With Hashem’s Help, Let the Indonesia Interfaith Middle East Peace Tour Begin! Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 20, 2012

Writing from Hong Kong Airport, where I’m waiting for my flight to Jakarta:

It was hard to believe this would happen, but here I am davening shacharit, having lost a day (Sunday disappeared) and facing West to Israel!  I decided that since I lost the Song of the Day for “Yom Rishon B’shabat” (Sunday), I would say after Monday’s Song of the Day “Today is Sunday in Israel, where the Leviim used to say in the Temple…”

The Indonesian government has generously invited five rabbis, four Christian clergy and three American Muslim clerics to fly to Jakarta, meet up with 12 Indonesian (probably all Muslim) clergy, and then head to Dubai (just one night), Jordan, Israel (including Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Tel Aviv), then to Washington DC for meetings with the State Dept., the White House and Congress.  The mission, ostensibly: Finding ways of using our three Abrahamic religions to bridge gaps and promote peace.  Indonesia is a thriving Democracy, by all accounts, but it is on the cusp of deciding: Will it continue to embrace the more progressive, relatively tolerant Islam that it derived in its struggle against colonialism from such thinkers as Muhammad Abdu and Afghani, or will it give in to the newer forces of Islamic fundamentalism coming from the Middle East, which are beginning to proliferate in Indonesia.  While Indonesia does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, there is potential for warmer relations, and the fact that this group of non-official, but influential,  Indonesians will be meeting with President Shimon Peres and a lot of other Israeli luminaries hopefully bodes well.

I intend to write almost daily on Morethodoxy from each of cities where we will be having conversations and relationship building exercises.  The five rabbis on this trip represent the spectrum of organized Jewish life in America: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.  Certainly none of us speaks for a movement, but together I hope that the discussions are frank and honest, with all sides seeing different dimensions of Judaism, and hopefully Christianity and Islam as well.

Looking forward to writing from Jakarta where I hope to arrive Monday afternoon at 2:00 PM Indonesian time.

Shalom al Yisrael, Peace on Israel and from Israel to the whole world,

Asher Lopatin


Purim verses Halloween -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

October 24, 2011

The leaves fall and the air turns crisp and an underlying feeling of fear and foreboding enters our neighborhoods.   Graves pop us in front yards along with skeletons and the like, bringing death out of its boundaries and into our domains.  Parents, many Jewish parents included, will encourage their children to dress up in frightful costumes along with the superhero of the moment and go door to door exclaiming- “trick or treat”, that is, in its classic intention and indeed its plain meaning: Give me some candy or I will play a trick on you.  In larger cities this might mean throwing eggs at your home (as when I lived inNew York City) or draping toilet paper all around.

I have often thought about this Halloween activity in contrast to the Jewish custom described in the Biblical Book of Esther (9:22) of mishloach manot, sending food to neighbors and friends on the holiday of Purim.  Purim commemorates the day in 356 BCE when Queen Ester saved the Jewish people from the genocidal tyrant Haman who set out to kill, and almost succeeded in killing, every last Jew in the Persian empire, the then known world.  The purpose of sending food to others on the day of Purim is to develop a sense of camaraderie and family with others.  We all eat of each other’s food and thus express our trust and familiality to each other.   In the Purim custom, one sends food that one cooked through a messenger, usually one’s child, to someone else for the holiday.  It must be fit to be a small meal consisting of at least two kinds of foods.

True, we also dress up on Purim, often as the characters from the Book of Esther, some nice and some not so nice but ultimately the difference between this practice of mishloach manot and that of trick or treating is stark.   Purim foods must be delivered in daylight, and must be sent to someone, whereas Halloween treats are taken from others in the dark while personifying the dead and celebrating the scary.

Though many join me in decrying Halloween as a holiday that teaches bad character and pagan ideals, others will say Rabbi Shafner is overreacting; kids just do it to have fun and get candy.  Perhaps.   But I think that everything we do and everything we teach our children to do subtly communicates values.   Dressing them up, often in scary costumes and sending them to the homes of people they do not know to get candy smacks of bad character development.   Who is to say that such things do not have a subtle effect on who we are as a society.  Such practice inculcates taking and even, albeit subtly, glorifies threatening.

This Halloween if you are Jewish I encourage you to give your child a treat and tell them Halloween is not a Jewish holiday.  Wait for Purim when you can give food to others in celebration of Jewish unity, instead of taking it from people in quai-pagan celebration.  If you are not Jewish I also encourage you to forgo the ritual of going door to door at night, risking errant cars and needles in apples, and instead to spend the night as a family.   If Halloween is an important religious holiday for you then ask yourself what activities your religion would advocate your substituting for trick or treating.  Perhaps spend the evening reading the bible and talking together, or volunteering with the needy, training ourselves to give rather than take.

Together may we help to build a society founded on the value that the best way of getting is to give.


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

August 25, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

OK.  The letter:

Dear Rabbi Lopatin

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

You make the following statement about my opinion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of Dr. Yitzchak Zev Soloveichik’s letter.

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

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


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


Reflections on our Community Shavuot Tikun and Jewish Unity -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

June 17, 2011

This past Tuesday night, the first night of Shavuot, over 100 people from five different shuls and institutions, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, came together  to spend the night (some even made it all night!)  learning Torah together; to stand again as we did at Sinai, no matter our differences, as “one person with one heart”.

Classes ranged from Pirkey Avot, to Jewish mysticism, to Midrash.  Jews who rarely pray together and might not share the same visions of how Jewish observance should look none the less placed those differences aside in light of the big picture –that we are all one.  As Richard Joel, the president of Yeshiva University often used to say regarding the Jewish people, “One size does not fit all.”  Yet at the same time it is imperative I think that we are able at times to put aside those different “sizes” and be one people learning Torah together -especially on Shavuot.  As the Midrash says, “The Jewish people came together as one person with one heart in order to receive the Torah with love.”  According to the Midrash the Torah must be received in love and this is only possible if the Jewish people can, even if only for one day, see each other as wholly unified.

Some people in the Orthodox community have asked me how I can allow teachers who do not share Orthodox views of Torah or observance to teach at Bais Abraham on Shavuot.   I do not believe it is forbidden to read or hear what other Jews believe and often I find they have much to teach us.   I have not once had any of my congregants tell me they considered not being Orthodox from hearing a non-orthodox rabbi speak on Shavuot at my shul.   I have faith that the Torah is true and can protect itself.

I was once discussing our annual community Shavuot Tikun with the head of an Israeli yeshiva and that some people have been critical of this interdenominational learning since they were afraid of having teachers teach who were not Orthodox in belief or observance.  His reply was: “They should be afraid of being too afraid”.

What does indeed come from the annual Shavuot Tikun, thank G-d, is a deep sense of the unity of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people).