Modern Orthodoxy – Can We Have It All?

October 4, 2010


Below is a link to an article from  colleague, Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Woolf who is a Senior Lecturer in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. His article uses the recent participation of Esther Petrack on America’s Next Top Model to focus us on an important issue facing Modern Orthodoxy.  Esther comes from a Modern Orthodox background.  You can find the article here. –

I think Rabbi Woolf, who is a Modern Orthodox Jew makes a very good point and challenges the Modern Orthodox camp in a serious way.

Excerpt from the Tablet Magazine article on Esther Petrack.

After letting Esther say a bit about herself—namely, that she was born in Jerusalem—Ty Ty asked her about her Orthodox Jewish practice. “Do you honor the Sabbath?”

“Yes I do,” Esther responded, proceeding to explain the rules regarding the usage of electricity, computers, cell phones, and cars on Friday night and Saturday. Tyra sternly informed her that ANTM contestants work all the time, seven days a week. (I never realized that modeling was so urgent!) Would Esther, Tyra wanted to know, be able to adhere to the ANTM work schedule? Her Jewish identity was all of a sudden squarely on the spot, not unlike that of her Biblical namesake….” (for the full article follow this link –

Thoughts For The Beginning of Year. – Rabbi Barry Gelman

August 18, 2010

While Rosh Hashana is still a few weeks away, for many of us the year really begins now as our children head back to school. With that come the hectic schedules, the carpools, and the feeling that we do not even have time to breathe.

I think the advice of Rabbi Kolonomus Kalman Shapiro, last Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto and author of Bnei Machshava Tova, is instructive. Writing in relation to spirituality and the ability to be moved by events in our loves, he notes that one of the major obstacles in the way of spirituality is a rushed lifestyle. He was writing this in the 1930’s. Imagine what he would have said about the pace of our lives in the 21st century?

He is so convinced that our rapid-fire life style is the cause of deadened spirituality that he repeats the word – Harcheik (keep away from or distance yourself from) three times when referring to rushing through life – “מן המהירות הרחק הרחק הרחק”.

It is not only moments of potential spirituality that are lost due to our harried pace. We rush through life at such a fast pace that we cannot appreciate our family, friends and our everyday surroundings. Many do not even have time to have a few minutes of conversation with loved ones.

(Part of the challenge is that many are involved in numerous organizations, worthy ones of course, that any time not spent at work is spent at meetings. I suggest that we limit our participation in some of those outside activities and focus on our inner life and our home life. I know ouf communities needs us, but other priorities (our iner life and our family life) must be considered as well. Responsible organizations should not accept the volunteered time of people who overdo it. )

Rabbi Shapiro is convinced that we can train ourselves to overcome this handicap. He tells us: “We exhort you in the strongest terms: teach yourself to watch. In general, become person who looks for God. Perhaps in your looking you will uncover God’s subtle presence – you may see His holiness. When you seek him, you will surely find him. And where will you find him? In yourself and in everything surround you.”

This is something I am going to work on this year…starting now.

Sleeping Over in the West Bank -By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

February 21, 2010

Two weeks ago I traveled with 40 Rabbis, Rabbinical students and educators to Bethlehem, and spent two days talking with Arabs in the West Bank who have committed themselves to solving the looming problems of the Israeli Palestinian conflict peacefully.  I slept overnight in the very nice home of a Christian family in Bethlehem.  None of us visitors were Israeli citizens since they are not allowed in Bethlehem which is part of Area A, the Oslo section of the West Bank that is solely under PA control.

I., as many Anglo Jews and perhaps Israeli Jews, always imagined that to enter the West Bank was to take one’s life in one’s hands; that all West Bank citizens want most of all to kill Jews.   Hearing Arabic or seeing it would sometimes make me afraid.

While there is usually some truth in stereotypes, which is how they get to be stereotypes, it is also true that there are real people on the other side of the wall, Christians and Muslims, who do not fit the stereotype.  Though the situation did not become any clearer while I was there, and even less so after I returned to discuss my findings and experiences with Israelis I know, I did become more convinced that peace can only happen if real individuals are in touch with, and experience as people, other real human beings on the other side of each.

The following video is a 5 minute account of some of my experiences in Bethlehem.

One More Critical Idea Regarding Israel, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

December 18, 2009

Yesterday I posted my underlying political views re. Israel.  I wanted to add one major point.  And it is so important that it is the one time, that I can recall, that I have talked what can be viewed as politics – Israel politics – from the bima, from the pulpit.  It is regarding the rule of law in Israel, and, specifically, following the law when it comes to the IDF.  I believe that in the case of Israel, not only is the rule of law critical to the moral, ethical and national fiber of the state, but it is crucial for the very survival of the Jewish State.  Therefore, it becomes a religious issue of “pikuach nefesh” making sure that the best defense of the Jewish People – the State of Israel – can operate safely as a state of laws.  That applies to soldiers in the IDF, even if their rabbis tell them otherwise, and to those building communities all over the land.  I would push hard to allow the greatest freedom of expression the law will allow – free speech is important – and for the greatest latitude in letting Jews live everywhere in Eretz Yisrael, the land that God gave us, but we need to follow the laws of Israel.

Our rabbis had an ambivalent – to say the least – attitude towards the Hashmonaim who did not always stick to Jewish law.  They are still heroes, but their state did not last. I hope, and pray and plan to work  hard to make sure the the Jewish state that we have in our days lasts a lot longer, and one of the key ways of doing so is by making sure that all those who live in her holy boundaries, heroes or not, obey the law.

Shabbat shalom, Chodesh Tov and Chanuka same’ach,

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Oheiv Yisrael…and then some.

September 29, 2009

Recently I have been studying the works of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s forbearers. His namesake, Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, the Apter Rebbe, was known as the Oheiv Yisrael – The Lover of Israel. He was one of the main spokesman for Chassidut after the death of the Baal Shem Tov.

 Although he was the Rebee of other towns after Apt (Opatów), we was so enamored by the people of that town and they by him that he promised to always be known by the name of their town, hence he is known as the Apter Rav.

  He is known as the Oheiv Yisrael because he would teach that one who loves all Jews will be glorified before the heavenly court. In fact, before he died he instructed his children to have only one phrase written on his tombstone – “Oheiv Yisrael”

 The book that contains the bulk of his teaching is also called Oheiv Yisrael.

 The Apter Rebbe was well known for giving others the benefit of the doubt, this was one of the ways he practiced loving all Jews. This is a difficult task as the courtrooms of our mind often are quick to find fault with others.

 I often wonder if Rabbi Heschel’s love of humankind was in some kindled by the Oheiv Yisrael’s love of Israel. Maybe Rabbi Heschel just took it one step further. Rabbi Heshcel could be called the Oheiv Olam – The Lover of the World.

The following advice on how to judge others favorably is from Orchot Tzadikim , written in the 15 century. The author is unknown.

Sounds like good advice to me.

 The humble person judges everyone favorably.

As an example:

When they asked one of the pious, “How is it that you deserved to

become a master among your contemporaries?”

He responded, “Because everyone whom I saw I assumed him to be

better than I.

“If he was wiser than I, I said:

He is also more reverent of God than I because of his great wisdom.

“And if he was lesser in wisdom than I, I said:

He [sins] unknowingly, but I [sin] knowingly.

“And if he was more advanced in years than I, I said:

His merits exceed my merits.

“And if I was older than he, I said:

His transgressions are fewer than my transgressions.

“And if he was my equal in wisdom and years, I said:

His conscience is clearer before God [“his heart is better to God”] than

my conscience, since I know the sins I have done, but I do not know the

sins he has done.

“And if he was richer than I, I said that he does more charitable deeds

than I do.

“And if he was poorer than I, I said that he is more contrite and more

subdued in spirit than I and he is better than I.

“And through this thinking I would honor all people and I would defer to


More On Health Care…and Arguing With God – Rabbi Barry Gelman

September 8, 2009

There have been a number of interesting reactions to my call of orthodox Jewish groups to support universal health care. Two themes have emerged: 1. Most people are covered by insurance they pay for, other enjoy Medicare or Medicaid coverage and those who are not in these categories do not deserve coverage. The logic goes something like this. If one cannot afford coverage it is because they have made bad life choices and therefore should not be bailed out by the Government. 2. Religious groups need not enter this discussion, as it is a political issue and not a religious/moral issue.

As for #1, I put this under the category of cruel and misinformed. There are millions of people (growing in this economic recession) without health insurance simply because they cannot afford it and are still not covered by any Government plan.

I wish, however to focus on reason #2; the claim that the health care debate is a political issue and not a religious/moral issue. Nothing could be further form the truth. Put simply, when human life is at stake and when the less fortunate are at a disadvantage and when there are ways to make it better – it is a religious/moral issue. This is the very definition of a religious/moral issue and our tradition is full of calls to make sure that the most vulnerable are cared for.

One of the highlights of my week is the teaching I do for the Florence Melton Adult Mini School. THE FMAMS is the world leader in adult Jewish education and they have created a powerful model of adult Jewish education across the country.

In preparing for my teaching I came across the phrase “citing God against God”, coined by Emil Fackenheim. Read the rest of this entry »

Torah Alone does not a Mench Make –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

August 7, 2009

A congregant of mine was confounded by the reports of Rabbis who were arrested for illegally trafficking in human organs. One person in the group said that some might justify their acts claiming the money would be used for yeshivahs and other important Jewish organizations. They turned to me and demanded to know if there really is a way to justify such things through the Torah?

I answered that Judaism, whether the Torah or the Talmud, contains many diverse ideas, not just one opinion and not just one way of thinking about God or the world.  For instance, regarding the question of how we should view non-Jews and how we should act toward them we could look at Abraham. Abraham left a conversation with God, the Torah tells us, in order to run out into the desert and welcome three nomads who were not Jews. Abraham was the first Jew and these nomads, as far as Abraham knew, were idol worshipers. This would be one way to answer the question of what our attitude could be toward non-Jews. On the other hand, one might look at the book of Deuteronomy in which Moshe commands the Jewish people to destroy those who are idol worshipers.  (No doubt the two cases can be seen in different lights and many lomdishe hairs be split, never the less it is the divergence in general attitude expressed by both sides that I am calling attention to.)

Another example of the variety of theological stances within Judaism is with regard to the question of asceticism. A statement in the Talmud tells us one will have to give an account for every pleasure they did not take advantage of in this world (Tal. Jer. 4:12). Additionally there is an opinion that the Nazir (Nazerite) brings a sin offering at the end of his Nazarism to atone for the sin of forbidding upon himself that which the Torah permits.  On the other hand there is a second opinion in the Talmud that the sin offering of the Nazir is due to his leaving behind a higher ascetic state.  The rabbis tell us, “Sanctify (separate) yourself even from that which is permitted.”  In Jewish history there were of course whose central practice was extreme asceticism such as Chasidey Ashkenaz in the 12th century.  Which direction should we take?

Direction can not come only from reading the Torah or even the oral tradition, these are varied and can be used to rationalize anything, including selling human organs for gain.  In the end Torah, written or oral, (at least in their written forms), are not enough to guarantee that we will live a life that is right and good in the eyes of God or others, -our own moral worldview and personal theology must be brought to bear upon Torah as a meta guide.  And this too must be part of the Torah and mesorah (oral tradition).  What we quote from the Torah will be filtered based on who we are and what our world vision is, so we must thoughtfully cultivate a correct worldview.   In Judaism today there are many world views: Zionist/non-Zionist, Torah u’Madah/Torah Im Derech Eretz, Open Orthodoxy/Insular Orthodoxy, etc., etc.

Morethodoxy does not claim to change anything in Torah (God forbid), rather to help present a set of glasses through which to see the Torah, a guide for balancing the varied approaches which are within the Torah.  It is a path accentuating an attitude of rachum v’chanun, first and foremost merciful and loving.  When faced with two approaches within Judaism it is a guide and path for choosing the approach that is, (within halacha), more inclusive not less.  It is not, God forbid, a path of molding the Torah to our selfish desires or to the vagaries of modern life and low brow chapters of western culture, but of opening our eyes and souls to the Torah in ways that Torah alone may not allow us to see.

The Ramba”n said it long ago (v’etchanan and k’doshim) . It is not enough to keep the Torah. If one only keeps the law one may still be a disgusting person.  Jewish law demands that we go beyond the law to do what is right good at the eyes of God and people.  Ours is a religion that is quite legally based yet if one were to just keep the law that would not be enough in our relationship with others or in our relationship with God. V’asita Ha’yashar V’hatov –“Do what is right and good”- go beyond the letter of the law with regard to how you treat others and Kidoshim Tihiyu, -“You shall be holy”-sanctify yourself beyond the letter of the law in your relationship to God.

The Torah alone does not a Mench make. It requires also spectacles through which to see the Torah, ones ground from the glass of things like moral training, philosophy and musar, learning the great ideas of other religions and moral and philosophical systems, chassidut and kabbalah, reading the great secular books, seeing the great works of art, appreciating the natural world God has made and its aesthetic and scientific beauty, exploring the important human ideas and insights -within humans in general and within ourselves in particular (usually through psychotherapy)- so that we can move beyond their own needs and see those of others more clearly.

In the end if our glasses through which to see the Torah and the world are placed correctly and our filters though which to sift the torah and our experiences are honed well we will achieve the goal of being Jews, to be merciful and gracious in imitation of the Divine One and to be a “light unto the nations”; we will not be selling illegal goods to further spiritual life.