Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Does your Gadol understand you?

Someone reading my posts may think I am against the gedolim. They would be wrong. I admire everyone who dedicates their life to learning Torah, teaching others, spending their time in leadership positions of our people, and making difficult decisions about what Hashem wants from us, and what path He wants us to take. As I have noted previously, Halachic decision making often requires balancing competing views and values. I think the people usually identified as gedolim dont have the same values as I do. Now, they may claim that my values are not consonant with Torah, while I would have to bring proof that they are. Lets take a specific example:

The role of women in learning and society. I encourage my daughters to learn mishna and gemara. All the fairy tales in our house end with the princess getting an advanced degree in something before she gets married to the prince. Since it was published in Yated, I assume many gedolim agree with this . For those who dont want to read the whole thing, it is an article about careers that are appropriate for Jewish women, the emphasis being on those that can avoid problems of yichud(being alone with another man) and maintain tzniut(modesty). I am certainly in favor of modesty, but my definition of modesty is different than that of the author of this article.

In my previous post I mentioned a poster(I cant find my copy, if anyone has it, or a link, please let me know) requesting women to leave shul before adon olam so as not to have mixing of the sexes after shul. This was signed by some identified as gedolim. Again, they are balancing the need for seperation with the desire of women to daven.

The Gedolim in these situations decided that tzniut(modesty) is more important that career aspirations for women-indeed, that there is no way around the tzniut issues in most careers, and that it is better to eliminate even a small chance of mixing, rather than have women stay in shul for the entire davening. From a strictly halachic point of view, it is an easy decision to make. Career aspirations or a desire to stay in shul and daven are subjective things, difficult to quantify. There isn't anything in Shulchan Aruch that says to let women have a career or have them stay in shul. However, there is lots in Shas and Poskim about tzniut and keeping women and men apart. So, one would have to put a significant amount of halachic value on what the women want to counterbalance the lessening of observence of tzniut, and in order to come out in favor of women staying in shul, or being allowed to have different careers.

My challenge to those who say we have to follow the gedolim, or those that say the gedolim understand women's issues: Do you(for a woman) or your wife leave shul before adon olam to avoid mixing? do you(for a woman) or your wife have a job that goes against the yated article? If you do, contact R. Elyashiv or one of the other gedolim and ask if it is ok.

If you are going to claim that the article or the poster applies only to women in the chareidi community, then the logical inference is that the gedolim only understand the women in that community, and dont understand that a lot of frum women want to daven, and want to have a wide variety of jobs. And they really dont understand that a lot of frum women want to learn more than a few halachot and stories of our forefathers. So, either the gedolim understand you, and pasken for you, or they dont understand you. If they dont understand you, are they still going to pasken for you?

(Sorry for the loss of the last sentence)

Note: the gedolim in this article refer to the eidah hacharedi type that sign posters. I am not referring to RHS, or other "modern orthodox" type of gedolim.

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Friday, May 27, 2005

What do gedolim know about women- a response to Mrs. Toby Katz

Mrs. Toby Katz, over at Crosscurrents, makes the claim that gedolim(the great decisors of the generation) understand women and women's concerns. She answers the question of:

regarding the tendency of some in feminist quarters to question the ability of “the rabbis” to evince sufficient empathy for female concerns….

with this statement

The notion that only blacks can understand blacks, only women can understand women, and so on, undercuts the bedrock of our common humanity.

Gedolim rise to an exceptionally high level of refinement, but all humans who are sufficiently mature and intelligent can understand the feelings of other humans.

An understanding or a response to women can be either on a personal level, or on a policy/communal level. She and some of the other CC bloggers bring nice stories about the personal kindness and generosity of some gedolim. This personal concern for a fellow human being reflects kindness, concern for others, charity and other middot tovot(good traits). However, being nice to people, women included, is different from recognizing problems that are unique to women as a group of people. For example, many people, faced with a demonstrably poor person will give the person money, or help him. It is(I hope) human nature to do so. And, it is only some change, or a few dollars. But how many then go on vote against increasing taxes to help the poor? or give large amounts of money to a faceless organization that will provide better housing for the poor? There are two differences: With one there is a name and a face on the problem, and it is a personal issue related to that one person. With the other there is no one face to the problem, and it is not a personal issue, it is a societal issue unique to one set of societies members. There is a big difference between being nice to a person who shows an obvious need(one which you yourself probably has had, or can imagine yourself having) and understanding the needs of a group of people that you have been shielded from for the majority of your life.

I posted a response noting that male members of the Chareidi community have limited to no interactions with members of the opposite sex except for their immediate family, and their wife. However, Mrs. Katz maintains that the gedolim understand the needs of women. How do they obtain this understanding? A number of possibilites occur to me:

1. By being a gadol, one axiomatically understands the needs of all. This is a bit mystical and since we require proof of miricles, we will put this claim to the side for know.

2. One can only be a gadol if one understands the needs of others. In other words, understanding the needs of women is a criteria for being acclaimed a gadol. Is this in operation? It seems to me that the gedolim are more noted for learning and paskening and PERSONAL middot, than for learning the issues relating to women. We have instances of gedolim who did not suffer fools lightly. Not to be critical, but would they have been less than awesome in the middot of pity or concern for others?

3. Gedolim understand women through their vast learning of Tanach, Shas and Poskim. Obviously, one criteria for being a gadol is tremendous knowledge. However, are women only the sum total of what is written about them in Shas and Poskim? Are men? Can one understand and relate to either sex if all they have is our mesora, but limited to no personal experience?

My answer to that question is a paraphrase(I forgot the author): I truly believe that all knowledge is to be found in the Torah, but that we do not know how to find it all. Even knowledge of plumbing can be found, if one is on a deep enough level. However, until we have reached that level, when I need plumbing work, I will call a plumber.

The proof in the lack of understanding on the part of contemporary gedolim of women's issues is in the posters that went up last year requesting women to leave shul early so as not to have mingling of the sexes after davening. Mrs. Katz, are you leaving shul early? Do you think that the gedolim who signed this understand your desire to daven? to attend shul? If they do, they felt the possibility of your mingling with men was far more dangerous than the benefit to you of finishing davening. Have you asked a gadol how he can accept the instances of heter meah rabbonim that have been increasing? Why they have not put a stop to it? put the perpetrators in cherem?

One of course could argue that the gedolim understand the women's issues in their community- which is the very chareidi one. However, what about the issues of a more moderate chareidi woman? Or the Modern Orthodox? Where can the understanding end?

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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Summary and Comments on the previous 3 posts

I appreciate the comments and corrections on my posts. Please feel free to leave more, and I do read them all. I was hoping for more discussion of the thrust of the posts, that Orthodoxy today still reflects in part the changes wrought by the battle against reform. Feel free to leave those comments on this post, leaving the other comment sections for more discussion of the particular details.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

historical Persepectives on current issues part 3

(parts one and two are below)
The modern orthodox are pretty much the inheritors of the legacy of R. SR Hirsch, R. Ettlinger, and R. Hildesheimer. The response of these three to modernity and the challenge of reform was to embrace the secular scholarship that was available, while maintaining strict standards in Judaic learning and practice. It is the task of the modern orthodox to find the path between non-Halachic leniencies on the left, and the knee jerk reaction of stringency on the right. It is a matter not only of practice, but also one of hashkafa/belief/dogma. The issue of what a Jew must believe to be considered orthodox was germaine in the 1840s, and remains so today. Cutting off an entire branch of thought ala banning Slifkin clearly is inappropriate, but so is wandering into non-Sinaitic Torah. The task of the MO is to articulate beliefs that are consonant with our Mesorah, but also do not treat the people as non-thinking school children. This has been the goal from Saadia, Rambam, on down.

From a practice point of view, strict observance of Halacha is the sine qua non of orthodox Judaism. MO has to beware of the path that was taken by the reformers. That does not mean that every humrah in the kitzur shulchan aruch has to be treated as Torah from Sinai. However, any changes from traditional practice need to be based on solid Halachic ground. MO certainly should look at the responses from the last 200 years with history in mind, and realize that some of what was decreed was a response to the times. But one cannot throw away 200 years of psak just on those grounds.

With regard to relations to the Charedim to the right and the non-traditional to the left, MO has to be steadfast in its beliefs and practices. While attention should be paid to Chareidi poskim, it should be realized that they pasken out of a different attitude and cultural milieu than the one that MO lives in. It is unclear to me why the early deference on the part of the Chareidimshown to R. Hirsch, Hildesheimer, Wienberg and Hoffman was not continued to their students and followers. One side would argue that their ideals, practice and standards of Torah learning were not upheld. The other side would argue that the degree of intolerance for nonconforming beliefs and behavior increased, and the limits of tolerated beliefs narrowed. Also, those pioneers came from the same roots as the chareidim, while the next generations were more removed. It could be argued that the first generation was one of personal friendship and admiration, although of differing hashkafa, and the only thing that was passed on to the next generation was the differing hashkafa, but not the personal friendship and admiration.

With regard to non-traditional Jews, MO has to maintain the orthodox beliefs, and represent them accurately and faithfully, even when it means not participating in a communal activity. As R. Ettlinger noted, engagement and education are the imperatives, not seperation and shunning. With regard to clergy, R. Akiva Eger noted that a posek needs to be one who is knowledgeable and believes. A non-traditional rabbi is not fit to be a posek. Either he lacks the knowledge, or he is knowledgeable but does not acept talmudic law as normative. If he is ignorant, how can he presume to issue legal rulings? If he is knowledgeable, but knowingly repudiates talmudic law, how can he be regarded as a rabbinic decisor?

By looking at reform and the response to it, we see the rationale behind a lot of the contraversy that involves our community. If we keep history in mind, we can untangle a lot of what has become complicated. We can also understand others, even if we dont agree with them, at least we know "where they are coming from." And we all continue to try to serve God in the best way we know how.

(I again strongly reccomend reading Prof. Bleich's essay, Rabbinic Responses to Nonobservance in the Modern Era for a much more thorough and elegent treatment of the history mentioned here)

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Historical persepectives on current issues part 2

(part one is below)

There were other orthodox responses to reform besides communal stringency. R Tzevi Hirsch Chajes in Minhat Kenaot critcized his fellow rabbis for a number of failings: Being unaware of the changes that were taking place, and having no knowledge of what the reform advocated, defects in religious education(focusing only on halachic issues and ignoring history and other subjects), those that did not take part in opposition to reform but considered it beneath their dignity to debate those that were not their equals in scholarship. One quote

Even that segment of the youth that prepare to devote themselves to a rabbinical career have not the vaguest notion of the scope of that office... they study only the laws of passover, and eventhat section not in its entirety..if even one of them has a smattering of proficiency, even if he does not know that David reigned after Saul, he will be recommended by the Rabbis as the most qualified rabbinical candidate"

One other response is one that Prof Bleich terms the "positive response." R. Jacob Ettlinger, in Minhat Ani called on leaders to concentrate on education and instruction geared to those whose faith had faltered. He stated that criticism alone would be ineffective. He, along with R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, and R. Azriel Hildesheimer, started the movement now known as Torah u'madda(Tum), enouraging high standards of Torah learning, but also mandating high standards of secular knowledge as well. It is interesting that these early TuM leaders, along with a few subsequent leaders such as R. David Tzvi Hoffman and R. Y. Y. Weinberg were highly regarded by their more right wing(and usually Hungarian or Lithuanian) contemporaries, but later advocates of Tum were not given similar respect. Additionally, while gedolim such as R. Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski referred to R. Hirsch as "the Gaon, and scholar", R. Hayyim did not support Tum outside of Germany, feeling that it was a particular solution to the particular problem of modernity in Germany, rather than a model that should be adopted by Orthodoxy in general.

Times have changed since the start of the reform. However, the 3 broad groups that emerged are still under far too much influence of those years gone by. Non-traditional Judaism(I group reform, non-practicing, and most if not all of conservative in that group, please dont argue this point) is the majority. There is no communal religious authority(outside of Israel). Most of the Jewish world lives in social freedom, exposed to secular culture, or at least with that culture all around. Each group has new and different aspirations and problems:

non-traditional Jews: Non-traditional Judaism will not be accepted by orthodoxy as a ligitimate expression of the faith. To quote Eugene Borowitz(a reform theologian)

Theologically, Orthodoxy cannot recognize the teaching of Progressive Judaism as valid. The basic, authoritative texts of Jewish las clearly classify our modernist re-interpretation of Judaism as our tradition's equivalent of heresy. I deally, it can never be condoned, We cannot ask Orthodoxy to violate its own faith and accept Progressive Judaism, de jure, as a fully equivalent, if alternative interpretation of Judaism.

With regard to Jewish unity, as the orthodox are frequently accused of limiting unity because of theological and halachic concerns, R. Borowitz says this:

Had Kelal Yisrael(the unity of the people of Israel) been our most significant concern, we could never have brought Progressive Judaism into being, for its creation seriously divided the Jewish community by defying the accepted community leadership and the established traditions of our people.

In fact, a common mode of early orthodox responses was a plea for unity. This is possible, as long as the non-traditional accept that from the orthodox point of view they are not the true carriers of the Mosaic tradition. However, from the orthodox side, there needs to be a recognition that non-traditional judaism is not going away, and that the approach of education, commonality and unity as much as possible is preferable to shunning and excommunication. The early path of stringency and ignoring reform clearly has not worked. There are obviously limits as to what is acceptable to Jewish tradition(for example, Jews for Jesus is totally out), and more discussion and thought needs to go into figuring out what those limits are.

For the Chareidim, who are the descendents of the stringent approach to reform and modernity, there needs to be a recognition that the battle against Reform is over. And, that the halachic arguements that were made to bolster orthodoxy against reform may not be the halachic arguements that are appropriate to a different day and age. As a small example, the Hungarian rabbis forbade praying in a shul where the bimah was not located in the center of the shul(no davening if the bimah was in the front). R. Moshe Feinstein later wrote that this was a horaat shaah(a ruling applicable only to that time and place). Stringent rulings about metziza befef, mechitza, and other issues, which were viewed as walls to protect against the reform, need to be reexamined without the outward pressure of the barbarians at the gates, so to speak. Issues of belief and dogma, such as what R. Slifkin wrote, should also be reassessed. What may have been an appropriate approach when dogmatic belief could stave off reform 150 years ago,is not appropriate today. The problem is that the Gedolim of the past 200 years all were surrounded by the seige mentality of the day, and there are volumes of written material regarding their rulings, and it is difficult for one today, even if they wanted to, to go against the cumultive writing and awe/respect for the writers.

However, while there exists lots of writing against dealing with non-traditional Jews, there are many anecdotes of how those gedolim interacted with non-tradtional jews(how can I have an essay without mentioning Haim Soleveitchik?) R. Yehiel Mikhel Epstein was very friendly with a non-traditional maskil in his town, saying "yes, I am obliged to hate him, but I cannot hate a Jew". R. Avraham Hakohen Kook, in dealing with secular Jews in Israel said "better that I err in engaging in groundless love than in groundless hatred"

The problem, it seems, is that the chareidi community is still fighting the old battle. And, the new reform are.... the modern orthodox. Recall that the first debates between reform and orthodoxy were halachic in nature. R. Tzevi Hirsch Chajes, in Minhat Kenaot writes

the rabbis at their forefront justify their actions, saying the law is on their side, and they are acting in accordance with Torah...based on some isolated dicta that are found in the talmud or Midrash with regard to other matters, and they endow them with alien connotations...."

Of course, the difference between MO and classic reform is a chiasm. But from a chareidi perspective, one could see some similarities. The obvious difference of course, is that MO by definition are totally committed to Torah, Mitzvot, and tradition, both in words and in deeds. However, in issues like women reading Torah and other things, there may be a superficial resemblance.

To be continued

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A Historical approach to most every contraversy in Judaism

Note: Much if not all of the information here was culled from the articles by Prof. Judith Bleich and Rabbi Norman Lamm that appear in: Jewish Tradition and the Non-traditional Jew, part of the orthodox forum series.(Maybe some energetic blogging rabbi will republish the series so I wont have to buy used copies off of alibris)

Physicists have long been looking for the unified field theory, a construct that would explain, in one tidy package, all the forces in the known universe. I think that most of the problems that beset Judaism, especially those that involve relations between groups such as reform, orthodox, mo, chareidi, etc, can be organized and percieved with much more clarity by looking back 200 years at the rise of Reform, and the response to it. With this view, even seemingly disparate issues such the Slifkin ban, what is orthodox dogma, metziza befeh, relations between orthodox and reform, even the dispute mentioned in the previous blog entry between R. Greenberg and R. Lichtenstein, can be understood in relationship to basic attitudes. If everyone would realize how their position is a reflection of a stance taken 150-200 years ago(unlikely), some progress could be made in resolving some of the divide that seperates us. I am sure that this is not a novel idea from me, and may seem quite simplistic, but its my blog(well, Nisht's).

There had always been small groups in history that differed from Tradition Orthodoxy, way back from the Kariites, to the followers of Shabbatai Tzvi. There had also been individuals who did not follow Jewish Law exactly. However, Reform was different in a number of ways: The large scale, the institutionalization of differences, the claim that Reform was authentic Judaism, and very importantly, the decline of the organized social structure in the community along with the emancipation. Because of the new freedoms in society, the traditional community no longer had the power to physically enforce religious behavior, and the population had the freedom to follow the community, or not, options that previously were not available.

The first literary activity between orthodox and reform was in the form of classic she'elot and tshuvot(questions and answers), with Reform trying to show from classic sources that their beliefs and actions were based on tradition, citing sources from Bible, Talmud, and commentators, including codes of Jewish Law. The first written response was in Eleh Divrei ha-Berit(these are the words of the covenent) published in 1819. It was a collection of 22 responsa. It not only covered halachic answers to the issues raissed by reform, but also predicted that this start would lead to the abandonment of allegiance to halakhah.

In the face of this tremendous challange to orthodoxy, one response was to treat each and every detail of practice, no matter how minor, as a red line, that could not be crossed or tampered with. Thus, things like changing the place of the bimah, wearing robes, having weddings in the synagogue, sermons in secular languages all became important issues. The Hatam Sofer and others brought out the phrase "chadash assur min haTorah" to eliminate any change in practice, for fear of encouraging or providing a foothold for the reform.

The response to reform was not only on an institutional basis, but also on a individual basis. A decision had to be made as far as who was a member of the reform, and how that person should be treated. Thus standards as far as practice and beliefs, previously more of a theoretical or minimally applied issue, became an important fulcrum of debate. According to the Gemara, violators of Shabbat were to be considered apostates(Hullin 5a). R. Jacob Ettlinger(a pioneer in what would be called Torah u'madda) made a distinction between those that violated Shabbat for economic reasons, and those who did it on ideological grounds. Distinctions also were made based on education. The leaders were assumed to know better, and therfore were more culpable. The masses, not having had proper education, were looked more upon as tinok sh'nishba(a child who was abducted- and not raised with a proper education) and could not be found willfully guilty because they had not been given the appropriate information.

to be continued

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Goodbyes and Hellos

Two blogs closed up shop this week, Gadol Hador, and the ADDeRabbi. GH always had something witty, provocative, and informative, besides asking the tough philisophical questions, and searching for answers. The ADDeRabbi provided an equally interesting point of view, more involved divrei Torah, and a similar questing intellectual experience. I learned much from both, and the will be missed. I wish both of them much hatzlacha in their real and virtual lives.

Menachem Butler and R. Gill at Hirhurim referenced a fascinating printed debate of sorts between R. Yitz Greenberg and R. Aaron Lichtenstein that occured in the pages of the YU paper the Commentator. For anyone interested in the history of Modern Orthodoxy in America, it should be mandatory reading. The links include all the letters to the editor in a particular edition of the Commentator. As I was reading through them, I found a letter signed by Steve Brizel. My first thought was - hey, I know that guy!. After thinking about it, I realized that I do kind of know him, but only through his always erudite and respectful, if acronym filled comments on this and other blogs. And, now I know what year he graduated law school! It truly is a small world

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Monday, May 23, 2005


There is an ad on TV where a father takes his kids outside during twilight, and they go chasing after fireflies. After the kids are in bed, he checks off "go chase fireflies" off his list of things to do for the summer. As someone who finds the end of summer comes way to fast, this seems like a great idea. Make a list of all the things you want to do, and make sure you schedule them. By the way, it works not only for summer activities. Learning, chessed projects, all can be accomlished with better scheduling. The only problem is that you cant just look forward to a scheduled activity, because then you dont pay attention to things in the intervening time, and you lose that time. Its hard sometimes to enjoy things just as they come, without anticipating a particular event or day. However, unless you enjoy every day, the anticipated event comes, and then is gone, and you wonder where it went, along with all the time that went by before it. I always have a sad feeling on the afternoon of Simchat Torah. All the preparation for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, building the Succah, all the yom tov, and then it is all over, and worse, winter is around the corner. Guess the old adage of taking time to smell the roses each and every day is more apt then I realize. Of course, I advocate cow philosophy, taking time each day to eat the roses.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Mourning for the Omer

Just a historical post, for this season of mourning and avodas hashem. It seems to me fairly obvious that Rabbi Akiva's 12,000 pairs of students died as part of the Bar Kokhvah (a.k.a. Bar Kochbah, Bar Kozivah) revolt and its tragic aftermath in 130-135 CE.

Which in no way diminishes our mourning nor makes the loss of life no less tragic.

Or course, I could bring up the crusades, but that is for another post.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005


The featurette in the Shoah post shows very plainly and simply why the idea a just God(from a human point of view) is incompatible with an absence of some sort of afterlife, however you want to define it. You can think of an afterlife as Olam Haba(life in the next world, ie, heaven/purgatory), techiyat hameitim(resurrection-some form of return to earthly life), gilgul(your soul comes back in someone else), or something else or a combination of the above. However, the stark evil and horribleness(it may not be a word, but it fits) has to be counterweighed by something good, some enjoyment, SOMETHING. Otherwise, through human eyes at least, there is no justice. The final frames of the video, showing the child in the clouds, playing with his paper airplane is so neccessary. Without it, for this child, evil wins. That cannot be.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Stuff DovBear missed?

George W. Bush declares Jewish Heritage week. Close reading of the bottom shows a little less respect(although it probably is standard wording in all his proclaimations):
.....I proclaim May 8 through May 15th, Jewish Heritage Week...

.....this 5th day of May, in the year of our lord, two thousand and five......

thanks Dubya

Anyone notice the movie about the crusades opening during sefira?(No, I am not going to see it anytime soon)

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Yom HaShoa, and currents that cross me

Firstly, if you haven't already been, go to this link. PSA(attention PT and Doc Bean, PSA here means public service announcement): The graphics are accompanied by piano music(Mendelsohn's song without words) which is very sad sounding. If this is not consonant with your sefira practices, watch it with the volume down, although the music does add a tremendous amount. If you are not moved to tears, go back to the emerald city and ask the wizard for another heart.

Toby Katz over at Cross currents posted on why she was against commemorating Yom HaShoa. I would take the opposite tact, and challenge her and her supporters with this question: Why are you so opposed to it?

Start with some facts. Yom HaShoa is widely commemorated in the United States, even if the gatherings themselves do not attract huge numbers. Most Jews in the US, if asked what was the greatest tragedy that occurred to the Jewish people, would answer that it was the Holocaust. We, as Jews, frequently commemorate tragedies, both personal and communal. In fact Sefira, besides being a mourning period for R. Akiva's 24000 students, also is noted to commemorate those that died during the crusades and the Chilminiski massacres.

Why is there opposition to Yom HaShoa? It was started by secular Zionists? I dont know the whole history, but lets deal with what it is now, not what it started as. Now it is a communal remembrance/mourning of our murdered co-religionists. No mourning during Nissan? well there always is Sefira. We have Tisha B'Av? Yes, we have Tisha B'Av. But is Tisha B'Av the only day to mourn? does all mourning have to be done then, to the exclusion of other days? Lets face some reality. Yom HaShoa is during the school year, and far more people are reached by it, than Tisha B'Av, which is during the dog days of summer, when people who are less conscious of religion are thinking more about swimming, trips and camps. That is not to say that Yom HaShoa can replace Tisha B'Av, and it certainly shouldn't, and convenience should not be a significant consideration. However, by attracting people and participating in Yom HaShoa, more people attach themsleves to the Jewish community, and can be taught about the other, greater tragedies and the appropriate ways to mourn those events. To say nothing about teaching all the positive, happy aspects of Judaism. There is a problem with making the Holocaust the only attachment point to the community, but one attachment is better than no attachment. Besides, the point of Yom HaShoa is to honestly remember and grieve, the other aspects are only side benefits.

Those who refuse to participate in Yom HaShoa are cutting themselves off from the rest of the community for reasons that I cannot understand. Is it assur to say Keil Ma'lay Rachamim on that day? to sing ani ma'amin? to read lists of our dead ancestors? What is the problem? In this instance, it appears to me that those who refuse to participate are poresh min ha'tzibbur.

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Friday, May 06, 2005

More on Sefirah(siman taf tzaddi gimel)

Being one of the few non-Chabadniks in my community with a full set of shulchan aruch haRav(its a long story), I bring you some thoughts from the first Lubavitcher Rebbe. He goes through the usual prohibitions of sefirah, weddings, haircuts, then discusses the issue of keeping the first 33 or the last 33. He acknowledges that there are different customs, some keeping the semi-mourning for the first 33 days, others for the last 33 days. He then goes on to say that one cannot take the makhil(lenient) position, and limit the mourning to the middle 16 days, as one should pick one path or the other, and taking the leniency of both makes no sense. He goes on to say that keeping the entire 49 days is not proper either, unless one is doing it out of a desire to be yotze l'chol hadeyot(erring on the side of fulfilling all the opinions). He then reccomends that one keep the prevailing custom in the community, to avoid transgressing on lo titgodidu(the prohibition of dividing into little bands of different practices).

Rav Lichtenstein reccommends shaving before Shabbat because kavod Shabbat supercedes the mourning. Interestingly, he compares the sefirah mourning to the practices of the year of mourning, rather than shiva(the initial 7 day mourning period) or shloshim(the first 30 days of mourning). More from Yeshivat Har Etzion here. The OU gives a short list here

In thinking about the whole issue, I have obviously leaned to the makhil side of things. However, when I see non-Orthodox getting married this week, the first thing that comes to my mind(to my dismay) is: Hey, they shouldn't be doing that, its Sefirah. Technically though, if the couple have not yet fulfilled the mitzvah of having children, if the marriage does take place during sefirah, they are not punished, and the marriage is valid.

I think I am done now. I welcome any comments, especially from those that know a lot more about this than me.

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Thursday, May 05, 2005

Song of Songs, Sefira, and the question of ascetism

My Chavruta didn't show last night, so I pulled out a few books from the kollel library. Psychotoddler had asked about movies during sefirah, so I found the Shulchan Aruch on that topic, and also the one volume Artscroll Shir HaShirim(song of songs). I previously had criticized artscroll for not printing a real translation in their Chumash, or in their little book of 5 migillot(the ones you would find in synagogue and would be the ones that the listener would follow along with the reader, with the little bouncing ball), so I was curious to find what was printed in the long version.

In the intro, they straight out tell the reader that the book is not to be taken literally, and so a real translation must incude the allegorical meaning. They also do print a leteral translation, although they admit it is "guided by Chazal" and it is only below in the commentary, not the English that faces the Hebrew. And, if I wanted to be picky, the translation of "shtei shadayich" does not include the number "two."

The introduction also includes a story told about the Chofetz Chayim, who lost his son. At the burial, he told the story of a woman who lost a son in a pogrom, and as he lay dying in her arms, she addressed God and said "I used to split my love, with half to You and half to my son, now You will get all my love." The Chofetz Chayim echoed this sentiment. This is obviously a great show of love for God, even in the face of tremendous loss and pain.

With great respect to the Chofetz Chayim, I have a problem with such a statement. The first is that love should not be a zero sum game. When you have a second child, do you love the first one less? If you love your family, do you have less love for God than if you didn't love your family? Secondly, is the love of God a similar and competing love to loving flesh and blood people, or material things/sensations? Obviously love of God can be compared to physical love,(the whole idea behind Song of Songs) but it seems to me that it should be transcendant, not tied to notions of physicality. This very story brings Shir HaShirim back to the physical notions that the allegorical meaning is trying to escape. The story also introduces an element of ascetism, loving God even more, though one is in pain. Are we an ascetic religion? do we value retreat from physicality and enjoyment?

This brings me to Sefira, and Psychotoddler asking about movies. The early sources say that it is Minhag(custom) not to get married and in some places not to get a haircut. Later, it says that everywhere we dont get a haircut. The Mishna Brura says those that get a haircut get fined. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch says it is forbidden to get a haircut. The rationale for the minhag is "lo l'harbot b'simcha" literally, not have too much simcha. It doesn't say to be sad, to be in avelut(mourning)(although there are later references to sefirah being a form of aveilut, but as best as I can tell, this is a later reference, I certainly could be wrong) It says not to overdo the simcha. However, in the present day and age, we seem to have moved to a much more ascetic practice of sefirah than initially practiced.

Obviously, the opposite of asceticism, hedonism, is in contradiction to our values. And certainly there are parts of the community where the scale has unfortunately tipped in that direction. But is the answer codifying a long list of restrictions. Denying love of people? Denying that physical love exists and is not in opposition or competition with love of the Divine?

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A nice interview with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in Parabola Magazine can be read here.

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Goyim & God

Because of the recent discussions, on and off line about the passing of the Pope JPII, i spent some time thinking about how to evaluate non-Jews, both in public & in private.

Of course, one could fill a library about the roles of non-Jews in the world, God's relationship with them, etc. (For an extentive discussion see this essay.)

But overall one could summarize how to evaulate someone like JPII by three criteria. One can see these themes in the recent Tradition issue about Judaism & the public square:

1) Is it good for the Jews? This was the basic question for most "Jewish" evaluations of the late great Pope.
I can see why people choose this approach, especially after thousands of years as a minority and the tradition role of the shtadlan. However, i think that once you have your basic needs covered and are safe, you really need to get beyond your provincial narrow perspective.

2) Do they increase morality & ethics in the world? Do they make the world a better place?

3) Do they increase Torah in the world? (See the revised version of Maimonides theory of Christianity & Islam in the end of Hilkhos Melakhim). I am deliberately separating this from #2. Using the criteria of Halakha. Do they make the world more monotheistic? Do they increase the observance of Sheva Mitzvos B'nei Noach?

If you play these three criteria off each other, one can create interesting distinctions.

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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Tough choices

The Brooklyn Wolf has a number of posts that are quite interesting regarding attitudes towards other Jews, and winds up with a question: If you had to choose one path for your children, would you want them to be good nice people, but not religious, or outwardly religious, but despiciable human beings? In essence, would you rather they be great at mitzvot bein adam l'chavero(between people) or those that are exclusively bein adam lamakom(between man and God)?

If you go back to the prophets, you see them railing against those that ignore the poor, the widow, the downtrodden, and ask things like "lama lee rov zivcheichem.." what do I need all these sacrifices, the implication being that they are not accompanied by good deeds. However, the mitzvot between man and God in the time of prophetic and sacrificial Judaism were somewhat different than they are now in the time of Rabbinic Judaism. It would be interesting however to scan Nevi'im and see which thought stream predominates, my guess is that there is more outrage about the absence of charity and justice than the failure to keep Shabbat and other mitzvot between man and God.

It seems to me that the evidence from Nach(the Prophets and Writings) indicates that good deeds between people are preferable to good deeds between man and God, if you have to choose one. However, in our day and age, there is another concern, that may not have been operational in the distant past. How will the Torah be passed on to future generations? If you compare a non-practicing Jew(or even reform) who is a wonderful person, and raises his/her kids to be nice, kind people, what is the chance that any of them will turn out to be Jews that practice mitzvot between man and God? What is the chance that they will pass on any Jewish traditions besides those of lovingkindness, and even then, will that tradition of lovingkindess be identified as Jewish tradition? or a humanistic one? or something else? On the other hand, a despicable human being who keeps Shabbat and Yom Tov and identifies as a Jew is more likely to pass on Jewish traditions and observances. And, somewhere down the line, I think it is more likely that one of the kids will turn out not only outwardly observant, but a good person as well.

Obviously we should strive for ourselves and for our kids towards excellence in both interpersonal and person-Divine commandments. And on a personal level, if I absolutely had to choose, I would rather my kid be a good non-religious person than a despicable outwardly frum person. But the edge for long term survival of the religion might reside with the second choice. Is it worth the price?

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Organized Religion

Gil/Simcha @ Hirhurim recently quoted Telushkin & Prager about why we need organized religion.

Its obvious to anyone self-aware the humanist bias in the very question. To question why we need "organized religion" is to assume that real religion is personal/feeling religion. Its starts off assuming the primacy of personal individual religion & its just a hop, skip, & a jump to Friedrich Schleiermacher & religion of the heart.

But why assume that individual religion is ontologically prior to national (K'neset Yisroel) religion, communal, or family based religion.

It is only in narcissistic America, that we begin our discussion of Judaism with the assumption religion is primarily individualistic.

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With Much Thanks...

I would like to take a spare moment to thank Dilbert for his continuing stint as guest blogger at the House of Hock & express my wishes that he stay blogging as long as he would like.

I would also like to wish him good luck on his new blog. (Insert Bab/bawab/blog pun here.)

If anyone would like to take over as guest blogger, please submit names & email addresses in the comment section below.

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Monday, May 02, 2005

The comments, they work

Like an Okie, going outside and seeing a few rainclouds and having a few drops of water fall on my face, I am happy to note the comments are now working. Feel free to comment on the last few posts(or not).

I have been guest blogger here at the House for quite a while, and have decided that now that I am grown up, I should have a bayit(ne'eman) of my own. Bava Dilbert is now open and I will be cross blogging for a while. Feel free to comment either here or there.

I would like to publicly thank Nisht(whom, like Charlie, I have never met) for hosting me and my various rantings. I hope that I have not embarrassed him in my stay here. I have kept the parties to a minimum, that disorderly conduct arrest was a total misunderstanding, and so far the neighbors have not complained too loudly(that episode with MOChassid's chihuahua was blown soooo out of proportion- it didn't go all the way down the toilet).

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translation, Shir Hashirim, and R. Nosson

What is a translation? The simple answer is that it changes the words in one language to words in a different language. However, we all know that some words, phrases, and expressions do not translate exactly, and therefore translations are subject to some subjectivity. There are translations that try to be totally literal, those that go more for a "feel" and are a bit more loose, and then those that deliberately add some level of interpretation. And those that translate with an agenda, so the result reflects not only the meaning, but someone's slant on what it should mean. Then, on another level,there is what artscroll has done to Shir HaShirim(Song of Songs).

R. Akiva said that the song of songs is kodesh kodashim(holy of holies). There is poetry in the words, intense imagary, and words about physical love. Much has been written about the allegorical meaning and interpretation. Artscroll, in its infinite wisdom, totally eliminated the translation of Shir Hashirim. In the place of the love story and poetry is the allegorical conversation between Israel, God, and the nations. Why did they do that?

If you were not fluent in Hebrew, and owned only the artscroll publications chumash(I haven't checked the other publications)you would never know what was written in Shir Hashirim. Only the interpretation "based on Rashi and other commentators". In otherwords, Artscroll doesn't trust the reader to read the literal translation. It felt the need to CENSOR the translation. "You want the truth? you cant handle the truth?" R. Nosson Scherman plays Jack Nicholson in a remake of the classic movie. It was ok for Sholmo(going by the usual attribution) to write it. R. Akiva gave it good reviews. But Artscroll knows what is best for our delicate constitutions and belief structure.

I am going to check in shul in the artscroll siddur. I wonder when they lift the Torah, does it say "v'zot haTorah asher sam Moshe, l'fnei b'nei Yisrael al pi A-doshem, b'yad, Moshe? or have they changed it to b'yad Nosson Scherman?" it does have a little better rhythm to it. These are some books by a rav named Nosson that are banned from my house.

crossed blogged to bava dilbert where comments are active, and I will be establishing a new home in the future.

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