5/31/2006

Good Torah, No Viagra

YU seems to be getting it. 3 learning packets are being promoted for self-study during the night of Shavuot, for adults, teens, and kids. Skimming through, the one for teens looks like a winner (on the topic of halakhot of steroid use). They’ve even come up with some really nifty marketing.

The packet for adults is very similar to the teen packet in structure and content, though it addresses issues which are ostensibly of greater concern for adults – IVF, anti-depressants, etc. The topic is ‘Medical Enhancement’. When I first read that, I thought that it was going to be about the halakhic, er, viability of Viagra and other drugs whose stated goals are ‘enhancement’. That might have been a pretty good topic, too, but the packet just doesn’t go there. Sorry, Rafael Palmeiro, only the teenagers will be talking about you.

Well, the Tzelem Project is still pretty new, and is just now starting to address female sexuality. Maybe next year these two arms of the CJF (not to be confused with the EJF) will talk to each other and crank out a packet on that topic.

I plan on tackling Lawrence Kaplan’s article on Levinas’ view of the Revelation at Sinai (based on the chapter called ‘The Temptation of Temptation’ in Nine Talmudic Readings), will be giving a shiur on that same topic (which I also gave, and posted, last year), and probably go through the Yad Ramah’s intro to Perek Chelek, where he takes Rambam to task, with a chavrusa that I’m finishing Rambam’s intro with.

Geirus Update

From an RCA members email:
Geirus Update
Chaverim should be aware that we are (together with the Beth Din of America) currently in the midst of arranging several meetings with Israeli rabbinic leadership people to occur in the weeks ahead. The goals of the meetings is to engage that leadership in productive discussion of recent changes, current policies, and future plans, as they relate to conversions supervised by all rabbonim, in Israel and Chutz La-Aretz, whether they are members of the RCA or not. In the interim those chaverim who have any questions relating to specific conversions, should be in touch with our chaver Yonah Reiss at the BDA.

5/30/2006

Why the Rabbanut Should Accept RCA-Certified Conversions: Part I

Let me preface by saying that my goal is not to defend the RCA; rather, it’s to advocate on behalf of the thousands of Gerei Tzedek whose status is being called into question by the Rabbanut’s current refusal to accept the vast majority of American Orthodox conversions.

A valid giyur requires four components (in a nutshell):

  1. Circumcision (for men; if he was already circumcised, then a small amount of blood is drawn
  2. Immersion in a kosher mikvah
  3. Kabbalat Mitzvot (acceptance of the commandments)
  4. The presence of a kosher Beit Din during the conversion

The first two components are fairly routine. Not a whole lot to call into question (God help us all if the Rabbanut starts calling American circumcisions into question).

The third and fourth components are where the questions are. Thus, the following two issues must be addressed:

1) Is there any reason to question the validity of American Orthodox Rabbis as ksherim la-dun?

2) What constitutes a proper ‘kabbalat mitzvot’ and does that definition fit the standard American ger?

It should be noted that this is not a discussion of what the conversion process SHOULD look like. The Rabbanut is tasked with determining the Jewish status of Israeli citizens. Questions whether or not certain practices or policies are proper is definitely worthwhile, but as long as the post facto result is a proper conversion, it should not enter into discussions of personal status.

R’ Moshe Feinstein presumed all Orthodox Rabbis to be kosher judges, both in terms of knowledge and status, for a conversion Beit Din:

אבל אם היה רב ארטאדקסי שמסתמא עשה הטבילה כדין, אף שאיכא ריעותא עליו על זה שלא הטיף דם ברית מ"מ מה שעשה יש לתלות שעשה כדין

שו"ת אגרות משה חלק אה"ע ג סימן ד

But if it was an Orthodox Rabbi who presumably affected a proper immersion - even though this presumption is blemished by the fact that he didn’t affect a pin-prick of blood – nevertheless, whatever he affected, we may assume that he affected properly

-Igrot Moshe Even Ha-ezer 3:4

Or some more telling veiled references to American Rabbis whose conversion practices R’ Moshe disagreed with, but nevertheless acknowledged as legitimate post facto:

הנה בעצם כל עניני הגרות אף אלו שעושין רבנים כשרים אין דעתי נוחה מהם וכן ודאי רוח כל חכמים אינה נוחה מהם דהרי גרותן הוא לשם אישות, ואף שבדיעבד הם גרים

ולכן אף שאם בא רב כשר לעשות גרות לא שייך שמנהלי המקוה לא יניחו לו, דכיון שרב מורה הוראה עושה אין להם לבדוק אחריו ויש להם להחזיק שמסתמא עושה כאן לכה"פ לענין שיהיה גר בדיעבד, ועל מה שעושה לכתחלה מסתמא יש לו טעם שרשאי ובמה שלא איכפת לו להתחשב הדיוט

שו"ת אגרות משה חלק יו"ד ב סימן קכה

In essence, all of these conversion practices, even those affected by kosher Rabbis, I am displeased with, and certainly all of the Sages are displeased with, because these conversions are for the sake of marriage, even though they are valid post facto…

Therefore, if a kosher Rabbi came to perform a conversion it’s inconceivable that the administrators of the mikvah wouldn’t allow him too, since a Rabbi with Halakhic expertise (from context - as opposed to a Reform or Conservative Rabbi) is performing it they should not check him out, and they may assume that he is presumably performing it in a manner that would render one a ger, al the very least post facto; the fact that he’s doing this a priori means that presumably he has a reason that it’s permitted or he doesn’t care that he’ll be considered a hedyot

-Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:125

וזהו טעם שיש בה ממש להחשיבה לגיורת והוא למוד זכות קצת על הרבנים המקבלים שלא יחשבו עוד גריעי מהדיוטות

שו"ת אגרות משה חלק יו"ד א סימן קס

And this is a substantive rationale to consider her a giyoret; and it gives a slight benefit of the doubt to these Rabbis who accept these gerim that they are not considered worse than hedyotot.

-Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 1:160

R Moshes position here is crucial because of his disqualification of Conservative Rabbis as dayanim. The response were composed in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when Orthodox Rabbis served in OU-affiliated shuls that had no mechitzot, whose parking lots were open on Shabbat, and whose annual banquets involved mixed-dancing. Nevertheless, R Moshe did not question their basic ability to constitute a beit din shel hedyotot - a lay court whose conversions are acceptable post facto.

Part II will address the thornier issue, Kabbalat Mitzvot.

5/24/2006

Just Kidding, Really You're Jewish.

Jerusalem Post | Amar hints at conversion policy change

Hmmmm.....
Doesn't seem like much has changed:

"If Diaspora rabbinic organizations can prove they have an organizational apparatus on par with the Israeli Rabbinate, I will be willing to consider [recognizing conversions performed abroad]," Amar told The Jerusalem Post.
And the most substantive statement yet from R' Herring:
"We share in the goal of sharing uniform standards," added Herring. "However, it must be done in a constructive and cooperative manner that takes into consideration the realities of Diaspora Jewry."
Hey, how 'bout that. Diaspora realities are different. And a dead-on quote from an anonymous source:
"You have to work hard to learn the subject. You have to travel a lot and meet with people in order to fully understand the complexities of Diaspora Jewry. The people working with Rabbi Amar simply lack the talent or the motivation or both to deal with it. So they are taking the easy way out by disqualifying everybody."
Or they just listen to whomever happens to be yelling the loudest, even if they are driven by a particular agenda. It's good to see that we're yelling louder, though kinda disappointing that this is how the system works.

5/23/2006

Jpost on Rabbanut and Conversions

And now the Jerusalem Post, too, via the AP

The last line is the best:

"I think this decision resolves a lot of problems," Crystal (sic) said.

(Crystal = Krispel)

This will create the biggest yuchsin problem since the time of Ezra and Nechemiah.
I think it’s about time that I formulate a halakhic and hashkafic counterpoint to this business. The RCA should be, but they’re nowhere to be found. After a post or two on the nature of kabbalat mitzvot in giyur, I hope to begin a series going through the book of Ezra (incl Nechemiah), chapter by chapter. Yuchsin is a major theme of the book.
Stay tuned.

Haaretz: Rabbinate no longer recognizes overseas conversions

הרבנות לא מכירה ברוב הגיורים האורתודוקסיים בחו"ל - חדשות -הארץ

Ha'aretz on the Rabbanut conversion issue.
Here, they're talking about not accepting Gittin either. This is scary @#$%. A scary implication - a woman gets divorced and remarried, has kids w/ her 2nd husband, and makes aliyah. The Rabbanut deems the kids safek mamzerim.

The linked article is in Hebrew. If you can't read it, here's the English

Ball-Playing Rabbis

אמר רבי יוחנן, מאי דכתיב +מלאכי ב'+ כי שפתי כהן ישמרו דעת ותורה יבקשו מפיהו כי מלאך ה' צבאות הוא אם דומה הרב למלאך ה' - יבקשו תורה מפיו. ואם לאו - אל יבקשו תורה מפיו.
.מועד קטן יז

Let me start by saying that I’m fully aware of the Gemara in Mo’ed Katan 17a and Chagigah 15b (and codification in the Rambam TT 4:2), excerpted above, that says that one should only learn from a Rebbi if he is like an angel to the student (I assume that doesn’t mean like Angel of ‘Rent’). In fact, that halakha is probably one that needs to be re-emphasized periodically.

At the same time, I think that this Gemara is either misunderstood or irrelevant. I prefer to think that it’s the former, but if it’s the latter, so be it. Angels are lousy role models, both for teachers and for students.

I originally called this blog, when I started it last January, ‘Self-Hating Rabbi’ in protest of the sharp separation of Rabbis and balabatim into separate castes. My first two posts, one a ramble, and the other a Talmudic Reading, were devoted to this theme. Though I’ve changed the name to be less negative, and the blog’s evolved considerably since then, the topic of Rabbinic aloofness is one which I still feel very strongly about.

For better or worse, I’m a sports fan. I grew up in an environment which kinda made that inevitable. But in my job, the fact that I have a genuine interest in these things gives me rapport with folks that I otherwise have nothing in common with. There are times that the entire table discussion revolves around the trivialities of sports or music, and don’t manage – nor do I try – to work in a d’var Torah. For so many people, that trivial, inane, banal conversation is the opening for a real relationship with a Rav. Take an interest in their lives, because you really care about the things they care about, and you’ve accomplished a ton. I make certain to read the blogs of my students and balabatim, and you wouldn’t believe how appreciated it is.

At the back of R’ Michel Shurkin’s ‘Harerei Kedem’ Vol I, he has a number of stories about 20th Century gedolim (excluding RYBS himself, oddly enough). He has a story about how R’ Shimon Shkop would go swimming with his students during the summer. R’ Shurkin comments that despite the need for a Rebbi to be angelic, he still earned the respect of his students. A groyse chiddush. Maybe it’s exactly the opposite.

When I was a high school Rebbi, I used to go play pick-up basketball at the JCC on Fridays after I finished teaching. The regulars there didn’t know me off-court, which was how I liked it. They played shirts-skins, and I went with the flow. Well, someone heard and told the shul Rabbi, and I took some flak for it. A Rabbi shouldn’t be running around shirtless. But then why can everybody else? Are we Catholic? On this topic, I highly recommend Erica Brown’s TuM journal article, ve-acamo”l.

So you can imagine my frustration when reading this from Still Wonderin’:
Instead, a featured speaker, a world-renowned Talmid Chacham who among other things, admonished Rebbeim to not stoop to the level of their students by playing ball with them; a bizayon for those who teach Torah is Pasht Nisht, he feels. Trips are bittul Torah, he, too, feels…maybe once a year, but just to be yoitze.
It reminded me of another story on the same theme, which I googled and found here:
A number of years ago, Rav Chaim Pinchos Scheinberg made a kiddush in the yeshiva for no apparent reason. When asked what the occasion was, he replied that he had heard that the Yankees won the World Series, and he had not gotten excited over it. Overjoyed that after so many years he was finally able to get the baseball of his youth out of his system, he decided to host a kiddush.

Some people think to themselves, "If only I had been brought up in a different environment I would really be able to serve HaShem properly." This is a mistake. HaShem gives each person specific toys in their youth in order that they rise above them in their adulthood.
First of all, I doubt that this story could have taken place with a Red Sox fan. I’ll bet the Bostoner Rebbe made a Kiddush in honor of the BoSox winning it all. There are plenty of Yankees fans who don’t get excited over another ring, but I digress. Point is, if I grew up a Yankee fan, why should I feel guilty about that (well, maybe the Yankees aren’t the best example)? Am I wrong to draw inspiration from Cal Ripken Jr., or from Curt Schilling’s bloody sock? See this article by R’ Mayer Schiller and especially this one by R’ Aharon Lichtenstein. Lehavdil, there are excellent books on the moral and spiritual value of sports by Bill Bradley and John Wooden. The following paragraph, from R’ Lichtenstein, encapsulates the counterpoint to R’ Scheinberg:
The significance of effort is very considerable in our hashkafa. This can find expression even in inherently trivial areas. For example, the world of sports is, in a certain sense, trivial; mature adults are running around trying to put a ball through a hole. Nevertheless, moral qualities can and do come into play: cooperation, team play, an attempt to get the maximum out of yourself, etc. The inherent effort of the person himself, or the loneliness of the long-distance runner in his isolation, are very significant moral elements. While one need not accept the British belief that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, there is no question that within the essentially trivial world of sports, real moral greatness and real moral degradation can be seen. If you see someone on the basketball court who wants only to shoot and score, and defense means nothing to him, this is not simply disturbing to another basketball player, but is morally repugnant.
[As an aside, there’s an apocryphal story that R’ Lichtenstein, upon grabbing a rebound, hollered ‘You’re immoral’ to a cherry-picking teammate; the teammate’s name was Baruch Lanner, who told this story.]

A Rebbi is a more effective role model on the basketball court than in the classroom. At the same time, whatever gains are made in the classroom can easily ruined on the court. The real goal is to continue to be a ‘malach Hashem tzevakos’ even on the court. If you’d like to know what that looks like, go watch the Gush Ramim play in their Thursday night pick-up game.

If you decide to involve himself in student sport culture, two caveats:
  • Take off the jacket and tie
  • If you embarrass yourself, don't talk about how good you were in high school, back before you went to Yeshiva and got religion.
[UPDATE: It seems that the ADDeRebbetzin posted some similar sentiments on DovBear's post on this issue.]

5/21/2006

Book Review: RABBI HAIM DAVID HALEVY: Gentle Scholar and Courageous Thinker

Yesterday’s long afternoon afforded me the opportunity to read this book by Rabbis Marc and Hayyim Angel, which I have been looking forward to since I first saw it several months ago. I first heard of Rabbi Halevy several years ago, in the context of his legendary radio show, and became more curious the more I learned about him.

The book is not a biography, nor is it a scholarly work. The single, introductory, biographical chapter is followed by chapters which aggregate material on different aspects of his Rabbinic vision. Dates are rarely listed, which leaves the reader with the impression that Rabbi Halevy’s approach did not evolve during his nearly half-century in the Rabbinate. Even when Rabbi Halevy does appear inconsistent, the authors attribute it to a difference in the audience (which is generally indicated in the particular responsum), and not a change of R’ Halevy’s heart or mind. Perhaps this was indeed the case; I, for one, would have hoped for a more substantive demonstration of that.

Rabbi Halevy’s uniqueness, which the authors succeed in capturing, was his sense of self-reliance and confident which allowed him to engage those around him while remaining completely unabashed about where he stood and what he believed. He fielded questions from everyone, and about everything.  His skill at balancing the tension between sensitivity to the questioner and commitment to halakha is truly impressive.

At first, I thought it strange that the authors included chapters that document R’ Halevy’s belief regarding the occult and metaphysics. It didn’t seem noteworthy that he believed in gilgulim, palm reading, and necromancy, as it seems rather commonplace within the Sephardic communities of the Ottoman Empire. Upon reflection, however, it serves to highlight elements of the tensions described in the preceding chapters, in that while the world he occupied that of his upbringing, he was able to successfully understand and meet the needs of constituents coming from very different places.

Rabbi Halevy was not a “Modern Orthodox” Rabbi, and the authors, to their credit, do not try to portray him as such. Nevertheless, many of his positions, especially regarding the value of general education, the religious significance of the state of Israel, women’s education, and the relationship with non-observant Jews, resonate with adherents of a Modern Orthodox ideology. The authors seem to have selected those issues which pertain specifically to the modern situation in order to demonstrate Rabbi Halevy’s thinking on them.

Indeed, one of the most refreshing things about R’ Halevy is the relative absence of ideology and politics in his realm of activity. His decisions were not based on his evaluation of the questioner’s motives, but on a genuine attempt to appreciate the questioner’s dilemma and to bring halakhic literature to bear on each unique situation. Often, that yielded surprising or unexpected results, but not because he was driven by an ideological or political agenda. His realm of activity was with his fellow human being, ‘ba-asher hu sham’, and the attempt to find a way for the Torah to address his particular concerns.

To the extent that he had a methodology, it was rooted in common sense. His intuitive grasp of the telos of the halakhic system guided him in situations where it seemed that the halakha, though ostensibly clear-cut, was in fact formulated for a vastly different set of circumstances. This intuition also enabled him to host a rapid-fire radio call-in show, where he would never know what questions might come up. Moreover, it seems that he was self-conscious of his own halakhic teleology and would speak of it openly, allowing a rare glimpse into processes by which a poseik reaches a conclusion. It is in this realm that R’ Halevy’s contribution seems greatest, and where his absence is most keenly felt. The authors have done well to make this portrait available, though there’s much work still to be done.

The authors rarely indicate when R’ Halevy was with or against the Rabbinic consensus on particular issues, and in general could have better underscored those elements which made R’ Halevy unique. They contend that R’ Halevy, as the spiritual heir of R’ Meir Ben-zion Hai Uziel, was the last great poseik of the Judeo-Spanish tradition. However, they barely try to characterize that tradition and to differentiate it from the Iraqi and Moroccan traditions, let alone Ashkenazi traditions.

Overall, the book is well organized (if somewhat redundant, a fact probably attributable to its dual authorship) and easily read. The authors have geared this book to an audience not well-versed in halakhic literature and it therefore remains unencumbered by technical terminology and argumentation. Its brevity and readability are attractive even for those looking to sink their teeth into something meatier, but, like a good appetizer, will leave them hungry for more.

5/18/2006

R’ Scheinberg Welcomes Homosexuals

That’s the implication of his comments in Newsday on the Kolko affair, assuming they’re more or less accurate:
According to Framowitz’s lawsuit, Pinchus Scheinberg (sic), the powerful rabbi who was close to Margulies, contacted several of Kolko’s alleged victims, listened to their complaints, and told them that what happened to them was not abuse—that there needed to be penetration and that because there was none, their claims were not actionable.
In essence, R’ Scheinberg is saying 2 different things, about 2 different issues. Regarding the strictly sexual issue, as it pertains to halakha, he’s saying that this is really no more than hotza’at zera le-vatala (masturbation – if Kolko indeed ejaculated; the Newsday report didn’t address this), which is not grounds for disbarring or disgracing a Rebbi. This is the same halakhic argument advanced by Bill Clinton. I’ll return to this issue shortly.

The second, and far more serious issue, relates to the psychological damage to these kids. Rarely are sexual violence and abuse really just about sex. I’m not sure how R’ Scheinberg gets around this one, but whatever you want to say about the sexual component, this is a ma’aseh chabalah (violent act), no less than a Rebbi beating the living @#$% out of his students (remember that chabalah includes ripui, tza'ar, and boshes - liability for rehabilitation - including mental health, pain, and libel, all significant in a case of sexual abuse).

The interesting implication of the first statement pertains to the Orthodox homosexual community, which I’ve written about before (see especially the comment threads). R’ Scheinberg is basically saying that there’s no reason to take any action against an Orthodox homosexual, as long as there’s no penetration. They can be Rabbeim or camp counselors, get Aliyahs, get Smicha, etc.

Who knew that R’ Scheinberg was so liberal?

[UPDATE: Steven beat me to it on this one. I think he's joking, though. I'm not.]

5/17/2006

Yechi!

I noticed that I'd been getting hits from a site called Chabad Filter.
Curiously, I'm on their List of Chabad Blogs. So are Gil, Harry, and DovBear. I'm surprised that Dovid's blog is not on the list. His blog is at least as Chabadi as mine.
That site is an interesting set-up. It looks like there must be some places where that's the only site up, and it's only possible to follow the links that they provide. I guess that means that I have a chassidishe gushpanke. Go figure.

NOTE: That's not really a picture of me in the corner. I have a trimmed beard.

The Vaad HoRabbonim HaOlami LeInyanei Giyur Responds

Check out this article.
Comments on it are welcome below, since no such feature is available on the article’s homepage.
I’m curious if the Va’ad coming ‘under attack’ means this blog. AFAIK, barely anyone else mentioned them in context of this issue, and if they did, it was only to downplay their involvement in it.
It’s clear from this article that the desire is not to work with the RCA to improve its policies, but to completely shaft it. Draw your own conclusions from that.

PusheRabbi?

We have some neighbors who are very involved Jewishly, go to an Orthodox when they go (usually just Friday nights), but don’t keep a kosher home. Not too long ago, they invited some kosher-keepers over for a the Friday-night meal, and they enlisted our help making sure that whatever they served would be Kosher. To that end, we lent them a pot to make chicken soup.

That Friday night, I was walking home from shul with my guests, and ran into my neighbor. We wished each other ‘Good Shabbos’ and then he added ‘Oh, and Rabbi, thanks again for the pot’. To make matters worse, these neighbors aren’t particularly prudish, to say the least, and the term ‘pot’ is more often used to refer to marijuana than to a kettle.

The looks on the faces of my guests were precious. Over dinner, we explained the scenario, but I couldn’t help but think that this is how some nasty rumors can get started.

5/15/2006

A Triumphant Return: R' Shimon bar Yochai Part XV

This series began on Lag B'Omer one year ago. This is the concluding installment.

[Continued from
Intro, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX , X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV]
Then he went out into the market and saw Judah, the son of proselytes: 'That man is still in the world!' he exclaimed. He cast his eyes upon him and he became a heap of bones.

Finally, R’ Shimon enters the marketplace. His voice has become one of the many which have currency in the public sphere. In doing so, R’ Shimon has come full circle, finding a way to thrive amongst the cacophony of messages, products, and ideas that the Roman marketplace contains. This is his ultimate victory over Yehuda ben Gerim, the rootless but proud contemporary Jew whose perception had initially doomed R’ Shimon to irrelevance. R’ Shimon’s re-entry into the world exposes the truth behind the religious world of Yehuda ben Gerim: absent rootedness, Jewish in form but devoid of the inner culture and meaning , is the skeleton of Jewish life that remains inanimate. Rootless, Judaism becomes desiccated and eventually collapses. Rooted in its own past, Judaism remains relevant and vigorous, its voice still reverberating in the marketplaces of the world.

תם ונשלם. תודה לא-ל דסעיין.
ל"ג בעומר, יום שמ(ח)ת רשב"י, התשס"ו

Rabbis and Whores: R' Shimon b. Yochai Part XIV

[Continued from Intro, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX , X, XI, XII, XIII]
Said the old man: The son of Yohai has purified a cemetery! Said he, “Had you not been with us, even if you have been with us but did not vote, you might have said well. But now that you were with us and voted with us, It will be said, ‘[Even] whores make each other up; how much more so scholars!’” He cast his eye upon him, and he died.
The old man, who had just testified to what he saw in his youth, now turns on R’ Shimon; he didn’t trust himself, was afraid to take a potentially unpopular stand. He succumbs to the temptation of the status quo. From his perspective, R’ Shimon has indeed purified a cemetery, because all is a cemetery.

Contrast this ‘old man’ with the ‘old man running’ that R’ Shimon encountered earlier. Whereas the first old man moves vigorously forward, ancient yet ever fresh, this old man suffers from religious paralysis, and is an impediment to progress.

R’ Shimon responds by once again imposing his vision, and once again destroying. However, whereas the first time he does so, he is sent back to the cave, he isn’t this time. This reinforces the sense that R’ Shimon re-enters the world with his passion and idealism intact. Engaging the world need not result in the dulling of religious fervor, though withdrawal might be a prerequisite for successful engagement.

R’ Shimon understands that the momentum required to ‘purify a graveyard’ mandates a degree of mutual respect amongst the Rabbis. Once one stands up to be counted in that group, a degree of professional respect must be observed. Otherwise, the prestige of the group suffers as a whole. Thus, R’ Shimon criticizes the old man and sees him for what he really is – dead. Let the old man remain in the cemetery of which he’s so fond!

Purifying a Graveyard: R’ Shimon b. Yochai Part XIII

[Continued from Intro, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX , X, XI, XII]
“Is there anything that requires fixing?” he asked. They told him that there’s a place of doubtful contamination (tumah), and Kohanim (priests, who may not traverse a cemetery) must trouble themselves to circumvent it. Said he: Does any man know that there was a presumption of cleanness here? A certain old man replied, Here [R. Yohanan] b. Zakkai cut down lupines of terumah. So he did likewise. Wherever it (the ground) was hard he declared it clean; wherever it was loose, he marked it off.
Generations that experienced a severe rupture with the past exhibit tendencies to preserve whatever possible of that past. No attempt is made to distinguish between essential and accidental elements of the bygone era. Thus, the entire past remains an undifferentiated amalgam of the ‘living’ and the ‘dead’. It becomes an unmarked graveyard.

An unmarked graveyard is the worst kind of obstacle: it is a safeik, a case of doubt. Treating is all as ‘dead’, as the people were doing, means that one cannot navigate a ‘path’ – a halakha – a way through – this past, and will be forced to construct their path through foreign pastures. Ironically, the more the entire past is treated as sacred, the less viable and relevant it is in the present. Equally dangerous is ignorance of the past, to trample it, to relegate it to a bygone world that cannot provide any meaning for the ‘modern’ generation. Nothing is sacred.

In order for the Kohanim – the group that stands between man and God, be it the Sons of Aharon or the entire Jewish people as a ‘Kingdom of Priests’ – to accomplish their mission, a path must be forged through the whole of what has been transmitted. Doubt must be resolved. Right and wrong, living and dead, essential and accidental, must be differentiated.

R’ Shimon is in position to do just that. He began the story wholly rooted in the past, but then spend years refining and unlocking the underlying, essential, eternal, pure Torah, which he is now ready to apply to the current untenable situation. There are a number of tools at his disposal, which he utilizes to indeed chart a course through the cemetery, signaling what has died and what lives on.

He first turns to memory; is the past wholly shrouded in fog, completely inaccessible, or do we have a tendency to treat it that way? R’ Shimon consults the remnants of the previous generation, those who still remember what it was like, to help him recover the living system. He finds a link back to the generation of R’ Yohanan b. Zakkai. R’ Yohanan was the last leader in the time of destruction, who had to begin a rebuilding and recovery process. He is the immediate predecessor and role model for the task that R’ Shimon now faces.

R’ Yohanan ‘cut down lupines’ in this cemetery, and so R’ Shimon does so, too. The lupine is an interesting vegetable. Raw, it is inedible and bitter. It must be cooked several times, each time removing the outermost layer, until finally the sweet kernel is reached.
Is that not exactly what R’ Shimon is attempting?

5/14/2006

How Will the Conversion Issue Shake Out?

In the punchline of the more recent of the Jewish Week articles on the subject, R’ Basil Herring was quoted as saying:
“it is not an attack on Modern Orthodoxy or American Orthodoxy, and it does not represent the haredization of the rabbinate”
These are 2 separate claims. I would like to address each claim independently, and then to offer some alternatives to how this thing can shake out.

Regarding the second claim (which is the easier of the two to demonstrate as false), there is a definite ‘haredization’ of the Rabbanut on conversion issues. In the same Jewish week article, it is reported that:
Rabbi Krispel said he had recently established a committee of three rabbis to determine the qualifications of any rabbi performing conversions.
As Stephen commented, “the identity of those three Rabbis is pretty important. Well, Rav Nochum Eisenstein is one of the three members. I don’t know the identity of the other two. Furthermore, it was overheard at the EJF conference that R’ Ryback, Chairman of the RCA’s Geirus Commision and a signatory on this letter , was trying to convince R’ Nochum to accept RCA-approved conversions.

That R’ Krispel takes his cues from others is corroborated by his testimony at a Knesset hearing involving the conversion of the Indian Bene Menashe. This 25-page Hebrew report can provide some incredible insight into the how the Rabbanut perceives the conversion process and its relationship with batei din all over the world.

I’m not suggesting that R’ Nochum is behind everything, or that the Rabbanut is being controlled. R’ Nochum is a grogger; he makes noise wherever he sees or hears (what he believes to be) Amalek. But he’s been making noise about the RCA and many, many other organizations that engage in giyur. He would disband the RCA tomorrow if he could, and because he thinks that it’s not really Orthodox. And he has found an audience in a Chief Rabbi who is trying to generate universal conversion standards and a bureaucrat, R’ Krispel, who must rely on others for his information about the American Rabbinate. Thus, to the degree that RNE influences decisions about which American Rabbis are acceptable, the Rabbanut is being ‘hareidized’.

This leads to the other issue – is this an attack on American Orthodoxy or Modern Orthodoxy? From the perspective of the Rabbanut, certainly not. But there is a mistrust of the American Orthodox Rabbinate as a whole, and an attempt to impose a standard upon it. It is not insignificant that the RCA was not a major player in a conference whose mission was to bring the standardized conversion agenda to American soil. If the EJF begins to compile its own network of Rabbis, and the Rabbanut accepts their conversions implicitly, then the RCA will have been completely undermined.

Personally, I believe that the RCA doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have universal standards because of the diversity of Orthodox communities in America. The sincerity and commitment of each potential ger must be evaluated in context, and by a beis din who is familiar with the community that the ger wishes to join. Neither RNE nor R’Amar want to leave subjective decisions in the hands of community Rabbis: RNE because he thinks that, as a class, they’re not really Orthodox, and R’ Amar because there’s no objective standard.

So is it a Catch-22 – the RCA either adopts a standard or gets shafted? I hope that it’s not too late and that there’s a third way. Here are what I think would be some of its key points:
  • A thorough house-cleaning, in which RCA members about whom corruption reports surfaced would be investigated and, if need be, ‘defrocked’ from serving as an Av Bet Din for conversion. However, members in good standing MUST be implicitly trusted.

  • The adoption of a curriculum for Hilkhot Gerim for Rabbis-in-training.

  • Perhaps most importantly, there needs to be a serious effort to produce halakhic literature which articulates our view of giyur and why we are confident in it and in our ability to engage in the sacred work of bringing people tachat kanfei Ha-Shekhinah.

Welcome (and Attention) RCA Rabbis

Apparently, I’m on Gil’s list of ‘Blogs that Rabbis Should Follow’, in his ‘Torah category’. Admittedly, there’s a lot of sichas chullin here as well, but my purpose in writing this blog is, and will remain, the opportunity to formulate my own Torah thoughts to an audience that I wouldn’t normally have access to (though a large and ever-increasing number of my balabatim do read this blog). I’ve taught more Torah through the last year-plus of blogging than in my entire career in education and Rabbinics. I only request that if you use material for a shiur or drasha (you wouldn’t be the first), that you are meivi davar be-shem omro.

As you may be aware, this blog has played a role in the coverage of the issue involving RCA conversions. This blog was the first to connect the issue to the Eternal Jewish Family conference, to Rav Nochum Eisenstein’s Vaad HoRabbonim HaOlami LeInyonei Giyur, and to refute the Jewish Week’s theory that it’s somehow connected to the R’ Tendler issue. I hope to post once more on the issue; my original post was misunderstood, which, of course, is my own fault. Consequently, there have been statements written and spoken by RCA administrators attempting to downplay the significance of this issue. I will write about why I think that this really IS an issue that should be of major concern to American Orthodox Rabbis, and why the RCA either believes or wants us to believe that there isn’t.

And then I hope to get back to posting Torah.

5/11/2006

Getting Back on Track

Hopefully, I’m done w/ this RCA business for a while (wishful thinking?). I’ve now only got 5 days left till Lag Ba-Omer, and still three installments of the R’ Shimon b. Yochai series. I’m definitely looking forward to posting Torah again; back to the meat n’ pataytas.

Of course, it’s never the Torah posts which generate comments, though it’s what I’m most proud of, and it’s generally better stuff and more thought out than the sichas chullin that I write. I wonder why that is. The Rebbetzin theorizes that folks are looking for something they can connect with – a story about the travails of raising a Jewish child, my memories of my grandfather – more than abstract Torah ideas. Maybe she’s right, but it’s the hock – current events and controversial or contrarian machshavah that y’all eat up. The anecdotes are second. Ve-Torah munachas be-keren zavis.

BTW, I’ve switched from Bloglet, which wasn’t working, to FeedBlitz subscriptions, so heads up to subscribers, and thanks, Dan.

I’m still making aliyah this summer (though I feel like I may have stepped into chet ha-meraglim territory these past few days) and I still don’t have a job. However, this Rabbanut business gave me a great idea. I’d perform non-Rabbanut-sanctioned weddings in Israel for ehrlikhe yidden whom the Rabbanut won’t recognize as such, and then help the couple arrange for a Cypriot civil marriage. I’d happily take a job with the RCA or ITIM, too. So, if you’re reading, it’s adderabbi@NOgmail.SPAMcom (ignore the ‘No spam’).

The Rabbanut and RCA Conversions: Clarifications and Response

Since posting my interpretation of the Rabbanut’s procedural changes with regard to RCA-approved conversions, I’ve found myself at or near the center of what’s fast becoming a major news story the Jewish and Orthodox print and electronic media. A number of Jewish bloggers linked back to my post, including one of the most venerable, twice.

The Jewish Week has featured an article on this for the second week in a row (plus a letter from the RCA hoohas), and this week’s interpretation is a lot closer to mine than last week’s was. The speculation about a Tendler family vendetta has been virtually (and thankfully) silenced, and procedural and personnel changes within the Rabbanut have become the focus of attention. I have no idea if my post or my pseudonymous letter to the editor of TJW (which didn’t make it into the paper) had anything to do with their re-evaluation, but it doesn’t seem unlikely.

I’ve altered my original thesis since Monday, as I learn more and have more conversations, but I maintain the central point, namely, that the Vaad HoRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur stands behind the current ‘procedural changes’ in the Rabbanut, and that they are consciously trying to disenfranchise the American Modern Orthodox Rabbinate. Since there have been a number of disagreements, refutations, arguments and counter-arguments about this thesis and the details surrounding it, I will try respond and clarify.

There were several details that I got completely wrong. I insinuated that there’s really no difference between Rabbis Ohana and Krispel, and even related to personal interaction that I had with R’ Ohana. The major shift in procedure happened when R’ Krispel replaced R’ Ohana, which happened during the tenure of Chief Rabbi Amar. There seems to be a much broader shake-up going on in the conversion authority. See, for example, this article, which hasn’t been discussed much, but states:

certain rabbinic judges and administrative managers are recalcitrant hardliners who refuse to adhere to authority and have adopted unnecessarily stringent criteria for conversion

R’ Krispel refers to a sort of ‘kitchen cabinet’ of three Rabbis who evaluate conversion affidavits, and who are quite literally starting from scratch, with everyone presumed to be unqualified until it’s shown to be otherwise.

So the question is, why was there a personnel shake-up, and why did it result in stricter policies for the acceptance of conversions?

Part of the answer is with Chief Rabbi Amar. He is a very strong advocate of universal conversion standards. At the EJF conference, he criticized the American Rabbinate for not being as systematic as the Rabbanut, and that there should be more centralization of conversion. Personally, I feel very strongly that the large, impersonal, bureaucratic, and despised Rabbanut has much to learn from the American Rabbinate. That’s why institutions like Itim are so crucial. Furthermore, there is, of necessity, a certain amount of flexibility when it comes to a pre-conversion curriculum (the Rambam and Shulchan Arukh are extremely vague about what must be taught) and subjectivity when determining the sincerity of the potential convert (as the Beis Yosef says in YD 268, following Tos. Shabbos 31a). There are certain issues which are the subject of dispute (for example, if a woman will not cover her hair, or will wear pants, can she be accepted as a convert?), but for which context is extremely important. The situation in a community where women simply don’t cover their hair is different than the situation in Monsey. Without justifying anything, do we demand, a priori, the same degree of commitment from someone who will not have communal support as someone who will? More than ‘experts’ in the issue of giyur (which, after all, is one relatively short siman in Shulchan Arukh), there’s a need for sensitive and compassionate Rabbonim. You’re more likely to find those in out-of-town shuls than behind the desks of the Rabbanut.

The temporal proximity of the change in Rabbanut policy and the EJF conference was, I thought, more than coincidence. EJF’s agenda is very different than the Rabbanut’s or the Vaad’s – the want to encourage the conversion of gentile spouses of Jews. Nevertheless, the issue of standards is an inevitable part of these endeavors.

The EJF states that they follow the guidance of R’ Dovid and R’ Reuven Feinstein and R’ Elyashiv on these matters. That’s not a monolithic group. R’ Elyashiv is far more machmir than the Feinsteins, a point which apparently caused a bit of exasperation for R’ Dovid (IIRC – only one was there, and I’m not sure which), who had a difficult time during a panel discussion dominated by outspoken members of R’ Elyashiv’s camp – R’ Leib Tropper, R’ Nachum Eisenstein, and Dayan Ehrentrau. R’ Hershel Schachter did not attend the conference because of an illness, but gave a single shiur via satellite hook-up.

Thus, the cards are stacked. R’ Amar wants to universalize conversion procedures. EJF does as well, though it’s more of a secondary goal. The Vaad/ R’ Elyashiv camp, and R’ Nochum in particular, has a very long history of opposition to numerous conversion procedures and a desire to universalize according to their own interpretations. R’ Nochum also has a history of animosity toward the RCA, as I think I documented pretty darn well.

Thus, all parties at this conference – the EJF organizers, R’ Amar, the Vaad – can agree that they want to universalize standards and that the greatest barrier to that is the RCA. R’ Schachter wasn’t there, but even if he was, is known to be very independent; he would not feel compelled to defend the RCA. R’ Reuven and R’ Dovid – well, they’re R’ Mordy Tendler’s uncles. Keep quiet, perhaps. Stand up to defend the RCA? No way.

R’ Amar’s relationship with the R’ Elyashiv camp is deeper, though. They were the Israeli contingent at EJF. R’ Amar owes his job to R’ Elyashiv, and even though this is not a halakhic issue per se, it’s naïve to think that R’ Elyashiv’s team would try to influence even procedural issues. R’ Amar, at least according to the Yated, has followed the lead of the Vaad on conversion issues in Israel as well.

What’s still not determined is the degree to which the Vaad is actually influencing the Rabbanut. That they’re bedfellows in the attempt to undermine or replace (and I think that the Vaad definitely wants to replace, not reform) the RCA as the dominant conversion authority in America is, to my mind, clear. Has R’ Amar bought into the Vaad’s anti-RCA rhetoric? Has he retained them as his advisors or consultants, perhaps as members of R’ Krispel’s 3-man advisory panel? I don’t know for certain. That there’s a relationship is undeniable. And that the Vaad would jump on any opportunity to expand its influence and take down its opponents is equally undeniable.
[UPDATE: An anonymous commenter reports that R' Nochum Eisenstein is a member of R' Yigal Krispel's advisory panel; if this is true, as I suspected, then there's nothing left to talk about].

Regarding the semantics of MO vs. Chareidi, Modern Orthodoxy here doesn’t refer to an ideology. Take, for example, my friend, mora d’asra and abdk”k Yehupitz. He’s not what you’d call ideologically MO. But being in Yehupitz, or wherever else, and dealing with PEOPLE, leading a flock, means engaging them ba-asher hem sham. R’ Nochum, representing the eretzyisruldike approach, deems this to be a compromise of the ‘truth’, and chazer-treif. I’m not just talking about conversions now; American Orthodox pulpit Rabbis, as a class, are made out to be a quai-Reform group of one-time Bnei Torah (perhaps) who use their polished English to say what the balabatim want to hear. As such, they are deemed to be inherently untrustworthy. The color of your hat or the yeshiva you attended has nothing to do with it (just ask Natan Slifkin). For American Orthodox Rabbis, there’s no chezkas kashrus: guilty until proven innocent.

Has the Rabbanut bought that story? Again, it’s speculative. But their disregard of the main body of American Orthodox Rabbis indicates that, at least practically speaking, this position has been adopted. Otherwise, there would have been a different process of accreditation of trustworthy Rabbis. Corrupt or unqualified conversion courts – we all have our lists of batei din which we suspect or know are a sham – can be investigated without disenfranchising the RCA. R’ Gedalya Dov Schwartz wouldn’t have been treated as he was. It wouldn’t have been so quick and taken so many off guard.

This battle is over the Rabbanut. The Vaad is using the Rabbanut, to the degree that it can, to advance its own agenda. Our response is twofold – advocate and articulate out own positions vis-à-vis giyur and our credentials to be involved in them, and clean house so that kangaroo conversion courts are, if not disqualified, identified.

5/09/2006

The RCA Conversion Scandal: What’s the Real Issue?

The lead story in the Jewish Week this week (also covered here and here), is the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s non-acceptance of RCA-approved gerut. There’s speculation in TJW that this is all political, has to do with the Tendler family, etc. Ayen sham, ve-acamo”l.

It seems, however, that the group behind the Rabbanut’s policy is called “The Vaad HaRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur”. This group’s agenda is to try to create a universally recognized standard of conversion. They played a strong role in the recent “Eternal Jewish Family” conference in Florida. In addition to the RCA, they have opposed Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbinate of the IDF, Norwegian Chief Rabbi and former MK Michael Melchior, and, ironically, the Rabbanut itself. One would be hard-pressed to find a Rabbinical organization that they don’t slam. Their agenda is not limited to American Rabbis and not to those who provoked the Tendlers.

The issue at hand is the credibility of Modern Orthodox Rabbis, no more, no less. Founded by R’ Chaim Kreisworth ob”m, the man whose name is most closely associated with the Vaad is R’ Nachum Eisenstein, an American-born chareidi Rav in the Ma’a lot Dafna neighborhood of Jerusalem. If you live in Ma’alot Dafna, learn in kollel, and don’t wish to pay municipal taxes, R’ Nachum will write a letter on your behalf explaining that you have no real source of income; whether or not you can afford it and are merely exploiting a loophole in a system which doesn’t account for rich in-laws is a side issue. He is also the author of the following statement:
The month of Nisan is the month of geula and we must be strong in our conviction to oppose any cooperation and recognition of the Reform and Conservative before we can be zoche to true redemption.
and other obnoxious statements that can be found here, here, here, and here.

R’ Nachum counts himself as a strong adherent of R’ Elyashiv. You may remember that it was R’ Elyashiv’s inner circle who brokered the deal that brought the current Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel into office. They’d get the jobs, though unqualified, but they’d be under R’ Elyashiv’s thumb for any significant halakhic matter. Those were the terms of the deal, and the current situation is one of its ramifications.

The Rabbanut gets affidavits from batei din the world over. There’s an office within the Rabbanut that’s supposed to decide on those courts, but, of course, that office is occupied by a middling bureaucrat whose credentials include being the nephew of someone with clout. I’ve met with the first occupant of that office, Yitchak Ochanna. The man speaks not a word of English, yet the status of the entire American Modern Orthodox Rabbinate is in his hands. Unable to handle all of this, they turn to an outside organization to make their decisions. That organization is called – you guessed it - the Vaad HaRabbonim Haolami LeInyonei Giyur. Thus, in essence, Rav Nachum Eisenstein is in the position to be approving or disapproving every Orthodox convert in the US who wishes to make aliyah or get married in Israel. It’s pretty much all spelled out in this article, which seems to be the basis for the recent scandal.

This Vaad is highly problematic on several levels. In the issue of giyur, there are a lot of things that one would hope for lechatchila, but which bediavad don’t disqualify the conversion. As any out-of-town Rabbi can tell you, or anyone who’s ever worked with Ethiopian Jews, Bnei Anusim, or Russian-Israelis, for that matter, we don’t live in a lechatchila world. Sure, we’d love it if every potential convert could do the pin-test of Shmiras Shabbos Kehilchesa before going for a dip, but that’s not realistic. We, in the trenches, might just have a greater sensitivity to the human being that the bureaucrats are so good at disregarding. I’d take Itim over the Vaad any day of the week.

The desire to create a universal standard for giyur is both misleading and misguided. It is misleading because it sounds like a unifying agent, when in fact it means that they are trying to create a chareidi monopoly on conversions by passuling every conversion that’s not chareidi in the hopes that it will force the MO Rabbinate to simply acquiesce. By referring to the Modern Orthodox Rabbinate as ‘so-called Orthodox’, or to the “orthodox” Rabbinical Council of America (R’ Nachum himself puts the quotation marks on the word ‘orthodox’), or describing the RCA by saying “This is the organization of rabbis who call themselves Orthodox, but are known as modern”, R' Nachum and the good folks at the Yated are basically saying that MO Rabbis aren't really Rabbis and Modern Orthodoxy isn't really orthodox. Instead of coming out and saying it, they'll use obnoxious innuendo and quotation mark. Recognizing only individual RCA members means that the Vaad is setting itself up to be the arbiter of which Rabbis are kosher enough. The desire for ‘unity’ is nothing less than a declaration of war on the MO Rabbinate.

It is misguided because there is not, and cannot be, a universal standard for giyur. The Shulchan Arukh says quite clearly that there are certain things which are very difficult to gauge, about which the individual courts must make a judgment. Furthermore, as stated earlier, there is lechatchila and bediavad. Creating a universal standard basically means doing away with the entire question of a bediavad conversion. That may be easy to do from Ma’alot Dafna, but there’s a reason that the concept exists.

Conversion is THE issue which essentially determines whether a particular Rabbi is kosher or treif. When there’s talk of not accepting R and C Rabbis, it basically means that their conversions are not considered good conversions, no more and no less. Now, MO Rabbis are threatened with the same treatment. This is not some political issue that will blow over by next Tuesday. R’ Nachum and his ilk have gained a measure of control over an apparatus that threatens to completely discredit the MO Rabbinate.

This is a moment of truth for the American Modern Orthodox Rabbinate. If we do not find a way to win this battle, legitimate the work that we do across the continent and assert our commitment to and execution of das Moshe Ve-Yisrael, then our voices will join our Conservative and Reform colleagues as spectators who can make noise but are barred from playing the game.

5/07/2006

R' Shimon and Jacob: R' Shimon b. Yochai part XII

[Continued from Intro, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX , X, XI]

Since a miracle has occurred, said he, let me go and amend something, for it is written, “and Jacob came whole to the city of Shechem”, which Rav interpreted: Bodily whole, financially whole, and whole in his Torah. “And he graced the city”- Rav said: He instituted coinage for them. Samuel said: He instituted markets for them; R. Yohanan said: He instituted baths for them.

With the interjection of this seemingly unrelated story about Jacob’s arrival in the city of Shechem, the Gemara again superimposes a mythic dimension onto this narrative. The Patriarch Jacob, the progenitor of Israel, had fled his homeland from his brother Esav, the progenitor of Rome in the Rabbinic imagination. After spending many years in exile, Jacob returns to his homeland and finds a way to make peace with his brother. It is at this moment, having successfully encountered his brother, that Jacob arrives ‘whole’ in the city of Shechem. R’ Shimon, too, flees and returns better for it. He will also make his peace with Rome.

Rav speaks of three different types of ‘wholeness’ that Jacob has attained: Physical, financial, and ‘in Torah’. R’ Kook understands that these are essentially three aspects of the same over-arching wholeness, with each component reaching its perfection only in relation to the others. One cannot be whole in Torah if he is not whole financially, and vice versa. R’ Shimon had begun with an attitude that these elements impinge upon each other, but had acquired the ‘naivete’ (temimut) of Jacob the ‘simple man’, which takes a simpler, more whole vision which integrates that which R’ Shimon had compartmentalized.

Upon achieving wholeness, Jacob sought to extend it, to share it and make it available to others. Wholeness doesn’t happen in the cave, in an exile, but in the public sphere, where it can contribute and encounter others. The Rabbis suggest three ways in which Jacob sought to extend his wholeness to society. Minting coins, which standardizes purchase power, limits confusion, and builds trust between people. Building markets, which encourages and enhances interactions between people. Building baths, which encourages cleanliness and purity within society.

These were the very institutions that R’ Shimon criticizes at the beginning of the story. He now seeks to enhance them. Rather than seeing them as evil, he sees and seeks to develop their potential to participate in the ‘whole’ picture.

From the Mouths of Babes...

Walking home from shul today, my daughter picked a wildflower. I said to her, “You can’t pick flowers today; it’s Shabbos. Please put the flower down.” She responded by saying “No. I’m not Jewish.” Stunned, I ignored her response until we got home.

We have a non-Jewish neighbor in the same apartment building with a little boy my daughter’s age. They play together all the time. My daughter is aware that he’s not Jewish, though she’ll sometimes use ‘Jewish’ words expecting everyone to understand. She knows that when it comes to things like food and Shabbos, there are major differences.

With all of this in mind, the Rebbetzin and I had a short conversation with my daughter later that day. We asked her if she really meant that she didn’t want to be Jewish. She said yes. We asked if she liked Pesach, Chanukah, Purim, Kiddush, Havdalah, and Israel, because those things are all special for Jews. She changed her mind and likes being Jewish.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of the whole exchange. It’s not that I’m worried that she, all of five years old, isn’t absorbing the right values from us. She wanted to pick a flower and applied a ‘hetter’ to herself. It just made me wonder about the nature and construction of Jewish identity and how that appears to the 5-year old mind.

[PS: She fell asleep in her Shabbos clothes last night, waiting for me to come home from shul. At around 3:30AM, she wakes up and enters our bedroom, crying that she wants to hear havdalah. I sang some havdalah tunes as lullabys, and promised to make it for her in the morning.]

Rabbis, Rabbis, Rabbis


Three interesting news items from the last few weeks, all regarding Rabbis.

The first is about Rabbi Michael Cook of HUC, who thinks that ignorance of the New Testament is the Jews’ Achilles’ Heel. Interesting. I always thought it was ignorance of the old one. Shockingly, the guy is a professor of New Testament studies. When you’ve got a hammer, the whole world is your nail.

The second is about the Rabbanut’s outrageous non-recognition of RCA conversions. I agree that there are problems with giyur in the American Orthodox world, just are there problems with the Rabbanut and their conversion process (understatement of the year). But this is such an incredible slap in the face of American Orthodoxy. Perhaps the most disturbing part is the response of the RCA president. His job is to be outraged, not to try to diminish the magnitude of this. The politically-appointed Rabbis that fill the ranks of the Rabbanut bureaucracy are left to measure the tzitzis of American Orthodox Rabbis who are often the only access to yahadus and Torah around. It’s sickening. Now, I’m sure that some of my Conservative readers will see some poetic justice in this. I think it’s different, ve-acamo”l.

The third is an article about the ordination of Haviva Ner-David as an Orthodox Rabbi. I’ve written about the need to create a recognizable means of acknowledging learned Orthodox women for a variety of practical purposes. The watering-down of semikha in general (I’ve heard of a semikha where one is tested on 50 blatt Gemara of their choice and Kitzur Shulchan Arukh) has turned this whole thing into a joke. Arguments that suggest that women haven’t achieved the level of scholarship deserving of the title should consider my third-grade Rebbe. In this case, I’ve actually read her book. Pioneering, but really bizarre; what you’d probably expect from the person trying to become the first female Orthodox Rabbi.  There’s some solid critique, but I found her approach to ritual commandments to border on fetishism, and didn’t find myself enriched by this book. I had my reasons for becoming a Rabbi; anger wasn’t amongst them. So forgive me for my lack of excitement that she has joined our ranks. This will inevitably open doors for more women which can become positive development.

5/04/2006

Listening to Music Religiously

For some people, listening to music is a religious experience. I’m not one of those people. But I do like some kinds of music. And listening to it can occur in a variety of religious contexts, producing some great moments.

With one of the kids crying for his mother on the way to daycare today, I turned on the radio, because the kid loves music. I’m ambivalent about listening to music during sefirah, so I usually don’t. Three songs came on between when I turned the radio on and when I dropped the kid off: American Pie, Live and Let Die (Beatles, not GnR), and Bohemian Rhapsody. The older kid absolutely LOVED American Pie. And I admit, we stayed in the car idling until the last song ended.

Last month, I took the car to a manual carwash, y’know, w/ vacuums and hoses and whatever, to clean the car for Pesach. There was some fellow who was cleaning his car and listening to some very loud entertainment (I am loath to call it ‘music’) which I didn’t find very entertaining. Aside from the fact that I simply didn’t enjoy the sound, I found the lyrics, which their incessant use of the n-word, the b-word, the f-word, and descriptions and boasts about permutations of those three words, to be very offensive. I turned the radio on, as loud as it goes, hoping that I’d find something to drown out the other stuff. First song – Bohemian Rhapsody.

Great radio station, no?

Stay Close; Keep your Distance

This week’s Parsha opens with a prohibition against entering the Sanctum Sanctorum whenever one wishes, and recalls the death of Nadav and Avihu, who perished as a result of coming ‘too close’ to God. The Torah then describes the special Yom Kippur offerings. Following that is the prohibition of Shechutei Chutz, bringing sacrifices outside the precincts of the Temple, which the Torah explicitly compares to foreign worship, here called ‘zivchei se’irim’.

These two prohibitions are antipodal. The first prohibits unrestrained ‘closeness’, the second, too much distance. The first is rooted in an unchecked ahava, a love which bespeaks too much familiarity. Distance between man and God must be maintained. The second is similar to idolatry in that both relate to deities as awesome powers, to be revered but not loved. As gravity threatens to consume the Earth in the sun, and as inertia alone would send the Earth hurtling off into space, so, too must fear and love operate in lockstep. Each becomes most valuable in the presence of the other.

The passages in between describe two particular services on Yom Kippur which are the exceptions to each rule. The High Priest on Yom Kippur must perform a service inside the Sanctum Sanctorum itself. There’s also the service of the Se’ir La-Azazel, when a ‘scapegoat’ is hurled off of a desert cliff. This is the only sacrifice brought outside the Temple. Whether this sacrifice is merely done outside or is actually a sanctioned form of worship of a non-God (as Ramban states, and as is borne out by the connection between Shchutei Chutz and ‘zivchei se’irim) really makes little difference, as the two are conceptually linked.

What can this teach about Yom Kippur, the day upon which these prohibitions are prohibited? There are two conceptual possibilities: that Yom Kippur is a day of heightened balance, or that it’s a day of no balance. The first possibility means that the essential dangers of ‘too close’ or ‘too far’ remain, so permitting one mandates permitting the second to balance. Yom Kippur is thus a day when we allow ourselves extreme religious experiences, provided that they remain balanced. This approach would not, however, explain why an extreme but balanced religious approach would be prohibited at other times.

The second approach, adopted by R’ Zadok in Dover Tzedek, pp.98-99, suggests that on Yom Kippur, normal restraints are unchained. We allow ourselves to get close enough to be burnt, or far enough to become paralyzed, and in these circumstances it’s OK. ‘These circumstances’ – the ‘be-zot’ of the beginning of the Parsha – refer to a state of being, unique to Yom Kippur, when all self-consciousness dissolves into God’s pure, all-embracing Will. This state transcends the dissociation of good and evil, as in it, there is nothing but God. Thus, these two commandments are subsumed under the notion of Aveirah Lishmah – an act that within the paramount reality is a transgression, but within certain states of consciousness become essential. R’ Zadok spells this out, specifically with regard to the Se’ir Ha-Mishtalei’ach – the scapegoat – in paragraph #40 of Tzidkas Ha-Tzaddik.

R’ Zadok (in the Dover Tzedek piece) detects this theme of balance between love and fear in several episodes in TaNach, beginning with the story of Nadav and Avihu and finally achieving balance in the episode of Eliyahu at Mt. Carmel, where Eliyahu brings the people closer to God through the medium of Shchutei Chutz. Along the way, he discusses Pinchas as a character who is struggling to achieve balance. It’s a wonderful piece. Ve-acamo”l. I specifically wanted to bring his points on the beginning of the Parsha, since the textual structure (which R’ Zadok was not so concerned with) and his conceptualization of these mitzvoth dovetail so well.

5/02/2006

Rejoining Society: R' Shimon b. Yochai Part XI

Just a few days left until Lag B’Omer, the day upon which I began this series last year. My goal is to finish by then. After this one, there will be only 2 or 3 more installments.

[Continued from Intro, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX , X]

R. Phinchas b. Ya'ir his son-in-law heard and went out to meet him. He took him into the baths and massaged his flesh. Seeing the clefts in his body, he wept and the tears fell from his eyes, causing him to scream. 'Woe to me that I see you in such a state!' he cried out. 'Happy are you that you see me like this,' he retorted, 'for if you did not see me in such a state you would not find me so learned. For originally, when R. Simeon b. Yohai raised a difficulty, R. Phinehas b. Ya'ir would give him thirteen answers, whereas subsequently when R. Phinehas b. Ya'ir raised a difficulty, R. Simeon b. Yohai would give him twenty-four answers.
R’ Shimon, in his withdrawal from humanity, had lived ascetically, neglecting his body and allowing it to wither. However, in order to reclaim a place in the social order, he must pay closer attention to the physical to prepare it to become a vehicle for the transcendent. In other words, he must live up to the duality (which is really no duality) of Shamor and Zakhor, described earlier. The place that R’ Shimon chooses to renew his focus upon the body is the very bath that he originally criticized for being a place where the body is glorified. No longer reactionary, he can appreciate and participate in this element of the prevailing culture, and, indeed, appropriate it for his own ends.

R’ Pinchas’s tears cause R’ Shimon pain. Earlier, R’ Shimon had related to pain as a form of weakness, stating that to buckle under the pressure of torture was weak-willed and womanly. Now, he is able to feel the pain of others, to empathize. His condition is painless for him; however, since it causes pain to others, he must sensitize himself to how others will perceive his own state. This is part of social life.

The paradox of full withdrawal and full engagement appears again. R’ Pinchas only sees the misfortune of the former. R’ Shimon points out that it was only through this withdrawal that he became able to engage, that he could be ‘found’, that he could articulate himself in a way that would be intelligible to those around him. In this model, the more self-aware and self-sufficient one is, the less threatened he is by a changing world. Adaptability is a function of self-security. The more abstract one’s apprehension of God’s will, the more easily one can apply it to a variety of circumstances. Thus R’ Shimon displays his Talmudic virtuosity.

But it’s not just about finding more solutions to a particular problem. Throughout this narrative, the number twelve has stood for a complete cycle. R’ Pinchas’s knowledge may have been thorough, but R’ Shimon’s surpasses it qualitatively. He no longer asks questions. His knowledge of Torah is not just complete; it’s whole. ‘Time’ and ‘Place’ become mere variables in the Torah’s infinite permutation.

Having experience this paradox whereby full withdrawal has facilitated full engagement, this ‘miracle’ of existing both inside and outside of time, of having both Zakhor and Shamor, he wishes to engage in public works, expressing the most sublime in the most concrete.

5/01/2006

On the Hegemony of the Shulchan Arukh


My recent post about the Mishna Berurah is part of the broader topic of the ‘acceptance’ of certain works at ‘authoritative’ and the effects it has on the community. I posted about the relationship between Canon and Heresy in an older post, which is part of this topic as well.

The last such work to achieve this status was the Shulchan Arukh, but I’d like to define some terms, list the other works on this very short list, and note the communal effects of each ‘canonization’.

The genre that we’re talking about is what I’d call the ‘normative curriculum’. There’s no single work which is authoritative per se, in that it is always followed to the letter. However, certain works have become the central text (oral or written) for the study of Jewish Law. Even when the central text is not followed, the text is studied and normative practice noted to be in conflict with the text.

The first work to become a normative Jewish curriculum was – the Torah. Obviously, right? Well, not necessarily. It didn’t gain that status until the time of Ezra. Whatever you want to say about the text of the Torah during the time of the First Temple, it was not, in the minds of the people, the source for the answer to the question, “How should I live my life?” Thinkers like R’ Tzadok of Lublin to R’ David Weiss-Halivni have written about this, but really it’s rooting in Midrashim about Ezra and, in my opinion, from a simple but careful reading of the books of Ezra and Nechemiah. Ezra’s community, which was of historical necessity VERY exclusive, was constituted by ratifying the Torah as their law. Pshuto Ke-mashma’o, it was their constitution. This group became known as The Judeans who returned to Zion, which ultimately became ‘The Judeans’ or ‘The Jews’. Those not included in this community, basically, are known as goyim.

Of course, that’s a bit oversimplified. There were groups not in Ezra’s community who did have some version of the Torah. The real schism with that group, though, revolved around the second set of texts to be included in the normative curriculum – the Nevi’im. While not legal works, they contain a heckuva lot of stuff which refines the values and principles of the Torah (for example, that when the Torah talks about ‘the place that God will choose’, it means Jerusalem). There were groups, notably the Samaritans, who didn’t buy it.

The third set of texts was finally closed at around the time of the destruction of the 2nd Temple. There was a whole host of works that were included by this faction or that (Saducees, Dead Sea Sect, Egyptian community, etc.), so that there remains an entire set of texts, the Apocrypha or Sefarim Chitzonim which, though included in the canon of some communities, didn’t make it into the canon of the Pharisee or Rabbinite canon, which became the normative Jewish one.

Since the canonization of Tana”ch, there have been only TWO works which have gained the acceptance, as a normative curriculum by the mainstream Jewish world. They are:
The Babylonian Talmud and the Shulchan Arukh. That’s it.

The main accomplishment of the Geonic Era was in making the Bavli the single source for all of Rabbinic Judaism. It was not without a struggle. Some, like the communities in Eretz Yisrael, had their own traditions and customs, and also felt that they should remain the seat of Jewish law. Others, like the group that became known as the Karaites, reacted against the entire notion of a legally binding Rabbinic law. The community which accepted the Bavli, however, became the bearer of  name and continuation of the historical entity called Judaism.

No work of the Rishonim ever gained widespread acceptance to the degree that it became THE curriculum for all of Israel. At the close of that period, with the twin publications of Beit Yosef and Shulchan Arukh, summarizing and deciding the works of the Rishonim, such a work finally arrived. A combination of factors – immediate distribution, quality of work, inclusion, within a few years, of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi custom, the sense of distance from the time of the Rishonim – contributed to the SA becoming the standard text for the study of Halakha. There were opponents of this as well; Maharshal and Levush felt that the Bavli should remain the source of the study of Halakha. It can even be argued that Chasidism is a rebellion against the rigidity and dryness of the lifestyle described in the SA. Either way, it never led to the type of splintering that accompanied each prior ‘canonization’.

So, will MB achieve this status? Is that what it means that ‘the MB is the last link in the shalsheles of Halakha? Hell, no. There are too many communities that didn’t accept it (like, for example, the entire Sephardic world). Much as ppl. say it is, it’s not, nor should it be. The list of times it DID happen that the community designated a book as its normative curriculum is very, very short (I count 5 times), and I don’t see us anywhere close to a 6th.