Book Review: “Halachic Positions: What Judaism Really Says About Passion in the Marital Bed”

March 14, 2016

(The following guest review article does not constitute an approbation of the book by the editors of Morethodoxy.)

A Book Review by Talli Rosenbaum and Rabbi Rafi Ostroff

“Halachic Positions: What Judaism Really Says About Passion in the Marital Bed” An Outline, Analysis and Candid Discussion By Yaakov Shapiro

A collaborative review by:

Talli Rosenbaum,  Individual and couples therapist and certified sex therapist Academic advisor – The Yahel Center http://tallirosenbaum.com/

Rabbi Rafi Ostroff, Founder of the Yahel Center www.facebook.com/JewishIntimacy

“Halachic Positions: What Judaism Really Says About Passion in the Marital Bed” is the cleverly chosen title of a new book recently self-published by Yaakov Shapiro. It is the first volume in a promised series of more books by Shapiro about sexuality and Jewish law, which are the result of the author’s self-described search for a “balanced approach in Torah.” The author’s website which includes videos of his shiurim can be found at sexualityandjewishlaw.com.

Shapiro’s biography describes him as having experienced the pluralistic gamut of Judaism, as he was born into a Conservative family that returned to Jewish observance in his youth. He was subsequently schooled, and at various times identified, as modern Orthodox, Lithuanian-Charedi and Chasidic Chabad. He earned rabbinic ordination through the Chabad system.  Regardless of his social identity within the various streams of Jewish life today, Shapiro is clearly a Torah scholar.

The author appears to have set several goals in writing this book. In comprehensively examining nearly every Jewish textual source referring to marital sex, Shapiro sets out to challenge the accepted consensus of what is halachically sanctioned in the bedroom between married couples. Moreover, he sets out, and succeeds in offering a historical perspective as to how rabbinic attitudes about sex have changed over the generations. Finally, the author admits as well to a personal objective.

Like many young Orthodox men, Shapiro reports receiving sexually restrictive premarital education as a groom and fundamental sex-positive rabbinic opinions were ignored, dismissed or distorted. He subsequently researched extensive modern-day Orthodox “family purity” and marital intimacy literature. These he found to overwhelmingly emphasize that when it comes to sex, only one path is that of the righteous and anything “out of the norm” is regarded as spiritually or physically deviant. Furthermore, he suggests that many, if not most, of these sources maintain thatcouples should be guided not by sexual passion, but rather by holy aspirations and the will to do the “right” thing in the eyes of God.

Shapiro recounts hearing stories of marital disharmony in his Chasidic community that possibly resulted from such messages.This led to a ten-year investigation culminating in a lengthy halachic discourse, meant to providecouples with what he believes to be a halachically sound “tikun.”

Shapiro examines every source relevant to the marital sexual halachic discussion, and adds a new perspective to the halachically-sanctioned sexual conducts that are believed by many to deviate from the norms of Halacha. Quoting Maimonides, the Tosefot, the Rema  and dozens of other sources, Shapiro challenges what is classically thought to be the mainstream approach of Judaism to marital sex.

Specifically, Shapiro challenges the fairly universally accepted idea that within marital sex, male ejaculation must occur only through the act of penile-vaginal intercourse. Furthermore, he tracks historically how rabbinic attitudes regarding extra-vaginal ejaculation were influenced by Kabbalistic sources.

The need for a balanced approach to extra-vaginal ejaculation restrictions has been addressed by both authors of this review.[1]. We appreciate that couples may need or want varied expressions of sexual pleasure, due to any number of reasons having to do with physical and emotional needs or desires. Therefore, the permission of varied sexual acts, as desired by both partners, may be a great source of relief and provide anxiety reduction for couples, concerned about doing the right thing. Shapiro, somewhat apologetically and with sensitivity to the female partner’s sensitivities, also emphasizes that while the language of the Talmud does not specifically address consent, (“the same way that a man may eat meat in whichever manner he pleases – whether it be salted, roasted, cooked or seared – so too may a man do with his wife whatever he pleases,”[2]), consent is always implied.

The author, relying on a combination of textual sources and logical reasoning, concludes that various sexual actsare permitted.However, one of the most pervasive topics of his discussion,mirroring a pervasiveness found in the classical rabbinic sources themselves, is the subject of  “biahshelokedarka” which the author asserts refers specifically to anal sex. While the author proves that anal sex, even to the point of ejaculation, is permitted by a majority of medieval halachic writersand by numerous key post-medieval opinions, hemight have acknowledged that the general Jewish perspective on anal sex is a negative one, even if it is permitted.[3}The author does acknowledge the potential discomfort to the woman, but he relegates such discussion mainly to the endnotes. He does note (p.16), however, that his purpose is not to encourage anal sex, per se, but toclarify the grounds of this heter[4]in order to enable the discussion on the legitimacy of ejaculation between limbs, “derech evarim,” which provides for varied and possibly more comfortable and acceptable “adventurous” sexual acts such as oral and manual stimulation to point of ejaculation.

The Talmud, while unabashedly addressing sexuality and sexual conduct of men and women, often uses “lashon sagi nahor”, as the virtue of modesty of speech is inherent in our Jewish value system. While the author acknowledges this model, he clarifies from the onset (p.16) that he purposely writes in a clear and straightforward manner, both when relating to the halachic sources and when writing about sexual conduct and behavior. He defends this approach by explaining that in matters of practical Jewish law one must speak clearly and unambiguously,and suggests thatcenturies of halachic argument over the accurate meaning of certain Talmudic sexual euphemism potentially contributed to painful marital discord. This assertion, as well as his graphic language, may not sit well with some readers.

Shapiro brings a straightforward and much needed discussion of sexuality to the orthodox Jewish world. He is a proficient ‘swimmer’, both in the ‘sea’ of the Talmud, as well as in the the thousands of additional sources that he researched for this study. For readers who appreciate halachic discourse and “seek the truth”, this book delivers what it promises; a rational and balanced approach to sexuality that will provide evidence based “permission” for couples to express their sexuality with one another, as they feel fit. For others for whom “Daat Torah” has the ultimate say, Shapiro, unfortunately, lacks the broad-shouldered credentials and the required rabbinic approbations.

As a Rav and couples/sex therapist dedicated to helping couples create and achieve passion and intimacy within a Jewish framework, we are hopeful that through this book and the discussion it facilitates, couples will claim and reclaim meaningful sexuality in their married life.

[1] See BavliEiruvin 100b, Ran Nedarim 20b BneiEima, BneiAnusa

[2] The term “shelo kedarka” translates as “not the normal way.” It is associated with the rape of Dinah (Rashi‘scommentary to the word tortureBereishit 34, 2) and compared to animal sexuality (Bechorot8a) (RO).

[3] See “I am his vessel”: Influence of male ejaculatory restrictions on women’s sexual autonomy in Orthodox Jewish marriages.http://tallirosenbaum.com/en/node/201

andהוצאת זרע לבטלה בהקשר הזוגי)  (http://www.zoogy.org/#!הוצאת-זרע-לבטלה-בהקשר-הזוגי/c16wr/5523bbc30cf21e26badc5363)

[4] One point on which I disagree with the author is in regard to his analysis and conclusion about the viewpoint of Rabbi Yosef Karoin relation to intra-anal ejaculation, (pp.135-151). From my readings of the texts, I believe it is clear that he opposes such sexual conduct even according to baseline Jewish law. (RO)

 

A Note from the Author, Yaakov Shapiro:

I want to sincerely thank Talli Rosenbaum and Rabbi Rafi Ostroff for their excellent book review.

Please note one correction: My website does not currently feature any video lectures, but one can find a link there to look inside the content of the book.

I would also like to respectfully point out in regard to footnote 2 of the review: a) The way I understand Rashi’s commentary on the verse in Genesis 34:2, “biah shelo cedarcah” and “biah cedarcah” are equally associated with the rape of Dinah. Indeed, the simple context of rape in Biblical and rabbinic literature is associated with “biah cedarcah;” b) I believe the translation of the Hebrew term “inoi” as “torture” in this context is perhaps extreme (see also, in this regard, end note 269 in the book); c) The way I understand the passage on Bechorot 8a, it is not speaking about “biah cedarcah” vs. “biah shelo cedarcah,” but to the nature of most animals to breed “face-to-back,” whereas humans and some animals breed “face-to-face.” All that being said, it is acknowledged in the book that “biah shelo cedarcah” is generally considered to be less than ideal even by the sources that permit it, and the distinction between baseline law versus sanctification is stressed throughout (though see page 68 and endnote 271 in regard to the express opinion of Tosfos Yeshanim, Nedarim 20b).

In regard to footnote 4 in the review, see the discussion in the book referenced there, where the analysis and conclusion are developed based on comments of well-known halachic authorities.

Finally, the review focuses on marital activities that may perhaps be associated more with interests of a husband. It should be noted that the book addresses numerous activities that would be associated with a wife’s interests as well.

 

 

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The Missing Question: How Do We Experience Authority? – By Rabbi Josh Feigelson

January 16, 2015

This past fall, the Orthodox/halakhic community experienced the most honest public conversation about itself that I think I’ve ever seen. The arrest and investigation of Rabbi Barry Freundel opened up a series of powerful conversations. Husbands and wives talked about gender roles in Jewish law; friends talked about their feelings about rabbis and Jewish law at kiddush, at Shabbos meals, and walking to and from shul; and, most remarkably, the Jewish press, from the blogosphere to Facebook to the Times of Israel to the New York Times, openly and publicly discussed these questions. In my lifetime, I can’t remember anything like it.

While I welcome all of this discussion, I think that much of it has missed a central, big question, which has to do with a couple of central words, namely 1) authority, and 2) authenticity. To put the issue in the form of a question, I would raise it this way: 1) In what, or in whom, do we place authority? 2) When do we feel authentic? And 3) What do the two have to do with one another?

In some ways, the second question really comes Read the rest of this entry »


What is Chanukah? by Rabbi Steve Greenberg

December 18, 2014

What is Chanukah?  This is how the Talmud begins its short foray into the origins of Chanukah. Remarkably, there is very little material in the Talmud on Chanukah.  While Purim has a tractate all its own, Chanukah merits a few scattered lines and a number of minor mentions.  Chanukah was apparently not very much appreciated by the rabbis.  When the Talmud describes the holiday, it glosses over the great battles and offers the story of a very different miracle: A single cruse of pure oil miraculously lasting for eight days—a story not found in any early sources and whose first appearance is at least four hundred years after the Maccabee victory.

What actually happened?  What did the Maccabees and their supporters celebrate and why for eight days?  What did it come to mean to the rabbis who clearly re-created the holiday?  And finally, what should it mean to us today?

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Pregnancy and the New Year -by Maharat Rori Picker Neiss

October 7, 2014

(Rori Picker Neiss is the Maharat at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, MO)

I remember when I first found out that I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, Daria.

 

It was just over four years ago. I had suspected that I might be pregnant, and yet, nothing could have prepared me for that moment when I stood in the bathroom, looking down at the test in my hand, watching those two lines appear. I was immediately hit with an overwhelming mixture of emotion: excitement, fear, trepidation, wonder, more fear, more excitement. They each hit me like a wave. Excitement at this wonderful new chapter that we were beginning in our lives; fear and trepidation at all that we knew could go wrong; wonder for all of the questions for which we still have yet to find answers. What will she be like when she grows up? Will she be happy? Will she feel pain? How will she change the world?

 

With each child, those emotions have not lessened and those questions have not dissipated.

 

Now, as I await the birth of my third child, it is no surprise that I find myself thinking a lot about pregnancy and babies these days.

 

Pregnancy is actually one of our central themes of Rosh Hashanah.

 

Over the course of the holiday we recount the stories of three women: Sara, Chana, and Rachel, who each yearned to give birth, and we remember the tears that they shed for their children.

 

Yesterday we heard the story of our matriarch Sara. The rabbis tell us that it was on Rosh Hashana that God remembered Sara and told her that she would conceive and give birth to Yitzchak. This morning we retold the story of Akeidat Yitzchak, of the intended sacrifice of Isaac. The midrash tells us that an angel showed Sara the vision of Avraham holding a knife over Yitzchak as he was bound to the altar, and it was that vision of her only son, the son that she had prayed for and waited for for so long, about to be slaughtered, that killed her. In that very moment before God stopped Avraham from lowering the knife, Sara’s soul departed, unable to bear the thought of being in the world without her child.

 

Yesterday we also heard the story of Chana, a woman so bereft at her inability to have a child that she pleads with God for a son, a prayer so famous that the rabbis learn how to pray from Chana. Chana is so desperate for a child that she makes a promise to God, vowing to give her son in service to God, in a sense, giving up her son, just for a chance to know him.

 

And today, we remember Rachel, another matriarch. Rachel, who like Chana, was the favorite wife of her husband, and yet was unable to give him a child. Like Sara and Chana, Rachel, too, is ultimately able to conceive a child, and in fact, conceives twice. Yet, she, too, gives her life for her children, dying in the course of childbirth as her second child, Binyamin, is born. In the haftorah we read this morning, we hear Jeremiah telling us of God describing the cries that Rachel sheds in Heaven as she watches her children, the Jewish people, march into exile.

 

But even more so than the powerful stories of these three women whom we remember on Rosh Hashana, we see the theme of pregnancy and birth so clearly in the liturgy of the day itself.

 

Six times over the course of this day we repeat the phrase: היום הרת עולם. It is translated in our machzor as “Today is the birthday of the world.” But, in fact, the word הרת means pregnant. Today the world is pregnant.

 

We recite this phrase each time the shofar is blown.

הַיּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם

הַיּוֹם יַעֲמִיד בַּמִּשְׁפָּט

כָּל יְצוּרֵי עוֹלָמִים

אִם כְּבָנִים אִם כַּעֲבָדִים

אִם כְּבָנִים רַחֲמֵנוּ כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים

וְאִם כַּעֲבָדִים עֵינֵינוּ לְךָ תְלוּיוֹת

עַד שֶׁתְּחָנֵּנוּ וְתוֹצִיא כָאוֹר מִשְׁפָּטֵנוּ

אָיוֹם קָדוֹשׁ

 

This day the world is pregnant

This day stands all the world’s creations up in judgement

stands them as sons or as slaves–

If as sons, have compassion for us,

as a father has compassion for his sons.

And if as slaves, our eyes are raised and fixed on You

until you show us favor, and bring out our judgement like sunlight

Awesome, Holy

 

Upon close study, this is an odd paragraph.

 

If we read היום הרת עולם as “Today is the birthday of the world,” then perhaps the rest of the paragraph, which talks about standing in judgment, could make sense.  Anniversaries are an opportunity to look back and reflect on where we have been and look forward to where we want to go. Often times at jobs, the anniversary of the day we started is when we might have an annual review. We evaluate all that we have done over the year, what has been successful, what has not been successful, where we have achieved our goals, where we have fallen short on our goals, and we think about the goals that we want to set for the coming year.

 

But if we say היום הרת עולם – Today the world is pregnant, then how does this connect with the rest of the paragraph that speaks about judgement?

 

The Hasidic master, Rebbe Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, who lived in the 18th century, offers one interpretation. He says that we say on Rosh Hashana, היום הרת עולם – Today the world is pregnant, for it is in the stage of pregnancy that mercy was hidden (he’elem), like a fetus in pregnancy. But now it must be awakened by the shofar, that it should be revealed in actuality.

 

He takes the word עולם, which means world, and he reads it as העלם hidden.

 

He says that we live in a world in which mercy in hidden.

In actuality, though, we live in a world in which so much more than mercy is hidden. We live in a world in which God is hidden. And though we believe in God’s presence and we seek it in our everyday lives, it is something we have to work hard to find. God does not appear to us through our eyes or speak to us through our ears. God is not discernible to us through our senses.

 

I always find it funny when people ask me when the baby is coming. Because I have to tell you, the baby is already here. He isn’t just a thought. I can feel him. If you catch me at the right time, you can feel him, too. You can’t see him. You can’t hold him. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t very real and very much present in our world.

 

The same can be said of God. Just because God is hidden does not make God absent.

 

And yet, we stand here today, struggling to find the words we need to speak with God, trying to focus our minds on that which we cannot fathom. We imagine that we can see that which cannot be seen and hear that which cannot be heard, so that we can somehow find within ourselves the proper kavannah, the proper intention for meaningful prayer before a God who, no matter how fervent our prayer, no matter how desperate our pleas, no matter how intense our need to see, hear, or feel God, always remains behind a curtain.

 

היום הרת עולם – This day the world is pregnant. Today, the world holds God in its womb. Present, yet unseen. Within, and able to be experienced, yet obstructed. The word womb, רחם, is the same root as the word רחמים, mercy. The world holds God, hidden, amidst mercy.

 

And why does this verse come after the blowing of the shofar? What is this cry of the shofar? What are these series of sounds that we make before reciting this paragraph? It is the cry of birth. Because our responsibility everyday, but today especially, is to reveal God in the world. We reestablish God’s reign over the world.

 

Although today we mark the anniversary of the day that God first created man, in an ironic twist, today, it is we who birth God into the world. We cannot sit in our chairs and wait for God to reveal Godself in the world. We are not passive participants. We are active partners. We declare to the world, on this day, that the world did not come into existence by accident, but was created by the one true God. We declare to the world, on this day, that God rules over the entire world, and we remind the world, today and every day, that God is manifest in this world, hidden amidst coincidences and luck, accidents and happenstances.

 

I want to offer one more explanation of this phrase.

 

היום הרת עולם – This day the world is pregnant. Interestingly, this phrase comes from a passage in Jeremiah.  Jeremiah, as we might recall, suffers severely over the course of his life. At one point he says,

Accursed be the day That I was born! Let not the day be blessed When my mother bore me! Accursed be the man Who brought my father the news And said, “A boy Is born to you,” And gave him such joy! Let that man become like the cities Which the Lord overthrew without relenting! Let him hear shrieks in the morning And battle shouts at noontide— Because he did not kill me before birth, So that my mother might be my grave, And her womb big [with me] for all time. Why did I ever issue from the womb, To see misery and woe, To spend all my days in shame! (Jeremiah 20:14-18)

 

In stark contrast to all of the stories that we mentioned earlier of mothers who had wanted so badly, who had prayed so strongly, to see a child born, Jeremiah prays to God that he should never have been born. He asks: “לָמָּה זֶּה מֵרֶחֶם יָצָאתִי – Why did I ever issue forth from the womb?” And he wishes instead: “וְרַחְמָה הֲרַת עוֹלָם – His mother’s womb should have simply remained pregnant forever.”

 

Here, הרת עולם has a very different meaning than how we understand it in our machzor.  הרת עולם does not refer to the birthday of the world, or to the world being pregnant, but to one who is eternally pregnant. לעולם – forever

 

And so I want to offer to you that היום הרת עולם – Today, we are eternally pregnant. Not in the way that Jeremiah speaks of. Today, we are pregnant not just with God, who is hidden away, within us and within our world, but we are pregnant with potential.

 

Today we stand on the cusp of everything that the coming year might bring. And that potential is limitless.

 

You don’t need to have stood with a positive pregnancy test in your hand, to know what it means to have birthed something into the world.

 

And like the day I described four years ago, today we all stand together with excitement, fear, trepidation, and wonder. We don’t know what the coming year will bring, and even for those things we might know about, we have no way to predict their ultimate outcome

 

הַיּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם, 
הַיּוֹם יַעֲמִיד בַּמִּשְׁפָּט -Today we are eternally pregnant, today we stand in judgement

 

We stand in judgement for all the potential that we hold within us, as to whether or not that potential will be birthed for good or for bad, for success or for failure, for healing or for illness, for gain or for loss, for joy or for sorrow. All of those possibilities are already within us.  They are all real. They are just yet to be realized. They are yet to be birthed.

 

I want to offer a prayer to all of us here today. May it be in the merit of our prayers today, and in the merit of our efforts to make God actualized in our world, that all of our potential today should be birthed for good, for success, for healing, for gain, for joy. And may we all enjoy a year filled with blessing and new beginnings.

 

כתיבה וחתימה טובה.


Pew, Continuity and Conversion – Guest Post by Prof. Zvi Zohar

July 31, 2014

Precis

The findings of the recent Pew survey teach us, that the Jewish community in the United States as a whole is in a state of crisis (aka she’at ha-dhaq) with regard to the simple – but crucial – issue of numeric continuity. This fact has halakhic consequences: we can (and should) apply be-di-avad rules, follow minority opinions etc. to the utmost of whatever halakha can allow, with the goal of overcoming or at least ameliorating the she’at ha-dhaq situation.

In this paper I argue that Orthodox rabbis should shoulder halakhic responsibility for preventing numerical decline of American Jewry as a whole (i.e., they should make halakhic decisions not only caring for the future of Orthodox Jews, but for the future of all Jews).

Concretely, this means that they should be warmly encouraging towards all persons who seek to become Jewish, and follow the most lenient options for giyyur extent in halakhic literature with regard to what is the minimum required be-di-avad for a giyyur to be valid. In doing so, they can rely upon the views of the three great scholars I cite, whose halakhic stature is objectively no less than that of rabbi Moshe Feinstein. (The fact that they are less well known in the U.S. basically reflects the quite insular world of many American Orthodox rabbis.) Even were it the case that these rabbis express a minority opinion, that is of no consequence here, because we are not discussing what is the most correct position in an ideal world le-khathila but rather what options exist that can be employed in a be-di-avad situation.

Prof. Zvi Zohar is a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and teaches at the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Jewish Studies at Bar Ilan University. He has written extensively on the history and development of halakha. His most recent book is Rabbinic Creativity in the Modern Middle East (Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2013).

Introduction

The October 2013 Pew Report underscored the fragility of the Jewish future in North America and has led to anguished discussions and debates regarding “continuity”, i.e., how to reduce the number of Jews relinquishing Judaism and Jewish identification in favor of other options.

But given the nature of the American religious scene, as I will present below, it is simply impossible to assure Jewish continuity by such a strategy alone. Rather, only if a strategy of easing the path of conversion is joined with current educational efforts and programs do we stand a chance of achieving continuity.

Such a strategy is of course at odds with the notion that conversion should be discouraged and difficult. However, that notion itself was not the primordial position of our tradition but rather historically conditioned. Encouragement of would-be converts and the intentional application of   the more  lenient positions found in our sources  can be fully justified from within the halakhic tradition — particularly in times of crisis such as ours.

Stating the Problem Honestly

Even if 100 percent of all children born to Jews in the United States were to remain Jewish, the Jewish population would decline significantly over time, because of the simple fact reported by Pew that Jewish adults aged 40-59 have an average of 1.9 children – while 2.1 children in a family represents the minimum fertility replacement level, that is, the level at which births equal deaths in a society with good health services. Although I am Orthodox, the fact that Orthodox Jewish families have an average of 4.1 children is no consolation to me. My concern is for the future of the entire community and not for any particular sub-group alone. Indeed, I believe that religiously and morally, such horizons of concern are befitting all Jews – and especially the Orthodox.

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“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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Rabbi Google and I -by Yael Unterman and Yael Valier

September 10, 2013

Yael Unterman and Yael Valier are the coordinators of Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s Think Tank – http://cardozoacademy.org

The Two ‘I’s

Today is the age of ‘I’ – not only of the self, but also of concepts beginning with the letter ‘I’, and specifically two: Information and Individualism. Under these two headings many modern phenomena may be subsumed.

In our time, enormous numbers of people are empowered as never before – sometimes for the good, sometimes less so. Information, bringing power and control, is accessible to all who have a basic internet connection and do not live in a dictatorial regime. When it comes to Individualism, the new message of our times is: “You are important.” No longer the collectivist movements of the twentieth century, which expected sacrifice or even death for the sake of large-scale ideologies. In the twenty-first century, every human is (ideally) considered a world, a unique consciousness, complex and worth valuing.

When twenty-first century individuals feel disempowered, they do not sit still and accept their fate. They seek information via search engines, or turn to online social networks for answers. Doctors, for example, are no longer the ultimate authority on health, for Dr. Google and a health discussion forum can contribute much useful information of which the flesh-and-blood doctor might be entirely ignorant.

This new reality is also impacting how people interact with halacha. Where they might once have turned to a rabbi, today they turn to Rabbi Google. Rabbi Google is not very discriminating, providing not only results from carefully-worded halachic websites, but from any person who decides to write up halacha, and also from lay discussions of  halacha in email groups of varying intellectual levels. Such discussions, often unbeknownst to their writers, have actually become searchable text on the web. Thus, a remark by Mrs P. Almoni of Far Rockaway may rank higher in the Google results than a responsum by Rabbis Elyashiv or S.Z. Auerbach, the OU or YU, or even “Ask the Rabbi” or Vebbe Rebbe. Google does not distinguish between words written by those with decades of learning and  an off-the-cuff comment replete with horrible spelling mistakes and abbreviations such as IMHO!

Now, such lay analyses may well contain intelligent evaluations and suggestions as to the halacha; and many of them will quote rabbis, famous or local. But they may also be based on vague memory or uninformed opinion, representing one person’s erroneous impressions.

Risks and Benefits

The “Rabbi Google” approach clearly runs a serious risk of shallowness, and misinformation (and we do not even mean deliberate and malicious halachic misinformation, a phenomenon which until now we have not yet come across and which would of course be highly damaging). It might even be said to undermine the entire basis of the halachic system. Just as laypeople can be over-confident and arrogant in dealing with doctors or anyone else simply because they have access to Google and therefore think they  are informed, at risk to life and limb, so too laypeople might consider rabbis passé now that we have Rabbi Google.

Nevertheless, we hold the phenomenon of “lay internet halacha” to be a blessing in some ways. What is indisputable is that discussions by laypeople encapsulate greater degrees of  grassroots life experience, reflecting halacha as practiced on the ground, or ordinary people’s perceptions of and feelings around halacha, to a greater extent than a posek’s responsum might. There is something refreshing, alive and comforting about hearing the voices of people like oneself who are going through similar experiences, sharing how halacha actually functions in the context of real life, in a democratic and non-authoritarian environment. Such halacha will feel much more accessible than even the most internet-friendly rabbi. Facebook groups dedicated to halachic discussion bring the halacha into the world of social media, and thus into the heart of day-to-day interaction and socializing, making it a natural and organic part of life – which is where halacha ought to be.

In any event, both opponents and proponents must admit that significant numbers of our contemporaries – and just how broad a phenomenon this is is hard to gauge – are choosing to run a google search or ask questions of an email or facebook group alongside, or at times instead of, approaching a rabbi. The assumption that the intelligent committed surfer will not be influenced by internet halacha is mistaken.

Individualism also affects the picture: People expect to be treated as individuals by those  with whom they interact, and particularly by those who impact their lives significantly. Many people hope and expect their doctors to see them as people, not things or subjects. They report traumatic experiences of being laid on a table and poked and prodded without any personal relationship. Understanding the person’s history and psychology is crucial in medical evaluation; a standardized, general prescription can be way off the mark and the patient or a good friend might even diagnose better than an expert. Thus too, people wish to be fully understood by a posek, otherwise the psak might too be a misdiagnosis. Many poskim do not have the time or the sensitivity to stop and understand the particular person before them. The halachic system as it stands today allows many people to fall through the cracks. Absent a sympathetic, wise and accessible posek who knows them well, or other forums in which to increase their understanding of the role of halacha in their own lives, people (especially of the younger generation) will likely turn to virtual peer groups who will understand them, or resort to google searches and make up their own minds.

(Ironically enough, Information may damage Individualism. One additional effect of casual halachic discussions on the internet is the preserving in writing of psak that was originally given verbally and privately to one individual. Now this psak becomes available to the general public, when it might not have been intended for widespread dissemination. As rabbis become aware of this, they may curtail or keep secret such information in the future. Or a new phrase may end up being appended to verbal psak, whereby the rabbi adds in closing: “Do not spread this psak on the internet.”)

Analysis and Response

What is the value of the materials being generated thus? What is the optimal approach towards the new, democratic/grassroots halachic discussion? The observant Jewish establishment is gradually beginning to assimilate the new reality of halacha on the internet into the system and to come up with a measured halachic response. Examinations of the ramifications of online or “cyber” responsa and “Ask the Rabbi” sites are being published and blogged about.  Much less has apparently been written about the phenomenon of individuals sharing and discussing halacha in a group, what propels them to do so and what effects this might have. The likely connection to individualism of both these types of cyber-halachik activity has yet to be fully explicated. Meanwhile, the momentum already exists, the phenomenon is already established. One facebook group user wrote: “There appears to be a new women’s oral law developing here.” The meaning of this needs to be explored, its dangers understood, its benefits maximized. (Just for fun – try googling the phrase “Rabbi Google”…)

At the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank, under the guidance of Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, we are working on addressing some of the philosophical and social-emotional aspects of these issues. We are working on developing a series of workshops and a book for people interested in deepening their understanding of how halacha works and how their own attitudes and assumptions affect their halachic decisions – touching on the topic of individualism.  The workshops intend to give people the space, time and information to gain a measure of clarity when considering their halachic choices and allow them to move forward in a confusing halachic world, with feelings of confidence and joy around being halachic. They will also include the subject of internet halacha – how it is transmitted, how it is used and viewed, the effect it has and the significance of the phenomenon.
We are finding this work challenging yet thrilling, and hope that others around the world will also set to grappling with the challenges of our age.

We thank Yehudah DovBer Zirkind for his input