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

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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


Coping with the Leiby Kletzky a”h Tragedy, By Rabbi Asher Lopatin

July 15, 2011

The tragedy of the loss of such innocence looms over this Shabbat.  Last week the Berry family of Houston was in a tragic car accident where both parents died and two of the kids were left paralyzed, coming to Chicago for treatment.   Then we started this week with a “catastrophe, not a tragedy” with the fire at Kehillath Jeshurun on the East Side of New York, which destroyed only a shul, no humans or Torahs.  But we ended the week with a devastating tragedy, the murder of precious eight year old, Chasidishe boy in Borough Park.  I have to admit that I have had a hard time knowing how to react beyond just being sad, depressed and frustrated.  My iPhone is going wild from people on Facebook who cannot console themselves – but are trying – and speaking to rabbis, especially from New York, it feels that this is just a black, horrific moment.  But nothing is worse than just staring at black space, without being able to see a path from it, or through it.

One of my mentors helped me by reading a message in the tragedy: We are more vulnerable than we thought.   In the Jewish and Orthodox community we see Borough Park as a safe enclave, working hard to protect itself from any of the evils of the outside world.  That is the view the world has as well of this heavily Orthodox part of Brooklyn, New York.  But we also used to think that spousal abuse and child abuse didn’t occur in the Orthodox, frum community – or, even amongst Jews at all.   We now know better that everything in the general community makes its ugly appearance in the Orthodox community as well.  Sad, unfortunate, but true.  And now we know, tragically, that murderous, insane, monsters are there as well: they go to the dentist, they go to weddings, they live amongst normal people.  No one is safe, and the same rules that we teach children about not following strange looking people and not doing strange acts with strange people have to apply to not following even safe looking people.  Frum children need to know they should not do anything they are uncomfortable with even with frum looking people, even with relatives or teachers.  If we thought we knew this, and this tragedy brings it all out again in the saddest, clearest way.

It would be comfortable to feel there are no murderers, crazies, molesters, abusers amongst us, to be lulled by the blessings of Bilam, where he sees the Children of Israel as sinless, blameless, completely loyal to God and perfect in their ethical way of life.  But we know better.  We know that the blessings of Bilam are an ideal, and the perfect, safe frum community, insulated from any negative elements is a fantasy as well.  We have to be realists.

Yet,  I hope, I pray,  we do not lose our innocence.  The innocence of an eight year old boy wanting to be a big boy and walk home alone from camp…  Experts can argue over what is the earliest age to allow a kid to walk home from camp, but everyone who has been a kid, can feel for these parents who relented and finally let Leiby, a”h, walk home on his own.  Oy!  May Hashem allow this family, and all of our families, to hold on to that innocence and love, which makes us do things that sometimes we regret, but come from the most beautiful, loving, caring place.

So I ask for Hashem to give our community  the hard-headed realism to be more responsible to ferret out abusers and molesters– or attempted molesters – who may have slipped through our system, maybe because they were not reported directly to the police, or because the local Batei Dinim have been too lenient and protective of “respected” members of the community accused of such crimes.  However, at the same time , may God give us the strength to retain some of that innocence, some of  the trust we need to reach out even to the stranger.  Can we ever regain that trust or innocence?  With God’s help we can, and we the help of our community child-safety experts we can do so in a way that allows us to keep our children as safe and secure as humanly possible.

This is a world where the most innocent and precious people are vulnerable to the most vicious, evil and perverted minds.  Let us ask Hashem to allow us to fight that evil, while allowing us to retain our innocence and our belief and trust in the world God has given us.  Not easy, almost impossible, but that is at the core of our “emuna”,  our belief in an infinite and caring God.

May God bind the innocent, blessed soul of Leiby Kletzky in the bonds of everlasting life, and may the memory of his sweet life be a blessing to our entire world, which today is full of so much sadness and grief.

 

Asher Lopatin


A Plea for True Respect for Arabs and Muslims by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 17, 2011

Rav Yosef, my good friend and a rabbi I respect deeply, misunderstands my motivation in holding off on a prayer for Egypt.  I certainly am frustrated with the Obama administration’s handling of the Middle East.  However, my main point is that we need to stop pandering and patronizing the Arabs and Muslims throughout the world, and actually show some respect to them.  They can face the challenges of their past just as well as Jews and Christians can: the anti-Semitic elements of their religion, which need to be re-understood just as Judaism and Christianity evolved in their understanding of the “other”; the discriminatory treatment of the Jews in Arab and Muslim lands throughout  history; the abominable attitude of the Arab leadership, trade unions and professional organizations toward the State of Israel – even in Jordan and Egypt; the leaders and mobs who pressured Great Britain not to allow Jews to enter Palestine when faced with murder and destruction in Europe – and even after the Holocaust before the rise of the State of Israel.  I respect the Arabs and Muslims, and I think they are capable of rising to the challenge of becoming an enlightened people, a part of the developed world.  Yes, they need democracy,  and that means a different attitude towards women – we in the West need to work on that as well – and toward homosexuals and other “others” in their midst.  Yes, I think the Palestinians can advance to the point where selling land to a Jew is not a capital offense, nor is a gay person forced to hide their identity.

People from developed countries throughout the world come to Israel to learn agriculture, science and to share in Israel’s rich culture.  I do expect Arabs to learn from Israel as well.  It is their loss, their sad loss, and certainly the Palestinians loss, that they have spent nearly 63 years fighting Israel instead of teaming up with Israel. The protesters in Tienanmen Square erected a model of the Statue of Liberty; they understood that America stands for freedom and liberty.  In Egypt, protesters put Jewish stars on Mubarak to show how much they hated him – how sad that they did not understand that Israel represents their ticket to freedom, democracy and a thriving, open economy, rather than the evil they need to eternally fight.

No, I am not angry, I am waiting: I am waiting for the Egyptians to rise to the challenge and to be the human beings they can be.  The prophets understood that they can be a great people.  But unless we challenge them to pursue truth, not just populism, and unless we ourselves admit to that truth, we are not respecting them and treating them as our equals.    They are God’s children just like we in the West are God’s children, and I have every expectation that I place on myself and my own religion.

I pray that we stop pandering and patronizing and start respecting our Arab and Muslims brothers in a way that allows them to enter a new era of truth and good.  When that happens, I will be the first to say a Shehechiyanu.  Until then, I pray for us to be strong, and never to compromise or ask others to compromise the values that have given us our freedom and our liberty.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


Rediscovering Prayer –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 4, 2010

Perhaps I speak only for myself but I think generally we have lost the concept of prayer.  The upside of prayer in the Orthodox community is that we do it often.  But this is also the downside.  As a result of the commonness of our prayer I think, at least for me, prayer often can become the saying of words, the recitation of formulas, the fulfilling of an obligation.

 

The gemara (Berachot 29b)has an interesting instruction for prayer that may help us:

“Rabbi Eliezer says: One who makes their prayer fixed (kevah, which prayer should not be) their prayer is not beseeching/prayerful (tachanunim).   What does “fixed prayer” mean?  Rabbi Yaakov the son of Rav Idi said in the name of Rabbi Oshiyah, (a fixed prayer is)“anyone who feels their prayer to be something which must be carried” (Rash”i- as an obligation to be fulfilled), The Rabbis say, “Anyone who does not pray in words of tachanunim” (Shulchan Aruch- tachanunim is like a poor person asking for alms in pleasant language), Rabah and Rav Yosef said together, “(a prayer is called fixed) If one is not able to say something new in it.”

 

It seems from the Talmud there are 3 factors in making prayer what it should be (in fact some achronim say that one who prays kevah,  a prayer which is fixed, has not prayed at all (Elyah Raba, Magen Giborim, et al).  To review the three factors in the gemara above which make prayer what it should be are:

  1. How we feel about the prayer.  If we see prayer as a chiuv, an obligation to be fulfilled like other mitzvoth, instead of as a conversation with God.
  2. The language with which we pray. If we read words from a book, instead of speaking like one person to another in nice language and tone.
  3. If we read the siddur and do not say anything new in each prayer.

 

Since we are different every day we must in our conversation  with God, insert words of our own.  This should be done, the poskim say, in the middle 13 berachot of the amidah.  In at least one beracha and some say in all of the berachot, we should speak to God about and ask for what we personally and our people and world generally need at that moment.

 

I personally have found that numbers 1 and 2 are hard to control but 3 is more doable.   It is hard to pray 3 times a day without feeling it obligatory, hard to see God as a personal Deity in conversation.  But I find that by beginning with number 3, in my very small way, that numbers 1 and 2 sometimes develop.   Try it.   Next time you daven, in each of the middle 13 berachot of the amidah talk to God about what you need pertaining to that blessing just before the chatimah, the ending of the paragraph.   Talk to God about what the world and Jewish people need.  If you can do it in Hebrew that’s great but English is ok too.

 

This mode of beseeching, of seeing God as a parent from whom we request what we personally need rather than an infinite Deity before whom to laude, is the real path of Jewish prayer, as the Talmud said long ago.  Don’t worry about it taking you too long to daven, it will become something that at least sometimes you will look forward to and will change everything.

 


Standing Together: Chicago’s Muslims Stand with her Jews, by Rabbi Lopatin

November 1, 2010

Friends,

 

I have worked over the years with building Jewish-Muslim relations in Chicago by co-chairing the Jewish Muslim Community Building Initiative of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a social justice organization.  Our shul has hosted every year an Iftar meal for Muslims to break their Ramadan fast and to come together – after Jews davening Mincha and Ma’ariv and the Muslims  praying their Salat (in the JCC) – in camaraderie and friendship.  We learn during the year, frequently with a rabbi and an imam presenting their own respective religion’s take on a biblical/Q’ur’anic story or an issue such as health care.  The letter below is from the head of the largest Muslim organization in Chicago, which includes the diversity of the Muslim community – Arabs and non-Arabs – and even the controversial CAIR-Chicago.  I think the letter speaks for itself:

(CHICAGO- OCTOBER 29, 2010) – The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago stands with our faith partners and the Jewish community in condemning the recent terrorist act to send explosives through cargo airlines to Jewish organizations in Chicago.

President Barack Obama declared today that authorities had uncovered a “credible terrorist threat” against the United States following the overseas discovery of U.S.-bound packages containing explosives aboard cargo jets. President Obama said both had been addressed to Jewish organizations in the Chicago area.

“We are thankful to our law enforcement agencies to uncover this plot before it could cause any harm,” said Dr. Zaher Sahloul, chairperson of the Council. “Illinois Muslims stand united with our Jewish partners and organizations in condemning this terrorist and heinous act. There is no place in Islam for terrorizing innocent people or spreading mayhem.”

“We urge our fellow citizens to stay alert and cooperate with law enforcement agencies,” said Mohamad Nasir, executive director of the Council. “This is our duty. One of the best ways to fight the perverted message of terrorists and protect our homeland is to affirm our patriotism through civic work, interfaith action and voting in large numbers on November 2nd.”

Peace has not broken out in the world, and Jews and Israel still have our enemies who wish to destroy us at any opportunity.  But at least we have come to the point where the local Jewish and Muslim communities can work together as “faith partners”.  Words do mean something, and the words are sweet.