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).

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Seeing the sincerity in those with whom we disagree

June 1, 2011

It is not easy for the Jewish people to see themselves as one. They label each other heretics and fanatics, and deem each other guilty of undermining the welfare, identity, and religious underpinnings of the Jewish people as a whole.

Some have noted that unfortunately it often takes persecution to bring Jewish unity.   Hitler for instance considered all Jews, even those who did not consider themselves Jewish, as part of the Jewish people.   The Jew who lived a fully assimilated life in 1940’s Germany, the Jew who converted to Christianity, and the Jew who did not look Jewish and perhaps did not even know they were, were all equally Jewish in qualifying for extermination.

In several weeks Jewish people all over the world will celebrate the Biblical holiday of Shavuot.  Though as described in the Bible this holiday is very much about thanking God for the wheat harvest, today a different aspect of the holiday, its commemoration of the divine revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai to the whole Jewish people, is more central.

The Midrash, Judaism’s most ancient commentary on the Bible, writes that the Jewish people accepted the Torah at Sinai together, “As one person with one heart.”   Perhaps this upcoming holiday of Shavuot can be the day when we put aside our differences, and reclaim that Sinaitic sense of being “One person with one heart.”

Each time I study what someone else in Judaism believes and hear how they see the world, even though their ideas are different from my strongly held religious beliefs, I am pleasantly surprised. I may still think that their views are incorrect, but what I see, with fresh eyes, is their good intentions and their integrity. Each time it becomes clear that they see what they are doing as best for their community, for the Jewish people, and for the world.  Jewish people and groups whom I thought were damaging the Jewish people, I found were actually engaging  in what they saw as correct religious life and values, caring much more about the Jewish people than I could have imagined.

For instance, the liberal rabbi  whom I thought was out to undermine Jewish tradition and herald assimilation turned out to be someone of deep faith and integrity, trying to the best of their ability and with good intentions, to engage the Jewish people in religious life and values, caring much more about Jewish tradition than I had imagined.  Or the fundamentalist rabbi that I thought was out to separate the Jewish people entirely from other Jews and from the outside world, whom I imagined was trying to compromise much of the light that Jews are commanded to bring to the nations, turned out to be a loving, caring, understanding human being who was much more open minded than I had imagined.

The great miracle of learning about the other, of seeing through another’s eyes if even for a moment, is not only appreciation of their integrity, not only a greater sense of unity with them, but taking something productive away, learning something I did not know before that could relate to and deepen my own beliefs, no matter how different from theirs.

The common denominator of all the Jewish groups is their claim to the Torah. In the spirit of this unity, Jewish people from all denominations will come together to study Torah all night long this Shavuot, Tuesday June 7th, at 11pm at Bais Abraham Congregation.   The event is sponsored by the Orthodox Bais Abraham Congregation, the Conservative Sharee Tzedek Synagogue, the Reform Central Reform Congregation, the Jewish Community Center and many others.   For more information call Rabbi Hyim Shafner 314-721-3030 or email rabbi@baisabe.com.


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.


Rabbi Lopatin clarifies his respect for Rav Shai Held

May 7, 2010

Friends,

As an addendum for more comments regarding Rav Schachter’s shiur at the RCA, I wanted to clarify a few things:

1)      I have tremendous respect and admiration for Rabbi Shai Held who wrote the critique of Rav Schacter, at least in terms of “chidush”.  Rabbi Held is a talmid chacham and already an accomplished Jewish thinker and liturgist.  I have used his liturgy on the Tsunami disaster in my shul!  So any rejoinder I have to his critique is said timidly and humbly.  I apologize that I may not have come off sounding this way in my zeal to defend the “chidush” nature of Orthodoxy.  I look forward to continuing discussions and debates with Rav Held in the future.

2)      Rav Schachter himself, in this same shiur at the RCA conference, allowed for disagreement with his points.  Rav Schechter emphasized how any halachic authority could disagree with another halachic authority, from an earlier time or contemporary, and therefore, I felt exhilarated after his speech as it legitimized my decision to  follow halachic authorities – in the Orthodox world –  who disagree with his stance on the ordination of women to the rabbinate.  Every posek (halachic decisor) must rule what his or her understanding, and every individual must honestly chose which decisor they follow: there will be disagreements, but no one is bound by anyone else’s truth.  If the Gaon from Vilna could disagree with the Gaonim 1000 years before his time, we can certainly feel OK in ruling according to a contemporary posek – or poskim – who disagrees with Rav Schachter.

3)      Thus, I do not think that there is any halachic prohibition on ordaining women as rabbis, and while the time may not be right in Orthodoxy at the moment for this practice, I look forward to the time when it will be appropriate.  In the meantime, within Orthodoxy, I hope to see more and more shuls with full time women in the clergy, and I hope there Yeshivat Maharat, and the programs which confer other titles to women, such as Yoatzot Halacha, will continue to grow and thrive.  I hope that Orthodox leaders step up to the plate to fund those programs and those positions.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


Take Back the Kotel Part II: Open Up Robinson’s Arch by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

February 16, 2010

Take Back the Kotel Part II: Give Us Robinson’s Arch!

We’ve talked about problems at the Kotel before, and the incident of a woman putting a tallit on and being arrested – or “detained” – for that mitzvah has certainly raised awareness that something has to be done.  Rabbi Helbraun, a Reform rabbi in Northbrook, IL, put it well when he asked Effy Eitam how they could explain to the children of their shul that while they encourage boys and girls to put on tallitot and t’fillin – in this Reform shul! – they need to know that they can be arrested for doing so in the Jewish state!  But I want to suggest an easy solution to the issues at the Kotel: Open up the Robinson’s Arch area of the Kotel for free to all who want to pray there, celebrate there, even just to meditate there.

Robinson’s Arch is a dramatic part of the Western Wall – actually the southern part of the Kotel Hama’aravi – as opposed to the “other” wall area, the Western Wall plaza, which is the south-central part of the Kotel Hama’aravi.  It was excavated since the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, and I remember they were working on it forever in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Now it is part of the Davidson Center – a museum that charges money for entry, unless special arrangements are made.  I am not asking for free admission to the wonderful exhibits underground that are uniquely part of the this museum.  What I am calling for is for free, 24 hour access by anyone who wants, to the above ground parts of the Wall.  It is our national heritage, and we should not be denied access.  We have a right to the Western wall and the Southern wall which the area includes as well.

Sources tell me that the Masorati movement, the Conservative movement in Israel, has rights to it – I’m not sure, but that’s what I’ve heard from a few sources.  Maybe the Israel antiquities authority has some control over it.  However, to the best of my knowledge the Rabbinate or Religious authority of the Kotel does NOT have control over it.  That’s why now, people can have B’nai Mitzvas there however they daven, and women can read Torah there.  But that is only in limited ways, and I have heard that you can’t bring tables or chairs there – everything that makes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in the main part of the Kotel – to the north – feasible and more substantial.  And if a group of Reform tourists or from the local Reform shul – Kol Haneshama – ended up there on Shabbat after a stroll around the walls on Shabbat, they couldn’t just go in and daven.  In fact, I don’t know if you can go in at all on Shabbat morning!  I am calling not for freedom at the “old” Western Wall; I am calling to open the “real” Western Wall – the Southern Bend of the Western Wall!

Yes, in an ideal world the religious authorities and the government would be pluralistic and would allow all sorts of davening, even in different sections, at the main plaza of the Kotel.  But until that moment comes, we have something we should be able to do right now: Open up Robinson’s Arch to all davening, all the time.  If you come from Dung gate, it where many of the buses leave you off, it is actually the first “Kotel” you see: people don’t even have to know that there is a Wall where women get arrested for wearing a tallit or pelted for reading a … Torah!  At the real wall, you can daven how you want to daven, and there are wonderful areas for different groups to gather and celebrate.  But we need the cooperation of the Masorati movement, or the Davidson family, or whoever controls Robinson’s Arch!   Maybe would could ask the Davidson family to endow this area for davening, so that the museum would not lose out on their dues.  One way or another, we can easily open up this place of t’filla.

So on this one I say, don’t blame the chareidim!  We don’t need that frum, restricted, non-inclusive wall.  We already have a Wall, a genuine, dramatic Western Wall, where we can have everyone daven the way they want to.  Let’s use it and let others use it.

Open Up Robinson’s Arch!  Let Us Pray!  Let Us Wear Our Tallitot!  Let Us Read Our Torah! Let Us All, Men and Women, Sing Hallel Out Loud!

And I would not be surprised if soon enough the people who put t’fillin on at the other Wall, will come to the new, inclusive Wall, and the men and women will be waiting outside the new Wall for our tzedaka, and people can start putting notes in the new Wall, and we can start bringing Barbara Streisand and any other celebrity or politician to the new Wall.  Let’s continue to fight the good fight for separation of government from religion, but in the meantime let’s make sure that anyone who wants to daven to Hashem, in any way, has a way to do it at the Wall.  As the famous telegram said in June 1967,  “HaKotel Biyadeinu” –“The Kotel is in our hands!”  Indeed it is , we just have to open it up to all.


Man In Search Of Heschel – Rabbi Barry Gelman

August 18, 2009

If you understand the title of this post you are ahead of the game.

I wonder why the Modern Orthodox community does pay more attention to and study the works of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Aside from his book The Sabbath, much of his work goes unnoticed and certainly unstudied in our community.

Rabbi Heschel wrote and spoke about so many of the challenges of religion in a free society. He concentrated the need and difficulty of balancing the regularity of Jewish religious practice with spontaneity, referring to these to contrary principles as kevah and kavanah, the religious ideal of living a life of, what he called, “wonder” and “radical amazement” by never taking God’s world for granted and fundamental importance of Halacha as an ingredient of the life of a spiritually healthy Jew.

While many are familiar with Rabi Heschel as the rabbi who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma Alabama, many are unaware his focus on Halacha. I sometimes wonder if the popularity of the picture of Rabbi Heschel with King in Selma has diminished focus on the other aspects of his career.

Part of the reason why Heschel goes unnoticed in the Orthodox community is because he spent most of his career at the Jewish Theological Seminary – the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism. As such he is deemed “treif” by large segments of our community. To my mind this is a terrible shame and we continue to ignore his writings and teachings to our own peril. We should be teaching Heschel in our schools and in our shuls. Read the rest of this entry »


What is Orthodox Judaism? Rabbi Asher Lopatin

June 8, 2009

Morethodoxy is one week old – Mazel tov! It’s time to talk tachlish: What do I think Orthodox Judaism is all about? This is a two-parter so if you read Part I today, please don’t give up on part II next Monday:

Five Pillars of Orthodox Judaism distilled by Rabbi Asher Lopatin
1) Torah Mi Sinai – Torah from Sinai – Both the Oral and Written Tradition come from God and were revealed to the Jewish people at Sinai. In contrast to the great Conservative halachist, Rabbi Joel Roth, who says, “the halackic tradition is the given, and theology is required to fall into place behind it,” I believe our halachik tradition needs to be driven by theology in order to keep Judaism alive and infinite, rather than ossified and limited. We need to start with this awe of the Torah and Talmud coming from God and being infinite and deserving infinite reverence, placing ourselves humbly below it, and only then establishing ownership of it, and making it our “plaything” as King David says in Psalms. Only when a couple accepts Kiddushin (betrothal) can they become intimate with each other, and our rabbis compare Matan Torah (Receiving the Torah ) to Kiddushin. Only if you feel the Torah is your God-given partner can you then become intimate with it; then you can really feel you are so connected to it that you can make a conjecture as to what it is thinking; then you can trust your instincts in interpreting it and its 3500 year tradition. This theology and intimacy leads to the second pillar:
2) 2) Chidush MiSinai – Innovation from Sinai –New understandings and innovative interpretations come if you really believe the Torah is Divine and infinite and, thus, can be interpreted into an infinite amount of ways. If you are truly “chared” – fearful, awestruck – of the “d’var Hashem” – the word of God – then you can never have the audacity, the chutzpa, to believe that you or any human being can truly know what it means. You can never say something is “clear from the Torah”. How can the Divine word of God, communicated to mere mortals, ever be “clear” or easy to understand, or “obvious”? However, any new interpretation must be processed and examined through the traditions of p’sak (rulings) of the last 2000 years, and that interpretation must follow the Talmud. So we may re-read the Talmud in a totally different way without changing the eternal Torah of God that the Talmud represents. Our rereading will be debated, will be resisted and challenged, but, ultimately, if it is a real interpretation of the Talmud – as far as can be humanly established – and it fits into the understanding of Rishonim (Medieval authorities) and the subsequent authorities, it will become part of “halacha l’Moshe Misinai” – the Halacha that was understood to have been given to Moshe at Sinai, even if Moshe never understood it the way someone in the 21st century correctly understands the word of God. Innovation comes from the dialectic of ideas and thoughts from the world around us and our allegiance to Torah, the eternal, infinite word of God. Within this dialectic, chidushim, innovative ways of understanding our Torah and tradition, arise in every generation.

RAL