R. Mosheh Lichtenstein: Reasons Not to Fast for Rain

[The following letter was sent by R. Mosheh Lichtenstein to students in his yeshiva. The background is a discussion amongst the Roshei Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion regarding the degree of the yeshiva’s participation in the recent fast day called by the Chief Rabbinate to pray for rain (another fast has now been called for Monday). R. Mosheh’s stance was ultimately not accepted by the yeshiva. I have taken the time to translate and disseminate this letter—with R. Mosheh’s permission, though he has not reviewed my translation—for two reasons. The first reason is that his perspective is valuable in and of itself. The second reason is the importance of providing an alternative position to the other stuff out there, which includes rabbis saying prayers for rain on boats and in hot air balloons. I skipped the opening and closing lines of the letter and translated only the body. The Hebrew original will follow the English.]

I [=R. Mosheh Lichtenstein] will begin with a disclaimer. Chazal, in the mishna and gemara Sanhedrin, forbade a judge whose position was not accepted to publicize it as a minority opinion; rather, he must be faithful to his compatriots and stand behind them. If he failed to do so, of him it is written (Mishlei 11:13), “a base fellow gives away secrets.” In the present case, I asked permission to publicize my opinion, and its dissemination is with the consent of my colleagues; however, in my view I am permitted to disclose my position, not because of any acquiescence, but for a much more fundamental reason, namely, that the aforementioned talmudic discussion addresses legal decisions in a rabbinical court, not ethical and educational questions. From a legal perspective, consolidation of the court’s authority in the eyes of the litigants and firm insistence on the authority of the institution of the rabbinical court, which derives from the principle of “incline after the majority,” mandates that all judges stand squarely behind the court’s rulings. With regard to educational questions, the situation is different. Yeshivat Har Etzion is founded on the principle that a multiplicity of opinions and the presentation of opposing positions to its students, while sharing educational and spiritual dilemmas with them, makes the mind fertile and contributes to avodat Hashem. The benefits of presenting different positions outweigh the costs. This is why I wish to express my opinion to my students, and this is why my colleagues have given their consent.

Here are my basic arguments:

A. Lack of danger
I will begin with a harsh statement that shows the absurdity, in my view, of fasting for rain nowadays: it is ludicrous to fast for rain while the sprinklers at the yeshiva, at the homes of its rabbis, of local residents, and of public gardens—here and everywhere else—operate as usual. How can we fast over a dearth of rain when we continue to water our ornamental garden? How can we open the aron kodesh and cry out about the lack of water when no serious effort has been made to minimize water consumption?!

More to the heart of the issue, masekhet Ta’anit addresses a reality in which a dearth of rainfall is, quite literally, life threatening. Fasting for rain is blatantly a prayer for survival. In a world without motorized transportation, the ability to transport food and water long distances, or refrigeration, lack of rain means famine, drought, and death, Rachmana litzlan. Without anything for man or beast to drink, without food or pasture, life is at risk. In the modern reality, however, in which water can be desalinated and food imported, the issue is no longer existence, but money or abundance. Desalination costs money, but it removes the mortal threat.

In actuality, the country’s prolonged water crisis is not a crisis of existence, but a crisis of standard of living. Were we to dry out the gardens and give up the swimming pools and sprinklers, we would lose important things that broaden man’s mind, but we would not be putting our existence at risk. Therefore, to a large degree, the issue is one of lifestyle, which warrants our hoping for more rain, but does not justify decreeing a fast because there is not sufficient water to maintain the present standard of living.

Simply stated, fasting is a response to danger, and in the modern reality, the danger that was present in a lack of rain in the times of Chazal no longer threatens us.

B. “Rainfall is livelihood”
In truth, there are two schools of thought about why Chazal instituted fasts for rain: A. Rain is a sign of Divine providence over the people of Israel, and lack of rainfall implies a heavenly decree and Divine wrath; B. The threat and risk that result from a lack of water. It is quite possible that these two positions find expression at the beginning of masekhet Ta’anit, when the gemara presents two opinions regarding whether “rainfall is livelihood” or rainfall and livelihood should be counted as two distinct factors.

I believe that for us the primary element for us is indeed risk of loss and not providential sign. Masekhet Ta’anit incorporates rainfall in a long list of other tribulations that threaten the public, including pestilence, drought, war, and terrible beasts; evidently the crux of the matter was danger, and the mishna merely followed the prayer of Shlomo, which includes all of these elements. The Rambam also emphasized public distress as the obligating factor and does not address heavenly signs (although according to him, fasts for rain differ from other tribulations; here is not the place to expand on this), and in this he followed the Torah’s admonitions. Each day, when reciting the Shema, we are not satisfied with “I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late.” Rather, we emphasize the ramifications: “You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satiated.”

Consequently, we must examine not only the water economy (and as noted, under present conditions lack of rainfall does not compare to war, plague, or illness), but the economic reality as a whole. And indeed, I accept the contention of R. Danny Wolf, who once wrote that we should consider fasting when unemployment rises, when the economy suffers from a severe recession, and the like. So how can we decree a fast now, when the stock exchange went up significantly over the past year, unemployment went down (even though it remains troublingly high), the currency maintained its value, and the Israeli economy functioned better than that of most developed nations in recent years?

C. Providence and nature
I find it difficult to recommend fasting even to one who espouses the approach that views rain as a heavenly sign. Do we live at such a level of providence nowadays, that we may translate natural phenomena into spiritual guidance? The interdependence of nature and providence is a complicated question about which I am unable and unwilling to make definitive statements. Yet it seems that the withholding of rain for spiritual reasons posits a not insignificant degree of providence; I for one am not at all sure that our current spiritual condition warrants this.

D. Sincerity
Fasting and crying out are mitzvot of the heart. Just as rending a garment when it is not a climactic moment does not constitute keri’ah, and just as prayer without intention is meaningless, so too fasting, when there is a significant gap between its external expression and internal feeling, is inappropriate. Let us ask ourselves: how many of us will be able to pray tomorrow with a sense of trouble and distress, will be able to convincingly say “for we are in great distress”? We do not live it. We do not feel it. If we felt that we were in great distress, like, for example, during wartime, it would headline every newspaper, there would be round-the-clock public involvement in the crisis, etc. Yet, despite all the interest in rain, it remains buried in the back pages, far from the headlines, far less prominent than the stock quotes and exchange rates.

For the sake of comparison, one who prays for a sick family member really prays out of heartache and a sense of distress. If we would go to the waiting room outside an operating theater or daven mincha-ma’ariv at a hospital chapel we would get a taste of prayer from the depths of the heart at a time of distress. I suspect that this is not the case with regard to rain. One who recalls the prayer of wartime or of a bad security situation understands that these, too, express an intensity that we do not reach vis-à-vis rain.

[One may rebut this on the basis of the prayers we recite on the four minor fasts; there is an answer, but this is not the place for it.]

E. Inflation
If you ask me what harm there is in fasting, even if it does not achieve the levels of intensity described above, I would answer with one word – inflation. Just as inflation ruins the value of a currency, it has a similar effect spiritually. There is no greater enemy of educational action and spiritual experience than inflation and the accompanying devaluation; we must therefore vigilantly guard against it. When in doubt—minimize fasts and prayer rallies and do not allow them to proliferate, for their harm outweighs their good.

F. The status of the Chief Rabbinate
I will not expand on this, but merely assert that for all sorts of reasons the status of the Chief Rabbinate is very far from the reality described in the gemara in Ta’anit in which the decree of the exilarch obligated the entire community. I do not view the status of the Chief Rabbinate or its heads as being binding on the community nowadays. I wish the situation were different, but it is not.

לכבוד ....... יקירי,

שמחתי לקבל את בקשתך לקבל הבהרות על העמדה שהבעתי הבקר במסרת חוג "עיון תפילה" בדבר ההצעה לקיים תענית גשמים מחר. היות ולא נוכחת בחוג, ביקשת לשמוע את עמדתי מכלי ראשון, ואעשה זאת בחפץ לב, אך גם אנצל את ההזדמנות לעודד אותך להצטרף אלינו ולהשתתף מדי בקר בחוג העוסק בעיון תפילה, לימוד אשר חז"ל הפליגו בשבחו וחשיבותו.
אפתח במסירת מודעא. חז"ל במשנה ובגמרא בסנהדרין אסרו לדיין שעמדתו לא התקבלה לפרסמה כדעת מיעוט אלא עליו להיות נאמן לשותפיו ולהתייצב מאחריהם, ואם לא עשה כן, עליו נאמר "הולך רכיל מגלה סוד". במקרה דנן, בקשתי רשות לפרסם את דעתי והפרסום נעשה על דעת עמיתי, אך לא מטעם מחילה אני רואה עצמי רשאי לגלות את עמדתי אלא מסיבה עקרונית יותר והיא שהסוגיא הנ"ל עוסקת בהכרעה משפטית בבית דין ולא בשאלה חינוכית וערכית. מבחינה משפטית, ביצור סמכות בית הדין כלפי הנידונים ועמידה תקיפה על הסמכות של מוסד בית הדין הנגזר מן הכלל של "אחרי רבים להטת" מחייב התיצבות כל הדיינים כחומה בצורה מאחרי פסר הדין. בשאלות חינוכיות, המצב שונה. ישיבת הר עציון בנויה על הנחת היסוד שריבוי דעות והצגת עמדות מנוגדות בפני תלמידיה, תוך כדי שיתופם בלבטים הרוחניים והחינוכיים, מפרה את הדעת ותורמת לעבודת ד', ושרב התועלת בהצגת עמדות שונות על פני הנזק. לכן, רציתי להביע את עמדתי בפני התלמידים ולכן הסכימו עמיתי לכך.
להלן, עיקרי הדברים:
א. חוסר סכנה. אפתח באמירה בוטה המציגה את האבסורד בעיני בתענית על הגשמים בימינו והיא שמגוחך להתענות על גשם כאשר הממטרות בישיבה, בבתי הרבנים, התושבים והגינות הציבוריות – די באתרא קדישא הדין ודי בכל אתר ואתר – פועלות כסדרן. וכי האיך ניתן להתענות על מיעוט גשמים כאשר ממשיכים להשקות את גינות הנוי וכיצד ניתן לפתוח את ארון הקדש ולזעוק על חוסר במים כאשר לא נעשה כל מאמץ רציני לצמצום צריכת המים?!
באופן מהותי יותר, הענין הוא שמסכת תענית מתיחסת למציאות שבו מיעוט גשמים מהווה סכנת חיים, פשוטו כמשמעו, והתענית על הגשם היא תפילה על הישרדות באופן הברור ביותר. בעולם שאין בו תחבורה ממונעת, יכולת הובלת מים ומזון למרחקים וקירור, העדר מטר פירושו רעב, בצורת ומוות ר"ל. אם אין שתיה לאדם ולבהמה ואין מזון ומרעה, ישנה סכנת חיים.  ואולם, במציאות המודרנית, בו ניתן להתפיל מים ולייבא אוכל, אין המדובר על קיום אלא על כסף או שפע. התפלת מים עולה כסף, אך היא מסירה את איום התמותה.
לאמיתו של דבר, משבר המים המתמשך במדינה איננו משבר של קיום אלא משבר של רמת חיים. אם נייבש את גינות הנוי, נוותר על הבריכות והממטרות, נאבד דברים חשובים המרחיבים דעתו של אדם, אך לא נעמיד את קיומנו בסכנה. לכן, במידה רבה, מדובר על רמת חיים, דבר אשר בגינו ניתן לקוות ליותר גשם, אך אין זה מוצדק לגזור תענית בהעדר המים לקיום רמת החיים הנוכחית.
במלים פשוטות, התענית היא מענה לסכנה, ובמציאות המודרנית, הסכנה שהיתה בזמן חז"ל מהעדר גשם איננו מאיים עלינו.
ב. "גשמים היינו פרנסה". לאמיתו של דבר, קיימות שתי אסכולות מדוע חז"ל תיקנו תעניות לגשמים: א. הגשם הוא סימן להשגחה אלוקית על עם ישראל, ובהעדר הגשם ישנו סימן של גזירה משמים וכעס אלוקי ב. האיום והסכנה הבאים בעקבות חסר במים. ייתכן מאד ששתי העמדות הללו באות לידי ביטוי בתחילת מסכת תענית, כאשר הגמרא מציגה שתי דעות בשאלה האם "גשמים היינו פרנסה" או שיש למנותם כשני גורמים שונים.
לדידי, אכן המרכיב המרכזי עבורנו הוא הסכנה של אבדון ולא הסימן ההשגחתי. מסכת תענית כוללת את הגשם בשורה ארוכה של צרות אחרות המאיימות על הציבור כדבר, בצורת, מלחמה וחיות רעות, דבר המעיד על הסכנה כמוקד הענין, ובזה אין המשנה הולכת אלא בעקבות תפילת שלמה הכולל את כל המרכיבים הללו. אף הרמב"ם הדגיש את הצרה הבאה על הציבור כמוקד המחייב ולא נזקק לדבר על סימנים משמים (אך לשיטתו תעניות הגשם שונות מן הצרות האחרות, ואכמ"ל) ובזה הלך בעקבות פרשיות התוכחה שבתורה. מדי יום בקריאת שמע, אין אנו מסתפקים ב"ונתתי מטר ארצכם בעתו יורה ומלקוש" אלא מדגישים את השלכותיו "ואספת דגנך, תירשך ויצהרך, ונתתי עשב בשדך לבהמתך, ואכלת ושבעת".
ממילא, יש לבחון לא רק את משק המים (אשר כאמור, המצב הנוכחי איננו יוצר השוואה בין מלחמה, מגיפה ומחלה לבין עצירת גשמים) אלא את כלל המציאות הכלכלית. ואכן, מקובלים עלי דבריו של הרב דני וולף שכתב בשעתו שיש לשקול תענית כאשר האבטלה גואה או המשק סובל ממיתון חריף וכיו"ב. ברם, איך נגזור תענית השתא, כאשר הבורסה עלתה בצורה יפה בשנה האחרונה, האבטלה ירדה (א"כ היא עדיין גבוהה ומטרידה ביותר), המטבע שומר על ערכו והכלכלה הישראלית תפקדה טוב יותר ממרבית המדינות המפותחות בשנים האחרונות?
ג. השגחה וטבע. ברם, אני מאד מתקשה להמליץ על תענית גם מי שמאמץ את הגישה הרואה בגשם סימן שמימי. וכי אנו חיים ברמת השגחה כזאת בימינו שנוכל לקחת תופעות טבע ולתרגמם להנחיות רוחניות? זיקת הגומלין שבין טבע להשגחה היא שאלה סבוכה ואינני יכול או רוצה לקבוע בה מסמרות אך נדמה שעצירת גשמים בגלל סיבות רוחניות מניחה רמת השגחה לא מבוטלת, ואני לפחות כלל וכלל אינני בטוח שמצבנו הרוחני הנוכחי מצדיק זאת.
ד. כנות. תענית וזעקה הינן מצוות שבלב. כשם שקריעה שאיננה בשעת חימום איננה קריעה ותפילה בלא כוונה איננה משמעותית, כך תענית שיש בה פער משמעותי בין הביטוי החיצוני לתחושה הפנימית איננה ראויה. הבה נשאל את עצמנו, כמה מאתנו יכלו להתפלל מחר מתוך תחושת מצוקה וצרה, ויוכלו לומר בשכנוע "כי בצרה גדולה אנחנו", הלא איננו חיים או מרגישים כך. לו היינו מרגישים שאנו בצרה גדולה, כמו למשל בעת מלחמה, אזי העיתונות היתה עוסקת בכך בכותרות הראשיות, היה עיסוק ציבורי מסביב לשעון במשבר וכו'. ואולם, למרות כל הענין בגשם, עדיין נמצא אותו מקופל בתוככי העמודים הפנימיים, הרחק מן הכותרות ובמקום פחות בולט מנתוני הבורסה או שערי החליפין.
לשם השוואה, אדם המתפלל על חולה בתוך ביתו, אכן מתפלל מנהמת לבו ומתוך תחושת מצוקה. אם נלך לחדר המתנה שמחוץ לחדר ניתוח או תתפלל מנחה-מעריב בבתי הכנסת השוכנים בתוך בתי החולים, נוכל לחוות את טעמה של תפילה בעת צרה הנעשית מעומק הלב, אך חוששני שלא כך הם פני הדברים ביחס לגשמים. מי שזוכר את התפילות בעת מלחמה או מציאות בטחונית קשה, מבין שגם הן מבטאות עצמות שאיננו מגיעם אליהם ביחסנו לגשם.
[אמנם, תוכל להקשות עלי מן התפילות בד' תעניות, אך יש להשיב על כך, ואכמ"ל.]
ה. אינפלציה. ואם תשאלני, איזו נזק יש בתענית, אף אם אין היא בעצמות הנזכרות, אזי התשובה היא מלה אחת – אינפלציה. כשם שאינפלציה מהווה סם המוות לערך הכסף, כן הדבר בדברים רוחניים. אין לך אויב גדול יותר לעשייה החינוכית והחוויה הרוחנית מאשר האינפלציה והזילותא הנלווית לה, ולכן יש להישמר ממנה מכל משמר. במקום ספק – המעט בתעניות ועצרות תפילה ואל תרבה בהן, כי רב הנזק מן התועלת.
ו. מעמד הרבנות הראשית. לא ארחיב בכך, ורק אסתפק בקביעה, שמכל מיני סיבות, מעמד הרבנות הראשית רחוק מן המציאות המתוארת בגמרא בתענית שגזירת ריש גלותא חייבה את כלל הציבור ואינני רואה את מעמד הרבנות או את העומדים בראשה מחייבים את הציבור בימינו. הלוואי והמציאות היתה אחרת, אך היא איננה.
אלה מקצת מהרהורי לבי בענין, והיו לך להפרות את חשיבתך ולהעמיק את דעתך.
ויהי רצון שישפיע הקב"ה עלינו שפע טובה ויערה עלינו רוח וגשם ממרום, ויאר את פניו אלינו בכל עת ובל שעה.
בחיבה ובאהבה,
משה ל.


Three Notes on Education

A. Ethical Issues in One-Year Programs
It started as a Lookjed thread, but was then picked up by the Jewish Week (and Orthonomics). Apparently, some one-year programs use underhanded recruiting practices, but the vast majority do not.
Most of these programs can only take in a limited quantity—either due to finite resources or in order to maintain a good balance with other, generally Israeli, components of the school—so their recruitment efforts are based on quality, on being “top tier.” The past few years has seen a proliferation of “boutique” yeshivot and seminaries that are not interested in taking more than 25-40 students per year.
There are, however, a handful of schools, mainly men’s yeshivot, that want to and can take in larger numbers, 100 students a year and more. From my experience, these are the schools whose recruitment efforts leave something to be desired.
I was an RA at MTA (TMSTA-YUHSB) during the 1997-98 academic year. My floor consisted of high school juniors and seniors, enabling me to get a good look at recruitment practices in a large school. One yeshiva, while not offering a “bribe” per student, hired an MTA rebbe to be their US-based alumni coordinator. That particular rebbe also happened to teach the class from which the yeshiva was trying to draw recruits; the conflict of interest was known and discussed then. Another yeshiva set an earlier deadline for students to commit or lose their places. This put extra pressure on the students, some of whom committed to that yeshiva even before they heard back from their first choice.
In sum, sleazy recruitment isn’t new and is limited to a handful of places, but I’m glad it’s finally coming out.
Regarding the badmouthing of yeshivot, this was a pet peeve of mine when I taught high school. A student would be considering yeshivot A and B. One rabbi would badmouth A, the other would badmouth B, and the student would end up in community college. Well done, fellas. As b. Shabbat 34a says, even prostitutes know that the mutual badmouthing is bad for business.

B. The Judo of Education

The Japanese martial art of judo is known for using the opponent’s strength against him. Though teachers and students should not be thought of as opponents, there are certainly confrontational elements in the relationship. Sometimes a teacher has to directly challenge a student with disciplinary action. Far preferable, though, is when the teacher enlists and integrates (or “sublimates”) the source of distraction or disruption into the educational environment. Two examples from this past week:
As noted in Sunday’s New York Times, in the latest of a string of articles that discuss how social media and hand-held devices are rewiring our brains and driving us to distraction (story of my life),  it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hold the attention of students whose attentions are seriously divided. My wife came up with a pretty good idea for certain occasions. She introduced her students to certain search techniques, and now she encourages them to find relevant “intertexts.” She gives questions like “where else in Tanakh does this word/ theme appear,” and they’re off. And this generation is quite adept at making associative connections—lateral thinking.
The other example involves my first grade son. Thank God, he’s a bright boy, but sometimes needs to escape to disengage. We’ve given him paper and markers so that he can disengage without being disruptive, but he’s proud of what he draws and feels a need to describe it to his friends during class. His teacher called last week at wit’s end. I suggested that the main thing was to avoid confrontation, which my son has a tendency to escalate. I suggested that if they’re learning, for example, about Noach, let my son draw a scene from the narrative and then describe it to the class. Yesterday, my son came home with a 4-panel magnum opus on the rivalry of Cain and Abel, with a glowing note from the teacher about how he presented his handiwork to the class. Teachers can be taught, too.

C. Teachers Paying House Calls?

My daughter attends a school that’s part of the Shas network. The network recently issued a directive that homeroom teachers must visit each student at home, so the teacher came by tonight. I’m frankly fascinated by this idea, and I think it’s brilliant. First the negative—they do not provide any means of transportation for these teachers, and not every student is easily accessible by public transportation; we had to pick the teacher up from the other side of town. This bit could have been thought out better. Overall, though, the idea is an entirely positive one. Obviously, a few minutes in the student’s home can’t tell you everything, but it can tell you a whole lot: the student’s status within the family, family dynamics, the family’s socioeconomic and religious status, and so much more. It’s a window into the student’s world, and it can only help the teacher do her job. Kudos to Shas for this wondergful initiative.

Entering the Twitterverse

As you can see on the right margin, I've begun tweeting. Most of the tweets will link to articles tucked in the obscure corners of the Jewish web, which I come across as part of my research for JID, usually accompanied by a particularly witty comment. I'll also tweet whenever I post something on the blog, and will  often recommend goodies from other bloggers, videos, etc. I had been doing this for a while on FB, but this is much more focused.


Conversion and Naturalization

Two laws proposed in Israel over the past few months stirred up international controversy. The Rotem Bill, which would make the Israeli Chief Rabbinate the de jure arbiter of conversion to Judaism, generated a tremendous amount of opposition, particularly among non-Orthodox Jews in the United States. The more recent proposed amendment to the Citizenship Law, which would require an oath of loyalty from applicants for Israeli citizenship, has been criticized and condemned globally, with the strongest voices coming from the Muslim world. Although public criticism came to each bill from vastly different quarters, the bills, and their respective oppositions, share certain similarities, beyond the obvious fact that both address the conditions under which an outsider becomes an insider.

"Converting to Judaism" is something of a misnomer. From its inception the term conversion implies an instantaneous transformation, an experience after which one is no longer the same. The paradigmatic conversion experience is that of Saul of Tarsus, beholding a vision on the road to Damascus and becoming the Apostle Paul. The Jewish term for a new adherent is “ger,” which literally means “migrant,” implicitly recognizing that giyur, the process by which a gentile becomes Jewish, corresponds to the process by which a foreigner adopts and is adopted by his new host society. Both processes are—or ought to be—gradual, allowing the neophyte time to absorb the language, lifestyle, and values of the adoptive society. In other words, giyur is much closer to naturalization than to conversion.

Of course, there is a moment at which the new legal status is conferred, at which the gentile becomes a Jew and the immigrant a citizen. And certainly this moment, coming as it often does at the end of an arduous and often traumatic process of acculturation, is a significant milestone in the life of the newcomer. Nevertheless, there exists a tendency to confuse the moment of conferral with the process, to relate to naturalization as a form of conversion. Yet naturalization, like giyur, is not stand-alone moment; it is a process.

In fact, proponents of both laws seem to have fallen into this very trap. Mandating a loyalty oath will not solve any potential problem of immigrants opposing Israel’s core democratic and Jewish values. If most non-Jews who become Israeli citizens are loyal to the state, it is not due to the presence or absence of any oath, but to their adoption of and by their new home. As for giyur, the raison d’etre of the Rotem Bill is to streamline the process and facilitate the mass conversion of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the FSU. The bill views giyur as a bureaucratic formality and aims to define who may—and who may not—confer the status of “Jew” in Israel. Bracketing the question of whether streamlined giyur, which all but the incorrigibly naïve understand does not entail any commitment to Jewish law, is halakhically valid, reducing giyur from a gradual, community-based process to a bureaucratic state-run form of lip-service to Jewish tradition reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the giyur process.

Critics of the legislation are not immune to confusing naturalization with conversion either. To be sure, both pieces of proposed legislation literally alienate—render alien—certain populations by enshrining de facto realities—that Israel is a democratic Jewish state and that only (some) Orthodox conversions are recognized by the Chief Rabbinate—in law. Nevertheless, opposition to the loyalty oath may succeed in removing it from the political agenda, but will not change the fact that becoming an Israeli citizen implies embracing the Jewish and democratic fabric of Israeli society. Both sides are thus fighting to win a meaningless and potentially Pyrrhic victory. Opponents of the Rotem Bill have tended to focus their criticism on the identity of the state-sanctioned gatekeepers instead of where it belongs: on the bill’s misguided approach to giyur in general, and on the question of whether conferral of religious status is even a power that an inevitably bureaucratic state should arrogate to itself.

Laws pertaining to the related processes of naturalization and religious reaffiliation should recognize that they are among the most arduous and anxiety-inducing that human beings undergo voluntarily. As such, they deserve to be handled by the state in a manner that reflects their subtlety, without reducing them to mere slogans.


Mah Ani, Reformi? How Dati (and Formerly Dati) Israelis View Reform and Conservative Judaism

Most dati Jews in Israel have never met a Reform or Conservative Jew, at least not consciously, and certainly do not have much of a clue about those denominations. As a result, the word “Reformi” has taken on an interesting meaning in these circles.

Two examples: A few weeks ago, as I picked up my son and niece from nursery school on Friday, the teacher gave me a package for him. Without noting what was in the package, I mentioned that I was taking my niece as well and needed to take her package, too. The teacher looked at me and said “anachnu lo Reformim”—we’re not Reform. In the package, it turns out, was a Kiddush cup, a small gift for the boys in the class. The girls got candlesticks, which were not as fragile and had already been placed in the girls’ backpacks. Being who I am, I pointed out that according to the Shulchan Arukh, hardly a Reform work, a woman can make Kiddush for a man, but that was entirely beside the point.
The second example was at a shull membership meeting a few years ago. The issue being discussed was minors leading Kabbalat Shabbat. This is done all over Israel, though rarely if ever in the States. There was a debate between the Israelis and the Anglos about whether it would be done in this shul (of which I’m no longer a member). During the discussion, I asked whether young girls could also lead. Why not, right? A board member looks at me and says, “Mah anachnu, Reformim?
It’s clear, then, that Israelis really don’t have much of a clue what Reform is, or what differentiates it from Conservative Judaism. It’s kind of the catch-all term for “what we sense is untraditional.” I get the sense that this sentiment is not exclusive to religiously observant Israelis, hence the “shul I don’t daven in is Orthodox” phenomenon, but my experience is mostly restricted to the former.
More thought provoking is this blog post by Tomer Persico. Persico is a scholar of comparative religion whose insights into contemporary religion are often quite fascinating and always well written. It’s worth reading his entire description of Uman on Rosh Hashana. Persico himself is what would be called “datlash”- dati le-she’avar. He still doesn’t fit neatly into any religious category, but he’s no longer traditionally observant. He makes the following comments about Reform and Conservative Judaism. I still think it’s a very Israeli way of looking at the issue (especially by not distinguishing Conservative and Reform), but it’s certainly stimulating, and many of the people joining independent minyanim might agree:
I suddenly understood what’s so lacking with Reform and Conservative Jews (among other things that are missing, foremost being an emphasis on the direct encounter with the Divine): streams. Where is their Chabad? Where’s their Har Ha-Mor? Where’s their Ne’emanei Torah Ve-avoda? Where are their Litvaks? In other words, maybe they all exist here and there as individuals, but they have not become broader frameworks in which ideas and behaviors grow to maturity and are digested. From a bird’s-eye view, everything is too homogeneous, and thus a bit listless, devoid of passion. There is certainly no craziness. Diversity of streams ensures cross-fertilization and mutual development; it ensures infighting and evolution; it ensures feelings of mutual responsibility and kinship. In Uman, for example, you really see that something is happening in Orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy, of course, has halakha to keep all of the streams in the same boat. It was precisely against the backdrop of halakha that Reform and Conservative (and the like) split, and thus that is precisely what cannot unite them. So they are friendly, but not organically bound to each other. This is the difference between friendship and kin: with kin, blood links individuals even if they hate each other. Friends who hate each other part company. Within a family, hatred and adversity can occasionally generate mutual development and movement (from the straits I called God). In friendship, adversity generates schism and individual development. Of course, friendship has advantages over kinship; nevertheless, in Uman the familial warmth and fraternity is palpable. If only the family was a bit more normal.


Toldot Yitzchak: The First FFB

I must link back to this every year on Parshat Toldot, but that's because it's one of my favorite all-time blog posts. Here it is again: The First FFB.

If it isn't obvious, the approach I take in that piece is very personal. Here's to all the rabbis' kids and FFBs who struggle to carve out space for themselves within a tradition that can, at times, seem stifling.


Half Shabbos, Big-Tent Orthodoxy, Texting, and eBooks

About two months ago, R. Dr. Alan Brill wrote about a phenomenon called "Half Shabbos," which describes Orthodox kids who text on Shabbat. The distinction between "half" and "full" Shabbat has been around for a while, but as part of the vocabulary of the Syrian community. This was the first I had heard of it penetrating to the J-dubs as well.

That this type of vocabulary existed among Sephardim before Ashkenazim world should be no surprise, and might actually be somewhat encouraging from the perspective of Orthodoxy. Sephardic communities never experienced the fragmentation that Ashkenazic communities did, and so even though there was and is a spectrum of observance in the Sephardic world, there was never any secessionism or denominationalism. In this sense, even if we agree with R. Brill, against Gil and Heshy, that "half Shabbos" is a new phenomenon, it might mean that Orthodoxy has become more tolerant of non-observance in its ranks as much as it might mean that there is increasing non-observance in its ranks. In other words, there may or may not be a greater attrition rate from Orthodox observance, but even those people who give up observance are increasingly likely to remain within the Orthodox orbit. I saw a lot of this during my years at UMD.

I believe that these are the first stages of a return to a "Big Tent Orthodoxy" - an (ironic) Orthodoxy that will be far more welcoming and tolerant of a wide swath of observances and ideologies, or lack thereof. Not in the kiruv-y love-bombing way, but in the Sephardi (and certain brands of non-American non-Israeli Judaism; or pre-WWII American Orthodoxy) way that simply acknowledges that everyone entitled to a place in shul without having to undergo a tzitzis check.

The return to Big Tent Orthodoxy will have halakhic ramifications as well, as Big Tent halakha functions vastly differently from secessionist halakha (see the fantastic ongoing series by Ben Chorin for more on that, though five minutes in Israel should convinve anyone of the basic truth of the assertion).

I'm afraid, though, that sending text messages on Shabbat will never be given a hetter. Even if all the arguments about low voltages and non-grounded sources are accepted (see the comments on the Brill link above), writing text messages is writing (I would argue, based on a Ran in Masechet Shabbat, that the more ubiquitous texting becomes as a form of written communication, the more of a melekhet machshevet it becomes, which overcomes the fact that the letters are stored as binary bits; this is beyond the scope of the present post, though). Ebooks, on the other hand, like the kind you read on a Kindle or Ipad, I can see some eventual hetter for, especially as the printed word will be almost completely replaced in the next generation.