Individuality and The Jewish Community – Rabbi Barry Gelman

September 1, 2010

As Rosh Hashana approaches, I wonder about standing before God as an individual. So much of Judaism is based on the group that it sometimes is hard to find room for the individual to make unique contributions.

Rabbi Naftali Tzi Yehuda Berlin (The Netziv), commenting on this week’s Parsha offers a wonderful illustration as to the importance of individuals and their contributions.

He notes that the group can be compared to a garden where many different types of species are planted, but that also has one main or anchor crop.  Similarly, every Jews is obligated in all of the commandments, but, nonetheless, each individual has a specific Mitzvah they should be especially careful about.

The particular Mitzvah that one should focus on may be just the commandment that one finds particularly challenging or may be based on surroundings and circumstances. Either way, The Netziv is suggesting that and individual can make a unique mark on the world corresponding to their “personal” Mitzvah.

Rabbi Walter Wurzberger notes that individual focus has added color and texture to Jewish life. While commenting on the centrality of conduct over ideology, Rabbi Wurzburger writes the following:  “ That a variety of ideological positions are compatible with Halakha can be garnered from the fact that throughout history Jews who professed absolute loyalty to Halacha adopted radically different life styles and policies. From the battles between rationalists, ant-rationalists and mystic through the controversies dividing Chassidim and Mitnagdim, through the mutually antagonistic positions taken in reaction to the Enlightenment and the Emancipation, to the bitter conflicts raging within the Orthodox community about the legitimacy of Zionism and the State of Israel, Jews have exhibited an uncanny ability to arrive at a host of mutually contradictory conclusions from the same set of data.”

Imagine how spiritually poor we would be if the individual groups mentioned by Rabbi Wurzburger did not exist.

A similar idea holds true in a community. While there are certain things communities need everyone to d, there are unique niche areas that are carved out so individuals can make their mark on the community. Some focus on youth, others on adult education, others on fundraising and still others on budget, visiting the sick, welcoming guests or making sure there is a minyan.

Communities would do well to cultivate the unique talents of individual members realizing that people do different things and do things differently. When it is all put together we have a very fertile garden.


Halacha as Business-My Take on the Rotem Bill-By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 29, 2010

The recent (now tabled)  bill submitted to the Kenesset by MK Rotem expands the range of whom under law in Israel has the authority to perform conversions, and in addition severely limits anyone’s ability to retroactively undo a conversion performed in Israel.

The bill was formulated by Israel Baytenu, a non-religious party, to facilitate the conversions of hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews who are Jewish enough to make Aliyah, (they are defined as a Jew according to the Nuremberg laws) yet are not halachically Jewish, such as someone with a paternal grandfather or father who is Jewish.   That the handful of more liberal rabbis of cities who are part of the Rabbanut (but who until this point were either unable to do conversions or the conversions they did do were undone by their more religiously rightwing counterparts) can help to solve the gargantuan dilemma of so many Jewish people who can not under law marry in their own country, is wonderful.

What did this secular party have to offer the other side, the Charedi Rabbanut, in exchange for the possibility of Russian Jews who are not fully observant converting without having their conversions subsequently undone?   The answer of course, as with all things political, is power.  In exchange, the Rabbanut will be the arbiter of all questions of Jewish status.   This possibility has caused the Reform and Conservative movements to become up in arms, at the future possibility that their conversions will no longer be accepted under law for purposes of Aliyah as they are now.   Weather this new bill will effect the ability of someone born of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother to make Aliyah (that is who is a Jew based on whom Hitler would have killed) is not clear to me.  I have heard different answers to the question.

Maybe I am naïve but what bothers me most about the bill is the reduction of Halachic concerns to the level of a business dealings.   Give us the Russians and in exchange you can have the Conservative and Reform….etc.   If Charedi Rabbis really believe that the conversion of the Russians is outside the bounds of halacha, why are they willing to go along with the bill in exchange for more exclusive power over the definition of who is a Jew?   Practice is then not based on one’s intellectual assessment of halacha but on a political negotiation, which gives something, in this case more jurisdiction, in exchange for halachic compromise.

The beauty of a Jewish country should be that Jewish attitudes and halchic concerns inform all the workings of the state, from the lofty to the mundane.  But this should not work the other way around.  Though Judaism should, I believe, influence politics in Israel, when the opposite is true and politics influences Judaism and Halacha we are going down an appalling path.   Instead of Torah sanctifying the mundane it quickly becomes, in the words of our rabbis, deker lachkor bah, a shovel to dig with.   The mundane sullying Torah.   May the holiness of torah and its ethical and religious teachings color all aspects of life in the holy land and not itself become low, speedily in our days.


Saying Kaddish Over Kaddish – Rabbi Barry Gelman

November 24, 2009

A well known phenomenon of American Jewry is the widespread recitation of kaddish in memory of deceased parents. Even those Jews who are not particularly observant find deep meaning in reciting kaddish for deceased parents. Even those Jews who otherwise rarely come to weekday minyan find the time to come to synagogue almost every day, three times a day to say kaddish. It strikes me as odd that before and after the death of a parent, these folks had no time to come to services, but as soon as a parent dies, time is found.

I wish there are another way to honor our parents in death. Because it is related to honoring parents after death, saying kaddish has become the most widespread ritual on the American Jewish scene and often the perceived hallmark of piety. It has come to the point where people think that, almost to the exclusion of all other ritual and concern for Jewish law, all that a person has to do is say kaddish for their parent upon their death.

It is interesting to note that kaddish does not speak of death, but rather of sanctifying God’s name and faith in times of distress. Ironically, reciting kaddish has lead to the de-sanctification of God’s name and less faithful activity as people ignore other mitzvot in favor of kaddish.

Saying kaddish is an important for children way to reflect the values and ideals their parents stood for. When a child recites kaddish the deceased parent may be judged more favorably as the faithful recitation of kaddish stands as testimony to the parent’s spiritual legacy.

But here again we must wonder if there is a better way. Certainly greater merit can be brought to deceased parents if their spiritual legacy is more than eleven months of kaddish.

In light of this analysis, I wish to highlight a suggestion made by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch – The Concise Code of Jewish Law. In Chapter 22 (Laws of Mourners Kaddish) he writes: “Though kaddish and prayers are helpful to the departed, they are not of primary importance. What is most essential is that their children proceed in the path of righteousness and, in the manner, bring merit to their parents…A person should command his children to be scrupulous in the observance of a particular mitzvah. Their practice of it will be considered more important than their recitation of Kaddish.”

Along these lines, I recommend a new mourning custom – one that hopefully will have more lasting spiritual and religious staying power. I propose that all parents whose children are not Sabbath observant tell their children that either instead of (or in addition to) saying kaddish for a year that their children should remember them by observing Shabbat for a year.

In the scheme of mitzvot, Shabbat observance is more important than the recitation of kaddish, so if one mitzvah is going to be focused on for the year, better Shabbat than kaddish.

Another, perhaps more compelling reason to focus on Shabbat over kaddish is for the benefit of the grandchildren of the deceased. Children who grow up in a home where Shabbat is observed on a regular basis stand a much better chance of marrying another Jew and building a home where Jewish traditions are observed. Additionally, for all those other than the mourning child, saying kaddish goes largely unnoticed in the home. Shabbat observance encompasses the entire home and atmosphere of the family.

It is time to say Kaddish over Kaddish and welcome new Jewish life.


Morethodoxy and Health Care – Rabbi Barry Gelman

August 25, 2009

There have been very few public statements from Orthodox groups regarding the Heath Care debate that is raging in this country.

Agudath Yisrael of America recently stated that President Obama’s efforts to “make health care more accessible to the uninsured and underinsured should be applauded” and that “promotion of good health and well being are religious imperatives.”

The Agudath Yisrael should be commended for stepping into the debate and making a statement based on Jewish values.

Where are the other Orthodox groups….especially the Modern Orthodox? It seems that we are comfortable letting the Jewish position on Health Care reform be staked out by the right wing and let wing of Judaism.

For so many, Orthodoxy remains irrelevant because in our shuls and schools we hear about the minute details of how to keep kosher and debate how long a woman’s sleeve must be and ignore serious discussions on societal and moral issues of our day. Here was our chance (maybe there is still time) to appear relevant by formulating an approach on the most significant issue facing America and we have remained silent. Read the rest of this entry »


Welcoming Gay Jews in the Orthodox Community, by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

June 26, 2009

In the series of posts that I have been writing about welcoming various populations of Jewish people, I am not purporting to address the halachic (Jewish legal) implications of the lives of populations of Jews, I am rather exploring how we as an Orthodox community can tweak our vision of the world and of people, in order to cultivate more welcoming Orthodox communities that can in turn be open to the widest range of Jews.

Last week I wrote of welcoming intermarried families and this week I would like to address how we see another population of Jews that often feels unwelcomed -Jewish people who are not physically attracted to people of the opposite gender, but only to the same gender, and how we as communities observant of halacha can welcome them and to what extent.

Various studies estimate that anywhere from 4%-20% of the American population is homosexual.  It would be dangerous for us to believe that Orthodox Jews are an exception.  That the torah forbids men from having sexual relations with each other is testament that in the Torah’s preview such a desire does exist.

My community encompasses several gay members, some are open about it and some are not, some have partners or are married and others are not, some live a celibate life alone (or have tried to) and others do not.   Just as there isn’t one type of heterosexual person so too there is not homogeneity among homosexuals.  Ultimately people are individuals (an entire universe of their own, as the Mishna in Sanhedrin says), and must be attended to as such.

What should an orthodox Rabbi do when a congregant comes out to him?  What should an Orthodox community’s attitude be toward their gay brethren?   Should we reject them?  Accept them?  Tell them they can never live a life with a family and have children?  Find them a proper partner?

Read the rest of this entry »