The Voice of Women in Holy Song and Prayer by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 12, 2018

In the beginning of this past week’s Torah portion,Toldot, the Torah writes, “These are the generations of Isaac…” Surprisingly, we are told in the next verse that there are no generations, that Rivka, like each of our ancestors, was  barren. The Torah comes to describe the empty space of no children and the need for prayer to fill that void. In the next verse Isaac prays for a child opposite Rebecca which Rashi explains to mean that Isaac and Rebecca each prayed on their own, he in one corner of the room and she in the other, – i.e. the first Shul.

 

Though communal prayer is something comparatively recent in Jewish history (since the destruction of the Temple), nevertheless it seems to play a central role in our public Jewish life today, and procedural concerns surrounding it can loom large in a community.   Recently, I was asked about women saying kaddish in shul and whether hearing the voice of a woman saying kaddish is of halachic concern.

 

The question of whether a woman may say kaddish for a loved one has been treated extensively in halachic literature.   Raav Yosef Henkin famously permitted it and this has become the normative practice in many modern orthodox Shuls, and indeed, according to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was always the custom going back many generations.  Even so, for some the voice of women saying kaddish along with men sounds incongruous in an orthodox synagogue.

 

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef wrote the following on the question a woman saying Birchat Hagomel in Shul with regard to the voice of women (Yichave Daat 4:15):

 

….In our times (genders are less separate) and women are together with men in the marketplace, and additionally, a Shul is a place where we stand in awe of the Divine, thus we do not have to worry about hearing kol ishah, the (sensual) voice of a woman (in shul).  As the Bene Yissaschar writes, in a place where the Divine presence is revealed, men and women may sing together. Furthermore, we can prove that a woman’s (singing) voice is not problematic in a synagogue from the following piece of Talmud (Megilah 23a): “All are called up for the seven aliyot to the Torah, even women….Though we do not do this due to kavod hatzibur, we see that in the essence of the law it is permitted.  Why is this not a violation of hearing a woman’s singing voice?…We thus must conclude that in a holy place the Rabbis were not worried that the singing voice of a woman would result in sexual thoughts.”

 

Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote the following regarding women coming to the Beit Midrash to say kaddish where there is no mechitza (Igros Moshe, OC, 5:12):

 

“Regarding the question of the need for a mechiza outside of a Beit Kineset, for instance in a house of mourning or in a Beit Midrash (where there is no mechitza) in which people pray on weekdays or at mincha on Shabbat …In all previous generations the custom was that at times a needy woman would come in the Beit Midrash to collect tzedaka or a woman who was mourning to say kaddish…If a woman will be coming every shabbat regularly to mincha then we should not be lenient and should require a mechiza.  If it is only periodic then perhaps we would permit her to attend without a mechiza, even up to two women, but more than two would require a mechitza.”

 

Recently a visitor in my Shul from a Charedi community in the New York area commented to me:  “I know there is halachic writing both ways about women saying kaddish. I am not addressing that. I am a Chasidisha yid from ____ and tonight as I was leading the davening in your shul it came time for Kaddish.  Suddenly not only were men saying kaddish but women also. In my community men and women do not interact socially at all. But, I thought to put myself in the shoes of the women in your shul work who in the larger world, work with men and lead organizations of men.  For them to walk into a shul and sit behind a mechitza must be very strange.”

 

Several years ago a woman in the process of converting asked me why in my synagogue women sing along with men during the davening while in other Orthodox shuls she had been to they do not.  I told her in Judaism there are opinions which do not allow women to sing in the presence of men and there are opinions which do allow women to sing before men in shul. When it comes to the honor of heaven, to involving all Jews in prayer, we must follow the halachic opinion which allows this.  If we do not, we may think we are being strict with regard to not allowing the voice of women in front of men but we are being lenient on prayer itself and its level of inclusion and inspiration, thus reducing the Kavod Shamayim, the Honor of Heaven.

 

As with all halchic decisions, when strict in one area we are simultaneously lenient in another.  Thus, we must weigh both sides very carefully to be sure we are producing the most kavod shamayim, honor to God, in guiding the Jewish people.

 

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Tefillin on Chol HaMoed and the Unity of the Jewish People

October 5, 2018

With regard to wearing tefillin on chol hamoed (intermediate days of the festivals) the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) states (OC 31:2):

“On Chol HaMoed it is prohibited to wear tefillin for the same reason as on shabbat or a holiday, namely that Chol HaMoed is an ot, a “sign” (rendering tefillin, which is also a “sign,” superfluous).”  The Ram”a, Rabbi Moshe Isserless, (who records the Ashkenazic custom) adds: “There are those who maintain that one is obligated to wear tefillin on chol hamoed and the custom in all these regions is to put on tefillin with a beracha. The only difference is that the beracha is not recited out loud in shul as is normally done.”

The Mishnah Berurah comments:

“…Many latter authorities write that it is not correct  in one minyan for some to wear tefillin on chol hamoed and some not to, for this violates the negative command of “lo titgodidu” (the principle that it is improper to appear as if the Jewish people are divided and in disagreement).  Additionally one who does not wear tefillin on chol hamoed and prays in a minyan where the custom is to wear them, should also wear them, but without a blessing.  A congregation whose custom is to wear tefillin on chol hamoed should not change their custom.”

When I tell people about this halacha, that a shul should not have some people who are wearing tefillin on chol hamoed and some who are not since it would create the appearance that the Jewish people disagree with each other and are divided into groups, they laugh.  The reason for their laughter is obvious, for, we are in so many ways a divided people. Even within Orthodoxy, we are right, left, and middle; Ashkenaz and Sefard; modern, haredi and chassidish; -we seem anything but unified and conforming. And yet, this principal of lo titgodidu, of retaining the appearance (and by extension reality?) of unity, seems here to be not only an abstract principle but a serious halachic one, whose source is a Biblical verse:

בָּנִ֣ים אַתֶּ֔ם לַֽיהוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם לֹ֣א תִתְגֹּֽדְד֗וּ וְלֹֽא־תָשִׂ֧ימוּ קָרְחָ֛ה בֵּ֥ין עֵינֵיכֶ֖ם לָמֵֽת׃

You are children of the LORD your God. You shall not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of (in mourning of) the dead.   -Deuteronomy, 14:1

Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yoḥanan: I read here the verse: “You shall not cut yourselves [titgodedu]” (Deuteronomy 14:1), which is interpreted as meaning: Do not become many factions [agudot]….  

“You shall not cut yourselves”(Deuteronomy 14:1), which is interpreted to mean: Do not become numerous factions. Abaye said: When we say that the prohibition: “You shall not cut yourselves” (i.e. divide yourself into groups) applies, we are referring to a case where two courts are located in one city, and these rule in accordance with the statement of Beit Shammai and those rule in accordance with the statement of Beit Hillel. However, with regard to two courts located in two different cities, we have no problem with it.   (Talmud Yevamot, 13b-14a)

The talmud above is interpreting the double meaning of the word titgodidu.  Though it means “to cut,” it can also mean “a group (agudah)”.  Thus rendering the verse: “Do not divide into groups.”  The Talmud concludes based on this that it is forbidden for two courts in one city to hold two different practices.   

Though it is true that the Jewish people are divided, and often I see this as a point of strength, for as we are creative, argumentative, independant, and bring more to the world and to each other by not being the same, by the same token, I am very glad there is such a halacha as “lo titgodidu.”   At least the principal exits and, in its limited way, has some power to govern our actions and impact our values.   If we take lo titgodidu seriously I think it can be part of an important synergy and dialectical tension for us.   We will not all agree, but at least in certain circumscribed areas of halcha we can practice, appear, and feel for a brief moment, as if we do.   

In light of this halacha and the, at least theoretical, unification it can facilitate, I think the direction many modern Orthodox synagogues have taken in regard to this issue is dangerous.  Due to several sociological and historical factors (among them that more young people studying in Israel for a year or two where the universal custom is not to wear tefillin on chol hamoed, and the proliferation of Chabad whose custom is not to wear tefillin on chol hamoed)  more and more synagogues which are fully Ashkenazic, and in which 40 years ago all members wore tefillin, are quickly becoming places in which 80%-90% of attendees on a given chol hamoed morning are not wearing tefillin while only 10%-20% are.

Many rabbis have chosen to ignore this phenomenon, and deem lo titgodidu not worth the effort of putting their halachic foot down.   But I think we must. At the same time the Mishnah Berurah’s method of forcing everyone to wear tefillin in synagogues where that is the custom, can not work.   If we attempt to force those who do not wear tefillin to wear it, they will respond that we are forcing them to violate the sanctity of the holiday and will not cooperate.   On the other hand if we ask tefillin wearers to abstain from wearing tefillin during services on chol hamoed they can still have the option of donning them before or after the service.  

And so we are faced with competing values as we often are in halcha.  Do we change the custom of the synagogue and ask that no one wear tefillin during the services on chol hamoed, or do we say nothing, as I think many of us are want to do, and violate the principle of lo titgodidu?


Interpersonal Commandments by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

March 2, 2017

 

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Abraham welcoming the three men

Recently I was in a community populated by older people.    After davening I was sitting in the passenger’s seat of a car and moved to the back to accommodate an older man who walked with a cane.   His friend, an older holocaust survivor, who has lived for all of his post war years in Brooklyn, sat in the back with me and commented that he was very impressed that I gave up my seat.  He said it is not common anymore for people to show honor to the elderly.

 

The next morning as I put on my tifilin I wondered if he would have been as pleasantly surprised that I, an observant Jew, had put on tifilin.  Probably not -and yet these actions, wearing tifilin and standing for the elderly, are both biblical commandments.

 

Maimonides in his book of law puts it this way:

We must stand up for one who is very elderly, even if the person is not a scholar.  And even a someone who is a scholar must stand for an elderly individual…We also honor an elderly non-Jew and lend them a hand, for the verse, “stand before the elderly,” applies to anyone who is elderly, (Laws of Torah Study 6:9).

 

Why is it that we expect religious Jews to be punctilious in performing commandments between people and G-d and not between people and other people?  What would observant Jewish life be like if we, like our ancestors, were more careful and paid more attention to the details of interpersonal commandments than those between us and G-d?

 

Which of these, in fact is more important?   If a ritual and interpersonal commandment are in conflict, which should win out?

 

It is clear I think, that commandments between us and other people come first, and indeed can trump those between us and G-d.  According to the Talmud we learn this from Avrohom who leaves G-d’s presence to welcome three people who he thinks are idolatrous nomads, walking in the desert.  From here the Talmud concludes, “Greater is the welcoming of guests than receiving the Divine presence.”

 

If one were in the middle of praying to G-d and a newcomer entered the synagogue that needed to be welcomed should we interrupt our prayer to welcome them?   Indeed, it is said of Rabbi Chaim of Veloshon that he did push aside prayer in order to welcome guests.


Progress to Redemption by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

January 20, 2017

This Shabbat we begin the second book of the Torah in which we read about the enslavement in Egypt and the subsequent redemption process. On Passover we drink 4 cups of wine to symbolize the four steps of redemption mentioned here. I will take you out, I will save you, I will take you culturally out of Egypt, and I will redeem you. Some even say there’s a 5th cup – and I will bring you to the land of Israel.  

The question is asked why 4 cups of wine to represent the four steps of redemption? Why not four matzos or four pieces of meat?  Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin explains that this was a process the Jews had to go through in order not just to be taken out of Egypt but to actually change from being slaves to becoming to Jewish people.  
Wine is like that. It is a progression. We drink one cup and we feel it a little bit, we drink a 2nd cup and we feel it more and more. it builds on itself and takes us from one place to another if done correctly. 
The point is an important one – that change and redemption does not happen in the blink of an eye, it happens rather through a process. Human beings don’t change easily but they can change. Each of us is more flexible than we realize, though often we are afraid of change.  
And so part of the message of these parshiot and the redemption from Egypt is that God is there with us to help us and that there is a process to undergo. Positive change doesn’t just happen overnight. So too with our own spiritual lives. we have to engage in the process, we have to cry out to God to begin the process, but then God will help us. What process can we begin this Shabbat to help us to progress toward becoming more morally and spiritually developed human beings and Jews?


Parshat Vayeshev – Being a Tzadik, by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

December 20, 2016

Murillo_Josephandhisbrothers.jpg

This week’s Torah portion, Va’yeshev, begins by describing the relationship between Joseph and his brothers when Joseph was 17 years old. The Torah tells us that when Joseph was tending sheep with his brothers “…Joseph brought slander about them to his father. Israel loved Joseph more of all the brothers….and they (his brothers) were unable to speak with Joseph peacefully…” Certainly everyone, no matter how righteous, sins at times. But why does the Torah specifically tell us this sin of Joseph’s, that he spoke badly of his brothers to his father? In addition, how could he, Joseph the Tzadik, the righteous one, be guilty of such a crime?
Some commentaries justify Joseph’s actions, proposing that perhaps he saw evil in his brothers and meant to tell their father in order that Jacob would discipline them. Some also judge the brothers favorably explaining that what Joseph saw was not what was actually happening. Still others (the Seforno) blame Jacob for his bad parenting in favoring Joseph over his other children and thereby causing hated among them.
The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, does not apologize for Joseph’s, or his brother’s, or their father’s actions. He says that indeed Joseph was guilty of the sin of slander and that this is the reason he must descend to Egypt. Latter he will become Joseph the Tzazadik, Joseph the Righteous. The job of the tzadik, the righteous Jewish leader, says the Sefat Emet, is to take the good deeds of the Jewish people and bring them before G-d, ignoring the people’s evil deeds. Joseph needed to learn this in order to create unity among his people. This is the lesson he learns in Egypt through the trials and travails, the tests and his time in prison. Only after the experience of Egypt is he complete and ready to be Joseph the Tzadik.

What adversity and what sins do we need to navigate in order to become the tzadikim that can help to facilitate the true end goal of Jewish unity?


Make America Civil Again by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 9, 2016
Clinton, Trump pick up big wins

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are tightening their grips on the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.

One of my congregants watched the presidential debates with their 9 year old child. After a few minutes the child stood up and said, “we are not allowed to watch this.” When they inquired why she replied, because it is lashon hara, (Hebrew for evil speech, slander), which the Torah forbids (Leviticus, 19:16).
Judaism teaches us that leaders should be examples of nobility, caring, and humility. It is no coincidence that Moses was, “the most humble man who ever lived.” That God chose him not because Moses had a plan for leading the people, or because he had the skills for leadership, he did not. God chose Moshe because Moshe cared about individuals and was willing to put himself on the line for them. He killed an Egyptian who was beating a Jew, stopped two Jews from fighting and rebuked one for hitting the other, and defended the powerless among the Gentiles when he protected the daughter of Yitro from shepherds who refused to give her access to the local well. These three stories are all we know about Moses the individual before he was elected leader by God.
To Jews who believe that nothing is more powerful than speech, nothing more sacred than our character, and nothing more precious to God than how we care for the orphan, the widow and the foreigner, how should we relate to an era which produces candidates who, a child reminds us, speak words to which it is forbidden to listen because they are so malicious? How should we react to living in an era when ego, not humility, wins the day? When candidates who propose to lead us are being investigated by the authorities? When we cannot allow our children to hear the misogynistic words spoken by the leader of the free world? How do we teach and learn nobility and respect in such a world? How should we respond to living here, to living now?
Finding ourselves in a place whose culture produces bad models for us and our children, Maimonides recommends moving to another society or living alone in a cave (Hilchot Deot 6:1).
I would like to suggest a third approach. As my brother-in-law put it, “Instead of mourning – organize.” I think this means that we can feel empowered to build a society with a more noble vision than the one our leaders paint through their actions. We can use what feels like a time of strife, and for half of America, disappointment and fear, to empower ourselves and others by coming together to make something better. You may not be able to fix Washington but you can impact the world around you, and by extension, America’s acrimonious culture which has dominated the public square these many months.
Here is a suggestion. Make a list of the 3 values you hold most dear, the ones you would like to inculcate in your children. Then make a list of 2 ways you can live out those values. Call someone you know to discuss ways to actualize one of them, maybe each of you in your own way, or by teaching them to people around you, or by joining with people or an organization who are committed to the same value.
Instead of feeling the anger, strife, slander, and suspicion of these many electoral months, become empowered to act. And every day ask yourself: Am I closer to or farther away from the life I think I and my neighbors should lead?


The Seder as a Tikun for the Sin of Joseph and his Brothers -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

May 4, 2016

Our seders are held primarily in homes and involve families discussing the Exodus and eating the symbols associated with it.  Without relating to another, no seder is complete. The child must ask, and the parent must answer. If there is no child, adults must ask each other. Jewish law, in fact, sees dialogue as so intrinsic to the seder that even if one is alone, that person must ask and answer the questions, creating a kind of interrelating even where there is none.

Why all this emphasis at the seder on familial relationships?

Perhaps the answer lies in the nature of Passover itself.   According to the Midrash, the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt due to the sin of Joseph and his brothers. The sale of Joseph eventually resulted in, and some say was a punishment for, the exile in Egypt.

If we look closely at the Passover seder, we see that it is a reenactment not only of slavery and freedom but of the story of Joseph and his brothers that led the Jewish people to Egypt in the first place.

We begin the seder with the strange custom of dipping a vegetable into salt water. This dipping is called karpas. The word karpas means “colored cloth” (Esther 1:6). This recalls Joseph’s colored coat that his brothers dipped in goat’s blood and brought to their father when they sold him into slavery saying that he had been eaten by an animal.

In preparation for the karpas, we wash our hands but without a blessing. This looks like we are washing for bread, but we do not eat bread or matzah; it is a different kind of ritual washing than we are used to. This recalls that the first thing Joseph’s brothers did after they threw him in the pit was sit down to eat bread. They eat bread, but the Torah does not record them washing their hands, so we wash our hands, after which we do not eat bread (or matzah).

We then break the matzah. Generally, the bread one blesses should be whole. On this night, we bless a broken piece.   Perhaps this recalls, in addition to slavery, how that which should have been whole, the Jewish family, was broken.

We drink four cups of wine. The Talmud says that we drink four cups because when Joseph was sold into Egypt and ended up in jail, it was through interpreting the dream of Pharaoh’s wine steward that he was eventually freed from bondage, and in this dream narrative the phrase “cup of wine” is mentioned four times.

We then begin the story part of the Haggadah, which strangely does not include the verses of the story of the Exodus from the book of Exodus but instead a four sentence summary of the story of the Jewish peoples’ descent into Egypt and subsequent redemption as told by the farmer who brings his first fruits to the Tabernacle in the book of Deuteronomy.

This recitation begins, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father, and he (my father) went down to Egypt.” We usually assume this is talking about Laban the Aramean, who tried to overwork Jacob, and Jacob, who many years latter went down to Egypt.

But the word “Arami,” “an Aramean,” can also mean a “deceiver.” There was a person whom “Arameans,” that is, deceivers, tried to destroy, and then he immediately went down to Egypt, namely Joseph whose brothers deceived him and sold him into Egyptian slavery.

Perhaps, in addition to the telling of the story of the slavery and redemption, we are also telling the story of the strife among Joseph and his brothers and hoping that through bringing families and the Jewish people together in a remaking of this encounter we can create peace and ultimately undo the cause for which we went to Egypt in the first place, hatred, which is indeed the cause of all exiles.