Adam One as Paradigm for Communal Spiritual Leadership by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

November 30, 2015

 

Synagogue rabbis today are teachers, administrators, and pastors.  They give sermons, raise money, teach classes, facilitate Jewish lifecycle events, answer halakhic questions, coordinate meetings, occasionally change lightbulbs, absorb the anger and anxiety of individuals for the sake of the community’s greater health, assist Bar and Bat Mitzvah children with their drashot, comfort the mourner, support the orphan, the widow and the needy, give musar when it is required, and aid in facilitating conversations of leadership, planning, and diplomacy.  None of these are forbidden to women and in some of these roles, women may, in fact, be more adept.

 

The word “ordination,” when used for women in Orthodoxy, feels unorthodox.  Not because there is a halachic problem with the ordination of women.  In fact, the title of ordination today has few, if no, halachic repercussions. Today semicha, or ordination, is a degree.  It means one has studied certain sections of Jewish law and knows how to apply them.

During the post World War I era, Sarah Schenirer, a Polish seamstress with a passion for Jewish tradition, developed the first school system for Orthodox girls in history. By the eve of World War II, the network encompassed over two hundred and fifty schools with more than forty thousand pupils, primarily in Eastern Europe. Pictured here is the second graduating class of the Bais Ya’akov in Lodz, Poland, in 1934. Institution: Yehudis Bobker, Sydney, Australia

My discomfort with Orthodox women receiving the title Rabbi is that it feels like a blurring of the lines, differences between genders.  In Orthodox life, especially within the realm of prayer and mitzvot, gender lines are real and differences between male and female palpable.  The Torah itself certainly is interested in the differences between male and female as evidenced by the first chapter of Genesis.  Male and female in that first chapter, as Rabbi Soloveitchik points out, are created side by side as equals, made together in the image of God and together commanded to populate and subdue the world.  According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, this first chapter is not overshadowed by the second chapter in which Hava is created from Adam but independently stands as its own human paradigm.  Read the rest of this entry »

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“Beliefs, Boundaries, and the Need for Theology” Guest Post by Rabbi Yitzchak Blau

September 9, 2013

PART I:  A Response to Rabbi Kadish

1)     All concepts have boundaries; otherwise, they lose any meaning.   Atheists or Buddhists can also declare themselves Orthodox Jews but I need not agree with their self – assessment.   If everything coheres with the identity of “Orthodox Jew” then there is no such entity.  Feminists would justifiably object to a fellow who thinks that women should just cook dinner and rear children declaring himself a feminist.  Believers in democracy would object to a communist referring to his regime as democratic.   Every group has standards and qualifications.  Otherwise, one does not stand for anything.

See the evaluation of Avi Sagi’s article in my book review in the September 2008 edition of Meorot.

2)     Neutralizing the significance of belief and making Jewish identity purely behavioral does not prevent exclusion.   If someone lacking any commitment to halakha cannot declare his approach to be Orthodox, we still maintain a communal discourse that excludes other positions.  David Berger makes this point in his Tradition Summer 1999 review of Menachem Kellner.

3)     This point becomes even stronger if the opinions come from a rabbi or communal leader of some kind.   If our group stands for certain ideas and ideals and we are concerned about a voice influencing others away from our ideals, it seems that we would have every right to protest.

4)     Religion lacks coherence without a belief structure that explains why we adhere to religious practices; otherwise, mizvot turn into mindless behaviorism.   See my review of Marc Shapiro in The Torah u”Madda Journal Volume 12.

5)     Beliefs matter both intrinsically and because they influence practice.  If a child of mine told me he thought that African Americans were an inferior race, I would be very upset even if it turned out he did not treat them any differently than other people.  I view the mere holding of such a belief as wrong.  In addition, I would be nervous that it will ultimately affect how he treats people.

6)     Furthermore, beliefs affect the value of what I do.  If I keep mizvot because I believe a supremely wise and benevolent deity commanded them, that is quite different from observing Jewish law because a malicious and powerful tyrant will send me to hell if I do not.

7)     Sanhedrin 10:1 makes it difficult to argue that Hazal were indifferent to belief or did not think it criterion of exclusion.   I am curious why R. Kadish thinks citing rishonim who believed in dogma helps his position.  R. Yosef Albo did include a category in which people who honestly arrive at erroneous theological beliefs should not be treated as koferim and I happily endorse that position.  However, his entire discussion assumes that there is a set of erroneous beliefs beyond the pale of normative Judaism.

Now the arguments above do not prove me right in our particular situation.  One can concede that concepts have boundaries worth fighting about and that beliefs matter and still say that I misapplied these principles.  However, these points do change the nature of the conversation.   We should not rush to exclude but, in principle, there is nothing problematic with saying a particular viewpoint is beyond Orthodoxy.

8)     Finally, I am not judging people but arguing about the world of ideas.  I explicitly wrote that those convinced by the DH are not evil and that I am not interested in saying anything derogatory about them.  I fully disagree with the pseudonymous commentator on my post who accused adherents of the DH of using bad arguments to maintain secular liberal values.  There are certainly people genuinely convinced of the DH for authentic reasons but that does not mean I have to agree with them or cannot contest their stand.

I do not know Rabbi Farber and think that he may be a wonderful human being.  However, I also think that concepts have boundaries, that beliefs matter, and that one can strongly disagree with another’s ideas without rejecting them as people.

One final question for those who think beliefs are a free for all.  I recall reading once that a talented mid – twentieth century musmakh from JTS was offered a prominent pulpit but he turned it down since he no longer believed in God (he later became a well – known philosophy professor).    Several people involved urged him to take the position anyway but he refused.  In your view, was this an act of great integrity or should he have simply taken the job and perhaps written a manifesto explaining that belief in God does not matter for Conservative Judaism?

PART II:  A Response to Rabbi David Steinberg

Rabbi David Steinberg’s critique of my approach to Shemini Azeret ignores half of my answer.  He asks why Devarim 16 includes mention of the seventh day of Pesach and not of Shemini Azeret.  In my original post, I noted that Shemini Azeret is a separate holiday; indeed, Vayikra 23 also knows of a seven day holiday called Sukkot.   Likewise, Bemidbar 29 depicts the seventh day of Pesach differently than Shemini Azeret and it describes a seven day holiday called Sukkot.   This dissolves his question.  Since the seventh day of Pesach is an integral part of Pesach, it receives mention.

R. Steinberg’s counter example of Shemot 23 actually supports my approach.   He seems to agree that the short account there is primarily interested in the pilgrimage aspect of the holidays.  Yet the pesukim there mention the commandment to eat matza while leaving out all other ritual requirements.   Apparently, even a more focused presentation adds some other elements.  Devarim 16 adds more Pesach requirements without giving an exhaustive list of all the mizvot of the hagim.

According to R. Steinberg’s methodology, the perspective in Devarim also does not believe in the four species, the omer offering, shtei halehem on Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur.  Furthermore, Vayikra 23 does not think one need rejoice on the festivals.  Along the same lines, Devarim 22:12 does not know about tekhelet strings whereas Bemidbar 15 thinks the commandment of tzitzit applies even to all garments and not just those with four corners.  I suggest that it is more reasonable to say that the Torah includes different details in varying contexts.

R. Steinberg thinks gratitude should mandate Moshe’s mentioning that Yitro came up with the idea of judges.  Everything has its time, place, and context.  In Devarim 1, Moshe is admonishing the people for their quarreling forcing the need for additional judges.  In that context, whose idea it was to institute judges is not of great relevance.

I wrote that the Pesach Sheni passage anticipates their entering the land and therefore it addresses those too distant to bring the offering.   R. Steinberg asks why the Torah does not explicitly say “when you enter the land.”  Once the Torah clearly does anticipate halakhot that would only be practiced later, I think we have a more reasonable explanation for discussing those far away than positing a later interpolation.  This remains true even if I could not answer why the Torah does not add the phrase “when you enter the land.”  However, I have explanations.  The two verses in Bemidbar 15 address commandments that have no bearing at all until they enter the land.  Pesach Sheni, by contrast, is relevant immediately; it is only that one particular detail kicks in later.  Therefore, the Torah does not introduce the Pesach Sheni passage with “when you enter the land.”  Furthermore, in Bemidbar 15, God wanted to reassure Am Yisrael after the punishment for the sin of the spies (Bemidbar 14) that they will ultimately enter the land.  Therefore, He explicitly speaks of their future entry.

I fully agree that Korah was the ringleader of the rebellion.  Not surprisingly, when Zelofhad’s daughters want to say that their father was not part of the rebellious band, they refer to him.  Devarim 11 is about the rest of Am Yisrael learning from punishments they witnessed and in that context, the Torah focuses more on the verbal aggression of Datan and Aviram as exemplars of the degradation and destruction engendered by sinful behavior.

This example also points to a broader methodological issue.  According to the critics, Bemidbar 16 reflects a redactor splicing two stories together while Bemidbar 27 and Devarim 11 reflect the two stories in their distinct format.  For adherents of the DH, the redactor sometimes integrated conflicting traditions (the flood), sometimes left them distinct (wife-sister stories), and sometimes did both (Korah).   Thus, integration plus distinctiveness plus a mixture of the two all cohere with the work of the redactor. This sets up an approach which allows almost any evidence to fit with the work of the redactor.

A similar problem comes when one notes that an E or J passage includes a theme that should not be there according to the critical approach.  The critics often answer that this is a later interpolation.  Again, this allows almost any evidence to fit the critical perspective, an allowance which makes the entire endeavor less scientific.

Let us examine one expression of the critical approach to solving the Korah problem more carefully. As James Kugel explains it: “The Korah element, scholars say, was added later by a priestly writer; it was another salvo in the “Who is a priest” battle that we have already seen….the purported priestly author of this revised version of the episode did not hold that view; he believed that only Aaronids could be priests.  Indeed, this is the great lesson, according to scholars, that the Korah episode in its final form was designed to impart” (How to Read the Bible, p. 334.)  In other words, one political faction made up a story to try to discredit the opposition.  Does such an approach indicate that academic bible study has much to add to our appreciation for the sanctity and divinity of Torah?

Defenders of the traditional position should sometimes address specifics and I have attempted to do a bit of this in my two posts.  At the same time, I think there is something to be said for arguments working off a global perspective.  Treating the Torah as a unified document has worked for centuries and has produced glorious results full of ethical and religious wisdom.  Scholars such as Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg who have treated the Torah as a unified whole (even if they personally accept multiple authorship) have added profound contributions and located meaningful ideas in the text.  To some degree, this in and of itself adds support for the unified theory.  I understand that one could attribute all of this to a redactor (and to the ingenuity of human interpretation) but this redactor seems to have been a remarkably talented fellow.  It is hard to find a parallel achievement of redaction in human history.

Finally, we come to the question of theology.  My original post mentioned several theological problems with Rabbi Farber’s approach.  Rabbi Steinberg does not address any of them.  Instead, Rabbi Steinberg contrasts those with “half baked answers,” “lack of faith,” ideas that are “far from satisfying” and apparently not “serious” with those who have “real emunah,” a “nuanced approach to Torah and mitzvoth,” and “a thoughtful and compelling synthesis of traditional and academic approaches.”  If you will excuse a blunt formulation, rhetoric is no substitute for working out a theology.

Reading the posts on thetorah.com seems to set up the following set of assumptions.  The Torah was written by flawed human beings and is full of human errors.  It contains contradictory approaches that cannot truly be reconciled.  Some of the contradictions are there because warring political factions were trying to score points for their teams.  The exodus and the revelation at Sinai did not occur.  Much of the Torah simply copies laws and myths from the Ancient Near East.  To add one more point fairly common in academic studies, the Torah is full of etiological tales not intended to teach any religious or ethical wisdom.  For example, Bereishit 26 is not meant to teach us anything about proper character or behavior but simply an explanation for how Be’er Sheva received its name. Yet none of this is a problem since we assert that the Torah is divine or that is has been sanctified by the collective wisdom of Am Yisrael.

Divinity and sanctity are words with meaning; they are not magic formulations that solve all problems as long as I include them in a sentence.  What does the “divinity” of the Torah mean for those who accept the assumptions above? Those who think that academic biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are compatible have a lot more work to do before they talk of a “thoughtful and compelling synthesis.”

Even those who think beliefs insignificant should realize the seriousness of the matter.  We have experience with modern Jewish ideologies that rooted halakhic observance in the decision making of “Catholic Israel” or in vague notions of the divinity of scripture and their track record in inspiring ongoing observance and commitment is quite poor.  If so, Rabbi Steinberg is incorrect when he writes that we have little to lose.  While those fully convinced by the DH will likely find this point irrelevant, those of us unconvinced have every reason to fight.

This will be my last post on this topic in this forum. I realize that my critics may get the last word but someone has to and I hope that I have already made a contribution.  Those interested in a few examples in which the artistry of the unified text is missed by source critics insistent on finding multiple authors may enjoy the first chapter of Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative and the fifth chapter of Adele Berlin’s Poetics and Interpretation.   Finally, my comment about “magic formulations” owes something to Alan Brill’s (second) point number 5 in the following blog post.

Appendix

My original post only commented on examples from the website http://www.thetorah.com.   In order to underscore examples of other methodological flaws prevalent in academic bible study, I now turn to other sources.  These examples do not constitute a refutation of the DH since every approach has weak manifestations and poor practitioners.  However, cases of flawed use of a methodology sometimes help highlight problems in the entire endeavor.

1)     Bias towards finding conflicts.  The well – known bible scholar Claus Westermann writes that Yeshayahu 56:3-5 cancels the regulation of Devarim 23:2 (see his Isaiah 40-66, p. 313).  Many prominent scholars endorse this position (see the list in footnote 5 of Jacob Wright’s article in JBL 2012).  As Prof. Wright ably points out, there is no conflict between the two verses whatsoever.  Devarim speaks of someone with crushed genitals whereas Yeshayahu speaks of a eunuch. They do not address the same group of people. Furthermore, the passage in Yeshayahu says nothing about the eunuch joining the assembly of God (traditionally understood as relating to marriage) but only about God granting him a legacy better than children.  Even if we posit that both verses describe the identical group of people, Devarim instructs us that they cannot marry in to the community while Yeshayahu says that they can still leave a lasting monument as productive individuals in the house of God.

Prof. Wright contributed a blog entry for the Huffington Post which exemplifies particular flaws in academic bible study.  He discerns several historical stages based on analysis of the first two chapters of Shemot.  According to Wright, the second chapter was first an independent story originating as a response to the question of why Moshe, the great Jewish leader, had an Egyptian name.  The account clarifies his Jewish lineage.  In the original story, Moshe was abandoned by his mother not as a life – saving measure but because there was something illicit about his birth. Since many found the idea that the savior of Am Yisrael was the offspring of an illegitimate union disconcerting, chapter one was added to offer a different reason for placing Moshe in the Nile.

2)     Speculative ideas stated as scholarly conclusions: This kind of historical reconstruction is a highly speculative endeavor and should not be said with assurance.  Just based on the biblical account, it seems improbable that Prof. Wright could confidently tell us about different literary stages and the motivation for each one.

3)     Circular reasoning:  Some DH analysis posits what it wants to establish.  In his argument against the sequential reading, Wright says regarding chapter two: “Nothing is said here about Pharaoh’s decree to slay all Hebrew male children.”  That argument already assumes a break between chapter one and chapter two.  If we read the text as a unity, then chapter two assumes we know why Moshe’s mother wants to hide her baby; Pharoah has decreed the death of all male children.

In fact, only the unified reading makes sense of chapter two which does not explain why she would want to hide her baby.  The baby being “beautiful” or “good” (Shemot 2: 2) might give a mother added resolve to try a desperate measure but it is not a reason per se to hide a child.  Prof. Wright’s idea about the hiding and abandonment of an illicit child appears nowhere in the text.  Ultimately, he prefers breaking up the two chapters and adding a reason for hiding not founded in the text to reading the two chapters as a unified whole where the reason for hiding explicitly appears.

4)     Good questions do not support bad answers.  Prof. Wright supports his theory about the illicit union from the Torah not telling us the name of the father.  Why the Torah does not explicitly name Moshe’s parents is a good question but this does nothing to suggest that their relations were problematic. The Torah is not reticent about recounting flawed behavior including that of Jewish heroes and their relatives.  Why should it suddenly go silent on the names of Moshe’s parents?

 

Rabbi Yitzchak Blau teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and the Orayta Yeshiva and has previously taught at Yeshivat Hamivtar and at the Yeshivah of Flatbush High School. He has published articles on many areas of Jewish thought as well as a book of aggadic interpretations, “Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada,” published by Ktav. Rabbi Blau has a BA in English Literature from YU, an MA in Medieval Jewish History from Revel, and semikha from RIETS. Rabbi Blau lives in Alon Shevut with his wife and four children.


The Stranger Within Your Gates: Answering Questions about Bais Abraham’s Recent Eshel Shabbat by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

April 22, 2013

On a recent Shabbat, Bais Abraham hosted speakers from Eshel (www.eshelonline.org), a national organization building communities of support, learning, and inclusion for Orthodox lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews. The three speakers were LGBT Orthodox individuals, two of whom came to observance later in life and one of whom grew up Chassidic. They each shared their personal journey of what it is like for them to be LGBT in the Orthodox community today. A recent Orthodox rabbinic effort to show compassion and support for LGBT Orthodox members of the Jewish family is reflected in the Statement of Principles signed by over 200 Orthodox rabbis. It can be found at http://statementofprinciplesnya.blogspot.com/ .

Over the past two weeks, I received many questions about our Shabbat program from people from different parts of the Orthodox and general Jewish communities. Here are some of the questions and my responses:

Q. Why don’t you just keep quiet about this? If someone is gay, let them sit in shul like anyone else. Why should we bring this out into the open and discuss it?

To remain silent is to reject people. We tend to demonize and stigmatize what we do not know. Individuals who fall prey to social stigmas are forced to feel like outsiders because no one will talk about their issues. Such individuals keep their conditions hidden but the cost will be that they do not feel part of the community. They will hear loud and clear what people implicitly feel, that they are flawed. In addition, there will be no forum or opportunity in which to educate others in the community about the suffering of the stigmatized individuals, thus there is no possibility for sensitivity to their experiences. This can result in a feeling of rejection, and psychological, if not actual, aloneness. When we ignore the challenges of people in our community and ignore our own conscious or unconscious rejection of them, we cannot expect them to feel included, and we cannot love them as ourselves. This is the case for LGBT Orthodox Jews.

Q. How can you feature something that is a violation of Jewish law?

Halacha (Jewish law) is, of course, of central importance to us as Orthodox Jews. Our Shabbat program, however, was not designed to focus on halacha. That is something that that every Orthodox LGBT person discusses privately with his or her rabbi. Our program was about moving toward a culture in which LGBT Jews do not have to feel excluded from the Orthodox community. It was to find a place of compassion and inclusion, so LGBT Orthodox Jews do not feel like outsiders, which historically has led to losing them entirely to Yiddishkeit, or worse.

Before we judge anyone who is LGBT or condemn them in the abstract, we owe it to ourselves to humanize this topic and hear real people tell their very real stories, or else we may violate the saying in Pirkey Avot, Al tidan es chavero ad shetagia li’mikomo. Do not judge another person until you have been in their place. Many would like to pretend that there are no LGBT people in our midst, but the weekend not only showed us that they are members of our community, but also underscored that they are our neighbors, our children, our brothers, our sisters, and our friends. They are in the stories presented to us, devout individuals who truly value Torah and mitzvot.

Q. Rabbi, does having this panel serve any religious purpose for those of us who are not LGBT? What can the rest of us learn from this about our own avodat Hashem (service to God)?

I found it inspiring that when faced with something that would make it so difficult to be observant and to remain within the Orthodox community–a community with little sensitivity to the feelings of those who are gay–they choose, despite feeling alienated, to remain in the community. Their love for Torah, for mitzvot, for Hashem and for the Jewish People is so strong that though it would be much easier to leave Orthodoxy, they do not. Among other things, we can learn from LGBT Orthodox Jews about commitment to Torah even in very difficult circumstances.

Q. If someone LGBT wants to be in our community, do you expect us to accept them? To give them aliyot?

In many shuls, even people who violate weighty mitzvot of various types between humans and G-d and between humans and other humans, are welcomed. Why should we treat the LGBT Jews any differently? Indeed it could be argued that not keeping kosher or other important mitzvot is a choice, and LGBT, as we now know, is not a choice. If it were, the vast majority of Orthodox LGBT people would choose not to be LGBT. With regard to people who are transgender, the halachic question arises with regard to whether to give them aliyot and where they should sit in shul. There are various opinions among poskim as to the status of the gender of transgender people, depending upon where in the process of transition they are.

Q. If you accept someone who is gay with a partner into the shul (since having a partner implies that they are intimately involved), then you are accepting something immoral. If you do away with standards of morality, then what’s to prevent you from welcoming a brother married to a sister?

The Rambam (Shmonah Pirakim, 6) includes sexual violations in the category of ritual mitzvot that have nothing to do with morality. Therefore, just because the Torah forbids both homosexual sexual acts and incest does not mean that they are morally equivalent, though both are halachically forbidden. We can say homosexuality is forbidden but we cannot say it presents a slippery moral slope.

Orthodox communities don’t have a custom of judging unfavorably what people are doing in their intimate lives. If we walk past a couple’s bedroom and the beds are pushed together, we assume they have followed halacha in terms of their intimate lives. We do not question who does and does not go to the mikvah and we assume that anyone who has any halachic challenges in their intimate lives is seeking the proper hadracha (guidance) in this in the way they carry out the complexities of their challenges.

Q. Isn’t treating a gay couple (with children) the same as other families in our shul a slippery slope?

As Orthodox Jews we all try our best to adhere to the halacha in it’s entirety in our desire to best serve Hashem, and we acknowledge that our fellow Torah-observant Jews strive to do the same or grow continually in that direction. That being said, it is not our responsibility or objective to oversee or judge the quality of everyone’s observance, especially in their private lives. Rather than looking to anyone’s private life, which is ultimately between those two people and, if Torah-observant, their Rabbi, let us rather enjoy and respect what is going on in their living rooms: welcoming guests, being careful with kashrut, not speaking loshon hara, honoring their fellow Jew, and raising Torah-centered families with Torah-centered values. Throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater by rejecting them, serves no purpose. This is a reality in our community and we need to start taking fundamental steps of inclusion and not persecution and/or condemnation.

Q. Won’t having gays in shul influence others to experiment with their sexuality and perhaps decide to be gay?

It is quite clear that people do not just decide to be LGBT. This is especially so of religious people. All of our participants testified to being born gay. Who indeed would choose to be gay and have to deal with the inner turmoil and alienation that they described?

Q. Why not suggest gay people get married to members of the opposite gender and stay in the closet?

Many gay Orthodox Jews do marry people of the opposite gender, hoping Hashem will perform a miracle and make it work, but alas, to no avail. We are who God made us. The pressure within the Orthodox community that is upon them, as we keep fixing them up with people of the opposite gender, as we keep assuming that no one is gay, pushes person after person into heterosexual relationships that only end up with both partners deeply hurt. Let’s stop assuming that every person who has not gotten married is looking for a heterosexual shidduch. It can lead to devastating results.

In sum, in most Orthodox communities today, LGBT members face rejection. Instead, imagine an Orthodox community that says to them, we understand you are LGBT and we understand the challenges you face as you try to lead an Orthodox life. Stay in the community. We accept you as a member of our family. Instead of leaving because you feel no compassion from us, stay and build a frum home, feel part of our community, be as whole with your Creator, with the Torah, and the Jewish people as you can. We are here to support you, not judge you. None of us are tzadikim.


Partnership Minyanim: A Follow Up – by Rabbi Zev Farber

January 30, 2013

In response to my previous post, Rabbi Barry Freundel has written a characteristically thorough critique of my presentation. I am honored. Although Rabbi Freundel and I seem to be reading matters differently in a myriad of areas, I wish to take this opportunity to offer a brief reframing of my main point in order to further clarify the nature of my claim. I again apologize to Rabbi Freundel for not taking up all of his detailed critiques, with the hope that I will be able to do so some time in the future.

I argued in my first post that there are two types of shaliaḥ tzibbur (the person leading the synagogue service). The first is one who recites certain prayers or blessings out loud on behalf of the congregation or of individuals in the congregation. This person must be one who has the same type of obligation as members of the congregation whom said shaliaḥ tzibbur is representing. The second type of shaliaḥ tzibbur is someone who sets the pace for the congregation, chooses the tune for various songs, etc. This person is not reciting anything on behalf of the congregation (being motzi people in halakhic terminology) and, consequently, the limits imposed on who can be the shaliaḥ tzibbur in halakhic literature do not apply to this type.

Rabbi Freundel, in his critique of my response, argues that I have woven these categories out of whole cloth. Where are the sources, he asks, for allowing women to lead services in the capacity I call shaliaḥ tzibbur type II? The problem with these questions is that it is not I who has invented a new category of halakha, but Rabbi Freundel. I was simply clarifying what has been the given among writers of halakha.[1]

To explain: Rabbi Freundel argues that once a prayer service is generally said in the synagogue as a part of a minyan it becomes either a tefillah be-tzibbur, or at least, a tefillat ha-rabbim. This is a ḥiddush (a novel interpretation) and hardly a consensus position. He then makes the leap that once a given prayer service has attained this status, anyone who leads it must be “obligated” in this prayer service. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that a halakhic category of “leader of Qabbalat Shabbat” or even Pesuqei de-Zimrah exists. In fact, in many yeshivot, nobody leads Pesuqei de-Zimrah, and Rabbi Freundel notes (p. 16) that “in some corners of the world” (some of these “corners” being Jerusalem and New York, I might add) no one leads Qabbalat Shabbat either.

Customs as to whether someone leads these services or not vary because there is no halakhic requirement for anyone to lead them. There is no halakhic requirement for a leader because these services are themselves only customs and they are performed by each individual in the congregation reciting the service to him- or herself. Nothing that these shliḥei tzibbur say is said on behalf of anyone, hence such a shaliaḥ tzibbur has no halakhic status. Finding a text that discusses who can be the shaliaḥ tzibbur in cases where a shaliaḥ tzibbur is unnecessary would be rather difficult.

One may then ask: Why is the prevalent custom for these services to have a shaliaḥ tzibbur? I think the simple answer is that we are accustomed to praying in this fashion, and it makes the experience feel more “community-like” if someone sets the pace and chooses the tune for everyone. I called this (non-halakhic but prevalent) practice shaliaḥ tzibbur type II.

Allow me demonstrate this point with a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that after reciting Barkhu (or the repetition of the Amidah, or any prayer with the status of davar she-be-qedusha) the shaliaḥ tzibbur disappears—it turns out he had been a hologram (I’m a Star Trek fan, mea culpa). The congregants turn to the rabbi and ask whether the congregation had fulfilled its obligation to have Barkhu recited? I assume the rabbi says no. If then asked whether someone else should go up to the amud and recite Barkhu again, I assume the rabbi would say yes.

Now let’s imagine the same case, but immediately after Lekha Dodi, as the mourners enter the synagogue, the hologram shaliaḥ tzibbur disappears, and the rabbi is asked whether the congregants have fulfilled their “obligation” (to use Rabbi Freundel’s concept) to recite Qabbalat Shabbat. What would the rabbi say? I assume he would say that since everyone recited the proper Psalms together, the congregation has indeed fulfilled its requirement to recite the Qabbalat Shabbat service, and that the congregation may proceed with the evening service without the need to repeat anything.

However, I assume the rabbi would add that he believes that having the hologram lead Qabbalat Shabbat (or Pesuqei de-Zimrah) was inappropriate and should not be repeated. The reason, I believe, he would say this is because it is not kavod ha-tzibbur (in keeping with the dignity of the congregation) to have a hologram lead the services. This point, that the customs adopted by a congregation should be in keeping with their “dignity” has gone unspoken in the debate thus far, but is an important one because it answers the second of Rabbi Freundel’s questions: Why hasn’t anyone until recently discussed the possibility of women leading these services? The answer is that until the feminist revolution, such conduct would have been considered “undignified” for the congregation as well as for that woman.

This is why the Mendel Shapiro article, which Rabbi Freundel consistently claims is irrelevant to this discussion, is, in fact, very relevant. Rabbi Shapiro’s point is that, in modern times, the leadership role of women is a sociological given and, therefore, not a violation of the congregation’s “dignity,” unlike the hologram in my thought experiment. In short, I repeat my previous conclusion. Since there is nothing halakhically speaking barring women from leading these services, and there is no longer any fear that their doing so would be beneath the congregation’s dignity (again I apologize for the us-them language), whether women lead such services is a matter of custom and convention. Personally, I would encourage synagogues to allow women to lead things like Qabbalat Shabbat, but, in the end, such decisions are in the hands of each individual community and the community’s rabbi.

This brings me to one final point. Rabbi Freundel writes that he is well aware of the fact that there have been a number of other debates about women’s issues in halakha, but that this one differs from these others since, in his words, it does not follow “legitimate Orthodox halakhic epistemology.” This is an exceedingly subjective claim.

It is well-known that Rabbi Freundel has championed a number of “changes” on behalf of women in the synagogue that he considers acceptable. He mentions that Kesher Israel (R. Freundel’s synagogue) has a female president, something that many (including the National Council of Young Israel) believe to be forbidden halakhically. It is also well known that Kesher Israel has a women’s prayer group, and one that includes a women’s Torah reading service, something many Orthodox rabbis (including a number of YU Roshei Yeshiva) have vociferously opposed and claimed to be forbidden.[2]

I have great respect for Rabbi Freundel having taken a stand on these issues. Furthermore, although I do not agree with his position on women leading Qabbalat Shabbat, I respect his right as a scholar and rabbinic leader of a community to say that he does not believe a certain practice is halakhically acceptable and will, therefore, not allow that practice in his synagogue. What bothers me is that Rabbi Freundel does not extend this same courtesy to the people on his left, but argues that since he does not agree with their reading of the halakha, this means that they are not “really” Orthodox.

Granted that the idea of women leading any part of the service is a sociological departure from what has been, but the question of who leads Qabbalat Shabbat seems a rather trivial one halakhically speaking, and it is only Rabbi Freundel that seems to believe that it is really “halakha” that is at stake here. In my opinion, most Orthodox rabbis, even the ones who oppose women leading Qabbalat Shabbat, would admit that it is not a question of halakha but one of sociology or public policy. Even though Rabbi Freundel disagrees, and believes it is one of halakha, for him to put such stock in his ḥiddush such that he can dismiss a large swath of halakhically observant men and women—even some rabbis—from the Orthodox camp is disappointing.

Rabbi Zev Farber, Atlanta


[1] See, for example this random sampling of modern day Orthodox responsa (1, 2, 3) where each author explicitly assumes that Qabbalat Shabbat is not a “real” halakhic service and that the issue of who may lead it is one of minhag and/or public policy.

[2] See: Nissan Alpert, Abba Bronspigel, Mordechai Willig, Yehuda Parnes and Zvi Schachter, “Teshuva be-Inyan Nashim be-Hakafot ve-khu,” Ha-Darom 54 (Sivan 5745): 49-50.


Partnership Minyanim: A Response to Rabbi Barry Freundel – by Chaim Trachtman

January 30, 2013

[Chaim Trachtman is the editor of Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives. Dr. Trachtman is a pediatric nephrologist, a graduate of Haverford College and University of Pennsylvania Medical School. He is currently the Director of the Division of Nephrology at NYU Langone Medical Center and is the principal investigator for NIH-funded clinical trials in glomerular disease.]

Rabbi Freundel has weighed in on the topic of partnership Minyanim, opening his review with a lament that halakha has been “the silent partner in the development of Partnership Minyanim”, and concluding that there is no halakhic justification for women to lead tefillah.  I suggest that Rabbi Freundel check out Women and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectivesa book published in 2010 by KTAV and JOFA, and welcome him as a new partner in the dialogue.

Rabbi Freundel chooses to focus his review on tefilla be-tsibbur and specifically on the halakhic permissibility of a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat. He asserts that the groundbreaking article by Mendel Shapiro (Edah Journal 2001) only addresses women being called to the Torah to get an aliya or to read a portion. However, Rabbi Shapiro does distinguish between parts of the tefilla that involve dvarim she-bi-kedusha such as borchu, the amidah, and kedusha versus other parts of the tefilla. He posits that the former category can be led by women while the later portions mandate leadership by men with a quorum of at least ten men. This is the key point that must be considered in analyzing Rabbi Freundel’s position. If tefilla be-tsibbur is invoked anytime ten men constitute themselves into a group for prayer and covers everything from start to finish then Rabbi Freundel is correct and there is no space for women.  However, is there intellectual room for Rabbi Shapiro’s interpretation? I think the answer is yes. For one, the Rabbis clearly distinguished parts of the tefilla with regard to prohibitions about allowable conversation and interruption, indicating that the tefilla is not one homogeneous activity. In addition, as Rabbi Freundel acknowledges, it has been customary in many synagogues to allow underage boys to lead parts of the tefilla. Rabbi Freundel may disagree with this practice but it does support the notion that there is a gradient in intensity within the tefilla service. This variability in the sanctity of the tefilla provides a halakhic basis for decisors to justify the inclusion of women in select portions of the prayer service.

Rabbi Freundel appears to take a maximalist position of what constitutes tefilla be-tsibbur to include anything done that includes the word tefilla in it, such as tefillat ha-derech, tefilla ketzara. If ten people on a flight to Israel decided to say tefillat ha-derech together does that imply that that he would prohibit a woman from leading the recitation? Moreover, he goes even farther and asserts that the category of tefilla be-rabim, prayer said in a public setting, constitutes a diminished form of tefilla be-tsibbur, but a form of tefilla be-tsibbur nonetheless. As such, women would not be allowed to lead any such service. He uses this logic to further disqualify women leading Kabbalat Shabbat. But consider other forms of public prayer from which he is thereby excluding women. Communal services for Kristallnacht or Yom Hashoah usually include recitation of tehilim and conclude with Kaddish. Would Rabbi Freundel prohibit a woman from leading the recitation of the chapters of tehillim? The fact that women regularly participate in and lead services like this in many Modern Orthodox settings suggests that the community has a broader conception of tefilla be-tsibbur than Rabbi Freundel does.

Once Rabbi Freundel has decided what constitutes tefilla be-tsibbur, the key argument that he applies to prohibit women from leading the tefilla is their lower status as non-commanded versus men who are commanded in community prayer. The operative legal principle is that one who is not commanded cannot fulfill the obligation of one who is commanded to perform a mitzvah. However, Rabbinic classifications can and do change. The most compelling example is the movement towards inclusion of deaf individuals into full participation in Jewish life without exception. This Rabbinic adjustment flies in the face of the frequent Talmudic linkage and exclusion of minors, mentally incompetent, and deaf individuals as a class from the performance of mitzvoth and is evidence of the inherent dynamism of halakha. Moreover, it demonstrates the Rabbinic appreciation for the value of social inclusion, for the importance of ensuring that all members of Klal Yisrael feel like they are part of the collective. Indeed, there are Rabbis who feel that the same sensitivity should be applied to women, for whom the pain of social exclusion is no less poignant than that of the deaf. Some suggest that a new class of women should be created to acknowledge the profoundly different status of women in modern society – in secular and religious contexts. Partnership Minyanim reflect an acceptance of this position by a group of men and women in Israel and around the world.

Rabbi Freundel briefly addresses the issue of kevod ha-tsibbur and kevod ha-briyot in the justification for Partnership Minyanim. He speculates that there is no “evidence” of significant numbers of women to warrant the modifications to the traditional tefilla that are practiced in Partnership Minyanim. However, this rationale is problematic. For one, Chazal did not generally require hard statistical evidence to justify changes in practice. Second, the standard phrase used by the Rabbis is “go out a look” and if, in fact, we were to do just that we would find that most major American cities with significant Orthodox communities currently have at least one Partnership Minyan. According to research done by William Kaplowitz, there are some 25 or so Partnership Minyanim, and the number is growing all the time.

Another difficult claim is Rabbi Freundels’ presumption about what is in women’s minds. He argues that the modest changes that have been made in Partnership Minyanim are unlikely to satisfy women interested in participating in tefilla. Considering the sheer excitement with which women everywhere embrace their new-found practice of leading services and reading Torah, this is a very difficult claim to sustain. (See, for example, the beautiful description of the powerful effect that newly discovered Torah reading had on a group of women in Toco Hills, Atlanta, this past Simchat Torah.) Moreover, I can imagine many women taking offense at this analysis. Rather than using the advent of Partnership Minyanim with its limited changes as evidence that the women are trying to adhere to a halakhic framework while embracing expanded roles in tefilla, he patronizingly dismisses their spiritual yearnings and the meaningfulness of the practices that have been adopted.

Finally, an interesting aspect of Rabbi Freundel’s review is his assertion that that irrespective of the origins of Kabbalat Shabbat in Kabbalistic prayer services in the 15th and 16th centuries, it is now a staple of tefilla be-tsibbur. He justifies this by prioritizing a survey of current practices about Kabbalat Shabbat which show that Orthodox Jews around the world go to shul Friday night and say Kabbalat Shabbat and end it with Kaddish. Therefore, it is an integral part of the tefilla and can only be led by a man. But, if we give such credence to current practice, that undermines one of the key criticisms of Partnership Minyanim, namely that the fact that it was not done in the past is the strongest halakhic proof that is it impermissible.

It is important to note that most Partnership Minyanim are self-constituting. They always represent the product of a choice made by a community of like minded people and are never imposed from the outside. As Rabbi Sperber has correctly written, they will not seem necessary or be satisfying for many people. But for those groups of women and men who embrace this as a form of tefilla, it is important to acknowledge that there is substantive halakhic basis for them to draw upon and that the social need they are addressing is immediate and legitimate. Moreover, the decision to form a Partnership Minyan should not be viewed as an intellectually dishonest stitching together of random sources to create something from nothing. As David Berger points out in an thoughtful essay in the new book “Radical Responsibility” dedicated to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbis who adopted novel positions did not see themselves as capitulating to external circumstances but rather as formulating  responses that they thought were right, that were compatible with their conception of the overall objectives of halakha. So too for those like Rabbi Sperber and Shapiro who have written in support of Partnership Minyanim. I fully respect Rabbi Freundel’s detailed response. But I would hope that he see Modern Orthodoxy as broad enough to include those who adopt practices that differ from his own.

Chaim Trachtman, New Rochelle, NY


A religious dilemma -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

August 25, 2011

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?


Avoiding the comforts of extremism

May 3, 2011

Sometimes the middle path is perceived as that which is noncommittal and lacking passion.   But in the realm of religion the opposite is true.  It is moderate positions that require more passion and commitment because they tend to be less black and white and thus harder to balance.  Extreme ideas in contrast are easy to grasp and hold onto.

Within Judaism, especially within more traditional arenas, there is disagreement regarding to what extent one should put up isolationist walls as a bulwark against western culture for fear of it compromising one’s religious values, or be open to outside people and ideas.

Sometimes those who form more extreme insular communities are seen as more pious.   In truth though, every stricture, every religious piety comes with an equal and opposite religious compromise not as readily apparent.  For instance, the more isolated and protected a community is the more they may retain their exclusive religious values, but at the same time their religious values will be less able to impact the outside world and thus less able to render them a “Light unto the nations” or as God put the Jewish mission to Abraham in the book of Genesis, “A blessing to all the families of the earth.”

Rabbi Marc Angel makes this point well in a recent article about Passover in the Jerusalem post http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?id=217325 in which he writes that true religious life is balanced, not veering to the side of “ice” or skepticism and hedonism, nor toward the side of “fire” or religious passion that expresses itself as fanaticism and isolationism.

Yet it is hard to stand for moderation and balance, it is much easier, and I would add more sexy, to take extreme positions.   The extremes of “ice” or of “fire” are less complex and at the extremes we are prone to see ourselves as self righteous, a position that, while locking out others, usually makes us feel pretty good.