Thoughts For The Beginning of Year. – Rabbi Barry Gelman

August 18, 2010

While Rosh Hashana is still a few weeks away, for many of us the year really begins now as our children head back to school. With that come the hectic schedules, the carpools, and the feeling that we do not even have time to breathe.

I think the advice of Rabbi Kolonomus Kalman Shapiro, last Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto and author of Bnei Machshava Tova, is instructive. Writing in relation to spirituality and the ability to be moved by events in our loves, he notes that one of the major obstacles in the way of spirituality is a rushed lifestyle. He was writing this in the 1930’s. Imagine what he would have said about the pace of our lives in the 21st century?

He is so convinced that our rapid-fire life style is the cause of deadened spirituality that he repeats the word – Harcheik (keep away from or distance yourself from) three times when referring to rushing through life – “מן המהירות הרחק הרחק הרחק”.

It is not only moments of potential spirituality that are lost due to our harried pace. We rush through life at such a fast pace that we cannot appreciate our family, friends and our everyday surroundings. Many do not even have time to have a few minutes of conversation with loved ones.

(Part of the challenge is that many are involved in numerous organizations, worthy ones of course, that any time not spent at work is spent at meetings. I suggest that we limit our participation in some of those outside activities and focus on our inner life and our home life. I know ouf communities needs us, but other priorities (our iner life and our family life) must be considered as well. Responsible organizations should not accept the volunteered time of people who overdo it. )

Rabbi Shapiro is convinced that we can train ourselves to overcome this handicap. He tells us: “We exhort you in the strongest terms: teach yourself to watch. In general, become person who looks for God. Perhaps in your looking you will uncover God’s subtle presence – you may see His holiness. When you seek him, you will surely find him. And where will you find him? In yourself and in everything surround you.”

This is something I am going to work on this year…starting now.

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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.


We Are All Jews…. Sort Of – Rabbi Barry Gelman

March 10, 2010

We Are All Jews…. Sort Of – Rabbi Barry Gelman

The Big Sort by Bill Bishop follows the phenomenon of the sorting of America into communities made up of like minded people with similar religious, political and social views. The also traces  some of the outcomes of this phenomenon including extremism and lack of the  ability to build consensus.

The book reminded me of an article written by Rabbi Howard Joseph on how the Netziv fought against Orthodox separation for the non orthodox community. Use link below to get to the article. http://www.edah.org/backend/JournalArticle/joseph.pdf

In many ways the Orthodox community in America has undergone a “sort” of our own as many orthodox communities and shuls are almost entirely made up of ortrhodox families etc.  While there may be some diversity among the types of orthodoxy, by and large, most of our communities are, by a large margin,
orthodox.

Personally, I think this is a bad thing. I prefer the old version of American Orthodoxy of “the shul that I do not go to is Orthodox” or as Dr. Jeffery Gurock has written about, the Non Observant Orthodox.

On an obvious level, I want as many people in Orthodox Shuls as possible, davenig and learning Torah. Modern Orthodox shuls are best suited to present Orthodoxy in a relevant and meaningful fashion to the non orthodox. It could be that the reason why that Chabad and Aish Hatorah have cornered the market on outreach is because modern orthodox shuls simply are unwelcome places for the non observant.

By the way, I think that the Chabad/Aish Hatorah model of shuls and centers that only or mainly cater to balei teshuva not the best way to go. It is sometimes hard for those folks transition to regular shuls.

There is another reason why I want the non observant in orthodox shul. Frankly, I think they make Orthodox shuls better places. One example of this is the fact that the presence of the non orthodox forces us to reconsider our attitudes towards the non observant.  It is no secret that many orthodox Jews speak disparagingly about the non observant. The presence of any group of “others” in our midst, over time, leads to greater understanding and thoughtfulness towards that group.

Anecdotal evidence tells me that there is more sensitivity towards non observant Jews from the sectors of the Orthodox community that regularly interacts with the non observant in a religious setting.  It should be noted that when I speak of sensitivity, I am referring to real concern and respect for the person and their views as opposed to “loving” the non observant because One sees them as a kiruv target.

Finally, there is much that orthodox shuls can gain in terms of Torah from the non observant. Bishop points out that one of the downsides of “sorting” is that sorted populations keep hearing their viewpoints reinforced, leaving no room for intellectual, political; or religious rethinking and clarification. People in that situation tend to get lazy and there is no need to defend positions. Such a life is safe, but without intellectual vigor.

Many non observant Jews do not come with the pre-existing notions, embedded ideas, or understanding of Torah and Judaism that the orthodox do. The questions and challenges posed by the non orthodox who do not take certain things for granted forces the orthodox to formulate clearer and more coherent understandings of Torah.

There is more to say on the subject, but I will leave it as is for now.

All in all, “sorting” is bad for the Jews.


Bread And Butter Orthodoxy – Rabbi Barry Gelman

February 16, 2010

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.

  1. 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?

 

  1. 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.


International Rabbinic Fellowship – Press Release

November 26, 2009

Contact: Rabbi Jason Herman, Executive Director Phone: 917.751.5265 Email: jlherman@jlherman.net FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 9 A.M. EDT, November 20, 2009

NEW ORTHODOX RABBINICAL GROUP ESTABLISHED

Rabbis from across the United States, Canada, South America, Israel and Hong Kong came together last week to officially establish a new and long awaited organization of Orthodox Rabbis. The International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), several years in the making, is the brainchild of Rabbi Avraham Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in Riverdale, the Bronx, New York, and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and Rabbi Marc D. Angel, Rabbi Emeritus of New York’s oldest Jewish congregation, Shearith Israel, and director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

A board and officers was elected consisting of the next generation of Orthodox Rabbis who have shown themselves to be at the forefront of modern Orthodox leadership. The organization’s 120 or so founding members elected Rabbi Barry Gelman, Rabbi of the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, Houston, Texas, as the IRF’s first President, Rabbi Hyim Shafner, Rabbi of Bais Abraham Congregation, St. Louis, Missouri, as Vice President of Education and Communication, Rabbi Nissan Antine, Rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah, Potomac, Maryland, as Vice President for Membership and Conferences, Rabbi Joel Tessler, Rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah, Potomac, Maryland, as Vice President, Rabbi Saul Strosberg, Rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel, Nashville, Tennessee, as Treasurer, and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, Rabbi of Congregation B’nai David-Judea, Los Angeles, California, as Secretary. A code of ethics that will bind the new group was provisionally adopted.

This first conference of the International Rabbinic Fellowship included the voting into reality of several new initiatives that promise to transform the Orthodox community and perhaps the Jewish world. A committee to formulate new procedures for Orthodox conversions, so much in the news in Israel and the United states as of late, was appointed. The committee is tasked with presenting to the IRF a final outline of requirements and processes for Orthodox conversions to be adopted by the membership in June at its annual meeting. The committee’s chairs are Rabbi Dov Linzer, Head of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York City and Rabbi Joel Tessler, Senior Rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah, Potomac, Maryland.

Though Orthodox Judaism does not ordain women as rabbis, several Orthodox women who serve in a handful of Orthodox congregations in rabbinic capacities were present. A long discussion was held at the conference on the question of admitting women acting in a rabbinic capacity as full voting members among the Rabbis. The group voted to task the membership committee with creating criteria for the potential consideration of admission of women. If the IRF votes to admit women, criteria for membership will also be voted on in June. The IRF recognizes that there are highly capable women serving in rabbinic roles and as such the group might benefit from their presence, ideas and guidance.

This heralds the first time that an Orthodox rabbinical group has entertained the possibility of admitting women as full members into its ranks.

For more information about the International Rabbinic Fellowship and the proceedings of its seminal inaugural conference held this past Tuesday and Wednesday November 17-18, please contact any of the following members: Rabbi Barry Gelman, tel. 713.723.3850, email rabbi@uosh.org

Rabbi Hyim Shafner, tel. 314.583.4397, email rabbi@baisabe.com

Rabbi Nissan Antine, tel. 301.279.7010 x 209, email rabbiantine@gmail.com

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, tel. 310.276.9269, email ravyosef@bnaidavid.com

Rabbi Marc D. Angel, tel. 212.724.4145, email mdangel@jewishideas.org

Rabbi Jason Herman, IRF Executive Director, tel. 917.751.5265, email jlherman@jlherman.net


Being Machmir (stringent) about being Meikil (lenient) – Rabbi Barry Gelman

November 10, 2009

Being Machmir (stringent) about being Meikil (lenient) – Rabbi Barry Gelman

What is the value of lenient Halachik decisions?

Issues of monetary expense, shalom bayit and kavod habriyot (human dignity) are well documented as factors in applying lenient halachik rulings. This blog entry begins a discussion on applying lenient Halachik decisions as a way to open the gates of observance to as many people as possible. I argue that once a person is shown that they can live a halachik lifestyle in certain areas where they may have been challenged, they will be more able to adopt halachik living in other areas. Rabbi Chaim Hirschenson stated that: “If the rabbis in America fifty years ago were as great as today’s halakhic authorities, able to see clearly and anticipate developments, they would have found ways to permit, on the basis of the Shulhan Arukh and the decisors…and we would not have come to the sorry situation that prevails today. “

In this passage Rabbi Hirschenson is pleading for Poskim to Halachikally ease the situation of those who find it difficult to observe Shabbat as it had been understood in his time. I understand this approach to be in the spirit of what Hillel taught in Pirkei Avot: Hillel says: “Be like the students of Aaron. Love peace and pursue peace. Love humanity and bring them close to Torah.”

One responsibility that religious leaders (but not exclusively religious leaders) have is to bring people closer to Torah. One way of doing that is by interpreting Halacha in a way that makes Halachik living accessible to as many people as possible.

Here is an example from my experience. A few years ago I met with a couple who were slowly but surely adopting an observant lifestyle. During the course of our conversation this couple mentioned that they had a set of china dishes that were a family heirloom. The dishes were given to them by a family member who did not keep kosher and were most probably used with either treif food or interchangeably for both dairy and meat. They then told me that they were under the impression that the dishes could not be “koshered.” They told me as well that the dishes had important sentimental value to them, and that they were saddened by the notion of not being able to use them. After seeing how difficult this decision was for them, I shared with them the view of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who allowed kashering china in circumstances very similar to theirs and told them that I thought that they too could kasher their dishes. At that moment the wife turned to her husband and said with a gleam in her eye, “See, I told you we could do it.” She went on to explain that they had been bombarded with so many strict interpretations of Orthodox Judaism that her husband began to doubt whether or not they could pull off a total assimilation into orthodoxy.

In hindsight, I could have tried to convince the couple that their attachment to the dishes should not serve as a barrier for further religious growth and counsel them how to best integrate themselves into orthodoxy –just without the dishes! –but instead, I simply removed the barrier. Removing barriers to religious growth can be a very effective tool towards increasing religious observance and we see that this method has, in fact, been used by great poskim. This is being a student of Aaron.

In the response that records Rabbi Feinstein’s permissive ruling about china he invokes the idea of takanat ha-shavim, regulations or enactments made in order to help those who wish to repent (literally: return). Rabbi Feinstein understood that the use of permissive rulings in cases such as this would make the road to observance easier to navigate for those who wish to embrace an orthodox style of religious observance.

A related phenomenon is the common occurrence that halacha guidebooks often offer the more stringent opinions as the only or highly preferred options. One example of this is the issue of making egg salad or tuna fish on Shabbat. There is an impressive list of poskim (Rav Shlommo Kluger, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, Rav Avraham Borenstein, known as the Eglei Tal and Avnei Nezer), who rule that the prohibition of mixing substances into one mass only applies to items that grow from the ground, therefore excluding tuna fish and egg salad from the prohibition entirely. Notwithstanding this, the contemporary shabbat halacha guides reject such an option. This may seem like a small issue but it is precisely rulings like this that make observance very hard to accept. Marginalizing positions like these is an error that will ultimately lead to less observance.

When discussing leniencies and stringencies, we should not focus on the spectrum of less stringent or more stringent, but rather on the strategic use of leniency to encourage greater observance. Put differently, when rendering halakhic decisions, rabbis should not focus on whether or not a decision is in line with the most stringent approach or is in accord with as many opinions as possible, but rather on the long term affects the particular decision will have on an individual’s level of observance.

 


Innovation in Halacha – Rabbi Barry Gelman

November 3, 2009

Our tag line – Morethodoxy: Exploring the Breadth Depth and Passion Of Orthodox Judaism means different things to different people. For me, it is a call to educate the Morethodox public, and others, about the fundamental ideas of Modern Orthodox Judaism. One of the foundations of Modern Orthodoxy is that the Torah does not have a limited warranty. The reform movement essentially clams that the rituals of the Torah does not speak to the modern Jew and are unnecessary to live a full Jewish life. On the other hand, certain segments of the Orthodox community believe that (or act as if) when it comes to ritual and practical halacha there is no room for the Torah to expand to incorporate modern sensibilities and concerns. Read the rest of this entry »