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

October 11, 2013

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

Annotated Outline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Logic of the Proposal

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

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

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

Brief Summary

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Zev Farber


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

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

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

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

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

July 4, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Threat of the Agunot

What truly threatens the Torah world and the rabbinate?

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Responsibility of the Rabbis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

May 15, 2012

The Shocking Nature of Cover-ups

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

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

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

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

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

So why aren’t they reporting it?

Apologetic Defenses

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

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

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

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

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

Extreme Insularity – The Spartan Phalanx at Work

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

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

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

Glimmers of Hope

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

Rabbi Nuchem Rosenberg

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

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

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

Blowing his Big Shofar

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

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

What can be done?

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

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

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


Frum Bridalplasty? On Shidduch Dating and Bean Counting – by Rabbi Zev Farber

March 30, 2012

There has been much talk about Yitta Halberstam’s Jewish Press article about the crisis of shidduch dating. That such a crisis exists is nothing new, as psychologist Michael J. Salamon makes eminently clear. What is new about Halberstam’s article is the suggestion that women would get more dates if they made themselves more attractive through make-up or even surgery.

There has been an outpouring of indignation towards Halberstam’s suggestion; most recently, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote a strong reply (more aptly, a rebuke), arguing that we need to teach men to look below the surface rather than teach women to redo theirs. Although I am in overall agreement with Boteach about the importance of combating the objectification of women plaguing our society (both frum and secular), as I wrote about in an earlier post, I am afraid that he misses a core problem with Halberstam’s piece – and the world of shidduch dating that it represents. Speaking as an outsider who has never shidduch dated, I will offer my tentative thoughts.

I believe that the problem lies not in frum-women’s looks or in frum-men’s shallowness, but in the system of shidduch dating itself and the yeshivish world’s approach to interaction between the sexes. To explain: The core idea behind shidduch dating is that since men and women in the yeshivish world do not meet or socialize in any informal way, they require some assistance in meeting potential partners when they decide that they want to get married. In some cases people are set up by friends or family who know of a suitable member of the opposite sex, but the number of possibilities offered in this pool of potential mates is rather slim. Hence, many people use a shadchan or shadchanit (matchmaker) to get dates.

Here is the rub: How does one explain to one’s shadchan what it is one is looking for? When a shadchan (or anyone else for that matter) asks a man what it is he is looking for in a potential mate, the man will inevitably begin to make a check-list. Let’s assume that the list does not, in fact, begin with looks but with the intangibles: the man may say he wants a woman who is kind, intelligent and with a good sense of humor. This is not much of a help for narrowing down options; my guess is that there are not a lot of self-described “mean, dense and humorless” women for the shadchanit to cross off her list. These personality traits are too intangible.

Looks, on the other hand, can be quantified. A man can say that he wants a woman who is young, thin, blond and busty. Now we have the potential for a checklist: age can be specified, bodies have weight, hair and eyes have color, dresses have sizes. Since the man has never met any of these women and cannot possibly meet all of them, he does the shadchan a favor by being specific and designing his dream girl on paper.

This check-listing has been perfected over the years. Now many men automatically fill in requests for 19-year-old women, even if the men themselves are 30, and size 2 for preferred dress size, even if the men themselves are less than “fit.” Most men, of course, have no idea about women’s dress sizes; nevertheless, most young men do have mothers and said mothers can help their sons weed out the undesirables. Some checklists have even become “sophisticated” enough to include the potential bride’s mother’s dress size – a sort of insurance policy for the future.

This commoditization is very disturbing and the practical question of what to do about it inspired Halberstam’s controversial piece. Halberstam believes that there is nothing to do about this commoditization; it is just the way men are. Hence, for a woman to succeed in the shidduch dating world, Halberstam claims, she needs to be as physically attractive as possible. This means make-up and nice clothing in the best of cases, and Botox®, tummy tucks and plastic surgery in the more difficult ones. To this, Boteach responds that the men can be changed. What is needed, Boteach claims, is to teach the frum men to stop commoditizing the women. “Tell the Yeshiva students that the Torah they are learning is supposed to actually change their hearts,” he writes.

Let me offer an alternative analysis. Of course, Halberstam is right that dating is primarily about attraction. And, of course, Boteach is right that the commoditization of women in the frum world reflects the basest form of disrespect towards women. But here is where I disagree: unlike Halberstam, I don’t think that this bizarre check-listing phenomenon is the natural way men – frum or secular – relate to women. And unlike Boteach, I don’t think this commoditization is the fault of frum men simply giving in to misogynistic impulses. Put another way: I do not think that frum men are more looks-focused than men in general; this check-list mentality is unnatural, even for them. In my opinion, the checklist mentality is actually the (virtually) inevitable consequence of the shidduch-dating system and results from a fundamental misunderstanding of attraction.

It is true that attraction is extraordinarily tied to looks, perhaps even more so for men than women. What is not true is that a person’s looks can be objectively quantified with some sort of “attractiveness quotient.” What attracts people to each other is often hard to discern; even for the couple themselves it may be mostly subconscious. There are physical characteristics; there is body language; there is rapport; there are personality traits.

Each person is an amalgamation of traits and each person is attracted to a certain overall blend of traits in a potential mate. I would venture to guess that most people could not actually articulate what it is about a person that attracts them such that this person would be distinguishable from hundreds of others that seem to fit that description, but don’t actually attract them. A person’s conscious mind is just the tip of the iceberg and a person’s subconscious is little understood – even by him- or herself.

By attempting to select dates for a man based on a checklist of criteria provided by him, the shidduch system forces the man to quantify the unquantifiable. Inevitably, the process of quantifying commoditizes that which one is quantifying, in this case women. It is my belief that if these same men had get-togethers with women from their community, and the two groups were able to meet each other and get to know each other, the men and women who were attracted to one another would begin to gravitate towards each other and nature would take its course.

To take Halberstam’s vignette as an illustration: She speaks about a get-together she attended with single young women and the mothers of single young men. Halberstam was shocked that these girls were not dressed-to-kill to impress the mothers. Didn’t they know that looks mattered? My guess is that of course they knew, and if the get-together had included the young men they would have dressed differently. What they did not know was how to be attractive to said young men’s mothers. I assume the young women intuited, as most of us do, that attracting a mate requires the mate to be there. Since inevitably the mother will not find the girl “attractive,” the most she can do is to compare her feature by feature with her son’s checklist. It is an unfair test and an irrelevant one, since the checklist is most probably wrong and artificial.

Sadly, this checklist culture feeds on itself. The lists get more and more specific and the women become only the sum of their parts. As Boteach says correctly – and this cannot be emphasized enough – such a culture leads to women developing depression and eating disorders, with a significant percentage dying, literally, from anorexia or bulimia.

To be fair, Halberstam is not only speaking from the place of a concerned elder. In the article, Halberstam describes her own memories of feeling dissatisfied with her looks when she was younger to such an extent that she took “some cosmetic steps that changed [her] life: a diet, hair-straightening, and most significant of all: a ‘nose job’.”  She writes that doing so gave her “newfound confidence.” I am sorry she had confidence issues when she was younger and I believe that she had every right to diet, change her hair and even her nose if she felt a yearning to do so. These are personal decisions and they may very well have been the right ones for her, considering the emotional issues she describes that were eroding her self-esteem.

However, if a woman is not suffering confidence issues, it would seem to me to be more than a little ethically problematic to cause her to suffer them by telling her that she will never get married without an hourglass figure and a button nose. To quote Boteach: “I have never even heard it suggested by the most superficial relationship expert that we should take young women for plastic surgery in order to attract a husband.” The reason Boteach has never heard this suggested is because it is false. It is the commoditizing tendency of shidduch dating that creates the twisted impression of its truth.  Even the horrifically commoditizing reality TV show Bridalplasty begins with the premise that all twelve women competing for the plastic surgery are already getting married regardless. Can it really be that the world of yeshivish men has dropped to even below the standards of the basest of reality TV shows? I cannot believe that. It is not the men; it is the shidduch system.

In short, I agree that there is a crisis in the shidduch-dating world and that the commoditization of women has reached such an extreme that one kind-hearted frum plastic surgeon is now offering pro bono plastic surgery for Orthodox Jewish singles. For my part, I do not believe the crisis can be solved either by surgically creating a race of frum Barbie-dolls or by telling men that only inner beauty counts and not attraction. The crisis is caused by shidduch dating itself and the culture of check-listing endemic to it. Men and women will be attracted to each other for a mix of physical, emotional and intellectual reasons. What they need most is the opportunity to meet and sort it out on their own. Perhaps a new model of frum dating is in order.

Zev Farber, Atlanta


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.


When not to act piously –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 9, 2012

Recently I came a across a passage in the Misilat Yisharim (Path of the Just) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lutzato, that seems so prescient of the times we are living in now as Jews with all our infighting and outfighting and acting out on the right and left.  If we keep in the forefront of our minds the following words of the Misilat Yisharim I think it will help to guide us as to what actions will be for the greater good of the Jewish people, the glory of God and to be a light unto the nations, and which actions, in contrast, are detrimental to those noble ends.

“…Though one should run to do mitzvoth (commandments)…there are times when they can lead to quarrel, such that the mitzvah and the name of Heaven will desecrated instead of sanctified.  In such cases certainly the Chasid (pious person) is obligated to put aside the commandment and not to run after it.

Though we are obligated to perform the mitzvoth with all their details and not to be afraid or ashamed, even so mitzvoth require great discernment, for this statement was said only about absolute obligations; but any added piety that if a person performs it the public will mock them for it, should not be performed; as the prophet says: “Walk humbly with your God.”

Thus a person who wishes to be pious must weigh all their deeds with attention to what their deeds’ repercussions will be according to the time, place and culture in which one is living.  If not acting will cause greater sanctification of God’s name, we must hold back and not act.  All acts must be judged according to their repercussions not according to whether the act itself seems good.  These things can only be discerned by one who has an understanding heart and common sense; for it is impossible to codify the details of this which are infinite….This should be our vision of the path which shall bring true light and faith, to do what is straight in the eyes of God.”

-Chapter 21: On the Balancing of Chasidut (Piety)


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.