benefit and you will lose.  That’s the new order.  Maybe these crazy socialist/communist/Marxist councils will pick on someone else.

I’m not impressed that Auchentoshen is working to get KLBD hashgacha for their drinks; Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, refused to give hashgacha for any Scotch in his days, because he believed all of it was kosher.  I still hold of the London Beth Din’s rule that it is all kosher.  In fact, I would suggest that the KLBD, the hashgacha of the London Beth Din, raise the issue of the WDS boycott of Israel in their discussions regarding the kashrut of Auchentashen.  The Scotch companies claim that it is not their fault that the local council has voted to boycott Israel; they are just a company and cannot influence elections.   I ask then, that these companies who feel they can’t speak up, and universities who claim that they have to allow free speech to students that disrupt Israeli speakers, make a donation to the Friends of the IDF to show that they have nothing against Israel.  Or, make a donation to Zaka or Hatzala or even Magen David Adom, any Israeli program that helps victims of Arab terrorism. If they make those donations, and are open about those donations, then I would accept that as a demonstration of their good will.

We in the Diaspora are generally not sending our kids to fight for Israel, nor are we living in Israel and subjecting ourselves to all the risks that Israelis face every day.  We are enjoying the bounty of America or some other foreign land.  The least we can do is send a message of support for Israel with everything with partake of – whether it is Scotch, higher education, or anything else that God has blessed us with the means of purchasing.  Let those who support Israel be blessed and let those who would want to harm Israel face the consequences. God has given us the means of making this world a little more just – let us not shirk our responsibility.  Yes, let us drink responsibly!


Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Anthony Weiner, and How We Can Do Better

June 23, 2011

A few times over the last couple of weeks. I’ve asked myself, “What’s the lesson to be derived from the sordid tales of Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, Arnold Schwarzenegger” I mean aside from the lessons we already know: that one should avoid doing stupid things, things that are hurtful and destructive to the people you love, things that are exploitative of people who may be in a position of relative weakness. Is there something else, something larger, that can only be seen by taking one step back, and considering these sorry stories within the larger framework of Jewish thought?

 The conclusion I came to is that this is a great time to look again at that sometimes-maligned Jewish value called tzniut, physical modesty. It’s a sometimes-maligned value because people tend to think that it’s fundamentally  about the superficial matter of how people dress, and further  that it’s specifically about how women dress, or even further that it’s about placing the responsibility upon women to save men from their own out-of-control libidos or utter lack of moral compass. But this is all wrong. Tzniut surely has implications for dress – for both genders alike! – but it’s fundamentally about a core ethical belief, the very core ethical belief that you can bet was nowhere to be found when these sexual scandals originated.

 What core ethical belief does physical modesty express and uphold? The answer is simple. The belief in human dignity. The idea that every person possesses an attribute that endows him with ultimate value, and which demands that she be the recipient of honor, respect and equal treatment. And that this attribute  is in no way connected to anything physical or visible. In fact it exists even when the physical is compromised or degraded. It’s the meta-physical attribute we call human dignity. And it’s ultimately the only trait that we believe ought to define a person’s worth, and ought to determine the way in which we relate to and interact with another person. And dignity’s advocate and guardian is the value we call tzniut.

 Properly lived, tzniut is the way we express our commitment to the ideal of building a society, in which no one of us thinks about or defines themselves or anyone else in terms his / her physical attributes. It’s lived out through carrying ourselves, and teaching our children to carry themselves, entertaining ourselves, and teaching our children to entertain themselves, and indeed dressing ourselves, and teaching our children to dress themselves, in a way that insists that dignity – and dignity alone – be understood as the core of human identity. It’s a way of looking at the world that renders it unthinkable to abuse or exploit, to cheapen or demean another human being – to see them merely as an object of entertainment or sexual gratification. The rope with which we try to pull the world out of the muck of its worst and most ancient habits and attitudes, is the notion of human dignity.  And the muscle with which we pull it, is the steady, continuous commitment to the value we call tzniut.

 We of course acknowledge that we are physical, sexual beings.  But when, through the practice of tzniut,  we see others as defined not by their bodies but by their human spirit, we come to understand that our sexuality is a Divine gift to be cherished, not a primal urge to be satisfied. This is the crazy Jewish idea, first expressed in chapter of two of the Torah, and then embedded in all of the  laws concerning on what occasions and with what frequency a husband and wife are to engage in intimacy, that human sexuality is an instrument God gave to us through which to fully know our life partner, to find ecstatic joy in the marital relationship, to continuously renew an everlasting covenant. What an unthinkable betrayal of God’s generosity it would be, to reduce this gift to a tool of mere physical gratification. Our Sages regarded the sin of adultery to be rooted in a kind of insanity. This is a perspective anchored in our beliefs about human dignity, supported by our practice of tzniut, and our reservation of ourselves as sexual beings to our spouses alone.

 The big lesson here, is that our tradition and practice of physical modesty is not a medieval relic, but a guardian of our most cherished modern ethical beliefs.

Orthodox. And Gay.

June 23, 2011

Last Shabbat afternoon, our shul hosted a unique panel of three Orthodox Jews who are gay or lesbian. All three have partners and children. All three continue to live Orthodox lives. The purpose of our panel was not to advocate for a reassessment of Halacha, or to question God’s justice.  There was none of that at all. The purpose was simply to pull our heads out of the sand. To acknowledge that there are Orthodox gays and lesbians in our extended families and that they are part of our shul communities. And to realize that they need our understanding in order to live the lives of Torah and Mitzvot that their souls desire. We came together last Shabbat in order to begin seeing this not as a political issue, but as a human issue.

 All three panelists simply shared their own experiences of struggling with their identities, finally coming out, and then struggling again, to find a place for themselves in the religious community they love. It was a powerful afternoon in front of a standing-room-only crowd. If you’d like to do a similar panel discussion in your shul, please feel free to contact me, or to be in touch with the organization Eshel, at

 Below is an excerpt from one of the personal stories:



 Excerpts from “My Community”

byAviva Buck-Yael

  ….I once went to an ultra-orthodox shule and once loved being a part of that community.   I loved knowing that I was a valued member of my community and that I had a place where I belonged.  But I also knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was a lesbian and that if my community ever knew this about me, there would be no place for me.  I struggled with my identity.  I spent a very long time trying desperately to be who I wasn’t.  I tried to do that which I knew my community would wish me to do had they known they had a lesbian in their midst.  I ignored, denied, and suppressed this piece of myself.   I married a man, created a home, and established myself in the community.  But I always felt like a fraud.  I felt like a fraud to myself, to my community, and to the man I married. 

 Sure I told him when I married him that I was a lesbian, but I always felt that I was not capable of bringing the best of myself to the relationship no matter how hard I tried.  And G-d knows I tried.  I tried to be a thoughtful and giving partner.  I tried to be a responsible and capable home maker.  I did all the things that wives are expected to do.  I would cook and clean and have Shabbos guests by the dozens. But what kind of wife was I when I could never desire him as he needed to be desired, when I always wished deep down he could be something that he was not.

 You see, what I discovered was that it wasn’t possible to suppress individual parts of my emotional self.  To shut down this piece of myself meant to shut down the rest of my emotions as well.  When I suppressed this part of myself, I suppressed my ability to love, to feel and to connect with those around me.  This suppressing and disconnecting left me… in the end… feeling like a miserable example of a human being.  Eventually, after 11 years of marriage, I came to a point in my life where I couldn’t continue as I was.

 I have been divorced now for 5 years.  A lot of people have asked me why I finally left.  Others ask me why I stayed so long. In the end, the only thing I do know for sure was that it wasn’t until I had my children that I allowed myself to take a good long look at myself.  I looked deep inside and I saw nothing but a shell of a person.  I remembered once having been a fully fleshed out person filled with light and love and joy.  I remembered liking who I was.  Now I looked at myself and saw nothing inside. When my son was born I felt like I was given the most precious gift that life could bestow.  I didn’t want him learning from the hollow example of my marriage, what it meant to love someone.  I wanted him to be someone who lived life to the fullest.  I wanted him to see his world and connect with it and all the people in it.   How could I do that with the example I was giving him?

 But, I felt that if I was no longer a married woman in my community there would be no place for me in the Orthodox world.  I felt that if I was honest about who I was I’d have no community.  Surely I’d be tossed out, shunned, no longer a trusted and beloved member of the community.  I saw others like me that when faced with this dilemma simply left Judaism entirely.   I tried to imagine what it would be like to leave Judaism to allow myself room to be true to my emotional self. Forget all that religious baggage.  But how could I go through life giving up on spirituality and connection to G-d?  How can a Jew survive without Torah and community and not be left feeling empty?  And what I wanted more than anything to finally be whole.

 As I prepared to leave the community I had been connected with for so long, I found that HaKadosh Baruch Hu was watching out for me. I found out there was a little known community in on the other side of town that I hadn’t even heard of previously… and there I found a community that was deeply committed to loving Hashem, learning Torah, practicing halacha in accordance with Orthodox principals AND making the morality that comes from all these things a part of their everyday lives. For them it meant truly embracing the notion of love your neighbor as yourself. It meant embracing the notion that we are all B’tzelem Elokim and as such we all need to be treated as holy beings. It meant taking responsibility for everyone’s Jewish journey and making certain that there was room enough for every Jew who wished to be shomer mitzvot to have a place in their community. For me, it meant finding a community capable of welcoming me and fully embracing me, a queer Jew, into their community. It meant that I was able to find a Rav for myself that I could talk to, to bring my self – my whole self and my religious struggles that come with being my whole self – to, and ask for guidance. It meant that I had a community to share Shabbos and simchos with. It meant that I had a place where I could be treated with love and respect for exactly who I was. As we all ought to be.

Reflections on our Community Shavuot Tikun and Jewish Unity -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

June 17, 2011

This past Tuesday night, the first night of Shavuot, over 100 people from five different shuls and institutions, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, came together  to spend the night (some even made it all night!)  learning Torah together; to stand again as we did at Sinai, no matter our differences, as “one person with one heart”.

Classes ranged from Pirkey Avot, to Jewish mysticism, to Midrash.  Jews who rarely pray together and might not share the same visions of how Jewish observance should look none the less placed those differences aside in light of the big picture –that we are all one.  As Richard Joel, the president of Yeshiva University often used to say regarding the Jewish people, “One size does not fit all.”  Yet at the same time it is imperative I think that we are able at times to put aside those different “sizes” and be one people learning Torah together -especially on Shavuot.  As the Midrash says, “The Jewish people came together as one person with one heart in order to receive the Torah with love.”  According to the Midrash the Torah must be received in love and this is only possible if the Jewish people can, even if only for one day, see each other as wholly unified.

Some people in the Orthodox community have asked me how I can allow teachers who do not share Orthodox views of Torah or observance to teach at Bais Abraham on Shavuot.   I do not believe it is forbidden to read or hear what other Jews believe and often I find they have much to teach us.   I have not once had any of my congregants tell me they considered not being Orthodox from hearing a non-orthodox rabbi speak on Shavuot at my shul.   I have faith that the Torah is true and can protect itself.

I was once discussing our annual community Shavuot Tikun with the head of an Israeli yeshiva and that some people have been critical of this interdenominational learning since they were afraid of having teachers teach who were not Orthodox in belief or observance.  His reply was: “They should be afraid of being too afraid”.

What does indeed come from the annual Shavuot Tikun, thank G-d, is a deep sense of the unity of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people).

Shanda for the Muslims: Quds day is the 30th of Safar, not June 8. By Rabbi Asher Lopatin

June 7, 2011

Shanda for the Muslims: Al-Quds Day is 30th of Safar, not June 8!

That’s right folks: I’m stunned that Muslims who want to celebrate Al-Quds day have been co-opted by a Christian world, and a Christian calendar, and follow the Christian, Gregorian dates to determine when to protest the re-unification and freeing of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, or al-Quds in Arabic, was re-united during the Six Day War on the 30th of Safar, 1387, a.h. (a.h. = al-Hijra, the year Muhammad, in the Muslim tradition, moved to Medina from Mecca). For Jews that is the 28th of Iyyar, 5727, from the creation of the world. That is why millions of Jews around the world celebrated Jerusalem Reunification day last week on the 28th of Iyyar, which happened to fall on June 1. Tomorrow is the sixth of Sivan, 5771, and Jews throughout the world will not celebrate Jerusalem day, even though June 8th is the anniversary on the Christian calendar of the reunification of Jerusalem 44 years ago; we are celebrating Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks (Pentacost), which commemorates the receiving of the Torah 3500 years ago on the sixth of Sivan.
Muslims should first of all celebrate Jerusalem Day and Yaum al-Quds as a day when all religions can worship the One God in Jerusalem. However, if they are going to protest freedom of religious access and the freedom for Muslims, Christians, and Jews to all live together, then at least they should protest it on the right day for Muslims: the Muslim anniversary of the uniting of Jerusalem, which was the 30th of Safar this year, 1432, a.h., and it has long past; it was on February 3, 2011. The 30 of Safar in the next Muslim year, 1433, a.h., will be on January 23, 2012. I would love to sit down on the 30 of Safar or the 28th of Iyyar and discuss with my Muslim brothers and sisters whether Jerusalem was better under the Jordanian occupation, or under the British or Ottoman occupation, or today, as a part of democratic Israel, where everyone in the city, Jewish, Muslim or Christian has the vote.
All I ask is that Muslims be true to yourselves: Naqba day needs to be on the Muslim anniversary, as well as Naqsa and Quds day. Let’s protest or celebrate properly, not corrupted by a calendar that is foreign to both the Jewish and Muslim people.
Thanks to Apple for providing both the Islamic Calender App, and also the Pocket Luach App. All good Jews and Muslims should have it on their IPhone!
Chag same’ach – happy Torah day in Jerusalem, Chicago or wherever you are!

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

God Loves Me and I Can Prove It: Video Shiur: Rabbi Barry Gelman

June 6, 2011

God Loves Me And I Can Prove It! 
Faith In Bnei Yisrael. Rabbi David Hartman on why running away from Sinai was a bad thing.





Nazir: Sinner or Saint? Weekly Video Parshat Hashavua Class: Rabbi Barry Gelman

June 1, 2011

I give a weekly live Video Parshat Hashavua Class. This week’s class was on: Nazir: Sinner or Saint? One Gemara praises the Nazir while another chastises. Which is is? A Solution is offered by Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein.

This class also touches on vegetarianism and other forms of voluntary abstentions.

Follow this link to watch the class

For audio only go to here:

I give the class every Monday at 12PM (Central time). If you would like to be added to the email distribution list to get a reminder and log in information for the class, please email me at

Seeing the sincerity in those with whom we disagree

June 1, 2011

It is not easy for the Jewish people to see themselves as one. They label each other heretics and fanatics, and deem each other guilty of undermining the welfare, identity, and religious underpinnings of the Jewish people as a whole.

Some have noted that unfortunately it often takes persecution to bring Jewish unity.   Hitler for instance considered all Jews, even those who did not consider themselves Jewish, as part of the Jewish people.   The Jew who lived a fully assimilated life in 1940’s Germany, the Jew who converted to Christianity, and the Jew who did not look Jewish and perhaps did not even know they were, were all equally Jewish in qualifying for extermination.

In several weeks Jewish people all over the world will celebrate the Biblical holiday of Shavuot.  Though as described in the Bible this holiday is very much about thanking God for the wheat harvest, today a different aspect of the holiday, its commemoration of the divine revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai to the whole Jewish people, is more central.

The Midrash, Judaism’s most ancient commentary on the Bible, writes that the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Sinai together, “As one person with one heart.”   Perhaps this upcoming holiday of Shavuot can be the day when we put aside our differences, and reclaim that Sinaitic sense of being “One person with one heart.”

Each time I study what someone else in Judaism believes and hear how they see the world, even though their ideas are different from my strongly held religious beliefs, I am pleasantly surprised. I may still think that their views are incorrect, but what I see, with fresh eyes, is their good intentions and their integrity. Each time it becomes clear that they see what they are doing as best for their community, for the Jewish people, and for the world.  Jewish people and groups whom I thought were damaging the Jewish people, I found were actually engaging  in what they saw as correct religious life and values, caring much more about the Jewish people than I could have imagined.

For instance, the liberal rabbi  whom I thought was out to undermine Jewish tradition and herald assimilation turned out to be someone of deep faith and integrity, trying to the best of their ability and with good intentions, to engage the Jewish people in religious life and values, caring much more about Jewish tradition than I had imagined.  Or the fundamentalist rabbi that I thought was out to separate the Jewish people entirely from other Jews and from the outside world, whom I imagined was trying to compromise much of the light that Jews are commanded to bring to the nations, turned out to be a loving, caring, understanding human being who was much more open minded than I had imagined.

The great miracle of learning about the other, of seeing through another’s eyes if even for a moment, is not only appreciation of their integrity, not only a greater sense of unity with them, but taking something productive away, learning something I did not know before that could relate to and deepen my own beliefs, no matter how different from theirs.

The common denominator of all the Jewish groups is their claim to the Torah. In the spirit of this unity, Jewish people from all denominations will come together to study Torah all night long this Shavuot, Tuesday June 7th, at 11pm at Bais Abraham Congregation.   The event is sponsored by the Orthodox Bais Abraham Congregation, the Conservative Sharee Tzedek Synagogue, the Reform Central Reform Congregation, the Jewish Community Center and many others.   For more information call Rabbi Hyim Shafner 314-721-3030 or email