My brethren in Gaza by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

July 24, 2014

I feel terrible for the people of Gaza.  They live under the rule of a violent oppressor.  But their oppressor is not Israel, it is Hamas, a terrorist entity whose very name means anger and whose actions seem to so revolve around war and hatred, that they cannot spend adequate money, time, or effort on the welfare of the people over whom they rule. 

Hamas has made it a regular practice to use the children of Gaza as human shields and to place rocket launchers and missiles in the people’s hospitals, schools, and mosques and has spent the billions of dollars of aid from Iran, the U.S., and other countries on missiles, bunkers, and offensive military tunnels instead of on schools, food, and medical care.   Hamas even destroyed the rich farming areas and greenhouses left behind by Israeli farmers when Israel withdrew from the area in 2009, as a step toward peace.

I care deeply about the innocent people in Gaza, made in the image of God, and who, going back to Abraham, are my brothers and sisters.  I pray for the people of Gaza. 

Over the past few years Israel has regularly treated the people of Gaza in Israeli hospitals.  A close friend, a Washington University Medical School trained surgeon who moved from St. Louis to Israel 10 years ago, periodically operates at a hospital in Herzliya on Palestinians who need the type of surgery in which he specializes.  And Israel is now fighting Hamas in a way to minimize collateral damage to the civilians of Gaza to the extent possible. This comes at a great cost of self-harm to Israel and to its citizens.  When Israel warns civilians in Gaza of an intended attack so that they can leave the area, Israel puts itself at peril as Hamas operatives are also warned.

In just the last 48 hours, Israel has put down its defenses to allow tons of goods into Gaza. During the past weeks, Israel has agreed to two humanitarian cease-fires. In the first hours of each of those cease-fires, Hamas rained down over 70 missiles onto Israeli civilian areas.

A few weeks ago when three Jewish teens were kidnapped and murdered by Arab terrorists, Hamas celebrated by distributing sweets to children.  When an Arab teen was murdered by Jewish terrorists, the Jewish world and Israel’s government condemned the terrible act. 

I hope Israel’s defensive war on Hamas will end soon and that Israel can join other countries in helping the people of Gaza rebuild their lives by providing them with farm equipment, water, electricity, medical care, and food and ultimately empower them to lead fulfilling lives when, with Hamas out of the way, there will be nothing stopping them from sitting at the negotiating table. 

But for now all I can do is pray and hope for a time of peace and security for all the people in the region and mourn for the loss of life on both sides. 

 


“A Cry is Heard from On High– Wailing, Bitter Weeping:” A Personal Reflection on Hevron – City of our Fathers – By Rori Picker Neiss

October 27, 2013

The following sermon was delivered by Rori Picker Neiss at Bais Abraham Congregation, St Louis, MO on October 26, 2013, Shabbat Parshat Chayei Sarah.  Rori serves as Director of Programming, Education and Community Engagement at Bais Abraham and is completing her studies at Yeshivat Maharat.

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה:  וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ:

Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah’s life—came to one hundred and twenty-seven years. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba—now Hevron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.

Thus begins Parshat Chayei Sarah. This is the first time we are introduced to the city of Hevron, but it is certainly not the last time. In this week’s parsha, Sarah dies and Avraham needs to find a proper place to bury her. In his search he encounters Ephron, a Hittite, who offers to give Avraham a burial plot for free. Avraham refuses to accept the land as a gift and insists on paying for it– and ultimately overpays for it. He acquires Ma’arat HaMachpeilah– the Cave of Machpeilah– and the land that surrounds it and buries Sarah. Later in our parsha we learn of Avraham’s death, and he, too, is buried in Ma’arat HaMachpeilah next to Sarah.

The first time I was introduced to Hevron– other than through stories such as this in the Tanakh– was in 2003 when I travelled with my father, brothers, and a few family friends to tour the city.

Our trip to Hevron began with a stop at Kever Rachel, the burial site of the matriarch Rachel, located in Bethlehem. Two soldiers in full armor met us at the van to escort us into the building. I remember waiting as I exited the van for the next person to make her way out. The soldier brusquely insisted that I go inside. I pointed out that there was one more person in the van, thinking he just hadn’t noticed her climbing over the seats. He snapped at me more forcefully: “Get inside!” That is when I realized he knew she was there. His job was to make sure that I didn’t stay out in the open where he couldn’t protect me.

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International Rabbinic Fellowship Statement on Tzohar Weddings

December 8, 2011

The International Rabbinical Fellowship calls upon the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel to permit the rabbis of the Tzohar rabbinical organization to continue registering marriages and conducting weddings in the State of Israel as has been the practice for the last decade.

The wedding initiative under the auspices of Tzohar has allowed thousands of Israeli couples, who might have opted for non-halakhic avenues, to marry under the wedding canopy according to the laws of Moses and Israel. Furthermore, it has brought many more to greater love for Torah and the commandments and respect and appreciation for tradition in the spirit of “Her Ways are ways of Gentleness and all he paths are peaceful”. The important work of Tzohar is a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name, which should be strengthened and supported.

Tzohar’s wedding project has also been a tremendous resource for many couples from here in the United States and other areas of the Golah looking to celebrate their weddings in the Jewish state.  Many of these couples would not have had the opportunity to create as joyous and meaningful a wedding were it not for the work of Tzohar.

We call upon the political and rabbinic establishment in Israel to ease this process and not put up more roadblocks that cause dissention and create difficulties for those who would avail themselves of this avenue of Huppah and Kiddushin.   We include in this ensuring the right of every Israeli citizen to register for weddings in the municipality of their choosing regardless of residency.


Shanda for the Muslims: Quds day is the 30th of Safar, not June 8. By Rabbi Asher Lopatin

June 7, 2011

Shanda for the Muslims: Al-Quds Day is 30th of Safar, not June 8!

That’s right folks: I’m stunned that Muslims who want to celebrate Al-Quds day have been co-opted by a Christian world, and a Christian calendar, and follow the Christian, Gregorian dates to determine when to protest the re-unification and freeing of Jerusalem. Jerusalem, or al-Quds in Arabic, was re-united during the Six Day War on the 30th of Safar, 1387, a.h. (a.h. = al-Hijra, the year Muhammad, in the Muslim tradition, moved to Medina from Mecca). For Jews that is the 28th of Iyyar, 5727, from the creation of the world. That is why millions of Jews around the world celebrated Jerusalem Reunification day last week on the 28th of Iyyar, which happened to fall on June 1. Tomorrow is the sixth of Sivan, 5771, and Jews throughout the world will not celebrate Jerusalem day, even though June 8th is the anniversary on the Christian calendar of the reunification of Jerusalem 44 years ago; we are celebrating Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks (Pentacost), which commemorates the receiving of the Torah 3500 years ago on the sixth of Sivan.
Muslims should first of all celebrate Jerusalem Day and Yaum al-Quds as a day when all religions can worship the One God in Jerusalem. However, if they are going to protest freedom of religious access and the freedom for Muslims, Christians, and Jews to all live together, then at least they should protest it on the right day for Muslims: the Muslim anniversary of the uniting of Jerusalem, which was the 30th of Safar this year, 1432, a.h., and it has long past; it was on February 3, 2011. The 30 of Safar in the next Muslim year, 1433, a.h., will be on January 23, 2012. I would love to sit down on the 30 of Safar or the 28th of Iyyar and discuss with my Muslim brothers and sisters whether Jerusalem was better under the Jordanian occupation, or under the British or Ottoman occupation, or today, as a part of democratic Israel, where everyone in the city, Jewish, Muslim or Christian has the vote.
All I ask is that Muslims be true to yourselves: Naqba day needs to be on the Muslim anniversary, as well as Naqsa and Quds day. Let’s protest or celebrate properly, not corrupted by a calendar that is foreign to both the Jewish and Muslim people.
Thanks to Apple for providing both the Islamic Calender App, and also the Pocket Luach App. All good Jews and Muslims should have it on their IPhone!
Chag same’ach – happy Torah day in Jerusalem, Chicago or wherever you are!

Rabbi Asher Lopatin


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.


What is the Purpose of Zionism? –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

April 9, 2010

Although in the modern Orthodox community it is not PC to admit this, I am not a Zionist.   I did not grow up feeling or being taught that Israel, in the modern sense of the term, was essential for the Jews or for being Jewish.  I was taught that though Israel is a holy land, the land God gave to Avrohom and the Jewish people, but the torah is what makes us who we are.  The Jews have lived for as much times in exile as not and the torah has flourished there, in spite of all our persecution.  I grew up looking not to Zion for torah but to Vilna.   Indeed the Jews remain the Jews without Israel, but with out torah we are merely another nationality like all others.

Many years ago when Rabbi Avi Weiss asked me to come to the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and interview to be his assistant, though I had spent many years at Yeshiva University I still did not see Zionism and the modern state of Israel as important.   At one point during the interview I was asked how I saw the place of Israel. I responded that I thought Israel was a holy land, a good place to study torah and keep mitzvot dependant upon the land, but, I said that I did not think it was that important to being a Jew or to the Jewish people.

After the weekend, Reb Avi told me, “Chaim, you can not be a rabbi in America without coming to terms with Israel.”  And so 15 years ago, after that interview my wife and I went to Israel for 6 months.   I had never really learned in Israel, (my education had been mostly in Charedi Yeshivot in America), or lived there before, and I remember at the end of our time turning to Sara my wife and saying, “You know, maybe Israel is the home of the Jewish people.”  Yet a committed emotional Zionist I was not.

And so it is hard for someone like me to feel that living in Israel is important; if torah is more important shouldn’t one decide where to live based on where they learn torah best?   But after a trip I took to Israel a year ago I gave a derasha looking at God’s first command to Abraham, God tells Avrohom to “go to the land, become a nation and then be a blessing to all the people of the world.”  It seemed that a prerequisite to fulfilling the original and ongoing mission of the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations was somehow dependent on becoming a landed nation in the land which “I will show you.”  The only truly valid reason I could see for the importance of aliyah, since I was not taught that the land of Israel would save the Jews from persecution and the halachic question of the need to settle the land is one subject to argument.

This past week I read Rabbi Ian Pear’s book, “The Accidental Zionist” in which he argues precisely this, that to be a blessing to the people of the world, to fulfill the Jewish mission, especially in the modern period it is essential to be a landed nation state.   Only then can we be a model to the other nations on a world level.

The book is well said, interesting, and inspiring, well worth reading.  Of course it seems to me there is a need for a second book.   When the Jews make a nation in the land how do they proceed to be that national model to the world?  It is not enough to say they do it by just keeping the torah since most of the torah we are used to does not address the national questions, and a theocracy is not really doable or productive at this point.  So how do we as a Jewish nation in a land go about being in a conscious and organized way, “a blessing to all of the families (nations) of the world,” as god commanded Abraham when they first met?


Making the Law of Return Work for All Jews, by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

November 9, 2009

On Friday an Op Ed appeared in the Jerusalem post, written jointly by Rabbi Seth Farber – Orthodox – and Rabbi Ed Rettig – Reform – where together they excoriated the Israeli government and its bureaucratic arms for preventing Jewish converts from becoming Jewish citizens under the Law of Return.  Rather than recognizing all Jewish converts as Jews, as the Israeli Supreme court ordered over a decade ago, the relevant ministries are requiring converts to jump through multi-year hoops in order to gain acceptance.  I would add to it, that I was involved in an Orthodox  conversion that was flat-out rejected since the Interior ministry did not recognize the Beit Din of Evanston as a legitimate Beit Din.

Rather than getting angry at the government of Israel or the ministries or the individual bureaucrats involved, I suggest there is a systemic problem that has a simple solution.  The problem is once again: “Who is a Jew?”  True, Israel  years ago veered away from defining that halachically, but still – is anyone who is converted by anyone, or anyone who just claims they are Jewish with no evidence to be admitted under the Law of Return?  If not – and  on the surface it seems we need some control – then who determines the criteria? The Rabbanut doesn’t, but now secular ministries do, and that is worse!

I say the only way for the Law of Return to work the way it is supposed to – to protect every “Jew” in the world from potential persecution and to allow any “Jew” in the world to return to the Land of the Jews is if yes, Israel accepts anyone who converts to Judaism in any way, and anyone who declares that they are Jewish. Wouldn’t the Nazis kill anyone who claimed to be Jewish?  Wouldn’t the crusades kill anyone who claimed they were Jewish?  Would the Muslim mobs in Morocco or Yemen kill any Muslim who declared they had become Jewish no matter who converted them or how?  Of course.  So the Law of Return should apply to anyone who claims they are Jewish and who is willing to have “Yehudi” stamped on there Te’udat Zehut – their Israeli identity card.  Yes, we may get millions from around the world, from Africa and Asia and South America declaring they are Jewish – Oy gevalt!  More self identifying Jews in Israel!!  That is exactly what we want.

Yes, if you are racist, or bigoted or xenophobic you will be afraid of these “Jews” coming to Israel.  But that is what Ben Hecht claimed some of the early Jews living in Israel felt about the masses from Europe – were they the right kinds of Jews to bring to the Holy Land?  That is was some of the Gedolim told Rav Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg when he wanted to save the Hildesheimer Yeshiva in Germany from Nazi destruction by bringing it to Palestine – they felt it was the wrong type of Yeshiva and Torah for the Holy Land of Israel.  So they perished at the hand of the Germans.

Just as the system works today, the Jewish and religious community in Israel will have to sort out “Who is a Jew?” from a Halachic point of view.  Following the Mishna B’rurah’s p’sak for minyan and leading services, anyone who shows up in shul will be counted (males, that is, for the Orthodox) and can daven, because of the law of the majority.  When it comes to weddings, anyone who wants to get married will have to convert – if they haven’t already – based on the standard of that community: chareidim, Modern Orthodox, s’faradim, etc.  No hard feelings. If I can verify to the community I want to live in and marry in that I am Jewish, fine.  Otherwise, that community should welcome me if I meet their standards of conversion.  But no one in the world who self identifies as a Jew should be denied admission to Israel as an Israeli citizen.

We need the Law of Return to work to save Jews and bring them home to Israel.  Let us welcome all Jews – anyone who says they are Jewish should be welcome in the Jewish state.  And maybe if those masses of self-identifying Jews come back to the Homeland, in all their shapes and colors, then maybe those Jews from America and Europe, who have the proof that they are Jewish, will return as well.  Then Israel will  be the safe-heaven for Jews which the founding fathers of Israel, such as Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky  envisioned.