Guide to the observance of the fast with reflections on the day’s meaning from our friends at the IRF
Yael Unterman and Yael Valier are the coordinators of Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo’s Think Tank – http://cardozoacademy.org
The Two ‘I’s
Today is the age of ‘I’ – not only of the self, but also of concepts beginning with the letter ‘I’, and specifically two: Information and Individualism. Under these two headings many modern phenomena may be subsumed.
In our time, enormous numbers of people are empowered as never before – sometimes for the good, sometimes less so. Information, bringing power and control, is accessible to all who have a basic internet connection and do not live in a dictatorial regime. When it comes to Individualism, the new message of our times is: “You are important.” No longer the collectivist movements of the twentieth century, which expected sacrifice or even death for the sake of large-scale ideologies. In the twenty-first century, every human is (ideally) considered a world, a unique consciousness, complex and worth valuing.
When twenty-first century individuals feel disempowered, they do not sit still and accept their fate. They seek information via search engines, or turn to online social networks for answers. Doctors, for example, are no longer the ultimate authority on health, for Dr. Google and a health discussion forum can contribute much useful information of which the flesh-and-blood doctor might be entirely ignorant.
This new reality is also impacting how people interact with halacha. Where they might once have turned to a rabbi, today they turn to Rabbi Google. Rabbi Google is not very discriminating, providing not only results from carefully-worded halachic websites, but from any person who decides to write up halacha, and also from lay discussions of halacha in email groups of varying intellectual levels. Such discussions, often unbeknownst to their writers, have actually become searchable text on the web. Thus, a remark by Mrs P. Almoni of Far Rockaway may rank higher in the Google results than a responsum by Rabbis Elyashiv or S.Z. Auerbach, the OU or YU, or even “Ask the Rabbi” or Vebbe Rebbe. Google does not distinguish between words written by those with decades of learning and an off-the-cuff comment replete with horrible spelling mistakes and abbreviations such as IMHO!
Now, such lay analyses may well contain intelligent evaluations and suggestions as to the halacha; and many of them will quote rabbis, famous or local. But they may also be based on vague memory or uninformed opinion, representing one person’s erroneous impressions.
Risks and Benefits
The “Rabbi Google” approach clearly runs a serious risk of shallowness, and misinformation (and we do not even mean deliberate and malicious halachic misinformation, a phenomenon which until now we have not yet come across and which would of course be highly damaging). It might even be said to undermine the entire basis of the halachic system. Just as laypeople can be over-confident and arrogant in dealing with doctors or anyone else simply because they have access to Google and therefore think they are informed, at risk to life and limb, so too laypeople might consider rabbis passé now that we have Rabbi Google.
Nevertheless, we hold the phenomenon of “lay internet halacha” to be a blessing in some ways. What is indisputable is that discussions by laypeople encapsulate greater degrees of grassroots life experience, reflecting halacha as practiced on the ground, or ordinary people’s perceptions of and feelings around halacha, to a greater extent than a posek’s responsum might. There is something refreshing, alive and comforting about hearing the voices of people like oneself who are going through similar experiences, sharing how halacha actually functions in the context of real life, in a democratic and non-authoritarian environment. Such halacha will feel much more accessible than even the most internet-friendly rabbi. Facebook groups dedicated to halachic discussion bring the halacha into the world of social media, and thus into the heart of day-to-day interaction and socializing, making it a natural and organic part of life – which is where halacha ought to be.
In any event, both opponents and proponents must admit that significant numbers of our contemporaries – and just how broad a phenomenon this is is hard to gauge – are choosing to run a google search or ask questions of an email or facebook group alongside, or at times instead of, approaching a rabbi. The assumption that the intelligent committed surfer will not be influenced by internet halacha is mistaken.
Individualism also affects the picture: People expect to be treated as individuals by those with whom they interact, and particularly by those who impact their lives significantly. Many people hope and expect their doctors to see them as people, not things or subjects. They report traumatic experiences of being laid on a table and poked and prodded without any personal relationship. Understanding the person’s history and psychology is crucial in medical evaluation; a standardized, general prescription can be way off the mark and the patient or a good friend might even diagnose better than an expert. Thus too, people wish to be fully understood by a posek, otherwise the psak might too be a misdiagnosis. Many poskim do not have the time or the sensitivity to stop and understand the particular person before them. The halachic system as it stands today allows many people to fall through the cracks. Absent a sympathetic, wise and accessible posek who knows them well, or other forums in which to increase their understanding of the role of halacha in their own lives, people (especially of the younger generation) will likely turn to virtual peer groups who will understand them, or resort to google searches and make up their own minds.
(Ironically enough, Information may damage Individualism. One additional effect of casual halachic discussions on the internet is the preserving in writing of psak that was originally given verbally and privately to one individual. Now this psak becomes available to the general public, when it might not have been intended for widespread dissemination. As rabbis become aware of this, they may curtail or keep secret such information in the future. Or a new phrase may end up being appended to verbal psak, whereby the rabbi adds in closing: “Do not spread this psak on the internet.”)
Analysis and Response
What is the value of the materials being generated thus? What is the optimal approach towards the new, democratic/grassroots halachic discussion? The observant Jewish establishment is gradually beginning to assimilate the new reality of halacha on the internet into the system and to come up with a measured halachic response. Examinations of the ramifications of online or “cyber” responsa and “Ask the Rabbi” sites are being published and blogged about. Much less has apparently been written about the phenomenon of individuals sharing and discussing halacha in a group, what propels them to do so and what effects this might have. The likely connection to individualism of both these types of cyber-halachik activity has yet to be fully explicated. Meanwhile, the momentum already exists, the phenomenon is already established. One facebook group user wrote: “There appears to be a new women’s oral law developing here.” The meaning of this needs to be explored, its dangers understood, its benefits maximized. (Just for fun – try googling the phrase “Rabbi Google”…)
At the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank, under the guidance of Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, we are working on addressing some of the philosophical and social-emotional aspects of these issues. We are working on developing a series of workshops and a book for people interested in deepening their understanding of how halacha works and how their own attitudes and assumptions affect their halachic decisions – touching on the topic of individualism. The workshops intend to give people the space, time and information to gain a measure of clarity when considering their halachic choices and allow them to move forward in a confusing halachic world, with feelings of confidence and joy around being halachic. They will also include the subject of internet halacha – how it is transmitted, how it is used and viewed, the effect it has and the significance of the phenomenon.
We are finding this work challenging yet thrilling, and hope that others around the world will also set to grappling with the challenges of our age.
We thank Yehudah DovBer Zirkind for his input
The entire debate surrounding the ‘treatment of women in halacha’ seems to me to start with a rather questionable premise, namely that rabbinic law in general is hostile towards women. Take a step back; Jewish Law from the beginning enacted new religious legislation to improve the condition of women. (Just see Babylonian Talmud, Vilna Edition, Kesubot 47a, giving married women additional rights). Some of the grand advances that can be attributed to this legal system include the concept of divorce, the forbidding of marital rape, the idea that women could own property, and mandatory prenuptial agreements specifying a large alimony in the event of divorce. For hundreds if not thousands of years religious convictions were at the forefront of the development of rights for women. Even if you argue that our tradition is no longer at the forefront of democratic development, without the tremendous groundwork that Judaism laid it is very possible that these debates would not exist at all, and so any of these conflicts should be
approached with a sense of humility, giving the benefit of the doubt to the ultimately progressive nature of religious morality instead of immediately labeling particular practices discriminatory or unfair. When religious mores conflict with modern perspectives, we must think carefully and decide to what extent human rights are culturally and historically contextual, and therefore to what extent they should be culturally and historically imperialistic; that is, in what situations should modern ideas prevail over existing religious ideas.
The arguments I have read about women in Halacha more often than not seem to define the equality they strive for by simply requiring the removal of barriers to the rise of women to the same status as men and ignore the social and legal structures that have given rise to those different roles in the first place. They seem to accept the general applicability of a male standard and promise a very limited form of equality – equality defined as the ability for women to be just like their male counterparts. What we should really be striving for, ala Catherine Mackinnon, is a separately defined equality wherein women are given the ability to fully express themselves solely as women, without having to also compete for status in a male-centric structure. Women need their own standard, and while the phrase “separate but equal” may not be politically-correct in a post segregation society, when we ask for a standard that is different we by definition are asking for a standard that is in some ways separate. And yet, phrased differently, the application of a separate but equal doctrine in regards to gender is far from controversial. We might wish for a race-blind world, but we do not really want an entirely gender-blind world. Race separate restrooms, for instance, are of course taboo, but gender separate are de rigueur. On a practical legal front, family court judges consistently make custody decisions that favor mothers over fathers. The mere fact that a practice discriminates in some way between the sexes does not always have to imply inequality; it can sometimes be simple recognition of legitimate and appropriate difference. That difference when applied to men and women may sometimes be desirable, which is unlikely to ever be the case when applied to race.
I believe that rabbinic law is not just resisting a single canonical form of gender equality, but instead is expressing an alternate vision of equality, a sincere attempt to ensure that in being handed their equality women are being valued as women, not simply being given the permission and ability to go out and act like men.
The idea has been deeply ingrained in Western societal thought that there are very specifically gendered role definitions for the sexes. It is fair to say that, at least until recently, the idea that a woman’s ideal place was in the home and as a mother was a commonly held sentiment. No one can deny that in some areas, such as maternity, in order to combat unfair or discriminatory practices we cannot just ignore the difference between men and women, allowing women to be men. Here we must ask men to make a positive change in how they think and how they act; we need to tell men that having and raising children is not just the responsibility of the mother. Society should recognize that common responsibility and, to the greatest extent possible, share in that task while compensating instead of subtly punishing (and/or holding back) women for the time and the work that they put in.
Jewish Law has recognized this idea for well over two-thousand years. One particularly striking aspect of Jewish law (as defined by the Torah, the Talmud, and the Shulkhan Arukh) is the very noticeable and deliberate absence of a specific role definition for women. Had the Law intended to preclude for women all roles but that of mother, it could easily have done so; just as the Law clearly prescribes the obligations of a husband to his wife and vice-versa, and the obligations of parents to children and vice-versa, it could have also made mandatory for women not only marriage and procreation but also the entire range of household duties which would have defined an exclusive role for them. The law as it stands though is that women are not obligated to marry or procreate, nor to perform any household duties if they choose not to do so.
On the other hand, while Jewish law does not then define a “proper” or “necessary” role for women, it does assume that the continuation of a people depends upon the voluntary selection by at least some women of that role of mother. Recognizing that women could easily be disadvantaged by that position, the Law attempts to even the playing field somewhat and encourage the exercise of that choice. It does so by religiously incentivising motherhood, making sure that women who choose to enter motherhood are societally appreciated and socially compensated to the greatest extent possible. In practice the civil and religious demands made upon Jewish women by Jewish law are relaxed in order to assure that no legal obligation could possibly interfere with a domestic role; if a woman does in fact elect to discover some aspects of her own personal fulfillment in the act of becoming a mother, no law or policy will stand in the way of her performance of that sacred trust.
The primary category of commandments from which women were exempted for this reason were those which would either require or make urgently preferable a communal appearance on their part. (See Saul J. Berman ‘The Status of Women in Halakhic Judaism’ Tradition, Volume 14:2 1973.) As noted, the underlying motive of exemption is not the attempt to unjustly deprive women of the opportunity to achieve religious fulfillment. Rather, these exemptions are a tool used by the Law to achieve a particular social goal, to assure that no legal or social obligations would interfere with the selection by Jewish women of a role which was at least temporarily centered in the home. Male members of the community are required to pick up the slack by ensuring that there are in fact quorums that regularly meet, and that the communal responsibilities in general are constantly being fulfilled. It is vital to emphasize that despite the exemptions discussed above, the mother role, although a protected role, is not the mandated or exclusively proper role, and that women are also free to participate communally if they choose to do so.
Do not for a second think that Judaism alone as a legal or social system struggles with these questions. The American lawyer, for instance, who is given optional maternity leave, can exercise that right, but because they have only nominal equality and the role of motherhood is not really a common responsibility for which they are compensated instead of subtly punished, they may then still be forced to watch as their male coworkers, who do not have two sets of responsibilities, advance without them. Article 5(b) of CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (perhaps the most prominent international normative instrument recognizing the special concerns of women, insofar as it goes further than simply requiring equality of opportunity and also demands equality of result) tasks member states ‘To ensure that family education includes a proper understanding of maternity as a social function and the recognition of the common responsibility of men and women in the upbringing and development of their children, it being understood that the interest of the children is the primordial consideration in all cases.’ Judaism understood the importance of Article 5 a long time ago.
Which leads us back to the uncomfortable technicalities of dealing with an internally consistent system of law. In Jewish law, any exemption (male or female) from religious obligation necessitates a balancing loss in religious power. The exemption that women have from the commandment to participate in certain forms of communal service, for example, results in their disqualification from being counted towards the quorum necessary to engage in such worship. Similarly, in civil matters, the fact that women are relieved in certain situations of the obligation to testify results in their inability to be part of the pair or team of witnesses who bind the fact-finding process of the court. (Note, however, that women are believed; it just does not fall under the technical category of halachic ‘testimony.’ Most of what we colloquially call ‘testimony’ in Beth Din nowadays is also not technically testimony, and women are able to participate there as fully and completely as men). Such exemptions and disqualifications are not limited to women; for example a Jewish king may not participate in judicial proceedings since he is exempt from being prosecuted by a religious court. The exemptions that women are given from religious obligations are meant to foster women’s ability to productively choose their roles and to spread responsibility more evenly as opposed to simply telling to be men as well as women, to give birth and not miss a day of work or worship. However, whatever the motivations, an internally consistent Jewish law system cannot avoid the technical legal consequences of exemption. The inability of the court to compel a woman’s presence results in the correlative loss on the part of the woman (in certain situations) of the power to compel the court to find the facts in accordance with her testimony, or to serve as a judge and compel others to appear.
Seen in this light, the lack of mitzvot for women in the public sphere is not intended to discriminate; on the contrary, it arises from a particular religious vision of separate but equal gender norms – a vision that allows women the freedom to be fully effeminate and not just occupy male space with identical male communal responsibilities. This is a vision that is likely different than that of the some female members of society, but it cannot be called inherently biased. It is practically impossible to construct a realistically gender neutral society. Gender equality, unlike race equality, must inherently involve some aspects that are separate and unequal, and which must then be balanced carefully against each other. As we noted above, almost everyone agrees to some level of gender discrimination. Halacha is and always has been a prescribed set of values, which defines itself in terms of duties and obligations, not rights. What halacha does, by telling us what is and is not a mitzvah, what we are and are not commanded to do, what is and is not a fulfillment of God’s will in a particular situation such that we receive reward for doing it, is to show us where Jewish law really thinks that line of difference ought to be drawn, rather than just enforcing a canonical vision of equality. This line, in regard to the equality of men and women, cannot be compared at all to other minhagim, where we are more likely to add or subtract non-essential, non prescribed, or non proscribed ritual actions based on new ideas; unlike almost any other accepted minhag, this is a line that is central to halacha’s understanding of the family, and to halacha’s vision of Jewish life.
Yes, any attempt to foster a particular social goal through class legislation, lumping together and defining the status of an entire segment of the community universally and extrinsically by law rather than by contractual agreement is going to be unduly restrictive of some individual self-expression. But that is part of buying into a system and its vision. Regardless, the anger and accusations in this debate are just sad. Genuine and committed people are rushing to conclusions, missing the subtleties of well-reasoned religious analysis. Whether you think that the line should be halachic recognition of a practice as positively good by its definition as a mitzvah, or halacha’s recognition of a practice as an acceptable possibility by virtue of the fact that it is not forbidden, I would hope that people can approach this discussion with an open mind, recognizing that each of these are sincere (and each undoubtedly to some) imperfect attempts to draw a line and find a balance wherein men and women are both able to live their lives and their Judaism to the fullest.
Rabbi Mark Goldfeder, Atlanta
My friend and former student Esther (not her real name) embodies all the values and qualities that are deemed praiseworthy in the Orthodox Jewish community…except for one. She is a leader of Jewish people helping to form observant and learned communities wherever she goes. She is smart, modest, humble, learned in Torah, observant with the punctiliousness and passion that is the Orthodox ideal, and she even grew up Orthodox, the perfect match for any Jewish man…except that she is, and has always been, only attracted to women.
Esther tried for many years to figure out what her observant Jewish life would look like. She knew two things for sure, she was gay and she was Orthodox. The question for her and for many Orthodox Jews who are only attracted emotionally and sexually to people of the same gender is: How should I live my life? Should I be celibate? Should I live with a roommate of the same gender and raise children but not tell the world in any official way that we are as loving, supportive and as one person as much as any married heterosexual couple? Should I have a partner and be open about it and raise an Orthodox family and risk being ostracized? The easy fixes like not being gay or not being religiously observant are usually not options for people who really are gay and who really are observant Jews.
I always knew the time would come when Esther would realize that she would not really be able to live alone her whole life. A woman of community and family, steeped in the beauty of Jewish family values, of Shabbat (Sabbath) tables filled with rejoicing, singing, and words of torah study, and of community. A woman who knows what the important values are and is not moved by the narishkiet (Yiddish for nonsense) that larger American society and its superficial media driven values constantly churns out to us. Esther is a woman steeped in Orthodox Jewish family values and Torah through and through.
The time that I knew would come, has come. She met someone she loves, someone she can create a loving, religious Jewish family with which will embody the very best of Orthodox values. Is creating a Jewish home with another woman and raising Jewish children the best thing for Esther’s Jewish life? I believe it is.
Esther wants to take the values that Judaism teaches about relationships, as embodied in its writings about Jewish family and weddings and in the Jewish wedding ceremony itself, and utilize them in a ceremony that will deepen and solidify the relationship with her same gender spouse that will serve as the foundation for their “bayit neeman biyisrael,” their house of faith among the Jewish people. Instead of slinkingly living with a “roommate” she wants to publicly solidify this relationship and foundation for her new family in front of friends and community in order to encourage its longevity and strength.
The halachot (Jewish laws) of Jewish marriage pertain only to a Jewish man and a Jewish woman who are permitted to each other. True, it is not forbidden in Judaism to ceremoniously read sections of the book of Ruth about relationships, or the Song of Songs, or to make a blessing on a cup of wine, or to offer a prayer on behalf of a bride and a bride. On the other hand all of the paradigms of marriage in the Torah are only between men and women.
Is it the time to say our focus on drawing lines and holding ground against gays, their relationships and their marriages is wasted energy? To say as Rabbi Shmuly Boteach recently has that we should stop focusing on gay marriage and worry about the 50% of heterosexual marriages that fail? To acknowledge that marriage does not have to prompt a community analysis of what happens in people’s bedrooms but can just see what happens in their dining rooms and living rooms such as loving children and teaching them Judaism in a house of Jewish celebration and faith among our people?
Maybe this is the moment to stand up and say it is better for gay orthodox Jews (at least those who can not be celibate and still keep the rest of the Torah with joy) to be in monogamous relationships which are the most observant ones they can be? To say why assume every relationship is only judged based upon what we think might be going on in the couple’s bed room and not on the building of a traditional Jewish home? That when it comes to heterosexual couples who may be violating things in their bedroom that are forbidden by the Torah we turn a blind eye but when it comes to gay couples whose bedroom violations may be much less, perhaps only rabbinic, that suddenly we are up in arms?
If I believe the best thing for Esther is to “marry” a woman and raise a Jewish family and I do not help facilitate that because I fear the reverberations in the Orthodox community am I a hypocrite? On the other hand I am a Jew committed to Jewish law and tradition and same gender marriage has never been part of that, indeed has been seen as outside of it.
So what is a rabbi to do?
Modern Orthodox Jews have a tendency to offer pronouncements on controversial issues. Some of those issues are the definition of orthodox, the ordination of orthodox women and the place of homosexuals in the orthodox community.
As I have noted before, it seems that these issues and other “hot button” items exercise the emotions of many within the modern orthodox camp. These issues are important; my concern is that they tend to overshadow the “bread and butter” of Orthodox Judaism.
There are many who are quick to make bold statements on either side of the big issues, but who are silent and absent when it comes to Tefilla B’ Tzibbur (davening with a minyan each day) and regular Torah study.
There are two things about this pretense that concern me.
- It does not ring true: Our brothers and sisters to our right mock us (rightfully?) when we pronounce on issues while we do not “walk the walk” of Orthodoxy. What good is all the talk if our Modern Orthodox statements are not backed up by Orthodox living?
- We believe our own hype: Spending our time making declaration on these issues blinds us from the more important fundamental aspects of Orthodox life and leave us believing that as long as we are on the correct side of the argument on the cutting edge issue, even as we fail to excel in the primary and essential aspects of Judaism, we are OK.
We need to redirect our energies so others will take us seriously and so we can take ourselves seriously.
One of the tenets of Morethodoxy as I see it is finding as many and as wide a range of opportunities as possible within halacha for all Jews to engage in Judaism and connect to God. In the case of women this means finding greater room for women’s leadership, women’s learning, women’s expression, and women’s teaching within Orthodoxy. My collogue Rabbi Kanefsky has written that not finding enough room for women’s voices makes orthodoxy not only less palatable but less inspiring https://morethodoxy.org/2009/11/25/can-orthodoxy-get-better-market-share-part-2/ .
I would like to go a bit farther. I think it’s important we have women’s voices expressed in Jewish leadership, Jewish teaching and in guiding the Jewish people because women have a unique voice. Over half of the human population is female. Isn’t it possible that if we only hear the voice of men in Torah and in leadership that perhaps we are missing something very basic? Perhaps the way that Devorah led the Jewish people was not the same as the way Moses led the Jewish People? Maybe both voices are essential in order to have a complete whole.
If such an approach requires leniencies then those are the places that leniency is appropriate. As my colleague Barry Gelman has written https://morethodoxy.org/2009/11/10/being-machmir-stringent-about-being-meikil-lenient-%E2%80%93-rabbi-barry-gelman/ and as I have written https://morethodoxy.org/2009/07/31/the-importance-of-leniency-and-the-leniencies-that-come-from-being-strict-by-rabbi-hyim-shafner/ leniency can be a very important halachic factor and indeed a stronger one than strictness. Indeed, often stricture creates leniencies we have not intended.
Another reason that it is important we make room for women in Jewish leadership is that it is just not fair to say to 50% of the population, your talents cannot be used for holiness in every way. In fact, we find this argument of “It is not fair” in the Torah itself. “It is not fair” is a valid concern that was addressed by the highest levels of Jewish leadership.
When the Jewish people are told of the mitzvah of Passover some come to Moses and say “We are impure. Our relative has passed away and we have had to bury them, and so cannot bring the Passover offering. It is not fair! Why should we miss out?” Moses doesn’t know what to do when “it is not fair” is in conflict with the law that God has given. So Moses turns to God and God responds –Let’s find a way; let’s make a second Passover for them.