Category Archives: Halacha

The God Squad

To get right to the point, the obsession with the level of religious observance of the Kushner couple is unseemly, repugnant, embarrassing, and a poor reflection on the critics who are oblivious to the gross violations of Halacha they themselves are committing. Regarding the celebrity couple, every morsel they consume, every outfit they wear, every word they utter and every Shabbat or holiday they observe is accompanied by the intense scrutiny of busybodies whose own knowledge of halachic methodology ranges from woefully inadequate to utterly non-existent. They deserve better, as do the Jewish people and the world., and they should be left alone.

If the couple would suddenly announce that they are no longer “Orthodox” because they find too many Orthodox Jews narrow-minded, provincial, intolerant and judgmental, I, for one, would not blame them. Of course, they have too much class to do that, and in any event, it is foolhardy to eschew the Torah and G-d’s service because of the depredations of some Jews. Fortunately, most of the nitpicking has come not from our world (some has, to our dismay) but from the general universe of Trump haters. The critics generally fall into three categories:  Jews who pretend they are defending G-d’s honor, inveterate Trump haters, and the general media.

The shallowness of the media is unsurprising and therefore not disappointing. But the first category is most troubling – those religious Jews, whoever they may be, who sit back, smirking and smug, passing judgment on the religiosity of others and determining who is or isn’t in the fold, as they see it.

These self-styled guardians of the faith and keepers of the flame – the God Squad – should be aware of the number of violations, sins and misdemeanors that they are committing: lashon hara and rechilut (disparaging talk without any benefit), failure to judge another person favorably, failure to love another Jew, desecration of G-d’s Name,  distorting the Torah, tormenting a convert and failure to show extra love for a convert, inappropriate rebuking of another Jew, not judging another person until you stand in their place, and others. Perhaps they should look in the mirror before gazing out their window at others.

Another group consists of those who despise all things Trump, have lost all sense of reason and balance, and hold everyone in the Trump camp to impossible standards of conduct and even decrying the permissible as forbidden and unprecedented. (E.g., Trump revealed classified information (!) and created a “back channel” (!) to another country! Well, yes, like every administration has had since the beginning of the Republic.) This group’s animus finds its way into the two shrillest sets of critics: the general media and the secular Jewish press.

The general media can be forgiven their ignorance of Torah, Halacha, and the arcana of Jewish observance. As the modern media is overwhelmingly secular and often anti-religious in outlook and practice, the information at its disposal is limited and their knowledge of the facts necessarily superficial. “Car or plane + Shabbat = bad” is the simplest equation and some Jews get dispensations if they know the right people and are important enough. That’s about the extent of their knowledge. One cannot expect any deeper understanding from the general media.

Sadly, this does not apply to the secular Jewish press. As Jews, they are obligated to study Torah, understand it, practice it and honor it. But their ignorance of Torah is breathtaking and as simplistic as that of the general media. They are more affronted, apparently, by the nuances of some possible rabbinic prohibitions than by any number of gross violations of Torah prohibitions that they routinely celebrate. The litany of sins endorsed, the disparagement of the Torah, and the desecration of G-d’s Name engendered thereby, are of no concern at all. This is despicable and outrageous.

A brief primer on the methodology of Jewish law might be helpful to the layman. Judaism has no system of allowances, indulgences or dispensations. What we do have is a sophisticated system of law and custom that govern our lifestyle that often results in a variety of rabbinic opinions on some issues owing to the disparate intellects G-d granted us. Additionally, the competing values that present themselves in a particular case can often result in different answers being propounded to different people on facts that are similar but not identical. By way of analogy, two people can have the exact same illness and yet the doctor might prescribe two different drugs to those people. Why, you ask? (The media would just blaze the headline: “Doctor prescribes different medication to patients with SAME illness!!”)

The answer is that every question is asked in a certain context, and that context reflects the competing values. Some of the competing values that can intrude on what might seem to the layman to be a straightforward question of “do or don’t” or “permissible or forbidden,” are the potential or actual threat to life or well-being, the avoidance of a great financial loss, the respect we owe other human beings, the public (versus the private) need, an intimate relationship with the governing authorities, the honor of Heaven, biblical v. rabbinic prohibitions, active violations v. passive violations, and a host of others.

One would think that with the establishment of the State of Israel and the ongoing integration of halachic norms into the daily rhythms of a modern state that even secular Jews would develop a greater awareness of how Halacha accommodates the needs of a modern state in an open and natural way. The provision of necessary services does not end when Shabbat starts. It didn’t stop even in ancient times. It is a denigration of Halacha to suggest that a modern Torah state cannot function in the absence of non-Jews or not-yet-religious Jews to provide those services – military, police, diplomatic, medical, nursing, electricity, etc. This should be obvious. Already in ancient times the Sages permitted defending the border on Shabbat against incursions of marauders who came for property and not to take life, as maintenance of the Jewish polity is itself another implicit value. A Jew need not accept being robbed or burglarized every Shabbat even when there is no threat to life or limb. Jewish soldiers and police officers are dispatched to protect streets and parks on Shabbat; we don’t demand that all Jews stay home so as not to require security. These are not violations of Shabbat but actually the fulfillment of the Shabbat laws.

I do not know all the facts and circumstances of the halachic questions that were (or weren’t) asked in the matters herein but nothing I have seen or heard sounds implausible to anyone with knowledge of halacha who lives in the real world and recognizes how halacha applies in that real world. There are some observant physicians who engage in far greater violations of Shabbat on a weekly basis than anything that has happened to our protagonists here, and with less justification, although by no means does that apply to every observant physician.

Every legal system encounters conflicts of laws and values, and all contain mechanisms by which those conflicts are resolved; certainly, Halacha does. Only a person who dwells in an ivory tower and is detached from the arena of activity imagines that real life is free of such tensions. It is important to note that such resolutions are not always uniform – in any legal system – and will often vary based on the slightest difference in facts. That is why Jews are required to ask qualified experts how those conflicts should be resolved and different Jews can get different answers from different rabbis to what seem to be the exact same questions. Those rabbis whose lives are dedicated to the study of Torah and service of the people of G-d are best suited to answer those questions, not the self-styled God Squad.

If the nitpicking and backstabbing weren’t bad enough, the religious critics are unwittingly positing that a full Torah life is inconsistent with a modern state, which is itself a disparagement of the Torah. They might be waiting for Moshiach without realizing that the same issues will exist in Messianic times. Thus the differences in halachic treatment for individuals as individuals and individuals who are serving a public role as well.

We should start minding our own business and worry first about our own piety and practice. “Adorn (i.e., perfect) yourself and after that adorn others” (Bava Metzia 107b). It is very timely and sagacious advice. And this has less to do with one’s feelings about this President and his family than it does with how we show our love for G-d, Torah and our fellow Jews.  These issues transcend the couple in question and apply to many people in sundry communities, and religious Jews especially should be mindful of the pejorative image that can be created through untoward hypercriticism.

Rather than be condescending, vindictive and sanctimonious, we should be supportive, understanding and tolerant. Let us leave the former to the media. The ways of our Torah are the paths of pleasantness, peace and mutual respect.

The Majority

Torah jurisprudence is based on the principle of “majority rule.” If we routinely followed minority opinions, the Torah would fragment into many Torot and we would cease to be a unified people. Of course, the unity of Torah was much greater in ancient than recent times because of the finality of the Sanhedrin’s judgments. Nonetheless, in matters that affect the klal, we have been able to sustain the oneness of the Jewish people by maintaining uniform standards. Thus, observant Jews can daven in any shul, regardless of nusach, as long as there is adherence to basic norms. The presence or absence of a mechitzah is one classic dividing line.

Although we are taught to “follow the majority” (Shemot 23:2), what happens to the minority opinion? The Lubavitcher Rebbe (on that verse, as recorded in the Kehot Publication Society anthology, 2015 edition) offered three possibilities of understanding the majority-minority dynamic: the majority opinion simply outweighs the minority opinion, the minority opinion is nullified, or the minority unites with the majority and moves forward together. (Rav Kook, interestingly, argued that the majority view prevails not just because it is numerically superior but because the sheer numbers mean that more potential opinions, sevarot and viewpoints were entertained.)

The Rebbe then explained how it is that the minority unites with the majority. There are two possibilities: the minority defers to the opinion of the majority because that is what the Torah demands, even though they remain unconvinced; or the minority, understanding the Torah rule, reconsiders its position until they become convinced that the majority, were, in fact, correct. Of these two scenarios, the second one is the ideal and fosters true unity among the Jewish people, a unity that emerges from a deep sense of humility and kavod talmidei chachamim.

Last month’s OU declaration on the prohibition of female clergy in Jewish life, authored by seven distinguished Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshiva, clearly reflects the overwhelming consensus of rabbinic thought on the matter. This is a matter that has been obvious for millennia and has only become an issue of late because of trends in the secular society. But the reaction of advocates of female clergy has not followed either model delineated by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Among the small cohort of activists, there is a refusal both to defer to rabbinic authority as well as a reluctance to re-evaluate their position. Among the professional activists, many have taken to penning daily op-ed pieces, as if psak is influenced by social media on the one hand or by passionate redundancy on the other. It is not, of course, but as modern start-ups use “crowd funding” to raise seed money, these activists have created something like “crowd-paskening within their echo chamber. This is not only divisive but dangerous.

The psak ratified what was conventional wisdom and Jewish practice since Sinai, something that even Reform Judaism recognized until the 1970’s and Conservative Judaism until the 1980’s. Reading the literature of those times and the relentless (but ultimately futile) opposition of the JTS Talmud faculty to women’s ordination is proof both of the motivations of the activists – a cause driven by currents blowing through the secular world – and the obviousness of the prohibition. I have addressed the reasons for the prohibition at length in the past; suffice it to say that the requirement for a mechitzah in shul is less grounded in the sources than is the prohibition of female clergy. And we know how the mechitzah issue played out in Orthodox life.

Today, rabbis from every wing of Orthodoxy, probably representing over 95% of Orthodox Jews, if not more, oppose the notion of female clergy. In the words of one dear colleague, “this science is settled.” To be sure, there will always be deniers who insist that the data is not being understood properly and they have an approach that no one ever considered before, but they are in a distinct minority and they are unfortunately treading on hazardous ground.

Years ago, I wrote of “The Rise of the Neo-Cons,” and the renaissance of the ideology that spawned the birth of Conservative Judaism and its eventual disengagement from traditional Orthodoxy, Torah observance, and today, real influence in Jewish life. Many of their early ideologues were Orthodox rabbis, some were fine talmidei chachamim, and all, I’m convinced, were sincere in their quest to save Torah for American Jewry by modernizing it and conforming it to what they perceived to be the people’s desires. They had a good run but the movement eventually foundered on a lack of authenticity and commitment to the Torah, such that today it is almost indistinguishable from Reform Judaism. The modern neo-Cons, I fear, are making the same mistake, and compounding their errors with the obstinacy of rejecting the opinion of the vast majority of their colleagues. There is no sense, at present, that there is any reconsideration or unification with the majority opinion. Some, disciples of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l, are openly disdainful of his opinion, and some have embarked on a shameless campaign to discredit the Rav as an authority, not realizing that they are discrediting themselves in the process in addition to disrespecting one of the bearers of the Mesorah in the last century, a deed condemned the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:8).

This week brought even more proof that they are leading their small flock into a minefield of heresy. One female ordainee opined that it is about time that halacha reconsider the normative rule that dates to Sinai that women do not count for a minyan. Say what you will, but this was one of the predictions of the JTS faculty that opposed female ordination: that the next step inevitably would be changing the structure of the minyan, and so it was, and is. And the “reason” is also predictable: the assertion was that in a society where women count in everything, how can they not count for a minyan? This is a compelling argument in the small part of the religious world that measures every halacha and minhag by secular values to assess whether it passes muster, and if it doesn’t, it has no merit. But few religious Jews, frankly, employ Western values as the barometer by which they measure the worth of the Torah. The justified fear is that those who do will not remain religious Jews for long.

One by-product of the refusal of the minority to follow the opinion of the majority is that it undermines rabbinic authority – i.e., theirs. Their small band of followers will follow them only insofar as the band agrees with their decisions but will renounce any deviations from their pre-determined conclusions. If rabbis reject the consequences of “lo tasur,” why shouldn’t their laity? The results are very democratic but not very halachic; nor are they sustainable. That is a simple historical truth.

With the OU statement, the matter really is settled. Those who insist on going forward anyway will not be causing a schism in the future but are causing one right now. To have shuls in which Orthodox Jews would not enter because of the presence of female clergy is an act of self-excommunication. Those who continue to insist that the whole world is wrong but they’re right – or are praying for an “eilu va’eilu” outcome – are cheating their followers and ultimately robbing them and their children of their heritage. We know the end of this story, so why go down that road?

There have been occasions when I asked a “she’elah” on a particular issue and was puzzled or disappointed in the psak. But I followed it regardless. If I wanted to rely on my own opinion, I wouldn’t have asked. That deference is what the Torah seeks. Think of the contribution advocates of female clergy could make, and the worlds they would save, if they announced that they accept the psak and will find a way to comply. That would show greatness, true leadership and love of the Jewish people.

 

This Land is…

Here in the land of Israel, nothing is expected to be normal and events verify that conclusion on a daily basis. That is the reality, and not necessarily a bad thing.

The week of fires that swept across the land, more than 1000 in all, now seems like a distant memory except, of course, to those who lost their homes and possessions. It is nothing less than miraculous than no one died, and no one was even seriously injured. Every home was evacuated, and to those who have seen the effects of fires in other parts of the world, this was nothing less than “G-d’s kindnesses” on display for all.

The fires stopped because of increased vigilance on the part of the authorities, buttressed by the heavy rains that fell last mid-week that saturated the earth and left it less vulnerable to conflagration. The fires occurred in an atmosphere that was parched dry and the flames were fanned by heavy winds that were relentless for several days.

To be sure, not every fire was arson. Some were the result of negligence, some gross negligence. Many Arab communities have the quaint custom of disposing of their garbage by burning it, something I witnessed last month in the Arab village of Turmus Aya just south of Shiloh. The dry land and the strong winds caused some of those garbage fires to spread out of control. Of course, every arsonist that was arrested during the spate of fires is now claiming that he was just an inexperienced sanitation engineer, and that is something the courts will work out.

Neve Tzuf, and many other places, were clearly different. I visited Neve Tzuf last week and walked through many of the more than twenty homes that burnt to a crisp. The fire in Neve Tzuf was not an accident or due to negligence. On Friday night at 10:30 PM, two Molotov cocktails were thrown at the perimeter. Within seconds, the gale force winds had spread the fire on a direct line into the oldest part of the community, and within minutes – 20 minutes – the homes were burned. Families lost their possessions, which can be replaced except for sentimental items like photograph albums that were lost forever. In Bet Meir, an artist lost his life’s work; every painting was destroyed.

In Neve Tzuf, the winds were so powerful that logs caught fire and flew through the air. In one place, fiery logs literally flew over one house (that emerged unscathed) and sailed into the adjoining house. Logs, trees and branches flew all over, and naturally, some wooden homes were ignited. But the bravery of the firefighters halted the progress of the flames, and finally extinguished them – and again, with no loss of life or injury.

And the spirit was astonishing. Within minutes, every family in Neve Tzuf was safely evacuated to the adjacent settlement. A Bar Mitzvah scheduled in Neve Tzuf last Shabbat took place in nearby Aderet as scheduled. Every family has found temporary dwelling, and plans are afoot to rebuild as quickly as possible. The government has been very active in ensuring compensation and swift resettlement. The love of Jews for each other, especially in times of need, is extraordinary and inspirational. And it is what makes the coming tragedy so much more difficult to accept.

The community of Amona, located just a few miles north of Yerushalayim, is slated for demolition and the families for eviction on the first day of Chanuka after a long, protracted and still ongoing legal battle. It is still difficult to understand why there cannot be a resolution that allows the families, residents there for years, to remain in place. There is in the Amona story a toxic brew of politics, religion, hypocrisy, fear, and money. The facts themselves are complicated and it is almost impossible to sift through the conflicted record and ascertain the real truth, but who’s to say the real truth is what matters here?

The crux of the legal entanglement is that Amona was allegedly built on private, Arab-owned land and not on state-owned property, nor was Amona an “authorized” community but an outpost originally built without state approval. After years of litigation, the High Court ruled that the residents of Amona must go, and the Court demanded that the eviction take place no later than the first day of Chanuka.

Then the real complications present: how much of Amona was built on private land? It is not completely clear but residents say about one acre, or less than 1% of the total property developed by the residents of Amona.  Should an entire community be destroyed because 1% or 5% or 10% of the buildings are built on private property?

And this: Who is the private Arab owner whose land was allegedly seized by the residents? Here, all agree that no one knows. No individual Arab ever came forward in any court proceeding to claim that his rights were violated. The lawsuit herein was bought by a number of far-left and some anti-Israel groups who are opposed to all settlements  and who are funded by enemies of Israel in Europe and elsewhere. In effect, the Court is insisting that the Jews be evicted, and their homes destroyed, so the land can be restored to…no one.

Why would the Court do that? Well, among the left in Israel, the decisions of the High Court are the closest they ever come to the authority of Sinai, but it is no secret that the High Court has always been unrepresentative of Israeli society and a bastion of the far left. It has always been reliably hostile to the interests of the settlers and generally to religious Jews, and the presence of a token settler and religious Jew on the Court does not change that, especially when the token justices are ideologically compatible with the left.

Thus, the worst aspect of the judicial system is that the Court is self-perpetuating. It remarkably has long played a decisive role in choosing its replacements, all of which keeps their ideological flame burning. That undemocratic state of affairs is one aspect of governance that Israel’s excellent Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked, is trying to change, and she has run into a buzz saw of protests from the left who love their monopoly and use the High Court to impose their viewpoints on the masses that greatly outnumber them.

Add to this mixture the fact that PM Netanyahu has long championed the rights of settlers in Judea and Samaria at the same time he has been finding ways to limit the expansion of settlements. He takes credit in Israel for a sizable increase in the population of Judea, Samaria and Yerushalayim during his tenure as prime minister, while denying across the world that he has anything to do with it. And he feels pressure from Israel’s indefatigable Minister of Education, Naphtali Bennett, of the Bayit Hayehudi Party, who is an unabashed supporter of the rights of Jewish settlement throughout the land of Israel, and wisely wants to stabilize the legal status of the settlements after almost 50 years of living in limbo.

Add to this the fact that the legal status of Judea and Samaria is still undetermined after almost one-half century of Israeli possession. The previous owner, Jordan, left the scene almost three decades ago. The Palestinians are not a sovereign state and Israel refuses to declare its sovereignty. It is a real no-man’s land, except to the extent that Israel administers the territory, and even subsidized the building of Amona – what the court now claims is illegal – through provision of road, electricity, water infrastructure and the like. Complicated – but it is hard to argue that the “government” was unalterably opposed to Amona’s existence.

Isn’t the destruction of homes even built on private land somewhat Draconian? It is well known that there are dozens of Arab homes in Yerushalayim built on private Jewish property, as there as entire Bedouin villages that are illegally on state land between Beer Sheva, Dimona and Mitzpeh Ramon. Would the government ever consider evicting Arabs and destroying their homes? Aside from a few isolated cases because of dangerous code violations, it is not likely to happen. “Equal justice under the law” it is not, even granting the legal casuistries that would find a point or two of distinction between all these cases.

Absent an animus towards the settlers, a fair and equitable resolution is eminently presentable. There are legal doctrines of adverse possession (similar to the laws of chazaka) in a Jewish context that grant possession to new owners who took  possession under color of title and developed the land over a certain number of years. The doctrine prevents the squandering of resources that absentee owners present to a society. This would be normal.

What would also be normal is reference to what in Jewish law is called “takanat hashavin,” an ordinance that is designed to rectify a wrong even if a thief benefits. Thus, if a thief steals a beam and uses it to build his home, and is caught, we do not demand that he remove the beam and thereby dismantle his house. It is enough that he compensate the true owner for the value of the beam. And while the Rema (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 360:1) ruled that there is no “takanat hashavin” for land and houses built on stolen land must be destroyed, others disagree (see the Mabit and the Shaar Hamelech for details) especially when the encroachment is minor. Perhaps even the Rema would agree when there are no “owners” that are claiming the property, as in this case, for the Rema underscores the need to return the land to the “baalim,” its true owners. Here, there are no “owners” seeking recovery of their property.

To be sure, to the extent that the settlers are living on private land, the true owners should be financially compensated and, if necessary, furnished with an equal replacement for their lost territory. That would be fair, unless the real objective is to stick it to the settlers.

We should be careful about the rule of law and even about the honor of the Court but even more careful not to become overly legalistic. The rule of law is never deified; in fact, the opposite is true. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 30b) states that Yerushalayim was destroyed because they based all their decisions on strict Torah law and did not act “beyond the letter of the law” when the spirit of the law required it. Will Amona be destroyed because of strict justice that ultimately distorts what is moral and proper?

It would be bitterly ironic if after so many Jewish homes were destroyed by arson, to the great horror of the country, that Jews themselves would destroy other Jewish homes with bulldozers. It would be incredibly sad if such destruction took place on Chanuka, which celebrates the re-dedication of the Bet Hamikdash and the re-assertion of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel against the enemies of the day. (Amona overlooks the road where Yehuda HaMaccabee fought some of his battles and entered Yerushalayim.)

Hundreds of Israeli rabbis have signed petitions urging a fair resolution to this crisis that does not involve destruction of Jewish homes and displacement of Jewish families. Many here are hoping that the American rabbinate will offer their support as well. The prospective destruction of Jewish homes is painful to contemplate.

Perhaps it is due time we realize that all of Israel is built on private land? “For the land is Mine, and you are all strangers and sojourners with Me” (Vayikra 25:23). With good will on all sides, a resolution that reminds us that we are all on G-d’s land can be achieved, and together we can celebrate the joys of Chanuka and continue the process of building and settling the land of Israel.

 

 

In Defense of …Shamai

One of the greatest people in our long and illustrious history, and one of the greatest Talmudic Sages ever, is frequently and unfairly dismissed and even disparaged. Who? Shamai the Elder, the contemporary of the great Hillel. Shamai is always compared unfavorably to Hillel, who was known for his kind nature, infinite patience, and big heart. Hillel, in the famous stories recorded in Masechet Shabbat (31a) indulges a variety of nudniks who ask him pointless and even preposterous questions, and is open to converts of all types and with a variety of strings attached. All this while Shamai, conversely, tries to drive them all away with a stick. And even the converts themselves concede that say the sternness and impatience of Shamai almost drove them away from the world of truth. It was the humility of Hillel that brought them closer to G-d.

Yet, Shamai is also the one who taught (Avot I:15) “greet everyone with a pleasant countenance.”  But how is it possible to greet everyone pleasantly – and at the same time be considered a “kapdan” – irascible, pedantic, and short-tempered? The two do not really go together.

Furthermore, humility is such a prized trait in Jewish life, and Hillel’s humility is prototypical. Just look at the way Hillel treated the converts in the several vignettes noted in the Gemara – converts who insisted: “convert me on condition that I accept only the Written Torah…convert me on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot…convert me on condition that you make me the Kohen Gadol (High Priest),” each condition an impossibility in its own way. Yet, in each case, Hillel came and converted them after Shamai forcefully drove them away. Where was Shamai’s “pleasant countenance”? Indeed, where were his good midot (character traits)?

The sainted Rav Yisrael Salanter, who knew a thing or two about midot, wrote (Or Yisrael, 28) that it is a mistake to degrade or malign Shamai. Shamai was a great and righteous person, Hillel’s equal, and our Sages indicate, Hillel’s intellectual superior (Yevamot 14a). True, Shamai was meticulous in his observance of mitzvot, hated injustice and had a passion for truth – all of which would lead people to believe he was a kapdan.. But that wasn’t it at all.

Shamai was also humble, just like Hillel. One who is not humble cannot “greet every person with a pleasant countenance.” To greet someone – anyone – means that you have no airs, you don’t perceive yourself as better than them, you don’t wait for them to speak first because you hold yourself to be above them in the social hierarchy.

Shamai’s inflexibility was rooted in something else. Both Hillel and Shamai were unassuming servants of G-d but they differed on one point: is humility always preferable in divine service, or does humility have to defer to something else – strictness, even dogmatism – when it comes to the honor of Torah?

It wasn’t that one had a congenial personality and the other was disagreeable. Character traits are inborn, even if we are obligated to ameliorate and refine the unpleasant ones. Neither Hillel nor Shamai responded to the converts from an emotional or personal perspective but rather from an ideological one. According to Shamai, when it comes to the honor of Torah, there is no room for humility or compromise. It’s not our Torah; it’s G-d’s Torah. It’s not our Jewish people; it’s G-d’s Jewish people. For a potential convert to come along and insist “convert me on condition” of this or that, that is a breach of the honor of Torah.

Hillel disagreed; humility is always preferable and humility can often erode the objections and even the cynicism of detractors. Nevertheless, the dispute between them lives on. Who is correct – when it comes to the honor of Torah, should we be malleable like Hillel or rigid like Shamai? How we answer that question resolves an issue that has been front and center in Jewish life for the better part of two centuries – what concessions to “modernity,” if any, should we make to keep Jews Jewish, to attract the discontented or the unaffiliated, or to assuage the grievances of sundry groups against the Torah?

The answer is that we need both Hillel and Shamai. When it comes to the honor of Torah, Shamai was right. We cannot compromise on the honor of Torah, on the inviolability of mitzvot, or on basic Jewish values or doctrines. If we do, then the Torah will cease to have any meaning or effect. We cannot chip away at the Torah – change this or dilute that – because then it is no longer a Torah of truth. But when it comes to showing respect for human beings, then we require the humility of Hillel – to see each person as an individual, as a precious soul, to reach out, draw near, and show our love for every Jew.

Is it possible to show honor to Torah and respect for people? Of course, that was the gift and genius of Hillel. But note well that for all his humility and his desire to accommodate the converts, Hillel did not compromise even one iota of the Torah, weaken one standard, or renounce one principle. And that was a remarkable feat and a testament to his spiritual greatness. It is an error to believe that Hillel watered down the Torah to make it more palatable to his generation. Note as well that Hillel was able to succeed with his interlocutors only because they too were humble, deferential, sincere, and willing to learn from him and submit to his authority.

Without Shamai’s firmness, the temptation would be too great to adulterate the perfect Torah in order to accommodate the desires of man. And without Hillel’s sensitivity, Jews with an attenuated commitment could never be inspired and would be lost to our people. Both were indispensable to the furtherance of the Mesorah.

On Shavuot, as we celebrate the Divine Revelation that gave the Jewish people our Torah more than 33 centuries ago, we must contemplate our relationship with the Torah itself, adding a new layer of “acceptance” to our earlier ‘acceptance.” Much of what ails us in Jewish life can be healed if we embrace the ways of Hillel and Shamai, and combine a tenacious grip on the immutable Torah with a gentle embrace of the people of Torah, on all levels.

Then, we will bring the light of Torah everywhere, rejoice in the return of G-d’s sovereignty to His world, and merit true redemption, speedily and in our days.

Chag Sameach to all!

The Resolution

The RCA statement on women’s ordination was both timely and tardy.

It was timely because waiting longer would have further greased the slippery slope towards a complete abandonment of Torah and Mesorah. In the absence of a formal resolution decreeing that the institution of female Jewish clergy is beyond the pale of Orthodoxy and insisting rabbis not hire nor shuls retain such clergy, in another few years  dozens of such clergywomen would have been ensconced in left-wing Orthodox synagogues. That would have created a schism in the Torah world that we can ill afford. Invariably, most Orthodox Jews would have shunned such synagogues, which would be the natural reflection of such a rift in the Torah world.

But the resolution was also five years too late, because, in many respects, the schism has already taken place. Previous resolutions were bland or toothless enough that it had little impact on proponents of the move, something I suspect contributed to the blandness of the statements in which proponents had a hand. But now the lines are very clearly delineated as to what is within the world of Torah and what is outside that holy framework. Once clarity has been obtained, then people can make their own decisions, but they cannot say they were not forewarned about the predictable costs of treading that well- worn path.

The resolution was necessary if only because the deviations have expanded over time, not receded. Parents warn their children not to play in the street and to watch for oncoming cars, and no one accuses parents of redundancy when these admonitions are issued every time the children leave home. Rabbis are not parents in this sense nor are the intended audience of this resolution to be construed as daydreaming children. But rabbis are guardians of the Mesorah, and the resolution is nothing less than a cry from the heart – a shriek of “Gevalt!” (for the Yiddishists) – that the road these women are merrily traveling on, with their supporters in tow, leads towards a cliff. They may not want to acknowledge that – may not? They certainly don’t – but that is the reality as seen from this perspective.

If rabbis cannot warn Jews that certain steps are deleterious to their spiritual futures, to the sanctity of the Jewish home, or to the proper observance of Torah – then who can? And who should? Much of the recent deviations from Torah have been fueled by the Western-inspired rejection of any objective authority. “Don’t tread on me! And I have the right to worship G-d in the way I choose!”

Indeed that is so – just don’t call it Orthodox. There needs to be a modicum of intellectual integrity in the pursuit of innovations. Integrity would demand an admission that the advocates recognize that they have strayed from the traditional path of Torah, are mimicking some of the deviations of the traditional non-Orthodox movements, and that what they are doing may be new and attractive to some, but it just is not Orthodoxy.

That the RCA and the Moetzet of Agudah should issue similar statements within days of each other should be cause for at least a second thought on the part of the proponents herein. To be sure, the advocates and feminists will dismiss it as a sign of Orthodoxy’s “turn to the right,” that hoary but meaningless cliché. Could there be another possibility, maybe, just maybe? Can you consider, just for a moment, that maybe these rabbis and spiritual leaders – representing the overwhelming majority of the Orthodox world – genuinely consider these deviations as heresy? Perhaps proponents – and certainly the fence-sitters – should entertain that possibility.

As I have said for years, one of the considerations that make such statements painful for our side is that so many of the proponents of heterodoxy are nice people, they mean well, and are sincere in their pursuit of change within the Torah world. They have much passion and enthusiasm for what they do and for what they believe, and passion and enthusiasm are precious commodities in Jewish life. Feelings are wonderful sensations, but the strongest feelings do not change the substance of the policies or programs. They remain outside the Torah framework. The founders of the non-Orthodox movements were also passionate people, sincere in their belief that their “modernization” of Jewish law would save generations of Jews from assimilation. That they failed miserably in that quest should concern the proponents of “Open Orthodoxy,” who seem to be doing the exact same thing the non-Orthodox did a century ago and hoping this time for different result (remember Einstein’s dictum…).

Much of the reaction has been typical of the ideological true believer, doubling down on their approach without the slightest bit of introspection. In some circles, it has been distinctly modern, if not a little childish – appeals to Facebook, social media, satire, scorn, obloquy, and maledictions. (Are there people who really believe that Facebook “likes” and petitions are part of the methodology of psak?) To accuse rabbis who reject female ordination of being “sexist” is, to say the least, both unsophisticated and unbecoming. Surely proponents can do better, and it might help if they looked a little beyond themselves and even beyond the secular, progressive feminist narrative that seems to animate many of them. No more proof of that assertion is needed than merely noting that non-Orthodox female rabbis have been honored guests at the Maharat ordination ceremonies.

No one on our side of the divide, as far as I know, has ever responded to these issues without careful consideration of what is permitted and forbidden, what is desirable or undesirable. It should worry advocates that the Torah world – both men and women – vehemently oppose what they are doing. It should worry advocates that Nechama Leibowitz z”l would have been disgusted and horrified by what they are doing, not to mention the Rav z”l. This whole issue is viewed by many through the prism of feminism. They sit in judgment of the Torah itself and adjudicate what comports with feminist doctrine and what must be discarded. How sad. I was a student of Nechama Leibowitz (and not a very good one, I concede) in the 1970’s, and not because she was a woman. When I open her sefarim these days, it is not because she was a woman. Both were because she was a teacher of Torah who had something magnificent to contribute to the world of Torah scholarship. But when the Torah – and Jewish law, and Jewish life – are seen only as vehicles to further a narrow agenda, such a movement is bound to fail.

Obviously there has been too much defensiveness over the last few years among too many rabbis in articulating the truth of Torah, as if we should be embarrassed by any Torah doctrine – as if we have achieved a level of piety and scholarship at which we can sit in judgment of the Torah itself, G-d forbid. That is one cause of the official reticence that has bedeviled the ModOs for years already.  Some purported leaders were intimidated into silence. But the core division today in Jewish life is between two groups, one that loves the Torah and sees it as perfect (temima, in King David’s locution) and one that doesn’t love the Torah as is, nor as perfect, and wishes to change it to conform to their contemporary moral predilections. In a free society, they are certainly entitled to do that, even if the loss of Jews to the Torah family is distressing to the rest of us. Just don’t call it Orthodox.

Some have argued that the resolution causes a schism in Jewish life. Indeed, the opposite is true; the goal is to avert a schism. The schism was caused by those who decided to repudiate the Mesorah and challenge the nature of rabbinic leadership that has existed since Sinai. So, who exactly is being divisive – the adherents to tradition or those who have gone their own way?  Others have maintained that the resolution did not go far enough; undoubtedly, some voted against the resolution on that basis. A peculiar argument has been adopted by some who said they are opposed to women’s ordination but voted against the resolution because it was repetitive. Of course, the RCA also passed “overwhelmingly” this year a resolution (that has already disappeared into the ether) decrying the BDS movement – an exact repetition of past resolutions on the same subject. So why vote for that redundancy? Oh, well, consistency is so limiting.

And others have stated that there is a great battle going on for the hearts and minds of today’s young people who are enamored with innovation, suspicious of authority, and averse to any type of restrictions imposed on them by an external system. Sadly, those who embrace this attitude are already lost. There are reasons why the population of the Jewish people has not grown in 2000 years, and religious persecution is only one reason. There is another – the persistent lure of heterodoxy and other heretical ideas that mislead Jews into thinking that what they are being taught is also Torah. By the time they realize it is not, if they do, they have already left the reservation, in effect rejecting something – Torah – that they never really possessed or understood. And this happened regardless of how well meaning the teachers, proponents, and even rabbis were of these novel approaches to Torah. To read some of the heresies emanating from various promoters of the new faith – rejection of the binding nature of halacha, rejection of the divine origin of Torah, a disparagement of Chazal, et al – one shudders at the realization that this cannot end well, and we as a people will be repeating the same pathetic mistakes of the past.

Many of us still harbor the hope that the deterioration can be arrested, that some needed soul-searching can be done by the men and women who see themselves in the vanguard of this new movement, and they can remain within the camp of Torah.

But, until then, they should really stop calling themselves Orthodox. I appreciate the aspiration, but I appreciate truth and clarity even more.

 

Being Really Smart

      How should a shul respond if a member suddenly pulled out the Wall Street Journal (illustrious paper that it is) during davening and began reading it? How would fellow members react if someone began playing Scrabble during Chazarat Hashatz – assuming that the observer was himself not playing?

      The distractions during tefila (prayer) have certainly changed over the years. I remember when a beeper was a novelty, but such was limited to potential medical emergencies. (Come to think of it, I remember as a child seeing one fellow actually read a newspaper in shul, during the Torah reading!) As we all know, the scourge of today’s shul has long been the cell phone whose chimes, in many places, are regularly interspersed with the cadences of tefila. Many of the chimes are recognizable – generic, factory-installed sounds; others are majestic (Beethoven’s Fifth), some are uplifting (Beethoven’s Sixth – the Pastoral Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Of The Bumblebee) and some are inspirational and nationalistic (Hatikvah). But all, in the context of the davening are, frankly, inappropriate and annoying.

      This problem transcends all boundaries – religions, denominations within Judaism, as well as within Orthodoxy. Far be it from me to speculate as to where the challenge is worse – Shtiebel, shul , Young Israel, ModO, etc.  It is pervasive. Fortunately, in our shul we have succeeded in eliminating this bane of the modern mitpallel almost entirely through repeated reminders and gentle admonitions, such that the occasional offender is almost always an unknowing guest or a visiting meshulach, or (rarely) a regular who forgot he was carrying his phone with him. In fact, we encourage people to leave their phones at home or in their cars, as they really have no acceptable use during davening.

       But fast forward to today’s smart phone that not only functions as a telephone but also as a siddur, chumash, newspaper, joke book, encyclopedia, Scrabble game and window to the infinite world of knowledge and nonsense. It does everything but daven for you, although I am sure that App is in the works. How should we relate to this modern contrivance which has both sacred and profane uses?

Our Sages went to great lengths to ensure that we would be able to maintain kavana (concentration) during davening. Reciting words by rote and without attentiveness is compared (by Rabbenu Bachye in Chovot Halevavot, Shaar Cheshbon Hanefesh, Chapter 3) to a “body without a spirit.” It is lifeless.

Thus, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 90) notes that, if possible, we should daven facing a wall, with nothing or no one in front of us. We should never daven in back of someone wearing bold, bright-colored clothing – it is too distracting. The Rema adds that, for the same reason, we should not even pray from a siddur that has pictures in it.

And not only that:  the Shulchan Aruch (OC 96) contains further admonitions: “When a person prays, he should not hold in his hand tefillin, nor a sefer from the holy books, nor a full plate, nor a knife, money or a loaf of bread, because in all those cases he is focused on not dropping them, and his concentration will be disturbed and nullified.” In the initial instance, this applies to the Shemoneh Esrei (the classic tefila) but it is extended as well (by the Pri Megadim) to Psukei D’Zimra and Shema, so essentially it applies to the entire davening. These laws are rooted in the Talmudic discussion (Masechet Berachot 23b) wherein Rashi states that all these activities “unsettle the mind.” The plate might break or its contents spill, the knife might fall and impale your foot, money might be dropped and lost, and a book will divert your attention. What should we hold in our hands? Nothing, except for a siddur, if necessary.

Anything that can be diverted for other uses, or whose primary purpose is not tefila, cannot be held during the davening. Anything that is valuable such that its potential loss or breakage weighs on one’s mind also cannot be held during the davening. The Pri Megadim adds another cogent reason for these limitations: it is not derech eretz (here meaning “courtesy” or “common decency”) to stand before eminent people holding extraneous objects in one’s hand, and certainly not while talking to them. How much reverent should we be standing before the King of Kings?

It is obvious that cell phones should be prohibited from all shuls. Phones are a means of communication with the outside world – the very world that we try to shut out for a few minutes several times a day so that we can concentrate on our relationship with the Creator. I have been left aghast in some shuls in which people actually carried on conversations after they answered their ringing phones – and nothing that was remotely life-threatening (just mundane business, and the like). Those whose jobs require constant access to a telephone (e.g., the president’s military aide who carries the “football” containing the codes that the president will need in order to authorize a nuclear attack on our enemies) are really exempt from public prayer. Certainly, a doctor’s life-saving work is held in esteem, and most know to keep their phones on “vibrate” so as not to disturb others. This is old news.

But this is new. Several months ago after discussing this topic in shul, I announced a ban (since then, thank G-d, strictly adhered to, for the most part) on the use of smart-phones during tefilla. A smart-phone, for all its wonders, is actually a holy book, a full plate, a knife, money, a loaf of bread – not to mention a telephone, a newspaper and a Scrabble game – all in one. It is everything that Chazal prohibited – valuable, breakable and a fount of distractions. Even if the phone element is turned off, the temptation is too great and the diversions are too accessible. The email beeps, the texts ring – and worse – it is the intrusion of the outside world that we struggle to keep afar during tefilla.

In a shul, the smart-phone has no place. Use a siddur! They are available in abundance.

That is not to say that the siddur/chumash, etc. apps have no value or use at all – on the contrary. Every smart-phone owner should have them (as if you didn’t know that!). They come in handy when a siddur is unavailable or where the lighting is so dim that a siddur can’t be easily read. It is also salutary even to see the siddur or Torah icon on the phone during the day, good reminders generally and especially when one is using the phone for other purposes.

By all means buy and use the holy apps! Just not in shul. I would hope and pray that other shuls will follow our lead. Rav Yosef Karo entitled that Chapter 96 of the Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim “to preclude all nuisances so that one can concentrate.” There is no greater, more consistent nuisance imaginable. The ban seems obvious and long overdue.

In its proper place, the new technology can often benefit and enrich our lives. But we control the technology; it doesn’t control us. When it comes to shul and to davening, let it wait outside. Just for a few minutes. It will still be there when we finish, but we will be better off for the few minutes’ respite. And we will be able to daven in peace and quiet, and with a little more kavana.

 

 

The Real Story?

     The controversy du jour deals with the high school girls and their tefillin, and it has prompted the usual litany of responses. Once again, what passes for psak in the Modern Orthodox world is little more than cherry-picking the sources to find the single, even strained, interpretation of a rabbinic opinion in order to permit what it wants to permit or prohibit what it wants to prohibit. The preponderance of poskim or the consensus in the Torah world matters little; fables – like Rashi’s daughters wearing tefillin – carry more weight.

     No honest reading of the sources could ever give rise to a statement such as “Ramaz would be happy to allow any female student who wants to observe the mitzvah of tefillin to do so.” Happy? Tell it to the Rema or to the Aruch Hashulchan. And what about the prohibition of lo titgodedu ­– of not having contradictory practices in the same minyan (e.g., some girls wearing tefillin and others not)? And what of the statement being made to the traditional girls – that their service of G-d must somehow be inferior to that of their peers who are on a “higher” level, or the statement being made to all of them – women’s spirituality can only reach its peak when it mimics the religious practices of men? I would not want my daughters to be exposed to either sentiment.

Frankly, it is unsurprising that many young students in high schools text on Shabbat, observe half-Shabbat, and the like. If the Mesorah can be manipulated to permit girls to do what they want, why can’t it be manipulated to permit what boys want? Clearly, the subtleties are being lost in translation. Would that the schools focused on enhancing the commitment of the boys and their tefillin than broadening it to include others who are not within the purview of the mitzvah.

And, like night follows day, the secular Jewish press – besides praising the courage of the administrators – have trumpeted this story as another sign of the feminization of Orthodoxy – a triumph of women’s rights in an age when those are considered some of society’s most cherished values. They perceive it as another sign that Orthodoxy is modernizing, getting with the times, and catching up with the non-Orthodox movements, to the chagrin of the troglodytes on the right who insist on impeding progress.

But what if that is not the story? It is quite possible that we – and especially the media – might have missed the essence of this unfolding tale.

One question needs to be asked: do the girls here even define themselves as “Orthodox Jews?” Upon information and belief, they do not, and I do not write this to impugn them in the least. The fact is that in these day schools, anywhere from 10-30% of the student population consists of children from non-Orthodox homes. These families are proud members of non-Orthodox temples, and are certainly among the more dedicated. After all, they are sending their children to day schools under nominally Orthodox auspices. Some may even be the children of non-Orthodox rabbis, both males and females. When one girl explained that she has been wearing tefillin since her Bat Mitzvah, she is likely telling the truth. She has been wearing tefillin because that is part of the egalitarianism that is the most dominant value in the non-Orthodox world. If these girls – as it seems – are from non-Orthodox families, then the narrative has nothing at all to do with the so-called modernizing tendencies in Orthodoxy, but something else entirely.

The real story is not that Orthodox girls are wearing or want to wear tefillin, but that non-Orthodox children (or their parents) are essentially dictating to day schools how they want non-Orthodox practices incorporated – in school – in their children’s education. It is as if Conservative Judaism and its customs must be acknowledged much like schools have been known (and properly so) to allow children of the Edot Hamizrach to have their own minyanim and adhere to their own customs. And the schools are willing accomplices. Will they next remove their mechitzot to allow an egalitarian minyan, or is that too great a departure from the Orthodox brand?

There was a time when non–Orthodox Jews were thankful that yeshivot accepted their children, but correctly assumed that the curriculum, standards, practices and ideology taught would conform to Torah. They knew it would differ from what they were being taught at home – but they wanted that.
There was a time when a yeshiva administration had the authority and the courage to insist on those standards. Times have changed. In the competition for the tuition dollar of the non-Orthodox – and the fact is that SAR and Ramaz are competing for the same students – accommodations have to be made. And that is a travesty. Masquerading under the convenient narrative that this is a war for the soul of Modern Orthodoxy is the inconvenient reality: the inmates are running the asylum. The administrators are either unable or unwilling to maintain a complete fidelity to Jewish tradition, for at least some of their constituents are demanding otherwise.

Does a boy in such a school then have the right to say: “I do not feel that my divine service requires me to wear a kippa. My father doesn’t, not even in the house. I am against your religious coercion”? Should a school tolerate that? Or, an even better question: could a boy say that he rejects wearing tefillin until all the girls do? I.e., he is such an advocate of egalitarianism that it would be unconscionable for him, coming from his background, to continue to propagate the school’s antiquated, misogynistic, patriarchal attitudes that discriminate between males and females. I can hear it now: “There is only one G-d. He created all of us, and so there should be one law for all of us!” I wonder how the administrators would respond to that; probably, quite uncharitably, but on what grounds?

As one male SAR student asked me this week: if girls can be obligated when they are really exempt, why can’t he be exempt when he is really obligated? The logic is not impeccable – he is only 16 years old – but begs the question: if the Mesorah is so ephemeral that it can change on a whim, why can’t any rabbi make any change that he wants to make? Why can’t a layman?
Add to this one other point. I personally have met a number of graduates of these schools who are children of non-Orthodox female converts who were never informed by the administrators that the conversions were not acceptable according to halacha. In effect, they went through high school thinking they were Jews like all their classmates only to discover – years later and often on the verge of marriage – that they were not considered Jewish. The tragedy is heart-wrenching, because these young men and women are pure innocents. But there are halachic ramifications as well even while they are in school: Did the son of such a female convert lein in school? Was he motzi the audience with his Chazarat Hashatz? Did he count for the minyan?

Take a more tragic example: what if a young girl, child of a non-Orthodox converted mother, meets and falls in love with a male classmate (perhaps, her chavruta in Gemara class), and that young man is a kohen? What would have been a beautiful relationship is now marred forever and their life plans have to be altered. Perhaps, G-d forbid, the couple might then even turn away from Torah observance entirely because the young woman in question also needs to convert according to halacha, but now cannot marry this young kohen. Is the unequivocal acceptance of non-Orthodox converts and their children the norm in these schools? Is any attempt made to have them – if possible – convert according to halacha? I wonder.

On some level, the policy makes internal sense. For a day school appealing for non-Orthodox students in a very competitive climate, questioning the legitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions would be a turn-off to parents – just like denying these girls their tefillin would displease future applicants as well.

But the bottom line is that the story here might not be at all about “Orthodox” girls wearing tefillin but about non-Orthodox children seeking an accommodation of their religious practices, and about day school principals reluctant to insist on adherence to Torah standards. And that is the opposite of courage.