Gonna Celebrate Pesach Like It’s 5773 – Rabbi Barry Gelman

March 24, 2013

I recently listened to a shiur on the subject of Pesach wherein the Rabbi insisted that currently we celebrate the spiritual freedom of Pesach (Mitcheila Ovdei Avodah Zara HaYu Avoteinu) and not the physical freedom expressed in the Haggadah (Avadim HeYeinu L’Paroh B’Mitzrayim). He noted that since we are under the jurisdiction of others, we cannot celebrate physical freedom.

I was dismayed at this outlook and wondered how, after the establishment of the State of Israel that someone could suggest that we celebrate Pesach in 5773 the same way we did in 1933, or during anytime since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash.

I felt better after reading Ruth Wisse’s column in Friday’s Wall Street Journal

But the most inspiring incarnation of the exodus has been the one that reversed it: the recovery of the Jewish homeland from foreign occupiers after millennia of exile. Not by the hands of an angel and not by the hands of a messenger, but by the self-reliance that their ancestors had practiced for millennia, and by keeping faith with their vow to return to Jerusalem, the settlers of Israel accomplished one of the greatest national feats in history.

Jews reclaimed their political independence in the land of Israel in the same decade that witnessed the genocidal slaughter of one-third of their people. They did so not only by mobilizing skills honed through centuries of adaptation to foreign rule but by reactivating powers that were dormant for centuries.

Can the legendary crossing of the Red Sea compare with the marvel of several million Jewish migrants and refugees from lands as disparate as Ethiopia and Latvia forging a common, democratic Jewish state? Are the plagues that persuaded Pharaoh to “let my people go” or the miracles in the desert as stunning as Israel’s ability to withstand the preposterously asymmetrical Arab aggression against it? The revival of Hebrew from sacral high status into national vernacular is an unparalleled linguistic feat. Entrepreneurship in Israel has won it the title of “start-up nation.”

The traditional Passover Seder concludes with the pledge, “Next year in Jerusalem,” which the British poet William Blake nationalized in the vow not to rest “Till we have built Jerusalem / In England’s green & pleasant Land.” Yet modern Israel represents an immense human accomplishment that may even go beyond the prophetic vision. Passover today includes a story of national liberation at least the equal of the one in the Book of Exodus that served as its inspiration.

Ruth Wisse understands that history changes the way we think about and experience history.

Rabbi Menachem Mendle Kasher, among others, considers this approach a simple matter of Hakarat HaTov, recognizing the good that God has done. To celebrate Pesach as if there is no State of Israel is to ignore the favors that God has bestowed on us.

Rabbi Kasher recommends adding a fifth cup corresponding the the final word of redemption – V’Heiveiti – “and I will

…and our fathers have told us—we will not hide it from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of the Eternal, and His strength, and His wondrous works that He hath done.” Also, it is said: “Let them give thanks unto the Eternal for His mercy, and for His wondrous works for the children of men.”

And now, in our own time, when we have been privileged to behold the mercies of the Holy Name, blessed is He, and His salvation over us, in the establishment of the State of Israel, which is the beginning of redemption and salvation from the exile of Edom, even as it is written: “And I shall bring you into the land, the same which I have lifted my hand to give unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, and I have given it unto you as an inheritance: I am the Eternal”—it is fitting and proper that we observe this pious act, the drinking of the fifth cup, as a form of thanksgiving.

Just as we have been privileged to see the first realization of ” And I shall bring them,” so may we be worthy of witnessing the perfect and complete redemption, the coming of the Messiah. May we witness fulfillment of the vision of the prophets, that “evil shall disappear as smoke in the wind, and that all the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God.

Even if one does not subscribe to Rabbi Kasher’s messianic overtones, there is still reason to approach Pesach differently than our grandparents did. It’s called Dayeinu.

Each step of that famous song represents an incomplete redemption. Would it really have “been enough” had God brought us to Mount Sinai,  but not given us the Torah?

Well, it depends on what we are asking. If we are asking, would it have been enough to be considered a complete redemption, then the answer is no. But, if the question is: Would it have been enough to offer thank to God, then the answer us yes. The answer is yes, because imperfect and incomplete redemptions are also worthy of praise and thanksgiving.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital notes this approach when discussing celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut

How can we not thank the Almighty for all the kindness that He has showered upon us?  First and foremost, the State of Israel serves as a safe haven for five million Jews. After the nightmare of the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees wandered around the globe, finding a home and refuge only in Israel.  The State has contributed an incalculable amount to the restoration of Jewish pride after the devastating chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) caused by the Holocaust.  Today, too, the State plays an enormous role in the Jewish identity of our brethren throughout the world.  For so many of them, the emotional attachment to the State remains the final thread connecting them to the Jewish people and to the God of Israel.

 I spoke earlier of Rav Kook’s inability to come to terms with the establishment of a state that would not bring to fruition the ultimate destiny of redemption.  This led him to claim that the impending State of Israel was to be the ideal State of the period of ge’ula (redemption).  But don’t all the critical functions fulfilled by the State of Israel (as listed above) justify its existence, even if it has not developed into the ideal community?  After the traumatic destruction of the Holocaust, which Rav Kook could not possibly have foreseen, the State played a critical role in the restoration and revitalization of the Jewish people.  It is hard to imagine what the Jewish nation would look like today if, Heaven forbid, the State of Israel had not emerged.

 I experienced the horror of the destruction of European Jewry, and I can thus appreciate the great miracle of Jewish rebirth in our homeland.  Are we not obligated to thank the Almighty for His kindness towards us?  Unquestionably!  And not just on Yom Ha-atzma’ut; each day we must recite Hallel seven times for the wonders and miracles He has performed on our behalf: “I praise you seven times each day!” (Tehillim 119:164).

Are things perfect? No. Could things be better? Yes. Would it be that the Messiah would arrive and that all of Israel’s enemies were no longer. But we must not confuse Pesach 5773, being celebrated in a world with a State of Israel with Pesach in the Warsaw Ghetto.


Tempering Briliance with Kindess and Caring by Rabbi Eugene Korn

March 14, 2013

ImageRabbi Eugene Korn is American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat, and former editor of Meorot — A Forum of Modern Orthodox Discourse.

Reprinted by permission from the New Jersey Jewish Standard



“When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old I admire kind people,” Abraham Joshua Heschel once told a group of senior citizens.

He was not pandering to his audience but being open and truthful. After a number of life journeys, I believe today that Rabbi Heschel was right. I can’t say whether my conclusion stems from increased wisdom or approaching old age, but I am sure that he was correct.

Earlier in life I attended a traditional yeshiva suffused with the Lithuanian ethos of Talmud study and obedience to Jewish law, whatever it demands. It taught us that our highest ethical virtues were cognitive excellence and unflinching dedication. That educational experience was shaped by a narrative about R. Elijah of Vilna. We knew him simply as “the Gaon” — “the genius” — and as the embodiment of brilliance and single-mindedness.

Our teachers never tired of recounting to us that late in life the Gaon’s sister made the long difficult journey to see her brother, whom she hadn’t seen in more than ten years. When she arrived, the Gaon’s wife greeted her and told her that the Gaon was in the back room studying Talmud, as usual. He emerged a short while later, said hello, and asked his sister how she was. Then he excused himself, saying “It’s nice of you to come, but now I must return to my studies.” In fact there is no evidence this dialogue actually occurred, but its veracity is less important than the fact that my teachers wanted me to believe it and for it to mold my character.

We learned to revere the Gaon for his genius, and he became the model to which we all aspired.

All this focus on cognitive excellence led me to study philosophy — and naturally I took to the most outstanding rationalist philosophers. My heroes became Moses Maimonides and Immanuel Kant. The medievalist Maimonides developed the most sophisticated Jewish metaphysics ever, focusing on the nature of God and achieving human excellence through acquiring knowledge. His God was austerely rational, devoid of any trace of emotion. Maimonides even claimed that anyone who believed that God had anything like the human emotion of caring was a rank heretic. Ultimately, Maimonides’ God was a necessary postulate, the locus of all metaphysical truth. Godliness was all about knowing.

The greatest modern philosopher, Kant, was also a thoroughgoing rationalist. Kant’s moral philosophy taught that there was only one ethical rule that human beings should always follow: “Be rational.”

I could never hope to be as brilliant as these two philosophers, but I absorbed the lesson that the good life was all about striving for greater knowledge and rationality. Nothing else much matters.

There is an enormous difference between pure reason — analytical intelligence — and empathetic intelligence — the ability to feel what others feel, care about their pain and be moved to alleviate it. In fact, history is replete with people who have prodigious logical intelligence but are miserable human beings. Bernard Madoff is a prime example. He was an exceptional analyst but could feel none of his victims’ suffering.

I suspect that both Maimonides and Kant suffered from this imbalance too. Maimonides believed that people without philosophic wisdom were like beasts of the field with a human form, and Kant claimed that logical consistency was a greater virtue than saving a human life. He taught that it is better to let someone die rather than lie to a would-be murder about the future victim’s whereabouts. Both thinkers are proof that logical brilliance sometimes runs amok and crowds out human empathy.

On a lesser scale, I have seen my share of rabbis who are analytic geniuses yet issue rulings utterly lacking in concern for others because they believe their legal reasoning so dictates.

I no longer admire such people. I realize that it is the capacities to empathize and act compassionately toward others that define our humanness, not impersonal brainpower. Surely it is no virtue to be mindless, but brilliance not tempered with kindness and caring is no virtue.

This is the normative teaching of the Talmudic rabbis, despite their medieval philosophic disciples or some modern Talmudists who speak in their name. The God of the Talmud is a doer of kindnesses — chesed — for others (Sotah 14a). God clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, visits those who are sick, and comforts those who are grieving. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Ketubot 62b) tells us about Rabbi Rechumei, who was constantly studying at the great yeshivah of Mehoza and visited his wife only once a year, before Yom Kippur. Once he became so engrossed in studies that he forgot to come home. His wife longed for him that Yom Kippur eve, believing every moment that R. Rechumei would soon arrive.

When she finally realized that he was not coming, a warm tear rolled down her cheek. The episode ends tragically, when the roof on which R. Rechumei was studying collapses and causes his death.

This story is a remarkable self-critique by the Talmudic rabbis of their own behavior and the culture of study. The message is unmistakable: When study and intellectual endeavor become so paramount that they leave no room for caring, the result is death. Clearly it is no virtue to pursue such a skewed value system.

Did the Vilna Gaon’s sister shed a tear when her brother refused her more than five minutes of his time? Perhaps no wet tears rolled down her cheek, but surely her soul cried out at her brother’s insensitivity. When I teach today, I study the story of R. Rechumei with my students, not the story of the Gaon.

King David told us that “The world is built with chesed” (Psalms 89:3). According to tradition, he wrote this as a tender young shepherd, not in his old age. This set of values didn’t come from sentimentality or an irrational fear of approaching mortality, but from a clear understanding of the world and human virtue.

So if presented with a choice between a naturally kind but unlearned person and a brilliant rabbi or philosopher with little empathy for other people, I’d choose the former. Both King David and Abraham Heschel knew that he is the greater human being, the one who will make the world a better place.


Partnership Minyanim: A Follow Up Response to Rabbi Freundel – by Dr. Chaim Trachtman

March 8, 2013

Rabbi Freundel’s detailed analysis of the halakhic basis for Partnership Minyanim demonstrates an impressive mastery of the relevant texts. But, in assessing this new practice, it is important to examine not only the halakhic responsa but also some of the underlying assumptions about women, men, and the formulation of law within the Orthodox community that are implied in his analysis. 

One recurrent theme among those who contend that Partnership Minyanim is not supported by the halakha is that people like me who attend Partnership Minyanim and find them meaningful are ends-driven. That is to say, Partnership Minyanim supporters are thought to act solely on an emotional basis and to use halakha in service of their personal needs and desires, to satisfy ulterior motives. On a very simple level, I would invite anyone who questions the validity of Partnership Minyanim to attend one. After observing the delicate maneuvering around the mechitzah and careful attention to roles during the tefila, I would ask if they cannot recognize the effort to remain firmly connected to Orthodox practice. What kind of ulterior motive would someone have for the spending the same amount of time on Shabbat morning, saying the same tefillot, listening to a Dvar Torah with women doing select portions unless they felt themselves to be Orthodox?

But taking this one step further, it is untenable to assert that advocates of Partnership Minyanim are the only people who are argue their case with a hidden agenda in mind. Everyone comes with a context.  Partnership Minyanim supporters are criticized for a failure to engage with the traditional Orthodox sources in an intellectually honest manner and their analyses are seen as an attempt to retrofit the law to their desires. However, I posit that the notion that one can distinguish between purely emotional and rational grounds for halakhic decision making is a straw man. Life is complex and both elements, in varying proportion, motivate religious people to ask questions about their practices and examine their interaction with halakha. The derogation of emotional or subjective factors in religious conduct can be destructive of genuine spiritual striving. It assumes that people’s emotional state can be reliably read and judged. Unfortunately, this presumption is more often made about women than men. Moreover, the contribution of non-legal factors and personal priorities is given much greater leeway in other areas of law that do not impact on the status of women. Witness the vigorous debate between different segments of the Orthodox community in Israel today about how to best observe shmita as evidence that how the Jewish jurisprudence assesses the corpus of law changes dramatically depending on context and personal preferences. All sorts of factors have been brought into play including the viability of Israeli agriculture in a global market and enriching Arab farmers at the expense of Jewish farmers, environmental concerns, public education, and attitudes towards the performance of mitzvot. There are always meta-halakhic issues that are involved in decision making – consider the rabbinic imperative to do whatever is possible to avoid mamzerut. Halakha ideally represents a balance between intellectual clear headedness based on foundational principles and emotional responsiveness to each person and each circumstance. The best psak achieves this objective.  

Second, I think the difference of opinion about whether Partnership Minyanim are consistent with an honest and rigorous reading of halakha is one that transcends the interpretation of any single or group of sources and responsa. I read Rabbi Sperber’s work as a legitimate validation of the practice of Partnership Minyanim and opponents of Partnership Minyanim reject his opinion. Perhaps, supporters of Partnership need to press the case more articulately and frame the case in a more compelling manner. But this will not eliminate the conflict.  People can and do argue about the nuance of legal opinions in every society and halakha is no different. I propose that there is a larger divergence in the approach used to read sources – static and timeless versus dynamic and contextual. Contextualizing the law does not by its nature render the decision Conservative but is just as much a part of Orthodox jurisprudence. This is not unique to Jewish law and plays out in current arguments about the US Constitution, between those who favor interpretation based on original intent of the framers versus those who favor its application as a “living” document. Suffice it say that, again, I think the situation regarding the halakha is complicated. On occasion, the law is relatively fixed and unyielding. But there is ample documentation of rabbis who, in the face of opposition to change of any kind, have addressed divisive issues in innovative ways. This includes the permissibility of economic interactions with Christians and the heter mechira at the time of the early resettlement of Palestine in the late 19th century. There will be those like Rabbi Sperber who will view the desire for Partnership Minyanim as an authentic religious goal and strive to create a space within the halakha for it. In contrast, there will there be others condemn it as “chadash.”

But that brings me to my third point. I am struck by the overwhelming demand for uniformity of practice that is required by those who oppose Partnership Minyanim and who consider supporters of Partnership Minyanim to fall outside the pale of Orthodoxy. Take a different example. I suspect there is quite a divergence in practice on the second day of Yom Tov among Americans who go to Israel for holidays. Some do not observe the second day at all, some do not observe the second half of day, some distinguish between public and private activity, some are lenient with positive versus negative commandments, and on and on. Ignoring whether they are adhering to the position of their local rabbi or an available source from the Web that supports their preference, I am unaware of anyone describing any of these patterns of observance as un-Orthodox or asserting that they threaten the fabric of Orthodoxy. Is it unreasonable to ask for the same level of tolerance, and I use that word explicitly, towards those who attend Partnership Minyanim?  

Finally, with regard to the view of women and men that would prohibit participation in Partnership Minyanim, I think it is worth stating clearly that there are laws that have provoked profound moral debate over the millennia. The command to annihilate Amalek is one. In 1904, Rabbi Avraham HaCohen Kook responded to a question about the status of black people (Letter #89). He asserted that, in fact, maintaining blacks in a state of servitude is for their betterment because that condition is their essential nature and is hard wired into things. The Rav taught that the status of women is cosmically fixed and determined. I will simply say that these are hard positions for some modern people to accept and that failure to embrace them does not disqualify someone as an Orthodox Jew in 2013. 

In closing, as a doctor, I realize that medicine and religion are two very different activities. But, there is much that one can teach the other. In this age of blogs, social networks, and instant communication, there is much available information and people feel empowered to make decisions for themselves. Specialists in all fields may bemoan this development. Doctors are no different and many dread the patient who comes to a visit armed with ammunition from the Internet. But, in medicine, this has lead to the realization that doctors are not the end all and be all in health care. There is a growing recognition that patients’ experience of illness is a critical component in the evaluation and treatment of disease. Failure to acknowledge the patient’s perspective can cause even the best laid medical plans to fail. Why should this be? Doctors spend many years learning their craft and why wouldn’t patients simply follow the advice and prescriptions of doctors? The obvious answer is that every patient comes with a story and their disease unfolds over time in a rich context of family, friends, community and work. The wise doctor knows he/she better pay attention for the patient to have the best chance of getting better. I would ask Rabbis to listen to congregants, whatever minyan they go to.

Chaim Trachtman

Maharat: A new model of leadership by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

March 1, 2013

Orthodox Jews believe that men and women are fundamentally different.  They have different characteristics, different strengths, different obligations and different ways of seeing the world and approaching life.  Thus, it follows that especially for us, (as opposed perhaps to more liberal Jewish movements in which the boundaries between the genders might be more blurred), it is vital that we have both genders leading our people.  If men and women see the world differently and have different voices then to have only male leaders is to limit the Jewish vision by fifty percent.


I would like to caution us against seeing women spiritual leaders in the way that  liberal Jewish movements have in the past, that of expecting women to be rabbis just like their male counterparts.  That a Rabbi is a Rabbi, a role blind to gender.  In fact men and women are very different and we would be losing out on hearing women’s unique voices of leadership and Torah if we expect them to be just like male rabbis.


I would like to propose the Maharat (these are Orthodox women being trained in Jewish learning and leadership  similar to Rabbis, click HERE  for more info.) as a new brand of Jewish spiritual leadership.  In Judaism there are many kinds of leaders and none is more important or more powerful than the other, just very different.  The prophet, the priest, the lawgiver, the rabbi, the rebba, the shofet, the judge, and now the Maharat.  Moshe the lawgiver could not do the job of Aaron the Kohen and vice versa.  There were aspects of their roles which overlapped and each was equally important and respected, but they and their positions were wholly dissimilar.


The Maharat will be no less powerful, no less influential, no less important, no less respected than the Rabbi, but what kind of leadership the Maharat will be exactly remains to be seen.  I think it vital that we not expect them to push themselves into a rabbinic box, they must have the freedom to develop their own type of leadership.  I await it with excitement.  Surly this is to see the hand of G-d in the ongoing growth and deepening of the Jewish people and the Torah.