Thursday, June 30, 2005

Mentalblog ... 

... is leaving the Jewish blogo-world. A shame. A man of integrity and many interests. I understand that the idiosyncratic Barefoot Jewess, a women who just desires a community of Jews is also frustrated and leaving.
A Shame.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

A Day with Kolech 

The OOS wife and I spent yesterday at the second day of the Kolech Conference in Jerusalem. We will spend the next few weeks detailing some of the more interesting lectures and talks but would like to give a quick rundown here. There were over 500 people in attendance although it looked like more. About 10% or so – maybe less – were men and there were quite a few young girls in attendance.

The morning started off with a short talk by Margolit Shiloh on early orthodox Jewish feminism which is dated around the time of the suffragettes (post-WWI). Apparently in Europe at this time there were nearly 20,000 agunot and this, as today, was a rallying point for orthodox feminists. She ended her talk with a quote from a leading Orthodox-Jewish feminist at the time (whose name I didn't catch) who said that "the Halakhah does not lack for solutions, just women willing to step forward".

One woman who has stepped forward is Bar-Ilan law professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari. She had a devastating critique on the handling of agunot by the religious courts as well as by the civil courts and society. We spoke to her after her talk and she promised to send us a copy of the research she conducted on Agunot in Israel. We will discuss this at length another time but she bases a lot of her work on the claim that the courts have vastly undercounted the number of agunot because they limit the definition to those women who have completed the divorce process but who don't yet have a get (divorce writ).

According to Dr. Halperin-Kaddari, this leaves out all of those women in the midst of divorce proceedings whose husbands are blackmailing them or making illegal demands regarding children and money. I am not sure if I got all the numbers right, so I will wait to get the research before mentioning these shocking figures. This will be interesting, I can assure you. She also agreed to be interviewed, so this excellent speaker and leading light of Orthodox feminism will hopefully make an appearance right here.

Drorit Rosentfeld spoke of Kolech's prenuptial agreement which has been approved many rabbis in principle. However, like usual when it comes to women, it never seems to be the right time to implement it. This was the main point of R. Yehuda Gilad's talk as he hopes that slowly but surely, the use of this (or similar) prenup will become standard practice. He has introduced it at his own Kibbutz Lavi and is hoping to get all of the Religious Kibbutz Movement to adapt it.

In a session on educating high schoolers for family and sexuality (not that they used that word) Tamar Biale presented a curriculum she and others devised under the auspices of the Hartman Institute that was based on midrashim and other Jewish texts to present an alternative to the stay at home and have ten children future that is presented to most of our daughters. This was not an attack on the nuclear family but an attempt to educate boys to respect girls as other than the object of desire that they can't yet have and to educate girls to respect their own intelligence. If we are able to get a hold of the curriculum we will also discuss this further.

There were respondents to this – including an interesting critique by the principal of the Jerusalem boy's HS Himmelfarb, R. Yirmi Stavitsky and the principal of a school in Netanya R. Yosef Ben-Bassan.

In the afternoon we heard a fascinating lecture on the fight for the women's vote in the Yishuv between the wars by Toenet Rabbanit Aliza Bazak. She moved from Rav Kook to Rav Moshe and all those in between. The thesis was that there was little in the Halakhah to use in order to oppose the right of women to vote and to be elected to serve office so most poskim used meta-Halakhic reasons for their opposition.

The closing session was on a topic which has been discussed at length here and will continue to be discussed at length – the education of girls. Malka Binah of Matan Jerusalem and Prof. Hannah Safrai gave wonderful talks on the advances of women in learning. Prof. R. Daniel Sperber also gave a good talk concentrating on the growing opposition to truly advanced learning by women in the rabbinic world (a topic we also want to look into more).

However, I felt like holding up a big sign that read: "But What About the Girls?!". But I didn't have to, for R. Dr. Noam Zohar gave a pessimistic talk about how we (don't) educate our girls. The key he said, and we have to agree, is to make limud torah for girls and women as a "chovah" (obligation) and to teach them Torah on the levels they are capable of learning, from an early age. This is both a promise and a threat – we will deal with this issue at length in the near future.

All in all, it was a fruitful day. We learned a lot, we met some old friends and were surprised to learn that an old YU classmate of mine is now married to one of Kolech's brightest starts, Tamar Biale.

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Sunday, June 26, 2005

The Future of JTS and Contemporary Judaism 

Contrary to popular opinion, the identity of the next chancellor of JTS is important for Orthodoxy in general and modern-Orthodoxy and religious-Zionism in particular. Although the mutual respect of Belkin-Soloveitchik for Leiberman-Heschel is long gone and the learning methodology, the theology and the Halakhic psak of YU and JTS seem to be drifting even further apart, each institution shares more than just a subway line.

There are five major branches in today's Judaism, each of course with their own sub-branches and sects: Haredi, Modern-Orthodox/Religious-Zionist (MO/RZ), Convervative/Masorti (CM), Reform and Habad. Four of the five (all but Reform) are loyal to Halakhah as a way of life, although each looks at different methods and of approaching and determining Halakhah. Three of the five seem to have the self-confidence that allows them to assume a posture of independence and to assume that the future belongs to them: Haredi, Habad and Reform. Two of the groups feel a responsibility to face up to the facts of Halakhah and the facts of life, if you will: MO/RZ and CM. These same two groups put Zionism at the center of their theological and practical Jewish lives.

As Judaism moves forward it will take four paths – but only one of which will probably be dominant: It will turn to a harsh fundamentalism that typifies Israeli Haredi live and strives to eliminate contemporary society from the Jewish tradition: It will turn to the left-wing social liberalism that typifies much of Reform Judaism as it tries to make moral relativism the guiding force of Jewish life: It will turn to a rampant messianism typified by Habad the messianic fringes of religious-Zionism: It will take a step toward the incorporation Israel and traditional Judaism in the lives of contemporary Jews as typified in a good portion of MO/RZ and CM Judaism (to be fair, there is a US haredi attempt to come to terms with contemporary society, but it is a practical attempt to combine fundamentalism with material wealth and not an attempt to come to terms with the scientific and social challenges of life around us).

Without trying to narrow the very wide theological and Halakhic gaps between CM and MO/RZ Judaism, it is clear that a more self-confident leadership of both groups, even if it moves them further apart, is needed if contemporary world Jewry is to come to terms with some of the major issues that we will face over the next 50 or so years.

These issues include those that modern biology has presented and will continue to present. These discoveries have already forced us to reconsider our Halakhic and theological definitions of the origins of life, of the meaning of personhood, of the nature of the soul. Modern biology, technology and a changing sociology have also forced the issue of the place of women in society in general and in religious society in particular, in the forefront of our Halakhic and theological lives.

The future of JTS is important because if both the CM and MO/RZ worlds do not approach these issues with the seriousness they deserve (and they need not do them together, they need not agree on them, but they both must work on them) then Judaism will wake up in 50 years to the fact that the world has, for the first time in its long history, passed it by.

And our children and grandchildren will suffer the consequences.

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

One Person's Radical ... 

... Braita informs us that there a whole world out there:

Regarding women's tefila groups: "it's interesting to me to discover that a practice I consider slightly staid -- the attendees are multigenerational, largely pillar-of-the-community types, at a safely Orthodox synagogue with a wide variety of headcovering and clothing choices -- is apparently the bleeding edge of Jewish radicalism to some."

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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Mazel Tov 

Braita is married!

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Artificial and Natural 

I don't want to say its my last word on the newly ignited women's tefilla debate all over Jewish blogoland but there seems to be a real misperception about "natural" and "artificial" ways of serving God, where natural is what we saw our fathers and mothers do and artificial is all of the rest unless you get the a-ok from a not too controversial rabbi.

There are two mitzvot that are thought to be part and parcel of Judaism that really are as artificial as it gets. The first is a synagogue practice so widespread that should the rabbis "naturalize" it by getting rid of it, there would surely be a rebellion that would make those of 1789 or 1917 seem like child's play. The second is practiced only in Israel and to tell you the truth, although getting rid of it would make this a calmer place to live (at least every seven years) it too would harm the spiritual lives of many Jews.

The first is the saying of Kaddish. The Kaddish as a prayer said after the learning of Torah probably dates from the end of Talmudic times and its mourner's version from the middle ages. The original custom for mourners was for only the shaliach tzibbur to recite it. There is a whole list of privileged people who should be shaliach tzibbur depending on the type of relative lost and the amount of time from the death. Since only the chazan said Kaddish, all other mourners would just answer "amen".

Sometime over the last 100 or so years, the custom changed. All of the sudden, all of the mourners in the congregation said Kaddish although the custom of the chazan being a mourner on weekdays has continued. I know two brothers who, when their father passed away would only say Kaddish if they were the shaliach tzibbur. If they both prayed in the same minyan, only one would say Kaddish (and only if they were the shaliach tzibbur). This was the original, more natural way of doing things.

Yet, this practice obviously did not serve the needs of the community who needed to deal with their mourning and deal with their new relationship with God by saying Kaddish. As communities grew larger, more and more people had to say Kaddish at the same time. There were not enough parts of the tefila so as to give all of the mourners a chance to say Kaddish.

Although there are surely communities where this is not the case, in nearly every Ashkenazi and Sepahardi community, an "artificial" custom was created whereby, all mourners (and those with yar ziet) would say Kaddish. This custom satisfies the emotional and spiritual needs of millions of Jews and I would be willing to bet, brings more Jews to synagogue than any other custom or Halakhah ever created – natural or not.

The second artificial custom, as alluded to before, is the current practice of shemitah in Israel. Shemitah is a biblical law that requires all farmers in the Land of Israel to not tend to their land every seventh year – except after the seventh seven year cycle. At the end of the 49th year, there is a year called "yovel" with most of the shemitah laws and some others added on as well. After the yovel year (the 50th in the cycle) the seven years start again.

The problem is, that we have lost the tradition of counting yovel years so that we do not know when the seventh cycle has ended. In reality, that means that we do not know when shemitah is. That leaves us with three options:

- One is to say that since we don't know when shemitah is and since this is Biblical law – we must be strict (Safeqa d'Oreita, l'Chumra). In that case, the only way we can be sure of not violating the prohibition that we never eat food grown during the shemitah year is never to eat produce grown in the Land of Israel.

- The next option would be get rid of shemita altogether. The rationale here is that since we really have no clue when shemitah is, and since keeping shemitah on a non-shemitah year is as ridiculous as keeping Shabbat on a Tuesday, there is no need to worry about it.

- The last option, and the one chosen by the Rabbis (this is not an invitation to debate the Rav Kook heter which is irrelevant to our discussion) is to count seven year cycles only, until the messianic era, when we will again be instructed as to when the yovel year is. This would make sense if time had no holiness. But in Judaism that is not the case. Shemitah is only obligatory and the mitzvah is only "valid" when the actual shemitah year comes. On all other years, it is irrelevant. (Not only that, but knowing the cycle has other important meanings like knowing which of the various ma'asers – tithes- need to be given.)

But the rabbis did not want to just get rid of an important Biblical mitzvah. So, they created an artificial way of keeping shemitah even though it is understood that for all intents and purposes we really have no idea when it really is. The feeling was that this artificial shemitah is good for the Jewish people's relationship with God.

It is a very dangerous thing to tell people who are trying their best to better themselves spiritually and to serve God better, all within the realm of Halakhah, that what they are doing is irrelevant, artificial and ridiculous. It goes against our history, it goes against common decency and it is unbecoming religious leaders and scholars.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Niche Market 

Wow! There is actually a blog dedicated to Philo of Alexandria (via PaleoJudaica). Wouldn't H.A. Wolfson be proud?

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Not the Worst Thing 

Not only do women drive men crazy, women also drive women crazy. There is a fabulously hilarious free for all going on at the comments section of this post by Dov Bear. It all started because Miriam performed hagbah at a women's tefila in London and Dov Bear casually asked about the contents of a feminist kiddush.

All of the sudden, the entire Jewish blogosphere (including yours truly, once again regretfully, seeing that my 45 year old sense of humor doesn't quite cut it with the younger generation – something I should have realized when even my only daughter told me that I am not funny anymore) has been commenting, sparking both Miriam, her father, Dov Bear, Mirty and others to post again on the subject. It seems that there is this woman named Toby who writes for a haredi blog (if a woman writes for a mixed audience can she still be haredi?), who spewed forth the most hateful speech about any-woman and every-woman who gives birth to fewer than five children or who feels the need to satisfy her spiritual yearnings in ways other than serving her husband and children.

There is the mixture of technically correct Halakhah from the always dependable and exacting Hirhurim to a bit of the touchy feely, to the utterly disgusting, to interesting comments from some people who have obviously just finished Tamar Ross's new book.

I have written in the past, after my daughter's bat mitzvah, on women's tefila groups and won't repeat it again (ok, maybe a little). I often wonder what drives people so crazy about them. What is interesting is that they are of medieval origin. Since literacy amongst women was not high during those times, those women who felt the need to pray would go to the local shul (presumably Orthodox – I'm joking!!! No comments about the history of Jewish sects and groups!), and a woman would lead them in prayer. No, there was no reading of the Torah and therefore no hagbah, but I have been assured by my medieval Jewish historian friend that not all the rabbis were happy about this practice.

The first time my wife and I encountered a women's tefila was in Baltimore in 1981. I don't know if that was the first of the modern era and I don't know if it has survived the further Ner-Israel-ization of the city's Orthodox community, but I do know that a group of women who were probably less learned than today's feminist elite met once a month to no harm to the community.

It would be interesting to see how many women are still Orthodox because of these tefilot and how many women were willing to become Orthodox because they existed (contrary to popular belief, not all chozrei b'tshuva are haredi).

The main modern-Orthodox Halakhic argument against these groups is that it is instead of tefila b'tzibbur (prayer with the necessary ten man quorum) and therefore women are giving up a greater good to attain a much lesser good. While I don't doubt that this is a true Halakhic statement since the real-life tradeoffs are never so simple, this argument is disingenuous. If tefila b'tzibbur was considered such an important part of a religious woman's life Orthodox communities would make sure that women could participate in daily or at least weekly minyanim (as many do for Megillah reading on Purim, for hearing Parshat Zachor and for hearing the Shofar). By looking the relative sizes of most women's sections it is obvious that this is not a value for Orthodoxy. It's safe to say, Halakhah notwithstanding, that tefila itself is not considered an important value for women.

But that is beside the point. I know of modern-Orthodox and religious-Zionist communities where women gather in homes on Friday night not to say Kabbalat Shabbat and ma'ariv, but to say tehilim. There are even more communities, especially in Israel and not just amongst Sephardim, where women gather in these same groups on weekday evenings or nights, not to say mincha or ma'ariv but to recite tehilim.

These practices are not just condoned by the Orthodox rabbinic establishment, they are praised.

So, when a woman recites chapters of Psalms with a group of women when she could be praying mincha or ma'ariv in a proper minyan, that is praiseworthy, but when they actually say the mandatory prayers, read from a Torah, and listen to a dvar Torah, that is blameworthy?

There are plenty of non-Halakhic things that go on in shuls across the world that are tolerated because they add to the sum total of mitzvot being performed and of spiritual highs that are attained (I am thinking of the repeating of words which in Israel is de rigueur, or any number of other practices). I myself don't like the touchy-feely Carelebach minyanim that are so popular these days but I certainly understand how they enhance the holiness of Shabbat to many of the participants.

Women's tefilah groups are a good thing, not a bad thing. Just as I don't like Carelebach minyanim, you may not like women's tefila groups, but you can't deny that they add to the sum total of mitzvot performed in a community and, at least partially, satisfy the spiritual yearnings of many people.

Maybe its time we toned down the emotions a bit and we approached Halakhah with a less sharp analytic knife. Sometimes, we should just let things happen and see where they take us. The worst that can happen is that we will raise a generation of girls who know ta'amei hamikrah and have actually seen the inside of a sefer Torah.

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Monday, June 20, 2005

Heavenly Torah 

Thanks to reader Benji Lowen, I understand that Heschel's monumental work "Torah MiShamayim" has now been translated into English as Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations. The books runs 800 pages and costs $95. This is expensive for any book, but this will teach you Torah for your entire life. You will gain a newfound respect (if you didn't already have) for both Heschel and for Chazal.

This book is more than highly reccomended.

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Prestigious Violence 

JPost reports:

"Against the backdrop of internecine strife between competing factions in Ponevezh, a prestigious 'Lithuanian' yeshiva, two men have been arrested after Benny Me'or, a 35-year-old yeshiva student, was manhandled last week, and his computer and cellphone confiscated."

The 'scare quotes' are misplaced - should be on 'prestigious', not Lithuanian.

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Honesty and Self-Confidence 

The most bothersome aspect of the lack of intellectual honesty in the Orthodox community has to do with the constant need to reinterpret everything into a narrow, ideologically pure space. Whether we are reading Tanach, midrashim or the writings and lives of contemporary scholars, all of the "good guys" always seem to agree on all the key issues.

Michael Wyschogrod, in the introduction to The Body of Faith writes, after a critique of the Art Scroll siddur's presentation of Shir haShirim (Song of Songs): "The distinction between pshat and derush has been eliminated and instead of adding layers of meaning to the basic one, the peshat is ignored and a midrashic reading substituted, one can only wonder why the original text of the Song of Songs is read in the synagogue … and not a midrashic interpretation of it".

Paradoxically, as we become more bookish and text oriented, we loose all contact with the texts that actually count, substituting elementary and insulting interpretations. This is so not only with the Tanach. This is so with the midrashim and the gemara, with the rishonim and with the writings and lives of our own contemporaries. I am not talking about the haredi world's constant need to keep watch over the lives of the gedolim of the last 200 years: The Netziv wasen't really such a Zionist, R. Kamenetsky didn't really read secular literature. I am talking about the modern-Orthodox/Religious Zionist community and its attempts to rewrite history. It attempts to explain away the fact that Dr. Tonya Soloveitchik (R. Soloveitchik's wife) did not cover her hair or that the Rav and his wife started and ran a school (and sent their children there) that was co-ed (an historical act more radical at the time, than women's prayer groups are today).

Or the attempt to pretend that the Rav had no relationship with the two great scholars of JTS, Rabbis Heschel and Leiberman. Or to pretend that he condemned his students who single handedly saved modern Orthodoxy in the "sticks" in the 50's and 60's by going to synagogues without a mechitzah. Would Habad (and I don't here mean to criticize Habad, but the selfish YU musmachim whose religious purity is practiced at the expense of Torah) even have an infrastructure to work with these days without the shuls, day schools, Hebrew schools and adult education that these rabbis built – at great sacrifice to themselves and their families?

Who amongst the Rav's students or "grand-students" will write the The Halakhic Man for the next generation? Who amongst them will open up his soul and write the next Lonely Man of Faith? Who will have the nerve to write Faith After the Holocaust, as R. Eliezer Berokvits did? Who will have the self-confidence to reinterpret the Jewish view of personhood in light of genetic engineering and human cloning (besides taking a purely technical Halakhic view of the process of genetic engineering)?

There is some interesting writing going on in the universities and the yeshivot, but the honesty and self-confidence does not seem to be there. The universities mostly deal in history (fascinating in and of itself, but while historians will often give us indispensable insights into our past, they rarely lead us into the future). The yeshivot mostly deal in gemara. While the Torah world may be enriched with new Briskian analyses of Nezikin or Kodshim (and I am not belittling the need or the brilliance) they will rarely help us come to terms with the challenges that contemporary science, philosophy and sociology have brought to the fore. In a discussion with a good friend between mincha and ma'ariv last Shabbat, he stated to me that a religion that cannot absorb and deal with outside forces can only be considered ossified. The haredi world is happy with this ossification. If they survive as an independent group in an ossified status and want to become Toynbee's fossil then that is their prerogative. But there are those of us who need our religion to be solid and dynamic – unapologetic and honest.

There are those of us who want to confront our tradition and our texts as citizens of the contemporary world. Tamar Ross speaks eloquently of a "cumulative revelation". That means taking the risks, meeting the challenges and if need be, making the changes necessary to our thoughts and practices in light of God's truths that are revealed anew by Jew and non-Jew alike.

Although we have many rabbis and talmidei chachamim with the minds and knowledge to do that – do any have the self-confidence?

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Sunday, June 19, 2005


Sometimes you have an epiphany and sometimes things stew slowly in your mind until they reach a point where they need a release. Ever since high school (at MTA), when I read Yechezkel Kaufmann's The Religion of Israel, I have been suspicious of the intellectual honesty of my rabbis. While in YU I was called a "pinko" (very popular back in the 70's) by one (then) young rav of mine for questioning a moral conclusion of a statement in the gemara.

As the decades passed, I continued reading and learning, moving easily and not so easily from R. Soloveitchik to Heschel to Kook to Weiss-Halivni: From Jewish history to Jewish philosophy. From gemara to the Tanach that they neglected to teach us, to the midrashim that were left out of the gemara to the agadot that we used to skip over in shiur. From the Rambam to the Maharal from Sa'adya Gaon to Rosenzweig.

I am currently in the middle of a most fascinating book that I have seen on my father's bookshelf for years and finally got around to reading (having a father who went to YU in the days of Belkin and Soloveitchik – in the 40's and 50's is a great advantage). This is the three volume Hebrew work by Heschel titled "Torah miShamayim Ba'aplaklaria shel ha'Dorot" – the English title is "The Theology of Ancient Judaism". This book is a great work of Torah, a great work of scholarship. It has not yet been translated into English (although I was told that someone is working on it) and is out of print in Hebrew. (This in itself is a great shame. It is Heschel's most important work. Whoever is in charge of his estate, should make sure it is reissued)

Heschel takes the famous Halakhic and methodological arguments between two great tana'im – R. Akiva and R. Ishmael and shows how it extends to midrash and to theology. R. Akiva the mystic and lover of miracles, R. Ishmael the man of this world. R. Akiva the man of "torah mishamayim" – all the Torah in divine language and R. Ishmael of "dibra torah bilshon ben adam" – the Torah of human language.

This is an important work, worth reading and absorbing. I am in the middle of the second volume and at some point in the future will write on it again. I have just finished another important book, Tamar Ross's Expanding the Palace of Torah. We will discuss this book in depth over the next few weeks, but let me make one comment here. Ross has written, if not the first, then the most important book to date on the challenges that feminism has brought to the structure of Orthodox life – from theology to hermeneutics to Halakhah. One of the most fascinating things about the book is that today's rabbinic establishment has, for the most part, sought to either ignore or bully the feminist challenge. Rarely, have we seen an honest confrontation of the issues (and yes, I know that a number of brave souls have sought to deal with them).

Which brings me back to that thought that has been simmering in my mind since my high school days - at which point did the rabbis decide that Judaism or Jews could not withstand the challenges that life had to offer- physical, intellectual and spiritual? At what point did they decide that individual Jews could no longer be trusted to meet the challenges of the greatest contemporary (non-Ortohdox) minds?

Yes, we all know the famous mishna in Sanhedrin and the many, many statements that attempted to keep the Jewish people 'protected' from the influences of the heretics. But there were other statements that contradicted these. Heschel's book is full of them (some of the most interesting relate to a few pesukim in the coming parsha - Numbers 15: 30-31). Tractate Sanhedrin doesn't have pages and pages on Techiyat haMetim, because everyone agreed on it. The Rambam didn't contradict himself in his many writings out of laziness. The tosafot didn't create a new method of learning solely to make disparate things fit nicely.

My questions are these: Do the rabbis of today fear that the abandonment of dogma will lead to the abandonment of Halakhic practice or do they fear the abandonment of dogma in and of itself? Do they not trust that our 3,000 year intellectual history can withstand the challenges of contemporary science, philosophy and in the broadest sense of the term, sociology? Or do they really believe, that the dogma's that we have been taught are so much a part of our belief in God, that without them, we might as well not keep the Shabbat?

Intellectual honesty goes beyond analyzing a sugya in the gemara according to R. Soliveitchik and R. Lichtenstein – but in expanding upon it by using knowledge that we ourselves have attained from learning, reading and experiencing the best that the world has to offer. Intellectual honesty is certainly not the revisionist history of trying to explain away actions and statements by Chazal and more recent rabbis.

I think that the foundation of Judaism was built on intellecutal honesty until about 100-200 years ago. But what is it built on now?

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Thursday, June 16, 2005


For those of you (us) who have been complaining about the politicization of Bnei Akiva in Israel, take a look at who is in one of the three pictures that flash across the top of their new web site.

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Few Allies 

Ruthie Blum interviews Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein on Israel and Jewish-Christian relations.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2005


One would think that the Terry Schiavo tragedy is minor in comparison to the historic events we have witnessed over the thirty or so years. One would be wrong. This event will come back to haunt us. Pault McHugh, in Commentary on Annihilating Terri Schiavo.

"Conspicuously missing from the chorus of voices arguing over the meaning and implications of the Schiavo case have been the views of a class of people with a uniquely relevant body of experience and insight: namely, the doctors and nurses who customarily provide care to patients like Terri Schiavo. As a result, few people appear to have grasped that the way she died was most unusual. That, instead, it has been widely understood to be not only a proper but also a perfectly commonsensical way to die, a way approved of by most doctors and nurses, can only be explained by a deep change that has taken place over the last decades in our thinking about how to care for the helpless and the disabled among us."

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Two Conferences 

For those of you in Israel, there are two interesting conferences coming up: Kolech's To Be a Jewish Woman in Jerusalem on June 27, 28 and Lo Ba'Shamayim in Kfar Blum in the Upper Gallilee, July 4-6.

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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Rav Amital at 80 

Rav Yehuda Amital has many accomplishments to his name. He has started the most intellecutally serious and successful hesder yeshiva in Israel, brought R. Aharon Lichtenstein to Israel, started and then left Meimad, served as a government minister after the Rabin assassination in order to bring some calm to the religious-Zionist community and now he is retiring in so that there will be no succession fight at his yeshiva.

Yair Sheleg has a profile:

"To this day, he says, he views the yeshiva's greatest achievement to be that 'we succeeded in cultivating the approach that it is all right for the students to think differently from the head of the yeshiva, and on the other hand, that one must respect those with whom one differs.' In the same spirit he explains that 'already when we established the yeshiva I said that two groups would not enter here: Merkaz Harav and Chabad, because both think that the truth is theirs alone and are unwilling to listen to others.' "

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Saturday, June 11, 2005

JPost Whitewash 

I am not sure if it’s the new owner of the new editor, but the JPost has not been hiding its attempts to whitewash everything Chabad does, too well. It started a few weeks or so ago with one of the most fawning pieces I have ever read. The new editor, David Horowitz, painted Chabad as this moderate do-good organization without a hint of messianic fervor. There have been other articles with all too kind references and always a mention of the very, very small minority of messianists who ruin the good work of the rationalists.

Friday's paper, though was just comical. In an "exclusive" (as if this 'scoop' was anything anyone else would want) article that ran across the entire top of the front page they reported that Chabad has neither the means nor the will to oppose the hitnatkut. Forgetting the fact that Chabad have been the most vocal opponents of the hitnatkut outside of Israel and some of the most fanatical (although to be honest, there is a lot of competition) inside, this ridiculous article had only one purpose: To make sure that Chabad coffers remain full.

I don't know the motivation behind these ridiculous pieces, but journalism is not one of them.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A Holy Blood Clot 

Mel Gibson might be interested in this one.

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Making Truth out of Fictions 

Now that I have thrown my temper tantrum with my previous post, its time to talk seriously about the whole situation of men refusing to complete a divorce by giving a "get" and the whole agunah problem generally.

There was a point in the not too distant past when rabbis were on the side of women whose husbands abandoned them. There was a time, up until the early 1970's if I am not mistaken, when rabbis would sanction the kidnapping and recalcitrant husbands: When they would lock these men up in mausoleums in cemeteries until they agreed to sign the get. The violence against the men was justified by the violence that they were doing to their wives and to God's name.

Certain things were just not tolerated.

When did the situation change?

I can't be sure, but I would guess it was in the early 1970's when R. Shlomo Goren freed a brother and sister from mamzerut in a compassionate ruling that the haredi community condemned. The condemnation was so strong that R. Goren was never the same again. It was at this point, possibly, that the religious-Zionist rabbinic leadership lost its nerve and became subservient to the haredi ideology and haredi pesak. It was at that point, possibly, that the haredi rabbinic leadership, in their paranoid fear of modernity in general and feminism in particular declared war against the Jewish woman and left the tradition of Halakhic compassion behind.

Now, I am neither an historian nor an Halakhic scholar. But I do know that the prenuptial agreement that certain rabbis have proposed would solve nearly all agunah problems going forward. I also know, that not nearly enough is being done to force, yes force, recalcitrant husbands to grant a get.

Is the use of force and is the prenuptial agreement an Halakhic fiction? Does it go against the spirit of the ketuabah and the get? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe bloggers more qualified than I can take this question up. But Halakhah is full of fictions that the rabbis in their wisdom created in order to remedy an absurd situation.

Let's look at three of them:

1. The first is "prosbul". This fiction was created by Hillel, the great tannah who realized that the local economy could not last without the flow of capital and essentially rescinded a law from the Torah that stipulated the cancellation of all loans during the shemitah year. If you lent money for two years in year four of the seven year shemitah cycle and in year six, the borrower still hadn't paid you back – in year seven, the loan was cancelled. Obviously, people stopped lending money and the economy suffered. So, along came Hillel and created the "prosbul", an Halakhic fiction that cancelled a law clearly written in the Torah.

2. The second case is the "heter iska" which is an Halakhic fiction that allows one Jew to lend money to another Jew at interest. That is why there is a functioning banking system and capital markets in Israel. This Halakhic fiction turns an interest bearing loan into a profit sharing arrangement. But this is not all. What exactly is it that allows us to buy bonds from corporations that have Jewish shareholders? What allows us to own mutual funds that own those bonds? What allows us to open certificates of deposit at Citibank, in which two famous Jews, Bob Rubin and Sandy Weill own gobs and gobs of shares? What allows this? The rabbis recognition that we need a well capitalized economy.

3. The third case is really the most interesting. This is the Jewish calendar. What was it (historian anyone?) that allowed Chazal to cancel the obligation to present witnesses before a bet din to declare a new month? What allowed them to fix the calendar so that we can know when Yom Kippur and Pesach are years, no decades in advance? What was it that allowed Chazal to change the way the Torah stipulated for setting the time that we ought to fast on Yom Kippur and not eat chametz on Pesach?

These are not attacks on Chazal, but a recognition that reality sometimes gets in the way of pure theory. We create Halakhic and other fictions so that we can live as a community of God fearing people in this world.

Can the agunah problem, present and future be solved by fictions less real than those we presented above? Of course it can. I leave it to other more qualified bloggers to take this to the next step. I leave it to historians and talmidei chachamim to create the right way to go about this. But I fear, that the only way to get this done is by threatening radical action. What that action is, I am not yet sure.

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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Spiritual Blackmail Anyone? 

Miriam has written a few times about the case of a woman seeking a divorce in Israeli rabbinical courts for four and one-half years. Now, the rav who heads the court hearing her case resigned because the case was in the press.

Miriam writes:
"This bust-up was already foreshadowed a few months ago, when R. Eli Ben-Dahan, director general of Israel’s rabbinical courts, issued a not-so-veiled threat to Yad L'Isha that the rabbinical courts would boycott its female advocates because 'Yad L’Isha has positioned itself as a fist/punch to the husband and a fist to the rabbinical courts.' At the time, I commented that Yad L'Isha has clearly been so successful in helping women stand up for their rights and drawing attention to the injustices the court colludes in that the rabbis are feeling threatened. Their lives are being made difficult as it's not so easy anymore to settle cases simply by sacrificing the women, and as their rulings and inaction are actually brought under scrutiny."

The time has come for a break with the haredi bet din system.

Or maybe something more radical has to happen. Off the top of my head ... not thought out ... a little blackmail ... what if .... what if we play Honi Hama'agal to the Bet Din's God ... what if 10,000, no 100,000 Orthodox Jews threaten to stop keeping Shabbat if the Rabbinic court system doesen't stop fooling around and solve this problem? How much chilul Shabbat can R. Elyashiv have on his head before he does what rabbis have done for centuries ... figure a way out for bnot hamelech who have not sinned?

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Torah, Culture, Israel 

David Singer on R. Aharon Lichtenstein, in First Things:

"Lichtenstein’s commitment to 'Torah and culture' has proved unwavering, even as the focus of his educational activity has shifted from the United States to Israel. In 1971, he became one of the heads of Yeshiva Har Etzion, a school combining advanced Talmud study with service in the Israeli army. While Har Etzion does not offer secular studies as part of its formal curriculum, Lichtenstein functions within the institution as an 'apostle of culture.' He explained his position in a 1986 lecture: 'I do not believe that my principled position concerning the value of culture has changed drastically over the last twenty years—although, at the level of educational implementation, contextual circumstances must obviously be taken into account. I held then, and hold ever more firmly now, that Torah is the heart of our personal and collective spiritual existence....I held then, and hold now, that this existence can be enhanced by the enriching and energizing force of general culture.' "

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Monday, June 06, 2005

Never Married? 

YNET is reporting (Hebrew only) on one of the strangest stories I have seen in awhile. Apparently in the latest issue of Techimin (an annual put out dealing with Halakhah and public policy issues) former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron has condemned a practice where rabbis purposely use invalid witnesses in a marriage kedushin because they don't believe the wife will be faithful. (He also came out in favor of civil marriage.)

Am I the only one who finds this practice insulting to the entire citizenry of Israel? Well, at least we can say 'kov hakavod' to R. Bakshi-Doron.

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Rabbis and Marriage 

Ha'aretz has an article (Hebrew only) by Tamar Rotem covering the Bar-Ilan conference "From Delayed Marriage to Late Bachelorhood". This is the second conference in which the University is trying to bring Orthodox rabbis and psychologists together to discuss Judaism in contemporary society.

By the likes of the article, many of the rabbis don't have a clear view of what exactly contemporary society is. Very early marriage seems to weigh heavily on their minds as it is seen as the only sure way to "keep the boys on the farm", so to speak. The assumption is that if the boys are married, their wives will keep them in line. So, boys and girls are encouraged to get married while in the boy is still in the army so that they need to be supported by their parents. Neither husband nor wife will at that point have a higher education (or for some even a high school matriculation which often isn't completed until after the army) and will begin their married life dependent instead of independent. The young girl (hardly a woman) will become pregnant and either spend her pregnancy and post-birth days alone or with her mother. Relationships aren't developed and the marriage is sustained early on by the fun of playing house.

It is the failure of the rabbis in the religious-Zionist community to provide a real framework for life in contemporary society that leads to the lack of self-confidence in their own teachings and a lack of faith in their students. As a group, the rabbis have had little contact with the non-Orthodox (really the non-Yeshiva) world and have adapted the haredi-like "Hashem ya'azor" (God will help) attitude towards those mundane real-life problems like feeding, housing and clothing your family. They remind me of the European rabanim at YU during my day who had no or little confidence in "Torah uMaddah" and therefore warned students away from much that the University had to offer. They preach "Torah va'Avodah" but don't believe in logical conclusions that follow from a determined effort to confront contemporary society as a religious Jew.

Marriage should not be used as an educational tool to make sure the boys continue to put on tefillin every day. Nor is it "just" a framework for raising children. In contemporary society – which like it or not is the society the rabbis and their students live in – marriage is about love, relationship, friendship and independence, and yes, about raising children and building a "bayit ne'eman b'Yisrael". Not all marriages, of course. And not all late marriages contain those things nor do all early marriages lack them. But the rabbis are making blanket declarations about individuals, each of whom and their circumstances, are different.

If the rabbis in the religious-Zionist community would start teaching personal responsibility and independence (of body if not of mind which might be too much to ask) they might not have to use marriage as a last ditch effort to keep the boys on the farm.

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Sunday, June 05, 2005


R. Benny Lau, formerly of Kibbutz Sa'ad, now of Katamon (in Jerusalem) is trying to save the summer.

" When Rabbi Binyamin (Benny) Lau passes the intersections and sees those same young people who sleep in the streets or riot in the name of the protest against the disengagement, he is horrified. In correspondence he conducted recently via e-mail with Yona Goodman, chair of Bnei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement, Lau wrote: 'A collection of boys and girls incited by a handful of arrogant people who do not hesistate to undermine the fabric of life in the country is threatening to set our house on fire.'

'It won't help us to describe the youths at the intersections as marginal or as bad seeds. They come from the center of activity of religious Zionism: from the yeshiva high schools, from the clubhouses of the youth movements. If we, the members of the religious Zionist community, do not halt this trend, we will pay a terrible price. The growing lack of confidence between the youth and the state institutions is liable to develop into alienation from the system. The most highly regarded sport among the youth is to be arrested by police. They opened a file on you - you're a big shot. You confronted a policeman - you're a tzaddik (a righteous person). A general distortion of the rules.' "

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Ha'aretz reports on at least some people have had it with the crap that passes for culture:

"A year ago the theater decided, at the initiative of the Tel Aviv municipality, to hold monthly Friday afternoon tribute performances to a Tel Avivian poet in the large auditorium, which seats 950. So far about 15 such events have been held, and the hall has been full. Haim Nahman Bialik, Avraham Shlonsky, Alterman, Rahel Bluwstein, Leah Goldberg, Avraham Chalfi, Tirza Atar. By 3 P.M., when the program ends, tickets are already sold out for the next event.

'It is a gathering around the tribal campfire on Friday afternoons, replacing what was the youth movement's Friday night activity,' says Dan Almagor, who presents the readings. 'I have presented eight series of performances like these throughout the country, attended each month by about 10,000 people. Yesterday I was at an event at Yad Lebanim House in Be'er Sheva. Some 170 people came for an evening of love songs by Chalfi, Penn and Bialik.' "

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I owe an apology to Miriam at Bloghead. A few weeks ago she wrote a post criticizing the Jewish Agency for its Masa program, meant to "compete" with Birthright. I commented on the post with my usual criticisms of Birthright and with my uncharacteristic defense of the Jewish Agency for creating a program that would bring Jewish students to study in Israel, instead of just to vacation here for free.

Although my criticism of Birthright stands, Miriam was more perceptive than I in seeing the waste that Masa would be. As I have heard from a very good source (my niece) the Masa program will be used (in part, at least) to subsidize those kids who already come to study. Yes, the Israeli taxpayer will subsidize all of those desperately poor, already connected US kids (who, I am sure will continue to get overcharged – so I guess its just a cash deposit into the bank accounts of those good rabbis who, in the words of Shelly from Ra'anana, run yeshivot that might as well be in the Poconos) who after a year in Israel can't tell the Golan from the Makhtesh or kababim from schawarma.

But, I guess this will allow the program to get started with big numbers, to have wonderful "Jewish identity" poll results and most important - to be able to honor those wealthy individuals who, along with those of us paying over 50% of our income in taxes, will be footing the bill.

Anyone interested in starting an "Israel program"?

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Thursday, June 02, 2005

Siyum Course Makim Sayarot 

Posted by Hello

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 Posted by Hello

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Rants and Raves, III 

Yona Melina z"l, who spoke eight languages, died nearly ten years after becoming a victim of a suicide terrorist attack in Jerusalem … Labor MK Collette Avital visited the grave of Yasir Arafat while with a Socialist International visit to Ramallah … Jerusalem Mayor Luplianski refused to have his party pay the city of Jerusalem NIS 800,000 in fines it received for the last mayoral election … Israeli cable TV channel Sport 5 will broadcast wrestling shows "Rave" and "Smackdown" … In a special session in the Knesset in honor of Theodore Herzl the visitors gallery was at capacity with schoolchildren in attendance .. In a special session in the Knesset in honor of Theodore Herzl, four Knesset members were in attendance …A train with 80,000 tons of food supplies donated by farmers and others went to Jerusalem to help feed the city's poor … At the end of the month the central bus station in Kfar Saba will be torn down in order to build three 15 story buildings … The Israeli Heath Ministry has allowed the sale of packaged fresh ground meat.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

I Spy 

The shameful industrial spy story making the headlines over the last few days of Israeli companies invading rival computer systems goes to the heart of the utilitarian basis of all moral discussion in Israel (please hold the comments on my naiveté – I have been in the business world in the US and in Israel long enough to know what I am talking about).

We actually have witnessed a better business ethics environment over the last few years as the need to compete and sell to foreign firms has forced Israeli businessmen to do the big as well as the little things that make a difference. But in dealings between Israelis we have seen the same utilitarian analysis when dealing with thorny moral issues in business that we have in so many other professions – be it medicine, law, religion or politics.

We in the religious community are most at fault here. Not only have we as a group not set a better example in our behavior, we have turned religion into a branch of government administration at best, backroom politics at worst. The icy cold Halakhic analysis that doubles as religion in Israel goes hand in hand with the utilitarian, goal oriented, "ethical" discussions in the halls of academia, corporate boardrooms, research laboratories and too many hospital wards.

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