The IRF Has It Right On The Issue Of The Halachik Pre-Nup – Rabbi Barry Gelman

May 23, 2012

Dr. Rachel Levmore should be commended for writing in this article that ” The time has come for Stern College to take a stand as “Stern College” – its rabbonim, teachers, administration – clarifying that each and every student of Stern and her chosson sign a prenup.”  What Dr. Levmore offers is only a partial solution.

It is pulpit rabbis who are on the “front lines” of this issue as they very often perform weddings are are in a position to influence the couple to sign a Halachik Pre Nup. Pulpit rabbis should refuse to perform weddings unless a Pre Nup is signed. So should Roshei Yeshiva. Having a Halachik Pre Nup should be a universal practice and this is the only way to do it.

Years ago the Gerrer Rebee decreed that there should be limits on the number of people invited to weddings as well as limits on the menu and the size of  the band. The Rebee realized people were spending too much on weddings and that the time had come to a stop to it.

After the decree was passed a wealthy Chassid approached the Rebee and explained that while he understood why the Rebee had introduced the new rules, since he was wealthy, the new rules should not apply to him. The Rebee’s answer was simple. “You can follow the rules or find a new Rebee.”

At the fourth annual convention of the International Rabbinic Fellowship that took place this week the following policy was enacted. ” IRF Rabbis may not officiate at a wedding unless the couple has signed a  halachic prenuptial agreement.  IRF Rabbis are further encouraged to participate ritually only in weddings in which the couple has signed a  halachic prenuptial agreement.  Ritual participation includes but is not limited to reading the ketubah, serving as a witness, and making one of sheva berachot.”

Rabbis should educate their congregations as to why signing the Pre Nup is required and make it part of the culture of the shul.

Some Rabbis claim they cannot sign it as there are poskim who are opposed to it. This is approach,  the need for unanimity before a halachik position can be accepted leads to what  what Rabbi Daniel Sperber calls “Paralysis In Halacha.”

The tragedy in the case of Halachik agunot is that there are real human casualties whose lives are literally paralyzed by Rabbinic malpractice.

Obama’s Advocacy of Gay Marriage: An Alternative Orthodox Response – by Rabbi Zev Farber

May 22, 2012

In an interview with ABC News last week, President Barack Obama said, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Since then all hell has broken loose. In the Orthodox Jewish community alone, three different organizations reacted publicly to the president’s announcement. Agudath Israel announced that they are “staunch in their opposition to redefining marriage,” although they admitted that the president, like everyone else, has a right to their opinion.[1] The Orthodox Union expressed disappointment in Obama’s statement, stating that they “oppose any effort to change the definition of marriage to include same sex unions.”

The most strident condemnation came from the National Council of Young Israel which expressed “deep disappointment” in the president’s statement, writing that they are “diametrically opposed to same gender marriage, which is a concept that is antithetical to the religious principles that we live by.” The NCYI ended their statement with the following: “As firm believers that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman, we simply cannot accept a newfound social position that alters the value, definition, and sanctity of marriage as set forth in the Torah, which has guided us for thousands of years.”

Here is where I see the problem. Certainly the Torah has guided observant Jews for thousands of years. Nevertheless, the United States of America and its president are not bound to legislate in accordance with the Torah. Religious Jews are just one group in the plethora of religious communities in the United States and we can hardly condemn the president for not taking Torah law into account.

Taking a step back, it seems to me that—with all due respect to the various institutions quoted above—all of these statements are missing the boat. The most incisive analysis published on this issue thus far, from the Orthodox community at least, has been Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s piece in the Huffington Post, “The greatest threat to the future of the American family is not gay marriage but rather divorce.” I would add that this threat extends to “accidental families” as well, wherein the couple does not remain together, irrespective of whether they were ever married.

In contrast, same-sex marriages are of interest to a certain subset of the population, and do not affect the lives of heterosexuals who wish to marry their opposite-sex partners. The existence or legality of gay marriage should not be an issue for the Orthodox Jewish community, unless there is a fear that Orthodox rabbis would be forced to perform such weddings or that Orthodox synagogues would be required to treat such couples as “married.” However, if the NCYI is concerned about this, they should have raised this in their statement as the OU did:

“…we appreciate President Obama’s statement today acknowledging that in states where same sex relationships are legally recognized, such laws must carefully address and protect the religious liberties of dissenting individuals and institutions, and the President’s reported reference to the New York State law (on whose strong religious liberty provisions the OU worked) as a model for how such protections must be in place.”

This concern, at least, makes sense and falls under the purview of an Orthodox Jewish organization aiming to protect its own constituency. What is not under the purview of Orthodox Jewish institutions, or the institutions of any other religious group, is to demand that America enact legislation that is specifically in line with its own religious tenets. To paraphrase a quip made by a colleague, I assume the NCYI would not be shocked to learn that in addition to supporting gay marriage, President Obama also does not keep Kosher and drives on Shabbat.

Although I have no problem with all fifty states permitting gay marriage, Boteach makes an alternative suggestion that is worth considering. He argues that perhaps the government should leave the marriage business altogether and only do civil unions. That way any couple, homosexual or heterosexual, will receive the same civil status and legal recognition, and each can “consecrate” their union in a manner meaningful and acceptable to their own faith communities.

In truth, the implied claim that the legal status of a married couple in America carries some “religious weight” in the Orthodox community is disingenuous. The only reason couples married in America are considered married according to halakha is because they perform a religious Jewish ceremony. If they were married in a civil ceremony instead, then according to the vast majority of halakhic authorities (Rav Henkin being the notable exception) they would not be considered married according to halakha.

Furthermore, if a Jewishly married couple were to get only a civil divorce, there is no halakhic authority that I am aware of that would consider them divorced according to Jewish law. None. So in what way does the Orthodox community actually take the legal status conferred on a couple as binding in a religious sense? This is why it is hard for me to understand the extreme, almost visceral, reaction of much of the Orthodox leadership.

Two further points need to be made. First, as I wrote in a previous post, even in the Orthodox world-view, where homosexual congress is considered forbidden, there needs to be sensitivity to the fact that homosexuals—whether for genetic, hormonal, or psychological reasons—experience the same need for love and intimate companionship that heterosexuals experience. Homosexual men and women looking to marry are simply trying to establish a life of love and intimacy in a familial context in the same way that heterosexual couples that marry and have children do. Although the OU’s statement does mention that they condemn discrimination, overall this voice of concern and empathy for homosexuals is sadly lacking in the current discourse. To quote Boteach again: “Who does it bother to have gay couples granted the decency to visit each other in hospital during serious illness, make end-of-life decisions and receive tax benefits as a couple?”

Second, considering the current erosion of the stable family unit and its replacement either with rampant divorce or non-committed relationships, homosexual couples who want to form committed relationships are hardly the enemy. In fact, this type of relationship is closest in character to the choice made by married heterosexual couples in religious communities like our own. Contrary to the opinion of some fringe groups, people who feel they are attracted only to members of their own gender will continue to feel this way throughout their lives. Considering this fact, as a religious community deeply concerned about the strength of American society, whose goals are to solidify family values, shouldn’t the gay couples who wish to marry and bring up children be seen as our allies, not our adversaries?

[1] Everyone else except for Marc Stanley, apparently, whose statement the Agudah labels “outrageous, offensive, and wrong.”

Beautiful Tribute to Leslie Sabo, a”h American Hero of the Vietnam War, Rabbi Asher Lopatin

May 17, 2012


After being a bit strident in my last posting, for which I apologize, I want to turn to something I just saw really beautiful and loving that I happened to see live yesterday as I was on the treadmill.  It’s so easy for me to write in strong language on this blog or any blog from the comfort of home, in safety and tranquility, but once in a while you come across accounts of people who are really making the ultimate sacrifice and putting their lives on the line.

Please take fifteen minutes to watch this powerful tribute by President Obama to Leslie Sabo, a”h, an casualty of the Vietnam war who heroically gave his life to save his fellow soldiers.  It was one of the most stirring speeches I have seen.  May God bless the memory and soul of Leslie Sabo and all those who gave up their lives for the United States and for Israel – two great allies in a world of of grave dangers.

As we head for Yom Yerushalayim on Sunday, may Hashem bless all of us and the holy city of Jerusalem with peace.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Morethodoxy Openly Embraces the Entire Orthodox World! by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

May 16, 2012

We have to speak out against pedophelia and abuse and against intimidation of victims and families of victims.  At the same time, when we address an entire community, and we do so best, with most effect, when we do so with respect and humility.

While there is a lot to critique in the Orthodox world – Modern, Centrist and Chareidi – all of us sometimes take  a strident attitude that may not exhibit sufficient respect and love for our fellow Jews and their motivations.  All of us can make an effort to try to make our first response be one of embracing all of Orthodoxy – all Jews of course, and all human beings – and being open to learning – sometimes with a critical, but respectful ear – from our fellow Orthodox Jews

There is no need to apologize for the Hareidi or Centrist or even Modern Orthodox community.  We just need to speak from a loving and caring place. I am a pluralist: We need to learn from all Jews, and connect and relate to all Jews – Reform, Conservative, Renewal ; I believe it is critical for Judaism that we engage with the greater society as well.  That openness, however, requires that we understand that our spiritual and religious home remains with those who embrace Torah Judaism based on our age old tradition (masoret) and based on a loyalty to Hashem’s divine and eternal commandments.  Sometimes the Chareidi world may seem foreign to Modern Orthodox – myself included – but with the right effort and the right attitude, Modern Orthodox Jews, who live in the contemporary world, embedded in contemporary society, can still recognize their spiritual brothers and sisters – Orthodox Jews – and still remember where their home is.

Yes, there are serious challenges in the Hareidi community regarding dealing with the issue of pedophelia and abuse, and stifling those who are crying out for help.  And yes, I believe in transparency and speaking out – not being afraid.  We should be angry at terrible things happening. But Modern Orthodox Jews can have the greatest impact on the Hareidi world, our Orthodox brothers and sisters in Lakewood, Brooklyn and Monsey, when they hear our critiques with love, concern and humility in our voice.

Morethodoxy – this great blog – believes in the same passionate Yiddishkeit that Hasidishe and Yeshivishe  Yiddishkeit have espoused for centuries: let’s make sure that all Orthodox Jews know that we are one with them, and together,  we can address even the most heinous crimes and failings in our communities.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Hiding Sexual Abuse: A Lesson from Rabbi Rosenberg’s Big Shofar – by Rabbi Zev Farber

May 15, 2012

The Shocking Nature of Cover-ups

When the NY Times article on sexual abuse in the Ḥasidic Community came out last week, I thought to myself, “I already know what this is going to say; I can’t imagine this will shock me.” Sadly, I was mistaken.

The fact that sex abuse occurs in the frum community should not come as a shock – according to experts, statistics for sexual abuse in this community is about the same as other communities. For those familiar with famous cases like that of the Modern Orthodox youth director Baruch Lanner  or the Ḥareidi school teacher Yehuda Kolko, the reality that such abuse can be protracted and that the perpetrator can torment a great number of victims is well known. Even the fact that blind eyes are turned or that communal authorities refuse to believe the testimony of witnesses is par for the course for anyone who follows these stories. There was even a documentary called Standing Silent which follows the story of sex-abuse survivors from the Baltimore area.

Most disturbing in the Times article was the aggressive response by the community and the rabbinic establishment to parents of victims, and even to the victims themselves, if they expressed desire to report the incidents to the police: parents were shunned, children expelled from school, and retaliatory threats were made against parents if they did not leave town with their children.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the next day the Times featured another article detailing an ostensibly unofficial agreement between the Ḥasidic community and district attorney Charles Hynes. According to this report, the local rabbis get to hear the reports first and decide which ones to pursue and which ones not to pursue. The arrangement that the rabbis control the information about sex offenders is, unfortunately, not unique to the Ḥasidim in Brooklyn. A few months ago, the Jewish Week reported a similar understanding in the Ḥareidi community in Lakewood, wherein a tribunal of rabbis apparently investigates on its own, and threats of communal ostracism are levied against any parent wishing to approach the police.

This was the shocking part. Even for those of us who feel that we “already know” about the blight of child molestation in the Orthodox world, it is still jarring to read about a community that seems to stigmatize going to the authorities more than committing sexual abuse itself. I cannot imagine that the Ḥasidim or the Ḥareidim care about the welfare of their children any less than other communities. Nor can I imagine that the Ultra-Orthodox rabbinic establishment looks kindly on sexual abuse of girls and boys or that they are not horrified by the prospect of pedophiles in their midst.

So why aren’t they reporting it?

Apologetic Defenses

Defenses have been proffered. Some have invoked the prohibition of mesirah, turning a Jew in to the Gentile authorities. But this prohibition only applies when the Gentile and Jewish communities are in an antagonistic relationship and where there is the possibility of Jews successfully policing their own independent communities. It is totally irrelevant to the realities of child sexual abuse in modern American society, where the court and police system are necessary in order to protect the community, and the governmental authorities are a resource, not a threat, to our community.

Others have warned that the consequences of false reporting are devastating to the person accused. Certainly, false reports must be avoided, and, hopefully, the police and the justice system can weed out most of the bogus reports before an innocent person’s reputation is shot. However, it may be true that some false reports reach a stage where an innocent person is publicly accused and his or her life is shattered. Nevertheless, this is a risk any criminal justice system must take. The alternative needs to be kept in mind as well: for every sex offender not reported, tens if not hundreds of innocent lives are shattered.

Perhaps the most prevalent defense nowadays is the recourse made to the concept of ḥillul hashem, desecrating God’s name. The claim has been that if the existence of sexual abuse in religious Jewish communities became public, the humiliation would desecrate God’s name. I cannot accept this argument as it is a distortion and misapplication of the concept of ḥillul ha-shem. There is no question that it is the child molesters that have desecrated God’s name, not the parents that report the crime and try to protect their children and other children who will be the perpetrator’s next victims.

What weighs on me more heavily is whether the Ultra-Orthodox community itself truly believes this explanation. These scandals have been breaking one after the other for more than a decade – if there was ever any real possibility of keeping things hush-hush, it has long since passed. And yet, the rabbinic establishment in these communities still does not encourage reporting. Additionally, it is very hard for me to believe that the threat of bad press for the community could outweigh the protection of one’s children from sexual predators.

There appears to be a rather different consideration at work here.

Extreme Insularity – The Spartan Phalanx at Work

The Ultra-Orthodox communities are characterized by an extreme insularity. These communities view the secular world as a threat to their lifestyle, and much of their sociology is built around protecting themselves from the pernicious influence of the outside world. Like the Spartans with their phalanx formation, the Ultra-Orthodox believe that any chink in their armor of insulation could lead to the collapse of the troops.

If the rabbinic establishment in these communities were to admit that their constituents needed police involvement, and that the parents and victims should trust the secular authorities in this matter, a positive relationship could evolve between the Ultra-Orthodox community and the very authorities that they have long treated with suspicion. Conceivably, it may be difficult to navigate a situation where Gentile police officers, judges and court psychologists are protecting children from child-molesters who are themselves religious Jews. In the eyes of the rabbinic establishment, there is potential for a cascading effect.

As a result, the rabbis try to control the situation on their own, but they are not trained or equipped to do so. It seems to me that the mythical allure of the secular world the Ultra-Orthodox are battling has become more than just counterproductive; it has paralyzed the ability of the rabbinic leadership to protect its own constituency. Tragically, the young victims and their families will continue to pay the price until a different attitude towards the government and the general culture can be cultivated.

Glimmers of Hope

There were some faint glimmers of hope in the grim Times report. There was the Chabad beit din that ruled that one is required to report any evidence of abuse to the police. There was the young Rabbi Tzvi Gluck who has begun to act as a liaison between victims of sexual abuse and the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.

Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg

What stood out most to me was the work of Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, an eccentric Satmar rabbi from Williamsburg, is almost single-handedly battling to encourage the reporting of child molesters to the police in his community. R. Rosenberg is a scholar, author of the book Yatza Eish me-Ḥeshbon, and an expert on the laws of miqvaot (ritual baths), who consults all over the world. Since R. Rosenberg is also a business man and entrepreneur, he takes no fee for this work. Most importantly for this piece, R. Rosenberg is anything but insular. I know this because I know him personally; he was my teacher at YCT Rabbinical School.

When a number of us wanted to learn the laws of miqvah, our Rosh ha-Yeshiva, R. Dov Linzer, thought it would be best if we studied with someone who had practical experience constructing miqvaot. The fact that a Satmar rabbi was willing to teach in a Modern Orthodox rabbinical school was itself unusual; he also agreed to let women sit in on the class, something virtually unheard of in his community.

Until I read this Times article, I was unaware that R. Rosenberg is instrumental in the struggle to change the cultural attitudes surrounding child molestation in the Ḥasidic world. While the ostensibly more modern Agudath Israel issues a statement that references obtaining rabbinic permission to report (although, to be fair, they do encourage reporting in clear cases of sexual abuse), R. Rosenberg’s urgent push to report potential abuse cases is a breath of fresh air. With a hotline and a website in English, Yiddish and Hebrew, R. Rosenberg strongly encourages parents to report abuse directly to the police.

Blowing his Big Shofar

Though R. Rosenberg has been vilified by fellow members of Satmer for his activism, this does not appear to be dampening his resolve. This is unsurprising, as from the many anecdotes he told us about his work in the summer of 2004, resolve is clearly one of his chief qualities. One anecdote in particular stands out in my memory, as it does for my colleague Rabbi Jason Herman, who was one of the students and wrote about it in his blog.

Rabbi Rosenberg described a dispute with a local rabbi about the state of the local miqvah. When the rabbi would not agree to repair the situation, Rabbi Rosenberg pressured him: “I have a big Shofar, and if you don’t fix the problem I will blow it and tell everybody.” At the time, I was unsure about the type of personality that felt it was his business to publicly announce miqvah problems to the detriment of the local rabbi. Now, however, in light of his outspokenness against pedophilia in the Ḥasidic community, I say thank God he has a big shofar, and I hope he keeps using it.

What can be done?

The question remains: For those of us who are not part of the Ultra-Orthodox communities, how can we help? I would also like to blow my shofar, but I fear I stand too far away from my Ḥasidic and Ḥareidi brothers and sisters for them to hear me, and I assume that many of the people reading this feel the same way.

But we cannot stand idly by, and perhaps we are not entirely powerless.

We must support Rabbi Rosenberg and others like him in the good work they are already doing. We must make clear that the Modern Orthodox rabbinate and community members are interested in helping the victims; whether this means helping them find counseling, taking their kids into our schools, or just giving them a safe space to discuss their issues and strategize about their future. We need to stand shoulder to shoulder with Rabbi Rosenberg and blow our shofars too. After all, we are our brothers’ keepers.

Davening Among the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes – by Rabbi Zev Farber

May 9, 2012

Several months ago, a guest speaker visited our synagogue for a talk on current events in the Middle East. I enjoyed the talk and after services I asked my wife what she thought. She responded: “Did you notice that the speaker never once turned his face towards the women’s section? He had his face turned away from us the entire time, as if we weren’t even there.”

I had to admit that I had not noticed this. Why didn’t this man, a modern person speaking about Israel, turn towards the women? He was a secular Jew, so it could not have been due to “extreme piety” of the ignoring-women variety. I am sure that there is no other speaking venue where he would distinguish between men and women in this way.

Perhaps the placement of the podium in the room had something to do with it. Like most (not all) Orthodox shuls, our podium is situated in the men’s section, so naturally, the speaker faced the men. A slight angling of the body is all it would have taken for the speaker to face the women as well, but my guess is that he absorbed the subconscious message of the building’s logistics: “The people in the main section—the one opposite the podium—are the important ones. Face them.”

Watching the Flintstones with my children one day, it struck me that our synagogues have an uncanny resemblance to lodge no. 26 of the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes, where Fred and Barney go to have a men’s night out. I say this in jest, but it is illustrative. The men of the LOWB wear a special garb, they have a special code and gestures which they use, and there are no women. Although our synagogues are a step advanced from the Stone Age lodge—we let our women watch—the resemblances are worth noting; only the men have the special garb, only the men know the secret handshake, and when the Grand Poobah speaks, his podium faces only men.

To be fair, the synagogue I attend is quite modern and sensitive to women’s issues, and our rabbi is overwhelmingly so. In addition, the architectural plans for the new building include a fifty-fifty split with a podium in the middle. However, I think the anecdote is illustrative of the pernicious message which is unconsciously and unintentionally being sent to the women and girls in our community: “You are not really here.”

Of course, the placement of the podium is only one way—albeit an obvious one—that Orthodox synagogues communicate to their participants that women are not really in the room. This message is also communicated by access to the holiest and most central feature of the synagogue, the Torah scroll, which is removed from the ark, inevitably by a man, during Shabbat morning services. The Torah is then handed to the man leading the services and carried around so everybody can touch it and kiss it… well, not everybody.

It is true that in some Orthodox synagogues the Torah is either passed to a woman to carry through the women’s section or is carried through the women’s section by the man leading the services. However, in most Orthodox synagogues the Torah is carried only through the men’s section; the message being that access to the Torah is only for participants in the prayer services, not for onlookers. Some synagogues that are sensitive to the problem decide on the awkward solution of carrying the Torah slowly near the meitza (barrier). The women can then scramble to the meitza and vie for access in Darwinian fashion.

Traditional garb is another way Orthodox synagogues send the message that the men are the real participants. Men’s ritual accoutrements, special prayer shawls around their shoulders or over their heads, and leather straps and boxes on their heads and arms, are significant ritually and spiritually. Needless to say, the average Orthodox woman does not wear tzitzit or t’fillin and has no ritual equivalent of her own.

Other ways the second-class position of women in the synagogue is communicated are even more complex, as they appear hardwired into the halakhic system and changing or tinkering with them would be more than a little problematic for the halakhically observant.

Firstly, for the prayer service to start, or at least for certain special prayers to be said, there needs to be a minyan (a prayer quorum) of ten men; women do not count. Without ten men services cannot be held, but services can run from beginning to end without even one woman present. This, of course, is in compliance with the halakhic rulings found in the Talmud; nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that women generally show up late, if at all.

Secondly, women do not lead anything; not just the special minyan prayers (devarim she-be-qedusha) but activities that are not minyan-related at all, such as misheberakhs for the US government or the State of Israel, opening the ark to take out the Torah, or reciting birkot ha-shaar.

Modern Orthodoxy is in a bind when it comes to women in the synagogue. In a world where gender roles are constantly shifting, it becomes rather difficult for a religious group that is both modern and Orthodox to navigate the many tensions that exist between traditional practices and modern egalitarian values. Sometimes these tensions express themselves around halakhic issues: women leading devarim she-be-qedusha, wearing t’fillin, counting for a minyan, or participating in the Torah-reading ceremony. Other times the issues appear more sociological: bringing the Torah through the women’s section, women holding or carrying the Torah, placement of the podium, or women speaking from the podium.

The halakhic issues require textual analysis and remain extremely divisive and I am not suggesting here that Orthodox communities should make radical breaks with halakha. Rather my aim here is the underlying message that our synagogues are sending to women. We all want to remain true to halakha and create a synagogue environment where men and women thrive, but I fear that without addressing the underlying message of women not really being in the room, instead of creating a home for all Jews, we are creating a men’s club.

In my opinion, wherever one falls out on the halakhic issues—and the spectrum is wide—none of our synagogues really want to be sending the message that women are only spectators. Therefore, I strongly suggest that we take a close look at the messages the structure and culture of our synagogues are sending to women. If the overwhelming message is LOWB-like, what changes can be made, commensurate with the halakhic views of the rabbi and the culture of the institution, to make women feel like they are part of the services and not just watching? Can the podium be placed more centrally? Can the Torah be brought to the women’s side? Can a woman carry it? Can she hold it after g’lilah? Is the meḥitza too tall or difficult to see through? Is there anything at all that a woman can lead or recite out loud during services so that a woman’s voice can be heard as part of the prayer experience?

It is my hope that every synagogue will take this message to heart and think constructively about how to create an Orthodox synagogue experience loyal to halakha and welcoming of women; where women feel like participants instead of spectators. In her famous essay, “Notes Toward Finding the Right Question,” Cynthia Ozick wrote: “My own synagogue is the only place in the world where I am not named ‘Jew’.” I am sure that no Modern Orthodox rabbi or synagogue wants to send this message, and yet unconsciously—but systemically—we do. For the sake of our women, our girls and the health of our communities, the message needs to change.

Ugly Room – Beautiful Time – Rabbi Barry Gelman

May 9, 2012

I had a very similar experience to the one described in this article. 

Almost a year ago my father suffered a massive heart attack and eventually underwent a triple bypass. Thank God he is doing well.

During his hospitalization and recovery from surgery, I, along with other family members, spent many days Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC. 

Form the outset I was amazed at the work of the Satmar Bikkur Cholim who daily brought kosher food to a well stocked “Kosher Room” in the hospital. This included food for shabbat that was kept warm in a warming box in that special room. The room was not aesthetically pleasing, but it was beautiful in another way, in that it was a meeting place for Jews of all stripes, with one thing in common, a sick loved one. It offered comfort and the knowledge that we were not alone in our worry and concern. It was illness and that magical room that brought me, a Modern Orthodox Rabbi to share Seudah Shlishit with a Satmar Chassid and a Yeshivish women.

When there is common cause or concern, the differences based on details like what kind of kippah one wears or weather or not one is a zionist disappear. 

For me it served as a window into what could be if more Jews could be convinced to come together based on common cause rather than separate based on difference. 

I know it was just a moment in time, but it is moments like those that create big dreams.




Orthodox Social Justice: Kudos to the Tav HaYosher by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

May 9, 2012

The Orthodox Social Justice organization, Uri L’Tzedek has been in the news recently regarding a settlement they helped win from a Jewish company accused of mistreating its workers and forcing them, against the law, to work 70-80 weeks.  I was not part of the lawsuit so I would like highlight a program of Uri L’Tzedek which I am involved in: Tav HaYosher – the “Ethical Seal”.  I would especially like to point out its Torah true roots and how it is integral to the Orthodox world of halacha and practice.


I first found out about something like an “Ethical Seal” when I was in Israel eight years ago on the fast day of Shiva’a Asar B’Tamuz, and I went to a modern Orthodox program sponsored by Bema’aglei Tzedek, a social action organization, which was rolling out their Tav Chevrati – social justice seal.  The Bema’aglei Tzedek program had several prominent rabbis speaking, and ended with a huge, separate seating mincha minyan.  It blew me away to experience exactly what the prophets would love for us to do on a fast day: learn about what Torah has to say about a just society, and plan to implement that Torah.  And in fact, that is what the Israeli Tav Chevrati – Social Justice Seal – of Bema’aglei Tzedek does and what the American Tav HaYosher – the Ethical Seal – of Uri L’Tzedek does.  Both of them are seals that restaurants can voluntarily get, which ensures that they are following the laws of the land – dina d’malchuta dina – in how they are treating their workers.


The Israeli seal is more complicated, but the Uri L’Tzedek (American) Ethical Seal is simple: restaurants have to demonstrate to volunteer mashgichim and mashgichot (supervisors) that they are paying their workers for their time worked (at minimum wage or wages agreed upon), that they are giving their workers the breaks they are legally mandated, and that the safety conditions in the restaurant meets code.  The Tav is only given to restaurants that have rabbinical supervision to their kashrut, so as not to confuse people who may see a Hebrew label and think the restaurant is kosher, which it is not, unless the food follows halachic standards of kashrut.


The Tav, “Ethical Seal” is not a political, social engineering seal, but, rather one that just verifies that the restaurant bearing it conforms to American law.  I do not expect the mashgiach for the kashrut, who may be checking for bugs, or salting the meat or making sure that every ingredient has the right label, to be able to verify what the workers are doing and whether they are being paid and treated according to US law.  Unfortunately, overworked and understaffed enforcement arms of the government are not able to police restaurants either for these matters.  An extremely high percentage of restaurants do not conform with the law – and luckily, the kosher ones have the opportunity of verifying that they are following Jewish law by following the law of the land.


The Tav HaYosher was born from Orthodox activists in Israel, inspired by Israel and the words of the prophet King David, who asked Hashem to guide him in the “circles of righteousness.”  These are people who were energized by the rigor of the halachic life and decided that halacha and Torah could give them the power to change society and to make sure the world of the Nevi’im (prophets) were not just nice Haftaras, but were real, living Torah, Torat chayim.  They had, and continue to have, as their guides some of the greatest Torah luminaries, such as Rav Yuval Cherlow and Rav Beni Lau, recognized rashei Yeshiva and gedolim.


Both the Israeli and the American “Tav”s – seals –  are careful not to call themselves a “hachsher” or a “hashgacha” which might challenge the importance of ritual kashrut. (See the article by Rabbi Avi Shafran in Dialogue , Winter 5772.) To the contrary, the Tav is coming to re-enforce the amazing strides we have made over the past half century in ensuring that “kosher” really means halachically kosher, by restricting itself only to kosher certified restaurants.  But they wisely do not get involved in which hashgacha is good and which bad.


I am writing this on the 32nd day (lamed beit, or lev) of the Omer – as we think about the “lev” – the heart – of the Jewish people.  Embedded in the heart of the Jewish people are the words of God and God’s prophets, along with the generations of great rabbis who ask us to seek justice and follow the laws of the lands in which we live.  I ask each and everyone of us: if we go into a restaurant in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Boston, Seattle, Teaneck, etc. – over 100 restaurants across America, and over 350 locations in Israel – please ask for the Tav!  If they have never heard of it, contact Uri L’Tzedek and tell them to reach out to that establishment.  Having the Tav means the restaurant is following our Torah true tradition of justice and following the law.  If you eat in a kosher Tav restaurant, you are not only fulfilling the ritual of kashrut, you are fulfilling the ethical laws of caring for your fellow human being and living a just life.


Rabbi Asher Lopatin