Dozens/ Hundreds of Rabbis Say…

Am I missing any from the past 10 months or so?

[Full disclosure: I signed on the first letter, before there was a trend.]

Getting 100 rabbis to sign on something used to be difficult. After all, the “escape clause” on the rabbinic ban on polygamy, now over 1,000 years old, allowed the husband of a woman who could not or would not accept divorce to marry a second wife if he could obtain the signatures of 100 rabbis from 100 different communities. This loophole was designed to make sure that the ban on polygamy would be difficult to circumvent. It appears not to be too difficult anymore.

The trend is disturbing for several reasons. Firstly, there are tens of thousands of rabbis in the world, if not more than 100,000; there is no rabbinic consensus on virtually any issue. Thus, getting a bunch of rabbis to support one thing or another is not difficult, but it can give the mistaken impression that there is some sort of broad agreement on an issue.

When numerous rabbis sign on a single document, it flattens dialogue. Positions tend toward sound-bites and away from nuance. There is little room for shades of grey, and there is little room for the rabbis with unique voices to create their own space. Furthermore, these letters tend to give the erroneous impression that all rabbinic voices are equal. A social media-savvy recent rabbinical school grad is not the same as a gadol be-Yisrael, but on a petition they each get one vote.

Rabbinic disagreement has classically taken place in a beit midrash or through the exchange of personal letters. Rarely were there public pronouncements that did not invite dialogue. It would be terrible if as a result of these letters different groups stop having dialogue with each other. As Rav Shach once lamented to Rav Amital, “we’ve grown so far apart that we don’t even argue anymore.”

Finally, people will eventually stop listening to rabbis who cry “Wolf!” When everything is worth a public petition, those things that really demand a public outcry will be ignored. Rav Moshe Lichtenstein calls this “inflation.”

I hope that rabbis, individually and collectively, begin to realize that the cost of these statements are not worth the benefits and, accordingly, think long and hard before affixing their signatures to such petitions.


If the rabbi is like an angel...

According to the Talmud (Mo'ed Katan 17a), one should only study under a rabbi who is angelic:
אמר רבי יוחנן, מאי דכתיב +מלאכי ב'+ כי שפתי כהן ישמרו דעת ותורה יבקשו מפיהו כי מלאך ה' צבאות הוא אם דומה הרב למלאך ה' - יבקשו תורה מפיו. ואם לאו - אל יבקשו תורה מפיו
Rabbi Yohanan said:  What is meant by (Malachi 2:7) "For the lips of the priest guard knowledge, and they shall seek Torah from his mouth, for he is a messenger/angel of the Lord of Hosts"? If the rabbi is angelic--seek Torah from his mouth. If not--do not seek Torah from his mouth.
Several years ago, I wrote about why it's a dangerous passage; after all, angels are lousy role models.

But every once in a while, a delicious irony presents itself. The most recent case (HT: FailedMessiah) of a rabbi being charged with sexual abuse involves the scion of a little known-offshoot of Chabad and ally of Satmar called "The Malochim." So we can now go completely against that Gemara and say, "If the rabbi is like a malach, stay far the heck away."
Another talmudic passage that I would advise against on similar grounds appears in Brakhot 28b:

מנעו בניכם מן ההגיון והושיבום בין ברכי תלמידי חכמים
Keep your sons away from logic, and seat them between the knees of Torah scholars.

That can actually be the motto of certain yeshivas.


Ruling of Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rav Shlomo Amar on Conversions

The full translation appears at Kol Ha-Rav. I’ve added my own comments and analysis in square brackets below.

This is the Law that Emerges from the Three Aforementioned Court Rulings:

Conversion (geirut) is a purely halakhic concept. It is not subject to substitution or punditry (parshanut). It is thus mandatory that geirut be in accordance with the halakha as explained by Maimonides and the Shulchan Arukh.

[Classic Rav Ovadia. Rambam and Shulchan Arukh represent an approach to conversion that avoids extremes, is very straightforward, and trusts that the rabbinical court is qualified to make judgment calls. It’s amazing that such a classical, traditional, and mainstream approach to giyur generates so much controversy. We have become accustomed to the extremes of rubber-stamp conversions and draconian standards]

  1. A convert who was circumcised and immersed but did not accept the commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah in the presence of three who are qualified to judge, is not a convert at all. Even if he accepted the mitzvot upon himself, if it was not in the presence of three who are qualified to judge, it is meaningless.

[This is the clause that will allow Israeli rabbinical courts to disqualify conversions of certain courts—mainly non-Orthodox courts, but it’s elastic enough to exclude conversions of some Orthodox courts or include the conversions of certain non-Orthodox courts]

  1. The rabbinical conversion court (beit din) must adequately examine whether the prospective convert has studied and knows the fundamentals of faith, and also has studied the rudimentary halakhot of Judaism (as practiced in Israeli rabbinical courts).

  1. Similarly, they will examine his motives and objectives for conversion. They will examine whether he is sincere in saying that he accepts the Torah and mitzvot upon himself, and is not deceiving the rabbinical court.

[Clauses b. and c. are extremely important and often misunderstood. The ruling speaks to what conversion courts ought to do. It opposes conversions if the prospective convert is unfamiliar with Jewish practice or has hidden and ulterior motives. However, it does not disqualify such a conversion. There is clearly a hierarchy of le-khatchila (ab initio) and be-di’avad (ex post facto). There is how conversion should be done, then there is a less-than-ideal but still valid conversion (clauses b, c, and d), and finally there are invalid conversions (clause a)].

  1. If their assessment is that he will certainly not uphold the mitzvot, they should not accept him as a convert.

[This is the shortest but most significant clause in the entire ruling. Here are some implications:
    1. The court is given discretion to assess the sincerity and motivation of the prospective convert. Both extremes within Orthodox conversion tend to be bureaucratic—by insisting on either maximal or minimal standards that leave little room to gauge the individual. This is a return to a classical model in which the court actually gets to know the convert.
    2. The court should not accept a convert who, in its opinion “will certainly not uphold the mitzvot.” The clear—if shocking—implication is that one who might uphold the mitzvot should be accepted for conversion. This is serious Hillel territory.
    3. Once again, “should not” does not mean “it is invalid if they do.” In fact, it means the conversion is valid, though less than ideal as it could lead to the scenario described in clause e.]

  1. A convert who was circumcised and immersed and accepted the mitzvot of the Torah in the presence of three who are qualified to judge, and everything was done properly and halakhically, and he then reverted to his mistaken ways and violates the mitzvot of the Torah, he is like an apostate Jew: his wine is forbidden, but his marriage and divorce are valid, as is stated explicitly in the Talmud, the code of Maimonides, and the Shulchan Arukh.

[This means that there’s not such thing as a retroactive annulment of conversions that were done properly to begin with.]


Where were you 25 years ago today?

On February 11, 1986, Anatoly Scharansky crossed the Glienicke Bridge into freedom.
25 years ago today.


Documentary on the Life of Rav Ovadia Yosef

Forthcoming documentary film. Here is a clip discussing his release of agunot in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War.

UPDATE: Menachem Mendel posted about this within minutes of when I did. He links to a different clip and points out that the film is airing on Channel 10 tonight at 10pm, JST.

Update #2: The entire film is available here.


Joseph's Overcoat

Marjorie Ingall has a profile of Simms Taback's work in Tablet today. I'm familiar only with Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, but based on what she wrote about it, I suspect that she misses some of his Jewish messages. Writing about Joseph, Ingall says: "Hidden in the illustrations are a collaged Tevye poster, photos of different fabrics, a teeny copy of the Yiddish Forward—so much texture you could plotz."
What makes the book Jewish to her is the fact that it uses Jewish "texture" and was based on a Yiddish folk song.

As I wrote about Joseph a few years ago, the Jewish message is one of loss of tradition, urbanization, and nostalgia. Whereas Judaism was once a nice, thick overcoat, it slowly but surely eroded and morphed into an ethnic culture or nostalgia; what passes for "Jewish" at the end of the book is but a pale shadow of what there was at the beginning. That's the tragedy of the folk tale--compounded by the fact that the tragedy is lost on so many contemporary readers.


The Muslim Sisterhood: More Musings on the Egypt Situation

  • As the title of the post implies, if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power in Egypt, it probably won't be good for the women.
  • Some well-meaning folks have criticized Israel for trying to aid Mubarak, a repressive autocrat, however they can. The issue here is simple: whereas an argument can be made that the US should support democratic elements of Arab society in Egypt and elsewhere, and stop protecting dictators, Israel, which shares a long border with a state that outnumbers it by some 70 million people, has real just one goal: protecting its a$$. Israel is more than justifiably anxious about regime change to the southwest, and even uber-lefist bloggers like Noam Sheizaf get that.
  • Barry Rubin is the Jacob Neusner of Middle East analysts. The dude's been cranking out a dozen articles a day. Get some sleep, man.
  • I'm still waiting for the media outlet that writes: "Gee, we can report what's going on, but really any attempt at analysis is futile. Why? Because we don't have any more of a clue than you do. No freaking clue what tomorrow will bring. For fun, we'll just re-run some op-eds we ran about the emerging democracy in Iran back in 1979, just so you can see how absolutely clueless we all are."
  • I cannot believe this made it into the WSJ.  Goldblog and Daled Amos did their homework.
  • The Pharaoh in the Fuhrerbunker. Best. Headline. Ever.