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

January 16, 2015

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

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

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

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

July 31, 2014

Precis

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Stating the Problem Honestly

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

Read the rest of this entry »


Guest Post by R. Ysoscher Katz: Translation of a Letter to Rav H. Schachter shlita

February 21, 2014

In response to numerous requests for a translation of my response to Rav H. Schachter’s letter on Partnership Minyanim, I am posting a translation

When translating from one language to another one runs the risk of losing some of the specifics; the nuance of an argument, and the intricacies of a line of thought oftentimes get lost. Therefore, if at all possible, I urge you to read the original Hebrew version.

כבוד הרה״ג ר׳ צבי שכטר שליט״א, ר”מ בישיבת יצחק אלחנן

אחדשה״ט כראוי לכבוד תורתו.

I read your Teshuvah on partnership minyanim and with your permission I would like to respond to some of your arguments.

Kevodo [your honor] wrote, “In my opinion not all who have learned in yeshiva, in kollel, or even those who have been ordained with the title Rav are permitted to give legal rulings.  To be considered a “sage who has attainted the ability to give rulings” one needs not only to have knowledge of the entire corpus of Torah, but also to be a person who is level in his learning.”

Clearly, one who is not trained to adjudicate cannot give halakhic instruction. Chazal (Sotah 22a) have already warned about the damage that can result from this in their reading of the verse Ki rabim halalaim hapilah/for she has felled many victims (Proverbs 7:26), which refers to a student who has not achieved the ability to give halakhic instruction. However, it is important to remember that by the same measure they also warned against the opposite, a student who has been ordained to give halakhic instruction, but doesn’t rule.  Regarding such a situation, the sages interpreted the second half of the above verse: Ve’atzumim kol harugaha/the number of her slain is great – “this refers to a student who has achieved the ability to give halakhic instruction but doesn’t.”

It is interesting to note that the Maharsha in his commentary Chidushei Agadot, explains that the word atzumim is from the language of greatness and importance.  It would seem, at first glance, that he agrees with Kevod HaRav’s [your] position, that a judge is permitted to issue rulings only if, in addition to being ordained, he is also “great and important.”  However, Rashi disagrees with the Maharsha.  Rashi explains that atzumim is from the language of “shuts his eyes” (otzem ainav, Isaiah 33), that they close their mouths and do not give halakhic instruction to those in need of such instruction.  It is clear that Rashi does not agree with the Maharsha and that according to this opinion one who “has knowledge of the entire corpus of Torah”, even if he is not “great and important”, is allowed, and even obligated, to give halakhic instruction.

The halakha codified in the Shulchan Arukh follows Rashi’s opinion, not the Maharsha’s. The Mechaber writes (Yoreh Deah 242:14) “Any scholar who has achieved the ability to give instruction but does not, stands in the way of Torah and places stumbling blocks before the masses. And of such a person it is said, the number of her slain is great (Prov 7:26).” It is important to pay attention to the fact that the Beit Yosef (the author of the Shulchan Arukh) is careful in his language and writes “any”, which appears to exclude from his view the opinion of the Maharsha who teaches that only the elite few are permitted to issue rulings.  So too, the Pitchei Teshuva writes (ibid seif katan 8): ” ‘Any scholar’ – Refer to the Maharsha in the Chiddushei Agadot of the third chapter on Sotah who writes that in our generation those who give halakhic rulings straight from the Shulchan Arukh, without knowing the reasons behind the issue – if they have not first looked into the sources of the Talmud – err in their rulings and are considered amongst those who destroy the world and therefore it is proper to ridicule them.  It is possible that this was true at the time of the Maharsha, when there wasn’t a single commentary on the Shulchan Arukh, but today, after the Taz, Shach, Magen Avraham, and other commentaries have been written, and every halakha’s reasons and sources have been discussed, it is perfectly fine to issue a ruling from the Shulchan Arukh and later commentaries.”

The great sage the Maharsham elaborated on this topic in the introduction to his book Mishpat Shalom on Choshen Mishpat.  According to his opinion, not only is it prohibited for a rabbi to restrain himself from issuing a ruling, but he is also obligated to respond to halakhic questions as quickly as he can, and to do otherwise would be considered “delaying justice.” (See Mishna Avot 5:11.) He even tries to claim that it might be forbidden for the rabbi to take an afternoon nap out of a fear of causing an unnecessary “delay of judgement.”

In Sefer Chassidim 530 (Margaliot edition) Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid writes, “Anyone to whom God has revealed something, but who refuses to write it down even though he is capable of writing it, steals from He Who Has Revealed it to him, because He revealed it only to be written as it says:  God’s secret is with those who fear Him and His covenant to inform them (Psalms 25:14). And it says, Your springs will spread outwards(Proverbs 5:16).” Rabbi Chayyim Palagi, in his book Chikekei Lev (Yoreh Deah Siman 42), writes that a scholar cannot refrain from issuing a psak, for doing so is tantamount to one who suppresses prophecy whose punishment is death (Rabbi Ovadia Yosef zt”l quotes his words in responsa Yechave Daat 1:13). And according to the Gemara in Gittin (56a) the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because of a judge who didn’t have the courage to speak his mind.

(Tangentially, perhaps it is important to point out the disagreement between the Rama and Rabbi Chayyim Loew, the brother of the Maharal, in his book Mayyim Chayyim.  The brother of the Maharal strongly disagrees with the Rama’s position supporting a centralized judiciary.  In the introduction to his book, he fiercely refutes the Rama using as a support the concept that “a judge rules only according what his eyes perceive” (Sanhedrin 6b) and is therefore opposed to the notion of a centralized authority which decides from a distance what should be prohibited and what should be permitted, what is correct and what is incorrect)

Kevodo continues: “Compare what Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik z”l wrote in the year 5720 (in his book Divrei Hashkafah, p 243) “From the yeshivot emerged students who were punctilious in Mitzvah observance down to the very edge of the yod of the tradition…Bnei Torah who slept in the depths of halacha…  I am troubled by three negative phenomena… We have yet to educate great Torah giants of whom we can be proud of.  We have people who are immersed in Torah and even Torah scholars, but no men of great Torah stature. The buds can be seen in the land, but the vine has not flowered in all its glory… On the one hand, American youth tend to veer towards an extremism that is shocking in its braziness.  On the other hand, often they will tilt in the oppisite direction and agree to compromises, choosing the paths of least resisitence.  In a word, they are confused in the paths of yidiskheit and this confusion is the consquence of a flimsy word view.”

The alert reader will notice that Rav Soloveitchik z”l complains as much about those who are too strict as he does about those who are too lenient.  When I was a student of Rav Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik Shlit”a in Yeshivat Brisk in Jerusalem, I would often hear him quote Rav Baruch Baer Leibowitz z”l who would say in the name of Reb Chayyim zt”l (basing himself on the verse in Proverbs 17:15) that to condemn a righteous person is no less an abomination than to exonerate an evil person.

Teshuvat Meimonit (Kedusha 15) quotes the Yerushalmi (at the end of the fifth chapter of Terumot) that just as it is prohibited to permit that which is prohibited, so too it is prohibited to forbid that which is permitted.  And this is how the Shach rules in his Guide To Pesika (Yoreh Deah 242:9). Similarly, it says in the Yerushalmi (Nedaraim 9 halakha 1), “Is what the Torah itself prohibited not sufficient for you?!”

In particular, in our generation, one should be cautious not to be excessively strict, when any stringency can become “a stringency which leads to a leniency,” since needles stringencies can cause many to leave a life of Torah and Mitzvot.  And these are the words of Rav Kook zt”l (Orach Mishpat, O”C 112) “I understand clearly the character of our generation, that only by virtue of seeing that we permit all that can be permitted according to the depths of the law will they come to understand that that which we don’t permit must be because it is the truth of the law.  We will find that as a result of this approach, many will attach themselves to Torah and will listen to the voices of legal instructors.  This will not be true if it were discovered that there are matters that, according to the rule of the law, should be permitted, but by not being sensitive to the struggles and pain of Israel, rabbis allow these things to remain prohibited.  And through this, God forbid, God’s name will be defiled, and more people will say regarding certain areas of Torah that if only the rabbis wanted to they could permit.  And through this, a corrupt judgment will emerge.” Although the Chatam Sofer famously wrote to the Maharatz Chayut that “we need to elevate the prohibited,” this is a singular opinion. Throughout hundreds of years of halakhic rulings, not a single decisor advanced such an idea, and after the Chatam Sofer, nearly no other decisor supported this approach.

Kevodo continues: “It is known that during the period of the vaad of Arba Arzot there was a decree not to publish any halakhic books without the approbation of Torah sages.”

Kevodo is correct, the sages of Hungary, who followed in the footsteps of the Chatam Sofer, were careful not to publish any books without an approbation.  However, a cursory glance will reveal that the the same was not true of the sages of Lithuania and many of the sages of Poland.  Many of them printed their collections of responsa without approbations. (For example: the Achiezer, Iggerot Moshe, the Seridei Aish, and many others) It is clear that, in their opinion, the ordination and permission to issue halakhic rulings that they received from their teachers or rabbis is sufficient enough approbation.

Kevodo: continues “One who wishes to demonstrate his love for their parents or wife does things for their benefit even if unasked; this is also the case with God.  In Song of Songs it is written, “your beloved is better than wine”.  Commenting on this, the Gemara states that the words of the scribes are better than the wine of Torah, with scribes refering to the rabbinic commandments, and these are all under the category of “your beloved”.  This is to say, in order to demonstrate our love of God, we perform acts that we were not commanded, acts that we understand, on our own, to be pleasing to God, as it were.”

I was surprised since these words buttress, rather than undermine, the very claim that Kevodo is criticizing. If I understand correctly, this is precisely Kevodo’s analogy: If one who loves someone does more than is requested by the beloved out of their own will, does it not follow from here that those who are not obligated in a particular Mitzvah should find ways to perform it nevertheless?

Related to this: I was surprised that Kavodo Shlit”a derides those who seek additional ways to express their yearning for connection to God, when our Sages praise them. Chazal say (Makkot 10a): R. Simlai gave the following exposition: What is the meaning of the verse, one who loves silver shall not be satisfied with silver, nor one who delights in multitude, with increase?  One who loves silver shall not be satisfied with silver- this refers to Moses, who, while knowing that the three cities beyond the Jordan would not harbor refugees so long as the other three in the land of Canaan had not been selected, nevertheless said: The charge having come within my reach, I shall give [partial] effect to it, now.” One who loves silver shall not be satisfied with silver- this refers to Moses. Rabenu Chananel (ad loc) writes: “Moses loved Mitzvot and, therefore, felt that the ones he was obligated with were not enough, he wanted more of them. “

The Mordechei, in Bava Metzia, went even further. In his opinion, there are cases where one is obligated to act beyond the letter of the law, and the requirement to do so has the full status of the law, so much so that, at times, according to his opinion, it is possible that we can even coerce someone to act beyond the letter of the law. In my opinion, the two stories that are found at the end of the chapter “Hasocher et Ha’omanin” (Bava Metzia 83a) clearly support this opinion (see the Ritva ad loc)

We also find in the achronim a positive approach to those who seek extra-halackic opportunities to serve God. One opinion that particularly stands out is the Chatam Sofer. In his famous responsa to the Matesdorf community (O”C 191 and in other places) he writes that the “Matesdorf Purim” that the citizens of the town added according to their own opinion to commemorate the miracle that they experienced has the status of a biblical law. (His ingenious opinion is based on the Gemara in megillah 14a that Israel sang praise when going from slavery to freedom, all the more so when going from death to life).

(With your permission, I will say that I know from personal experience that Kevodo’s appraisal of those “innovators” is not correct.  Many of my friends and acquaintances pray in these minyanim and nearly all of them are completely God-fearing; their intention is to dwell in the house of God, to behold His graciousness, and to visit His sanctuary.  Their goal is to increase commitment to God’s Torah and to worshiping Him in a way that decreases the dissonance between what happens inside the synagogue and how they experience life outside of it.

Additionally, as a general principle, it is impossible to judge the intentions of another, for, “Man looks into their eyes, while God peers into their hearts” (Samuel 1:17) The Mishna is Avot (2:4) is well known: “Do not judge your friend until you’ve stood in his place.”  The Gurer Chassidim quote a saying in the name of the Chiddushei Ha’Rim who adds on to the mishna: And you will never reach their place, therefore never judge. Insightful words)

Kevod HaRav continues: It is known that this claim was the claim of the Sadducees against the Sages in the time of the Tanaim: that the Torah discriminates against the rights of women regarding issues of inheritance.  Therefore the Sadducees claimed that a daughter is to inherit with the daughter of the son (Bava Kama 115b).  And the Tanaim had strong words for them.”

With apologies to Kevod HaRav, the Sadducees were not the first to complain about discrimination against women in issues of inheritance; they were preceded by hundreds of years by the daughters of Zelaphchad who complained (Num 27:4) “Why should the name of our father be lost among his family because he had no son?  Give us a possession among the brothers of our father.” And in the language of the Sifre “Their eyes saw that which Moses’ eyes did not see” (that is that there are times when women can see something that even someone as great as Moses, who spoke with the Shechina “mouth to mouth,” did not see.) And God consented to their words unequivocally: “Correctly have the daughters of Zelaphchad spoken.”  God listened to their claim (“God conceded the truth!” Avot D’Rebbe Natan Ch. 37) and changed the laws of inheritance to make them more egalitarian (relatively, as should be understood)

Further on Kevodo describes the excessive responsiveness towards women as a reason for the downfall of Christianity.  Kevod HaRav writes: “It is stated in the Gemara Shabbat (117b) that the first Christians would make legal decisions counter to Torah Law (that a son and daughter would inherit as one, which has already been discussed (the connection of the Sadducees to the Heretics and first Christians) by the author of the Tzafnat Paneach (in his responsa 313), that the Christians inherited their approach from the Sadducees. And this type of motivation, to create new practices, is certainly prohibited, as is known to us from history.  Go and see just what the end was for the Sadducees and the early Christians.”

I was surprised by these words, since the Sages say exactly the opposite. The Gemara at the end of Gitin (90a) says: “It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: As men differ in their treatment of their food, so too do they differ in their treatment of their wives. Some men, if a fly falls into their cup, will put it aside and not drink it. This corresponds to the way of Papus b. Judah who, when he went out, used to lock his wife indoors. Another man, if a fly falls into his cup, will throw away the fly and then drink the cup. This corresponds to the way of most men who do not mind their wives talking with their brothers and relatives. Another man, again, if a fly falls into his soup, will squash it and eat it. This corresponds to the way of a bad man who sees his wife go out with her hair unfastened and spin cloth in the street with her armpits uncovered and bathe with the men. Bathe with the men, you say? — It should be, bathe in the same place as the men. Such a one it is a religious duty to divorce.”

According to this Gemara, Papus Ben Yehuda is the negative example of what happens to one who behaves in an extreme manner with his wife.  Rashi, as printed in Chisronot HaShas writes that Papus Ben Yehuda is Miriam Magdalin’s husband, the father of Jesus. What emerges from this is that, according to the Sages, Miriam, Jesus’ mother, became pregnant because of the extremism of her husband.

In my humble opinion, the message of this Gemara is exactly the opposite of what Kevod HaRav writes. The Sages are claiming that Christianity came into the word as a result of extremism and discrimination against women and they warn us about the detrimental consequences of such an extreme attitude towards women- heresy (Christianity) was born from this behavior.

Kevodo continues: “Even according to the achronim who think that the consent of the community helps permit publicly reading from the Torah, here, regarding women reading from the Torah, the essential concern begins from the woman’s perspective – that she shouldn’t have to compromise her modesty, from which it follows that it isn’t proper for her to serve as a Shaliacha Tzibur for Pesukei D’Zimra or Kabbalat Shabbat or to read the Ketuba under the Chuppah.”

The Torah, Prophets and Chazal all write the opposite, that, at times, it is permitted to give into the desire to do God’s will, even if this leads, in a specific manner, to the breaching of bounds of modesty.  Two examples of many that stand out are the story of David when he returns the Ark of the Covenant (Shmuel II 6) and the incident of the mirrors of the women who had set up the legions that were used in the Tabernacle.

When David returns the Ark of the Covenant, he becomes so enthusiastic, to the extent that he forgets the bounds of modesty.  He wife, Michal, criticizes him saying: How did the king of Israel get himself honor today, who uncovered himself today in the eyes of the handmaids of his servants, as one of the vain fellows shamelessly uncovers himself”.  David ignores the criticism and justifies his immodest behavior by saying that he acted this way to serve God (ibid ver. 21).  As is known, this story serves as the Rambam’s source (The final halakha in the laws of Lulav) that there is an “additional” obligation to rejoice during the performance of a mitzvah (as Rabbi Yerucham Fishel Perlow expounds in his book on the Sefer HaMitzvhot of Rav Sa’adya Gaon).

We find a similar idea in the story of the mirrors (Ex 38:8) And this is how Rashi explains its importance.  “From the mirrors of the women who had set up the legions” – Israelite women owned mirrors, which they would look into when they adorned themselves. Even these [mirrors] they did not hold back from bringing as a contribution toward the Tabernacle, but Moses rejected them because they were made for temptation [i.e., to inspire lustful thoughts]. The Holy One, blessed is He, said to him, “Accept [them], for these are more precious to Me than anything because through them the women set up many legions [i.e., through the children they gave birth to] in Egypt.” When their husbands were weary from back-breaking labor, they [the women] would go and bring them food and drink and give them to eat. Then they [the women] would take the mirrors and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror, and she would seduce him with words, saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” And in this way they aroused their husbands desire and would sleep with them, conceiving and giving birth there, as it is said: Under the apple tree I aroused you (Song 8:5). This is [the meaning of] the mirrors of those who set up legions]. From these [the mirrors], the washstand was made.”

These women merited for their mirrors to be fixed in the Tabernacle precisely because of their immodesty, since their actions all along were done to fulfill God’s will.

Kavod Toratoh HaRamah concludes:  In addition to all the above it also appropriate to recall what I wrote an article Tzei lach in Ikvei HaTzon (11) in the name of the Rav “That anything that becomes a symbol of destroying religion, even if, in truth, according to halakha it doesn’t inherently violate any prohibitions, since it has become a symbol of breaching the bounds and of destroying religion, this causes it to become prohibited [and this has already been written about in the book Nefesh HaRav (page 233)].  And it is well known that the Reform and Conservative Jews breached the bounds in including women in a minyan, and counting women as rabbis, and calling women to the Torah.  It is clear, then, that it is forbidden to imitate the heretics (See the Mishna in Chulin 41a)

Astounding! What is the difference between this and Modernity and Zionism? Modernity and Zionism are also, at their core, impure. The intention of their founders was “to destroy religion” (modernity: the Maskilim and Reformers; Zionism: Herzl, Gordon and the like).  Nevertheless, they were purified through Rav Kook z”l (Zionism) and Rav Shimshon Refael Hirch z”l and Rav Soloveitchik z”l (modernity) (See Bechorot 6b: “an unclean animal born from a clean animal is not Unclean, but clean.”)

In conclusion, in my humble opinion, all of the above arguments are secondary to Kevodo’s innovative twofold claim: 1) That what Kevodo calls the spirit of the law has halakhic standing equal to that of what you call the letter of the law. 2) That adjudication of the spirit of the law can be done only “with the agreement of giants of Torah who have knowledge of the entire corpus of Torah, and who can understand what is the spirit of the law”.  Kevodo bases his claim on the verse in Isaiah (59:21)

It is clear to me that this verse was brought as eisegetical support.  Certainly, Kevod HaRav has solid proofs for such broad claims.  As one who still struggles with the concept of partnership minyanim and who attempts to present a position that fits with what I understand to be the correct “spirit” and “letter” of halakha on these matters, I want to ask if Kevodo could graciously elaborate on the topic.  Personally, I would also like to hear more specifics about the criteria for successfully deciphering the true “spirit”: who, how, and what establish what is the correct “spirit” in any event?  What are the parameters that we need to establish for ourselves in our search for the “spirit” of halakha generally and specifically, when we come to adjudicate a topic as difficult and complicated as ours, one that has far reaching ramifications for our future?  If the “spirit” is essential to judgment, it is important that both sides of the argument strive to articulate their approach to “the spirit” of the topic “clearly and with meaning” (Nehemiah 8:8).

May it be His will that the Shechina rests in the deeds of our hands and that God’s name shall be sanctified by our work.

11 Adar 1, 5774

Sincerely,

הצב”י יששכר כ”ץ


No Agunah Left Behind: A Proposal to Solve the Agunah Crisis – by Rabbi Zev Farber

October 11, 2013

At the recent agunah summit, I submitted an outline for a solution to the agunah/mesurevet gett problem. Having sent this to a number of rabbis and agunah activists, I post here a revised version of that proposal. I will begin with an annotated outline and move on to some final observations and a summary.

Annotated Outline

1. Create a network of rabbis and communities who are intent on solving the problem.

I suggest a motto of sorts for this community, styled after the famous pledge of the rangers: “No agunah left behind.” As I wrote about in a different venue, solving the agunah crisis is the job of the rabbis, wielding their halakhic knowledge and authority.[1]

2. Become self-sufficient when it comes to divorce.

One of the political difficulties emergency-style solutions—like the Rackman beit din—come up against is the fact that they only exist as emergency problem solvers. In other words, the vast majority of gittin, where there is no agunah issue, are done through the auspices of people or groups who may not subscribe to the “no agunah left behind” philosophy. This fact leaves the more left-wing Orthodox community open to the claim that when things are easy we go to the “real batei din and mesadrei gittin,” but when we don’t like what they say we create our own “fake batei din.”

3. Agree to use only batei din and mesadrei gittin who see themselves as part of the network.

I suggest this not only for agunah cases, but for any case of divorce whatsoever. I imagine that this will mean a radical shift in the divorce process in our communities.

4. Rabbis who perform life-cycle events should be trained as mesadrei gittin.

There is far too much emphasis on how complicated and technical siddur gett is, which I believe functions to obfuscate the process and place it into the hands of a select few. We should create a network of soferim and a core of people with training and experience who can show rabbis how to do the ceremony. After a while each rabbi in our network will be self-sufficient in presiding over the divorces in his own community with a direct connection to the soferim. If and when an agunah case arises, the rabbi will be the woman’s chief advocate.

5. Ensure that our system is professional, transparent and user-friendly.

Part of doing this means that the power in the vaad cannot only be the mesadrei gittin themselves but there must be oversight from community leaders as well.

6. In cases where an agunah situation does arise, the problem will be solved.

When the solution is unclear to the rabbi requested to do the gett, there will be a central body of rabbis, posqim, scholars, and lay-leaders (including and especially women) who will be the advisory committee for that rabbi on how to solve the problem in each case. This body will help the rabbi and the woman explore the halakhic options, whether it be qiddushei taut (declaring the marriage invalid), hafqa’at qiddushin (annulment), or some other mechanism.[2]

7. When necessary, the vaad must be willing to bypass the husband entirely in finding a solution.

With the gett hanging over the head of the woman, there are simply too many instances of abuse, where withholding of the gett is threatened or implied so that women give up many of their rights, whether financial or custody, in order to ensure receiving the gett. Additionally, a recalcitrant husband can cause delays and other unpleasantness. For this reason it must be made clear to all parties that the vaad/beit din will resort to solutions that totally bypass the husband if need be. He holds no power over her in our court.

8. The group is a vaad with an attached beit din because it must include lay members, pulpit rabbis, and community leaders of both genders.

This is for two reasons. First, it is never safe to have only one interest group hold all the power. Even ignoring the possibilities of bias or corruption, every group sees matters through the lens of its own experiences. Having more than one type of person in the vaad/think-tank will facilitate a robust and honest process. Second, freeing agunot has accidentally slipped into magical thinking—as if some special rabbis have the “power” to free these women. Declaring a marriage invalid (I refer here to qiddushei ta’ut, not hafqa’at qiddushin) is not a ma’aseh beit din (rabbinic act)—the rabbi simply clarifies the fact that the marriage was invalid. This can and should be done by the woman’s rabbi, not by a third party beit din or poseq, even if said party is needed for a consultation. Additionally, although annulling a marriage (hafqa’at qiddushin) is a ma’aseh beit din—and the advisory committee should have members who can also form the beit din—there is no reason why the pulpit rabbi himself should not be part of this beit din, especially when the woman in question lives in his community and the decision effects his community.

9. All rabbis in this network must agree to only perform marriages with prenuptial agreements—specifically the Tripartite Prenuptial Agreement.

Although one may choose to use the RCA prenuptial—or some other version of this type of prenuptial—in addition to the Tripartite, nevertheless, all weddings should include this agreement as it creates the possibility of totally bypassing the husband if he is recalcitrant. The RCA prenuptial, in contrast, makes use of penalty clauses which require enforcement by secular authorities and the cooperation of the husband.

10. The community at large should pressure their rabbis and their synagogues to be part of this network.

Furthermore, the community should pressure their synagogues to make having a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement a membership requirement for married couples, and to hire only rabbis who are part of the “no agunah left behind” network.

11. The goal is to create a system that works and is accepted by a large community, despite the strong probability that many on the right will reject the solution.

The best is the enemy of the good here, and total consensus is impossible in the current climate. Nevertheless, our goal is to create a large enough network such that any agunah/mesurevet gett will have a place to turn. We must commit to these women that we will have them freed from their dead marriages, that we will perform their future marriage(s), and that we will defend their children from the pernicious claim of mamzerut.[3]

The Logic of the Proposal

Imagine the world of Jewish marriage and divorce as a pyramid. If we start from a firm base we can build something vast. If we start from the pointy top and try and build backwards it will not work. To illustrate: There are many marriages in the Jewish world, there are less, but still many divorces, of those marriages that end there are some agunot/mesuravot gett. We cannot focus only on mesuravot gett to solve what is a systemic problem (rabbinic paralysis, and the weak position of women in the process.)

Similarly, there are many cases of mesuravot gett. Some can be handled by invoking a prenuptial (if there is one) or with a strong phone call from the man’s rabbi. In cases where this does not work, many can be solved by a robust use of qiddushei ta’ut. Of those that cannot be solved by persuasion or qiddushei ta’ut, the rest can (must?) be solved by hafqa’at qiddushin (dissolving the marriage). However, for this chain of events to have practical effect, there must be “buy-in” from the beginning; the rabbinic and community participants must sign on to a marriage-divorce system that buys into this approach before matters come to a head.

Therefore, we must begin with a campaign of rabbis/congregations/lay leaders/agunah activists who are willing to say that we are solving this problem. Period. No agunah left behind. The benefit here is that by signing on in advance, the rabbis have skin in the game and the communities have skin in the game. With a large base, hopefully, this pesaq will quickly become minhag yisrael in the Open Orthodox world.

Brief Summary

1. Every member of the group agrees to use the Tripartite Prenuptial Agreement.

2. Rabbis in this group agree to learn siddur gett. This will contribute to ending the mystification of the divorce process at the expense of the average rabbi and his congregants.

3. The rabbi agrees to use qiddushei ta’ut when it works, and will consult with this group’s vaad to learn how to pasqen these questions.

4. If there is no other way, the rabbi will join with members of the vaad to form a beit din to do hafqa’at qiddushin – as a last resort.

Conclusion

I hope that the larger Open Orthodox and even Modern Orthodox community will take this proposal seriously, and with that may we end this blight on our community and this desecration of God’s name for all time. We must do what is right and, in the end, our community will be stronger for it and our Torah will again be a Torah of life. Hopefully our system will be a “light to the right” as well, and, speedily in our days, the problem will be solved for all Jewish women from any community.

Zev Farber


[1] To be clear, I do not consider sending thugs to beat up on recalcitrant husbands as a legitimate solution or as an example of wielding halakhic authority.

[2] I will explain more about this and other halakhic mechanisms in future postings.

[3] Here is a schematic look at the outline:

  1. Create a network of rabbis and communities who are intent on solving the problem.
  2. Become self-sufficient when it comes to divorce.
  3. Agree to use only batei din and mesadrei gittin who see themselves as part of the network.
  4. Rabbis who perform life-cycle events should be trained as mesadrei gittin.
  5. Ensure that our system is professional, transparent and user-friendly.
  6. In cases where an agunah situation does arise, the problem will be solved.
  7. When necessary, the vaad must be willing to bypass the husband entirely in finding a solution.
  8. The group is a vaad with an attached beit din, not just a beit din, because it must include lay members, pulpit rabbis, and community leaders of both genders
  9. All rabbis in this network must agree to only perform marriages with prenuptial agreements—specifically (but not limited to) the Tripartite Prenuptial Agreement.
  10. The community at large should pressure their rabbis and their synagogues to be part of this network.
  11. The goal is to create a system that works and is accepted by a large community, despite the strong probability that many on the right will reject the solution.

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.


Shifting Expectations: Women and Work

July 13, 2012

I love eating challah, but until recently, I refused to be a “challah baker.”  The term irrationally evoked an image of a woman chained to her kitchen,  slaving away for the sake of others, with no desire or choice to impact the world.   That is not who I am.  I am an Orthodox feminist, committed to changing the communal landscape by helping Orthodox women advance to the highest echelons of Jewish leadership—to ordain women as spiritual and halakhic leaders.  I am not a challah baker.

But the truth is that while my husband is a partner in raising our children and keeping our home, I am primarily responsible for providing dinner and making school lunches.  And so, on a daily basis, I try to do it all. I function as a rabbi in a large Modern Orthodox synagogue in New York,  run Yeshivat Maharat to ordain Orthodox women as spiritual leaders, and travel the world to ensure that the yeshiva’s graduates have a foundation of support. On top of this, I pick up my young children after school, make dinner, and put them to bed. After which, I resume working. Realistically, I simply don’t have time to make challah.

Women cannot do it all, and I applaud Anne-Marie Slaughter for her honesty and courage in bringing this to the forefront of her recent article for The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  Whenever I travel and teach, it is inevitable that someone asks about my work family balance; I find that often I am judged for being out of the house, or criticized for not working enough. For me it is an uphill battle, made even more complicated by the limits that  Orthodox tradition places on women. And yet, I would like to suggest that this very tradition offers a framework for women and work.

The Talmud (Kiddushin 29a.) lists several commandments (mitzvoth) that women are “patur” or exempt from performing because they are positive time bound commandments. Blowing the shofar, sitting in a sukkah, and learning Torah are a few of these commandments. Positive time bound commandments require the person performing the mitzvah do so within a certain time frame.  However, this exemption does not mean that women are forbidden from performing these mitzvoth.  Historically, during times when women’s primary responsibilities revolved around work in the home, this exemption was quite liberating. It was not always feasible for women to leave the house and sit in a sukkah or leave their child’s side to pray. But for women who are able to accept these time bound commandments and obligate themselves, then they may.

This very ethic should drive women’s decision to work outside of the home as well.  Our tradition recognizes that some women (who can financially afford to) choose to remain at home to focus on raising children, and therefore, they are exempt from performing the time bound commandments. The halakha condones, perhaps even encourages women to consider this choice. But our tradition supports a woman’s pursuits outside of the home as well, and makes provisions accordingly. She may perform these time bound mitzvoth because the parameters of the law give her the flexibility to fulfill the mitzvah at her own pace.

And so, the choice to enter the workforce should not require a woman to sacrifice her family life.  A woman should have the opportunity to be at the table, lean forward, as Sheryl Sandberg suggests in her TED Talk, while at the same time remain present for her family. Many women have managed to strike a modicum of balance.  They have negotiated fulfilling careers allowing for part-time work, or reasonable working hours.  It is a fact that there are certain career tracks that make a work/life balance very challenging. And as Anne-Marie Slaughter notes, it is the expectations placed on women in these careers that must change. In my own life, I have discovered that the rabbinate is an example of this type of career.

Generally, rabbis are expected to be available to their communities all the time.  A pulpit rabbi is expected to open up the synagogue at 6am and close it at 10pm, literally bound by time.  But at what personal cost? This kind of rabbinate is not sustainable for anyone, male or female. Does being present all day allow one to be a fully capable pastoral caregiver? Does it make the rabbi more pious to be at the office, all day long? Alternatively, imagine the values that one can imbue on children, and the message a rabbi could send to congregants if he/she is a consistent presence as a parent for children during meal times.

The rabbinate is most certainly a time bound job.  But it is also a career where women, if they so choose, can impact the Jewish community.  However, to harness this 50% of the population, the job description must shift. I am not advocating for spiritual leaders to avoid working hard, or to waiver in their commitment to community. I am suggesting that the community change its expectations of what is possible to achieve in a single day.

Yeshivat Maharat is not training Orthodox women to become female versions of male rabbis. We teach our students to embrace their feminine attributes.  We recognize that women have tremendous talents and abilities and drive to serve the community, with a commitment to their families as well. Therefore,  the Orthodox community should go forth with a realistic understanding of women’s commitment to their families, so that talented passionate women can dedicate themselves fully to their families and their communities.

So what do women, time, careers, and family have to do with challah? I used to think I had to pick one over the other—making challah or pursuing a career.  But, recently I started baking challah.  In the beginning, my method was to wake up in the middle of the night to braid the challah until my sister suggested that I bring the dough into the office and knead between pastoral visits or sermon writing. I want to succeed in my career and I also want to make challah.  More and more, I think it is possible to create a work environment where there is time for both.  I haven’t  figured out how to do it all. But with the right communal support and with an attempt to re-envision communal expectations, I can be a challah baker and a spiritual leader at the same time.


Hiding Sexual Abuse: A Lesson from Rabbi Rosenberg’s Big Shofar – by Rabbi Zev Farber

May 15, 2012

The Shocking Nature of Cover-ups

When the NY Times article on sexual abuse in the Ḥasidic Community came out last week, I thought to myself, “I already know what this is going to say; I can’t imagine this will shock me.” Sadly, I was mistaken.

The fact that sex abuse occurs in the frum community should not come as a shock – according to experts, statistics for sexual abuse in this community is about the same as other communities. For those familiar with famous cases like that of the Modern Orthodox youth director Baruch Lanner  or the Ḥareidi school teacher Yehuda Kolko, the reality that such abuse can be protracted and that the perpetrator can torment a great number of victims is well known. Even the fact that blind eyes are turned or that communal authorities refuse to believe the testimony of witnesses is par for the course for anyone who follows these stories. There was even a documentary called Standing Silent which follows the story of sex-abuse survivors from the Baltimore area.

Most disturbing in the Times article was the aggressive response by the community and the rabbinic establishment to parents of victims, and even to the victims themselves, if they expressed desire to report the incidents to the police: parents were shunned, children expelled from school, and retaliatory threats were made against parents if they did not leave town with their children.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the next day the Times featured another article detailing an ostensibly unofficial agreement between the Ḥasidic community and district attorney Charles Hynes. According to this report, the local rabbis get to hear the reports first and decide which ones to pursue and which ones not to pursue. The arrangement that the rabbis control the information about sex offenders is, unfortunately, not unique to the Ḥasidim in Brooklyn. A few months ago, the Jewish Week reported a similar understanding in the Ḥareidi community in Lakewood, wherein a tribunal of rabbis apparently investigates on its own, and threats of communal ostracism are levied against any parent wishing to approach the police.

This was the shocking part. Even for those of us who feel that we “already know” about the blight of child molestation in the Orthodox world, it is still jarring to read about a community that seems to stigmatize going to the authorities more than committing sexual abuse itself. I cannot imagine that the Ḥasidim or the Ḥareidim care about the welfare of their children any less than other communities. Nor can I imagine that the Ultra-Orthodox rabbinic establishment looks kindly on sexual abuse of girls and boys or that they are not horrified by the prospect of pedophiles in their midst.

So why aren’t they reporting it?

Apologetic Defenses

Defenses have been proffered. Some have invoked the prohibition of mesirah, turning a Jew in to the Gentile authorities. But this prohibition only applies when the Gentile and Jewish communities are in an antagonistic relationship and where there is the possibility of Jews successfully policing their own independent communities. It is totally irrelevant to the realities of child sexual abuse in modern American society, where the court and police system are necessary in order to protect the community, and the governmental authorities are a resource, not a threat, to our community.

Others have warned that the consequences of false reporting are devastating to the person accused. Certainly, false reports must be avoided, and, hopefully, the police and the justice system can weed out most of the bogus reports before an innocent person’s reputation is shot. However, it may be true that some false reports reach a stage where an innocent person is publicly accused and his or her life is shattered. Nevertheless, this is a risk any criminal justice system must take. The alternative needs to be kept in mind as well: for every sex offender not reported, tens if not hundreds of innocent lives are shattered.

Perhaps the most prevalent defense nowadays is the recourse made to the concept of ḥillul hashem, desecrating God’s name. The claim has been that if the existence of sexual abuse in religious Jewish communities became public, the humiliation would desecrate God’s name. I cannot accept this argument as it is a distortion and misapplication of the concept of ḥillul ha-shem. There is no question that it is the child molesters that have desecrated God’s name, not the parents that report the crime and try to protect their children and other children who will be the perpetrator’s next victims.

What weighs on me more heavily is whether the Ultra-Orthodox community itself truly believes this explanation. These scandals have been breaking one after the other for more than a decade – if there was ever any real possibility of keeping things hush-hush, it has long since passed. And yet, the rabbinic establishment in these communities still does not encourage reporting. Additionally, it is very hard for me to believe that the threat of bad press for the community could outweigh the protection of one’s children from sexual predators.

There appears to be a rather different consideration at work here.

Extreme Insularity – The Spartan Phalanx at Work

The Ultra-Orthodox communities are characterized by an extreme insularity. These communities view the secular world as a threat to their lifestyle, and much of their sociology is built around protecting themselves from the pernicious influence of the outside world. Like the Spartans with their phalanx formation, the Ultra-Orthodox believe that any chink in their armor of insulation could lead to the collapse of the troops.

If the rabbinic establishment in these communities were to admit that their constituents needed police involvement, and that the parents and victims should trust the secular authorities in this matter, a positive relationship could evolve between the Ultra-Orthodox community and the very authorities that they have long treated with suspicion. Conceivably, it may be difficult to navigate a situation where Gentile police officers, judges and court psychologists are protecting children from child-molesters who are themselves religious Jews. In the eyes of the rabbinic establishment, there is potential for a cascading effect.

As a result, the rabbis try to control the situation on their own, but they are not trained or equipped to do so. It seems to me that the mythical allure of the secular world the Ultra-Orthodox are battling has become more than just counterproductive; it has paralyzed the ability of the rabbinic leadership to protect its own constituency. Tragically, the young victims and their families will continue to pay the price until a different attitude towards the government and the general culture can be cultivated.

Glimmers of Hope

There were some faint glimmers of hope in the grim Times report. There was the Chabad beit din that ruled that one is required to report any evidence of abuse to the police. There was the young Rabbi Tzvi Gluck who has begun to act as a liaison between victims of sexual abuse and the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.

Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg

What stood out most to me was the work of Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg, an eccentric Satmar rabbi from Williamsburg, is almost single-handedly battling to encourage the reporting of child molesters to the police in his community. R. Rosenberg is a scholar, author of the book Yatza Eish me-Ḥeshbon, and an expert on the laws of miqvaot (ritual baths), who consults all over the world. Since R. Rosenberg is also a business man and entrepreneur, he takes no fee for this work. Most importantly for this piece, R. Rosenberg is anything but insular. I know this because I know him personally; he was my teacher at YCT Rabbinical School.

When a number of us wanted to learn the laws of miqvah, our Rosh ha-Yeshiva, R. Dov Linzer, thought it would be best if we studied with someone who had practical experience constructing miqvaot. The fact that a Satmar rabbi was willing to teach in a Modern Orthodox rabbinical school was itself unusual; he also agreed to let women sit in on the class, something virtually unheard of in his community.

Until I read this Times article, I was unaware that R. Rosenberg is instrumental in the struggle to change the cultural attitudes surrounding child molestation in the Ḥasidic world. While the ostensibly more modern Agudath Israel issues a statement that references obtaining rabbinic permission to report (although, to be fair, they do encourage reporting in clear cases of sexual abuse), R. Rosenberg’s urgent push to report potential abuse cases is a breath of fresh air. With a hotline and a website in English, Yiddish and Hebrew, R. Rosenberg strongly encourages parents to report abuse directly to the police.

Blowing his Big Shofar

Though R. Rosenberg has been vilified by fellow members of Satmer for his activism, this does not appear to be dampening his resolve. This is unsurprising, as from the many anecdotes he told us about his work in the summer of 2004, resolve is clearly one of his chief qualities. One anecdote in particular stands out in my memory, as it does for my colleague Rabbi Jason Herman, who was one of the students and wrote about it in his blog.

Rabbi Rosenberg described a dispute with a local rabbi about the state of the local miqvah. When the rabbi would not agree to repair the situation, Rabbi Rosenberg pressured him: “I have a big Shofar, and if you don’t fix the problem I will blow it and tell everybody.” At the time, I was unsure about the type of personality that felt it was his business to publicly announce miqvah problems to the detriment of the local rabbi. Now, however, in light of his outspokenness against pedophilia in the Ḥasidic community, I say thank God he has a big shofar, and I hope he keeps using it.

What can be done?

The question remains: For those of us who are not part of the Ultra-Orthodox communities, how can we help? I would also like to blow my shofar, but I fear I stand too far away from my Ḥasidic and Ḥareidi brothers and sisters for them to hear me, and I assume that many of the people reading this feel the same way.

But we cannot stand idly by, and perhaps we are not entirely powerless.

We must support Rabbi Rosenberg and others like him in the good work they are already doing. We must make clear that the Modern Orthodox rabbinate and community members are interested in helping the victims; whether this means helping them find counseling, taking their kids into our schools, or just giving them a safe space to discuss their issues and strategize about their future. We need to stand shoulder to shoulder with Rabbi Rosenberg and blow our shofars too. After all, we are our brothers’ keepers.