Individualism and Conformity by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 25, 2018

Judaism believes deeply in the power and value of the group, but it also values the individual.  Jewish unity is vital, the Jewish people were only able to receive the Torah when they were like one person with one heart.  On the other hand the danger in unity is the loss of the self. If the individual finds their meaning and value in conformity then something profound has been lost.  The mishnah tells us that the reason God created all humans from one parent was to achieve both lessons, to remind us that we are all interconnected, we are all brethren of one parent, yet additionally to show the greatness of God, that though we are all “minted” from one die, yet we are all utterly different from one another, each truly unique.   


In some segments of Jewish people I fear that communal conformity has replaced personal spiritual life.  Whether it is the social orthodoxy of the modern Orthodox community or the extreme emphasis on conformity in dress, speech, and diet in the Charedi community, or the pressure to conform politically in the liberal Jewish world.  


The problem with all the conformity is that it serves as an easy way to engage with spiritual life, it is much harder to bring one’s unique self to the surface and cultivate one’s own personal religious life.  To ask, what is my personal take on the Torah? What are the mitzvot that I will bring myself to bear upon most? What is my mark in the spiritual world? Do I swallow the opinions and outlook of the crowd without subjecting them to my own religious and moral vision which God has endowed me with and which has grown within me through the Torah i learn?  I think all observant Jews must ask these questions.


This general attitude is of course a reflection of the same phenomenon currently popular in the general society.  We live in an era in which personal ideology is gone and has been replaced with partisanism. Not a partisanism that is practiced in service of a higher, deeply held value, but a partisanism that has become an end and an identity in itself.  A way of pretending we have the truth instead of a truth that is deeply, personally, thought through.

The New RCA Siddur: The Rav’s Legacy and Feminist Innovation

December 18, 2018

Thanks to the generosity of Yehudit Jessica Singer and Koren Publishers, I received a copy of the new Rabbinical Council of America Siddur Avodat Halev (ed. B. Herring, New Milford, CT 2018), hereafter “the Siddur.” The Siddur is clearly the product of years of hard work and first impressions show it to be carefully crafted for its purpose. I have enjoyed davening from it over the past few weeks and have noted that my observations generally cluster into several categories of interest to me and our readers here at Morethodoxy. One is the enduring legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik זצ”ל “The Rav” whose hiddushei Torah and pesakim are found in this siddur by the dozens if not hundreds. The other is how the Siddur, and presumably the RCA as a body, seeks to position itself regarding the role of women and feminism in the Orthodox community now in 2018 and for the coming decades in which this Siddur will see service.

I am a proud grand-student and great-grand-student of the Rav (on several sides) and many of his minhagim and pesakim have shaped my own practice and my own tefila. Nonetheless, the inclusion of so much material from the Rav, who passed away in 1993 and who was at the height of his teaching career from the 40s-80s, is notable. The Siddur provides an explanation in its Editor’s Introduction (p. xxvi):

“[A] place of pride is accorded to a selection of insights into the siddur by Maran HaGaon R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ז”ל, the leader and inspiration par excellence of the Rabbinical Council of America, and through it of the Jewish community at large”

It is true that during much of his career, the Rav was in large part the posek and the thought leader of the RCA, and that even now decades later his close students and grand-students form the core membership of the RCA. However, in a general use siddur (rather than one specifically prepared for the study and adoption of the Rav’s personal practices, cf. Artscroll Machzor Mesoras HaRav and Koren Mesorat Harav Siddur) the Siddur sacrifices clear instructions on occasion in order to include explanations of both what has become widespread practice and the divergent rulings and practices of the Rav. Consider a few illustrative examples:

“Repetition of the Amida. When repeating the Amida the Leader should recite the verse “Hashem sefataiquietly (MB 111:10). R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik maintained that it should be recited aloud.” (107)

“On Rosh Hodesh or Hol HaMo’ed, if one omitted Ya’aleh VeYavo … If one already completed the Amida, one must repeat the Amida (OH 422:1) … It should be noted that according to R. Hayyim HaLevi Soloveitchik, if one omitted Ya’aleh VeYavo at Shaharit and is planning on reciting Musaf in the morning hours, one should not repeat the Amida for Shaharit (Nefesh HaRav, p.174)” (125)

“Heiche (sic) Kedusha (“Abbreviated Amida Repetition”) … When the leader begins immediately, the Mishna Berura favors the congregation starting the silent Amida only after reciting Kedusha, while R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik favors starting the Amida together with the Leader.” (261)

“Keriat Shema Al Hamita. There are different traditions as to whether the berakha of HaMapil is recited at the beginning of Keriat Shema al HaMita or at the conclusion (MB 239:1). R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik noted that some omit the berakha of HaMapil altogether … (Nefesh HaRav p. 153).” (339)

To those with a robust yeshiva education, and who daven in minyanim with competent gabbaim who give clear instructions, these ambiguous instructions are not terribly detrimental, but they do make the Siddur significantly less-user friendly to those who daven alone, are actively starting new minyanim without established minhagim, and whom do not have experienced gabbaim or rabbinic figures to decide these questions. The choice to include not only the Rav’s Torah but his minhagim as well is an exclusive choice that signals who are this Siddur’s primary intended users.

The second topic of interest is that of “women’s issues” and feminism. Although I assume many of its editors and contributors would deny it, the Siddur is deeply influenced by the critiques that the Orthodox feminist movement has raised over the years. The editorial choices reflect a moderate and careful approach to that feminism, one which I personally find for the most part balanced and reasonable, and at home in the Modern Orthodox community which I call home. However, certain editorial choices made indicate that the editorial team could not reach a consensus decision about how far to go, how much to include, or what to recommend.

The Siddur explicitly endorses women’s participation in tefila and women’s recognition in the synagogue in news ways, going far beyond what was prescribed by the previous RCA Siddur (published by Artscroll), or by Koren’s previous Siddur the Sacks Siddur. This is certainly the most explicitly feminist Orthodox Siddur I have ever used, (I am aware that this is in part due to the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.) and is thus well-positioned to serve as the Siddur of choice in a wide-range of Orthodox synagogues and settings for decades to come. Again, consider the following illustrative examples:

Daughters may recite Kaddish, too, in merit of the deceased, though customs vary regarding whether she should recite it in an undertone or out loud and whether she may recite it if she is the only mourner present.” (52)

“Tahanun is omitted on certain days … 2. In the presence of a groom or bride celebrating sheva berakhot” (144)

The Siddur includes the text for a women’s zimmun introducing Birkat Hamazon along with a halakhic note explaining the practice (22), and the prayer for the government has been updated to reflect the future possibility that a woman will be elected president of the United States; though, oddly enough not Vice President (554).

These explicit references to advancing a woman’s active role in the synagogue and in the home beyond what was commonplace in previous generations are still grounded in solid halakhic reasoning (and often with centuries old precedent), but carry a touch of ambivalence. Many of the feminist innovations in the Siddur carry the qualifications “Some” or “Many communities,” showing the editors’ fear that too much unqualified innovation on the feminist front could potentially anger RCA members and their communities.

For me, the most puzzling among the ambivalences of the feminist in in the text of the Mi Sheberakh prayers recited on behalf of those who are ill, who have recently given birth, who are celebrating bar- or bat-mitzva, the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, and “Israeli soldiers or civilians … held in captivity” (534-42).

Traditionally these prayers are introduced with the phrase “Mi sheberakh avoteinu Avraham Yitzhak veYaakov …”—invoking God as the one who blessed our patriarchs (cf. Bereshit 12:2-3, 22:17, 24:1, 25:11, 26:3, 26:12, 32:30, 35:9, 48:3). With the exception of Sarah (Bereshit 17:16) none of the other matriarchs of the Jewish nation are explicitly blessed by God in the Torah, although there are references to God blessing the matriarchs in midrashim and other rabbinic sources. The prayer has also often been amended to include references to Moshe, Aharon, David and Shelomo (not all of whom are explicitly blessed by God).

What is interesting about this Siddur is that in prayers for men, the introductory phrase is left unchanged, but in the prayers for women, God is invoked as “He who blessed our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon, our mothers Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, …” If God did bless the matriarchs, why not invoke that meritorious fact when praying on behalf of both men and women? And if God did not bless the matriarchs, why [falsely!] claim that God did when praying on behalf of women?

Nearby in the Siddur, I was hoping to see a change and was disappointed. In the Mi Sheberakh prayer on behalf of community members who volunteer their time, energy, and money for the sake of upkeep of the synagogue and its services, which is of unknown and relatively late composition and is not mandatory in any sense of the word, the Siddur retains the classic formulation in which women are not members of the synagogue communities themselves, nor do they contribute to their upkeep; they are only the “wives” and “daughters” of the men who comprise the community. In the past decades we have seen that adult women have become full dues-paying and voting members of almost all Orthodox synagogues, and in many cases even serve on boards and as president. In all Orthodox communities, the volunteerism and wide-ranging contributions of righteous women are at the center of the success of countless programs and initiatives. To my mind, it is unconscionable to continue excluding women from “Hakahal hakadosh hazeh.” This is not a reference to those who comprise the minyan. It is a reference to the community and all its institutions and services, in which women across Orthodox are equal partners with men. The change is minor—rather than reading:

… יברך את הקהל הקדוש הזה הם ונשיהם ובניהם ובנותיהם…

we can easily emend the text to read:

…  ירבך את הקהל הקדוש הזה הם ומשפחותיהם…

And the textual problem is solved. There should be little hesitation to such a change. After all—these Mi Sheberakh prayers are of very late origin, are not a mandatory part of tefila, and have been emended many times across editions of the Siddur, including in this most recent version. I hope this suggestion is one which is considered carefully for future publications.

In conclusion, the legacy of Rav Soloveitchik and the influence of feminist innovation within the Orthodox community are both palpably present on dozens of pages of this new Siddur. The allegiance to the teachings of the Rav cement this RCA Siddur in the 20th century to a degree (although the new commentaries and insights are innovative in their own right) and make it somewhat less appealing to novice users, the incorporation of several feminist innovations with the endorsement of prominent poskim brings this Siddur squarely into the 21st century, and I hope opens it up for a wider appeal than just RCA members and their communities.

Keeping the Light by Rabba Claudia Marbach

December 12, 2018

Hanukkah has come and gone but the darkest days of winter are still ahead. Although one cannot schedule miracles, I sometimes wish that Hanukkah would fall in late January. I need an infusion of light, hope and miracles when winter has dragged on and the white snow has turned grey. How do we hold on to the light for the rest of winter? How do we contain within us the closeness to God symbolized by those little, yet miraculous, lights?

One way is to cultivate the light within. Mishlei 20:27 tells us

נֵר ה’ נִשְׁמַת אָדָם חֹפֵשׂ כָּל־חַדְרֵי־בָטֶן׃  

The candle of God is the soul of a person, revealing all his inmost parts.

The Sefat Emet uses this pasuk to connect the lights of Hanukkah to the candle used to search for chametz before Pesach. (I know that it’s a bit early to think about Pesach, but bear with me!)

Before Pesach we use a candle to search for hidden chametz. The Sefat Emet likens chametz to sins – things we want to expunge. So too, he suggests, we should use the candles on Hanukkah to look for what is hidden and not wanted. He says that when it is dark we need the light even more than usual. While we think of Hanukkah as a  time when we spread the light from inside to outside. By connecting those lights to the search for chametz, the Sefat Emet, urges us to use the lights to inspect the internal, and to illuminate any darkness that we may find there. What should that inspection look like? The Sefat Emet notes that Ner (candle) can be read as an acronym for nefesh + ruach (spirit + soul). We should examine our nefesh and ruach. Three months on, let us reexamine our Rosh Hashanah resolutions and rededicate ourselves to those resolutions. Let us look to the health of our nefesh + ruach. We can use the candles to look internally and carry the light of the Hanukkah candles through the winter.  

After Hanukkah we quickly transition to the fast of Asarah b’Tevet. How strange that we celebrate the dedication of the Temple and only a week later we be thrust into mourning for that same Temple. But those two truths are fundamental to us as Rabbinic Jews. We mourn the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. Yet that destruction was the direct precursor to the rabbinic revolution that made Judaism what it is today—and has us celebrate Hanukkah as a rededication holiday and not a military victory. With the loss of the Beit HaMikdash and subsequent exile, we came to reinterpret the pasuk

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם׃ (Exodus 25:8)

 And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

The substitution of the Mikdash became the synagogue. Rav Chaim of Volozhin, in Nefesh haChaim 1:4, said further that God hinted that  

שממנו תראו וכן תעשו אתם את עצמיכם שתהיו אתם במעשיכם הרצויים כתבנית המשכן וכליו. כולם קדושים ראוים ומוכנים להשרות שכינתי בתוככם ממש

That you should know that the purpose of my desire in building the Mishkan … that you should see and then you should create for yourselves with the blueprint of the Mishkan. That you are all holy and can facilitate My truly ‘living within you’.

Rav Chaim says that we carry that Mishkan with us. Another way to keep the lights of Hanukkah burning is to take the memory of the Ner Tamid that shone in the Temple and relight it within us. What does it mean to make a Mikdash inside of ourselves? Surely to make our lives more holy, to dedicate ourselves to our relationship with God — keeping our  inner Mishkan well lit.

Placing the Hanukkah lights to face outward is an essential part of the mitzvah. How do we light up the outside world?  Yeshayahu 58:10 gives us direction on how to spread the light beyond ourselves:

תָפֵק לָרָעֵב נַפְשֶׁךָ וְנֶפֶשׁ נַעֲנָה תַּשְׂבִּיעַ וְזָרַח בַּחֹשֶׁךְ אוֹרֶךָ וַאֲפֵלָתְךָ כַּצָּהֳרָיִם

And if you draw out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall your light rise in darkness, and your gloom be as the noonday…

Yeshayahu says that our lights will shine brighter when we help others who are hungry or afflicted. Like the pirsuma d’nissa of Hanukkah, acts of chesed are a way of spreading the light. The light of one flame is not diminished when it is used to light another. With all the suffering in the world it seems incumbent upon us to share our light.

During the long months of winter to come, we can continue to think about how we all can keep the Hanukkah  lights shining. Let’s keep alive the lights of introspection, holiness and mitzvot and good deeds, within ourselves, our communities and the world around us.


Looking for God in Climate Change posted by Yosef Kanefsky

December 4, 2018

This is personal and self-revelatory. I am sharing it because I think and I hope that it may prove useful.

I am one of those people who has been deeply concerned about climate change since the 1980’s. I have a vivid memory of sitting in the teacher’s lounge in the school at which I was teaching in Elizabeth, NJ in 1987, and asking a fellow faculty member if she’d be willing to give up her car in order to secure an un-climate-changed world for her future grandchildren. She looked at me like I was out of my mind. In a certain way, I guess I was. Yet, here we are.

I have no idea where her grandchildren (if she has any) now live. My grandchild lives in Northern California where, along with millions of other people, she recently breathed “very unhealthful” air for days and days as a result of the tragic and deadly Camp fire. I’m certainly willing to grant that factors other than climate change contributed to the fire, but I’m not willing to grant that climate change was not a significant one. This fire, along with the one that burned just miles from where I live and work, was the latest in a steady global drumbeat of extreme and deadly weather events. Climate change is here.

I have few waking hours these days during which I do not think about this at least once. I am occasionally sad, and I am anxious. Not only about the prospects that await us, but also about the reality that we, the human race, know what’s going on, but are functionally unable to do much about it. Last week’s news that most of the major signatories to the Paris Climate accord are not on track to meet their goals is disappointing, but not really so surprising. (And let’s not even go to the outright denial espoused by our President.)

I am person of religious faith. And a religious “professional” to boot. What do I do now? What do I daven for? How do I act? How do I avoid a state of sad resignation that is both contrary to Jewish faith, and just plain bad for a human living? What are our next steps?

Well, if you are any sort of Maimonidian, you cannot pray that God suck the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere or change the laws of chemistry. God is our beneficent Creator who renews creation daily, but He never changes the underlying rules. You also can’t pray that God compel people to begin to act differently. Free choice is something God doesn’t tamper with. But there are other realms of prayer that we can definitely enter here. The blessings and supplications in our daily davening presume that God does grace human beings with wisdom. And with strength and with courage. Add to this the faith that God is merciful, which is a faith that pervades our prayer, and we have more than enough to start with. We can have the climate change discussion with God.

Davening is a necessary-but-insufficient response though, for any person of religious faith. We always look to back our faith with action. Of course we can and should “green” our personal behavior, our philanthropic behavior, and our political behavior. But there’s something bigger out there to do as well. Something that emerges from the oddly comforting (to me) fact that we are all going to be in this together. All of us. Everybody. And we are all going to need each other in ways that we’ve never needed each other before. Think about the remarkable and inspiring ways in which, over the last 24 months, so many people have expanded their hearts and have gone way out of their way to provide aid and support to hurricane-tossed and fire-singed strangers all over the country.  What we, people of religious faith, need to do now is to actively and intentionally cultivate these bonds of human community and love. For these are the bonds that will mitigate whatever may be coming our way. Opportunities to do this present themselves constantly, really in every human interaction that we have. And they are also out there on much larger scales, available to each one of us, requiring only that we open our eyes to their existence, and have the wisdom, strength and courage, God willing, to energetically pursue them.

There are undoubtedly other ways that people of religious faith can bring the power of that faith to bear on this vast human challenge. This is the moment for all of us who have not yet started, to get going.

I hope this wasn’t “too much information” about my personal emotional state. For whatever it’s worth, just sharing it makes me feel a little better. And it is my hope that, as the old Jewish adage goes, “words that emanate from the heart, enter the heart”.