Kol Isha Controversy In Israel and Articles on Kol Isha – Barry Gelman

November 30, 2011

Recently a Kol-Isha controversy has arisen in Israel. In another instance Rav Levanon compared the  requirement that male soldiers sit in a program when women are sining to a “time of persecution” that requires one to give up their life in accordance with the ruling or the Rambam.

Rav Moshe Liechtenstein responded here.

In order to have informed conversation on this issue I am posting a series of links to articles that offer various approaches to the issue of Kol Isha.

Rav David Bigman – Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshiva Maale Gilboa. A New Analysis of Kil B’Isha Erva.

Michael Makovi – A New Hearing for Kol Ishah

Rabbi Saul Berman – Kol Isha Revisited

Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin  – A critique of Rabbi Berman’s article

Avraham Shammah – Kol Isha with a current perspective

Rabbi Chaim Jachter – The Parameters of Kol Isha

Were the Avot Perfect? -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 28, 2011

Last week I wrote a blog post on another blog in which I suggested Abraham had on some level  failed the test of bringing his son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah.  That instead of bringing him perhaps the more ethical response would have been to protect the innocent child even in the face of the Divine command to sacrifice him.   It seemed more in keeping with the teachings of the the God of the Bible who abhors injustice and loves mercy.   Here is the post: http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/civil-religion/hyim-shafner/

I received several responses from individuals of various religions who found my suggestion that Abraham failed, to say the least, highly objectionable.   Many asked how I could suggest that a better decision would have been for Abraham to refuse to kill his son when the bible and so many religious traditions clearly see this as Abraham’s greatest moment of faith and religious success.

To these concerns I would answer that Judaism, my tradition, has a particularly unique view of the Bible, that multiple interpretations, even when in contradiction with each other can be simultaneously true.   There are several levels on which the bible is understood in Jewish tradition, from that of the plain meaning of the text to more mystical levels, and several in between.  On the level of the text’s plain meaning perhaps there are fewer legitimate interpretations but when it comes to deeper levels, especially those of the Midrash, the narrative and homiletically level, we have many examples from Jewish tradition in which we are presented with ancient interpretations which are contradictory, yet simultaneously seen as valid.   Thus it can be true that while on one level Abraham indeed performed an act of great faith, on another level he failed to care for his weak child and caused his wife’s death of shock.

Another criticism some had of the suggestion that Abraham failed his final test was the supposition that the righteous individuals in the Bible are perfectly righteous.   How could I have the audacity to suggest that the people upon whom many religions are founded, were flawed?

There is a very long Jewish tradition of not seeing our ancestors as perfect.   For instance the rabbis of the Talmud suggest that Jacob was fooled by his wife Leah as punishment for fooling his brother Esau when he surreptitiously took the first born blessing from him, or ancient Rabbis who suggest that the Jewish people were punished much latter in the time of Queen Esther for what Jacob did to his brother, showing in effect, that what he did was wrong.  Some ancient Jewish commentaries even understand that the Jewish people had to go down to Egypt into slavery as a punishment for Abraham putting his wife in danger in the beginning of the Book of Genesis, when he told Pharaoh, in an attempt to save himself from harm, that Sara was not his wife but his sister.  And on and on.

I would suggest that, seeing the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs as righteous, but none the less flawed, -rather than threaten theological soundness of religious life, actually strengthens and deepens it.  If our founders and mentors are perfect, and thus like Gods, then who are we to learn from them? To model our lives after them?   But if they are human, and flawed, like us but none the less paradigms of constant religious striving, self reflection, and spiritual work.  Men such as King David, about whom the prophet Natan in the Biblical book of Samuel says “You are the (sinful) man,” who sinned and yet repented and rose above his sin to a better and more holy place, only then can they truly be our spiritual mentors.

Some further thoughts and an apology about ger katan (child conversion)- by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 27, 2011

I want to clarify that my aside regarding giving an aliyha to a goy after he had been called up accidentally as a question of kavod habriot verses an issur d’rabanan was probably wrong.  Though generally kavod habriot is docheh an issur dirababanan (Gemara Berachot 19b), this instance is a case of being motzie others in their chiuv and just as we would not allow a goy to make kiddush and be motzie us, so too with regard to an aliyah.

One other thing (my thanks to a respected Rabbi in our field for pointing it out)-Though I said that batey din (Jewish courts) do not rely on Rav Moshe’s leniency regarding to ger katan (converting a child) out of fear, this is perhaps incorrect, their motivation may be (and judging others favorably would demand I assume it so), a halachic one, not wanting for halachic reasons to rely on such a leniency.   Though knowing the individuals on the ground and our sociological reality today, in my opinion we should rely on it, nevertheless, I apologize for my tone and assumption of wrong intent.

Shared values link Christians and Jews By BARRY GELMAN and REBECCA KEENAN

November 24, 2011

I wrote the article linked below with my friend Pastor Becky Keenen.


It is meritorious to be a Jew: The conversion of children –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 23, 2011

Recently I met with a young couple whose wedding I will soon perform.   They are both observant and the man was born a Jew.  The woman was converted as a young child since her mother was not Jewish, though her father was.   She and her siblings were converted as children by a very Chashuv Rav (learned Rabbi) about 20 years ago.  When I looked at the letter from the Rav about her conversion it said in Hebrew:   “So and so is from a family in which her father is Jewish and her mother is not, the family is connected to the Jewish community and though not observant at all does make Kiddush and Havdalah.  And so I am relying on the pisak (legal decision) of Rav Moshe Feinstein that gerut (conversion) is a zecut (a merit) and I am converting her as a minor.

Sitting across from the couple I said to her, thank God you were converted 20 years ago, if you wanted to convert today it would take you years and the process would not be a pleasant one.  Indeed today even children are not converted into homes that are not observant and in which the mother is not Jewish.   There is much talk about how much conversion in general, and the conversion of children specifically, has changed in the last few years in the Orthodox community and this experience shined a spotlight on it.

As a rabbi in an Orthodox shul which has few barriers to entry I meet many people who have taken for granted for their whole lives that they are Jewish, only to discover that they are not halchically (according to Jewish law), in an Orthodox shul, considered a Jew.  The pain they undergo at having the carpet of their identity pulled out from under them is severe.

When such things happen, for instance when this past Simchat Torah I had to tell a dedicated person in my shul that though they had assumed all their life they were Jewish, though they were becoming observant, though they felt part and parcel of the community, they could not have an alyah (be called to the torah) like the rest of the men in the room, it caused me great pain and them even greater pain.   A violation of one of the most numerous warnings in the Torah, viahavtem et hager, you shall love the ger (the stranger, the convert) and not cause them pain.  (I know I should have called them up anyway since kavod habriot, human dignity, pushes aside all rabbinic commandments, but I did not).

In my synagogue I have several families with non-halachically Jewish children who have chosen to grow in their observance and send their children to orthodox day school, but are not completely Shomer Shabbat, though all are on a journey to it.   Not a fast journey, those are almost never a good idea, a slow and organic journey, which is what I encourage.    We would save much pain for the child and family if we went back to the standard practice of 20 years ago and converted these children into non-observant families.  When such a child reaches 12 or 13 and is still not converted (as with one family’s children I know whom though the children and father are fully observant the Beit Din (rabbinical court) will not convert them as the mother smokes on Shabbat) it is going to be incredibly painful.  No bar mitzvah like their other friends in day school, no being counted in the minyan, etc.  The pain we will cause them will be a violation of halacha much deeper and wider than any that could result from Rav Moshe’s type of ger katan (child conversion) into a non-observant home.

Let us hold the banner of Torah high and not let the fearful Batey Din of today distort the Torah’s values.   Let us love the ger and not cause them pain.   I know what you are thinking…..that kind of love and menchlichtkeit and not causing pain only applies after one has converted….wrong, according to many opinions it applies before.   From the first time they express the interest in being a Jew.   Let us stop giving into the amorphous fear and start truly loving the ger now!

Send in the Super-Duper Committee by R. Yosef Kanefsky

November 22, 2011

The morning after the deflating failure of the Super Committee, a lot of us woke up asking where all the adults are. (The ones who don’t let their debt-ridden family slide off a cliff.) It must of course be that there are still some lurking somewhere in the halls of Congress, and with hope and faith, we humbly offer them the strength and inspiration offered on page 6b of Tractate Sanhedrin. 

On that page, the moral propriety of compromise is hotly debated. Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yose the Galilean maintains that it is forbidden to broker a compromise. “He who brokers compromise thus offends, for it is written…. ‘For judgment is God’s’. And so Moses’s motto was: Let the law cut through the mountain.”  According to Rabbi Eliezer, unbending commitments to truth and principle  are essential to a person’s integrity and fidelity to God. 

 But the Talmudic discussion doesn’t end with Rabbi Eliezer and Moses. “Aaron, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between man and man.”  From Aaron’s example Rabbi Joshua son of Korha derived that, “brokering a compromise is a meritorious act, for it is written, ‘Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates’.   What is that kind of justice which coexists with peace?  This is compromise.”

“The halacha”, the Talmud concludes, “is in agreement with Rabbi Joshua son of Korha”. 

It’s not that truth and principle aren’t valued by the Talmud. Of course they are. And it’s not that ideological commitments aren’t deemed important by the Talmud. They are as well. It’s rather that in this world which God created, a world filled with unique human individuals who will invariably and healthfully disagree profoundly about essential matters, peace and life are simply impossible without humane, righteously motivated compromise. This is not a news flash. Every family knows it.  And our Congress used to know it too.

And while we’re offering Talmudic advice to the not-yet-existent Super-Duper Committee, let’s throw in the familiar words of Hillel.  “If I don’t look out for myself, who will look out for me? But if I am only looking out for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

An Orthodox Gay Wedding? by R. Yosef Kanefsky

November 18, 2011

As has been widely reported, Rabbi Steve Greenberg performed a Jewish wedding ceremony for Yoni Bock and Ron Kaplan last week, a ceremony being referred to in at least one press account as “the first Orthodox gay wedding”.  This description derives from the fact that Rabbi Greenberg’s ordination is from YU, and that he has always identified himself as being Orthodox. I know the latter to be true not second-hand, but through the friendship that he and I have maintained over many years, dating back to our years at Yeshiva.

This wedding ceremony raises a serious question for the part of the Modern Orthodox community in which I live. The question is not about whether we should recognize the ceremony as being religiously significant. We obviously do not and cannot.  The formal religious partnering of two men or two women is unalterably contrary to both the law and the spirit of the Torah and the Halacha, and an Orthodox gay marriage ceremony is as hopeless a misnomer as an Orthodox intermarriage is. How we assess the religious significance of the ceremony is clear-cut and simple.

 The question that it raises rather, is whether we should continue to publicly speak about Orthodoxy and homosexuality in the nuanced way that we have been speaking about it over the past several years. I hope that you are by now familiar with the “Statement of Principles” http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com/ in which many Modern Orthodox rabbis and teachers affirmed the importance of being inclusive of, and sensitive to the challenges of gays and lesbians within the Orthodox community, even as we recognize that Halacha views same-sex sexual interactions as prohibited.  This is indeed a highly-nuanced position. So much so, that our shul hosted a major event last summer whose purpose was to explore what exactly this all means in real life. (And we were pleased to have Rabbi Greenberg participate in that discussion.) But when I read about the wedding, I wondered to myself whether our nuanced approach had unwittingly contributed to the erosion of the halachik standard, whether we had created the impression that the values of sensitivity and inclusion must ultimately trump the law. I asked myself whether with regard to this issue, nuanced discussion simply couldn’t be heard.   

 As I thought the question through, I came to the conclusion that despite these legitimate questions, our nuanced public discussion must go on. The essential premise of the discussion, that the religious prohibition on homosexual sex must not be turned into a justification for demeaning, embarrassing or harassing gays and lesbians, is still as true as ever. The central idea that gays and lesbians who desire to daven and perform mitzvot should be welcomed into the community of davening and mitzvot, still makes sound religious sense. I do think that last week’s wedding compels us to think more – and to talk more explicitly – about the point at which inclusion begins to send a misleading message. And I do think that we must take even greater care now to not be naïve in our deliberations. But I also believe that any decision to abandon our nuanced discussion would be a decision to abandon many cherished members of our community. It is our responsibility to them to carefully forge ahead.

Putting the “J” Back in Orthodoxy

November 8, 2011

“Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?”

By humbly but firmly addressing this remarkable question to God, our father Avraham installed justice as a primary Jewish value. Everything, even the Divine intention, needs to be measured by the yardstick of justice. One can see the influence of Avraham’s position manifest in a variety of decisions later rendered by the Sages. The Torah rules, for example, that the “rebellious son” is to be judged, and ultimately executed, based upon his projected future malfeasance (“nidon al shem sofo”). One imagines that the Sages’ conclusions that this law was intended for academic but not practical purposes, was motivated by the fact that by normative legal standards, it is unjust to punish someone for sins he has not yet committed. (In the Midrash, God Himself explains His decision to save the young Ishmael from dying of thirst, in exactly this way.) Similarly, the Sages’ insistence that all of the Biblical  “eye for an eye” legislation must be read non-literally, explicitly derives from the inherent injustice of the literal application (Who’s to say that the victim’s eye and the perpetrators eye are of equal value?)

The primacy of justice as a religious value is in great evidence in the writings of the prophets of course, chief among them Isaiah, who declares the sacrificial rituals in the Temple to be of no value (or worse) as long as the widow and the orphan cannot find justice in that society. “Zion will be redeemed through justice”, Isaiah declares. Justice is a primary value, and its absence calls the value of our other forms of religious devotion in sharp question.

It has struck me recently though that while, as an Orthodox community, we are able to speak with clarity and passion about Torah and Mitzvot, about Hesed (kindness), and Tzniut (modesty / humility), we just don’t talk a lot about justice. We seem to feel uncomfortable around the term, associating it with center-left politics and with liberal forms of Judaism. Our shuls tend not to have social justice activities, and our schools, even when providing instruction in texts such as Parshat Mishpatim or Bava Metzia, focus entirely on conveying information, rather than on analyzing the material for how they are wrangling with questions of justice.  Perhaps we even fear that there is something dangerous or subversive about raising the issue of justice when we are engaged in the study of God’s law. How would we, for example, discuss with today’s fifth graders, the justice of a master not being liable when he mortally strikes his slave, as long as the slave did not succumb to his injury within the first 24 hours? The Torah’s explanation that “he (the slave) is the master’s property” probably would not suffice all by itself.

Our demotion of justice from being a first-tier value has not come without consequences for us. It has, for example, warped our communal conversation about Shalom Rubashkin, as at the same time that we decry the injustice of his sentencing, we have still not developed the language with which to describe the injustices he visited upon the workers in his factory. It hampers our ability to fully confront the phenomenon of agunot, as our conversation is often limited only to the halachik details of the laws of divorce or to the fruitless game of he said / she said, because  the plain and open cry of “injustice!” doesn’t seem to have sufficient currency to sway Orthodox public opinion. (Calling out the injustice cannot alone solve the problem of course, but it would go a long way toward shaming people into compliance.)

On the occasions that we have in fact assigned justice its proper place, we have achieved important things. The prevalence in Modern Orthodox circles of daughters reciting kaddish for parents, and of daughters marking their Bat Mitzvah in their shuls – each being practices which were met with considerable objection at first –  is the result of the  simple triumph of justice. Justice, one of our basic religious values.

 Let’s learn again how to use this powerful word. Let’s take the example of our father Avraham. And let us bring closer the day when Zion will be redeemed through justice.

Mocked by Kim Kardashian. You, Me, All of Us.

November 3, 2011

 A few months ago, I was sitting in the car with my 18 year old son, as Kim Kardashian’s name was mentioned on the radio. “Who is that guy?” I asked (though for the life of me I can’t explain what male name I though Kim was a diminutive of.) After one very long incredulous teenage stare, I at least learned that she’s not a guy.

 Over the last few days I couldn’t miss the news that Kim got married and the filed for divorce in the space of 72 days. I realize that it may all be part of her reality show, and that maybe I shouldn’t be taking the whole thing too seriously. But for the sake of an institution that a lot of us believe in deeply – the institution of marriage – I believe it’s worth speaking up.

 Whenever I work with couples as they plan their marriages, we talk about the rewards of marriage, but even more so about the covenant of marriage. Because it is a covenant. That’s what it is. To marry is to undertake the most sublime set of commitments that we will ever pledge to another human being. And people not prepared to do this, truly have no moral business getting married.

 Dr. Erich Fromm said it best in his classic book “The Art of Loving”, whose central thesis is that nobody can  passively “be in love” for very long. If we plan to love someone long-term, we have to be committed to engaging continuously in the activity of “loving” that person. For Fromm, this involves scared commitments to continuously  demonstrating “care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge.”  His elaboration on the element of “knowledge” is especially striking. “To respect a person is not possible without knowing him; care and responsibility would be blind if there were not guided by knowledge…. The knowledge which is an aspect of love, is possible only when I can transcend the concern for myself, and see the other person in his own terms. I may know, for instance, that a person is angry… but when I know him more deeply I know that he is anxious and worried, that he feels lonely…”

 Not surprisingly our own literature sounds many similar themes. In his “Lonely Man of Faith”, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes that the point of the Adam and Eve story is that a person who wants to overcome loneliness can do so only through a gesture of sacrifice. Adam literally gives part of himself to another, and as a result is able to establish with Eve, “a new kind of fellowship [where] not only hands are joined, but experiences as well, [where] one hears the rhythmic beat of hearts starved for existential companionship and all-embracing sympathy…” This is the marriage. Profound both in its transformative power and in the mutual commitment it demands. And it is ridiculed by a marriage that lasts 72 days.

 Even the sexual dimension of marriage is about the covenant. Commenting on the verse “and he shall cleave to is wife and they shall become one flesh,” the Netziv of Volozhin wrote, “ it is only the active effort of cleaving between husband and wife (i.e. sexual intimacy) that brings them closer together such that they become one”.  Marital sexuality is purposeful. It requires kavannah, in the same way that prayer does.  For it preserves and deepens the covenant.

 Whenever someone publicly mocks and diminishes the institution of marriage, the great majority of us who understand that marriage is our most scared covenant must respond. By calling out the offenders for what they’ve done, by insuring that our children understand what marriage really is, and by re-affirming our personal commitments to our covenanted partner.