Women’s Participation in Ritual: Time for a Paradigm Shift – by Rabbi Zev Farber

October 15, 2012

Today, the baseline in any Orthodox community is that women do not participate in public ritual at all. In the average Orthodox synagogue, there is not one thing that women do which is part of synagogue performance. Their presence is not felt and their voices are not heard. The paradigm for women’s ritual participation in the Modern Orthodox world must change.

Although what I described above is standard, in some Orthodox shuls women have complained that they feel excluded and marginalized. In the best of shuls there has been an attempt to accommodate their feelings and various solutions have been offered. Some synagogues are unwilling to accommodate the women in the actual prayer space, but allow them to have a separate women’s prayer group, often based around a Torah reading ceremony of some kind. Others have passively recognized women in the synagogue, e.g., meḥitza down the middle, carrying the Sefer Torah into the women’s section, etc. or allowed some active participation, e.g., opening the ark, saying a mi-she-beirakh, reciting qaddish, etc.

Instead of focusing on specific solutions, I wish to describe what I see as the overall problem with the process of coming to solutions. As described above, we begin with the assumption that women currently lead no prayers and play no public role in the synagogue service. If a group of women in a given synagogue feel that this is insufficient for them, they can come to the rabbi with a complaint and he will think about what he may be willing to do to accommodate them. In my opinion this process is seriously flawed, even if in a given case the outcome is satisfactory for the women. Why is it that we have no expectation that the rabbi will work actively to expand opportunities for women? Why is it that the synagogue automatically assumes that the baseline should be no participation and that women need to put themselves out there, at a real risk of humiliation and disappointment, before even the smallest action will be taken on her/their behalf?

I would argue that the reason the impetus for change has fallen so squarely on the shoulders of women stems from the fact that we are still living under an antiquated and obsolete paradigm. Although there are a number of Talmudic pericopae (sugyot) that discuss technical questions surrounding differences between men’s and women’s obligations in prayer and related halakhot, this does not really explain the stark difference between the place of men and women in the synagogue. The larger issue, I believe, is sociological in nature.

In the Rabbinic period, as well as throughout the Middle Ages, the place of women in the social hierarchy was very different than it is now. Women were rarely public figures and were discouraged from receiving too much education, taking visible public roles, participating in the power structure, and generally from being around men. If any woman were to express superior learning or knowledge than a man in front of a group it would have been a serious breach in etiquette. This is why, according to Tosafot (b. Sukkah 38a, s.v. “be-emet”), women do not lead the Grace after Meals for men or read the Megillah for men, since it would be insulting to them (zila milta). For the same reason, R. Israel Meir Kagan, in his Mishna B’rurah (281:4) argues that women should not say Qiddush for men, at least in public. The Talmud offers a similar reason why women do not read from the Torah in synagogue (b. Megillah 23a), although they are apparently eligible to do so, as it would offend the honor of the congregation (kavod ha-tzibbur). This sociological stance, typical of the classical and medieval periods, goes a long way in explaining why the common practice is not only that women do not lead the repetition of the amidah (which requires a man who is obligated in this prayer service) but they do not even participate in p’tiḥah (taking out the Torah) or lead p’suqei de-zimrah (the pre-prayer psalms), neither of which has any halakhic requirements for who should lead it at all.

The sociological realities nowadays are entirely different. In our world, women hold every position of respect and power in the public sphere as men do. Women serve in Congress and the cabinet, women are judges, doctors, lawyers and police officers. The idea that a group of modern Western men would feel offended if a woman were to perform a public function in a synagogue should be laughable, except for the fact that they may think it a religious violation. But it is only a religious violation since the rabbis believed that the men would be offended. It is a vicious cycle that continues nowadays only due to the unfortunate combination of inertia, obliviousness to halakhic sources, and paternalism.

This is where I believe the paradigm shift must occur. To break out of this vicious cycle, we need to shift the paradigm 180 degrees. Instead of saying that since women have never historically participated in public ritual, so each shul and each rabbi will—upon request—think about creative ways to allow women to participate ritually in things that are permitted, we should be saying that all Jews, men and women, can do or participate in any meaningful ritual unless it is clear that halakha expressly forbids this. How to define what halakha forbids will be a question every shul and rabbi will need to answer, but the inertia factor and the women-don’t-do-these-kinds-of-things factor will have to be taken off the table.

In discussing this issue with others, I have sometimes heard the accusation that women are just trying to copy men. For example, in discussing women’s Torah reading ceremonies, which occur in a number of Modern Orthodox shuls around the world, including the shul where I daven, (thanks to the initiative of a number of women and the sensitivity of the rabbi), I have heard people—not from my community—ask “why would women want to read from the Torah anyway? Is it just because men do it?” I have also heard the related claim: “They are just doing this to make a statement. Women should be more tzanua (modest) about such things.”

These dismissive statements are out of touch with the spiritual and sociological reality of the synagogue service. Women do not want to read from the Torah because men do; women and men both want to be called to the Torah because participating in the reading of the Torah is considered an honor (kavod) due to the great respect all Jews have for the Torah and the Torah scroll. Every man who gets an aliyah receives a myriad of hand-shakes and yeyashar koḥakha’s—and this is true on a regular Shabbat. On Simḥat Torah the average shul breaks out all the Torahs so that every single congregant—male congregant—can be called to the Torah. Afterwards, the real kibbudim (honors) begin.

A year or so ago, I received the Ḥatan Torah honor (the aliyah where the last section of the Torah is read). It was quite an honor. There was a speech about the work I do for the shul, there was a very long and overly flattering Hebrew prayer/song sung by the gabbai, and while he was doing so four men held a ṭallit over my head as if I were getting married. Needless to say, only men get this honor. One can use many adjectives to describe this kavod, but tzanua (modest) is not one of them. It seems rather disingenuous for men who receive these honors and take their access to the Torah for granted to then ask what possible reason could women want to be a part of this. It is totally unfair to create a society in which access to the Torah is considered the greatest honor, bar women from it, and then turn around and ask what their problem is.

Another critique that I have heard of women who want more ritual participation is that “most of these women hardly do what they’re supposed to already; they come late to shul on Shabbat, they aren’t punctilious in their own mitzvah observance, they don’t do any extras like shaking the lulav and etrog or praying three times a day. Why should they get to do extras when they haven’t even covered the basics?” I see two basic problems with this critique.

First, they should be granted access to ritual possibilities because it is their right. Since when is the shaking of a lulav the prerequisite to opening the ark, reciting a mi-she-beirakh or dancing with a Torah scroll on Simḥat Torah? Second, even if a rabbi were to say that in his fantasy world he would only give kibbudim to people who were religiously “up-to-scratch,” I do not believe that he would feel that he could implement such a policy with men. For the life of me I cannot imagine a rabbi taking a Torah scroll away from a man on Simḥat Torah on the grounds that he comes late to shul on Shabbat, or announcing a policy that aliyot in his shul would only be given to men who show up consistently for weekday minyan. However, this is essentially what is being done to women who are told that since they do not daven enough, come to shul enough, do enough mitzvot—what have you—their desire to participate ritually in some way in the synagogue will be denied.

This leads to my final point, which is the issue of power structure. Women are finding it very difficult to make changes in their synagogues because they do not really participate in the power structure. In general, women in the Orthodox world are less learned than the men (due to the structure of yeshiva education), and there are virtually no female clergy in the Orthodox world. Happily, both of the above are changing, but the change is slow, and, therefore, it is critical to have men in our synagogues who understand the significance of changing the paradigm of women’s ritual participation. However, the real work will only begin once women are an integral part of the power structure in the Modern Orthodox world. Only then will the important and difficult conversations about the role of men and women in Orthodox Judaism today take place in a fruitful way. Until then I can only call out with my male voice to my colleagues in the Modern Orthodox world: change the paradigm now and let’s feel the presence of the women in our synagogues and hear their voices—the time is way past due.

Rabbi Zev Farber, Atlanta

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.

Learning from Hillel and Shami

June 3, 2012

A Brooklyn based newspaper, Yated Ne’eman, has recently tried to cast more inclusive sections of Orthodoxy in a negative light.  Instead of understanding Rabbi Zev Farber’s recent Morethodoxy post about the cultural place of women in shul as a tension between two competing values, that of traditional prayer architecture and process on the one hand and that of the desire by the halacha to honor and include all Jews (even women) on the other, Yated saw only one side.

In the Gemara (Shabbat 31a) Hillel and Shamai argue regarding conversions.  Convert after convert comes to both Shami and Hillel and each convert presents themselves as insincere, desiring to convert to only some of the laws of the Torah or to convert for selfish reasons.  Obviously the decision to accept or reject such converts lies again in a tension between two competing halacic values, on one side the need to not dilute the Jewish people and their commitment to Torah, and on the second the Jewish value of embracing others and not mistreating the stranger.  Shami emphasizes the first value over the second in an extreme way, so much so that he chases the would be convert out with a stick, and Hillel emphasizes the second value, so much so that he immediately embraces the seemingly insincere (yes I know what Tosfos says)  convert and converts them all right away.   Which is right?  Both are legitimate Jewish opinions, both the word of God, but only one is the halacha, the path we as Jews are to follow, that of Hillel.  Indeed the Talmud explains that the law is like Hillel due to his embracing, tolerant personality (Talmud Aruvin 13b).

Today Yated is suggesting YCT Rabbonim continue to be excluded from the RCA. In times past their camp suggested the RCA be excluded from Orthodoxy.  Today they suggest YCT’s future talmide chachomim are illegitimate, in years past they (or papers like them) suggested the RCA’s Godol was illegitimate.

When I was growing up in the Charedi world I heard only slander about the RCA and Yeshiva University.  That YU was a, “Rabbi factory” and that their musmachim knew nothing.   I think I was 15 before I realized that “JB” was not a famous criminal but a Gadol Ba’torah, Rabbi Yosef Dov Solovetchik.

Any orthodox person who is over 30 and grew up to the right of modern orthodoxy remembers these things.  But the RCA did not become a new movement as people feared; the RCA saw itself as legitimately orthodox and in the eyes of much of the orthodox world remains so.

Less tolerance for fellow Jews and human beings, a less embracing attitude toward the would-be proselyte, dismissing ways within halacha to include women in traditional tefilah, these things, though perhaps sounding pretty frum, do not make one more of a Torah Jew.  Just ask Hillel.

Metzitzah be-Peh and Protecting Jewish Infants – by Rabbi Zev Farber

March 7, 2012

It is difficult to believe I am writing about meẓiẓah be-peh, that there is a necessity to address this topic once again. Apparently, yet another Jewish infant has succumbed to an infection and died due to the practice of meẓiẓah be-peh. The Brooklyn DA is even now looking into the case. Even if this case of infant death turns out to be unrelated to the meẓiẓah be-peh, the practice of meẓiẓah be-peh among mohalim (Jewish ritual circumcisers) is on the rise, and inevitably, the death-toll will rise with it.

Basic Information

1) What is meẓiẓah be-peh?

It is the act of sucking the blood from the circumcised penis of the infant child by direct oral contact.

2) How do children get ill and die from this?

Since the penis has just been cut, the wound can be infected with any germs present in the mouth of the mohel (Jewish ritual circumciser). Nowadays, the main culprit is herpes, as documented by the New York City health commissioner. In the 19th century it was syphilis and in the 20th century there were cases of tuberculosis and diphtheria; there have certainly been other illnesses as well.[1]

3) What is the purpose of the ritual?

The ritual was originally invented for what were believed to be health benefits. In pre-modern times, before circulation was discovered, it was believed that if too much blood congregated in one spot it could rot and turn to pus, thereby causing illness. The sucking out of the “dangerous” blood shares the same logic as the sucking out of poison from a snake-bite victim.

4) Why is the ritual still done now?

Some believe – mistakenly I will argue – that this ritual is part of the mitzvah (commandment) of milah (circumcision). Others believe that if the rabbis of old thought this practice was healthy, then so it must be, and that anything that has been a part of Jewish practice for centuries cannot possibly be dangerous.

Meẓiẓah in Halakha

Meẓiẓah is mentioned in the Mishna (m. Shabbat 9:2) when listing all the parts of the circumcision ritual that are permitted on the Sabbath.

One does all the necessities for circumcision on Shabbat, the milah (circumcision), the priyah (uncovering of the corona), and the meẓiẓah (sucking of the wound). One places a poultice and cumin upon [the wound]. If one did not grind [the cumin] before Shabbat one can crush it with one’s teeth and apply it. If one has not mixed wine and oil before Shabbat, one can put each on separately. One cannot make a bandage for it ab initio, but one can wrap a rag around it. If one did not have [a rag] available before Shabbat, one may wrap one around one’s finger and carry it [to the infant], even through someone else’s courtyard.

Clearly, the point of the Mishna is that not only the circumcision itself, but even all the health measures taken to protect the infant afterwards are permitted on Shabbat. Additionally, it is clear that the poultice, the cumin, the bandage, and the wine and oil mixture are all meant as health measures. Where does the meẓiẓah fit in? Does it go with milah and priyah as essential parts of the circumcision ritual or does it go with the poultice and the cumin as part of the medicinal requirements?

The answer to this question is made clear in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Shabbat 133b).

Rav Papa said: “Any professional [mohel] that does not suck out [the blood] – this is dangerous and he should be removed from his position.”

Rav Papa states plainly that meẓiẓah is a medical practice. Furthermore, it is such a vital one, in his opinion, that any mohel who is willing to forgo it and risk an infant’s life must be removed from his position. In case this was not sufficiently clear, the Talmud comments further on Rav Papa’s words:

Obviously! From the fact that Shabbat is violated to do this, clearly it is a matter of danger. What might you have thought? That the blood was already pooled [and removing it would not be a Sabbath violation] – we learn that [the blood being sucked out] is still in the skin [and sucking it out would violate Shabbat if it weren’t for the medical necessity.] It is parallel to the poultice and the cumin: just like the poultice and cumin, if one were not to do this it would be dangerous, so too, if one were not to [suck out the blood] it would be dangerous.

In the Talmud’s analysis, the fact that meẓiẓah is a part of the post-circumcision medical intervention is a given: meẓiẓah is a medical intervention parallel to bandaging the wound and applying healing ointments; it is not part of the circumcision itself. To me, this is clearly the intent of the Talmudic passage, although I am aware that this point has been vigorously debated among the halakhic authorities of the past few centuries.

Some, who have found it hard to argue on halakhic grounds, have defended the practice on qabbalistic grounds, claiming that the practice has mystical significance. This may be so – I am not expert in such matters. Nevertheless, qabbalah and its requisite minhagim, in my opinion, do not have the same binding normative force that halakha does. Qabbalistic reasoning cannot be used to define the parameters of mitzvot against the simple meaning of the Talmud; it certainly cannot be used to override health concerns.

Meẓiẓah and Modern Medicine

Modern medicine denies any substantial health benefit to post-circumcision meẓiẓah. Nonetheless, if that were the only critique, the practice could be safely continued as harmless. The problem lies in the fact that, with the discovery of germs and contagion, modern medicine actually demonstrates the dangerous nature of the practice. Sadly, this is the exact opposite of what the practice was invented to do.

In truth, many practices once thought to be helpful have turned out to be harmful, blood-letting being the most obvious example. Once evidence began to accumulate that meẓiẓah was dangerous and that Jewish infants were, in fact, dying because of this practice, the question became, “what to do about it?” The answer has been debated for upwards of two centuries.

Some authorities, such as Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Herzog and R. Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk (followed by his son, R. Moshe Soloveitchik and his grandson, R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik), advocated stopping the practice. Others held on tenaciously to a requirement to do meẓiẓah be-peh. Historically, this bewildering allegiance to the practice can be traced to the Orthodox battle against the early reformers in 19th century Europe. At a time when many early reformers were questioning the need for circumcision altogether a ban was passed among the reformers against meẓiẓah be-peh. In response to this ban, many traditionalists, such as R. Moshe Shik (1807-1879) and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), dug in their heels and defended the practice.

Despite the difficulty in endorsing the stance taken by these rabbis, it is important to note that in this period of time there was a widespread feeling that traditional religion was under attack and that it was important to defend every last inch of Jewish law and custom, lest one small change lead to an avalanche of irreligiosity. Furthermore, modern medicine as a scientific discipline was still in its early phases.

Nowadays, neither of these factors is operative. Orthodox Judaism has carved for itself a solid niche and cannot reasonably be described as threatened by the Reform movement. Modern medicine has more than established itself as the dominant paradigm, and every school-child knows that an open wound is susceptible to germs from anything with which it comes into contact. Any doctor that would touch an open wound without gloves and sterilized equipment would be opening him- or herself up for a lawsuit. And yet, there are still defenders of meẓiẓah be-peh, even in modern times.

Three Alternative Models

Three models have been suggested to deal with the modern challenges posed by meẓiẓah be-peh; I will call them the clean-bill-of-health model, the meẓiẓah-equivalent model and the ritual-meẓiẓah model. (I am only personally comfortable with the last two, but will explain all three.)

1)      The Clean Bill of Health Model

Proposed by R. Dr. Mordechai Halperin, M.D., first in Israel and then in an article in Jewish Action called: “Metzitzah B’peh Controversy: The View from Israel,” the suggestion is to devise a method to ensure that the mohalim who perform meẓiẓah be-peh do not have any illnesses, including sores in the mouth, that can transfer disease. (I have heard that this is the practice in England among mohalim that perform meẓiẓah be-peh.) The mohel would have to go through whatever testing deemed medically necessary to ensure the meẓiẓah is safe, and he would need to constantly renew this clean bill of health. Any mohel without this “license” would be barred from performing meẓiẓah be-peh, and any who did so anyway would be banned from practicing by the community.

Although Halperin’s suggestion is commendable, I am personally uncomfortable with it. Since meẓiẓah be-peh has no medical benefit and no halakhic basis nowadays, I see no reason to continue with a practice that reflects antiquated medicine in such a graphic manner. I feel that doing so, even if it weren’t dangerous, sends the wrong message (this, I hear, is R. Moshe Tendler’s argument as well). Furthermore, I can’t help worrying that even with safeguards, the practice may still pose some threat to the infant; one need only consider the amount of germs and bacteria found in a person’s mouth and the fact that illnesses often come about unexpectedly.

Nevertheless, since there are those that stridently disagree with me and believe meẓiẓah be-peh to be either a halakhic requirement or of paramount qabbalistic significance, I have included the clean-bill-of-health model in the hope that the opposition may at least adopt this, thereby protecting the lives of the infant boys who are otherwise in harm’s way.

2)      The Meẓiẓah-Equivalent Model

R. Shlomo Ha-Kohen of Vilna (1828-1905) wrote in a responsum (Binyan Shlomo 2, YD 19) that there is no mitzvah to perform meẓiẓah. Instead, he argued, meẓiẓah should be viewed as part of the general requirement to keep the infant healthy. Therefore, he claims, whatever modern medicine determines to be the best medical practice for keeping the child healthy should be considered the equivalent of meẓiẓah.

According to R. Ha-Kohen, the practice he witnessed in his time period, where the mohel would wrap the penis in rags (smartutin), was the equivalent of meẓiẓah, and that he could not venture to say what the practice would look like in the future. This is because the practice is purely medical and, as he reminds the questioner, he is not a doctor.

Applying Ha-Kohen’s analysis to our times, the modern mohel should sterilize his equipment and use whatever bandages and antibacterial creams are necessary to reduce the risk of infection. In this way he has fulfilled the requirement that is at the root of the – now defunct – requirement to suck out the blood from the wound.

3)      The Ritual-Meẓiẓah Model

Some authorities were less comfortable with cancelling the practice altogether, although they were certainly unwilling to risk the lives of Jewish infants to keep it. Hence the idea of a meẓiẓah performed without direct contact between the mohel’s mouth and the infant’s penis was suggested, and two basic forms of this practice were put forward. One idea, advocated by R. Moshe Schreiber (Sofer), known as the Ḥatam Sofer, was to use a sponge around the corona, with the mohel applying (slight) squeezing pressure to remove some blood.

Another method that is popular with a number of Modern Orthodox mohalim today was to use a glass pipet. The mohel would place the pipet upon the wound and suck from the other side, stopping when some blood would come out of the wound. This method was advocated (or at least permitted) by a number of halakhic authorities, such as R. Malkiel Tenenbaum, R. Elyakim Shapiro of Grodno and R. Avraham Kook. It also seems to be the preferred solution of R. Moshe Pirutinsky in his influential compendium, Sefer ha-Brit.

Ancient Rabbis, Ancient Science

One popular response to the critique of the practice of meẓiẓah be-peh has been that if the Sages of old defended the practice, it must be safe and even life-sustaining. It would be beyond the scope of this post to respond in full to this argument, but it is important to note that such an argument suffers from the fallacy of granting the Talmudic Sages superhuman intelligence, making them not only the expositors of traditional Torah laws, but also the repository of all scientific knowledge, past and future. It reflects the belief that the rabbis knew all of science and natural law.

When faced with contradictions between the statements of the rabbis and the reality as described by modern science, some more extreme apologists will even argue that the Talmud is correct and modern physicians are mistaken. This, of course, conflicts with all evidence and any semblance of reason. It reflects the fear that if one admits that the Sages were humans – albeit very wise ones – and that they erred in scientific knowledge, someone could suggest that their views on religion were also in error.

One can appreciate the fear of these ultra-conservatives based on what is at stake. Nevertheless, to me, the very idea that someone would defend a practice that by any reasonable modern standard is dangerous to infants – that has in fact killed a number of infant Jewish boys over the years – in order to support a misguided view of the Talmudic Sages’ infallibility is unfathomable. One cannot hide one’s head in the sand and protect an outdated and fictitious worldview at the expense of the lives of our sons. No matter how small the percentage of deaths may be – and it is admittedly rather small – it is an unacceptable cost for such a paltry return.

Additionally, it appears to me that claiming the performance of meẓiẓah is part of the mitzvah should be considered a distortion of the mitzvah itself. One who makes this claim, despite the obvious evidence from the Talmud to the contrary, is in serious danger of violating the prohibition of bal tosif – the prohibition of adding on to the mitzvot of the Torah. It is well known that one of the categories of this prohibition is changing the form of a mitzvah; the claim that meẓiẓah is a milah-requirement and not a safety-requirement does just that — it changes the form of the mitzvah.

Finally, the ḥillul ha-shem (desecration of God’s name) factor cannot be ignored. Religion in our society is constantly under a microscope. Although Judaism and Torah observance often requires acts that have no objective basis in empirical observation, stemming instead from revelation or tradition, we want to make evident that our religion is not harmful. In the current climate circumcision is controversial enough; the helpful vs. harmful aspects of the practice are being debated in a number of societies across the world even now.

Since circumcision is a Torah commandment as well as a core identity marker for Jews, we have defended this practice – and will continue to do so – in every conceivable manner. However, why should we defend meẓiẓah be-peh, a practice which is not a mitzvah and contains no material benefit to the child, only harm? With medical journals publishing pieces like Benjamen Gesundheit et al.’s Neonatal Genital Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 Infection after Jewish Circumcision: Modern Medicine and Religious TraditionPediatrics 114.2 (2004): 259-263 – the defense of circumcision becomes that much harder, and the idea of Jews being “a light unto the Nations” – well-nigh impossible.

What Would Rav Papa Say?

Perhaps the saddest irony is how the current practice of meẓiẓah be-peh utterly distorts the words of Rav Papa. Rav Papa’s great concern was the safety of Jewish infants, and it was for the sake of safety that he ruled that any mohel who does not perform meẓiẓah should be barred from practice. He believed that skipping this act would endanger the child. Nowadays we understand that the reverse is true: performing this act endangers the child.

If Rav Papa were around today, following his own logic, he would have said that any mohel who touches the open wound without gloves and sterilized instruments – including with his mouth to perform the outdated and discredited medical practice of sucking at an open wound – must be barred from practice. Every mohel who practices meẓiẓah be-peh nowadays is really accomplishing the opposite of what Rav Papa wanted. Moreover, any mohel who does so  without ensuring that he has a clean bill of health, thereby, risking the life an infant Jewish boy in the name of Rav Papa, is, in fact, driving a knife into the very heart of Rav Papa himself. A greater insult to a greater man is hardly imaginable.

Suggested Policy

Since this issue cannot be settled with blog-posts and articles, I would like to suggest some practical steps:

For those who cannot accept my interpretation of the halakha and believe that meẓiẓah be-peh is required, and that a pipet or a sponge would not be sufficient – I implore you: at least adopt the clean-bill-of-health model. Consult with physicians and design a healthiness licensing system for your mohalim.

For those that do accept my reading of the halakha – and I assume this is the overwhelming majority of the Modern Orthodox community – we should reject the practice altogether. Meẓiẓah be-peh – at least without the mohel having attained a “clean-bill-of-health” – should be declared a sakkanat nefashot (a life-threatening danger), as it already has been by the New York City Department of Health, and a gratuitous one.

The simple understanding of halakha is that meẓiẓah is not a mitzvah and there are other ways to accomplish it even if it were. Therefore, I suggest the following policies be established in our communities.

  1. Our members will not use mohalim that do meẓiẓah be-peh. Only mohalim that follow either the meẓiẓah-equivalent model (i.e. no meẓiẓah just bandages and sterilization) or ritual-meẓiẓah model (pipet or some other indirect method) will be used.
  2. Our rabbis will not officiate at any brit that has a mohel that does meẓiẓah be-peh.
  3. Our synagogues will not allow the use of our sanctuaries, social halls or any part of our buildings for a brit if there will be meẓiẓah be-peh, at least until such time as these mohalim have instituted an acceptable clean-bill-of-health model.

This is a matter of the safety of our children, and we are accountable for any child that is hurt or dies because we were not strict about this. It is my fervent hope that in taking a strong stance on this issue, all Jewish communities will eventually follow suit. In a matter of life or death, with so much to lose and so little to gain, can we really afford to do less?

Rabbi Zev Farber, Atlanta

[1] For a thorough discussion of this, see Dr. Shlomo Sprecher, “Meiah be-Peh – Therapeutic Touch or Hippocratic Vestige?” akirah 3 (2006): 15-66. I make much use of this excellent article in this blog-post. Also see some of the response letters in akirah 4, especially those of Dr. Marc Shapiro, Dr. Debby Koren and, of course, Dr. Sprecher’s response. For an approach similar to the one I am taking in this article, see Cantor Philip Sherman’s Metzitzah B’Peh-Oral Law? that appeared in Conversations 6, as well as on the Jewishideas website.

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

From Behind the Veil of Tzniyut: Using Modesty to Block Women as Ritual Leaders– By Rabba Sara Hurwitz

February 7, 2012

American Jews, secular and religious alike, have been united in their rejection of Jewish extremists’ headline-grabbing attempts to keep young girls and women out of public spaces in Beit Shemesh, Israel on the grounds of religious modesty.

Observers, journalists and pundits have rationalized these actions to be little more than the misguided work of self-anointed Haredi Jews known as Sicarii. The Sicarii is a group much like ancient religious zealots bearing the same name, who drove Judaism to near destruction with their radicalism and uncompromising benightedness in 66 A.D.  These latter-day, rebels, who notoriously spit on a modestly dressed eight-year-old girl on her way to school, screamed epithets, and removed benches from public bus shelters, are indeed fundamentalists.

Their misdeeds, however, bring to light an extreme manifestation of a subtler, yet deeply rooted perception of tzniyut; it also reveals how the interpretation of religious modesty has cultivated an underlying resistance to and exclusion of women assuming ritual leadership roles in Jewish synagogue life in Israel and America.

Thankfully, most women are not spat on and harassed in public; however, female spiritual leaders are not welcome as bona fide members of Modern Orthodox rabbinic and professional networks.  Female scholars are not featured in scholarly journals, nor are they invited to speak on public, mainstream panels.  Currently, there are only two female heads of co-ed Orthodox Jewish day schools in America.  And, with some notable exceptions – notable because they are exceptions – women for the most part do not have roles in synagogue lay or religious leadership.

Far too often, tzniyut is cited as the reason for the imbalance.  In June 2010, after being graciously welcomed to speak at the Young Israel of Hewlett, Long Island, a rabbi in the Long Island community, who would likely never identify with the Sicarii, wrote an acerbic essay lamenting my very presence as an ordained Rabba, or spiritual leader: “Leading Torah scholars have condemned the appointment of a woman to a rabbinic position as ‘a breach of tzniyus [modesty]’ …because of the event, this coming Tisha B’Av, we will have something else to cry about.”

Modesty is the halakha or Jewish code of law, most readily summoned upon as the basis to exclude women from public leadership roles. Yet it is fairly typical for certain Modern Orthodox congregants to also be regular consumers of “immodest” television programs, films, and entertainment.  These individuals deal with women in the secular boardroom and courtroom, but they do not want women standing before a shul because, well, it’s immodest.

When taken to an extreme, it is considered a “breach of modesty” for women to appear on billboards or to travel with men; when walking outdoors in certain communities, it is deemed immodest for girls and women to wear clothing that does not cover their bodies from head to toe.

But should the same principle of tzniyut be invoked in Modern Orthodox communities as a way of preventing women from offering a few words of Torah from the pulpit, from announcing the time for mincha on Shabbat afternoon, from reciting Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, or from even holding a fully adorned Torah for a few precious moments?

In fact, Halakha does not support the eradication of women from public leadership and ritual life. The concept of tzniyut, with regard to women’s dress and conduct has its origins in Psalms (45:14), “The honor of the daughter of the king is within…” and therefore, there are those who suggest, women must remain hidden.

However, responding to a question about women assuming leadership positions in Israeli society, Rav Uziel, the first Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, wrote that women can and should become leaders in Israeli society, “…for all Israel are holy people, and her women are holy, and are not to be suspect of breach of modesty and morality.” (Responsa Piskei Uziel Siman 44).

What’s more, the concept of tzniyut, according to Derekh Eretz Zuta 7, teaches that
tzniyut extends beyond the way women dress. “A Torah scholar should be modest in eating and drinking…in his walking, in dress…” Modesty is a fundamental value.  But modesty is not limited to women. Men and women alike must strive to conduct themselves in a modest, humble manner.

Tzniyut, therefore, cannot be brandished as the reason that women cannot hold public leadership roles. Halakha should not be manipulated into a smokescreen shielding men and sidelining women who have the potential to enhance our community.  It’s imperative that the Modern Orthodox community come out from behind the veil of tzniyut, and actively seek out ways for women to not only be seen and heard, but to serve and to lead.

Advancing opportunities for vibrant women’s leadership is our goal at Yeshivat Maharat. By providing women with a vigorous spiritual and textual education, we are creating a path not only enabling women to be recognized as religious authorities, but to help combat religious gender inequality. Certain women, just like certain men, have the skills and aptitude for Torah study, and should be afforded the opportunity to serve the Jewish community as halakhic and spiritual leaders and role models. And yet, with a few exceptions, women are not encouraged to pursue authoritative positions of religious leadership. Yeshivat Maharat, is working to change the status quo.

In addition to Yeshivat Maharat, there are a few other enclaves emerging as inclusive and courageous supporters of women’s advancement into public religious leadership roles: Beit Hillel, which describes itself as “Tolerant Torani Leadership” is an Orthodox network of men and women that has just formed in Israel with the explicit mission of “promoting the status of women” as well as combating religious fundamentalism. In addition, a group of American Orthodox women recently came together to form a network with the  purpose of advancing women’s leadership in the Orthodox movement.  There are of course, individual rabbis and communities― the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale is one example― that have helped forged a path for women like myself to become full members of the clergy, despite tremendous criticism and political pressure.

Yeshivat Maharat is working to develop and train a cadre of knowledgeable, forthright women who have already begun to emerge as spiritual leaders. We are already witnessing the impact these talented women have begun to have on Jewish communities around the world. One of our second year students, Rori Picker Neiss, is an intern at Beit Chaverim, an Orthodox synagogue in Westport, CT.  When asked about her internship experience, she says: “Some people are interested in talking with me because I’m a woman; others want to learn Torah and Judaism not because I’m a woman, but because they want to discuss different perspectives. I love the fact that I’m not just viewed as a female presence, but as a member of the team.”

To think that the voices of our graduates may be muted because the community is unjustly afraid to grant them authority to serve Clal Yisrael is disheartening and frightening. I am so grateful that we live in a country in which women have equal access to many aspects of our society. And yet, under the guise of halakha, women are being stopped from asserting religious authority. It’s time for us to come out from behind the veil of tzniyut.

Desexualizing Public Space – by Rabbi Zev Farber

February 3, 2012


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.


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.

Schism!? –By Rabbi Alan Yuter

December 4, 2011

Acting on its Torah-informed conscience in its Torah framed response to modernity, Modern Orthodoxy   has recently endorsed what are taken in other Orthodox quarters to be really radical changes:

1.          The first out-of-the-closet Orthodox female Orthodox rabbi was  ordained, and is now serving as a Rabbah,

2.          Women are permitted to read Megillah, not only for women, but in the presence of  and for men, [at B’nai Israel of Baltimore, the Orthodox synagogue I serve, we do allow women to read Megillah],

3.          Some within Modern Orthodoxy support secular policies that protect gay and lesbian civil rights, [I signed on to this policy and was criticized roundly and soundly for doing so],

4.          in some Modern Orthodox quarters,  partnership prayer groups have been endorsed,  [these are Orthodox gender egalitarian services, stretching Judaism to but not beyond a reasonable reading of the letter of the law–I believe that partnership prayers violate no law but I do not permit these rites in practice  because of B’nai Israel’s  Orthodox Union charter that requires that we follow Rabbinical Council  policy].  The arguments against partnership prayers do reflect legitimate policy concerns  but do not convince me that the partnership prayers themselves violate any explicit normative Oral Torah rule or statute.  As will be shown below, historical Orthodox precedent has allowed for far more radical changes than those put into practice at partnership prayers.

5.          Many Modern Orthodox rabbis allow double-ring Orthodox marriage services,  [I also permit modified double ring ceremonies, to be discussed below, for those who want them as I am convinced they are permitted and a marriage is a private ceremony which not subject to public policy discipline or rulings],

6.          and some Modern Orthodox rabbis have been known to object to the Orthodox “blessing” that mandates men to praise God for “not being created a female.” [Following the letter of the law and the spirit of our times, this rabbinically  mandated blessing in my view was not originally intended to be said in women’s presence  and perhaps not  be said out loud when women are present. My practice is to say this blessing, following the Oral Torah mandate.]

These modernity inspired changes have been challenged by other Orthodox rabbis who see themselves as “traditional” and who believe that Tradition is to be mediated by their inherited and conditioned sense of propriety.

1.          Consider the Agudath Israel statement:

Rabbi Avi Weiss has conferred “semikha” upon a woman, has made her an Assistant Rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale where she carries out certain traditional rabbinical functions, and has now given her the title of “Rabbah” (formerly “Maharat”). He has stated that the change in title is designed to “make it clear that Sara Hurwitz is a full member of our rabbinic staff, a rabbi with the additional quality of a distinct woman’s voice.”

These developments represent a radical and dangerous departure from Jewish tradition and the mesoras haTorah, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Any congregation with a woman in a rabbinical position of any sort cannot be considered Orthodox.


After accurately describing what was done using detached, restrained, objective, and descriptive narrative, Agudath Israel’s statement then  makes value judgments that tell the attentive reader much more about  Agudath Israel’s own world view  than it does about the Modern Orthodox target of its animosity:


  • It is the social radicality of the change and dislocative dissonance  and not the real, actual laws of Jewish Tradition that determines what

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Breaking News: Soloveichik (and Rav Soloveitchik) Agrees with Lopatin, according to Lopatin…

August 25, 2011

I am including as a post below a letter from Yitzchak Zev Soloveichik commenting on my post in Morethodoxy regarding outside influences on Halacha. Yizchak Zev is the grandson of Rav Ahron Soloveichik, zt”l, my rebbe, and also the son of Rav Moshe Soloveichik, shli’ta, Rav Ahron’s oldest son, and also a formative rebbe of mine – my first rebbe at Yeshivas Brisk.

Before posting the whole letter, I want to start with his “p.s.” which is a big, big deal:

YZS: “P.S. Here’s a freebie for you. I believe I have heard from family members that the Rov said Shasani Yisrael.”

RAL: Wow!  So now we have the Gemarra in Menachot, the Rosh, the Gra, the Rama (with a varient, but still a positive b’racha) and the Rav.  Maybe a string of minority opinions, but a pretty good string!

Also, before the letter, I want to state that I was overjoyed when I read it because I think that Dr. Soloveichik is agreeing with the main idea I was pushing that outside factors lead us in certain halachic directions.  I also agree with Dr. Soloveichik that these outside factors should never dictate what the halacha will be.  To decide halachic practice we need to go back to all our sources and our mesorah and also to consult and work with the poskim of our generation and previous generations.   I am a puny when it comes to p’sak and knowledge of the masoret.  However, Rashi interprests Mishlei (Proverbs) (20:5) that “A halachih in the chacham’s heart (in the heart of our mesorah) is sealed; but it takes an understanding pupil (even a small one) to draws it out.” We, even the small of knowledge and judgement, have to use these outside factors, emotions, philosophies, methodologies and ideas to draw out the true Torah and law from the wisest of our generation and the generations before us.  That is why with She’asani Yisrael, I do not rely on my own judgement: I look to Rav Benny Lau, to an important Centrist Orthodox posek, and to, Rav Soloveichik, zt”l, for guidance to tell me if my small halachic suggestion has validity or not.  And it seems it does.  To me, Orthodoxy is about how we respond to the outside pulls and pressures: If we go back to our tradition and our traditional thinkers and teachers to find the answers, we are being Orthodox.

OK.  The letter:

Dear Rabbi Lopatin

Thank you for honoring me by responding in such a formal fashion. To write an article just based on a very short comment I posted shows me great and undeserved deference. Though I feel that you have mischaracterized what I have said. This, I am sure, is because of some lack of clarity in my writing (an unacceptable indiscretion for a Soloveichik).

You make the following statement about my opinion:

Basically, the argument is that genuine halacha, Orthodoxy or Torah true Judaism should not be influenced by the outside world: by philosophic trends, cultural currents, ideas of the society around us. Thus, Soloveichik argues that first we need to come up with the halacha – which blessing to say, in this case – and then we work on how it interrelates with the world around us.

This is a poor clarification of my position for a number of reasons; allow me to address just a few of them:

1.    You desire to boil the totality of my views on halacha to a statement I did not make. what I did in fact say was “The most important lesson I think I have ever learned from my grandfather’s Halachik positions is that it was first and foremost what is the true Halacha and then how is it applied to the situation at hand.” There is no inference in this statement to suggest “genuine halacha, Orthodoxy or Torah true Judaism should not be influenced by the outside world: by philosophic trends, cultural currents, ideas of the society around us” Indeed any attempt to paskan Halacha must take into account the seeming infinite influences of the world, our personalities, the societies we live in, in short  Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s Hascacha Pratis that synthasizes all this to create the reality  that molds who we are, how we think, and thus how we approach halacha. Not just as laypeople, but Poskim as well.  Indeed all this forms what is the true psak Halacha. Nevertheless, I

believe, as do my forefathers, whom you quote to discredit a position you apply to me which I do not actually adopt, that psak must begin by first understanding the axiomatic principles of the Torah, gzearah shave, kal vichomer, tzad hashaveh shebahem and so on.  This is what I am certain Rav Chiams’ often quoted “parallel world of Halacha” is referring to (Kudos by the way for not Channeling the GRa”Ch as a refutation for your misunderstanding of my position).

It is only when those basic formulations of halachic principles are upheld and firmly established can we then begin to try to come to the appropriate solution. Those next steps require, really demand, that one look at the all the great external forces at work to ascertain what the unique psak of that unique moment is. Not to first decide what you desire the outcome to be simply because liberal (or conservative, but mostly liberal) social ideas and philosophy hold greater sway over you (not you personally of course) then great moral and ethical truths of the Torah, and as an afterthought try to find shaky halachik reasoning to support your world view. I would add that the former position requires a much greater understanding of the world and a superior sensitivity to human emotion psychology and vitality then the latter dogmatic narrow-minded approach the Morethodox (I assume it is not a pejorative) rabbis take.

2.    The central point of my comment was not a halachik critique, as I made clear in the opening sentences of my comment. (those certainly not my world view of Morethodoxy, which is far more complex than one sentence). Rather it was a critique on the apparent lack of Halachik sincerity you and your compatriots take in this and other matters. The willingness to change your view of whole lessons learned from the Torah, to besmirch the those great generations of Jews whose sacrifices are the sole reason for our peoples continued existence, is I believe the central theme of my criticism.

3.    My last point is about your initial assertion that “ Yitzchak Zeev Soloveichik sent in a comment that crystalizes the debate over whether She’asani Yisrael – Who created me an Israelite! –  is the right blessing for men and women to say in the morning or the three negative blessings, Not a Goy, Not a Slave, Not a Woman/by God’s will.” This is an attempt to cast the whole argument as based on a position which you falsely attribute to me and once you brush aside the straw man you built you imply that that is the totality of your opposition. Rabbi Lopatin you can be wrong for a whole host of reasons beyond what we debate. Beyond my critique is the critique of a  great many scholars who find your position repugnant for a whole host of reasons, some better then others (scholars and reasons).

P.S. Here’s a freebie for you. I believe I have heard from family members that the Rov said Shasani Yisrael.

End of Dr. Yitzchak Zev Soloveichik’s letter.

RAL: All I can say, is thank God I am an Israelite, and thank God halacha allows me to say that b’racha every day.  For being an Israelite means I can struggle, think, question and have full ownership of the Torah and tradition that God gave the Jewish people.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin