My brethren in Gaza by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 24, 2014

I feel terrible for the people of Gaza.  They live under the rule of a violent oppressor.  But their oppressor is not Israel, it is Hamas, a terrorist entity whose very name means anger and whose actions seem to so revolve around war and hatred, that they cannot spend adequate money, time, or effort on the welfare of the people over whom they rule. 

Hamas has made it a regular practice to use the children of Gaza as human shields and to place rocket launchers and missiles in the people’s hospitals, schools, and mosques and has spent the billions of dollars of aid from Iran, the U.S., and other countries on missiles, bunkers, and offensive military tunnels instead of on schools, food, and medical care.   Hamas even destroyed the rich farming areas and greenhouses left behind by Israeli farmers when Israel withdrew from the area in 2009, as a step toward peace.

I care deeply about the innocent people in Gaza, made in the image of God, and who, going back to Abraham, are my brothers and sisters.  I pray for the people of Gaza. 

Over the past few years Israel has regularly treated the people of Gaza in Israeli hospitals.  A close friend, a Washington University Medical School trained surgeon who moved from St. Louis to Israel 10 years ago, periodically operates at a hospital in Herzliya on Palestinians who need the type of surgery in which he specializes.  And Israel is now fighting Hamas in a way to minimize collateral damage to the civilians of Gaza to the extent possible. This comes at a great cost of self-harm to Israel and to its citizens.  When Israel warns civilians in Gaza of an intended attack so that they can leave the area, Israel puts itself at peril as Hamas operatives are also warned.

In just the last 48 hours, Israel has put down its defenses to allow tons of goods into Gaza. During the past weeks, Israel has agreed to two humanitarian cease-fires. In the first hours of each of those cease-fires, Hamas rained down over 70 missiles onto Israeli civilian areas.

A few weeks ago when three Jewish teens were kidnapped and murdered by Arab terrorists, Hamas celebrated by distributing sweets to children.  When an Arab teen was murdered by Jewish terrorists, the Jewish world and Israel’s government condemned the terrible act. 

I hope Israel’s defensive war on Hamas will end soon and that Israel can join other countries in helping the people of Gaza rebuild their lives by providing them with farm equipment, water, electricity, medical care, and food and ultimately empower them to lead fulfilling lives when, with Hamas out of the way, there will be nothing stopping them from sitting at the negotiating table. 

But for now all I can do is pray and hope for a time of peace and security for all the people in the region and mourn for the loss of life on both sides. 

 


A Recent Episode As Seen From Three Perspectives by David Wolkenfeld

January 22, 2014

Rabbi Avi Weiss and the Israeli Rabbinate: An Episode Seen from Three Perspectives

I.

Rabbi Avi Weiss announced last October that his letters attesting to the Jewish status of members of his community who had moved to Israel were no longer acceptable to the rabbanut, the Israeli rabbinate. When pressed to justify their rejection, a spokesman for the rabbinate explained last month that controversial positions that Rabbi Weiss had taken over the years, as reported to them by anonymous American rabbis, rendered Rabbi Weiss suspect in their eyes and insufficiently Orthodox even to vouch for the personal status of members of his community.

Since Rabbi Weiss broke this story, he has been able to mobilize an impressive list of colleagues, students, and other allies, both in Israel and in the diaspora, to advocate on his behalf.  Late last week, the rabbanut announced that they would, once again, accept Rabbi Weiss’ letters regarding personal status when members of his community move to Israel.  Just last Thursday, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) announced a larger agreement with the rabbanut, wherein they would take responsibility for verifying the Jewish status of the congregants of any of its member-rabbis and that the rabbanut would, as a matter of course, accept the status-determinations made here in America.

Like a Mandelbrot fractal image, no matter how narrowly or how broadly one examines this episode, the shape is the same and raises fundamental questions.  Broadly speaking, there are three levels to this episode and three important contexts for the ensuing conversation.

II.

The first level is the question of “who is Orthodox?”  For those of us love rabbinic politics (or love to hate rabbinic politics), and for those who have some personal connection to the question – this is an important and compelling question. But for most Jews, whether or not Orthodoxy has boundaries and where those boundaries lie, is, at most, a passing thought. Furthermore, within the context of the decades long battle over the place of Liberal Orthodoxy within the broader Orthodox community, there are no surprises. Anyone who has read the polemics surrounding Liberal Orthodoxy, or about Rabbi Weiss himself, that have been published in the past fifteen years already knows that there are segments of the Orthodox world who no longer consider Rabbi Weiss, and inter-alia, his students, to be Orthodox.  Secretly encouraging the rabbanut to reject Rabbi Weiss letters was, perhaps, a new low, and a worrisome escalation, but it was not a move that should have been surprising.

That being said, there are two new elements of this stage of the story that should be noted, condemned, and responded to. First, several of the most consistent and fiercest critics of Liberal Orthodoxy published essays or blog-posts in the past two weeks that disagreed with the decision to disqualify Rabbi Weiss’ letters. Those conflicted critics, and those who agree with them, should experience this episode as a wake-up call. The sensationalist attacks on Rabbi Weiss could have no other long-term effect among those who believe them, other than the total inability of Rabbi Weiss to function as part of the Orthodox rabbinate. That self-destructive path would lead Orthodoxy to a place of less trust, less collegiality, less sharing of Torah ideas, and less respect for Torah and Torah scholarship among a jaded community who witness Torah scholars attack and vilify each other.

Second, the RCA has a need to investigate and identify (at least as part of an internal review) the anonymous source(s) that the rabbanut relied upon to initially disqualify Rabbi Weiss. The ability of the elected leadership and professional staff of the RCA to direct the organization for the benefit of its membership and for the benefit of Torah, necessitates the ability to adopt policies and implement them. Rogue rabbis who speak in the name of the organization without authorization render all of that collective action impossible. Having been burned once, the rabbanut, one hopes, will be more discriminating regarding from whom it accepts information. In turn, the RCA needs to restore its ability to devise and implement policies.

III.

Ironically, the public and private defenses of Rabbi Weiss, from organizations that he is affiliated with and from his colleagues, students, and allies, all affirmed his faithfulness to Orthodox beliefs and practices, and argued that he should be entitled to all of the legal privileges of Orthodox rabbis. This, however, only begged the question of why Orthodox rabbis alone should have this legal status in the State of Israel. More than a few non-Orthodox Jews, and other astute observers, have publicly condemned the resolution of this latest episode as being insignificant for their aims of bringing religious diversity to Israel. The struggle for religious pluralism in Israel is the second context within which to examine this episode. Both those who condemn and those who embrace religious pluralism should recognize that the past two weeks have been insignificant to that broader cause.

IV.

But the rabbanut, the state rabbinate, is not an independent variable. The role and function of the rabbanut is dependent on the tasks that the state asks it to perform and that is connected to a much broader question. What does it mean to be a “Jewish State?” The State of Israel currently defines itself as a Jewish state – at least in part – in an ethnic-religious way. This means that those who can prove a Jewish ethnic background, or who were converted by the right sort of rabbis, are entitled by law to a certain legal status. And, as long as that remains the case, there will be a need for a centralized government agency that can keep track of who is Jewish and who is not.

This broader context, to me, is the most interesting perspective from which to contemplate the latest episode between Rabbi Weiss and the rabbinate.  So long as the conversation remains, “is Rabbi Weiss sufficiently Orthodox for the purposes of a certain government agency” or even if the question is expanded to include, “what kind of diaspora rabbi will have the ability to affect the legal status of Israeli citizens?” then the conversation is one that is beyond the conventions of democratic public discourse. “Rabbi Weiss is indeed an Orthodox rabbi” is not a liberal cry. Nor is, “every rabbi should be able to perform conversions recognized by the State of Israel,” at least not as liberalism has been understood for centuries.

The State of Israel was established because the Zionist visionaries understood that nation-states can uniquely protect their citizens from the threat of violence and that the Jewish people needed our own nation-state to protect our lives in a dangerous and threatening world. Nation states can also sponsor, protect, and encourage a national culture in various guises. But nation-states, at least in the democratic world, are ill-equip to answer questions like, “who is a rabbi?” or “what are the boundaries of acceptable halakhic behavior?” Those sorts of questions, however, are asked and answered every day by kehilot, by communities, and by the religious leadership of those communities.  And because we don’t depend on each other for our physical survival, it’s OK for our kehilot, our shuls, and our religious movements and denominations, to answer those questions in different, or even contradictory, ways.

Think of what you love about living in Israel or visiting there. Think about what the State of Israel means for world Jewry and its significance in the grand sweep of Jewish history. Does any of that depend on a government office collecting lists of Jewish and gentile citizens?

A kehillah is capable of organizing around a common religious vision and a common purpose. That sort of unity, ish echad b’lev echad, as Rashi taught us last week in Parashat Yitro, is a preface to receiving Torah.  But a nation-state cannot easily impose that degree of unity.  Contrary to Kobi Oz’s creative lyrics, the State of Israel is not a giant shul.  Let’s learn to unite where we should, and to foster diversity where that is needed.  We in the diaspora should celebrate all that Israel represents for us, and do what we can to ensure Israel’s safety and flourishing. But we should not look to Israel to resolve questions of Jewish identity that we can more properly answer at home.


What Threatens the World and the Rabbinate? by Rav Yoel Bin Nun

July 4, 2013

What threatens the Torah world and the rabbinate? It is not the “draft decree” into the IDF, nor the “equality of burden” proposal, nor even budget cuts or the elections for the Chief Rabbinate. All these things do not threaten the Torah world or the rabbinate in any way.

If the elite members of the hareidi yeshivot will serve in some form or arrangement, their Torah world will only grow and deepen. This will be especially the case with those who are talented, especially with the Talmidei Chachamim amongst them.

During my service in the IDF, both during my initial service and during reserve duty, I was forced, by circumstances, to engage in in depth study of sugyot (areas of Talmud) and halakhot that by and large are not generally studied, such as Hilkhot Eiruvin as I was obligated to construct an eiruv by myself in the field during training missions, on more than one occasion, and of course to check the eiruv every Friday. In addition, I learned many laws of Kashrut and Shabbat in depth during my service in the IDF, because that is where one is confronted by many unusual circumstances. It is impossible to study daf yomi or the pristine sugyah in the standard tractate that is learned in the yeshiva. In the IDF one learns to live by the Torah in all situations, even in difficult circumstances, and on Shabbat one cannot simply call one’s posek.

If I had my druthers, I would test all of the bnei yeshiva in the country in Hilkhot Eiruvin and the like in order to demonstrate to the rashei yeshivot that it precisely the most talented and capable students who should serve in the IDF.

In the quota of those exempt from service in the army, if implemented, I would only include those whose religious commitment is weak and who may end up abandoning Torah observance during their service-as they are the ones who will not be asking the questions in Hilkhot Eiruvin.

In such a scenario, the quota of exemption would become a sign of shame, and the service in the IDF a symbol of pride for the Torah world (even that which is not Zionist). This is what is correct from a Torah and halachic perspective.

In passing, it should be pointed out that the members of the tribe of Levi in the desert also had a quota, and it is explicit in the book of Numbers. He who relies on the words of Maimonides (at the conclusion of the laws of Shemitah and Yovel) and compares yeshiva students to the Levites, cannot be opposed to a quota that limits the amount of who is exempt.

 

The Threat of the Agunot

What truly threatens the Torah world and the rabbinate?

The women- just the women. And it is not the women who may be joining the body that elects the Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel. It is the women who are suffering, the women who are abused and crying, the women who are agunot and are refused a get. It is they that threaten the Torah world, with the potential of leading to its utter destruction, God forbid.

Why?

As the Talmud teaches (Ketuvot 2b-3a) “Because of the meek (tznuot) women and because of the uninhibited (perutzot) women [the rabbis were lenient and accepted the validity of a get that was not technically valid].”

In the world of truth that Hazal inhabited one gave a get immediately. One did not wait a month or a year. A man could return and marry the women he divorced and so there was no reason to postpone the giving of the get. Only for a Kohen who was prohibited from marrying his divorced wife, would they write a special type of get (get mekushar) in order to postpone the effectuation of the divorce in case he might have second thoughts. This also lasted a far shorter time than the quickest get procedure in today’s rabbinical courts.

It is enough simply to look at the statistics provided by the rabbinical courts themselves. In Israel, there are currently 200 women who have not received a get after a rabbinical ruling that the husband must give a get. It is known, of course, that such a ruling is not given immediately and has only come after many months, years of deliberations in the rabbinical courts. There are also 200 men whose wives refuse to receive a get for various reasons. However, these men can live with other women and even sire children who are halachically kosher. If we examine the numbers of women who have not received a get from a recalcitrant husband, whose cases are being stretched out in the rabbinical courts, and who have not yet received a ruling, the numbers reach into the many thousands.

What happens to the women who are agunot, whose beloved of youth has abandoned them, and in many cases already lives with another woman?

The “meek (tznuot)” amongst them weep, and their tears reach the heavenly throne because the gates to accept “those who are oppressed” and the gates to accept “tears” are never closed (Bava Metziah 59b) And when a tear fell from the eyes of the wife of Rav Rachumi, who was expecting his return on Erev Yom Kippur, and he was immersed in his Torah learning and di not return to his home as was his yearly habit, Rav Rachumi died (Ketuvot 62b).

The “uninhibited (perutzot)” amongst them say, what can I do if the rabbis and judges do not pay attention to me, and allow the man to make demands and conditions for giving the get. In such a case, I have no choice and I will also find myself a man to live with, for I cannot carry such a heavy burden, the burden of raising children and my own personal burden, all alone. And then, God forbid, there is adultery, and it becomes viewed as justified, because it is done out of sense of “no options” available, viewed by many men and women as something akin to an oness – a situation in which one is coerced into a violation, so much so that many lawyers and rabbinical advocates admit that such a reality can often spur the rabbinical court to move with a bit more alacrity to resolve the situation.

What did Hazal , in the rabbinical court of truth state?

“Whoever betroths a woman, betroths on the (condition) of the acquiescence of the rabbis” (Gitin 33a). They found ways to uproot the kiddushin (betrothal) and the nissuin (marriage), if there was no other path available such as in the case that a man sent his wife a divorce via an agent and then canceled the agency in the middle of the mission.. Now all rabbis in the world, all of us, teach grooms to recite the formula “According to the laws of Moses and Israel” under the bridal canopy. “Israel” is a reference to the rabbis who stand under the canopy with the grooms and brides. However, we do not stand with the women when they find themselves in their difficult hour, when they request a get.

It is clear, that in the court of truth of Torah, the burden falls squarely on the shoulders of the rabbis and their disciples, and the adultery of the women who wait months and years, all alone is the responsibility of the rabbis before God.

The tears of the meek women also will determine the judgment, and may possibly bring a destruction of the Torah world and the rabbinate. It is impossible to know which is more serious—adultery caused by a sense of having no option or the tears of the women refused gittin, who will never be able to live with a man without a kosher get.

 

The Responsibility of the Rabbis

If the rashei yeshivot, rabbis, rabbinical court judges and poskim, thought that they would stand before the heavenly court and be held accountable both for the adultery and the tears of pain, and that their entire Torah would, God forbid, be tuned against them as an agent of prosecution, if they understood that the Master of the Universe stands: “By a wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in his hand” (Amos 7:7 see Bava Metziah 59a), that is that there is no protective wall, and everything  is breached, they would immediately come together- Lithuanians and Hasidim, Sefaradim and Ashkenazim, Zionists and Hareidim, Moderates and Zealots in order to make decisions- not as to who will sit on the chair of Rav Kook, the founder of the Chief Rabbinate of Eretz Yisrael, buit rather on the question as to what the Chief Rabbis and all the rabbinical courts should do to save themselves from the guilt of adultery and the tears of the women that rest on their shoulders.

However, those who grab hold of the Torah do not truly believe that the Master of the Universe stands upon “the wall made by a plumbline, with a plumbline in His hand”. They shut their eyes and do not see the adultery that they cause to the “uninhibited” women and do not hear the cries of the “meek” women who have not received gittin at the hands of recalcitrant husbands.

They only hear the threat of women being included in the body that will elect the Chuief Rabbis, and will soon quote for us what Rav Kook wrote about women being elected or having the vote, without understanding the full import of the position of Rav Kook and his son Rav Tzvi Yehuda on this serious question.

For many years, rabbis and dayanim have told me that it is only permitted to teach Tanakh based upon the midrashim of the sages. Listen carefully to what the rabbis stated about the destruction of Shiloh together with the Tabernacle that exited in Shiloh.

In the book of Samuel 1 (Ch 2:22) it states: “Eli was very old and heard all that his sons were doing to all of Israel, and that which they would sleep with all the women who would congregate by the Tent of Meeting”.

Rashi and Radak interpreted the text according to its plain sense and then cite a midrash of Hazal (as is my practice as well in teaching). However, most rabbis in our day only teach this according to the words of hazal. And this is what it states in the Talmud (Shabbat 55b). “Whoever states that the children of Eli sinned is mistaken…rather because they tarried and did not bring the sacrifices of the women who had given birth (in a timely fashion) thus causing them not to be allowed to be with their husbands, The Torah considers it as if they slept with these women.”

It is a clear kal vachomer (a fortiori argument). If the Talmud considered the sons of Eli who prevented women from engaging in procreation for a number of nights (until they paid up the terumah that the sons of Eli demanded –see Samuel 1:2:12-16) as having slept with these women, (of having committed a grave offense)-and thus it explained the words of the prophecy, what will be the judgment of the rabbis and dayanim who postpone and prevent the giving of gittin for months and years. According to the sages this can be considered similar to the actions of the sons of Eli, as they harm the women who congregate at the doors of the rabbinical courts begging to receive a get according to halacha.

It is for these actions and inactions that the Torah world and the rabbinate may, God forbid, be destroyed just as the Tabernacle at Shiloh was eradicated.

 

Rav Yoel Bin Nun is the former rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Kibbutz Hadati and a founding faculty member of Michlelet Herzog of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and a faculty member at Yeshivat Har Etzion and other Torah institutions. He is a pioneer of the modern day study of Tanakh in the Religious-Zionist world in Israel and beyond and a leading thinker, activist and educator in the Torah world. This essay originally appeared in Hebrew in the June 20th edition of Makor Rishon. The essay was translated into English by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot.


Gonna Celebrate Pesach Like It’s 5773 – Rabbi Barry Gelman

March 24, 2013

I recently listened to a shiur on the subject of Pesach wherein the Rabbi insisted that currently we celebrate the spiritual freedom of Pesach (Mitcheila Ovdei Avodah Zara HaYu Avoteinu) and not the physical freedom expressed in the Haggadah (Avadim HeYeinu L’Paroh B’Mitzrayim). He noted that since we are under the jurisdiction of others, we cannot celebrate physical freedom.

I was dismayed at this outlook and wondered how, after the establishment of the State of Israel that someone could suggest that we celebrate Pesach in 5773 the same way we did in 1933, or during anytime since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash.

I felt better after reading Ruth Wisse’s column in Friday’s Wall Street Journal

But the most inspiring incarnation of the exodus has been the one that reversed it: the recovery of the Jewish homeland from foreign occupiers after millennia of exile. Not by the hands of an angel and not by the hands of a messenger, but by the self-reliance that their ancestors had practiced for millennia, and by keeping faith with their vow to return to Jerusalem, the settlers of Israel accomplished one of the greatest national feats in history.

Jews reclaimed their political independence in the land of Israel in the same decade that witnessed the genocidal slaughter of one-third of their people. They did so not only by mobilizing skills honed through centuries of adaptation to foreign rule but by reactivating powers that were dormant for centuries.

Can the legendary crossing of the Red Sea compare with the marvel of several million Jewish migrants and refugees from lands as disparate as Ethiopia and Latvia forging a common, democratic Jewish state? Are the plagues that persuaded Pharaoh to “let my people go” or the miracles in the desert as stunning as Israel’s ability to withstand the preposterously asymmetrical Arab aggression against it? The revival of Hebrew from sacral high status into national vernacular is an unparalleled linguistic feat. Entrepreneurship in Israel has won it the title of “start-up nation.”

The traditional Passover Seder concludes with the pledge, “Next year in Jerusalem,” which the British poet William Blake nationalized in the vow not to rest “Till we have built Jerusalem / In England’s green & pleasant Land.” Yet modern Israel represents an immense human accomplishment that may even go beyond the prophetic vision. Passover today includes a story of national liberation at least the equal of the one in the Book of Exodus that served as its inspiration.

Ruth Wisse understands that history changes the way we think about and experience history.

Rabbi Menachem Mendle Kasher, among others, considers this approach a simple matter of Hakarat HaTov, recognizing the good that God has done. To celebrate Pesach as if there is no State of Israel is to ignore the favors that God has bestowed on us.

Rabbi Kasher recommends adding a fifth cup corresponding the the final word of redemption – V’Heiveiti – “and I will

…and our fathers have told us—we will not hide it from their children, telling to the generation to come the praises of the Eternal, and His strength, and His wondrous works that He hath done.” Also, it is said: “Let them give thanks unto the Eternal for His mercy, and for His wondrous works for the children of men.”

And now, in our own time, when we have been privileged to behold the mercies of the Holy Name, blessed is He, and His salvation over us, in the establishment of the State of Israel, which is the beginning of redemption and salvation from the exile of Edom, even as it is written: “And I shall bring you into the land, the same which I have lifted my hand to give unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, and I have given it unto you as an inheritance: I am the Eternal”—it is fitting and proper that we observe this pious act, the drinking of the fifth cup, as a form of thanksgiving.

Just as we have been privileged to see the first realization of ” And I shall bring them,” so may we be worthy of witnessing the perfect and complete redemption, the coming of the Messiah. May we witness fulfillment of the vision of the prophets, that “evil shall disappear as smoke in the wind, and that all the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God.

Even if one does not subscribe to Rabbi Kasher’s messianic overtones, there is still reason to approach Pesach differently than our grandparents did. It’s called Dayeinu.

Each step of that famous song represents an incomplete redemption. Would it really have “been enough” had God brought us to Mount Sinai,  but not given us the Torah?

Well, it depends on what we are asking. If we are asking, would it have been enough to be considered a complete redemption, then the answer is no. But, if the question is: Would it have been enough to offer thank to God, then the answer us yes. The answer is yes, because imperfect and incomplete redemptions are also worthy of praise and thanksgiving.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital notes this approach when discussing celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut

How can we not thank the Almighty for all the kindness that He has showered upon us?  First and foremost, the State of Israel serves as a safe haven for five million Jews. After the nightmare of the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees wandered around the globe, finding a home and refuge only in Israel.  The State has contributed an incalculable amount to the restoration of Jewish pride after the devastating chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) caused by the Holocaust.  Today, too, the State plays an enormous role in the Jewish identity of our brethren throughout the world.  For so many of them, the emotional attachment to the State remains the final thread connecting them to the Jewish people and to the God of Israel.

 I spoke earlier of Rav Kook’s inability to come to terms with the establishment of a state that would not bring to fruition the ultimate destiny of redemption.  This led him to claim that the impending State of Israel was to be the ideal State of the period of ge’ula (redemption).  But don’t all the critical functions fulfilled by the State of Israel (as listed above) justify its existence, even if it has not developed into the ideal community?  After the traumatic destruction of the Holocaust, which Rav Kook could not possibly have foreseen, the State played a critical role in the restoration and revitalization of the Jewish people.  It is hard to imagine what the Jewish nation would look like today if, Heaven forbid, the State of Israel had not emerged.

 I experienced the horror of the destruction of European Jewry, and I can thus appreciate the great miracle of Jewish rebirth in our homeland.  Are we not obligated to thank the Almighty for His kindness towards us?  Unquestionably!  And not just on Yom Ha-atzma’ut; each day we must recite Hallel seven times for the wonders and miracles He has performed on our behalf: “I praise you seven times each day!” (Tehillim 119:164).

Are things perfect? No. Could things be better? Yes. Would it be that the Messiah would arrive and that all of Israel’s enemies were no longer. But we must not confuse Pesach 5773, being celebrated in a world with a State of Israel with Pesach in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Dayeinu!


With Hashem’s Help, Let the Indonesia Interfaith Middle East Peace Tour Begin! Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 20, 2012

Writing from Hong Kong Airport, where I’m waiting for my flight to Jakarta:

It was hard to believe this would happen, but here I am davening shacharit, having lost a day (Sunday disappeared) and facing West to Israel!  I decided that since I lost the Song of the Day for “Yom Rishon B’shabat” (Sunday), I would say after Monday’s Song of the Day “Today is Sunday in Israel, where the Leviim used to say in the Temple…”

The Indonesian government has generously invited five rabbis, four Christian clergy and three American Muslim clerics to fly to Jakarta, meet up with 12 Indonesian (probably all Muslim) clergy, and then head to Dubai (just one night), Jordan, Israel (including Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Tel Aviv), then to Washington DC for meetings with the State Dept., the White House and Congress.  The mission, ostensibly: Finding ways of using our three Abrahamic religions to bridge gaps and promote peace.  Indonesia is a thriving Democracy, by all accounts, but it is on the cusp of deciding: Will it continue to embrace the more progressive, relatively tolerant Islam that it derived in its struggle against colonialism from such thinkers as Muhammad Abdu and Afghani, or will it give in to the newer forces of Islamic fundamentalism coming from the Middle East, which are beginning to proliferate in Indonesia.  While Indonesia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, there is potential for warmer relations, and the fact that this group of non-official, but influential,  Indonesians will be meeting with President Shimon Peres and a lot of other Israeli luminaries hopefully bodes well.

I intend to write almost daily on Morethodoxy from each of cities where we will be having conversations and relationship building exercises.  The five rabbis on this trip represent the spectrum of organized Jewish life in America: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.  Certainly none of us speaks for a movement, but together I hope that the discussions are frank and honest, with all sides seeing different dimensions of Judaism, and hopefully Christianity and Islam as well.

Looking forward to writing from Jakarta where I hope to arrive Monday afternoon at 2:00 PM Indonesian time.

Shalom al Yisrael, Peace on Israel and from Israel to the whole world,

Asher Lopatin


Desexualizing Public Space – by Rabbi Zev Farber

February 3, 2012

Introduction

The story is told (b. Taanit 24a) that Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Avin left his teacher, Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat, in order to study with Rav Ashi. As leaving one teacher for another was an unusual thing to do, Rav Ashi asked him why he did so. Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Avin responded: “A man who has no compassion even for his own son and daughter – how could he have any for me?” The Talmud explains:

[Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat] had a beautiful daughter. One day, he saw a certain man making a hole in a palm-leaf fence and peeping at her. He said to him: “What are you doing?” He responded: “Master, if I have not merited marrying her, will I not at least merit looking at her?” [Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat] said to her: “My daughter, you are disturbing [God’s] creations, return to your dust, and let men not stumble on your account.”

The story of Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat and his daughter is particularly chilling. A normal father would have been angry at the man for peeping at his daughter; instead Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat blames the innocent girl for being attractive. Although the Talmud uses the story of Rabbi Yossi of Yoqrat as an example of cruel and unjust behavior, more than a millennium later this type of thinking has returned to the surface.

Rabbi Dov Linzer and Male Responsibility

It would be redundant for me to excoriate the behavior of the Sikrikim in Beit Shemesh, as many others have already condemned them for spitting on little girls and roughing up opponents. One of the best of such rebukes was by my own teacher, Rabbi Dov Linzer, in a New York Times op-ed, Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud. However, Rabbi Linzer’s response diverges from many other condemnations of the Sikrikim with a radically different focus for Jewish laws regarding tzniut (modesty).

The basic idea behind tzniut – and I use the term to refer to modesty in the sexual arena rather than humility – is to desexualize public space and interactions between men and women. Rabbi Linzer argues that according to his reading of Jewish law, the Talmud “places the responsibility for controlling men’s licentious thoughts about women squarely on the men.”

Professor Shaul Magid’s Critique

Although the article was well-received by many, a number of critiques have been launched and I would like to focus on Professor Shaul Magid’s critique in Religion Dispatches. Although he applauds Rabbi Linzer’s “anti-misogynist” attitude, Professor Magid suggests that Rabbi Linzer’s position “is actually in conflict with key authoritative texts of the traditions,” and supports this claim with a number of examples.[1]

Magid challenges Linzer: “To instantiate your reading of the Talmud would require you to act decisively to abolish all the legal mandates that objectify women’s bodies and put the onus on the men to take full control of their libido and desire.” In my opinion, Professor Magid pushes his case too far.

A Reframing of the Conversation

Rabbi Linzer’s op-ed paints with a broad brush and was surely not meant as a full articulation of Jewish law. To clarify matters somewhat, I would like to offer my own reframing of Rabbi Linzer’s position.[2] Jewish law wishes interactions between men and women in the public sphere (i.e. non-marital interactions) to be de-sexualized. If men feel aroused as a part of their normal interactions with women it is the responsibility of the men to control this. The Talmud is aware that it is difficult to predict what may stimulate a man’s sexual thoughts. This fact motivates statements like that of Rav Sheshet (b. Berakhot 24a), for example, that staring at a woman’s little finger can be like staring at her fully unclothed. As Rabbi Linzer aptly points out, this is not a requirement for women to wear gloves, but a requirement for men to note when their minds are wandering in the wrong direction and fix it.

However, the above paradigm applies to ordinary interactions, i.e. interactions that are not meant to be sexual. I do not think that Rabbi Linzer’s claim that women are not responsible for men’s lewd thoughts applies to situations where women may actually be sexualizing the atmosphere on their own. Men also have a right to ask for desexualized public space. Even secular law is aware of this fact, which is why there are statutes against public indecency. The question becomes: What kind of behavior sexualizes the atmosphere? It is with regard to this question that, I feel, Professor Magid and Rabbi Linzer are speaking at cross purposes.

Tzniut as Sociologically Determined

By its very nature, what sexualizes a given environment is sociologically determined. Although there is no discussion in the Talmud about “laws of tzniut,” the Talmud does list certain behaviors as “provocative” in the context of divorce and fault.[3] A terrific example is found in the Tosefta (t. Ketubot 7:6).

If [a woman’s husband] makes a vow that she must allow any man to taste her cooking, or that she must fill up and then pour out garbage, or that she should tell random men intimate details about her life with him – she may leave and [her husband] must make the ketubah payment, since he has not behaved with her in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel (dat Moshe ve-Yisrael).

Similarly if [a man’s wife] goes out with her hair exposed, she goes out with her clothing in tatters, she behaves arrogantly with her slaves, maidservants or the neighborhood women, she goes out to weave in the public marketplace, she washes or is washed in the bathhouse in the company of random men – [if he decides to divorce her] she leaves without her ketubah payment, since she has not behaved with him in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel (dat Moshe ve-Yisrael).

The text deals with one type of fault that violates a marriage: humiliating one’s partner through his or her behavior. The list of a wife’s inappropriate behavior is clearly not meant to be exhaustive or objectively determined. I believe this applies to other iterations of this list as well.[4] In Talmudic times, a woman going out with her hair exposed or tattered clothing would have been sexualizing the environment around her with her public display, which is why a husband can call such behavior “fault.”

Halakha may be timeless but society changes; what may have been considered sexualizing behavior in one society may be considered harmless in a different society. Thus, a modest woman living in Saudi Arabia may not feel comfortable wearing a polo shirt in public, whereas a modest woman living in a Western society would. Furthermore, if a man from this same Western society were to complain that he finds women in polo-shirts erotic, we would have every right to tell him that this is his problem; it is he who is sexualizing the environment.

Context Specific Modesty

In fact, modesty can be context specific within the same society. A woman who wears an ordinary bathing suit to the beach is not sexualizing her environment; this is how women on the beach dress. However, if this same woman were to wear the same bathing suit to the office or the supermarket she would absolutely be sexualizing the environment. What constitutes innocuous behavior versus erotic behavior is extremely context specific and the question is where to place the bar.

Speaking for myself, it seems to me that telling modern religious girls and women that they may not wear regular T-shirts or regular-fit shorts because their knees and elbows sexualize the environment is misguided.[5] In fact, I believe making such rules accomplishes the opposite; the rule actually sexualizes the woman more. By telling young teenage girls that they are being provocative even when they aren’t trying to be, we may unwittingly make them feel sexualized even during their normal interactions with men – exactly the opposite of what halakha is trying to accomplish.

A Conflict in Values

The challenge for modern religious men and women is that we live in a culture where a “modest amount” of sexualizing of the environment is not considered problematic. Although most of us live in societies where public nudity or sexual expression is prohibited, Western society does condone a certain amount of conscious public sexual display, especially in dress.

Consequently, not all clothing worn in our society is, in fact, appropriate for religious women. Plunging necklines, skin-tight outfits or dresses with thigh-high slits are designed to sexualize the environment to some degree. This may be considered appropriate in secular society but not for modest Jewish women. Although it goes unmentioned in his op-ed, I trust Rabbi Linzer would agree with this point, which is why I believe Professor Magid’s challenge goes too far. Of course halakha still has what to say about women’s, as well as men’s, public comportment.

The Need for Tolerance

Undoubtedly, we live in complex societies wherein people of different religious beliefs and values must get along. Even if halakha forbids certain types of dress, the religious man has no right to attempt to force this “dress code” on anyone else, and certainly not to use violence and other scare tactics. Just as the Talmud rejected R. Yossi of Yoqrat’s warped perception, we reject our own modern manifestations of it. This is self-evident and axiomatic. It has been agreed upon by the vast majority of religious Jews who have commented on the recent abhorrent behavior in Beit Shemesh, and need not be belabored here.

Conclusion

The important contribution of Rabbi Linzer’s piece – and my own – is to encourage our community to consider how the burden of desexualizing the environment has fallen completely upon the shoulders of women over the years. This burden has contributed to the disempowerment of women in the religious Jewish world and, ironically, has sexualized them even more. When women are held liable for every male sexual fantasy, they inevitably become nothing more than sex objects. This is the ultimate violation of tzniut and is not the fault of Talmudic law, but of the skewed perception of it in our times.


[1] Unfortunately, some of Professor Magid’s illustrations are not fully accurate. For example, he states that “Jewish law permits a mehitza that would enable the womento see the men-just not the other way around. The reason: to prevent the men from being distracted by women during prayer.” This is a tenuous claim. The requirement for meḥitza that in synagogues is never mentioned in the Talmud or early sources, and when it does finally receive mention in twentieth century rabbinic literature, its purpose is hotly contested. Professor Magid’s description of the rule and purpose of meḥitza reflects only one view, and not even the most prominent one. For an interesting analysis of the institution of meḥitza and its place in modern day Orthodox rhetoric, see Rabbi Alan J. Yuter, “Mehizah, Midrash and Modernity; a Study in Religious Rhetoric,” Judaism 28.1 (1979): 147-159.

[2] To see Rabbi Linzer’s own articulation of his position in different words, see his blog post on tzniut. See also R. Aryeh Klapper’s excellent article on tzniut in Text and Texture for a distinct but related take.

[3] There is also a discussion in the context of reciting the Shema (b. Berakhot 24a).

[4] Like the list in b. Berakhot 24a of what is considered indecent (ervah); Professor Magid is certainly correct that most if not all Talmudic passages have more than one possible interpretation. There are those who believe that these lists are not societally determined but timeless. A technical discussion of these and related sources taking into account all the various traditional interpretations must be saved for a different venue.

[5] To clarify, I am not discussing whether religious schools should have dress codes and if so what they should be. Furthermore, I will refrain from discussing hair covering for married women in this piece, as the subject is complicated. See Rabbi Michael J. Broyde’s most recent iteration of his position on hair-covering in Hirhurim for one perspective on this.

Rabbi Zev Farber, Atlanta


No Time For Chareidi Bashing: What We Can Learn From Our Reaction to Beit Shemesh – Barry Gelman

January 2, 2012

There have been numerous takes on the recent events in Beit Shemesh. Most of them have focused on politics and sociology. I would like to offer a brief analysis based on spiritual values and, humbly submit what we can learn from our reaction to these events.

The chareidi men who have been harassing the little girls and the mothers claim to be acting L’Shem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, and in the name of God.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was no stranger to controversy or, for that matter, people saying horrible things about him and doing despicable things to him wrote the following about the limits of what we do for the sake of heaven.

כבוד-שמים המושג השגה בהירה מרומם הוא את ערך האדם וערך כל היצורים כבוד שמים מגושם הוא נוטה לע”ז, ומשפיל את כבוד האדם וכבוד כל הבריות

“When the duty of honor God is conceived of in an enlightened manner, it raise human worth and thew worth of all creatures…But a crude conception of God tends toward the idolatrous and degrades the dignity of humanity… “

Rav Kook is reminding us that honor of God that is based on the greatness of human beings, created in the image of God uplifts people. On the other hand, honor of God understood in a shallow fashion, as if God needs our honor, leads to anger toward those who do not honor God, and is idolatrous as, by definition, a wrong conception of God is being honored. This incorrect undersntanding of God leads to people being degraded and mistreated, all in the name of God. Rav Kook goes on with something even more amazing:

ע”כ גדול הוא כבוך הבריות שדוחה את לא-תעשה שבתורה , להורות על כבוד שמים הבהיר, המגדל בטובו את יסוד כבוד הבריות

It is for this reason the sages declared that the dignity of persons is so important that is supersedes a negative precept of the Torah…”

Here Rav Kook reminds us that performance of MItzvot can actually get in the way of Kavod Shamayim. Thus, in some cases, even God’s honor, in terms of some commandments, is set aside in order to protect the honor of a human being. What we have here is a real definition of what it means to honor God. In Rav Kook’s mind, it is simple. If something brings honor to another human being, it can be considered honor of God as well. On the other hand, if something brings disparagement or harassment to another human being, then by definition, it cannot be an honor to God. Rav Kook’s teaches that in all of our endeavours, even in our striving to to Mitzvot, that how we do what we do goes to the very legitimacy of our act. Perhaps not always, but in many many cases, the litmus test of deciding if what I am doing is a mitzvah or not is easy: Does it being honor to others?

It is clear that the Chareidi protestors in Beit Shemesh have lost all sense of what it really means to act L’Shem Shamayim. Spitting on little girl and calling women prostitutes does not fit Rav Kooks definition.

While what is going on in Beit Shemesh is horrible, it does offer us the opportunity for some introspection. What is so troubling is that these people are using any means neccesary to achieve their goals, even if means harming and disparaging others. The upset this is causing us should remind us to be careful in terms of what means we use to achieve our goals. Even in our religious strivings, we must be mindful of how our actions affect others. Is there a way to achieve our goal without hurting others? If not, is it really a worthwhile goal? Have we exhausted all of our halachik creativity to reach our goal while at the same time, protecting the dignity of others.

It is easy to engage in Chareidi bashing, but it will much more productive if we use our understandable indignation as a catalyst to self improvement.