12/20/2011

Talking about Sex in the Modern Orthodox Community

In my newest Jewish Ideas Daily article, I try to give an overview of trends that have emerged in the American Modern Orthodox community over the past decade. I then look at three recent events - the same-sex chuppah in DC, the YU Beacon article, and (le-havdil) the publication of The Newlywed's Guide to Physical Intimacy - and try to contextualize them within these trends.
One of my very first (rambling) posts was about the need for reform in Jewish sexual education, and I occasionally returned to matters of gender and sexuality (two separate areas, I know, but with some overlap and, alas, on this blog, one label).
So I hope you enjoy Orthosexuality. It seems to be making the rounds and generating some discussion.

11/30/2011

Window Dressing

On Monday, Jewish Ideas Daily published an article I wrote about the recent Tzohar/ Rabbanut controversy.
Here it is: Love, Marriage, and the Israeli Rabbinate

11/16/2011

Exploring the Sermons of Eastern European Rabbis in America

I've been giving a "parsha shiur" in the local synagogue for over a year now. I like exploring a different theme each year; this year we're studying sermons of Orthodox rabbis who came to America from Eastern Europe during the great wave of migration between 1881 and 1924. The goal is to appreciate the intersection between the old world and the new, to see how these rabbis responded to the intellectual and social climate of the day.

Today was the fourth class in the series, so here's a little recap of what we've studied so far. All of the texts we've studied are available on hebrewbooks.org, supplemented by biographical information from other sources.

Noach: We studied pp. 13-17 of R. Yehuda Leib Graubart's Yabia Omer. Discussed it as autobiographical, considering that these rabbonim might have seen Noach as a role model. given his status as a "lonely man of faith" in a corrupt world.

Lekh Lekha: We studied R. Gedalia Silverstone's speech commemorating the 100th yahrzeit of Thomas Kennedy in 1932. Kennedy was an early advocate of Jewish rights in Maryland, and paid a dear price for it.
pp. 26-29 of Matok Mi-dvash vol. III.

Vayera: We studied pp. 44-50 of R. Avraham Guranovsky's "Even Yisrael" (a bio appears at the beginning of the volume; he was Eastern European, but trained at the Hildesheimer Rabbinerseminary in Berlin and arrived in America in 1869). This (rather long-winded) sermon is an extended Lamarckian reading of the concept of Ma'aseh Avot Siman Le-banim - Avraham's trials were akin to the giraffe stretching its neck; acquired traits could be passed on from one generation to the next according to Lamarck - whose theories were quite popular when R. Guranovsky was speaking these words in the 1870s.

Chayei Sarah: Today we studied R. Moshe Shimon Sivitz's sermon on what to look for in a potential spouse (pp. 102-107 of Heker Da'at). He rails against men who are more concerned with how many languages his wife speaks than whether she will be a good mother, and criticizes women for being gold-diggers. He criticize those who marry because they fell in love, saying that marriage should precede love. He also criticizes men who let their wives participate in the bread-winning, quipping that Adam started the trend, and look where it got him.

It's been a thoroughly enjoyable series so far. I'll update how it's gone every month or so.

10/25/2011

The End of "Eat Fish Out" Orthodoxy?


Despite my surname and, presumably, the occupation of one of my patrilineal ancestors, I do not eat fish. The taste of fish makes me gag.
It was therefore never difficult for me to paskin that one may not eat out at non-certified fish restaurants and sushi bars. I had no problem accepting the conventional wisdom of the Orthodox establishment that there were often cases of mixing and mislabeling. Though I had never gone into a fish restaurant to check out the situation first hand (I can only recall being asked about this issue once), I trusted the wisdom I grew up on, which did not acknowledge a category of Orthodoxy that eats fish out.In any event, it appears that the conventional wisdom was, in fact, wise. A new Boston Globe expose shows that the phenomenon of mislabeling fish, especially by restaurants, is phenomenally high. Some of the substitute species - swai and some types of escolar, for example - are not kosher. I would be curious to know whether there are statistics about mislabeling fish in kosher restaurants and/or guidelines that kosher certifications agencies have in place to prevent mislabeling. I also wonder whether such an agency would certify an establishment that it knows to be substituting one kosher species with a kosher but inferior species. Is this a possible niche for the Tav Ha-Yosher?

[On a lighter note, perhaps this uncertainty about the identity of fish species explains the origin of the name of one such species. ?מה היא? מה היא ]

10/12/2011

Celebrate Gilad like there’s No Tomorrow

Human beings have an amazing capacity to block out life’s travails during the course of a celebration. Couples get married and nations declare independence in the midst of wars. We celebrate a year’s harvest not knowing whether next year’s crop will be thin or blighted. We enjoy life, despite the inevitability of death.

Jewish celebrations are no exception. We celebrate Purim even though we remained Persian subjects in the aftermath of its miraculous salvation. The miracle of Chanukah is celebrated even though it took place during a lull in the middle of a war, and even though the independence wrought was short-lived. On Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, we celebrate Israel’s independence even though it transformed a local conflict into a multinational one.

Perhaps more than any other Jewish holiday, we rejoice on Sukkot even as we acknowledge the frailty of life. We move into makeshift huts as the weather turns cold, and we face uncertainty about whether the coming winter will be rainy enough to sustain us. Again and again, we call out to God: “Hosanna! Save us!” We read the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), all about the futility of human life and activity. And yet, in our liturgy it is called “z’man simchateinu” – “the season of our joy,” and is considered the most joyous of Jewish holidays. It is almost as though we acknowledge that the lightness of being, far from unbearable, is in fact liberating and comforting.

For more than five years, Israelis have debated the pros and cons of working out a deal for Gilad Shalit with Hamas. Now that the deal is done, the arguments for and against will cease to be theoretical claims and will be borne out in concrete results. I certainly do not envy those who had to make this decision.

Serendipitously, the news of the deal for Gilad broke just before the onset of Sukkot. In the spirit of this holiday, which teaches us that we may rejoice in the face of our own frailties and uncertainties, can we please, at least until the end of the holiday, rejoice with Noam and Aviva Shalit without considering the deal’s consequences? Perhaps the most famous passage in Kohelet tells us that there is a time and season for everything. These times and seasons turn with an astonishing rapidity, and part of our challenge is to keep them from encroaching upon one another. In that spirit, the spirit of Sukkot, let us acknowledge Gilad’s release as a time to laugh, a time to dance, a time to embrace, and a time to love.

10/05/2011

Four Approaches to Fasting

Why do we fast? What is fasting supposed to accomplish?

Within Judaism and other religions, fasting is conceptualized in different ways. There are three, possibly four different approaches, only one of which has biblical support.

The first approach sees fasting as a form of expiation: my bodily suffering serves as retribution for bodily sin. I experience a little bit of pain or a little bit of death, and that cleanses me from the stigma of transgression. The pre-Yom Kippur ‘Tefilah Zakah’ prayer is an excellent example of this idea within the Jewish tradition. Line after line, the prayer expresses the hope that each element of suffering purges a corresponding area of sin: not wearing leather shoes atones for when my feet ran to do evil, not eating atones for forbidden foods I consumed, and so forth. The traditional ‘BeHa”B’ fasts are in this vein as well - fasts were observed after major Jewish holidays to atone for conspicuous consumption during the holidays.


The second approach views fasting as sobering corrective. I return to spirit by denying the body. By removing the distractions of the flesh I am able to turn back to the soul and nourish it with what it requires. This is the classic Platonic view of asceticism, that the body actually impedes the soul. One need not take an extreme ascetic view in order to see fasting as a manifestation of this idea; just as easily, fasting might be an attempt to restore balance between body and spirit. It is a temporary measure to create a certain atmosphere for a brief period of time, after which things return to normal. Perhaps the mitzvah to eat on the day before Yom Kippur echoes this view that asceticism has value, yet must be tempered. In the contemporary milieu, a form of this approach is advocated by those who cast fasts as days to reflect on personal food choices.


A third possible approach was taken by R. Tzadok Ha-kohen of Lublin. He turned the equation on its head by reconceptualizing fasting not as a set of behaviors intended to effect change, but as a set of behaviors that reflect a mood. On Yom Kippur, when your life hangs in the balance, food is the last thing on your mind. How can you think about eating? On Tisha B'Av, while contemplating the smoldering ruin of God's Temple and the destruction of Jewish civilization, who even has an appetite? Who can eat?


A fourth approach is implied in Chapter 58 of Isaiah, which is tellingly recited as the Haftara on the morning of Yom Kippur. The prophet begins by criticizing those who fast and beat their chests while continuing to oppress and persecute. He declares that this is not the fast that God wants. What, then, is the fast that God wants?


Is it not to...loose the fetters of wickedness, undo the bands of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry, and bring the homeless poor to your house? when thou see the naked, that you cover him, and that you do not ignore your own flesh? (Isa. 58:6-7)
 At first blush, the contrast seems to fail. The "fast that God desires" is not a fast at all - it is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless. On further contemplation, however, an entirely different conceptualization of fasting emerges.


A Jewish "fast" is more than not eating or drinking. It included wearing sackcloth and ashes as well as congregating in public places to pray and mourn (see, for example, Mishna Taanit 2:1 or Ch. 4 of the Book of Esther). Isaiah's prescription for the fast that God desires addresses precisely these elements: when you gather in the town square to call out to God, think of the people who sleep there at night because they have no home. When you feel the pangs of hunger after not eating for a day, think about those for whom this is a regular occurrence. When you don your sackcloth and ashes and take off your comfortable shoes, remember that there are those who do not have what to wear. The point of fasting is to sensitize us to those for whom such denials are a daily occurrence, and not by choice.


This approach to fasting is shared by Islam. According to Islamic law, one who cannot fast on Ramadan must instead feed the poor for a day. This link between fasting and feeding the poor is precisely the same as the one made by Isaiah.


The Jewish people, if not prophets, remain the children of the prophets (b. Pesachim 66a). Although the synagogue has replaced the public square as the site of our fasts, and although Isaiah's linkage of fasting with social welfare goes largely ignored, it is refreshing and inspiring to see that the core instinct has not completely evaporated. Over the summer, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protests their country's lack of social justice. Regardless of one's opinion of the protests' aims, this linkage between voluntary homelessness and sensitivity to social ills harks back to the prophecy of Isaiah.

9/26/2011

Marginalia

Shai Secunda and I have co-authored a review of Joseph Cedar's award winning film Footnote (He'arat Shulayim). Our review appears in the new issue of Jewish Review of Books, and has appeared just in time for the film's Oscar nomination in the category of Best Foreign Film.

In the same issue, Yehudah Mirsky reviews By Faith Alone, the biography of Rav Amital that I translated.

Both reviews are currently behind a pay wall. JRB occasionally unlocks some articles. I'll let you know if the articles are made available.

UPDATE: The Mirsky review is no longer blocked. Read it here. [h/t: Nate and Reuven].
UPDATE #2: Now the Footnote review is unblocked. Read it here.

8/30/2011

No Praise for Folly

The New York and Jewish media is abuzz with the tragic story of Rabbi David Reichenberg, who lost his life in an attempt to save two neighbors, a father and son, who were entangled in live downed electrical wires during Hurricane Irene. R. Reichenberg is being nearly unanimously hailed as a hero for his act of supreme altruism and selflessness.
[Note: Reports differ in their descriptions of the events. Compare the first report I read to the one that later appeared in the New York Daily News].
Yet it is probable that R. Reichenberg was halakhically forbidden to do what he did, and there is a danger in lionizing actions that were, by all indications, misguided. I therefore write the following not, God forbid, to minimize the heroic virtue displayed by R. Reichenberg or to argue that he was anything less than deserving of the praise that will undoubtedly be heaped upon him. My goal is rather to argue that his actions (as opposed to his virtues) are not worthy of emulation, and that it is important to teach what Jewish law says about such instances, so that lives are not unnecessarily forfeited in the future.
The question of whether one may endanger himself to save another has arisen often, and in various contexts, over the years. It is obviously a very thorny issue, but the nature of the beast is that everyone must have some kind of guideline, since there is little time to start clarifying positions when cases arise (though occasionally there are - for example the dilemma of whether to donate a vital organ such as a kidney or partial liver to save a life). These are the basic guidelines:
  • There is a duty to save another's life. The Torah enshrines this duty in Lev. 19:16: "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor." In Judaism, there is such thing as a "guilty bystander".
  • One is not required to risk his life to save another life.
  • One is permitted to risk his life to save another life as long as the risk to the would-be-savior is justified by a greater (or possibly equal, as long as it is not a definite case of trading one life for another) reduction in the risk to the endangered party.
Obviously, it is impossible to conduct a statistical evaluation at the zero hour. Yet the would-be-savior must quickly assess that the risk he incurs to himself is not greater than the chances that he saves the endangered party. Risk can be assessed in terms of how things are generally perceived by society. The case of R. Reichenberg seems to clearly have been such a case where one should not act. Perhaps it will emerge that this assessment is incorrect, but when live wires and copious amounts of water are involved, I suspect it will stand.
I hope that I never have to make such a decision, and I can imagine that it would be excruciatingly difficult to decide not to act. On some level, though, deciding to act is easy - either I will be a hero or will fail; I will not have to live my life thinking that maybe I could have saved that kid.
So where does that leave us with R. Reichenberg? Ambivalent. We can certainly praise the virtues that motivated him to act, but Judaism is a religion of duty before virtue. We ought to resist what Prof. David Shatz calls the "halo effect" created when someone does a morally wrong act as an expression of virtuous character. And if the final analysis shows that R. Reichenberg's actions were indeed reckless and foolhardy - that he incurred significant risk to his own life without much of a chance of helping the others - it would be warranted to apply another epithet - that of hasid shoteh, or 'pious fool'.
With the school year beginning now, and this tragic case still all over the news, it behooves Jewish (and non-Jewish) educators to devote a lesson or two to clarifying the question of when self-sacrifice and altruism are unwarranted and even morally problematic.

Sources and further reading:
Igrot Moshe YD II:174:4 [Heb]
Radbaz III:627 [Heb]
David Shatz, "As Thyself: The Limits of Altruism in Jewish Ethics" in Reverence, Righteousness, and Rahmanut: Essays in Memory of Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung
Yitzchak Blau, "The Implications of a Jewish Virtue Ethic", Torah U-Madda Journal 9
Naftali Bar-Ilan, "Be-inyan Mi  She-torem Lev O Kaved Le-hashtala" [Heb]
Eliezer Melamed, "Hatzalat Nefashot" [Heb]

8/16/2011

The Morethodox Don't Say 'She-lo Asani Isha'

This week, the Morethodox chevre wrote several posts (1, 2, 3, 4)about she-lo asani isha [full disclosure: I'm not a regular reader of Morethodox; not my cup of tea]. Their basic argument is that the berakha of  she-asani Yisrael should be salvaged from the halakhic scrap-heap and instituted, thereby obviating, according to one acharon, the need to say all three berakhot (she-lo asani goy... eved... isha).
I have mixed feelings about the approach. I'd never suggest that someone who practices it is being non-halakhic or making a berakha in vain. On the other hand, what can I say, I have a real aversion to altering matbei'a shel berakhot that have been accepted (note: this does not refer to the introductory material of a berakha, but the actual conclusion of the berakha itself; I believe the other material to be more flexible and free-style within constraints - how can one not after learning the 7th chapter of Berakhot?).
However, I don't think the solution they present is the only, or even the best, option. A long time ago (in one of my earliest posts, from over 6 years ago), I offered several other solutions to the dilemma (I referred to the Morethodox solution as 'hackneyed', along with the solution that everyone loves to cite based on a 13th century Provencal manuscript). I still believe that the best solution would be for everyone, men and women alike, to recite she-asani ki-rtzono. Read the full post here. Also check out JID's look at the issue - with some excellent links to other sources - here.

8/15/2011

Was Ralph Branca Fasting when he Served Up the Shot Heard Round the World?

The New York Times today reports that Ralph Branca's mother was born a Jew. This might explain why he gave up the infamous homer to Bobby Thompson - October 3, 1951 was, in fact, Tzom Gedalia! (confirmed by HebCal!)
The idea that Branca was fasting was presciently suggested by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (to R. Binyamin Tabory). I wrote about that here.

7/29/2011

The Slaughterhouse Rules

I have written an article about shechita and government regulation, which is today's feature on Jewish Ideas Daily. It represents part of my efforts to educate myself about the food choices that I make on behalf of myself and my family.
Not long ago, I posted about my grandfather's job as a shochet and the tension between his slaughterhouse and government inspectors. I've done a bit more digging (not a ton) and found that there was a concerted effort around that time to get rid of small, local slaughterhouses and consolidate into larger ones. Regulations were designed to favor consolidation, as only the largest plants could afford what the government required (but only the largest plants needed all the safeguards that regulations mandated). With the proliferation of regulations, the slaughterhouse had something like 6 full-time inspectors, causing my grandfather to quip, "I wish the boys in Vietnam would get the same level of medical care that my chickens get."  This actually dovetails with what I learned from reading The Omnivore's Dilemma.
Of course, there is legislation that kosher slaughterhouses must implement, and legislation they are exempt from or actually oppose. To distinguish between actual slaughter practices and the handling of the animal before and after slaughter may fall short; for example, there was no opposition to the regulation that animals could not touch the ground after slaughter, and the shackle-and-hoist method was implemented relatively easily after 1906's  Food and Drug Act. I haven't found a distinction that works.
In any event, enjoy the article, and "od chazon la-mo'ed."

7/27/2011

Jews with Tattoos

The tragic and untimely death of Amy Winehouse has raised the not-so-age-old question of whether Jews with tattoos can be buried in Jewish cemeteries. Apparently, this myth is so pervasive that it is even believed by large segments of the traditionally observant Jewish community. Although the "primary sources" for this myth seem to be popular culture - a line from Lenny Bruce's autobiography, an episode of the Nanny (4:9), an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm - discussions on mainstream media blogs, as well as the first question I was ever asked on an interdenominational panel, indicate that the myth is widely believed.

I am hopeful that the emerging discussion will lay to rest, once and for all, this terrible falsehood. Tattoos - perhaps because of their associations with the Holocaust, perhaps because of their indelibility, but who really knows? - remained taboo for Jews who had given up many other observances (when a distant relative started going out seriously with a non-Jew, the immediate family wasn't terribly happy, but they made their peace with it; but when they found out he has a tattoo, all hell broke loose). The tattoo taboo seems to have disappeared in recent decades, and perhaps the young generation has latched onto this myth as a way of conceptualizing the earlier generations' opposition. Alternatively, perhaps the earlier generation latched onto it because it allows them to distinguish between tattoos and the myriad observances that they abandoned. In either case, a myth is a myth, and it will hopefully be recognized as such.

My favorite Jewish teaching about tattoos is a responsum from Dayan Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss, which is reproduced and translated below. The greatness of the responsum is that it does not moralize or criticize, implicitly acknowledging that a tattoo, in the eyes of Jewish law, is a discretionary error like any other, which need not limit access to the Jewish community, living or dead:

שו"ת מנחת יצחק חלק ג סימן יא
ע"ד אחד ששימש כחייל, ובצבא שם לו כתובת קעקע ביד שמאל, במקום הנחת תפילין, תמונה של אשה ערומה, שא"א להסירה מבשרו, ועכשיו נעשה בעל תשובה, והתחיל להתפלל, ורוצה לדעת אם יכול להניח תפילין ביד שמאל, על אותה התמונה, או שיניח ביד ימין.
(א) הנה בהשקפה ראשונה נלענ"ד, דאף דהוי דבר מגונה מאד, ויש שאלה אם רשאי לברך, בשעה שהתמונה מגולה, וכמו שמבואר באחרונים מזה, דיש לומר דשייך משום טפח באשה ערוה, גם בתמונה פוטוגרפית ... אבל עכ"פ לא נסתלק המציאות מיד השמאל, שהוא היד הכהה, ולדעתי היות שמקום יש בזרוע להניח שתי תפילין, כמבואר בש"ע (או"ח סי' כ"ז סעי' ז'), וא"כ אף אם יהי' התמונה מתפשטת בכל הקיבורת, הלא אפשר לכסות חלק גדול ממנה בתמידית, ורק להניח פנוי מקום הנחת תפילין (ויעשה לו תפילין קטנים שאפשר עפ"י דין), אשר באותו מקום לא יתראה כ"כ צורתה, ושם יניח התפילה ש"י, וכמובן שבשעת הברכה יהי' מכוסה כל המקום, וגם הכסוי שמכסה החלק ממנה בתמידית, יהי' נעשה מעור דק מאד, באופן שאם בשוגג ישמטו התפילין קצת על מקום הכיסוי, יהי' אפשר לצרף השיטה דשייך בזה ג"כ משום מב"מ =מין במינו= אינו חוצץ וצ"ע עוד בזה, וכפי מה שאומרים אפשר להעביר ע"י בקיאים כתובת קעקע.
Responsa Minchat Yitzchak (R’ Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss) 3:11
Regarding one who served in the army, where he got an indelible tattoo of a naked woman on his left arm, in the place where one lays tefilliin. He has now become a baal teshuvah and wishes to know if he can place his tefillin on his left hand, on top of the image, or if he should place it on his right arm.
It seems at first glance, in my humble opinion, that even though it is a contemptible thing, and there’s a question if he can make a bracha when the picture is uncovered, as the latter authorities explain, that ‘tefach be-isha ervah’ applies to a photographic image as well…nevertheless the weaker left arm still exists. In my opinion, since there is room on the bicep for two tefillin (see Shulchan Arukh OC 27:7), so that even if the image covered the entire bicep, it’s possible to permanently cover a large portion of it, and to leave open only the place where he lays tefillin (and he should get the smallest kosher tefillin possible) in a way that her form won’t be seen that much in that spot, and there he should lay his arm tefillin. When he makes the bracha, the entire area should be covered. Also. The permanent cover for most of the image should be made of thin leather, so that if the tefillin slip onto the cover, it’s possible to rely on the opinion that a similar material doesn’t constitute a barrier…and this requires further study since they say that experts can remove tattoos.

7/19/2011

Summer Speaking Schedule

I'll be speaking several times while visiting the US over the next few weeks. Here's the schedule:

Shabbat afternoon at 6:55pm, July 23, Beth Tfiloh Congregation, Baltimore, MD.
Topic: "Killing the Rabbis: A Reading of Berakhot 48a"

Shabbat Hazon, August 5-6, at Beit Chaverim of Norwalk/Westport, CT.
“Religion and State in Israel: Is there a Solution that can Work for Everyone?”
“What Makes a Good Jewish Community on Campus?”
“Old Mourning: What Keeps Tisha B’Av Relevant?” 

Tisha B'Av at Ohaev Shalom - The National Synagogue, Washington DC
Morning: A Tisha B'Av related topic, TBD
Late afternoon: A topic related to R. Amital's life and work, TBD.

If you're in the neighborhood, drop in.



Tisha B'Av 

7/15/2011

Darshening Bono

Yesterday, the revamped Talmud Blog had a post about an Israeli scholar who "darshens" Israeli rock. While indeed an exciting development, it is hardly revolutionary. This is what rabbis do for a living - darshen popular culture, be it music, movies, TV, sports, literature, etc., to pull out some message that correlates with some classical text. This may be a chiddush for academics, but it's par for the course for rabbis.
Of course, some rabbis are better at it than others, and some popular cultural artifacts are easier to enlist for this purpose than others. When Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's Iron Man record, there was not a rabbi in Baltimore who didn't turn it into a mussar schmuess about the value of consistency and dedication, a la Ben Pazi in the famous midrash that appears in the introduction to Ein Ya'akov (about the most important verse in the Torah).
Similarly, when looking for rock groups to "darshen", few are as fertile as U2. And with the band's harmonic drones and searing falsettos still ringing in my ears after last night's concert in Philadelphia, I will take the opportunity to hold forth a bit on some of their more suggestive lyrics.
In a post from the first year of this blog, I wrote about the following passage in Pesachim 88a, which relates how each of our Patriarchs related to God’s Place:
Said Rabbi Elazar: What does Isaiah mean when he says, "And many peoples will go and say, 'Come let us go up to the Mountain of G-d to the house of the G-d of Jacob!'" ? Why the G-d of Jacob and not the G-d of Abraham and Isaac? The answer is: Not like Abraham, who saw it as a Mountain ("as it is said this day, On the Mountain HaVaYaH is seen" -- Genesis 22:14). And not like Isaac, for whom it was a Field ("And Isaac went out to meditate in the Field" -- Genesis 24:63). But like Jacob, who called it a House: "And he called the name of that place Beth El, the House of G-d" (Genesis 28:19).
I related this passage to the opening verses of "Still Haven't Found what I'm Looking For," in which Bono sings of his having climbed mountains, run through fields, and scaled city walls in his quest. I wondered - and still wonder - if there's something universal about these elements in man's search.
I would go further in suggesting that this particular song expresses something profoundly optimistic - Jewishly optimistic, I might add - in its intimations that human beings are on an unending search for something more. Even in Kingdom Come, and even despite our true belief, we will continue to "run", to seek what we're looking for. Indeed, "the righteous have no rest, not in this world nor in the next world [Kingdom Come]" (Berakhot 64a). The lyricist, presumably unfamiliar with the talmudic passage, certainly seems to have drawn on the same prooftext of Isaiah 40:31.
Interestingly, Bono said something last night while addressing the crowd that probably went over the head of most of the crowd. He mentioned that people were attending the concert from as far away as Israel (my wife and I were attending the concert from Israel, but he wasn't referring to us, I presume). A second later, he stopped and seemed to respond to something that someone said to him, probably a manager communicating through an earphone. Bono abruptly stopped talking about Israel, and then apologized for his "colorblindness". I believe that the following happened: a manager type told him not to mention Israel, certainly not in a positive light. Bono stopped but registered his disagreement by "apologizing" for his "color-blindness." While Bono is indeed color blind, he also sings, in that same song (which was the very next song at last night's concert), that "I believe in the Kingdom Come, when all the colors will bleed into one." Colorblind, indeed. And who else speaks of "blindness" as a metaphoric virtue? Once again, Isaiah. This time it's 42:19.
I have also (subtly) darshened the political message of "Where the Streets have no Name." The context was an article about the process by which streets and other landmarks are named in Israel (and presumably elsewhere, like Ireland). An implicit message of the song is that there's something pure and clean about places where the streets have no name; one can take shelter from the poison rain there.
U2's "In God's Country" has a line about "crooked crosses" in its refrain. He's talking about Ireland, and I can only presume that the "crooked crosses" signify a corrupt religious establishment. I am often reminded of that song when reading and blogging about the tensions between religion and state in Israel.
This next example is from my friend Yehudah, who by his own report, had a religious experience at the U2 concert at MSG during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva of 5748, when Bono was famously joined by the New Voices of Freedom gospel choir for "Still Haven't Found..." (goosebumps). Yehudah used a line from "Walk On" - You're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been // A place that has to be believed to be seen - to frame a class on the Binding of Isaac, and the role of "seeing" in the episode, and how it is conditioned by belief.
Ultimately, though, is this real? Can one actually mine spirituality from pop culture? Well, as U2 sings in "Mysterious Ways" (and here I'm definitely taking it out of context): If you wanna kiss the sky, you better learn how to kneel."

7/07/2011

New Article and Loose Ends

I have an article on aggadah up on JID:

A former student, Jordan Hirsch, reviews two books on imperialist gamesmanship in WWI-era Middle East, that tell a still-relevant cautionary tale about Western assumptions regarding Arab revolutions.

The new, improved Talmud blog is up and running. Good luck, Shai & co.


MK Amslaem's speech in Modiin was disappointing. His novelty is not that he's saying anything new, but that he's saying new things while wearing a black hat. I was hoping that perhaps he wasn't just another politician, but he's just another politician.

I spoke with R. Lichtenstein about the Half-Shabbos phenomenon, specifically about whether texting on Shabbat should be a de-orayta. He said that's a question for the Tzomet people, but that it's clear that it's a terrible violation of Shabbat, as it runs the risk of turning Shabbat into just another day of the week.

I've had some lively debates today about R. Zilberstein's approving that a girl cut herself to force her parents to let her wear a skirt. My take is that while the rabbi desrves the criticism he's getting, there's been no talk about the parents. You're talking about the secular parents of a girl, presumably in her late teens, who is enrolled in a Haredi kiruv seminary. Whatever the reason for this girl's dramatic lifestyle change - sincere conviction, a form of rebellion, evidence of mental health issues, or whatnot - why on earth would her parents drive her to self-mutilation by insisting that she dress a certain way? A person can pick or choose a rabbi; a parent is not chosen, and therefore parents have a much greater potential to really screw a kid up than any rabbi ever could.

6/23/2011

The Motives of California "Intactivism"

The "intactivist" (anti-circumcision) movement in California is making the news all over the US (strangely, not in Israel yet) by trying to get MGM (male genital mutilation) laws passed in San Francisco and Santa Monica. Their latest propaganda includes a magazine called "Foreskin Man" (which I've been tweeting about for a week already).
Although many (like Shmuely Boteach) have tried to take the "circumcision is healthier" tack, I believe - along with WSJ's Brad Greenberg - that this is misguided. The point is that Jews will not stop circumcising even if you make a law, just as they did not stop in the past when it was forbidden by law. Making such a law is a dangerous endeavor.
Several years ago at UMD, I was interviewed by the student newspaper for an article about an anti-circumcision group on campus. At the time, I took a dual strategy: a. Acknowledge the good that they do (educating non-Jews about the risks of circumcision; educating Jews about the risks of performing circumcision under unsanitary conditions). b. Don't even bother trying to explain why Jews insist on circumcision (if you read the article, you'll see how I executed this strategy). There's nothing to argue about. It is the quintessential marker of Jewish identity (in the Bible, non-Israelites are called "uncircumcised ones" or more properly "foreskins" - a jarring synecdoche if ever there was one). And it continues to be practiced almost uniformly among Jews, even secular, anti-religious, or atheist Jews; even among Jews who truly believe it to be a barbaric ritual. Can I explain that? Not really. On the other hand, it is a reality, which needs no explanation.
With regard to the motives for the current campaign, I view it as a product of a hypersexual culture. Part of what the authors of Foreskin Man portray - ignoring the blatantly anti-Semitic (and anti-Amish, come to think of it; the Monster Mohel has a beard and no mustache) images for the moment - is the sexuality that simply oozes from the "good guys" (whatever the authors think about circumcision, they sure don't seem to have an issue with breast implants). Their names (Kummings, Hastwick, etc.; personally, I'd have named the hero's alter ego Arlo Pullman, especially given the epispasmic practices of the comic's creator) simply ooze sexuality. When they're not fighting to save foreskins, they're hanging out on the beach, wearing next to nothing on their Olympian bodies. In short, the message is that circumcision hinders sexual fulfillment.
Similarly, this blog post by a young Jewish man angry at his mohel because he's too conflicted about hating his parents offers a similar lament: he doesn't enjoy sex and masturbation as much as he otherwise would. He also experiences mild discomfort, chafing, and sometimes gets lint under the folds of his skin, but the structure of his argument suggest that's the main issue is the great sex he's missed out on.
Thus, when coming to evaluate the importance of a flap of skin with some nerve endings, one's table of values comes strongly into play. If sex, and the degree of pleasure experienced during sex (and it is a question of degree; circumcised men do enjoy sex), are at the top of one's priority scale, then something that mitigates that pleasure is simply terrible. If sex is simply not that high up on the scale, then the removal of that skin is, quite frankly, not such a big sacrifice, and when it conflicts with other, more important values, then the skin loses. [After I started writing this, I saw that Chaim Steinmetz makes a similar point].
A similar direction for contextualization is in Ben Chorin's recent series, especially the entries of December 19 and 27.

6/16/2011

Yizkor

I'm flabbergasted that Ha'aretz can, with a straight face, argue based on "tradition" that we should keep it the way it was, and not the emendations of R. Goren in a "thrall of messianic fervor." If only the secular establishment had so much respect for tradition while they were pissing on it (pardon my French, but I see this as jarringly ironic).
This really goes back to the issue that Ha'aretz, as well as some other media and the High Court, are really the last bastions of secular Ashkenazi culture. As I noted on Lag B'Omer, secular Israeli civic religion is slowly eroding, and Judaism is making space for more civic observance. I find this to be a heartwarming trend. On the specific issue of Yizkor, see Menachem Mendel's excellent piece.
One of the great writers of early secular Zionism, Haim Hazaz, concluded his "The Sermon" with the line: "When a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist" (in this context, "Jew" meant the religious and passive Jew of the exile, and "Zionist" meant secular kibbutznik). Apparently the opposite also holds true, at least on the broader scale: When a man can no longer be a Zionist, he becomes a Jew.

Some Notes in Brief

  • MK R. Haim Amsalem's visit to Modiin has been rescheduled for this Monday. Here's a link to the event flier for more information.
  • Looks like I'll be attending at least part of the Israeli Presidential Conference. I'm going on a blogger pass. I'll probably cover some detail via Twitter (@adderabbi), but mainly want to meditate on what it means for Israel. We'll see if I can come up with anything interesting.
  • I'll be in the US (MD-DC area) for about a month this summer. I may have a few Scholar-in-Residence opportunities lined up, but am on the lookout for more.
  • I've hope to post in the next few days on the circumcision controversy in California and on the Yizkor controversy in Israel.

6/07/2011

Israel's New Daylight Savings Law

Interior Minister Eli Yishai has extended Daylight Savings Time into October. This means that Yom Kippur will not fall during DST about 50% of the time. Extending DST into October makes economic sense according to virtually all studies, but many religious people are upset because now Yom Kippur will be "longer".

Of course, Yom Kippur will not be "longer." It's 25 hours any way you slice it. If the issue is that it "feels" longer or contains more waking hours, synagogues now have leeway to start services a bit later (daylight starts later, after all) so people can sleep longer and keep the same number of wakeful fasting hours. And if not? Tough it out. An hour being hungry isn't worth tens of millions of shekels. Furthermore, synagogues that start earlier at the beginning of the winter calendar (because sof z'man kri'at Shema is earlier) will be able to keep their 8:30am start times for a few extra weeks. So there's a net benefit for hours of sleep accrued. Since I try to go to a very early minyan on Yom Kippur so that I can come home and my wife can go to a later minyan, the new schedule actually works out better for me.

6/03/2011

A Gilded Landsmanschaft

An article of mine was posted today on Ynet and eJewishPhilanthropy, and was excerpted in Haaretz. The occasion for the article is the dedication of Kehillat Shaarei Yonah Menachem this weekend, with much pomp and circumstance (guest speakers will include Natan Sharansky and R. Shlomo Riskin, as well as local politicians).

In the article, I made reference to an idea that I developed before: that Israel should be a "cholent pot" - not a melting pot or salad bowl. In a cholent pot, each ingredient remains distinct like in a salad bowl, but adds and receives flavor, scent, and texture to and from all of the other ingredients. So too, the different elements that constitute Jewish (and dare I say non-Jewish) diversity in Israel all (should) contribute to and also takes something from all the other elements.

6/02/2011

The Rhetoric of Chumra in Igrot Moshe

This past Saturday night I gave a chabura on "The Rhetoric of Chumra in Igrot Moshe". I looked at several responsa in which R. Moshe Feinstein uses the language of "reluctant leniency" and develop a theory as to what his goals were in using this type of language. In some ways, what R. Moshe is trying to do is the exact opposite of what the Chafetz Chaim is trying to do in the Mishna Berurah.


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5/30/2011

Stalemates and Doubts

Take a look at Gil's post on the idea of using "teiku" on questions of faith. He attempts to show that not only do chareidi rabbis like R. Matisyahu Salomon use it when running up against apparent contradictions and difficulties in the realm of faith, but so did R. Soloveitchik. Therefore, he concludes, critics of R. Salomon are being disingenuous.

Back when the controversy about R. Salomon broke out, there were indeed bloggers who criticized R. Salomon for using the idea of teiku as an ideological cop-out, to avoid dealing with Torah and science issues. In other words, they saw what R. Salomon was doing and judged it to be bad or wrong, arguing that in matters of faith every effort must be made to know and to answer whatever possible.

To that end, R. Gil's excerpt from RYBS (who is himself invoking Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling) indeed demonstrates that there are instances in which the man of faith must throw up his hands and say "teiku." There are theological questions and contradictions so profound that the true man of faith must accept that some questions will not be answered.

He could have cited the example of R. Yehuda Amital as well. A cornerstone of his post-Holocaust theology was resignation without any attempt at justification. This was the basis for his critique of those - from R. Zvi Yehuda Kook to R. Yoel Teitelbaum - who rationalized the Holocaust within a larger ideological scheme (see, for example, pp. 127-133 of By Faith Alone).

Yet my critique then, as now, focused on what I believe to be a common misunderstanding of the idea of teiku. Teiku is said not when I don't know something and not even when nobody knows something. It is used when something cannot be known (note that in the RYBS quote he shifts from the real meaning of teiku to the colloquial meaning of teiku just before the end of the quote; I wouldn't put too much linguistic stock in the rhetorical jab at the end).

Resignation in the face of the unknown should never be a long-term solution. It may be prudent in some instances, but it must never become policy. It stunts all discovery and progress. At the same time, recognition that some things-like the reason for the binding of Isaac and the Holocaust-are unknowable is a desirable trait. It means knowing that man can never know the answer, or that there is no answer - not that someone of superior intellect will eventually come and answer it for me.

5/26/2011

Balancing Imperatives: A Response to Rabbi Shmuly

After I completed my studies for rabbinic ordination in 2002, my wife and I decided to move back to the United States - temporarily - to teach Torah. Before leaving, we met and spoke with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. Among the issues we discussed was whether we would have an imperative to stay in a community if it grew to depend on us. He responded with the story of a relative of his who was a shochet, a ritual slaughterer, in Alabama. At some point this man decided that it would be better for the family to move to a larger community. A member of the local community approached him and said, "if you leave, everybody here will start eating treif." R. Lichtenstein continued, "but he had to make the decision that was right for his family. And indeed, kosher food was no longer available in that city."
My own grandparents faced a similar dilemma. In the late 1940s, my grandfather was hired to officiate (lead services, read the Torah, and deliver sermons) High Holiday services at a synagogue in a small town in Ohio. The one-off gig turned out to be a probeh, an audition, and he was offered the job of full-time rabbi. Although he was inclined to accept, my grandmother insisted that she would not move her family to a city with no decent Jewish education. And so they remained in Baltimore.
These stories were definitely part of the calculus that motivated us to return to Israel after 4 solid years teaching in the US. The decision greatly impacted my professional trajectory and ultimately led me to leave the fields of education and rabbinics. Our move was motivated by lots of factors, not least of which was that we did not want our children to grow up with Israel as a foreign country. I will always be an immigrant or alien here. I wanted that experience to end with me.
But during those 4 years, perhaps because we knew that we would only be in the States for a handful of years, we were able to do things that perhaps we otherwise would not have considered. For two years we lived in College Park, MD - something we never would have considered had we been looking for a place to settle. Living on campus while serving the campus community made all the difference, as the campus became our home and not merely our place of work.
Before moving to Maryland, we lived for two years in Dallas, Texas, where we were also willing to explore untested corners of Jewish education there. On one occasion, we spent a Shabbat at the University of Texas in Austin (hook 'em Horns). In many ways, that experience fueled our desire to accept campus rabbinic positions when the opportunity arose.

That Shabbat, we met a student, a senior named Shawn, who had become observant the previous year. I remember being struck by the fact that his trajectory of increased observance did not result in alienation from his peers. Though there were not many role models in Austin, he had somehow managed to keep his balance while undergoing massive lifestyle changes.
Today I have several things to say to Shawn.
The first is: Mazal Tov on your wedding. Tizku livnot bayit ne'eman Be-Yisra'el.
The second is: Keep making great use of your youth and energy! Continue to be a globetrotting warrior against poverty, injustice, and oppression wherever it may be found!
The third and final is: You are now part of a unit that is larger than yourself - a unit that will hopefully continue to grow. This will help you realize that your decisions affect those around you, and that self-fulfillment is not the only variable feeding those decisions. You are not the first and will not be the last to have to chart a course between choosing what is best for the Jewish people, or even the world, and the needs of those nearest and dearest to you (I recommend this post by R. Michael Broyde, which appeared the same day as your article). Be assured that it is not a zero-sum game, though. You will find that balance, just as you managed to keep your balance as a newly observant student at UT. You will meet the needs of your family even at the ends of the earth, if that is the route you choose. And, believe it or not, even if you wind up here in the Jewish state, you will find ample opportunity for development in conjunction with a diverse array of neighboring societies; to play a leading role in fighting injustice, alleviating poverty, advocating for Israel and Jewish interests, and learning from people of other faiths; and to actualize all of the values of our Jewish tradition.

5/21/2011

Notes on Lag B'Omer

1. My reading of the RSBY narrative continues to evolve. The recent podcast takes a slightly different approach than the series of blog posts. The new "addition" is the two-tiered reading of RSBY's purification of the graveyard - on the external level he was building a bridge (one of the features of society that he critiqued earlier in the story - this is noted by Jeff Rubenstein), but he builds it through halakha (a point made to me by Moshe Simon-Shoshan). In other words, the rabbi/ poseik ideally contributes to the world, makes the world a better place, does "tikkun olam", through the vehicle of halakha. Contrast this with the nay-saying old rabbi in the very next line of the narrative, and you get a very neat opposition between the rabbi, RSBY, who uses his erudition to improve the world - even if it's merely to make life a bit more comfortable - and those who use the same erudition to cast aspersions and deny conveniences. Eruv disputes provide an interesting contemporary parallel. On the deeper level, I returned to the symbolism I developed here, namely, that finding a path through a graveyard connotes the process of moving forward after a major trauma or crisis, a task that fell to RSBY as he and his colleagues rebuilt Judaism after the Bar Kokhba rebellion.

2. Last year, I noted the irony of celebrating Lag B'Omer before Shabbat ends by pointing out that RSBY's mind was put at ease when he emerged from the cave and saw how beloved Shabbat is to the Jews. I suggested then that when Lag B'Omer falls out on Saturday Night, the lighting of bonfires should be postponed. This year, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate called for just such a postponement (even a broken clock is right twice a day), following the call of Rav Ovadia Yosef. I do not see that this call prevented much Shabbat desecration (and religious communities did not heed the call either), but I think it is valuable for another reason (which may get its own post soon enough). The Mapai party, during the years it dominated Israeli politics and culture, created a secular civic religion that essentially hollowed out Jewish rituals and refilled them with new meanings that they supplied (see Liebman and Don Yihya's volume here). To a great extent, this Mapai religion and traditional Judaism in its various forms remained separate spheres, though there was some overlap (imagine it as a Venn diagram). In recent decades, Mapai religion has begun to collapse. There is still an Israeli civic religion, but it draws on traditional Judaism more and more (not necessarily in a halakhic form - there are plenty of non-kosher sukkot and it's always jarring to see people vacuuming their cars on the Shabbat before Pesach). There are still aspects of secular religion that lie outside anything traditional (e.g., the "Adloyada" parades on Purim), but the area of overlap is greater than ever and growing. The Rabbinate's call for a postponement of Lag B'Omer celebrations is a sign that traditional forms of Judaism are "making room" for civic religious praxis to draw more nourishment from the tradition. This is a positive development. For a broader outline of these trends, I recommend some of Yehudah Mirsky's recent essays at Jewish Ideas Daily as well as a recent series of blog posts by Ben Chorin.

3. All that said, my attitude toward the whole bonfire thing is benign tolerance at best, coupled with concern for fire hazards. As a friend pointed out today, "I'm going to make a medura tonight just like I do every Saturday night." Well said (he was referring, of course, to havdala, made over a candle that must have multiple wicks, defined by halakha as a medura).

4. Finally, a public service announcement: next week's event with MK R. Amsalem has been postponed. I will be giving a shiur next Saturday night on the topic of "Chumra in the writings of the Chafetz Chaim and R. Moshe Feinstein." I will be using the former mainly as a foil for the latter, but will present several models of the role and goals of stringency in their writings, and expanding on what I wrote here.

5/18/2011

A Path through the Graveyard

Here is the yahrzeit shiur I gave in honor of my grandparents on Tuesday night. It addresses the last part of the R. Shimon b. Yochai narrative that appears on Shabbat 33b-34a - bar Yochai's reintegration in society after the years in the cave.
The dedication begins at 4:10 and the shiur itself about 45 seconds later.
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5/17/2011

If I Coud be like Like

A news item appeared in the Israeli press yesterday morning announcing that an Israeli couple had named their daughter Like. By the evening, it was in the English Jewish media as well. I posted the item on my FB wall yesterday and challenged people to come up with funny situations that this name would cause. Here are some of the best (and yes, some of them are mine):
  1. "Like Like, if I could be like Like. (I wanna be I wanna be like Like)"
  2. If she marries Junior Seau, she would be Like Seau. If she marries Spike Lee she'd be Like Lee, and then her biopic would be A Like Lee Story (A Spike Lee Joint).
  3. When she's a teenager she'll ask: "Mom, Dad, do you LOVE me?" 
  4. If she's a Wonder Years character: "I mean, I like Like, but I don't LIKE like Like."
  5. At a younger brother's parent-teacher conference: "We like how he's likely like Like and her like."
  6. Conversation between parents before the naming: Mom: "Maybe we can call her 'Ahava' (which means 'Love')?" Dad: "What, and have her friends tease her for being named after a face cream?" 
  7. If she does something out of character, it would be unlike Like, or un-Like-like.
  8. Her older sisters are Poke and Share.
  9. Really the best response was the one actually given by her father: "Had it been a boy, we'd have named him Moshe."

5/15/2011

By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital

By Faith Alone: The Story of Rabbi Yehuda Amital
My translation of of R. Amital's bio will be out later this month and can now be pre-ordered. I'm too close to the action to give an objective review, but I think it succeeds in capturing the multifaceted personality of a very unique, complex, and sorely missed individual.

5/14/2011

Am Shalem: The Entire Jewish People

  • I've joined up with R. Amsalem's "Am Shalem" movement as a grassroots organizer, working primarily with the movement's English-speaking division. I have some ideas of where to go with this, and I'll update this blog with relevant news. For some background, here's a feature that Aryeh Tepper did on R. Amsalem w/ JID, and here's a brand new article about Anglo activism in the movement. 
  • Email me (adderabbi at gmail) if you're interested in getting on the movement's mailing list, making a donation, or otherwise getting involved.
  • [UPDATE: tHE SHIUR HAS BEEN POSTPONED. i WILL RE-POST ONCE IT'S BEEN RESCHEDULED] R. Amsalem will be speaking at Kehillat Shaarei Yonah Menachem in Modiin on Saturday Night, May 28. Details to follow, but it has been confirmed.
  • From an article that speaks to these issues and certain key fault lines, there is an emerging dispute about whether Lag B'Omer should be celebrated this year on the 33rd or 34th day of the Omer. The reason to postpone is to prevent Shabbat desecration during preparations. The Ashkenazic Haredi authorities are not in favor of postponing, but the Sephardic rabbis generally are. In my opinion, this dispute falls along a fault line of "secessionist Orthodoxy" that goes back to the austritt days of R. Hirsch. Basically, does the halakha address the community of the self-defined faithful, or does it speak to the entire Jewish people (the Am Shalem, if you will). My grandfathers both ministered to the non-observant, and one grandfather studied in the Wurzburg Seminary founded by R. Seligmann Baer Bamberger, the disputant of R. Hirsch on the austritt issue. It is clear where my sympathies lie.
  • And finally, speaking of my grandparents, I will be giving my annual yahrzeit shiur in memory of my three grandparents who passed away during Sefirat Ha-Omer. The shiur will take place on Tuesday night at 8:30pm at the Glenwood Synagogue in Ramat Modiin (Hashmonaim). The topic is: "A Path through the Graveyard: R. Shimon b. Yochai's Return to Society" - and yes, the topic will very much have to do with the themes discussed earlier in the email.
Two other short notes:
  • According to Blogger, this is my 1000th post.
  • I think I'd really enjoy this album

5/09/2011

The Economics of the Maharat

Via TaxProfBlog (HT: @MAHelfand, @menachembutler)

Orthodox Jewish Women and the Parsonage Exemption

Jacob Lewin (J.D. 2011, Cardoozo) has published Note, Orthodox Jewish Women and Eligibility for the Parsonage Exemption, 17 Cardozo J.L. & Gender 139 (2010). Here is the part of the Introduction:
This Note posits that unordained Orthodox Jewish women can only take parsonage when they have an official licensing, which can be satisfied with a theological degree. Part I presents a background of the parsonage exemption as well as the historical debate as to its constitutionality. Part II discusses the scope of the parsonage exemption and the case law that determine eligibility. Part III first introduces Broyde’s approach to the issue of unordained Orthodox Jewish women’s entitlement to parsonage and then presents an evaluation and ultimately a suggestion as to how unordained women can be eligible. This Note ultimately concludes that unordained women can be entitled to the parsonage exemption and that lacking ordination does not bar eligibility when a woman has an official certification to her character as a spiritual leader.
I've been arguing for over 5 years that the matter of somehow accrediting Orthodox women who serve in a pastoral role is one of basic yashrut. The question of whether such a woman should be called rabbi, rabbah, maharat, tanna'it, or anything else is completely secondary. And as has always been the case, halakha is more responsive to economic pressures than it is to ideological movements.

5/06/2011

Of Revolutionary Women and Straw Men

Cross posted to Hirhurim.
I do not envy the task that Michal Tukochinsky set for herself in writing “How Women’s Talmud Study is Unique” (New York Jewish Week, April 12, 2011). She wishes to describe how the new (second) generation of women’s Talmud study differs from the first, differs from men’s Talmud study, and yet remains part of the halakhic community despite its discomfort—typical of all traditional communities—with revolutions. Unfortunately, in order to accomplish this task, she oversimplifies the contrast groups while grossly understating the current state of women’s (or feminine, or feminist) Talmud study. The result is a flawed view of the uniqueness and contribution of the program she heads.

To begin with, she certainly does not give much credit to the pioneering women who first entered the male-dominated world of Talmud study. She unflatteringly describes these women as modeling themselves after and “aping” the manner in which their male counterparts studied Talmud. To be sure, many of these pioneering women may have been motivated, consciously or otherwise, by the prospect of breaking into a typically masculine world. Indeed, many traditionalist opponents of this first generation accused them of just that. However, such motivation, even when present, would not render them methodological copycats. They wished to learn Talmud from whoever was willing to teach it. The reality was that they found willing teachers in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and his disciples, thus exposing them to one specific methodology, which also happened to be highly conceptual and famously devoid of “worldly awareness” in its talmudic analysis.

Tukochinsky’s second error, perhaps related to the first generation’s limited exposure to various methodologies, lies in describing the entire world of male Talmud study in terms that apply to only one school of thought within it. Granted, this school, the “Brisker” school founded by Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik more than a century ago, became the dominant methodology in the world of yeshivot, conquering, in turn, Lithuanian, greater European, and ultimately even Sephardic institutions. From a historical perspective, however, the Brisker school is a relative newcomer and never even came close to monopolizing Talmud study worldwide. Much of Tukochinsky’s critique may be justifiably applied to this school, but there are and always have been other ways of learning that she may admit are more “feminine,” or less “isolated from the world.”

Relating to some of these other ways of reading and studying Talmud makes it difficult indeed to defend the uniqueness of Tukochinsky’s beit midrash. For centuries, the dominant Sephardic mode of Talmud study was “aliba de-hilkheta” – with the specific goal of eventual application of the Talmud to life. Although not terribly popular in mainstream yeshivot, its practitioners included those who emerged as the greatest poskim, including, inter alia, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and the still-living Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. It is no accident that those who studied Talmud with an eye on “life itself” earned the trust of the community when it came to applying the Talmud to life.

In 1986, Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin published Le livre brûlé, Lire le Talmud, in which Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Blanchot, and other European thinkers are brought to bear on the Talmud and other traditional Jewish texts (here’s an excellent review). It was published in English in 1995 as The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud. Indeed, Derrida himself was no foreigner to the world of the Talmud; a major influence on him—though they certainly had their differences—was the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who notably articulated many of his philosophical teachings in the form of talmudic readings (three volumes of which have thus far been translated into English, and two into Hebrew).

There is still much good to be gained from studying Talmud in light of postmodern continental philosophers. However, to relate to it as unprecedented or revolutionary ignores at least 25 years and arguably a half century of French-Jewish intellectual creativity. The fact that the circles that comprised “Vilna on the Seine” are little-known outside the Francophone Jewish community may say something about the creativity of Tukochinsky’s student, but cannot possibly say anything about how the second generation of women’s Talmud study is revolutionary.

There has, in fact, been a feminist revolution in Talmud study, though Tukochinsky makes no mention of it. The late Chana Safrai, a pioneering Orthodox feminist, was arguably the first to apply the feminist critique to the Talmud from within a traditional context. Daniel Boyarin’s Carnal Israel (1993) is already considered a classic work of feminist Talmud study. More recently, Tal Ilan has begun a large project, the Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, of which several volumes have already been published. Rather than relating to some unique or creative or new method of Talmud study and attributing it to the women’s revolution, these works directly address how gender shaped the worldview of those who produced the Talmud.

In other circles, the second generation of women's Talmud study has taken different contours. Talmud study for women is taken for granted to the point that it is no longer seen as a revolution. The self-consciousness of being revolutionary that characterized the first generation is diminishing among their daughters. Furthermore, by the time many young women graduate high school, they are as bored with and turned off to Talmud study as their male counterparts (though hardly because of a desire to imitate them). It is significant that the second generation, in many respects, is NOT characterized by revolution.
In the final analysis, however, there is clearly a difference between the first and second generations of women studying Talmud, which coincides with broader shifts in the general world of talmudic scholarship. The Talmud has always been “broader than the sea,” endlessly mined, using a dizzying variety of hermeneutical tools, to create sense and meaning for living Jews. In today’s universities, yeshivot, and rabbinical schools, one can find men and women reading the Talmud according to the Brisker method, in light of legal theory, source-, form-, and gender-critically, in comparison with contemporaneous Christian, Zoroastrian, or Sectarian texts, with an eye on the dominant Roman and Persian cultures, as literature, as a mystical tract, or as a guide to life.

One may argue that some of these modes of reading are more “masculine” or “feminine” than others—whether practiced by men or women. However, that would mask the exciting reality that different people with different ways of thinking are applying their prodigious talents and creativity to a text that has long been the lifeblood of the Jewish people. There is no doubt that women Talmud scholars still face barriers to advancement in yeshivot and even universities. Let us hope, along with Michal Tukochinsky, that these barriers erode, allowing women to more fully add their voices to the diverse, exciting, and ever-expanding world of Talmud study.

5/05/2011

Zaydie in the JTA Archives

With the news that the JTA recently uploaded 250,000 articles spanning nearly a century, I had to check it out. I searched for familiar names and places, including my grandfather, who actually appeared in one article. First the article, then my reactions:

June 3, 1971
Maryland’s Only Kosher Poultry Processing Plant to Remain Closed Pending Hearing

BALTIMORE -
Maryland's only kosher poultry slaughter and processing plant will remain closed pending a hearing on June 9. Pen-Mar Poultry, Inc. located in this city, was closed down last week because of what Dr. Robert J. Lee, chief of Maryland's meat and poultry inspection division, termed as "gross unsanitary operative conditions" in the plant. Dr. Lee said the products prepared were subjected to bacteria, with insect and vermin control almost completely lacking. Rabbi Leopold Fischer, the plant's ritual slaughterer and spiritual leader of Congregation Zera Israel here, denied the charges and attributed any shortcomings to the upkeep of outmoded machinery. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that "Our chickens are clean." He further stated that the 1,500 families who normally get their poultry from Pen-Mar are now being forced to import chickens from New Jersey and New York. According to Dr. Lee, state inspectors have been working closely with the Pen-Mar management since the beginning of the year in an effort to upgrade the facilities, but have been met with "extreme verbal abuse" by the staff. He further stated that "Not once have they (Pen-Mar) asked to have inspection reinstated since its suspension on May 25." By law, state inspection is required to maintain operations. Rabbi Fischer confirmed that friction exists between management and State inspectors.

My comments:
  1. My father recalls that there was a lot of politics involved, as the first major slaughterhouse, Empire, was trying to put the little guys out of business and threw political weight around to get it done.
  2. At that time, my grandfather was not actively slaughtering anymore, but was the supervisor of the other shochtim.
  3. My father works in occupational safety professionally. I'm wondering if he was rebelling against something...
  4. Should I worry that this man was also my mohel?
Wonder what else I'll dig up on this new toy.

Paul Simon in Israel

It's recently been announced that Paul Simon will be doing a concert in Israel. If I'm in the country, I'm there. Marc Tracy of Tablet suggests a set list. His recommendations are all right (Homeward Bound can be understood as a heavily Jewish and even mystical allegory; I am a Rock easily resonates with the Israeli situation; Still Crazy applies to the whole country)- some a bit contrived, though. There's some low-hanging fruit that he missed though:
1) The Dangling Conversation - about two people in a relationship but talking past each other. Can apply to both internal and international politics.
2) The Boxer - “In a clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade, and he carries the reminder of every glove that laid him out or cut him till he cried out in his anger and his shame ‘I am leaving, I am leaving,’ but the fighter still remains.” What a great metaphor for Israel.
3) Scarborough Fair - because it's frequently used for "Dror Yikra" (at least it was until "Sloop John B" inherited that crown).
4) Bridge over Troubled Water - because it speaks to the very reason that the State of Israel was founded.
5) Slip Slidin Away - "God only knows; God makes his plans. The information's unavailable to the mortal man. We work our jobs, collect our pay; we think we're riding down the highway but instead we're slip sliding away." This is Yiddish wisdom ("mensch tracht un Gott lacht").
6) America - hitchhiking is still popular here, as is America (though in the song, America is a stand-in for New York; perhaps a rewrite for "Jerusalem" is in order - "counting the cars on Route 443 yeah, they've all come to look for Jerusalem."