“HaShem and Allah. Who Knew?” posted by Yosef Kanefsky

December 22, 2015

I’m not a huge optimist when it comes to most of the world’s problems. Try as I may, optimism isn’t my default state. Somehow though, I am an incurable optimist when it comes to one thing – the proposition that if people devote time and energy to getting to know and understand one another, they will almost always emerge with mutual respect and admiration, and maybe even mutual affection. It is this optimism which, several years ago, led me to build into our B’nai & B’not Mitzvah program a “home-and home” series with the middle schoolers at our local Islamic Center.  We go and visit them on a Sunday, and soon thereafter, they come and visit us.

This past Sunday was “part one” of this year’s series. The first moments of our visit stood in stark contrast to our visits of previous years, as we were greeted by very visible evidence of heightened security.  We’re all afraid these days. But American Muslims may be the most afraid of all. We have known similar things ourselves of course.  Once we were safely inside however, the script of optimism and hope played out predictably and magically, even now, even today. Nervousness and awkwardness quickly gave way to mutual curiosity, smiles, and laughter. That’s what a good icebreaker, some delicious munchies, and small-group discussions can do, provide a tiny glimmer of what world peace might look like.

But not everything is predictable. Something always happens that you couldn’t have seen coming. Which usually turns out to be the most wonderful thing of all.  Once back in the big circle, the kids had more questions for one another, including about what Halal and Kosher each mean. Halal, we then learned, involves (among other things) the person doing the slaughtering saying bismillah – “in the name of Allah” – before he begins. Which generated the following remarkable exchange (of which I am not embellishing a single detail):

              Who is Allah? A person? A God? Who do you worship?

               Allah is God. The one God who created everything. Allah has 90 names, many of which we’re not supposed to pronounce, so we say “Allah”.

               Oh. And we say Hashem instead of pronouncing God’s actual name. That’s so cool.

               It’s the same God.

Lightbulbs go on around the room. Along with that feeling of intimacy that you get when you suddenly discover that someone you’ve known as an acquaintance is actually your third cousin.  And the small number of adults in the room know that the world has just changed, if only a little bit.

Of course, we went on from there to talk about ISIS and terrorism. Our kids candidly expressing their horror at what Muslim terrorists have perpetrated, and the Muslim kids expressing their anger at what is being done in the name of their religion. It will be their lot to confront this issue.  And it will be ours – the responsibility of our kids – to give them strength and support they need. And here is where it starts.

I’m not an optimist about most things. But in this, I believe in with all my soul.


What Is Chanukah?

December 7, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adam One as Paradigm for Communal Spiritual Leadership by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 30, 2015

 

Synagogue rabbis today are teachers, administrators, and pastors.  They give sermons, raise money, teach classes, facilitate Jewish lifecycle events, answer halakhic questions, coordinate meetings, occasionally change lightbulbs, absorb the anger and anxiety of individuals for the sake of the community’s greater health, assist Bar and Bat Mitzvah children with their drashot, comfort the mourner, support the orphan, the widow and the needy, give musar when it is required, and aid in facilitating conversations of leadership, planning, and diplomacy.  None of these are forbidden to women and in some of these roles, women may, in fact, be more adept.

 

The word “ordination,” when used for women in Orthodoxy, feels unorthodox.  Not because there is a halachic problem with the ordination of women.  In fact, the title of ordination today has few, if no, halachic repercussions. Today semicha, or ordination, is a degree.  It means one has studied certain sections of Jewish law and knows how to apply them.

During the post World War I era, Sarah Schenirer, a Polish seamstress with a passion for Jewish tradition, developed the first school system for Orthodox girls in history. By the eve of World War II, the network encompassed over two hundred and fifty schools with more than forty thousand pupils, primarily in Eastern Europe. Pictured here is the second graduating class of the Bais Ya’akov in Lodz, Poland, in 1934. Institution: Yehudis Bobker, Sydney, Australia

My discomfort with Orthodox women receiving the title Rabbi is that it feels like a blurring of the lines, differences between genders.  In Orthodox life, especially within the realm of prayer and mitzvot, gender lines are real and differences between male and female palpable.  The Torah itself certainly is interested in the differences between male and female as evidenced by the first chapter of Genesis.  Male and female in that first chapter, as Rabbi Soloveitchik points out, are created side by side as equals, made together in the image of God and together commanded to populate and subdue the world.  According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, this first chapter is not overshadowed by the second chapter in which Hava is created from Adam but independently stands as its own human paradigm.  Read the rest of this entry »


We Have Arrived: Orthodox Spiritual Leadership is Gender-Blind. By Yosef Kanefsky

November 3, 2015

Over the past few days, many folks have asked me what I think about the RCA’s latest broadside against Orthodox Female Spiritual Leadership. Especially as the broadside contained several lines directed fairly personally toward me, an RCA member who has hired an inspiring and endlessly creative Maharat graduate as my fellow spiritual leader.  So here’s what I think: This is one of the most gratifying and satisfying moments of my life. A cause that emanates from the very root of my faith, from my passion for Torah and Mitzvot, and from my commitment to truth and to justice, has been acknowledged – however grudgingly –  as being on the cusp of changing the face of the Jewish people.

But I am myself, of course, only the tiniest of cogs in all of this. This is something we have all achieved together. So to all the visionaries who first imagined the possibility of Orthodox women serving as Spiritual Leaders, to all of the women who are preparing themselves for  these positions, to all of the Jews who are supporting these efforts, to all of the rabbis and shul boards who are contemplating hiring female spiritual leaders: Let us all be strong and of good courage. Let us all appreciate the historic moment in which we now live.Let us all recognize that the stammering bluster of the RCA resolution, which seeks to limit rather to expand the number of teachers of Torah, which seeks to reduce rather than to enlarge the pool of people who can respond to Halachik questions, which seeks to minimize rather than to maximize the number of religious role models and leaders that our communities can have, marks the complete abdication of the RCA’s stated mission, “to make Torah great and glorious”. This mission has today been fully transferred to us. Let us work at it tirelessly. Let us be true servants of Torah and of God. Let us be strong and of good courage.


Transgender Orthodox Jews

August 6, 2015

by Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber

 

An analysis of the challenges–both halakhic and social–faced by transgender individuals in the Orthodox Jewish world, with some suggested resolutions. 

 

INTRODUCTION – THE COMPLEX NATURE OF GENDER

One of the most stable identity markers for most people is their gender. We live in a world that divides itself neatly into categories of “male” and “female.” This is true of our language, our bathrooms, our sports teams, etc. For many of us, this reality is perfectly comfortable and intuitive. For those who feel that they were born the wrong sex or who don’t feel comfortable with either of the most common gender identities,[1] this dichotomy can feel isolating.

As challenging as being transgender already is in the larger world, Orthodox Judaism poses some unique challenges. In this essay, I will outline some of these challenges and suggest ways of ameliorating or solving the problems. My goal is to stimulate thought about how to integrate transgender Jews who wish to be part of the Orthodox world, into our shuls and our communities in as seamless a manner as possible.[2]

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What is Chanukah? by Rabbi Steve Greenberg

December 18, 2014

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

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

Read the rest of this entry »


The Torah Value of Decentralized Power -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

October 29, 2014

Recently a prominent Orthodox rabbi was arrested for voyeurism, for putting cameras in a mikvah. Much has been written already about what must be learned from this horrific abuse of power. Perhaps rabbis require more oversight and annual reviews, perhaps there should be more women’s leadership around issues of mikvah, tighter security at mikvaot, etc.

All of these lessons and precautions have merit but I would like to call particular attention to one, the tendency in our era toward the centralization of power in the Orthodox community. If a convert feels that only one court or one rabbi can perform a legitimate conversion for her then even when she is wary of that rabbi or court, even when she suspects that doing his office work is not part of the conversion process, or that not putting her water bottle in front of the clock radio in the mikvah preparation room is not a Talmudic instruction, she is stuck. She must play ball with him if she wants to convert even if she finds the process abusive or suspect if there is no other nearby source of orthodox conversions. In contrast, when there is an open market, when anti-trust provisions are in place, customers’ interests are better served. Is such democratization a Jewish value?

When the Jewish people want a monarch, a figure who will centralize power and hold its reins in the era of Samuel, God frowns upon the idea. We see from the description in chapter eight of the book of Shmuel that God’s concern is one of power’s tendency to corrupt:

“9. And therefore listen to their voice; but you should solemnly warn them, and relate to them the customary practice the king who shall reign over them. 10. And Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who asked him for a king. 11. And he said, This will be the customary practice of the king who shall reign over you; He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. 12. And he will appoint for himself captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. 13. And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. 14. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive trees, the best of them, and give them to his servants. 15. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. 16. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your best young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. 17. He will take the tenth of your sheep; and you shall be his servants. 18. And you shall cry out in that day because of your king which you shall have chosen; and the Lord will not hear you in that day. 19. And the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, No; but we will have a king over us; 20. That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles. 21. And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22. And the Lord said to Samuel, Listen to their voice, and make them a king. And Samuel said to the men of Israel, Go every man to his city.”

Even the institution of the high priesthood, with its concentration of power, suffered from the same plague:
“And Eli the high priest was very old, and he heard all that his children were doing to the people of Israel, and that they had slept with the women who came to the tent of meeting (Samuel, chapter 3).”

The existing system of prophets apparently was much more appropriate in God’s eyes. In prophet there was no concentration of power, no royal bloodline or priestly lineage. Just the opposite was true, the people often ignored the Biblical prophets and they did not have the power to coerce the people except through gaining their respect, through the prophet’s own merits. Prophets were anything but a system of centralized power. It required just study and training, and it was then in the hands of the people, their choice, to hear the words of the prophet and take them to heart.

It seems the free market of ideas, within certain bounds (there was of course the Biblical danger of the false prophet), was a strong Biblical Jewish value. The Talmud tells us that anyone had the potential to be a prophet and that there were no less than 600,000 male prophets and 600,000 female prophets among the Jewish people; surely a decentralized institution.

When it comes to power and conversions let us return to the decentralized system of conversion courts which existed until 15 years ago when the Chief Rabbinate of Israel under the guidance of the recently arrested Rabbi, centralized it. Then we can fulfill the immortal words of Moses as recorded in the Biblical book of Numbers, “If only the whole nation of God were prophets…”


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