The Religious Cost of Rejecting Feminism’s Core Moral Claim by Yosef Kanefsky

January 30, 2012

Rav Moshe Feinstein was never known as a feminist. But he both understood and accepted feminism’s core moral claim.

In a remarkable 1976 responsum he wrote bluntly about what he perceived to be the effort to extend the women’s liberation movement from the political and social spheres into the religious. He opened by reasserting the fact that women are exempt from a particular well-known set of mitzvot, and that this exemption is rooted both in Divine wisdom, and in the practical wisdom of the rabbis, who deemed it unrealistic and unfair to expect that these mitzvot be observed by those who bear primary responsibility for the raising of children and the daily running of the household. Rav Moshe branded any effort to change this halachik exemption as being both futile and rebellious, even going so far as to say that were a woman to perform a mitzva from which she is exempt not out of religious desire rather in the effort to undermine the exemption, that this would not constitute a mitzva act at all.

But Rav Moshe didn’t end there. He concluded the responsum with a lengthy paragraph in which he demonstrated that he accepted the core of feminism’s moral claim, regarding it as consistent with classical Jewish teaching.

“… [the exemption] is not a result of the fact that women possess a lower spiritual rank than men. For with regard to holiness, they are equal…And with regard to the obligation to honor a spouse, we find that the obligation applies from husband to wife, and from wife to husband without any distinction… There is no degradation of women’s honor [in the tradition]…”

Equal holiness, worth, dignity, and humanity. This is the essence of the feminist moral claim.

In the lead article of the Summer 2002 issue of Tradition, Orthodox attorney Marc Stern   challenged the mainstream Orthodox community over its habitual denunciations of feminism. First, on the grounds of intellectual dishonesty, as so much of the community has enthusiastically embraced many of feminism’s outcomes, including  high educational standards for girls, hands-on involvement of fathers in raising their children, the expectation of equal pay for equal work, and the zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace. He notes that none of his readers would want to see these developments rolled back.  And then second, on the grounds that the resistance of feminism has exacted a religious price. In Stern’s words,

“In all too many communities shiurim for women are infantile outpourings of primitive and unreflective emotion, as if women were incapable of understanding anything more complex. Talented women have been lost to the Orthodox community [as a result]. The fight for equality has not yet been won, even within the realms of what is without question halachikly acceptable. How many shul have been built in the last generation that reflect a concern for… the ability of women to feel as if they are participants in the davening?”

Religious costs are indeed incurred through resisting feminism’s fundamental claim.  To the costs  Stern mentioned we also add the fact that many Orthodox rabbis still refuse to utilize the halachik pre-nuptial agreement intended to save women from becoming agunot, that women who do become agunot sometimes receive shoddy treatment at the hands of Dayanim and the members of their own  communities. And the reality that in many day schools serving the mainstream Orthodox community boys and girls still do not enjoy the same Jewish studies curriculum. The rejection of feminism’s central claim comes at a religious cost.

The extreme manifestation of this of course is the zealous suppression of women in the public sphere that has become mainstream Haredi religious behavior. Their well-known policies of seating women in the back of the bus, eliminating women’s pictures from public view, and requiring that women not appear in public ceremonies even to accept their own governmental awards, do not stem from halachik analysis, rather from precisely the kind of repressive chauvinism that the feminist movement aimed to root out.  The halachik analysis had already been done, again by Rav Moshe, who years ago had addressed a question posed by a man who feared taking the subway to work, where the crowded conditions invariably brought about physical contact with female commuters. Rav Moshe ruled that,  

“There is no prohibition to come into contact with [women under these circumstances] since it is not done in an affectionate manner. Similarly there is no prohibition to sit next to a woman when there is no other place available. And if a particular man knows that this will bring about lustful thoughts … he needs to fight against these thoughts by distracting himself and thinking about words of Torah.”

What sort of mindset simply dismisses this kind of straightforward halachik thinking in favor of making women disappear? One that stems directly from the rejection of the basic moral claim that women possess the same humanity, dignity and stature as men, and that they are not simply objects that populate a male world. And what a price has been paid for this rejection.  A disfigurement of Torah observance, and an international desecration of God’s name.

There will always be morally anchored movements and ideas that will emerge from outside our immediate four cubits. And as a religious communities, we will do much better by explicitly taking them in rather than by rejecting them. Taking them in doesn’t and shouldn’t mean surrendering all other religious values with which they may come into conflict. It means admitting them into the constellation of religious values that together determine normative religious behavior. The other important ideas out there now are democracy, and human egalitarianism – the recognition that all people of all types possess equal human dignity and worth. And these two are also facing resistance or rejection in various Orthodox quarters, with the costs already expressing themselves. Now, more than ever, we need to stand up unapologetically, and affirm with urgency the religious value of morally compelling ideas. The reward will be great.

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Entire Letter For Beit Shemesh Response – Barry Gelman

January 18, 2012

It was suggested that I put the entire letter I wrote about responding to Beit Shemesh on the blog – so here it is.

Dear Friends,

A few weeks ago I spoke in shul about the ongoing crisis in Beit Shemesh, Israel where a group of extremist Chareidim are attempting to intimidate the Religious Zionist / Modern Orthodox community. There has been rock throwing, spitting, verbal abuse and threats.

After the sermon a number of people asked if there is anything that our community can do to support the community under attack.

In response to those inquiries I contacted leaders of the MO/RZ community in BeitShemesh.  After much discussion a conclusion was reached that the best response on our part would be to assist the MO/RZ community in strengthening their presence in Beit Shemesh by raising funds so that their youth group headquarters can be completed. I cannot think of a better way to counter the intimidation that is meant to drive this community away than to build and put down even stronger roots.

This response on our part creates a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) by reacting in a positive manner and in a way that will directly affect the children who have been the targets of the intimidation. The headquarters will be on the campus of the local Religious Zionist elementary schools – Orot Banot and Orot Banim, the very schools that have been targeted by the extremists. The vast majority of members of the youth group attend the Orot schools.

Checks can be made out to American Friends of Beit Knesset Feigenson” a US 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Please note on the check that the funds are for the “Ezra snif” and mail to: Marc Tobin , Rechov Hayasmin 21 A, Beit Shemesh, Israel 99591.

“But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out…”  (Exodus 1:12)

This project presents us with an opportunity to reply to intimidation with courage, to react to destruction with building, ands most importantly, to answer Chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) with Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name).

 With hopes for peace and with love of Zion,

Rabbi Barry Gelman


A Productive Response To Beit Shemesh – Rabbi Barry Gelman

January 18, 2012

Dear Friends,

A few weeks ago I spoke in shul about the ongoing crisis in Beit Shemesh, Israel where a group of extremist Chareidim are attempting to intimidate the Religious Zionist / Modern Orthodox community. There has been rock throwing, spitting, verbal abuse and threats.

After the sermon a number of people asked if there is anything that our community can do to support the community under attack.

Follow this link to learn how you can responsd in a productive manner.


Homosexuals in the Orthodox Community -by Rabbi Zev Farber

January 11, 2012

Rabbi Zev Farber was ordained (yoreh yoreh and yadin yadin) by YCT Rabbinical School. He is the founder of AITZIM (Atlanta Institute of Torah and Zionism) – an adult education initiative. Rabbi Farber serves on the board of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) and is the coordinator of their Vaad Giyyur. He is also a PhD candidate at Emory University’s Graduate Division of Religion

 

Introduction

Few social issues facing the Orthodox Jewish community are as emotionally charged as that of the place of homosexuals, especially the gnawing question of the place of homosexual couples and families in the synagogue and larger community.  Many rabbis are at a loss as to what to suggest to a gay Orthodox Jew who seeks guidance.

I once suggested the following thought experiment to a colleague: “If, for some reason, it became clear that the Torah forbade you to ever get married or to ever have any satisfying intimate relationship, what would you do?” My own reaction to this question is: although part of me hopes I would be able to follow the dictates of the Torah, I have strong doubts about the possibility of success, and I trust that my friends and colleagues would be supportive of me either way.

 

Not a Moral Issue

Unfortunately, much of the rhetoric traditionally surrounding homosexuality seems to derive from a confusion of categories. For the believing Orthodox Jew, homosexual congress is a religious offense, akin to eating shrimp or driving on the Sabbath. It is not a moral offense, akin to assaulting women or cheating in business. Much of the rhetoric around homosexuality seems to center on moral discourse, and I feel this is a serious mistake.

Although polemics surrounding homosexuality have taken various forms over the years, the driving force behind the current polemic is the changing view of homosexuality and its causes. In the past, the main claims against homosexuality were that the behavior was “deviant” and the act “unnatural.” The latter claim is inherently false, since the phenomenon in fact occurs in nature. The claim that the behavior is deviant is true in the sense that, statistically speaking, it deviates from the norm, but saying that someone has a minority sexual disposition is hardly in itself a moral critique.

Difference breeds fear, especially when that difference is hard to understand. It is difficult for many heterosexuals to imagine that it could be possible for a person to lack any attraction to members of the opposite sex. It is even more difficult for a heterosexual to picture being attracted to members of his or her own sex. This may be one reason why, for centuries, a contemptuous, even belligerent, attitude towards homosexuals was the norm.

An excellent, if sad, example of this is a letter by R. Moshe Feinstein written in 1976 (Iggrot Moshe OH 4:115), where he treats homosexual activity like any other choice. The letter is addressed to a young homosexual man asking R. Feinstein for some words of advice to help him control his urges. R. Feinstein endeavored to do so, informing him that there really is no such thing as homosexual desire. Nature dictates, R. Feinstein wrote, that people are attracted to members of the opposite sex and not to members of their own sex. Therefore, the only explanation for homosexual behavior was as an expression of rebellion against God. If one could only get one’s anger against God under control, one could live a “normal” heterosexual life.  Nowadays we understand that this is not an accurate portrayal of homosexual desire, but R. Feinstein’s views were typical of his day and he could hardly have thought differently.

 

The Declaration and the Statement

The difference between the nature of the discourse in the seventies and the contemporary discourse is clearly demonstrated in the recent Declaration drafted by the right and center-right Orthodox communities and signed by over 150 rabbis, lay leaders and mental health professionals from those communities (www.torahdec.org).

The declaration inspired mixed feelings in me. After reaffirming the forbidden nature of homosexual congress, the Declaration states unequivocally that homosexuality is a curable psychological – not genetic, not hormonal – disorder. It instructs the Orthodox community to treat homosexuals with kindness while guiding them towards reparative therapy.

Partly, I was relieved. The Declaration used phrases like “love, support and encouragement” as a description for how Orthodox people should feel about the homosexuals in their communities. That is a far cry from the bellicose homophobia that many have come to expect from fundamentalist religious groups.

On the other hand, I was also very disturbed. The Declaration advocates strongly for reparative or conversion therapy, a pseudoscientific and medically discredited practice that many professionals consider dangerous; the American Psychological Association goes so far as to say that any therapist who employs reparative therapy is in violation of the Hippocratic Oath.

The Declaration further argues that homosexuality must be both psychological and curable, since God could not be so cruel as to create people with homosexual urges and make it forbidden to act upon them – a theologically dubious argument to say the least. I would venture to say that anyone who is or who knows someone suffering from any of the countless debilitating life-long diseases would be taken aback by the claim that God would never create a person with a biological makeup that could ruin his or her life.

The Declaration seems to be a reaction to the “Statement of Principles” (statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com) regarding homosexuality signed by 200 center and left-leaning Orthodox rabbis and community leaders the year before. Oddly enough, the left wing’s Statement of Principles, although considerably more sophisticated and nuanced than the recent Declaration, has much in common with it.

The Statement of Principles, like the Declaration, reaffirms the forbidden nature of homosexual congress. Unlike the Declaration, it allows that homosexuality is genetically and/or hormonally determined and admits that reparative therapy may be bogus and even harmful. The Statement, like the Declaration, urges the Orthodox community to treat homosexuals with love and respect. On the other hand, the Statement requires gay Orthodox Jews to be celibate. Although it urges understanding towards the non-celibate, the Statement suggests that if these homosexual Jews are open about their lifestyle – and the Statement affirms their right to be open about this – it would be the prerogative of an Orthodox synagogue or community not to accept them or give them any honors.

Although I appreciate the attempt by both groups to make homosexuals feel more welcome in our community and to tone down belligerent homophobia, both documents, in my view, fall short. Ever since I declined to sign the Statement – a document whose purpose I am strongly sympathetic with and which was crafted and signed by many close friends and mentors – I have given much thought to the Orthodox world’s relationship to homosexual Jews, sexually active and celibate alike, and what needs to be “stated” or “declared” about them.

 

The Need for Understanding and the Challenge of Empathy

For homosexual Jews wishing to live an Orthodox Jewish life and integrate into the Orthodox community, much empathy on the part of the heterosexual Orthodox community is required, especially from the rabbis. The signers of both the Declaration and the Statement are predominantly, perhaps entirely, heterosexuals. Many are married with families, as am I. Our families get together with other families for Shabbat meals and celebrate lifecycle events in the synagogue. Many of us receive communal approval for being married and for being good spouses. We have loving and fulfilling intimate relationships at home. Life is rather easy for us.

It is challenging for heterosexual Orthodox Jews to genuinely internalize the dissonance inherent in the psychological world of gay Orthodox Jews. Like all Orthodox Jews committed to a life of Torah and Jewish observance, Orthodox Jewish gay men and women want to participate fully in their communities. They want to come to synagogue and have Shabbat meals with their friends. And yet, the central text of their community – a text they love and venerate – forbids one of their most fundamental impulses, offering no viable alternative.

 

Asking the Impossible

In the documentary Trembling before God, R. Nathan Cardozo boldly states: “It is not possible for the Torah to come and ask a person to do something that he is not able to do. Theoretically speaking, it would be better for the homosexual to live a life of celibacy. I just would argue one thing – it’s completely impossible. It doesn’t work. The human force of sexuality is so big that it can’t be done.”

What we are asking of the homosexual Orthodox community is impossible. It is simply unrealistic to ask or expect normal adults to remain celibate and give up on the emotionally fulfilling and vital experience of intimate partnership that heterosexual men and women take for granted.

 

Oness Rahmana Patrei

My own approach to the matter is that the Orthodox community should adopt the stance of “oness rahmana patrei” – The Merciful One overlooks what is out of a person’s control. This was first suggested by R. Norman Lamm in the 1974 Encyclopedia Judaica Yearbook and I believe that this principle should serve as a basis for formulating an Open Orthodox response to the many challenges of accepting and integrating homosexuals into our community.

 

Brief Halakhic Analysis

The principle of oness rahmana patrei originates in a case where the deed in question was physically out of the person’s control. Nevertheless, the Talmud applies it to a case where a person worships idols to save his life (b. Avodah Zarah 54a). Many medieval commentaries ask why such a case should be considered oness, since a person can always accept death rather than violate Jewish law in this way. One answer to this question has been that a person who violates a Torah rule to save his or her life is emotionally compelled to do so and that this compulsion is a form of oness. I would argue that gay Orthodox Jews, earnestly seeking the same kind of emotionally satisfying intimate relationship taken for granted by heterosexual Jews, are similarly emotionally compelled.[1]

Oness rahmana patrei has been applied over the years to a number of different cases in halakha, from permission not to move to Israel out of fear that the trip would be dangerous (Noda bi-Yehuda Tanina, EH 102), to a woman refusing to be intimate with her husband because she finds him repulsive (Tosafot Rid, Ketubot 64; R. Avraham Isaac Kook in Ezrat Kohen 55). Two precedents in particular serve as important analogies.

The first is the fact that many halakhic authorities treat suicide as an act of oness, committed under duress and consequently out of the person’s control (see, for example Arukh ha-Shulhan YD 345:5; Kol Bo al Aveilut pp. 318-321). This sensitive halakhic approach allows the family to mourn the loss of their relative without having to sully his or her memory.

More analogous to the situation of the homosexual is the case recorded in the Talmud (b. Gittin 38a) of a woman who was a partial slave, forbidden to marry either another slave or a free man. Without a religiously acceptable outlet, the woman became exceedingly promiscuous with the local men, and the rabbis forced her master to free her fully so that she could marry. In discussing this case, R. Meshulam Roth (Qol Mevasser 1:25) observes that the woman’s hopeless situation was emotionally intolerable to her, and that her behavior in this case should be considered one of oness. If anything, the situation of Orthodox homosexual Jews who wish to follow halakha is even more intolerable. If they keep this halakha, they have no hope for a loving intimate partnership, ever.

 

A Different Kind of Oness

One of the chief arguments put forth against the oness approach, since R. Lamm first suggested it forty years ago, has been that most cases of oness are cases of an action taken under duress at a specific point in time. This would not apply to homosexuals who, like heterosexuals, can certainly control their urges at any given moment, and should be expected to do so. Nevertheless, I believe this is a false comparison.

Urges are controlled by the calming factor of knowing there is an alternative outlet. Unlike heterosexuals, gay Orthodox Jews have no halakhically acceptable outlet for the vital human need for intimate partnership, and never will. This is the key difference between this case of oness and most other cases. One cannot view celibacy as moment by moment abstinence. The oness derives from the cumulative weight of the totality of the moments of a person’s life, an absolutely crushing weight in this case.

Psychologically, gay Orthodox Jews are faced with one of two options: either be sexually active and fragment this transgression from their conscious minds, or be celibate and live with the knowledge that they will never experience a real intimate relationship. I firmly believe that the latter is not really a livable option for most adults, but a debilitating and life-crushing prospect. Advocating for it is an exercise in futility.

In reality, gay Orthodox Jews who are advised or pressured to be celibate either ignore the advice, hide in the “closet,” or leave Orthodoxy altogether. Worse, if the guilt or dissonance is too great, they may turn to drugs, extreme promiscuity or even suicide. This is not at all what we want to accomplish. I believe we must come to terms with the fact that, in the long run, Orthodox homosexual Jews really have no choice but to allow themselves to fulfill the intense desire for emotional and physical intimacy in the only way open to them.

 

Caveat

To be sure, calling something oness does not make the action halakhically permitted; it is not. Moreover, adopting the oness principle does not mean that halakha recognizes same sex qiddushin (Jewish marriage) – it does not. Finally, the concept of oness does not cover people with a more fluid sexuality; those who are capable of forming a satisfying intimate bond with members of the opposite sex and choose to do so with a member of their own sex cannot reasonably be called “compelled.”

However, the concept of oness does apply to that percentage of the population for whom homosexual love is the only expression of emotional intimacy and sexuality available. Consequently, it is my firm belief that the Orthodox community should accept the fact that there will be non-celibate homosexuals in our midst and we should welcome them.

 

Sociology and Policy Considerations

I would further suggest, if only for considerations of social policy and community health, that we encourage exclusivity and the forming of a loving and lasting relationship-bond as the optimal lifestyle for gay Orthodox Jews who feel they are oness and cannot be celibate (and this is the vast majority). This type of relationship is the closest in character to the choice made by married heterosexual couples in our community. Gay Orthodox couples should not be penalized for forming a committed relationship; certainly their children, natural or adopted, must not be. It is the obligation of the synagogue to think creatively and open-mindedly about how to accommodate these families, especially when it comes to celebrating the children’s semahot.

Certainly, if any homosexual Jewish man or woman feels that he or she wishes to follow the halakha and be celibate and looks to the rabbi for encouragement, the rabbi should give this person all the encouragement he or she needs. However, no Orthodox rabbi should feel duty-bound to urge homosexual Jews to be celibate. This is not a practical option for most people, and advocating this will only cause that person intense pain and guilt.

 

Conclusion

In short, there should be no social penalty in the Orthodox world for being a non-celibate homosexual Jew. Homosexual congress is not a moral violation; it is purely a violation of a religious prohibition, one that is the inevitable consequence of the person’s psychological and even biological makeup. If God overlooks the inevitable, so should we.

 

Rabbi Zev Farber, AITZIM,

Atlanta, GA

 


[1] I am, of course, aware of the position staked out by Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 1:9, Sanhedrin 20:3; also Maharshal, Yam Shel Shlomo, Yebamot 6:2) that oness never applies to male sexual intercourse since “ein qishui ella le-da’at”, i.e. male arousal is always purposeful. This position is vigorously questioned and debated by a number of Rishonim and Aharonim (see: Tosafot, Yebamot 53b s.v. she-ansuhu; Ramban, Yebamot 53b; Rashba Yebamot 53b; Rosh Yebamot 6:1; Maggid Mishna, Issurei Biah 1:9; Kessef Mishna, Sanhedrin 20:3; Radbaz, Deot 4:19, R. Elchonon Wasserman, Qovetz He’arot 59:3). A full analysis of oness rahmana patrei and its application to male sexual intercourse will have to wait for a different venue.

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What’s in a beracha (blessing)- by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 8, 2012

In this past Shabbat’s parsha Yaakov blesses his children with unusual blessings.  We imagine blessings to be good wishes or promises for the future, here though Yaakov seems to bless his children by describing them, their strengths and weaknesses, in some instances, such as Shimon and Levi, only mentioning their weaknesses.  What kind of blessing is this?

 

Perhaps Jacob, whose whole life has revolved around the question of blessings from his brother to his fight with the angel, understands that a true blessing is not a prophecy, or good wishes, or a hope for some future bounty, but rather a deeper look at the self and one’s potential.  To help the receiver of the blessing truly create their own blessing.

 

Human beings have strengths and weaknesses and usually they are two sides of the same characteristic.  As the Talmud says “whoever is greater than his neighbor so too is his yetzer (his [evil] inclination) greater than his neighbor.”  All aspects of our personality are both a strength and a weakness.   A true beracha is not a mystical incantation bestowing good luck; it is a kind of therapeutic interpretation, a highlighting of one’s midot, ones character traits, and shedding light upon how they can be used as a strength instead of a weakness.

 

This idea can help us understand several Rabbinic ideas regarding berachot.

 

Why is the beracha of a hedyot, a regular person, not to be taken lightly (Talmud Berachot 7a)?  Because a beracha is not prophecy or powerful incantation, rather it is insight into the receiver, a reflection on who they are.  Perhaps this is also why we do not bless ourselves, since one can not usually see themselves and their own strengths and weakness clearly.

 

The Talmud says when we judge a person wrongly; we must make up for this by blessing them.  The logical undoing of judging someone wrongly (seeing their characteristics as weakness rather than strength, bad rather than good) is to bless them, to judge their personality licaf zecut, meritoriously, and find in them their strengths.

 

What about blessing God, which we do so often? It is in this vain quite appropriate to bless God.  In blessing Hashem we are finding Hashem where Hashem seemingly is not.  Looking deeper into life and the world and finding the tov, the good, the force of the Divine in the physical.  This finding of God’s goodness, as it were, is to bless God.  Berachot on food, on mitzvoth or natural wonders are all to find God where he is hidden, in this world.

 

This approach to blessings can help us to understand the following particularly strange piece of Talmud.

 

It was taught: Rabbi Ishmael bbn Elisha says: I once entered into the innermost part [of the Sanctuary] to offer incense and saw Akathriel Jah, the Lord of Hosts, seated upon a high and exalted throne. He said to me: Ishmael, My son, bless Me! l replied: May it be Thy will that Thy mercy may suppress Thy anger and Thy mercy may prevail over Thy other attributes, so that Thou mayest deal with Thy children according to the attribute of mercy and mayest, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice! And He nodded to me with His head.  -Berachot 7a

 

God is blessed to use God’s midot, God’s characteristics, to benefit people.  This is the essence of a beracha, to help another to see the strengths of their midot and use them for good and not bad, even God in this case.

 

In our Torah portion, Vayichi, Yaakov, after a lifetime of wrangling for berachot, finds that he is the master of berachot.  He is a good parent in that he stays connected to all of his children no matter what they do and sees their different sides, their strengths and weaknesses, clearly.  He then points them out, like a good therapist, in the hopes that they will learn from the blessing and indeed be “blessed.”


The Tragic Unraveling of Haredi Judaism and the Challenge for our Community, by R. Yosef Kanefsky

January 4, 2012

It is obviously too early to know for sure, but it is plausible that we are witnessing the slow-motion unraveling of Haredi Judaism. Between periodic money-laundering and sexual abuse scandals in US Haredi communities and the militant intolerance of others on display today in Israel – with no meaningful internal calls for soul-searching – the signs of a religious community in deep spiritual distress abound. This seeming unraveling represents a profound tragedy for the Jewish world and for Torah, and it places a critical burden on the shoulders of the modern Orthodox community. 

It is a tragedy because the Haredi community has for many decades been an inspiration for Jews from all walks of Jewish life. We have all heard and been moved by the stories of extraordinary chesed (kindness) and self-sacrifice, piety and God-fearing-ness that are commonplace in the Haredi community. There can be no question that the profound appreciation Torah study that has sprouted day schools, yeshivot and Kollels all over the Jewish landscape is in large measure the result of Haredi dedication to this sacred activity. And yes, the importance of personal and sexual modesty has been upheld and taught to us by the Haredi community. Despite their philosophical or practical differences with Haredim, Jews of all kinds have been motivated, inspired and moved by the Haredi commitment to core Jewish religious values. 

These days are likely dwindling however, as the Haredi community is, and projects the image of being, something much less wholesome. At this juncture, how many non-Haredi Jewish teenagers, to choose the relevant demographic, are associating Haredi Judaism with piety and fear of God? What associations, tragically, are the ones that the term “Haredi” is now most likely to elicit? The spiritual unraveling of the Haredi community will create a vacuum of inspiration and religious role-modeling of enormous and frightening proportion. 

Whether we are prepared for it or not, the modern Orthodox community (in all its many shades and forms), bears the obligation to step up and fill this void. We can no longer be content to carve out our own religious lives, and bear responsibility only for our own families and communities. We need to pick up the fallen torch, and be the models of piety, Torah study, and self-sacrifice that Jews everywhere need to see, admire, and be inspired by. This shouldn’t be a stretch for us. As Orthodox Jews, we are already committed to all of these values. And we have the additional strengths of also being committed to the ways of peace and mutual-respect, to positive engagement with the world around us, and to seeing the good in modern society. Now more than ever, we need to be true to our Modern orthodox values, as the mantle of broader Jewish inspiration is falling to us.


No Time For Chareidi Bashing: What We Can Learn From Our Reaction to Beit Shemesh – Barry Gelman

January 2, 2012

There have been numerous takes on the recent events in Beit Shemesh. Most of them have focused on politics and sociology. I would like to offer a brief analysis based on spiritual values and, humbly submit what we can learn from our reaction to these events.

The chareidi men who have been harassing the little girls and the mothers claim to be acting L’Shem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, and in the name of God.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was no stranger to controversy or, for that matter, people saying horrible things about him and doing despicable things to him wrote the following about the limits of what we do for the sake of heaven.

כבוד-שמים המושג השגה בהירה מרומם הוא את ערך האדם וערך כל היצורים כבוד שמים מגושם הוא נוטה לע”ז, ומשפיל את כבוד האדם וכבוד כל הבריות

“When the duty of honor God is conceived of in an enlightened manner, it raise human worth and thew worth of all creatures…But a crude conception of God tends toward the idolatrous and degrades the dignity of humanity… “

Rav Kook is reminding us that honor of God that is based on the greatness of human beings, created in the image of God uplifts people. On the other hand, honor of God understood in a shallow fashion, as if God needs our honor, leads to anger toward those who do not honor God, and is idolatrous as, by definition, a wrong conception of God is being honored. This incorrect undersntanding of God leads to people being degraded and mistreated, all in the name of God. Rav Kook goes on with something even more amazing:

ע”כ גדול הוא כבוך הבריות שדוחה את לא-תעשה שבתורה , להורות על כבוד שמים הבהיר, המגדל בטובו את יסוד כבוד הבריות

It is for this reason the sages declared that the dignity of persons is so important that is supersedes a negative precept of the Torah…”

Here Rav Kook reminds us that performance of MItzvot can actually get in the way of Kavod Shamayim. Thus, in some cases, even God’s honor, in terms of some commandments, is set aside in order to protect the honor of a human being. What we have here is a real definition of what it means to honor God. In Rav Kook’s mind, it is simple. If something brings honor to another human being, it can be considered honor of God as well. On the other hand, if something brings disparagement or harassment to another human being, then by definition, it cannot be an honor to God. Rav Kook’s teaches that in all of our endeavours, even in our striving to to Mitzvot, that how we do what we do goes to the very legitimacy of our act. Perhaps not always, but in many many cases, the litmus test of deciding if what I am doing is a mitzvah or not is easy: Does it being honor to others?

It is clear that the Chareidi protestors in Beit Shemesh have lost all sense of what it really means to act L’Shem Shamayim. Spitting on little girl and calling women prostitutes does not fit Rav Kooks definition.

While what is going on in Beit Shemesh is horrible, it does offer us the opportunity for some introspection. What is so troubling is that these people are using any means neccesary to achieve their goals, even if means harming and disparaging others. The upset this is causing us should remind us to be careful in terms of what means we use to achieve our goals. Even in our religious strivings, we must be mindful of how our actions affect others. Is there a way to achieve our goal without hurting others? If not, is it really a worthwhile goal? Have we exhausted all of our halachik creativity to reach our goal while at the same time, protecting the dignity of others.

It is easy to engage in Chareidi bashing, but it will much more productive if we use our understandable indignation as a catalyst to self improvement.