Be strong and of good courage, chevra. Posted by Yosef Kanefsky

October 31, 2013

To my dear friends and fellow-travelers:

Whenever the waters get a little choppy, as they have this week, we need to remember only one thing. And that is, that we are serving God, and God alone. We are accountable only to God, and to our own souls and consciences. We believe – down deep in our spiritual core – in a vision of Orthodoxy that never throws up its hands in the face of human suffering, one whose eyes and heart are open to the friendship and thoughts and struggles of all Jews. A vision of Orthodoxy in which success is defined by the promise that “through you all the families of the world will be blessed”, and one in which Torah and Mitzvot are opportunities to be shared, not privileges to be protected. We believe – genuinely and unalterably – that this is what God has told us is good, and that it is this which He requires of us. We are accountable only to God. To God, to the people that we serve, and to ourselves.

Pursuing the path of God involves being open to advice and to constructive criticism. How else could we engage in the critical processes of introspection and self-improvement? But no less important than listening to friends who advise and criticize, is refusing to be distracted by the static of public attack. The public attackers are also sincere, and genuine in their words. But what they are asking is that we forsake God, and instead serve them.

In the end, we will succeed because we will create communities for whom Torah is the Tree of Life, the Mitzvot are sweeter than honey, and Halacha is the tradition with which we engage the human condition and dignify all those created in the Image. We have no energy to spare, or time to waste. The day is short, the work is great, and the Master expects much of us.

Serving G-d in every Moment –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

October 30, 2013

The Torah describes Sara our foremother’s death by enumerating the years of her life.   Then the verse repeats, “…these were the years of Sara’s life.”   Rash”i is bothered by this repetition, and comments, “All of them were equally for good.”


The Rebbe of Tosh, Rabbi Meshulam Feish Segal, may he live and be well, writes in the name of the Ariza”l, the great mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria, that there are things in our world which hide the Divine light so deeply (klipah) that we can not utilize them at all to raise up their divine potential.   These things are forbidden in the Torah, such as the meat of a non-kosher animal.  But there is a large range of things which the Torah permits us.  These have the sparks of the Divine embedded within them in such a way that if we use them (really this applies also to deeds, speech and even thoughts) in the right way, with the intent to bring them and ourselves through them, closer to G-d then they are holy and the act or speech or thought is a mitzvah.   If we do them just to fill our own desires then they are unholy and a sin.  Thus, writes the Tosher Rebbe, nothing is neutral.  Everything is either a mitzvah or a sin.  To eat kosher food is not ok, it is either holy or unholy depending on how we eat it, what our intent is, what our reasons for doing so are.   And so it is with everything.  Every moment in life, every step, is pregnant with spiritual power, for good or not.


He concludes that Sara was unique among people in that she was able to use everything- all her time, her actions, her thoughts and her speech to raise herself up spiritually; and so all of her days were “equally good.” 


It is, I think, an important message for us living in today’s world.  I believe that we should be involved in the life of the world, bringing holiness and compassion to the people, culture and communities around us.   Jews today have access to everything- the best restaurants, the best sports tickets, the best shows, the best cars, and the best vacations.  But in all we do it is not enough to ask, “Is this forbidden or permitted?”  We must ask, will this be a holy act, one that will bring me and the world to a better, more spiritual place, or not.  May we merit, in great joy, to know G-d in all of our unique ways.

“A Cry is Heard from On High– Wailing, Bitter Weeping:” A Personal Reflection on Hevron – City of our Fathers – By Rori Picker Neiss

October 27, 2013

The following sermon was delivered by Rori Picker Neiss at Bais Abraham Congregation, St Louis, MO on October 26, 2013, Shabbat Parshat Chayei Sarah.  Rori serves as Director of Programming, Education and Community Engagement at Bais Abraham and is completing her studies at Yeshivat Maharat.

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה:  וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ:

Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba—now Hevron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.

Thus begins Parshat Chayei Sarah. This is the first time we are introduced to the city of Hevron, but it is certainly not the last time. In this week’s parsha, Sarah dies and Avraham needs to find a proper place to bury her. In his search he encounters Ephron, a Hittite, who offers to give Avraham a burial plot for free. Avraham refuses to accept the land as a gift and insists on paying for it– and ultimately overpays for it. He acquires Ma’arat HaMachpeilah– the Cave of Machpeilah– and the land that surrounds it and buries Sarah. Later in our parsha we learn of Avraham’s death, and he, too, is buried in Ma’arat HaMachpeilah next to Sarah.

The first time I was introduced to Hevron– other than through stories such as this in the Tanakh– was in 2003 when I travelled with my father, brothers, and a few family friends to tour the city.

Our trip to Hevron began with a stop at Kever Rachel, the burial site of the matriarch Rachel, located in Bethlehem. Two soldiers in full armor met us at the van to escort us into the building. I remember waiting as I exited the van for the next person to make her way out. The soldier brusquely insisted that I go inside. I pointed out that there was one more person in the van, thinking he just hadn’t noticed her climbing over the seats. He snapped at me more forcefully: “Get inside!” That is when I realized he knew she was there. His job was to make sure that I didn’t stay out in the open where he couldn’t protect me.

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Reforming the Rabbanut

October 25, 2013

For quite a few years, the Israeli rabbanut has declined to automatically affirm the Jewish status of, even Orthodox, converts from abroad. Last week, the New York Jewish Week reported that, in several instances, Jews from the United States, who were born Jewish and affiliated with Orthodox congregations in the United States, have had difficulty proving their Jewish status for purposes of registering for marriage in Israel under the auspices of the state rabbanut.

This week, Rabbi Avi Weiss, published a bold op-ed, advocating stripping the rabbanut of its monopoly over marriage, divorce, and conversion.  Rabbi Weiss moved beyond the narrow concern of diaspora rabbis being trusted to vouch on behalf of the Jewish status of individuals from their communities and called for full state recognition for Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox rabbis.

There are several questions that Rabbi Weiss’s op-ed raises: Was he only awakened to the disenfranchisement of Conservative and Reform Judaism when his own status as a rabbi was challenged by the rabbanut?  Does being “noge’a b’davar” – directly impacted by the body he is criticizing enhance or detract from his ability to evaluate the situation?  Finally, however bureaucratic the rabbanut can be, it is more democratically accountable to the citizens of Israel than, for example, the (Reform) Central Conference of American Rabbis, or the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America.  According to Rabbi Weiss’ proposal, American rabbis, and presumably professional organizations that grant them accreditation, will render judgments about Jewish status that will determine the rights and responsibilities of Israeli citizens.  If the State of Israel will allocate rights and responsibilities to those who are Jewish, then it should be the state itself and a state body that will make the final determination of who is Jewish.

Rabbi Seth Farber, an American oleh, and, through his organization Itim, a hero to thousands of Israeli Jews he has helped to navigate the rabbanut and its bureaucracy, has also published an op-ed in response to this situation. Rabbi Farber’s focus is more limited – he only calls for the repeal of this narrow and recently adopted rabbanut policy – but he mentions (although does not advocate for)  a more extreme tactic; boycott. It isn’t entirely clear to me – it isn’t clear to me at all  – what leverage, if any, American Jews have to influence the rabbanut.

Most provocatively, Bernard Avishai, has reiterated his long-standing proposal to cut the Gordian knot of state and religion in Israel by completely disestablishing the rabbanut. But, that can only happen, Avishai argues, if the State of Israel transforms itself into the “Hebrew Speaking Republic” a full democracy where rights and responsibilities of citizenship are independent of religion or ethnicity.  As an American and a believer in democratic self-government, I find Avishai’s arguments  compelling. Indeed, almost everything I love about Israel (Jewish majority culture, Hebrew calendar connected to national life, flourishing of Jewish learning and Jewish civilization etc.) would not change if Israel were a fully democratic “Hebrew Republic.” But, a Hebrew Republic could have no law-of-return giving special privileges to Jews.  The law of return endures as a core element of Zionism. I cannot easily imagine Israel without it.

A more moderate proposal for reforming state and religion in Israel, to decentralize religious services while retaining state involvement and sponsorship of religion, has been proposed by the organization Ne’emanei Torah ve’Avodah. As far as I can tell, this proposal has had no traction within Israel and remains a utopian vision.

No Agunah Left Behind: A Proposal to Solve the Agunah Crisis – by Rabbi Zev Farber

October 11, 2013

At the recent agunah summit, I submitted an outline for a solution to the agunah/mesurevet gett problem. Having sent this to a number of rabbis and agunah activists, I post here a revised version of that proposal. I will begin with an annotated outline and move on to some final observations and a summary.

Annotated Outline

1. Create a network of rabbis and communities who are intent on solving the problem.

I suggest a motto of sorts for this community, styled after the famous pledge of the rangers: “No agunah left behind.” As I wrote about in a different venue, solving the agunah crisis is the job of the rabbis, wielding their halakhic knowledge and authority.[1]

2. Become self-sufficient when it comes to divorce.

One of the political difficulties emergency-style solutions—like the Rackman beit din—come up against is the fact that they only exist as emergency problem solvers. In other words, the vast majority of gittin, where there is no agunah issue, are done through the auspices of people or groups who may not subscribe to the “no agunah left behind” philosophy. This fact leaves the more left-wing Orthodox community open to the claim that when things are easy we go to the “real batei din and mesadrei gittin,” but when we don’t like what they say we create our own “fake batei din.”

3. Agree to use only batei din and mesadrei gittin who see themselves as part of the network.

I suggest this not only for agunah cases, but for any case of divorce whatsoever. I imagine that this will mean a radical shift in the divorce process in our communities.

4. Rabbis who perform life-cycle events should be trained as mesadrei gittin.

There is far too much emphasis on how complicated and technical siddur gett is, which I believe functions to obfuscate the process and place it into the hands of a select few. We should create a network of soferim and a core of people with training and experience who can show rabbis how to do the ceremony. After a while each rabbi in our network will be self-sufficient in presiding over the divorces in his own community with a direct connection to the soferim. If and when an agunah case arises, the rabbi will be the woman’s chief advocate.

5. Ensure that our system is professional, transparent and user-friendly.

Part of doing this means that the power in the vaad cannot only be the mesadrei gittin themselves but there must be oversight from community leaders as well.

6. In cases where an agunah situation does arise, the problem will be solved.

When the solution is unclear to the rabbi requested to do the gett, there will be a central body of rabbis, posqim, scholars, and lay-leaders (including and especially women) who will be the advisory committee for that rabbi on how to solve the problem in each case. This body will help the rabbi and the woman explore the halakhic options, whether it be qiddushei taut (declaring the marriage invalid), hafqa’at qiddushin (annulment), or some other mechanism.[2]

7. When necessary, the vaad must be willing to bypass the husband entirely in finding a solution.

With the gett hanging over the head of the woman, there are simply too many instances of abuse, where withholding of the gett is threatened or implied so that women give up many of their rights, whether financial or custody, in order to ensure receiving the gett. Additionally, a recalcitrant husband can cause delays and other unpleasantness. For this reason it must be made clear to all parties that the vaad/beit din will resort to solutions that totally bypass the husband if need be. He holds no power over her in our court.

8. The group is a vaad with an attached beit din because it must include lay members, pulpit rabbis, and community leaders of both genders.

This is for two reasons. First, it is never safe to have only one interest group hold all the power. Even ignoring the possibilities of bias or corruption, every group sees matters through the lens of its own experiences. Having more than one type of person in the vaad/think-tank will facilitate a robust and honest process. Second, freeing agunot has accidentally slipped into magical thinking—as if some special rabbis have the “power” to free these women. Declaring a marriage invalid (I refer here to qiddushei ta’ut, not hafqa’at qiddushin) is not a ma’aseh beit din (rabbinic act)—the rabbi simply clarifies the fact that the marriage was invalid. This can and should be done by the woman’s rabbi, not by a third party beit din or poseq, even if said party is needed for a consultation. Additionally, although annulling a marriage (hafqa’at qiddushin) is a ma’aseh beit din—and the advisory committee should have members who can also form the beit din—there is no reason why the pulpit rabbi himself should not be part of this beit din, especially when the woman in question lives in his community and the decision effects his community.

9. All rabbis in this network must agree to only perform marriages with prenuptial agreements—specifically the Tripartite Prenuptial Agreement.

Although one may choose to use the RCA prenuptial—or some other version of this type of prenuptial—in addition to the Tripartite, nevertheless, all weddings should include this agreement as it creates the possibility of totally bypassing the husband if he is recalcitrant. The RCA prenuptial, in contrast, makes use of penalty clauses which require enforcement by secular authorities and the cooperation of the husband.

10. The community at large should pressure their rabbis and their synagogues to be part of this network.

Furthermore, the community should pressure their synagogues to make having a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement a membership requirement for married couples, and to hire only rabbis who are part of the “no agunah left behind” network.

11. The goal is to create a system that works and is accepted by a large community, despite the strong probability that many on the right will reject the solution.

The best is the enemy of the good here, and total consensus is impossible in the current climate. Nevertheless, our goal is to create a large enough network such that any agunah/mesurevet gett will have a place to turn. We must commit to these women that we will have them freed from their dead marriages, that we will perform their future marriage(s), and that we will defend their children from the pernicious claim of mamzerut.[3]

The Logic of the Proposal

Imagine the world of Jewish marriage and divorce as a pyramid. If we start from a firm base we can build something vast. If we start from the pointy top and try and build backwards it will not work. To illustrate: There are many marriages in the Jewish world, there are less, but still many divorces, of those marriages that end there are some agunot/mesuravot gett. We cannot focus only on mesuravot gett to solve what is a systemic problem (rabbinic paralysis, and the weak position of women in the process.)

Similarly, there are many cases of mesuravot gett. Some can be handled by invoking a prenuptial (if there is one) or with a strong phone call from the man’s rabbi. In cases where this does not work, many can be solved by a robust use of qiddushei ta’ut. Of those that cannot be solved by persuasion or qiddushei ta’ut, the rest can (must?) be solved by hafqa’at qiddushin (dissolving the marriage). However, for this chain of events to have practical effect, there must be “buy-in” from the beginning; the rabbinic and community participants must sign on to a marriage-divorce system that buys into this approach before matters come to a head.

Therefore, we must begin with a campaign of rabbis/congregations/lay leaders/agunah activists who are willing to say that we are solving this problem. Period. No agunah left behind. The benefit here is that by signing on in advance, the rabbis have skin in the game and the communities have skin in the game. With a large base, hopefully, this pesaq will quickly become minhag yisrael in the Open Orthodox world.

Brief Summary

1. Every member of the group agrees to use the Tripartite Prenuptial Agreement.

2. Rabbis in this group agree to learn siddur gett. This will contribute to ending the mystification of the divorce process at the expense of the average rabbi and his congregants.

3. The rabbi agrees to use qiddushei ta’ut when it works, and will consult with this group’s vaad to learn how to pasqen these questions.

4. If there is no other way, the rabbi will join with members of the vaad to form a beit din to do hafqa’at qiddushin – as a last resort.


I hope that the larger Open Orthodox and even Modern Orthodox community will take this proposal seriously, and with that may we end this blight on our community and this desecration of God’s name for all time. We must do what is right and, in the end, our community will be stronger for it and our Torah will again be a Torah of life. Hopefully our system will be a “light to the right” as well, and, speedily in our days, the problem will be solved for all Jewish women from any community.

Zev Farber

[1] To be clear, I do not consider sending thugs to beat up on recalcitrant husbands as a legitimate solution or as an example of wielding halakhic authority.

[2] I will explain more about this and other halakhic mechanisms in future postings.

[3] Here is a schematic look at the outline:

  1. Create a network of rabbis and communities who are intent on solving the problem.
  2. Become self-sufficient when it comes to divorce.
  3. Agree to use only batei din and mesadrei gittin who see themselves as part of the network.
  4. Rabbis who perform life-cycle events should be trained as mesadrei gittin.
  5. Ensure that our system is professional, transparent and user-friendly.
  6. In cases where an agunah situation does arise, the problem will be solved.
  7. When necessary, the vaad must be willing to bypass the husband entirely in finding a solution.
  8. The group is a vaad with an attached beit din, not just a beit din, because it must include lay members, pulpit rabbis, and community leaders of both genders
  9. All rabbis in this network must agree to only perform marriages with prenuptial agreements—specifically (but not limited to) the Tripartite Prenuptial Agreement.
  10. The community at large should pressure their rabbis and their synagogues to be part of this network.
  11. The goal is to create a system that works and is accepted by a large community, despite the strong probability that many on the right will reject the solution.

Guest Post by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz on the Installation of Rabbi Lopatin

October 4, 2013

by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz

The recent statement from Agudath Israel condemning the incoming president of YCT for discussing Rabbinic training with the leaders of non-Orthodox denominations reminds me of the story about the Japanese solider who fought in World War II and subsequently hid in a Guam desert for close to thirty years, unaware that the war he so valiantly fought in ended a long time ago.

The Agudah leadership is acting as if the inter-denominational wars of the previous century are still brewing. Sometimes you need the firsthand experience of those who are in the trenches to have a more clear-eyed view of the realities on the battlefield. The reality out there is that the war has ended, an implicit cease-fire has been declared. For the chareidi leadership to be relevant it needs to acknowledge this reality and abandon its “offense” posture.

As Shlomo Ha’melech declares so succinctly: לכל זמן ועת לכל חפץ.  (Kohelet 3) There is a time to declare war and a time when a visionary leader realizes that the need to wage war has ceased to exist. That time is now.

There is no longer an interdenominational war because there are no longer any warriors. All sides have abandoned the battlefield. Each denomination has carved out its niche, catering to different segments of the Jewish community.

This reality presents a huge challenge to contemporary Orthodoxy. It now needs to ask itself a crucial question: will it continue to be an insular community, focusing all its energies on their immediate followers, or does it want to play a role in the larger Jewish scene?

While there are significant differences between the groups, there is, nevertheless, something that the leadership across the denominations has in common. Each is doing their utmost to provide their adherents with a life that is serious and Jewishly engaged. Our tradition has much to offer to anybody who is looking for a life of meaning and inspiration. If we truly strive for a time when ומלאה הארץ דעה את ה׳, (ישעיהו יא) we are failing in our religious duties if we do not share our tradition with the larger Jewish community.

This is not the first time that Orthodoxy is confronted with this dilemma. A similar debate ensued during the early days of the state of Israel. While individuals like Rav Elchanan Wasserman, the Satmar Rav and Rav Velvel Brisker Z”L advocated a complete separation from the state, the leadership of Agudath Israel and the Moatztet Gedolei Ha’torah felt otherwise.

While the Satmar Rav and his group held on to the battles that began in Europe during the pre-state era, Gedolim like Rav Shach, the Rebbe of Gur and others maintained that the establishment of the state confronted observant Judaism with a new reality. For them, the fact that Ultra-Orthodoxy failed in its attempt to thwart the establishment of a Zionist state, meant that they could no longer stand on the sidelines and act as outside critics. Rather, they had to shift modes, join the government and attempt to influence its direction from the inside.

Despite the strong isolationist voices, historically, the integrationist camp won. A majority of orthodox Jews in Israel now participate in the Zionist enterprise to one degree or another. We at YCT see those Gedolim as our role models. We proudly espouse a religiosity that is integrationist and inclusive.

Chazal tell us: ואהבת את ה אלהיך-שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידיך.  (Yoma 86A) Although we are humble enough to recognize that we have what to learn from other denominations, (איזהו חכם הלומד מכל אדם) we are concurrently proud of our own Orthodox tradition, believing that there is something unique which we have to offer the other denominations. We, therefore, confidently seek out opportunities to engage Jews across the spectrum in order to learn and to teach. We strongly believe that our rich orthodox tradition has something to contribute on cross-denominational questions of Rabbinic training, communal leadership and the like.  It is our religious imperative to share the tradition with all of klal yisroel.

There is a precedent to this debate, albeit in a slightly different context. In the early 19th century the Chatam Sofer’s hometown was under attack. His life was in danger. Some of the communal leaders suggested that he should leave town. Ignoring their advice, he chose to stay behind and suffer together with the rest of the community. Based on a midrashic interpretation of a halakhic debate in masechet Chulin, (46A) he explained in a subsequent drasha that the message of the Gemara is: שלא יברחו הצדיקים ויניחו את העם בצער, כי כזית ההגנה צריך להיות במקום מרה וצרה, ולא שיניחו את העם והם יברחו למקום חיותא (חידושי חתם סופר למסכת חולין) Caring for the spiritual or material well-being of the larger Jewish community sometimes requires taking risks, joining the community wherever they are despite the exposure to threatening and dangerous realities.

Although, in our opinion Agudath Israel is on the wrong side of history, their incessant criticism of us is, nevertheless, a blessing in disguise.

In his powerful eulogy of Satmar Rav, Rav Shach Z’L made the point that even though he vehemently disagreed with Satmar Rav’s theology, he still appreciated his criticism. Rav Shach explained that Satmar Rav’s constant critiques forced him to be more cautious in his own path.

We too owe the Agudah a huge thanks.  כחלק היורד במלחמה וכחלק היושב על הכלים (שמואל א:ל). While we choose to be out in the trenches, attempting to influence the entirety of klal yisroel from the inside, the approach that the Agudah chooses, standing on the outside and playing the role of critic, also has value. The critiques of Yated, Agudah and the like force us to tread carefully; insuring that our espousal of the value of ahavat torah and ahavas yisroel does not come at the expense of other values. These incessant criticisms force us to double-check our moves and make our choices carefully and deliberately.  For that we are deeply grateful.


Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Director of the Beit Midrash Program (preparatory year) at YCT.  He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beis Yosef, Navaradok for over ten years. A graduate of the HaSha’ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz has taught at the Ma’ayanot High School for Girls and SAR High School.  He was a leading teacher of a daf yomi class in Boro Park for over eight years.