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


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


Are We There Yet…?- Rabbi Barry Gelman

June 24, 2011

Are We There Yet….?

Is our Judaism something that causes us to aspire to certain goals or does it cause stagnation and the belief that one has arrived at their final destination.

Yehsayahu Leibowitz points out that it is not a coincidence that the word “holy” appears at the end of last week’s Torah reading, Parshat Sh’lach and at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Korach. For him, the two uses of the word is meant to focus us in on the different ways it is used.

At the end of Parshat Sh’lach, the Torah states: “So that you remember and perform all My commandments, and become holy to your God.” Leibowitz stresses that this verse represents an aspirational approach to holiness in that the purpose of the Mitzvot is to help a person achieve holiness.

Korach, on the other hand hands declares: “…the entire assembly  – all of them – are holy.” What Korach is saying is that holiness is a given and exists simply by virtue of the fact that one is a Jew.

On one level, Korach’s claim of innate holiness is empowering as it bespeaks a special status and perhaps a desire to live up to that rank.

Leibowitz, on the other hand, warns that such an approach cheapens holiness, as it need not be earned. It also leads to laziness and conceit as one may then claim that there is no work to be done on character and /or relationship development.

Living life as if one has already reached the pinnacle is the Korach way, as opposed to God’s decree to live life in constant aspiration of doing more and being better.

This idea is especially true in the area of personal character traits. Alan Morinis is his book, Climbing Jacobs Ladder, teaches the following about the goal of mussar practices. “ It assures us that we are not condemned to live forever with every aspect of the personality we happen to have right know, but that we can make changes that will set free the radiance of our inner light.”

The idea of aspiring for more is an important way to view the development of Halacha. For example, Eliezer Berkowitz in his book, Jewish Women in Time and Torah, distinguishes between stances that the Torah tolerates and those that the Torah aspires to. More recently, this approach has been adopted and expanded by Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch.

Their claim is that some of the laws within the Torah itself are not the “end of the road” since they represent positions that are tolerated by the Torah due to historic realities while rabbinic legislation helps Halacha get closer to the ideal position.  For details of Rabbi Rabinovitch’s application of this idea go to – http://tinyurl.com/5vngcg

God had to show that Korach’s approach was doomed to moral, ethical and even legal failure. It was an approach that could have only left the Jewish people, and anyone who accepts such an approach, stuck and stalled in their present condition. Perhaps the punishment of being swallowed up by the earth was God’s way of showing that Korach’s approach was the equivalent of getting stuck in the sand, with an inability to move forward and aspire to even greater heights.

 


The French Emperor’s Burka: When Liberalism Leads to Close-Mindedness

April 13, 2011

It is ironic when liberalism generates, instead of open-mindedness and acceptance, limitation of others’ free expression and denial of their rights.   France, I think, in dictating the limitations of what Muslim women can wear, has unmasked its liberte et egalite and shown it to be something else entirely.  The French Emperor, it seems, is wearing no clothes.  Liberty and equality that in the name of French secularism does not allow religious freedom are just prejudice and fear masquerading as secular values.

 

Rabbi Abraham Kook, the first chief rabbi of modern day Palestine (pre-state Israel) in the 1920’s, and father of modern day religious Zionism, understood that even in a religious context all things, even those usually deemed as anti-religious, can have value.  For instance, atheism, he said, has an important voice and place.  When others are in need, we must be atheists and not rely on God to help, not attribute the pain of others to divine justice, but jump in to assist, feeling the full burden of others’ needs as if there were no God for them to rely on.

 

I think secularism, too, has its place.  To be deeply religious, the tolerance and viewing of others’ religious values is of paramount importance.   If God is one and infinite then there are many keys to the kingdom.  When caught up in our own religious views (be they spiritual, or in the case of France, secular) it is hard to appreciate the take others might have on the big questions, i.e. God, people, the good, the universe.   But to have religious depth and not just self-righteousness, we must hear and appreciate the views of others, even if we do not accept them.   Ironically, the more we know about our own religion and the more secure we are in our observance and faith, the more we will be able to tolerate and learn from other’s views.   It makes one wonder how secure the French secularism that Sarkozy has touted really is (http://www.france24.com/en/20091112-nicolas-sarkozy-burqa-france-religion-muslim-secular-france).

 

The Talmud says that Jewish law follows the one who states the opposition’s opinion first and only then his own opinion.  Such a person’s view is truly informed and thus more likely to be correct.   When blind to another’s world view, it is easy to be right.  But if we first look through the eyes and values of another and only then commit to our own values, our own opinions will be more true and just.

 

How ironic that France, birthplace of revolution and freedom, in unmasking the Muslim woman, has donned its own cultural blinders.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Heaven and Heck

April 4, 2011

When I was a Rabbi at Washington University it was common for students who were not very knowledgeable about Judaism to ask me, “Rabbi, Judaism does not believe in Heaven and Hell right?”  I am not sure where this seemingly widespread impression came from, but my flippant answer was always, “No, but we do believe in heck.”

In the Five Books of Moses, the Biblical books of Genesis through Deuteronomy, there is no mention of heaven and hell.  There are proscriptions of earthly punishments, for violations of interpersonal as well as ritual law at the hands of a court, as well as earthly punishments from the Almighty (holding back rain, defeat at the hands of our enemies, exile from the Land of Israel) directed toward the entire Jewish nation for not obeying the Torah, but nothing is portrayed beyond our physical world.

Though the Torah proscribes many punishments for the violation of commandments, in only a few instances does the Bible mention reward for correct actions.  In the case of honoring one’s father and mother (Exodus 20:11) the Bible says, “You shall have long life on the land which God has given you” and for the commandment of shooing away the mother bird before taking her eggs from the nest (Deuteronomy 21:6), the Torah writes the same reward, that “it may be good for you and your days be long…”

The Talmud records an interesting story regarding faith and reward and punishment.   A father told his son to climb a tree and shoo away the mother bird, claiming the eggs for himself.  The boy obeyed and on his way down fell off the tree and died.   The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Alisha ben Avyah, watching the scene of the boy dying while occupied precisely in those two laws for which the Torah rewards long life, gave up his faith in God.  The Talmud then asks, indeed, how do we explain the boy’s death?in light of his fillment of these two commandments?   The Talmud answers that the torah does not mean long life in this world but long life in the next.

Normative Judaism does believe in an after life, usually referred to as Olam Habah, the “World to Come.”  Maimonides railed against the branches of Islamic philosophy in his day (11c) that saw this reward as physical, since the body is put in the ground and only the soul meets its maker.  Maimonides explains that through our actions in this world we cultivate our soul’s ability to reconnect with its Infinite divine source after the body’s death.   What we have done in this world conditions the soul to be close to God or distant from God.

Closeness to the Divine is the ultimate reward; distance from it the greatest punishment.   So we must be clear from a Jewish point of view that though we believe in reward and punishment (with out it, I think, what we do does not really matter) we should not mistake this for a vindictive King in the sky image casting humans into a Dantesque inferno.  Rather our soul in the next world is a natural extension of who we have become in this world.  The development of our moral and religious character which we achieve in the physical world, in a way continues on and “naturally” results in our proximity to the Divine, perhaps the greatest of all rewards and punishments.

In Jewish study and life in general one rarely hears discussion of Heaven and Hell.  I think this emerges from Judaism’s very strong stress on this world, and doing what we should because we are commanded so, not because some non-earthly reward and punishment awaits us.   As the first century Jewish moral work Pirkey Avot, The Ethics of our Fathers (4:17) puts it:  “More beautiful is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all the life of the World to Come, and more beautiful is one hour of spiritual satisfaction in the Next World than all the life of this world.”

 


A Way To Faith – Rabbi Barry Gelman

March 21, 2011

This is the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat (Erev Purim) in my Shul in Houston. Although Purim has passed, I think that the message of the sermon is still reevennt and I hope that it can offer a way to faith for those who struggle with faith while facing difficult circumstances.

A Way To Faith

I am finding it particularly difficult to get into the Purim spirit this year. Like many of you, my thoughts this week have been consumed by the reports and the images of the brutal murder by Palestinian terrorists of the 5 members of the Fogel family in Itamar, Israel as well as by the death of 10’s of thousands of people brought on by the earthquake and Tsunamis that rocked and flooded Japan.

If I may relate my personal state of mind, each of these tragedies has affected me differently. The Japan tragedy is a terrible human tragedy, not to be considered as 10’s of thousands, but as mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers – families – just like ours – shattered – never to be the same. That tragedy, savagely created by nature, forces us to confront difficult questions about God and the natural order.

The brutal murders in Itamar conjures up different challenges. That was not just a murder of a family – it was the murder of our family. Here, for most of us, we are talking about 2 or 3 degrees of separation. Of course, this type of despicable deed raises questions, not about faith in God, but about faith in humanity.

I am reminded of the words of Rabbi Yehuda Amital in an interview he gave to Yad Vashem where he commented on having faith after the Holocaust. In referencing a conversation with  Abba Kovner a leader of the Vilna Ghetto revolt, and a kibbutz leader and poet in Israel, Rabbi Amital recalls: “Once we were both participants in a TV panel about the meaning of the Holocaust. He asked me, “Did you have problems with your faith?” I answered him, “I had problems? Your problems are even more serious. I believed in God; now, I don’t understand His ways. But you believed in man; now, do you continue to believe in man, after what you saw in the Holocaust? Truly, we both have a problem.”
[1]

I would like to suggest a way into Purim in light of the recent events. I believe that this approach is important not just for this year, but that it also offers a way to faith that may be helpful.

I will start with a basic question on Purim.

Why do we not recite Hallel on Purim? This question is asked in the Talmud in tractate Megilla and 3 answers are given. For our purposes, I wish to focus on the third answer. According to the Gemara, we do not say Hallel on Purim because even after the great salvation and military victory, we are still “servants of Achashveirosh.”

What the Talmud is trying to get across here is that Purim does not reflect a total victory or salvation. Despite the fact that we declare “Layehudim Hayta Ora…”, there was still much leftover darkness once all the dust settled.

If that is the case, then we must ask ourselves another question. Why celebrate? What is the purpose of celebration if the same sword that dangled over our necks before the Purim saga unfolded, continues to dangle there.

Here the words of Rabbi Zadok HaKoheinm of Lublin are helpful.

Say’s Rav Tzadok[2] – Pesach represents total salvation – we left Egypt and we went and received the Torah. Pesach represents leaving the darkness of exile.

Purim on the other hand, with the left over danger and darkness, represents the ability to cope with remaining in the darkness. That too is a gift from God.[3]

This will be my approach to Purim this year. The murders in Itamar especially, remind us that there are still great challenges and that there is great hatred among our enemies. The murders remind us that even with the establishment of the State of Israel, there is still much darkness to overcome.

But I will also recall this Purim that the Fogel family in Itamar and all those suffering in Japan, have the ability to cope with the darkness and to build new lives on the ruins.

I will also remember that despite the human evil displayed in Itamar and in the Palestinian street as they celebrated the murders, that there are many many good people in our world.

There are 50 or so firefighters who are facing certain death as they try to contain the fires and radiation leaks at the Japanese nuclear power plants.

I will remember the amazing story of Rami Levy, owner of a chain of supermarkets in Israel. If you have not heard the story, it is worth hearing.

According to a number of Israeli news outlets, Rami Levy has gone to the Fogel’s house every day of the Shiva and fills up their refrigerator and cupboard with food.

Someone at the house noticed and expressed their appreciation to him for doing this. He responded that they will be seeing him for a while as he plans to supply them with food and supplies every week until the youngest orphan turn 18.

Who among us does not live with some darkness?

Who among us has not woken up in the morning wondering how to go on living?

This is part of life, but, yet, somehow we manage to cope – and sometimes even thrive under difficult conditions.

That ability, that great power is worth celebrating for it too is a gift from God.

“Even a Holiday that does not merit Hallel, remains worthy of celebration. It behooves us to remember this, because instances of complete salvation are few and far between. We must take joy and show gratitude for the ability to make it through the difficult times, even when our problems do not depart entirely.”[4]

I conclude with a teffilla

Acheinu Kol Beit Yisrael…

As for our brothers of the whole house of Israel who are in distress or captivity, on sea or land, may the All-Present have compassion on them and lead them from distress to relief, fro darkness to light, and from oppression to freedom, now, swiftly and soon – and let us say: Amen


[2] Divrei Soferim 32

[3] Cited in Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine – Yitzchak Blau, pg. 41

[4] Ibid


Rabbi Marc Angel, Firebrand of Modern Orthodox, Comes To Your Shabbat Table, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

January 3, 2011

Angel for Shabbat, by Rabbi Marc B. Angel

($18 online at Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, www.jewishideas.org )

Reviewed by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Rabbi Marc Angel has just come out with a unique book entitled “Angel for Shabbat.”   It is a semi-autobiographical, Modern Orthodox manifesto and Bill of Rights, using the back-drop of the parshiot and chagim to illustrate the key points of Rabbi Angel’s thought.  This book is Old World and New Age: it quotes classic Hassidic and Sefardic masters – from Levi Yitzchak of Bardichov to the Kotzker Rebbe to Rav Chaim David Halevi, Chacham Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Benzion Uziel – and classic secular thinkers such as Dr. Bruno Bettleheim, Eric Fromm, Paul Johnson, and a half-dozen former presidents of the United States.  You just don’t see books written today which cite Rabbi J. H. Hertz who quotes Marcus Jastrow or which spell mitzvos, “mitzvoth”.  The book will bring you back to a different era in Jewish thought, where it was OK to entertain the idea of the world being several billion years old or the idea that superstitions are actually bad and not integral to Judaism.

On the other hand, Rabbi Marc Angel does not hold back on expressing his views on every contemporary flashpoint in Orthodoxy, from the Gedolim, to discrimination against Sefaradim in Emanuel, to Postville and the Rubashkins to parking lots and protests in Jerusalem.  Whether you agree with Rabbi Angel or not, it is fascinating to see how a pulpit rabbi of a 17th century colonial New York congregation can use the language of the Rambam to leap from the text of the parsha to blast charlatans who would espouse an irrational Judaism or teachers who would demand a literal interpretation of Midrashim.  Was Rivka really three when she decided to marry Yitzchak? Can we view Mordechai and Esther as assimilated Jews?  This book will get you off your comfy chair to shout out either “How can Rabbi Angel say this!” or “Lead the way Rabbi Angel!  We are right behind you!”

This is parsha book like no other – in a sense it is a gorgeous and tender polemic, where Rabbi Angel’s father, wife and congregants come into the picture as being part of the story of a former president of the RCA and leading Orthodox rabbi (he is now Emeritus at the Historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue) who has only gotten more passionate and self-confident to try to make a difference in the world.  Parsha after parsha, in pithy two-page essays, I found  myself saying, “Don’t hold back Rabbi Angel!  Tell us what you really think!”  Tell us how you think it might be morally dubious to reject Thanksgiving as a Jewish holiday!  This book is a must read because it recreates  a time in Orthodoxy where doing Thanksgiving and reading the Hertz chumash and quoting Harry Truman were all very much part of the “frum” Jewish experience.  But at the same time the ideas in this book, and Rabbi Angel’s uncompromising style, bridges the generation gap and addresses issues that the Modern, Centrist and Chareidi world are struggling with today.  Nostalgia is just the start; this book wants to take you to a world of independent thinking, bold questioning  and strong “inner calm” that will wake you up.  It’s not a book to read just every week – it’s a book to go through in one setting, and then to ponder it again as our Jewish year, and our Torah, unravels before us.  Good luck putting it down!


Shopping, Conspicuous Consumption and Jews – Rabbi Barry Gelman

December 21, 2010

Dear Friends,

I found this article about shopping to be very insightful and reflective of some very important values.
I have often commented on the plague of conspicuous consumption that exists in the Jewish community. This article should make us think about how we shop.

Perhaps the references to Christian theology will be unsettling to people so I have included another link to Jewish sources on the ethics of consumerism.

While this is the season during which people focus on shopping, the questions of how we shop, why we shop and how shopping affects our soul is worthy of ongoing consideration.

http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/3867/a_meditation_on_shopping_and_desire

http://www.utzedek.org/files/Ethics%20of%20Consumerism%20%28Yom%20Iyun%20Shiur%29.pdf