6/30/2006

Spinning Edah’s Demise

As is now well-known, Edah is closing up shop. The question is, why? I’ve heard, read, and thought up a number of possible and/or partial reasons. They are listed in ascending order of cogency:

  • Samuel Heilman, quoted in the article linked above, thinks that it’s another symptom of the haredization of American Orthodoxy. What a shocker. When you’ve got a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.

  • Discrediting of persons associated with the organization for various reasons, like R’ Berman’s ties to Marc Gafni or the publication of Yitz Greenberg’s new book, which further marginalizes him as a serious Orthodox thinker.

  • R’ Berman himself (in the JW article linked above) alluded to the fact that basically, Edah’s voice is no longer as unique as it once was (which is pretty much the opposite of what Heilman says). Like B’nei Akiva in North America, or, le-havdil, the Communist Party Leadership, Edah’s greatest success would mean that they cease to be necessary.

  • Edah’s goal was to be completely lay-driven. Ultimately, that just can’t work within Orthodoxy. After a while, it will dawn on people that laypeople need Rabbis, just as much as Rabbis need laypeople. As much as folks would like to ignore either side of that truth, it remains true. See my reading of the relationship between Yannai Malka and Shimon Ben Shetach (still one of my favorite posts) and also my very first post.

  • Similar to what R’ Berman contends, Edah, which was founded as a reaction to the perception that YU was neglecting its role as Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship, would naturally be superseded in its efforts by an internal transformation within YU. With Mr. Joel ascendancy to the Presidency and the creation of the Center for the Jewish Future, the perception that YU is reasserting its role has cost Edah much of its original momentum. The CJF has already absorbed the Orthodox Caucus, and it seems to now have stolen Edah’s thunder. YCT should sleep with one eye open.

  • Edah was not a well-run organization. Their conferences were becoming less and less well-attended. Their website and its digital audio and reading material has become a smaller and small proportion of online Torah resources, and their journal is, well, just another journal of Jewish thought. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and Edah simply didn’t stay ahead of the curve.

6/27/2006

Naming Our Children, Part III

Part I, II

Rephael Amichai (Raphi) is named for my wife's maternal grandfather, whose name was Rephael Reuven. We added the name Amichai to resolve a certain ambiguity which exists in the name ‘Rephael’.

The Hebrew root r-p-a can mean ‘to cure’ or ‘to heal’, and there’s a big difference between the two. Curing is a biological process. It means preventing, reducing, or eradicating illness and disease. We relate to this aspect of ‘Refu’ah’ in the bracha of Asher Yatzar, which thanks God that all of our internal systems, our orifices and cavities, function properly, and which concludes ‘Who cures all flesh and does wondrous things’. This bracha, recited upon exiting the bathroom, is universal in its scope and message, but it is not the aspect of ‘refu’ah’ that we wished to emphasize with Raphi’s name.

The thrice-daily amidah contains a bracha for refu’ah as well. Here, there’s a sense of ‘healing’, an existential state of wholeness. It appears in context of a series of brachot that include repentance, atonement, and redemption. The phrases of the bracha are rooted in Yirmiyahu 17:13-14, where the cry ‘Refa’eini!’ comes in the wake of seeing God as the 'Mekor Mayim Chayim - Fount of Living Waters, and is followed by a call for salvation. The Psalm (6:2-11) that we recite as Tachanun describes an existential unhealed and unredeemed state and begs God for healing. This broader sense of healing - which includes the general sense of 'cure' - characterizes the special relationship between God and the Jewish people; thus, the bracha concludes with 'rofei cholei amo Yisrael ' and, according to the Talmud (Megillah 17b) is the eighth bracha of the amida in order to signify a connection to Brit Milah - the ultimate Jewish symbol of covenant and mission (for a full treatment of the structure and theme of this bracha, see the essay of Mori Ve-Rabbi R’ Ezra Bick, which can be found here. IMHO, this is the best stuff on tefillah that can be found in the English language. Period).
The name Amichai, which means ‘my living nation’ reflected, for us, the sense of a dynamic, living relationship between the Jewish people and God, and evokes the latter meaning of Refu’ah by relating specifically to that aspect which is unique to our people, and which is reflected in the 8th bracha of the Amidah. Thus, the name as a whole means “God heal my living nation”, which reflects our hopes and prayers.

The name Amichai also evokes the second chapter of Hoshea, which was also the source for Ruchama’s name. There (verse 1) we find a transition whereby Israel, is called ‘B’nei El Chai - Sons of the Living God’ instead of ‘Lo-Ami - You-are-not-my-nation’ (I would highly recommend a basic reading of the first two chapters of Hoshea in order to appreciate the story and its transitions). As a final twist, which really sealed the deal for us, the verse 3 of that same chapter states, “call your brothers 'Ami- My Nation' and your sisters 'Ruchama - shown compassion'", which explicitly connects the names of our two oldest children, brother and sister.

6/26/2006

Bringing Korach Back Up

I’ve got two old posts on Korach, here and here. If you haven’t read them yet, enjoy.

I also recently came up with a new insight into the relationship between Korach and his most famous descendant, Shmuel ha-Navi. In many ways, Chana and Shmuel are the correction of Korach’s flaws (the Yerushalmi even says that Korach ‘continued to fall’ until Chana’s prayer). As I wrote before (in two installments), Chana, through Shmuel, was able to challenge and ultimately replace a problematic leadership structure not by direct confrontation, but by silent protest and infiltration, ve-acamo”l. It dawned on me that Shmuel certainly did inherit Korach’s rebellious streak or anti-establishmentarianism, but manifested it in a completely positive manner.

Choosing Names, Part II

Our oldest child, Ruchama Bat-Zion, was born on January 7, 2001, in Jerusalem’s Hadassah-Scopus hospital. About an hour after her birth, she was taken into surgery to repair a large omphalocoele, remained in the NICU for 3 months, and has had numerous surgeries, hospitalizations, therapies, you name it, ever since.

Fortunately for her, and for us, the condition was diagnosed in utero during the mid-term ultrasound (the halakhic ramifications of which I discussed here), which took place in mid-September 2000. We spend the intervening months preparing for the arrival of our child with a mix of excitement and fear, finding the best doctors, learning all we could about the condition and how to care for it, and praying for the life of this unborn child.

Two weeks after the diagnosis, on Rosh Hashanah 5761, the current situation erupted throughout Israel, with riots, lynching, suicide attacks, rock-throwing, etc. Our personal struggles thus were set against the backdrop of a national struggle, and our baby’s fight for her life was in lockstep with the nation’s fight for its.

It’s difficult, almost six years removed from the events, to remember the emotional roller coaster of those months, and I suppose that I’m thankful that I can’t recall them. I can’t now imagine living under that stress. In truth, the real stress started mostly after she came home. During the pregnancy, our attitude was more of a silent (we told very few people about what was happening) preparation, a calm before the storm.

When thinking about names, Ruchama resonated very strongly. The prophet Hoshe’a (chapters 1 and 2) has a daughter who he is commanded to name “Lo Ruchama” – “she will not be shown compassion” – who personifies the estrangement between God and Israel. Over the course of those chapters, there is a transformation, and this girl, who was originally not the object of compassion, becomes “Ruchama”, she who is shown compassion. We knew that for our baby to survive, she would have to be shown a lot of compassion.

Bat-Zion is a personification of the city of Jerusalem which appears many times in Tanach, particularly Nevi’im Acharonim, and especially Trei Asar, and in Tehillim. It also appears in a particularly stirring line from the poem entitled ‘Be-Motza’ei Yom Menucha’:
Bat-Zion Ha-shchulah asher hi ha-yom ge’ulah meheira tihye be’ulah be-eim ha-banim semeichah.


I won’t translate that line because I feel inadequate to the task, but it describes a transformation within ‘Bat-Zion’ herself, from being repulsive to being loved. This name connects our personal struggles to our national struggles. We didn’t want to get so preoccupied in our own situation that we neglected the broader situation of Klal Yisrael. So we chose that second name – on the night after she was born – to reflect that continuity of struggle and prayer. Thus, the two names fit together as a prayerful statement: The Daughter of Zion will be shown compassion. Ruchama Bat-Zion.

Next: Our second child Rephael Amichai

6/25/2006

Explaining Jewish Customs

Today, at Zechariah Yehuda’s brit milah, my wife was complaining to a friend of ours, also a Rabbi, that it took a long time to find an outfit that fits well. The friend made reference to a minhag that the mother would wear her wedding dress for her son’s brit. This elicited the following responses, each of which is pretty characteristic of our thinking:

  • My wife: That’s a cruel joke. Who can fit into her wedding dress a year after the wedding, let alone a week after giving birth?

  • Our friend: Women probably only had one nice dress, so, yeah, they wore it to their own weddings and britot.

  • Me: This is a recipe for an Oedipus complex.

[Upon further reflection, there might be an inclination to explain it in terms of the very bizarre story of Ziporah circumcising her son and exclaiming “You are a bridegroom of blood to me”. But then why would one want to re-enact that episode?]

6/23/2006

Naming Our Children: Part I

Very soon, IY”H, we will be naming our third child, whose brit milah, if all continues to go well, will be this coming Sunday AM (email me – adderabbi-at-gmail-dot-com -  to request further details and/or directions). With our older two children, we didn’t settle on a name until the night before the naming, and I suspect that something similar will happen this time as well.

Selecting a name is never easy; there are so many variables that go into finding the name that when you look at your child and say the name, you immediately think, “Yes! That’s it!” Every parent has different sensibilities and sensitivities as to what constitutes the right name, but I’d like to share the process through which we named our oldest two children and next week, IY”H, the third.

My wife and I both know TaNach pretty well, and have a preference for names that originate in TaNaCh, even if they are not names of actual people. TaNach is full of personifications of nations and cities, nicknames of people unborn, and names of people who inhabit prophetic visions but not necessarily the real world. Given the literary context and power of those names, we gravitated toward them.

Although we have relatives to name after, we won’t use a name that we don’t like, and are not averse to using part of a relative’s name and adding something of our own. The situation of the child, our personal thoughts and feelings, time of year, and momentous events affecting Klal Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael, or the whole world will all be incorporated into the decision.

Finally, though we are not opposed to double or triple names, we feel that the names, when concatenated, should make sense, and even be inspiring or prayerful.

Popular belief maintains that parents, when naming a child, are granted ‘Ru’ach Ha-Kodesh’ – some sort of Divine inspiration – to make sure that the child receives a name that is appropriate for his or her neshama. I think it’s true that there’s an ineffable intuition that parents will often experience when selecting a name, and that choosing a name is not the product of a decision process, but a discovery process. You need to get your finger on your own pulse before settling on a name. Like so much else, it’s not an automatic process; the degree to which you tap into your kishkes will affect the authentic feeling of the name.

Next Post: How we chose the name Ruchama Bat-Zion for our daughter.

6/20/2006

The Pros and Cons of Pseudonymity

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about revealing my identity to my readers. Granted, many of you already know it, and I haven’t exactly been super-secretive about it, but I’ve been somewhat reluctant. Being a Rabbi, I often must play my cards close to my chest. On my blog, I can be far more open, though, in some cases I’m more open in real life than I am on my blog (for example, I’m much more likely to speak leshon ho-ra in real life than on a blog). Using a pseudonym allows me to keep my professional career separate from my blog, despite the significant overlap in the audience and content of the two.

Moreover, pseudonymity lends a certain measure of objectivity to my readers’ reactions. The Torah I post will not be evaluated based on my reputation, for better or worse, nor will people like or dislike what I write based on whether or not they like me personally. Commenters have the luxury of being brutally candid with their opinions. If a D’var Torah of mine stinks, then someone will let me know, and I won’t take it personally. I simply don’t have either of those luxuries in real life.

On the other hand, remaining ‘hidden’ always entails a sacrifice of credibility. I’m not putting anything on the line. Why should anyone believe me or take me seriously if I’m not willing to stake my reputation to my words? It’s not that every anonymous blogger is a liar or slanderer, rather, that most lying and slandering bloggers are anonymous (or pseudonymous).

Furthermore, in the 17 months that I’ve been blogging, I have developed a reputation that may well outstrip my reputation in real life. I’m probably one of the better-known blogging Rabbis out there, but I’m not a well-known Rabbi. Given that I’m vacating my current position to make Aliyah in 2 months, and that I haven’t found a job in Israel yet, raising my real-life profile might not be such a bad idea. Nobody’s going to offer a job to a pseudonym.

Finally, there’s an element of discomfort with this charade. I must make sure that nobody ‘outs’ me; I must change or omit details so that I don’t compromise my identity. I can’t post about things going on in my life, for fear that they may be easily correlated to readily-available information.

Ultimately, I decided to dispense with the charade, at least partially. I still don’t want this blog to come up in Google searches of my real name, so, instead, I will link to another page which does disclose my real identity.

Now that I’ve resolved this, I can announce to my readership the birth of our third kid, this past Motza”sh just before midnight. The little guy is sleeping in a car-seat right by my feet as I type these words. Please respect my request to keep my real name and pseudonym from appearing on the same site.

6/18/2006

More on Beha'alotecha

[UPDATE: I just saw this, thanks to a tip from Steg, and I honestly had not seen it before posting this. That's 2 weeks in a row that I'm thinking along the same lines as R' Samet. I'll have to go meet the guy when I make aliyah. Funny, I never bothered to go hear him during my years at Gush.]

Just a few additional points about what I posted on Beha'alotecha:

On the post 'Milk and Manna':

  • When Moshe complains to God about his inability to carry on as leader, he asks rhetorically (Bamidbar 11:12-13), "Did I conceive this whole nation? Did I give birth to it,
    that You have said to me, 'Carry them in your bosom' like a nursemaid carries a suckling, to the land that You promised to their forefathers? From where do I have meat to give this whole nation that is crying to me, saying, 'Give us meat that we may eat'? Moshe's complaint - really a dual complaint - is that the burden of leadership is no longer akin to that of a nursemaid. The infant has outgrown the milk and wants to address its appetite for meat.
  • This fits really nicely into the framework of the entire chapter. I had occasion over Shabbat to read R' Elchanan Samet's essay on the parsha in his book (the essay is available here in English, and is brilliant; he is one of the best answers to Bible critics). In a comment, Hayim points us to an essay by R' Matis Weinberg which makes a similar connection, but I haven't had the chance to read it yet. It seems that Josh, after his initial critique, finally came around. I'm glad, too. I don't enjoy being labelled a mere homilaticist :-)

Regarding Odot Ha-Isha Ha-Kushit:

  • I should mention that in the anecdote that I wrote, the three women were explained the meaning of the term 'below the salt' as the salt was placed between the children and themselves. It was not mere coincidence.
  • The same insight that I saw on Steg's blog I saw again in an essay by R' Elchanan Samet. I never really got a chance to read his stuff before this weekend. Man, is he good.

6/16/2006

Remember Them, Too

David, Dr. Jeff, and Menachem remind us that today, the 20th of Sivan, was observed as a day of fasting and mourning in Europe for many centuries.

More recently (24 years ago), it was the date of the Battle of Sultan Yaqoub in Lebanon, during which three Israeli yeshiva student/soldiers were captured. There fates are still unknown. Perhaps those who still say selichot today can add this one. The tragedy of the 20th of Sivan lives on.

כה אמר יהוה, קול ברמה נשמע נהי בכי תמרורים--רחל, מבכה על-בניה; מאנה להנחם על-בניה, כי איננו. כה אמר יהוה, מנעי קולך מבכי, ועיניך, מדמעה: כי יש שכר לפעלתך נאם-יהוה, ושבו מארץ אויב. ויש-תקוה לאחריתך, נאם-יהוה; ושבו בנים, לגבולם
Thus saith the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuseth to be comforted for her children, because they are not. Thus saith the LORD: Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears; for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the LORD; and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for thy future, saith the LORD; and thy children shall return to their own border
-Jeremiah 31:14-16

Susan Zakar's Book

David Zakar reminds us that his mother’s conversion story was published as a book. This was mentioned in the JA article that I mentioned yesterday. Here’s a link to the book, called Judaism Online.

Odot Ha-Isha Ha-Kushit

This is a brilliant insight. It reminded me of an unfortunate incident that happened on the last days of Pesach with an African-American woman that my wife and I have been helping to prepare for giyur, and her already-meguyeret sister.

A friend of theirs made arrangements for the three of them to spend the last days of Pesach at the home of a family in a large frum community. It so happens that racism, particularly toward blacks, is epidemic in this community. The friend who made the arrangements, herself a ba'alat teshuvah, did not think, in her naivete, that the skin color of her two friends would be an issue. It didn't even occur to her to mention it. She simply asked if she could come for Yom Tov with two friends, one a giyoret, and the other, her sister, well on her way.

The way these three women were treated served as a very rude awakening for the ba'alat teshuvah, but the sisters took it in stride. They were basically treated as second-class citizens, seated at the end of the table, below the children. They were even explicitly told that they had been seated 'below the salt'.

Had I not grown up in such a community, I would have felt, like their friend felt, shocked and outraged. Instead, having spent years trying to get that native bigotry out, I am simply ashamed.

Though there are other explanations for Miriam's sin in our Parsha, this lesson remains one that we can stand to learn a few more times.

6/15/2006

Giyur Stories

I just received the Summer 2006 edition of Jewish Action, which profiles stories of five gerei tzedek (which should be available online soon). It would seem that this was intended long before the current situation became big. In any event, the stories are interesting and often inspiring.

These articles are a part of a growing corpus of people chronicling their journeys to Judaism, many of whom use blogs to tell past and ongoing experiences – Naphtoli, Malka Esther, David (who actually makes a very funny cameo appearance in one of the JA stories), MissShona, and Ger Tzadik are but a few who have given glimpses of the process.

It’s also encouraging that many gerim are willing to speak more and more openly about prejudices that they faced before, during, and after their giyur. There’s a relatively recent book called Strangers No More by Shlomo ben Avraham Brunell, a Finnish former Lutheran minister, which candidly describes the encounters that he and his family had with the Rabbanut. He draws a delicate balance between trying to understand why the Rabbanut must operate in a particular way and feeling rebuffed and estranged by those encounters. The book is a bit preachy, but, well, the author was a preacher.

I’ll share another story – not for its inspirational value – that’s actually related to this week’s parsha (in chu”l), and is not very inspiring at all.

I’d also like to share an email that I received a few weeks ago from the apartment-mate of a woman that my wife and I have been working with, and who will iy”h be megayeret this summer. Several proper names have been changed:

This is Plonit Almonit, Sarah’s roommate.  I wanted to just tell you about an experience Sarah had this morning, as I'm sure she's too modest to tell you about it herself.
I teach 4th grade at B'nai Israel Hebrew School, and I invited Sarah to come speak to my class this morning about her conversion process.  Well, as soon as the other teachers heard about it and met her, they begged us to let their classes come and hear her speak.  So five classes, from 4th grade to 7th grade (approximately 35 students, most kids were absent because of Mothers' Day), came to my classroom, and for 45 minutes the kids asked Sarah question after question about her conversion.
Not only were the kids completely engaged by and interested in Sarah's story, but the other teachers were asking questions as well.  And the only reason the session ended was because we ran out of time-- otherwise, there's no doubt the discussion could have continued for an hour. 
When we ended, I asked the students why they thought I brought Sarah in, and what kinds of things we can learn as Jews from someone like her and the things she shared with us.  Their answers were wonderful-- they said things such as, if a non-Jew can appreciate Judaism so much, we should feel lucky to be able to come to Hebrew school and learn...We should feel proud that we were born into Judaism and not take it for granted...etc. etc. 
It was an amazing morning for everyone.  Sarah was able to reach these kids on a level that sometimes their teachers cannot.  She showed them that being Jewish is a struggle, but a struggle well worth it, one in which we should take pride.  She showed them that our struggles to keep Hashem's mitzvot should not burden us, that they instead set us apart and make us special as Jews.  She showed them that being Jewish and becoming more religious is an ongoing process, and that no one can do everything at once, but can only take steps in the right direction at their own pace.  For these kids--kids who feel that the only reason they come to Hebrew school is because their parents force them to--to hear a perspective on Judaism, one that is so passionate and full of belief, coming from someone who was not even born a Jew, was an experience I know they will never forget.  And Sarah answered every question with genuine conviction.  She was great.
Anyway I just wanted to let you know about this since I know how close you are with Sarah, and since it was with your help  that she's been able to get this far. 

6/13/2006

Milk and Manna

In a fit of ingratitude, a bunch of rabble began to complain that they missed Egyptian watermelon. They were sick of man. The Parsha [Bemidbar 11:5 - read in Israel this past Shabbat, but will be read in chu”l this Shabbat] lists a bunch of foods that were apparently unavailable in the desert.

Rashi is bothered by the following question: If the manna could assume the taste of anything, why couldn’t it assume these tastes? Rashi answers that these tastes were tough on nursing mothers and their babies. He quotes the Sifrei to bring a parable to a king that wouldn’t let his son eat unhealthy foods, even though it caused the son to get angry at his father.

Needless to say, at first glance Rashi’s answer has some pretty gaping holes. To wit, the manna didn’t become whatever one wanted it to become; it merely tasted like it. So even if nursing mothers shouldn’t eat watermelon, what’s the big deal if something tastes like watermelon? Furthermore, the examples of onion and garlic are familiar, but fish? Cucumbers? Melons? And finally, why shouldn’t men or non-nursing mothers not taste a bit of eggplant? Why should we all suffer on their count?

I think that the answer lies in the very connection of manna to mother’s milk. I’ve written several times before that the Israelites, collectively, went through stages of maturity. Different events along the way correspond, on a mythic plane, to stages of human development from birth through adulthood, and our collective relationship with God parallels that development. For example, the splitting of the sea is a birthing myth – the passage from a state of absorption within a larger entity to a state of independent identity, and the story itself incorporates elements of a birthing narrative.

The state of infancy is characterized by complete selfishness on the part of the baby, and complete dependence upon the mother for nourishment. This state more than adequately applies to the Israelites in the desert. The manna, therefore, was itself akin to the ‘breast milk’ that nourished us in our infancy, and became the paradigm for direct nourishment from God, the inspiration for the first paragraph of Birkat Ha-Mazon, which blesses God for sustaining all life (cf. Brachot 48b).

Breast milk has the amazing property that it tastes like whatever the mother had eaten. Perhaps Rashi’s answer, then, means that the Israelites were not the mother, but the child. The manna couldn’t taste like any of those foods because no mother would eat those foods when nursing her child. The Israelites couldn’t taste anything that they couldn’t have tasted in mother’s milk!

Spinning the RCA-Rabbanut Agreement

Haaretz reports on the RCA-Rabbanut agreement. In it, Seth Farber says what’s on the opposite side of the coin: that according to the text of the agreement, there’s nothing to say that the Rabbanut won’t ultimately decide to make every single American conversion an ‘exception’ to the rule. As such, it “does not provide a complete response”. But as I pointed out, and as RBF told me before he even left for Israel (so saying that it’s merely an attempt to put a positive spin on a bad deal won’t wash), the goal was to get the two organizations talking. As such, it was a success. The joint commission will be convened, and in three months we’ll see how this shakes out. In the mean time, every RCA conversion reviewed by the Rabbanut – even if accepted – will be scrutinized.

Shmarya goes after the RCA with both barrels blazing. I think that there’s definitely room to criticize the way that the RCA has handled this from the beginning, but to suggest that their delegation to Israel failed and that all we have is a poor attempt to put a positive spin on it simply isn’t true. Whereas earlier, the Rabbanut had stopped accepting RCA conversions pretty much altogether, they are now assuming them to be OK as they had always been, until the joint committee gives its report. It’s a bit convoluted, but they’re trying to figure out if they should accept past conversions in the future (for the lomdishly inclined, it’s a mi-kan u-lehabo lemafrei’a). Personally, I think that the RCA will compile some sort of list, make better use of their semi-abortive regional scheme, and give the Rabbanut a ceremonial veto power over conversions they certify.

Finally, I really can’t stress enough that any agreement that is reached – and the RCA seems to have gone to great lengths to preserve this – must give a degree of trust to local Rabbis. It’s the ones on location alone who are truly in position to judge the sincerity of potential gerim – and so it should be, according to Rambam, Beit Yosef, Shach, etc. “Ha-kol le-fi re’ot einei ha-Beit Din” is Halakha Psukah.

There are places – Toronto, for example – where the giyur standards are objective and well beyond anything mandated by halakha psukah. They administer a 500-question test which includes need-to-know topics like demai. The impulse is to guarantee sincerity by imposing a draconian process. Never mind that there is no guarantee of sincerity, for any court. It’s a process that simply can’t address the infinite human nuance that comes into play in these situations. It’s devoid of sensitivity and compassion. What would they say about children of mixed marriages? Adopted children? Bnei Anusim, Falash-mura, Russians, Bene-Menashe and the other tribes of doubtful or dubious Jewish lineage, whom we can neither shun nor embrace without some type of giyur? Tell them to stay away from Toronto?

At the end of the day, there’s no substitute for good, old-fashioned Rabbinic intuition and sensitivity to the situation of the prospective ger. Unfortunately, that’s a very difficult attribute to quantify – it’s much easier to grade a test – and tends to get crushed by the wheels of bureaucracy, potentially along with thousands of gerei tzedek. Kudos to Rabbis Freundel and Billet for making sure that the framework of the agreement will trust Rabbis, not Standards.

New Feature

I’ve begun using category labels. My choice of labels is decidedly unscientific, and I’m open to new suggestions. The list is in the sidebar. Clicking on any category will open an aggregation of every post in the category. Enjoy!

6/12/2006

On the Agreement between the RCA and the Rabbanut

Before looking at the agreement itself, take a look at jpost’s article on it (Hat Tip: Shmarya). The original document, posted here last week, is more informative and not much longer than the jpost article.

Also, I feel for Benjy Balint. His article appeared in the WSJ just as the agreement was released (Hat Tips: Larry and BOTH). The beginning of a resolution to the conversion issue doesn’t really undermine his central contention, though it certainly weakens it. I thought his quotation from A. B. Yehoshua, that Diaspora Jews are “just playing at Jewishness”, wasn’t as dismissive of the Golah as it seems, nor was it terribly original. Nachmanides said the same thing.

Regarding the agreement, it’s significant on several levels. Most importantly, it means that the RCA and the Rabbanut are entering into a direct relationship with each other. Even if they don’t see eye-to-eye on all issues, the Rabbanut understands that the RCA is the address for issues pertaining to American Orthodoxy (i.e., not EJF or anyone else). This was despite several attempts by various kannoim, including RNE, to undermine the credibility of the RCA through a variety of means, several of which would be considered underhanded (for example, calling the fact that RBF’s shul has a Women’s Prayer Group to the attention of the Rabbanut).

Additionally, the agreement was signed by 4 people: Rabbis Krispel and Wiener from the Rabbanut (I don’t know a thing about the latter) and Rabbis Heshy Billet and Barry Freundel representing the RCA (they were the only 2 delegates that the RCA sent). Rabbi Krispel, you will recall, is R’ Amar’s secretary who was responsible for certifying overseas conversions who lacked a real knowledge of the American Orthodox landscape. This made him fertile ground for the disinformation campaigns of groggers like RNE. This agreement means that the RCA is recognized by the bureaucracy itself, which is where this whole mess started in the first place.

There were some nerves on the part of Rabbi Freundel (with whom I spoke last week after the agreement was signed) that theoretically the Rabbanut could still disqualify many conversions on an ad hoc basis, but the hope was that the Rabbanut’s right to do that would be seldom exercised. As he put it, the main goal of the trip was to enter directly into a relationship with the Rabbanut. Mission accomplished.

Some might say that this is a ‘loss’ because it means that the RCA basically has bought into the Rabbanut’s desire for universal standards. That can be countered in 2 ways:
  1. the RCA will be submitting a list of Rabbis, not a standard; those on the list are deemed trustworthy and we don’t have to look over their shoulders

  2. essentially, that was always the RCA’s policy. R’ G.D. Schwartz didn’t certify every giyur that crossed his desk. There are those who would have us believe that R’ Schwartz took a stance of “ka-zeh re’eh ve-kadesh”, but it’s simply untrue.

A more difficult situation, alluded to in recent comments, pertains to the ‘out-of-town’ communities. Will every one be on the list, or will there simply be no giyur there?

My answer is that officially no, but really yes. In theory, the RCA set up – a long time ago – a system of ‘regional’ recognized authorities. These regional authorities can – and do – ‘deputize’ other trustworthy local Rabbonim with gerut. I’ve had three constituents who converted during my tenure, and in all the Av Beit Din for the giyur trusted me that they are ready. The Av Beit Din himself, when one of these gerim asked for RCA certification, obtained it through the regional authority’s recommendation to R’ G.D. Schwartz. Thus, though I, unrecognized by the RCA or Rabbanut, prepared this ger for conversion and served on the Beit Din, it was ultimately recognized because of trusting relationships that we build. This particular ger happens to be making Aliyah in the near future, so that ishur will hopefully come in handy. I think that a similar procedure will be developed by and for other way-out-of-town Rabbis.

The selection of 9/11 to be the day that the joint committee reports its findings is completely coincidental. The choice of 18 Elul was not coincidental.

6/08/2006

RCA AND RABBANUT REACH AGREEMENT ON CONVERSIONS

Statement by the Rabbinical Council of America regarding its Agreement with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel on the Subject of Rabbanut Recognition in Israel of RCA Conversions

June 8th 2006
12 Sivan 5766

The Rabbinical Council of America and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel this week arrived at a most auspicious agreement with regard to matters of personal status of those coming from North America to the State of Israel., including the current and future recognition of conversions that have been or will be authorized by the Rabbinical Council of America and its affiliated Beth Din of America.

At the meeting, held in Jerusalem and attended by official representatives of both groups, a number of reciprocal understandings and agreements were reached, that taken together reaffirm the historical partnership between these two leading rabbinic institutions.

Specifically:

Establishment of a Joint Commission on Personal Status

1. In continuation of their multifaceted existing partnership, they agreed to immediately establish a Joint Commission to examine, in light of the halachah, current standards and procedures in the realm of conversion and personal status, with a view to expanding the cooperation and partnership between the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Council of America in those areas, to achieve clarity and consistency wherever possible. The commission will complete its work and submit its recommendations to the respective organizations by the 18th of Elul 5766, i.e. 11th September 2006.

2. So as to facilitate proper recognition of individual status in Israel by the Chief Rabbinate, it was agreed that the Joint Commission will, inter alia, prepare lists of approved Batei Din and rabbis in North America dealing with personal status matters. From time to time, however, the composition of the lists will be appropriately reviewed, in light of new realities and circumstances. In the future, any rabbi who wants to be involved in personal status matters that he wishes to have recognized in Israel, will need to comply with the standards thus agreed to by the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Council of America.

3. In the interim, and until the recommendations of the Joint Commission will have been accepted, if there will arise specific questions regarding particular conversions, the Chief Rabbinate will investigate them together with representatives of the Rabbinical Council of America. Only after such an investigation, will the Chief Rabbinate formulate its decision in those cases.

The Status of Past and Shortly Upcoming Authorized Conversions

1. It was also agreed that all conversions, authorized from the Rabbinical Council of America in the past, and as such, previously accepted by the Chief Rabbinate, will continue to be recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.

2. Until the recommendations of the Joint Commission will be accepted and put in place, all conversions currently under way or shortly upcoming, that will have been authorized by the Rabbinical Council of America will be similarly recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.

Finally, and more generally, the Chief Rabbinate and the Rabbinical Council of America agreed to develop a variety of improved modalities of cooperation and communication between them, in the interests of the betterment of Jewish life in the State of Israel and Jewish communities throughout North America.

6/07/2006

Shu"t Ha-ADDeRabbi

The following is an actual question that I received via an ‘Ask the Rabbi’ feature on my community’s website. It was a total random – someone I never even heard of before. I found it interesting enough to reproduce here. The challenge was to address the real concerns of this person who obviously espouses a lifestyle that is foreign to me and values that are very different from my own. Names have been changed:

Dear Rabbi,
I am not sure if this is the correct forum for this, but I need some assistance. I have recently been lead astray from my girlfriend of more than 5 years and am ashamed at what I have done. We are now in the situation where I have told her everything, but the details I have told her are very hard to handle. Despite this, I am doing everything I can to try and earn her trust back, slowly and hopefully surely. I don't know if you deal with situations like this or if you have any advice or resources that might be able to assist, but any help you can provide would be very much appreciated. Thank you very much for your help in advance.


Hi John,

Let me start off by saying that the fact that you are looking for guidance in this circumstance is very commendable. Oftentimes, people tend to brush this kind of thing off by calling it a ‘casual’ encounter. That you and your girlfriend take it seriously is, in my opinion, a healthy sign.

There’s no magic formula that a Rabbi or anyone else can utter to dissolve the tension or erase the past. You sense that you have committed a crime or sin against your girlfriend; it is she who you must appease. Like you indicated, it will take time for her to work through her emotions – jealousy, rage, guilt, grief, and feelings of inadequacy will all run through her mind – and you need to respect and understand that. If she feels insecure about letting you, say, stay late at work or having a business lunch with a female colleague – respect that. Remind her why you love her. Buy her a gift. Make her feel unique and cherished. If she’s needy, be there for her. If she needs space, give it to her.

You also might want to consider creating safeguards to prevent this from happening again. Sometimes, situations can take over and you end up doing things you regret. Oftentimes, the trick is to make sure you avoid those situations. You might want to ask your girlfriend to help you formulate those safeguards (depending on her mood; you don’t want to imprison yourself) so that she may start to trust you again.

I don’t know if this has been at all helpful, but in case it has, don’t hesitate to write back if there’s anything else on your mind.

Take care,

Shlomo

Maimonides on Genealogical Purity

בימי המלך המשיח, כשתתיישב מלכותו ויתקבצו אליו כל ישראל, יתייחסו כולם על פיו ברוח הקודש שתנוח עליו, שנאמר "וישב מצרף ומטהר . . ." (מלאכי ג,ג). ובני לוי מטהר תחילה, ואומר זה מיוחס כוהן וזה מיוחס לוי, ודוחה את שאינן מיוחסין לישראל: הרי הוא אומר "ויאמר התרשתא להם . . . עד עמוד כוהן, לאורים ולתומים" (עזרא ב,סג). הנה למדת שברוח הקודש מתייחסין המוחזקין, ומודיעין המיוחס. ואינו מייחס ישראל אלא לשבטיהם, שמודיע שזה משבט פלוני וזה משבט פלוני. אבל אינו אומר על שהן בחזקת כשרות, זה ממזר וזה עבד--שהדין הוא שמשפחה שנטמעה, נטמעה.
(רמב"ם הלכות מלכים ומלחמות יב:ו (ג-

In the days of the King Messiah, when his dominion is stabilized and all of Israel gathers to him, the genealogy of all will be established by his word, through the holy spirit (ru’ach ha-kodesh) that will rest upon him, as it says (Malachi 3:3) “and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier…”. The Levites will be purified first, and he will say “this one is a pedigreed Kohen, this one is a pedigreed Levite”, and he will drive all non-pedigrees into [the general category of] the Israelites. Behold, it says (Ezra 2:62-63) “[These sought their register, that is, the genealogy, but it was not found; therefore were they deemed polluted and put from the priesthood.] And the governor said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there stood up a priest with the Urim and Tumim.” Thus we learn that through the holy spirit the presumed will be pedigreed and the pedigreed will be identified. And he will only trace Israelites to their tribe; he will make known that this person is from Tribe X and that person is from Tribe Y. But he will not say about those who are presumed to be kosher, “This one is a bastard; that one is a slave”, since the Halakha is that a family that commingled, has commingled.

-Maimonides, Laws of Kings and Wars, 12:6(3)

[On the Topic of Rambam and his generally non-essentialist approach to personal and Jewish identity, see Greg’s excellent post. It also sheds new light on Rambam’s famous expansion of ‘the Tribe of Levi’ to include anyone who devotes themselves exclusively to Torah in Laws of Shemittah and Yovel 13:11(13). And see here, especially toward the end, and see also the paper by Menachem Kellner entitled "Philosophical Misogyny in Medieval Jewish Thought: Gersonides vs. Maimonides". (I don’t have the article; I heard it from him as a lecture).]

6/06/2006

A Miraculous Ordeal


Hirhurim addresses the question of whether the halakha ever takes the miraculous into consideration. Presumably, one could argue for the affirmative position based on the Sotah ordeal described in this week’s parsha (last week’s parsha if you’re among the fortunate who live in Israel). In it, a woman guilty of adultery would be miraculously disemboweled. Seems to be pretty solid proof that, at least in this one instance, halakha recognizes and relies upon the actual suspension of the natural order.

Nevertheless, I think that the laws of the sotah ordeal are engineered to work whether or not a miracle ever takes place. In other words, the belief that something would happen is far more important than it actually happening. Allow me to explain.

Sotah is a unique example of a procedure called ‘trial by ordeal’. It is unique in that it presumes that God will miraculously punish the guilty, whereas most others presumed that God would save the innocent. The Torah’s ordeal is much more compassionate, but only if we blunt our expectation of actual miracles. Dying from drinking water is no less miraculous than surviving a shot of, say, hemlock. But like the Rabbi who allocates tzedakah by throwing his cash heavenward and saying “God, just keep what You need!”, the Torah, by reversing the methods of the trial to place the burden of proving guilt on God, implicitly acknowledges that a miraculous ordeal might not be the best determinant of the truth.

Probing the circumstances under which the Sotah-ordeal takes place reinforces our thesis. A man suspects his wife of infidelity. However, he has no real evidence that she’s done anything, and might just be going on a whim; in the language of the Mishna, a little bird told him. Should he take her to court, his case would be thrown out but his jealousy would not be assuaged. He needs to know what happened.

The woman is then subjected to a terrifying and embarrassing procedure which is designed to get her to admit if she was unfaithful. If she confesses, then the husband’s fears are borne out, and they must divorce (and she forfeits the rights to her ketubah). The Talmud assumes that in nearly all cases, the unfaithful woman would confess before drinking the cursed water.

But let’s say she drinks. And let’s be hyper-rationalist and say that no miracles ever really took place, but that these superstitious folks believed that one would if she was truly guilty. So she drinks and survives. Her husband now believes that she’s been faithful (even if she really wasn’t), and they can live happily ever after. Thus, the ordeal itself will always yield a peaceable outcome even if it’s never a miraculous one, as long as either the husband or the wife believes that the miracle may occur. The threat of a miraculous death is designed to appease his jealousy or force her conversion.

Thus, the true purpose of the Sotah ordeal is, as Rashi tells us based on the Gemara Sukkah 55b, to create peace between husband and wife. For that, God is willing to have His Name effaced.

6/04/2006

More on Giyur: The Infamous List

1) Another less-than flattering article on the conversion issue, this time from the Forward.

2) Overheard on Shavu’ot: During a shiur on Megillat Rut, the question was raised – didn’t Machlon and Khilyon convert Rut and Orpah before marrying them? If so, why did Na’ami try to turn them away upon their return to Judea?

Answer from the back of the crowd: They were RCA conversions!

3) Recognized Rabbinical Courts for Conversion – it appears that this is ‘the list’ that several articles referred to. It’s a very interesting list, to say the least, but I’ll let you evaluate for yourselves. From here. Hat tip: Malka Esther

Australia
Rabbi S. Gutnick, Rabbi Baruch Lashs (apparently, retired and left Sydney), Rabbi Moshe Gutnick

Italy Rabbi Elihu Toaff, Rabbino Alberto A. Piatteli Rome
Rabbi G. Garelik Milan

Argentina
Rabino Shlomo Ben Hamu

Brazi
l Rabbi E. B. Valt

United States of America
Rabbi Y. Grumer, Rabbi J. Blum Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwarz, Rabbi Y. Weinkrantz, Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst Chicago, Ill.
Rabbi Ilan D. Feldman, Rabbi S. Khoshkrman Atlanta, Georgia
Rabbi Hillel Klavan
(now retired) Washington D.C.
Rabbi S. Maimon
Seattle, WA
Rabbi Menachem Senderovic
Milwaukee, WI
Rabbi Neta (sic) Greenblat Memphis, TN
Rabbi Sholom Rivkin
St. Louis Missouri
Rabbi I.M. Levin
Southfield, MI
Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger
Boston, MA
Rabbi Y. Rotenberg, Rabbi M. Feldman
(retired to Sydney, Australia – AR)Baltimore, MD
Rabbi E.M. Teitz Elizabeth N.J.
Rabbi Yonah Reiss, Rabbi Yehuda Korczak, Rabbi Elimelech Bluth, Rabbi Aaron Stein, Rabbi S. Herbst, Rabbi C. Kohen, Rabbi Chaim Ganzwieg, Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, Rabbi Mencahem Zilber, Rabbi Abraham Izdabye, Rabbi Yosef Heller, Rabbi A. Hatchuel, Rabbi S.J. Landesman, Rabbi Peretz Steinberg
New York
Rabbi David Lehrfield North Miami Beach Florida
Rabbi A. Brisman
Philadephia PA
Rabbi Abraham Union, Rabbi G. Cohen Los Angeles, CA

Belgium
Rabbi Eliyahu Sternbuch, Rabbi Yitzchak Tuvia Weiss, Rabbi David Leiberman, Rabbi J. Cohen Antwerp
Rabbi I. Chaikin Brussels

United Kingdom
Rabbi Chanoch Ehrentreu, Dayan E. Pdwa, Rabbi Y. Lichtenstein London
Rabbi Y. Refson Leeds
Rabbi G. Kraus Manchester

South Africa
Rabbi Moshe Kurchak Johannesburg

Holland
Rabbi Meir Just Amsterdam

Venezuela
Rabbi Yizchak Cohen Caracas

Turkey
Rabbi David Asseo Rabbi Yitchak Chaliba Istanbul

Mexico
Rabbi S. Tawil Rabbi D. Malech Rabbi Smolienski

Morocco
Rabbi Shimon Suissa Casablanca

France
Rabbi Yaacov Medar, Rabbi Nissim Ravivo, Rabbi Mordechai Rotenberg Paris
Rabbi J. Tubul Lyon
Rabbi Mordechai Zekbach, Rabbi S.A. Schlesinger Strasbourg

Canada Rabbi A.D. Niznick Montreal
Rabbi M.Z. Ochs
Toronto

Russia Rabbi Pinchas Goldshmidt Moscow

Switzerland
Rabbi Shaul Briish, Rabbi Daniel Levi Zurich
Rabbi Yisrael Levinger
(apparently, retired to Israel) Basel
Rabbi A.Y. Schlesinger Geneva

6/01/2006

More on the Conversion Controversy in the Media

Lots more coverage, with 2 articles appearing yesterday. Here’s the Jewish Press:
Sadly, the need for change is driven by other, more mundane, concerns as well. Many conversions here in America are accomplished by ad hoc batei din whose members do not possess the halachic expertise or experience to make the sort of painstaking judgments and evaluations that are required in a conversion or divorce. Some participants in ostensibly Orthodox batei din here in America are not even rabbis or Orthodox rabbis. Some rabbis nominally identified with Orthodoxy have pulpits in synagogues with no – or inadequate – mechitzas. Some do not enforce the halachic requirement of full acceptance of the responsibility to observe the mitzvot on the part of the convert/applicant. Indeed, some charge many thousands of dollars for conversions, creating the concern that people flock to them because of the relatively easy conversion procedure they offer. Some participants are deeply involved in the kiruv work of the convert/applicant and then sit as judges on the batei din that pass upon the adequacy of the conversion – a clear conflict of interest.
Bravo. Those are excellent reasons to worry about future conversions, but nearly every scenario mentioned would qualify post facto as a valid conversion. So how does this justify the pain you’re causing true gerei tzedek?

Yonason (nee Jonathan) Rosenblum has a JPost column where he writes:
It is also true that even would-be converts fully committed to accepting the yoke of mitzvot may find themselves caught in the jaws of an inefficient and sometimes cruel bureaucracy in the Chief Rabbinate. But curing that problem has nothing to do with lowering standards for conversion.
The Va'ad Olami L'Inyanei Giyur, founded by Rabbi Chaim Kreiswirth, the late chief rabbi of Antwerp, recently intervened with the Chief Rabbinate to expedite the handling of several such cases. Yet the same organization has spearheaded the international campaign for the recognition of a single standard of conversion, and for the creation of regional batei din specializing in conversion issues.
Gee. Where have I heard that before. I’d just say that ‘curing the problem’ of cruel bureaucracy has EVERYTHING to do with the way these standards are implemented. Our obligations to the widows, orphans, and converts are not about tormenting individuals as individuals, but whether or not we can build a society where compassion and sensitivity don’t get lost in the machinery. Maybe my problem is that I’ve read a bit too much of the Book of Isaiah.
Most of Rosenblum’s piece is a critique of this editorial from last week’s JPost, and particularly the last paragraph:
In case the Rabbinate has not noticed, the Jews are a small and shrinking people. The need to protect against insincere impostors seeking to join, assuming it exists, is far outweighed by the need to welcome those who willingly desire to enjoy what Judaism offers their families and the world, and to share in the Jewish fate. The Rabbinate of the Jewish state should be at the forefront of facilitating the choice of Judaism, rather than adding to the already excessive layers of impediments.
The writer of that editorial probably errs when addressing the ‘numbers’. The tension between universalism and particularism is present here, as it’s always been present. To dismiss one side of the coin is as egregious as dismissing the other.

Finally, the Jewish Week basically ripped off the Ha’aretz article and peppered it with a few new quotes. I’m convinced that Michelle Chabin reads this blog, the first to discuss the implications of standardizing divorce policies, and the first to totally shred her original story linking this to the Tendler business. That’s fine, but some attribution would be nice.