All Rabbinics Is Local – Rabbi Barry Gelman

December 30, 2013

The most basic question is – who is a real leader? And the pertinent question for our generation is: are the rabbis, the contemporary leaders of Jewry, truly the leaders of this generation?

This quote, from this article by Rav Adin Steinsaltz reminded me of a conversation I was involved with a few years ago at a meeting of the Houston Rabbinical Association.

An internationally known, media savvy Rabbi spent a 1/2 hour telling a group of 20 or so communal Rabbis that focusing our attention on communal needs (visiting the sick, kashrut, Torah classes, counseling etc.) was not the best use of our time. Really what we should be focusing on is how we could be impacting the general community. If only we could show the world that Judaism had a universal message, we would be successful.

While Rav Steinsaltz’s article is more far reaching, there is a connection between his search for a “head” and the role of community Rabbis.

Rabbi Steinsaltz relates this touching episode in his article.

My sandak, Rabbi Avraham Chen, wrote a very emotional book about his father, Rabbi David Zvi Chen, who was a great man in many ways and the rabbi of Chernigov, in the Ukraine. In this book he relates how a young man came to his father to register for marriage. While formally examining his documents, Rabbi Chen discovered that the young man, who was also a Torah scholar, was actually a mamzer. There was not a shadow of a doubt in his mind that this man was indeed a mamzer. It was not even a question. He held the papers in his hand, and the young man, who realized that something was amiss, asked: “Rabbi, what about my match?” and the Rabbi said: “It cannot be.” The young man said: “I understand that there is a reason why this match cannot work, so what do you suggest I do?” At that point the rabbi had to reveal to him that the match could not be, not because the specific bride was unworthy of him, but because, being a mamzer, he could not marry at all. At this point, the son discloses that eventually he found the young man sitting in the rabbi’s lap and both were weeping.


Local Rabbis are the ones who know about the personal challenges of community members. Community Rabbis understand family dynamics and relationships precisely because of the time spent locally as opposed to on the road. Community Rabbis are the ones who can sincerely cry with their members.

This is one of the challenges of a centralized Rabbinate/Rabbinic authority. Local Rabbis are best suited to establish local halachik practice. All too often communities look for what “other communities” are doing, without considering that what they do may not be best for their community. Lay leaders should encourage Rabbis to lead locally by first and foremost focusing on what is really needed for religious growth within their community.

While this approach may not help identifying “The” head – that Rav Steinsaltz is looking for, it does remind us that if we are to have any hope of meaningful rabbinic leadership that Rabbis and community members should focus on local needs.  Neither Rabbis or community members should judge success by how they “play” in the media, but by how well they address local religious and pastoral needs.

Partnership Minyanim: Let’s Live and Let Live. by R. Yosef Kanefsky

December 24, 2013

I might be wrong, and hope that I am. But I have a growing sense that a full-scale assault on Partnership Minyanim is brewing, the goal of which is to define these Minyanim as being “over the red line”, outside the pale of Orthodoxy. I do understand what might motivate such an effort, and I recognize the religious sincerity and constructive intentions of colleagues who might feel it’s an important thing to do. And at the same time, I am absolutely positive that doing this would constitute a terrible, even tragic mistake. And I would plead that they reconsider.

The reason that it would be a terrible and tragic mistake is that it would have precisely the opposite effect than the one intended. The move to write Partnership Minyanim, and the Orthodox Jews who daven in them, out of Orthodoxy is animated by the desire to prevent a slide toward (non-Halachik) egalitarianism. But the reality is that Partnership Minyanim are precisely the greatest bulwark against exactly that slide.

Contrary to common assumption, people who choose to daven in Partnership Minyanim are not doing so because they are seeking to evade or erode Halacha. They are choosing to daven in Partnership Minyanim davka because they are seeking to live within Halacha. Partnership Minyanim are the one and only way that these Orthodox Jews can simultaneously affirm their commitment to Halacha, and be true to their deeply held ideals concerning the religious dignity of both men and women. The Minyan is a lifeline.

But is the Halachik argument which supports Partnership Minyanim correct? This is the subject of passionate debate, with many Orthodox rabbis having written in opposition to it, and a small number having written in support. When determining our communal policy however, the pertinent question is not whether the halachik argument supporting Partnership Minyanim is correct. It is rather whether the Halachik argument supporting Partnership Minyanim is viable, is defensible. Because this determines whether these Minyanim are a threat to – or a safeguard of – people’s Halachik commitment.

And the answer to the question of Halachik viability is a firm “yes”. The Halachik argument is built upon a viable, defensible reading of the Talmud in Megilla, which in principle includes women among the public readers of the Torah. And it is built upon ample evidence that the concern for the “dignity of the congregation”, on which basis the Talmud rejects the inclusion of women as Torah readers, is a concern that is subject to change. Numerous Halachik sources in a variety of other contexts support the idea that a congregation may decide that its dignity is not compromised, despite the Talmud’s concern. There are, of course, other ways to interpret these sources. But the salient points here are that Partnership Minyanim conform with a viable reading of the Halachik sources, and that they are deliberately and thoughtfully conceived, designed and brought to life within a commitment to the Halachik framework. One may disagree with the interpretation of the sources. But one cannot deny the conscious Orthodox quality of the endeavor.

As such, Partnership Minyanim are clearly serving as the place within the Orthodox tent where people are able to remain faithful both to Halacha and to their commitment to the spiritual and ethical value of equal dignity. Take these Minyanim away, and you create a new and forbidding landscape in which young people raised with these twin passions are left with nowhere in the Orthodox world to turn. And even more tragically these young people will conclude, with justification, that the Orthodox rabbinate knowingly denied and suppressed viable halachik readings in order to bar women from greater participation in Jewish ritual life.

In 1956, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l expressed his opposition to Bat Mitzvah celebrations, and ruled that it is forbidden to mark a Bat Mitzvah in shul. We must count ourselves fortunate that Rav Moshe didn’t go so far as to draw a “red line” and categorize any shul in which a Bat Mitzvah ceremony took place as being “not Orthodox”. It’s hard to imagine the kind of hemorrhaging from Orthodoxy that such a decision would have caused over the ensuing decades.

We all need to be responsible and realistic about the consequences of our actions. The vocal opponents of Partnership Minyanim should of course, for the sake of Heaven, express their opposition, and explain their halachik objections. But I urge with all my soul that they resist the calls to draw a “red line”. Nothing good will come of it, and a huge amount of damage would certainly be done.

A Tribute to “Superman Sam” – by Rachel Kohl Finegold

December 17, 2013

The Jewish blogosphere has been flooded with outpourings of love, support and sympathy for the family of Sam Sommer – “Superman Sam” who passed away this past Friday night at the age of 8, losing a battle to leukemia.

One might ironically imagine Sam’s childlike excitement at knowing that he has become “famous”. This was a boy who wanted fireworks at his funeral. (Instead, his community organized a professional fireworks display for him weeks before his death.) Having never met Sam, I could only assume that he would be pleased to know that his story has made it to the Forward, the Chicago Tribune, and His life has touched thousands.

Today, Sam’s little body was buried.

I do not figure in the circle of Sam Sommer’s life. I met his mother, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, only once or twice. I became Facebook friends with her, and followed Sam’s journey only toward the end of his life, as my Facebook feed began to buzz with words of support and deep, deep sadness, knowing that Sammy was not going to make it.

And yet, today I mourned.

Today, I went about my day in a daze, thinking

“Now, they are eulogizing him” and

“Now, they are shoveling earth into his grave” and

“Now, there are parents sitting shiva for their child.”

I absent-mindedly drove doing mundane errands, as I missed a turn and forgot where I was going. The banalities of life were hard to manage on a day like today.

Tonight, I lingered a little longer in my children’s rooms as I kissed them good night.

“Hamal’ach hago’el… yivarech et hane’arim…”

May God’s angel bless these children.

May God protect them from suffering,

Within this, a selfish request –

God, protect ME from the suffering of my children.

The night I learned about Sammy’s death, all three of my kids (ages 4 and under) were awake in the middle of the night – this one needing another drink, that one with a stuffy nose, and the baby wanting to nurse, yet again. What might have driven me to anger and frustration on another night, simply didn’t matter that night. Tending to my beautiful, healthy children’s mundane needs was a gift. I was grateful to be dealing with runny noses and nothing more.

And perhaps that is how the banalities of life can go on after Sam Sommer has gone from this world.

May Sam’s story keep us awash in gratitude.

May he sensitize us to our blessings.

The strength of the Sommer family shone through when, even in the midst of the darkest times, they were celebrating mundane moments – being grateful for their blessings.

Hamechadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh Bereishit.”
God renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation.

The miracles of creation are all around us.

Let us open our eyes to the mundane miracles that surround us daily.

In Sam’s memory, let us count our blessings.

Making sense of our world –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 12, 2013

We have just finished reading the story of Joseph and his brothers.  In it Joseph’s brothers experience confusion, despondency, and powerlessness as their brother secretively manipulates them, falsely accusing them of being spies and thieves.  One can imagine being in their shoes and asking: Why?  Why are all these terrible things happening?  Ultimately their worst nightmare comes true, Joseph threatens to take Benjamin hostage. 


We, the readers, see both sides of the story.   We see Yosef pulling the strings orchestrating the entire situation.  But for the brothers, for the Jewish people of the time, it is one inexplicable tragedy after another.   They search their deeds and ask: Why is this happening to us?  They blame themselves.  Ultimately they engage in self scrutiny, in repentance, in self sacrifice and as people and Jews development themselves from those who sold their brother to those to suffer to save a brother.


With one climactic sentence all the times of pain and confusion collapse into focus:  “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive?”   This might not remove all the pain, the suffering, the confusion, and the self blame, but it does, in one fell swoop, make sense of the seemingly nonsensical series of episodes through which they have lived and suffered.  


The Rabbis tell us that Yosef and his brothers go down to Egypt to, “pave the way” for the Jewish people’s exile and ultimate redemption; an exile of much darkness and confusion ultimately culminating in exodus, and perhaps, in hindsight, making some meaning of the years of darkness.  Perhaps this is one reason the story of Yosef and his brothers is told just before the exile and redemption of the Jewish people, for in it the Jewish people are like Joseph’s brothers.


This all feels a lot like our world.   We are Yosef’s brothers too.  We live lives that are anything but simple and clear, anything but controllable.  Perhaps the lesson is to have hope and faith that ultimately those six words will be spoken, “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive,” and things will come into focus, things will make sense.  And through it all not to give in but to utilize the experience as a catalyst for self reflection, and as the brothers and especially Yehudah do, for personal, interpersonal, and religious growth.   If we find meaning in the darkness and care for others in it then perhaps we can avoid the strife that led the brothers down to Egypt in the first place.  Though redemption is not a solution or an erasing of the exilic past, perhaps it is a making of meaning from the past, and ultimately, through it, we can hear, speedily in our days, the six words of explanation that bring all into focus: “I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive?”



Concentric Circles of Victims

December 10, 2013

In 2010, my teachers, Rabbis Nati Helfgot, Yitzchak Blau, and Aryeh Klapper, drafted a “Statement of Principles” on the place of homosexuals in the Orthodox community. The statement was signed and endorsed by dozens of Orthodox rabbis, mental health professionals, and educators. The document was carefully drafted, edited, and revised before publication, and the success of this consensus document can be seen in the list of contributors. The list includes many names of Liberal Orthodoxy’s “usual suspects” but also quite a few names of individuals with significant reputations within the Centrist Orthodox establishment. At the same time, the list generated a fair amount of controversy, even inspiring a reactionary “counter-statement,” which suggests that the statement was sufficiently significant to generate controversy. 

In my recollection, the most controversial element of the Statement of Principles was paragraph 7 which reads:

“Jews struggling to live their lives in accordance with halakhic values need and deserve our support. Accordingly, we believe that the decision as to whether to be open about one’s sexual orientation should be left to such individuals, who should consider their own needs and those of the community. We are opposed on ethical and moral grounds to both the “outing” of individuals who want to remain private and to coercing those who desire to be open about their orientation to keep it hidden.”

Some of the critics of the Statement of Principles argued, as I recall, that a benign regime of “don’t ask, don’t tell” could enable gay Jews to join our communities with subtly, but that openly gay Jews should not be integrated into our communities, shuls, and schools.

The New York Times published an op-ed this past Sunday that provides some quantitative support to the assertion of the Statement of Principles that encouraging individuals to be open about their identity and orientation is a positive step for Orthodoxy. 

The article by Seth Stephens Davidowitz cites research showing that while the number of openly gay men is greater in regions of the country with greater acceptance of homosexuality, relevant Google searches suggest that the percentage of the population that is homosexual is common among the fifty states (about 5%). The element of Davidowtiz’s article, however, that was most evocative for me was the description of the different Google searches in different parts of the country:

“In the United States, of all Google Searches that begin “Is my husband…,” the most common word to follow is “gay.”  “Gay” is 10 percent more common in such word searches than the second-place word, ‘cheating.’ It is 8 times more common than “an alcoholic” and 10 times more common than “depressed.”  Searches questioning a husband’s sexuality are far more common in the least tolerant states.”

When individuals are pressured, by their community, to treat core elements of their identity as a shameful secret, the circle of suffering expands, claiming new victims.