Fixing Sinai: Purim and Jewish Conscience: Barry Gelman

March 8, 2017

The Torah says, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah. The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding. Rava said: Even so, they again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai. (Shabbat 88a. Thanks to Sefaria for providing the translation – https://www.sefaria.org/Shabbat.88a.5?lang=bi)

This account of what happened at Sinai is very different from what we read in the Torah. Besides the question that the Rabbis raise themselves – “ From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah”, this account raises another question.

The great Na’aseh V’Nishma (we will do and we will listen) moment, when Bnei Yisrael accepted the torah unconditionally, is undermined by the Rabbinic version.

Why would the Rabbis offer this alternate account that makes Bnei Yisrael out to be reluctant to accept the Torah? Additionally, how were matters actually remedied on Purim?  Read the rest of this entry »


Can a Smoker Serve As A Witness?

January 3, 2016

6a00d83451b71f69e201774376c635970d-400wiRabbi Eliyahu Abergel (pronounced Aberjel) has taken an unprecedented step in practically applying the ban on smoking.

(See below for other considerations of this ruling, including applications to agunot)

After ruling that smoking is against Halacha, as many other poskim have done, he proceeds to take it one step further and bans a smoker from serving as a witness (Techumin Journal #33).
Rav Abergel’s  road to this conclusion is pretty straightforward.
He starts with the obligation to protect our well being.


שולחן ערוך יורה דעה הלכות מאכלי עובדי כוכבים סימן קטז
סעיף ה
צריך ליזהר מליתן מעות בפיו, ג שמא יש עליהן רוק יבש של מוכי שחין. ולא יתן ז] פס ידו תחת שחיו, שמא נגע ידו במצורע או בסם רע. ח] ולא יתן ככרלחם תחת השחי, מפני הזיעה. (ד) ולא יתן (ה) תבשיל ד ולא משקים תחת המטה, מפני שרוח רעה שורה עליהם. ולא ינעוץ סכין בתוך אתרוג או בתוךצנון, שמא יפול אדם על חודה, וימות. הגה: ט] וכן יזהר מכל דברים המביאים (ו) לידי סכנה, י] כי סכנתא חמירא מאיסורא ויש לחוש יותר לספק סכנה מלספק איסור, יא] ולכן אסור לילךבכל מקום סכנה כמו ה תחת קיר נטוי יב] או יחידי בלילה, יג] וכן אסרו לשתות מים מן הנהרות בלילה יד] או להניח פיו על קלוח המים לשתות, כי דברים אלו יש בהן חשש סכנה (רמב”ם). טו] ומנהגפשוט ו שלא לשתות מים <ד> בשעת (ז) התקופה, וכן כתבו הקדמונים, ואין לשנות (אבודרהם ומרדכי ס”פ כל שעה רוקח סימן ער”ה ומהרי”ל ומנהגים). טז] עוד כתבו שיש (ח) לברוח מן העיר כשדברבעיר, ויש לצאת מן העיר בתחלת הדבר, יז] <ה> ולא בסופו (תשובת מהרי”ל סי’ ל”ה /מ”א/). וכל אלו הדברים הם משום סכנה, ושומר נפשו ירחק מהם יח] ואסור לסמוך אנס או לסכן נפשו בכל כיוצאבזה. (ועיין בחושן משפט סימן תכ”ז).
He then moves on to the disqualification of a willful sinner from being a witness.
שולחן ערוך חושן משפט הלכות עדות סימן לד
עדים הפסולים מחמת עבירה, ובו ל”ה סעיפים
סעיף א
א }א{ רשע פסול לעדות, ב א) א’] ואפילו עד כשר, שיודע בחבירו שהוא רשע, ואין הדיינים מכירים רשעו, <א> אסור לו <ב> להעיד עמו, ג א{ אע”פשהוא <ג> עדות אמת (ל’ הרמב”ם פ”י מעדות). }ב{ ואצ”ל עד כשר שהוא יודע בעדות לחבירו, וידע שהעד השני שעמו עד שקר, שאסור לו להעיד.
סעיף ב
א] איזהו רשע, <ד> כל שעבר עבירה }ג{ שחייבים עליה מלקות; א’) ואצ”ל אם חייבים עליה מיתת ב”ד. ל”ש אם עבר לתיאבון, ל”ש אם עבר להכעיס.הגה: [א] ב] עבר עבירה ב) <ה> שאין בה מלקות, <ו> ב’] פסול מדרבנן (רבינו ירוחם נ”ב ח”ד).
סעיף ג
היתה עבירה <ז> שעבר מדרבנן, (א) }ד{ <ח> פסול מדרבנן. הגה: ג] וי”א בדבר מדבריהם, ב{ בעינן שעבר }ה{ ג’] משום חימוד ממון (ר”י נ”ב ח”ד ותוס’ פ’ איזהו נשך ועיטור).
Rav Abergel continues as follows:
One interesting aspect of the smoking in Halacha discussion is to follow the progression of the poskim on this issue.
In 2006 the Rabbinical Council of America published a teshuva prohibiting smoking. The Teshuva does a good job examining the reasons why Rav Feinstein did not forbid smoking and explaining why his reasoning no longer applies.
In the interim period, many poskim have declared smoking to be forbidden, including –  Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt, Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg and Rav Ovadia Yosef.
So we have gone from smoking being healthy to, while not good for you, not forbidden.
Finally, we come to Rav Abergel and his continuation of the process – from healthy, to not recommended, to forbidden but without practical consequences, to forbidden and therefore considered willfully sinful behavior.
Other considerations:
  1. This ruling would have interesting ramifications in terms of invalidating a witness, for example, in the case of a woman who is unable to secure a Get.
  1. For more on non observant witnesses, see here, pg. 135. Of course, if a non observant person is an acceptable witness, then so is a smoker and the point above is moot.
  1. We see here an example of a ruling that follows logic (if smoking is prohibited, then a smoker is a willful sinner and cannot serve as a witness), and can be used to achieve desirable goals (#1 above), perhaps being undone by another important ruling (#2).

Read the rest of this entry »


What Is Chanukah?

December 7, 2015

Everyone loves Chanukah – the secular, the religious and, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, even the communists.

He cites an amusing episode in: The Everlasting Chanukah (pg. 125) found in the Days of Deliverance volume.

“That same Hanukkah, I happened upon another curiosity…I chanced upon a copy of the Moscow newspaper Der Emes (Truth), the newspaper of the yestvektsiya, the Jewish  department of the notorious NKVD (the strong arm of the Soviet Union Secret Police). The newspaper also had an article on Hanukkah and the Hasmoneans. With every means at its disposal, the article argued that Hanukkah was actually a communist holiday, and the Jewish bourgeoisie and clerical world had no right to celebrate Hanukkah. Judah the Maccabee was the first Yesvekstsiya member.”

But, what is Chanukah? As the Talmud asks, “Mai Chanukah”? What is the nature of the day?

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein begins with a well known understanding of the holiday

“We tend to perceive the miracle of Chanukah as the restoration of past glory: the success of the Jewish nation in surviving – both physically and spiritually; in preserving its character, and in maintaining its values and its tradition.

This perception is well grounded in the “al ha-nissim” addition to the Amida prayer and to Birkat Ha-mazon, where we emphasize that the Hasmoneans “purified Your Temple.”

The miracle of Chanukah [follows the same model: it] consists essentially of destroying impurity, removing the idol from the Temple, and restoring Israel to its original state and status. This approach understands Chanukah as a holiday of restoration.

But, Rabbi Lichtenstein then offers us a warning not to misunderstand Chanukkah.

“However, closer examination of the name “Chanuka” and its root (ch-n-k) reveal that its essence is…the creation of a new framework and its implementation.  “ This approach is rooted in the etymology of the word Hanukkah – which means to be newly consecrated or dedicated.

Read the rest of this entry »


Davening With Kavanah – Thoughts on the challenge and some solutions. Rabbi Barry Gelman

June 19, 2014

Praying with Kavvanah (concentration) is very difficult.

Lest we think this is a modern problem reserved for the common person, think again.

Said R. Hiyya the great, “In all my days I never concentrated [properly on my Prayer.]One time I wanted to concentrate [properly]. So I meditated. And I said to myself, `Who goes up first before the king? The Arkafta [a high dignitary in Persia]  or the Exilarch?'”

Samuel said, “I count birds.”

R. Bun bar Hiyya said, “I count rows of bricks.”

Rabbi Matna said, “I am grateful to my head for when I arrive at the Modim prayer, it bows on it’s own.”

[Y. Berakhot, Chapter 2, Mishnah 4.]

Rabbi Hiyya, Samuel and Rabbi Bun. bar Hiyya all tried to concentrate on prayer, but their thoughts wandered, one to politics, one to nature and one was so bored that he simply started counting the bricks in the wall. Rabbi Mata’s expression of thanks to his head testifies to another common challenge to praying with Kavvanah – rote action. Often our mouths are saying things that are disconnected from our mind.

When we read this passage we should feel a sense of common struggle – everyone struggles with prayer, even the greatest of religious figures.

But, we should also realize that despite their struggles we do not find that these rabbis gave up on prayer.

How can we overcome some of these struggles? How can we succeed in praying with Kavanah.

While there are many strategies, I would like to start with two (I plan on writing more about this).

One of the biggest challenges to prayer is that people are often not “in the mood” to pray. Some may not be feeling particularly grateful, others many not be in an introspective state of mind and others may simply be too busy.

The key here is to use prayer to make us feel prayerful. There is no doubt that it is hard to instantaneously get in the mood to pray. It is also true that the text of the prayers are there to move us. Words like, “Blessed are You, Lord, who forms the radiant light”, are there to awaken us to the marvels of the world. “You have loved us with great love, Lord our God, should move us to gratitude for the special relationship between God and the Jewish people as expressed by the Torah. Each and every prayer can be viewed as a means to rouse us to new and deeper understanding and appreciations of life. Do not wait to be in the mood to pray, use prayer to put you in the mood.

The second strategy is to realize that prayer is a cumulative experience.

Each prayer experience is a layer in the prayer career of an individual. Insights gained at one time lead to and add to the next prayer experience. As such, prayer gets better, more focused and richer the more we do it.

In this way, prayer is like many other aspects of life. Human relationships (marriage, friendships, family) grow and flourish from one experience to the next.  Viewing the events of our lives as disconnected incidents robs us of the ability to grow from the wisdom of accumulation.

To take advantage of this reality, we need to pray with consistency.

Inconsistent praying simply does afford the same cumulative experience and leave us feeling unsatisfied. On the other hand, tightly connected prayer opportunities can lead to an overall feeling of satisfaction and meaning in prayer.

Try these strategies for a few weeks. I think they will work. They work for me.


Reflecting on Reflecting – Rabbi Barry Gelman

March 24, 2014

The only way we can discuss prayer is on the basis of self-reflection, trying to describe what has happened to us in a rare and precious moment of prayer. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; The Insecurity of Freedom: Prayer as Discipline pg. 255)

 

This is the great paradox of prayer. As Rabbi Heschel says a few lines later: “You  cannot, of course, analyze the act of prayer while praying.” Doing so would be to violate the sacred nature of prayer as total immersion (See pg. 255 in the Essay Prayer as Discipline for more on this). On the other hand, we cannot afford not to spend time self-reflecting on our prayer experiences. Like anything else in life, events that we let go by without contemplation, leave little impact on us.

So, we have no choice but to find time after we have prayed to try our best to recollect how we were feeling when we prayed. Maybe this is the companion to Adonai Sifatai Tiftach….” said before we pray. That statement is actually a request for help that we pray with Kavannah.

After we have prayed, we should look back to see if it worked. Was there a particular time during Tefilla that I felt moved? Was there a particular time I felt distracted? How can I duplicate the times i found moved and minimize the distractions?

We should also do this institutionally. if there was a particular teffila that had the community engaged, consider the elements and see if they can be duplicated on a regular basis. And, if there are elements of tefilla that do not engage the people, it may be time to envision a different approach.

Meaningful prayer is so difficult. We can attain success in prayer more often if we take time to reflect on how we pray, what works and what does not.

 


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.


Why Sending Bnei Akiva Students to Protest WoW is wrong,

November 4, 2013

Reports Bnei Akiva affiliated schools in Israel have been instructed to send their students to protest the Women of the Wall is disturbing in many levels.

It highlights the notion that Religious Zionism no longer (did it ever?) represents one religious philosophy. There are Modern Orthodox Religious Zionists and their are Chareidi Religious Zionisits (they are called Chardal – Chareidi L’eumi). The Women of the Wall issue is only one of the fault lines where the difference can be seen. Kol Ishawomen in public office, Messianism and soldiers refusing direct orders from commanders are some others.
 
It is also disturbing on an educational level. Children should not be carted out to demonstrations. Children should be educated. If the Bnei Akiva educators are really interested in teaching their students what should happen is that a representative from Women of the Wall should be invited to the schools to discuss and debate the issue with someone opposed to them. That will give the students a chance to formulate an opinion on an issue that has become central in Israel religious, social and political life. Carting out these girls does nothing other than to boost the numbers of protesters. As such, the girls are being used.
Some will recall (myself included ) being bussed to Washington DC to participate in mass rallies on behalf of Soviet Jewry and participating in pro-Israel rallies. Were we used? Do we exploit our children when taking them to pro Israel rallies? I think there is a difference.
There are two sides to the policy question of what the status of the kotel should be and Jewish schools should educate their students about those two sides. On the other hand, regarding Soviet Jewry movement or general support for Israel, the school and parents who send kids there have already made a decision about being pro-Israel and supporting Jews in danger around the world. They see that is part and parcel of the educational mission of the school.
Of course, when it comes to Soviet Jewry we must not forget that basic human rights were being denied and lives were at stake.
 
Bnei Akiva is crucially important as it has historically educated towards serious engagement in Torah along with an absolute commitment to being a constructive force in the building of Medinat Yisrael. 
 
Communities across the globe (including mine) benefit from the leadership training that is the hallmark of Bnei Akiva. Bnei Akiva chanichim and bogrim (participants and graduates) from my own community have gone on to become leaders on a local and a national level. Bnei Akia snif, special programs and shabbatonim have transformed our shul. We could not be prouder of our Bnei Akiva shlichim, bnot sheirut and participants and we could not be happier that we support Bnei Akia.
 
I am certain that this decision does not represent the thinking of many within the leadership of Bnei Akiva. I hope that there is an outcry from them.
 
Hauling girls to a protest is not leadership training. Bnei Akiva schools should stick to what they do best. Educating, inspiring and training the next generation of Jewish leaders.