How Our Tradition Works: Outside World Ideas are Necessary for our Understanding of Halacha

August 22, 2011

About a week ago, 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.  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.

However, the great Netziv of the 19th century, the great great (not sure of how many greats) grandfather of Yitzchak Zeev Soloveichik himself, and of the Rav zt”l, Rav Ahron, zt”l, and so many other talmidei chachamim, and talmidot chachamim, declares openly in many difference places that from the very start, the tradition of halacha had to use external wisdoms, “chochmot chitzoniyot”, in order to carve out new, innovative understandings of the law which God gave Moses at Sinai.  In fact, in  Haamek Davar on the portion of Tetzaveh (see also in Haamek Davar on Beha’alotcha, and also in the Emek HaNetziv on his introduction to this work on Midrash Sifrei) the Netziv says that Moshe Rabeinu was the first innovator, who was the teacher for all the innovators who would come after him.  The Torah of Aharon, the Torah of tradition, is not enough: For the Jewish people to truly get closer to understanding God’s Torah, and how to practice it, we need the Torah of innovation (koach hachidush), which is derived from the seven types of wisdom – from the outside world – which are represented by the Menorah, the candelabra in the Temple.  The Netziv understood that the only way for us to begin to fathom the infinitely complex Torah that God gave us was by be open to the trends, wisdom and ideas that are present in the world around us, and look at our tradition in their light – the light of the seven branched Menorah, where the six branches shine on the middle branch which is Torah itself.

The genius of our traditional system, which I would currently call Orthodox Judaism, is that it is able to take the light from the outside world, and follow a standard system of halachik analysis, which creates a dialectic between our tradition and all the new elements outside of our tradition, and is able to remain loyal to halacha and mesoret (tradition) which integrating the best and the true elements from the outside world.  We need to have confidence in our halachic system that when feminism, egalitarianism, freedom, democracy, liberalism, and any other philosophic trend is shined on it, it will respond in a proper way to reveal new, but true, insights into God’s Torah.  Sometimes halachic practice and customs will change because of the influence of these outside wisdoms, but this change is not a change in Torah, it is just our discovering exactly what God meant, and our rabbis meant, so long ago, at Sinai, and respectively, in the great academies of the Talmudic era.  The Netziv tells us that the only way we have to understand Torah is by using these branches of the Menorah, the ideas and wisdom that the world around us offers.

Of course the Netziv tells us that when innovation is introduced it brings about arguments and quarrels – pilpul – and anyone who comes up with an innovation – like saying She’asani Yisrael instead of the three negative b’rachot – has to allow his or her innovations to be subject to arguments against them.  That is the way the system is meant to work.  However, the Netziv says that if an innovation can withstand those arguments – and only if it can stand up to them – it eventually  will become Halacha l’Moshe Misinai.  Wow!  That’s how we discover what was said at Sinai:  by seeing what influence Carol Gilligan (Tova Hartman) or Ibn Rushd (Rambam) or neo-conservative (another famous Soloveichik) thinking has on our tradition – which gmarras and Rishonim does it push us to understanding in a different way that perhaps anyone else did up until now – and perhaps, if these new interpretations withstand the scrutiny of the Torah world over a period of time, then we will get a further glimpse of Torah Misinai.  Not new, but rediscovering a 3500 year old Torah revelation.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


A Story from the Front Lines: Special Guest Post by Rachel Kohl Finegold, Education and Ritual Director, Anshe Sholom

August 11, 2011

A Story From the Front Lines

Guest post by Rachel Kohl Finegold

Education & Ritual Director, Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, Chicago

 

I share this story because it is often helpful, alongside halachic or philosophical argument, to look at a sociological reality that arises as a result of minhag yisrael.

 

For many years, I worked as a counselor and eventually a division head in a Modern Orthodox camp in the Poconos. This is a co-ed camp which draws kids from many NY/NJ communities (and beyond), including Teaneck, Brooklyn, West Orange, and so on. As anyone who has been in camp knows, the dining room often becomes a place of cheering and singing, even playful competition between bunks or divisions in camp. It was not uncommon for the girls’ side of the chadar ochel and the boys’ side of the chadar ochel to be engaged in this kind of cheering at each other. This would usually be the teens, who were most interested in what was going on on the other side of the room, but often the younger kids would chime in as well.

 

The boys and girls would get up on their benches and the boys would chant something like, “Back to the kitchen! Back to the kitchen!” and the girls would respond perhaps “You’re sleeping on the couch tonight!” It was obviously funny to them because they were playing on gender stereotypes, and it was fun to try and get the boys or girls mad! One of the chants that the boys would use would always be “Shelo asani isha! Shelo asani isha!” Although I would sometimes hear a few girls respond with “She’asani kirtzono!” they usually didn’t retort with that, because it didn’t quite pack the punch they needed to get the boys back. They would find a better comeback. Maybe “Boys smell” or, if we were lucky, something wittier.

 

I emphasize, once again, that these are kids who come from mainstream Modern Orthodox Yeshiva day schools, some single-sex and some co-ed. These were not just a few kids, but the vast majority of the 9th and 10th graders in camp chanting. My goal is not to reprimand the camp itself, because I do not think these perceptions can be formed in a single summer, or even multiple summers. These children had been saying these brachot all their lives – in school, in shul and in camp.

 

Even if we adults feel comfortable with the matbe’a of “shelo asani isha”, clearly, our children perceive an undercurrent of male superiority in this bracha. Whether we choose “she’asani yisrael” or some other solution (I have been saying “she’asani isha” for years, because I am truly grateful for being female and because there is liturgical precedent for it), we must recognize that the negative messaging is getting through. Even if our girls and boys absorb negative gender stereotypes from our surrounding culture, I would not want them to perceive them from within our holy tradition.


Halachic and Philosophical Support for Saying “God made me an Israelite” instead of “God didn’t make me a woman.”, Rabbi Asher Lopatin

August 5, 2011

This is an encore presentation, but I though it was important to back up Rav Yosef’s passionate and truthful blog.

Why I say Say “She’asani Yisrael” – “God … Who has Made Me and Israelite!”- every morning, instead of the three traditional “Shelo Asani”s, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

 

First a Halachic Discourse:

 

In our versions of Masechet Menachot, 43b (Bavli), Rabbi Meir says that a person, “Adam”, has to say three blessings every day: She’asani Yisrael, Shelo Asani  Isha and Shelo Asani Bur.  On the next line Rav Acha Bar Ya’akov replaces “Shelo Asani Bur” (God didn’t make me an ignoramus) with “Shelo Asani Aved” (God didn’t make me a slave).

The G’marra questions why we need to say both Shelo Asani Aved and Shelo Asani Isha, and  Rashi, in his second explanation of that answer, says that we need to say both in order to come up with the required daily allowance of 100 b’rachot.  The Bach (O.C 46) argues that the main reason for saying all three is to increase the number of b’rachot we say to 100, and that is the main reason for saying three b’rachot in the negative (shelo asani): if you would say  the positive “She’asani Yisrael” then you could not say “Shelo asani aved, isha”.  The Aruch HaShulchan (46, yud) like the Bach that if you say She’asani Yisrael, you cannot say the other two negative b’rachot – you would be “stuck” having said just one, positive, B’racha.

The Rosh  (Rabeinu Asher) in the back of Masechet B’rachot,  upholds the version that we have in Menachot – “She’asani Yisrael”.  While some question this version of the Rosh himself, the Gaon MiVilna affirms it is the girsa of the Rosh  in his Biur HaGra on the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 46:4.

Even though the three negatives have prevailed in our traditions and siddurim, and She’asani Yisrael has not ,the Magen Avraham of three centuries ago and the Mishna B’rura of one century ago mention that in their respective periods there were siddurim – perhaps many of them – that had the b’racha of she’asani  Yehudi  or Yisrael, but that that is a mistake of the printers.

In fact, many of the classic halachik commentators  feel that the negativity of the traditional b’rachot is strange – and they work to come up with answers.  Moreover, even according to the Shulchan Aruch, the positive b’racha of She’asani Yisraeli may have its place – with a convert – and  even those who reject the positive version of  “She’asani Yisrael/Yehudi/Ger” for a convert, do not reject it because it is not a legitimate formulation (matbe’a), but, rather, because it does not work for a convert who has made himself a Jew, rather than being made so by God.

Therefore, I suggest that we follow the b’racha according to the G’ra and the Rosh and our Talmud, and say, “She’asani Yisrael” instead of the negative, and that a woman says“She’asani Yisraelit” instead of the negative.  Once the first b’racha is said in this way, the way it appears in the G’marra Menachot, then we have no choice,  based on the p’sak of the Aruch HaShulchan (from the Bach) , to avoid saying the final two, negative b’rachot of “Shelo Asani Aved” (God did not make me a slave) and “Shelo Asani Isha”(God did not make me a woman), since they become unnecessary after such an all encompassing, powerful, and positive statement of Jewish identity of “She’asani Yisrael/Yisraelit”.

Now for some “hashkafa” – philosophical context:

 

She’asani Yisrael/Yisraelit” is a beautiful b’racha, thanking God for making me Jewish – proud to be Jewish, excited to begin the day as a Yisrael.

Rather than beginning the day with negative b’rachot, which accentuate the G’marra of “noach lo la’adam shelo nivra” – it would be truly better for a human being not to have been created at all –  maybe it is now time to begin the day with a positive b’racha “k’mo sha’ar b’rachot shemevarchim al hatova” (Magen Avraham, 46, 9) – like all other b’rachot that we say blessing God for good things.  How do you want to wake up in the morning: happy to be alive, or frustrated that you are still stuck in this world?  Perhaps it depends on the day!

But  “She’asani Yisrael” matches very well with the story of the angel’s fighting with Jacob in Genesis 32, 26: “Vayomer, Shalcheini ki alah hashacher”, as Rashi interprets: Send me away, Oh Ya’akov, for I have to say the morning blessings of the angels.  These angels, presumably, are happy to have been created!  Then two verses later, the angel gives Jacob his morning blessing:  “Lo Ya’akov ye’ameir shimcha, ki im Yisrael”!  Your name will not be the negative Ya’akov any more, but, rather, the positive, glorious Yisrael!  Can’t you imagine Jacob there and then saying: Blessed are you God who has made me Israel!

There is no better way to bring Jacob’s early morning transformation to life than by us, too, saying every morning, with pride and optimism, the way our G’marra has it: “She’asani Yisrael” – proud to be a  “Yisrael – and through that sweeping away – halachically – centuries of the three negative birchot Hashachar that perhaps were desperately waiting for the day when proud, committed Israelites, would feel blessed enough to push them aside for a brand new morning, just as Jacob’s name was changed so many years ago. Yet, as always, remaining loyal to our tradition and its Talmudic foundation.

Asher Lopatin


The Scotch Counter Boycott is Moral and Just: It Is about Drinking Responsibly! By Rabbi Lopatin

June 23, 2011

I love Scotch, and I paskin like the London Beth Din that every single Scotch is kosher.  But I love Israel as well, and I particularly don’t like people picking on Israel. So, I support fully counter-boycotting against Scotch’s made in the area where their local council is boycotting Israel.   From the best analysis I have seen, Auchentoshen is the Scotch to boycott.  Now, Auchentoshan is not my favorite Scotch, so I’m kind of happy that it is really the only Scotch, readily available in America,  that is clearly  produced and distilled  in the West Dunbartonshire (WDS) part of Scotland, where a majority of the local council has voted various boycotts of Israel – including not allowing Israeli books in the local library.  The most precise report of what is and is not produced in this shire comes from Joshua E. London, of the Jewish Single Malt Whiskey Society, who is critical of the boycott.  But even he admits the viciousness of  the WDS local council toward Israel, and that Auchentoshen, while owned  by a Japanese conglomerate, is distilled and produced in WDS.  

I don’t like boycotts because of policy differences, but when someone boycotts Israel, we must send them a clear message that not only will they suffer, but all their supporters suffer.  People in WDS need to understand that if their elected officials pick on Israel,  it is their responsibility to remove them from office.  I want the world to know that there are millions of consumers and advocates who will fight against any boycott of Israel.  These boycotts are not only ignorant and vicious, they are immoral as well.  The distillers and producers of Scotch, have to tell that to elected and unelected officials: if you live in a place that discriminates against Israel, or if you are a school which allows students to harm pro-Israel students and speakers, your competitors will benefit and you will lose.  That’s the new order.  Maybe these crazy socialist/communist/Marxist councils will pick on someone else.

I’m not impressed that Auchentoshen is working to get KLBD hashgacha for their drinks; Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, refused to give hashgacha for any Scotch in his days, because he believed all of it was kosher.  I still hold of the London Beth Din’s rule that it is all kosher.  In fact, I would suggest that the KLBD, the hashgacha of the London Beth Din, raise the issue of the WDS boycott of Israel in their discussions regarding the kashrut of Auchentashen.  The Scotch companies claim that it is not their fault that the local council has voted to boycott Israel; they are just a company and cannot influence elections.   I ask then, that these companies who feel they can’t speak up, and universities who claim that they have to allow free speech to students that disrupt Israeli speakers, make a donation to the Friends of the IDF to show that they have nothing against Israel.  Or, make a donation to Zaka or Hatzala or even Magen David Adom, any Israeli program that helps victims of Arab terrorism. If they make those donations, and are open about those donations, then I would accept that as a demonstration of their good will.

We in the Diaspora are generally not sending our kids to fight for Israel, nor are we living in Israel and subjecting ourselves to all the risks that Israelis face every day.  We are enjoying the bounty of America or some other foreign land.  The least we can do is send a message of support for Israel with everything with partake of – whether it is Scotch, higher education, or anything else that God has blessed us with the means of purchasing.  Let those who support Israel be blessed and let those who would want to harm Israel face the consequences. God has given us the means of making this world a little more just – let us not shirk our responsibility.  Yes, let us drink responsibly!

 

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


Why is President Obama Ignoring Black Africa? by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

May 26, 2011

The most frustrating thing for me about President Obama’s foreign policy is that he is letting his obsession with issues in the Middle East take him away from the most pressing and devastating humanitarian issues going on in the world: Darfur – where hundreds of thousands of people are facing starvation  and bombings – a brewing civil war between North Sudan and the soon-to-be independent South Sudan, including plans for ethnic cleansing and worse, and most of all  the horrific murder and rape campaigns going on now in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  A recent U.S. study, released May 12, estimated that during the study’s one-year time frame, between 2006 and 2007, 400,000 women were raped in the Congo, or 26 times higher than what the United Nations has been reporting.  400,000 rapes!  In one year!

How can anyone excuse talking about the plight of anyone in the world – whether it is the Palestinians or anyone else – when there are 400,000 women being raped in one area in one year.  Shameful!  We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on helping a unknown group of rebels in Libya while we are ignoring millions of women being raped, and thousands of men, women and children being killed,per  year?

If you are Jewish, whether on the Left or the Right, you have every right to obsess on Israel – that is your religious, cultural and national obligation.  And if you are Palestinian, by all means you can complain about Israeli checkpoints which are forcing people to spend hours in traffic getting to work, or a security fence which is separating you from your friends and relatives.  But if you are not either Israeli, Jewish, Arab or Palestinian, then you have no right to focus on Israel and Palestinians or even Libyans or Syrians or Bahrainis while hundreds of thousands are experiencing death and rape and genocide in sub-Saharan Africa.  It is morally repugnant for our first African American president to be ignoring the worst humanitarian crises in our world, simply because the Arab world and the Palestinians, and many Jews, are “dreying his kup” – are distracting him – for their own interests.  President Obama needs to set the moral agenda of America and prioritize the areas that truly need our humanitarian attention: Sub-Saharan Africa, Sudan – not Israel or the Middle East.

And to the Jewish community I have a message: If we want the Administration to continue to obsess on Israel-Palestinian peace, we just need to remember that we are being selfish; we need to remember that for every hour Obama has to meet Netanyahu to pressure him, that is an hour that hundreds of more women are being raped in the Congo and another hour closer to finishing the genocide in Darfur.  We may feel that getting Israel out of the West Bank is worth it, or ending the occupation for West Bank Palestinians is worth it, but when the tally of deaths and rapes in Africa is taken, I hope it is not on our heads that the leader of the free world ignored his own homeland and left them to continue living in a hell of rapes, killings and destruction. May God open our eyes and hearts to the suffering of our fellow human beings in Africa, and make sure our President is addressing this moral imperative as he should.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


Jews and the Dream Act: Weren’t we just there? Rabbi Asher Lopatin

May 11, 2011

The Dream Act is being introduced in Congress.    All Jews who immigrated to the United States – that’s all of us! – need to support it if we have any gratitude to God for allowing us and those who came before us enter this country, or other countries of refuge.  The Dream Act would enable tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants who entered this country as children and who are either serving in the U.S. Army or going to college to gain legal residency and eventually citizenship.  The Dream Act failed in its first round, mostly because Republicans in congress demanded that the government deal with securing the boarder before certifying any formerly illegal immigrants.  But this issue has to be a priority for America and for the Jewish Community.  It is a moral matter for Americans, who know that our country is the right place for these people who have lived almost their whole lives here, and who have achieved the American dream – of serving our country and getting an education to enable our country to continue its leadership of the Free World.

Just over a week after we commemorated the Holocaust, where millions of our people died because England and the United States refused entry to our people, and just a day after Israel independence day, our beloved Jewish state which was established to Never Again allow Jews to be refused entry to escape persecution.  Yes, these undocumented children are not refugees; their parents came illegally to our country and brought them in illegally.  But our mothers and fathers came to America for a better life as well, and how can we not be sympathetic to people desperately trying to enter our country to better their lives?  Yes, we did not enter illegally, probably.  But these children are innocent of any crime as well.  They were brought in by their parents or others and had no choice.  They are not responsible for being here illegally.  And now they are part of the United States; they have adopted the best values and visions of our country.  If we Jews do not have sympathy for “geirim” – for strangers – if we do not have sympathy for children, who will?  Didn’t the British at least let in the children to England through the Kinder Transports?  That was in 1939.  If Britain of the thirties could take pity on Jewish children, cannot we Jews take pity on Mexican children who only know life in America and are doing their best to be good Americans.

Undoubtedly there were those in Britain who said that if you let  in Jewish children it would cause all sorts of social ills.  Thank God the voices of morality overcame those foolish utilitarians.  Today there may be voices against the Dream Act: American Jews of all political persuasions need to step in and say, Even though this act will only help our country, it is first and foremost a moral act, and we who understand what it means to go from servitude to freedom, know what it means to go from the poverty of Mexico or so many other countries to the freedom of the United States of America.

Because our parents and grandparents got lucky and worked hard to get into this country, we Jews of America are in a position to influence American policy.  Let us not show a lack of gratitude to our predecessors or to God for giving us a position of privilege to be American citizens.  Thank God for America, and thank God their are children who grow up, unrecognized and undocumented, who love our country and are willing to serve it with their lives and with their minds. Let us learn from the tragedy of a world so panicked that it did not let Jews into the bastion of freedom – the USA – nor into our own homeland – Palestine at the time.  Let us commit that it never happen again, not just to us, who suffered so egregiously from that panic, but to any people, and, especially, to the innocent children of this world.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


The King Hearings: Building Relationships Through Honesty, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

March 10, 2011

Representative Peter King of New York is conducting hearings on “Muslim Radicalization in America”.  While I wish the name for these hearings would have been something like, “Muslims Americans Speak Out Against Extremism and for Moderate Islam”, I think these hearings are important and will lead to good things.  I hope they expose Americans to Muslims who care about the United States and want to fight terrorism and extremism, and I hope they allow the Muslim community to take some responsibility for the acts of terror that were done on their behalf.

As an Orthodox Jew, I take responsibility for immoral things done on behalf of Judaism and Torah, and I sign petitions against those acts and statements – I am vocal and active in opposing them.  Rav Ahron Soloveichik said that Orthodox Jews had to accept some culpability for the actions of Yigal Amir who assassinated Prime Minister Rabin.  I am grateful that some . Muslims are holding preachers in mosques accountable, and I am thrilled that an early speaker in these hearings was Rep. Keith Ellison who told the story of  a Muslim-American police cadet and hero – an American hero –  who died trying to save lives in the World Trade Towers on 9/11.

Yes, Muslims are singled out because Islam – a popular and influential type of Islam – was used to justify killing American lives at the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, then again, tragically, in Yemen in 2006 with the attack on the USS Cole, then  on  9/11, then at Fort Hood, etc.  There is a pattern here, and there is a pattern of denial as well, most notably in the promotions and retention of the Fort Hood murderer, Major Hasan.  It is sad that Islam is singled out, but it is singled out not by Mr. King, but by all these acts of terror carried out in the name of Islam, inspired by Islam and perpetrated by Muslims – granted, radical Muslims.

Nevertheless, these hearings should not be seen as an opportunity for Islamobashing.  Rather, they should be an opportunity for good people from all religions and backgrounds, Muslim and otherwise, to come together and figure out how to keep our country safe.  From Rep. Ellison we learn how committed so many American Muslims are to this country, and from Rep. King I hope we learn of Muslims who are committed to taking responsibility to fight extremism that is a sad and dangerous reality in Islam today.  Yes, Jews, Christians and even Hindus all have their extremists, but our war is now focused, and must be focused, on extremist Islam, and my hope and prayer is that the Muslim community will have the opportunity to demonstrate how committed they are to that war.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin