Author Archives: Josh

Haredi Rattle And Roll

Avraham sends over this classic from the ever so humble self-proclaimed “Gedolei Torah.” Basically, women are not supposed to get an education to earn a living, yet they have to raise the children by themselves and support their husband who’s learning in kollel. This of course despite the fact that the husband is contractually and halakhically obligated to support her. I guess with all that talmud study, no one bothered to learn Aramaic, or they’re just relying on the warm fuzzy English translations.
He also seds a nice article on Chassidic Rock. Not only does this demonstrate that they read secular newspapers (unless they have their “shabbes goy” do it for them), but that someone must have listened to rock music in order to indentify it in the first place (unless of course, they are all ba’alei teshuva or they used the aforementioned shabbes goy). Their posek in Rock Music is Mr. Philippe Ayache, a R. Tendler-esque professor of Baroque music – who by the way must have had some secular education. Maybe they should have just seen School of Rock.
In fairness, some songs played at wedding make no sense. Check out some on this list of wedding songs to aviod. In addition to these, I’ve personally heard part of Live and Let Die played at one wedding (you know who you are) and I’ve been told by several people of I Will Survive being played at weddings, which of course is the English equivalent of Od Lo Ahavti Di – an old school wedding staple.
Too ticked to comment more on these now and I have a midterm to write. Feel free to rant in the comments.

Posted in Jewish Culture.

Grad Schooled

Elder Avraham’s recent post about his experience in trying to graduate reminds me of my recent expereince in trying to get my Revel diploma.

Me: Excuse me, my transcript says I’m a “Bible” major. It should be “Talmudic Studies.”
Secretary: It’s the same thing.

Priceless. Oh – still haven’t gotten the Revel diploma, but I do have the major correct. And only after four years…

Posted in Personal.

Secular College Stereotypes

The secular college debate is what Dr. Lee might call a ?chestnut? ? one of those belabored topics like the death penalty, gun control, or the failures of Jewish dating life. Rarely will new information come along which will force a reevaluation of one?s positions. However, every now and then something will happen: an event, or in this case a publication, which for some reason has a significant impact on a community.
Recently, two graduate students wrote an essay warning orthodox parents of the dangers pervasive in secular colleges. (I do not know when/where it was initially published ? I came across the RCA link accidentally). Gil Perl, a
PhD candidate in Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Yaakov Weinstein, a PhD Candidate in nuclear engineering at MIT, specify harmful “Onslaught of Ideas” (e.g. biblical criticism) and "Sexual Temptation" to which unsuspecting Modern Orthodox students will be exposed.
In a Jewish Week article covering the reactions to the essay, many considered the manifesto to be “alarmist.” And included the requisite range of opinions from those who agreed and disagreed with the authors. Even new YU President Richard Joel specifically disagreed with the negative portrayal of Hillel, an organization which he led as president for several years. (Although he did not address secular colleges vs. YU). Others have been more explicit in condemning this piece as Orthodox’s typically sheltering response to challenges. Blogger Dr. Manhattan used the metaphor of a cocoon mentality. Conservative Rabbi Alan Mittleman similarly criticized the authors and their reactionary culture as “Fretful Orthodoxy.”
As a YU graduate and musmach now attending a secular college (one not known for its Jewish community), I see that the authors write not from paranoia, but from concern. Before elaborating on this point, we have to take a step back to see the real purpose of the offending essay.
First, reread the title: “A Parent’s Guide to Orthodox Assimilation on University Campuses.” The intended audience is not the global Jewish community (although it would be naive of the authors not think it wouldn’t get out), but specifically to Modern Orthodox (MO) parents of college age students. Many parents and some MO yeshivas believe the ideal is to send their children to Ivy League or other moderately prestigious colleges. YU is to be avoided at all costs. Presumably, parents want their children to remain Jewish, preferably observant. Then they must assume that the Jewish life on the typical secular college campus is sufficient to maintain their child?s Jewish life. The authors aim is to debunk this myth; not only is the secular campus life insufficient to maintain one?s Jewish life, but it may aversly affect whatever religion they do have.
Going to Penn does not condemn someone to hell any more than going to YU guarentees a spot in heaven. From my experience with typical yeshiva high-school students, I would say that 90% of them would do better at YU than elsewhere. That leaves 10% who will either do well elsewhere or perhaps better than they would at YU. The authors are not writing for them, but for the parents of the 15% or so who do have the choice and have a misconception about the reality of a secular campus.
While observance is not guaranteed at YU, nor is apostasy assured at secular colleges, it is undoubtedly easier for one to maintain and certainly to augment their Judaism at YU. Even ignoring the educational elements of shiur and the core requirements, compare anything from accessibility of kosher meals to minyanim.
College guys are lazy. The default would be not to do something. Even at YU students struggle to attend their ubiquitous minyanim. Many of them don?t have to leave their dorms ? just head downstairs ? imagine if they had to leave their apartments and get on a bus to get to a minyan. For the seriously committed, these inconveniences will not matter, and for the seriously secular, YU won?t change anything. But what about those in the middle who could go either way? This is the contention of the authors ? they are talking to the parents of the middle majority.
I do not think it?s as simple to call this debate cocoon vs. non-cocoon. One of the authors himself studies in the Near Eastern Languages dept at Harvard where he is undoubtedly exposed to heresy the likes of which even MJ?s students haven?t seen.
The authors themselves argue that it might be preferable to teach bible-criticism at a younger age. But they are not interested right now in changing the yeshiva educational system, only in assuming it is a given and working from there. They did not necessarily advocate YU as the Answer. In fact, they did offer suggestions as to how one may attend secular college and maintain their Jewish identity e.g. live at home.
YU is hardly the panacea for Jewish education. I mentioned earlier that 10% might do better elsewhere. YU can be intellectually, religously, and emotionally stifiling. Classes are limited, shiurim myopic (depending on the shiur), and there is the excessive pressure to get married by the time one turns 20. There are certianly people who would rebel against YU and would do much better at a secular college. I do not think the authors would deny this, but again, I think they are writing for the majority.
When discussing issues of Modern Orthodoxy?s future, it?s important not to look at the ideal, but the reality. As much as the yeshiva system could use an overhaul, it?s not going to happen in the near future. Ideally, we might like to expose high-school students to bible criticism, but the reality is that many lack the intelligence or interest to take it seriously. Just like ideally we wouldn?t want sex or drugs in the yeshivot, but that doesn?t change the reality. There is certainly a generation gap in that parents probably do not have a good idea of what their children are doing and certainly not what is going on in secular colleges.
The authors? sanctimony did not help their cause and I’m certain it helped unify the opposition. Secular college isn’t inherently evil. There are many advantages and opportunites, none of which were discussed. With both secular colleges and YU there are risks to one’s religious observance, and these risks must be evaluated carefully and honestly. There is however one prerequisite:
Modern Orthodoxy needs a complete reality check.

Posted in Culture, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava.

Egalitarian Liturgy: An Ethical Imperative?

Prelude
When I first mentioned that I would be a panelist discussing Egalitarian Liturgy, the immediate reaction I got was cynical to say the least. "Why would I want to get into that," and "you’re being railroaded" were just two of the comments reflecting the broad sentiment. Initially, I too was skeptical for probably the same reasons.

First, the word "Egalitarian" recalls the classic conservative vs. orthodox debates, and is often employed by those with specific agendas. 1 However, knowing the nature of the Hillel, and after speaking to the Rabbi, it seemed obvious to me that the panel would be cordial and informative.
Some questions still remain: why take the chance or why bother with this at all?

It’s a good question; one which requires its own post.

Later.

The Ideological Conflict

I do not want to discuss the details of the other panelists’ positions, mainly because I do not want to misrepresent them. However, I can present my own take on egalitarian liturgy and how I presented it in the discussion.
I did not like the title of the panel. The term "ethical" presupposes the discussion is a moral one – that there is some inherent value towards egalitarianism to which all people are subsumed. While there is a value to egalitarianism, I do not see it as an "ethical" imperative, but rather as a "religious" imperative. For the sake of this essay, I will define "religious imperatives" as requirements necessarily for the sufficient observance of one’s faith.

As one of the other panelists correctly noted, the word "liturgy" is not limited to prayer, but it includes all manners of public worship. When discussing inequalities in Jewish liturgy, the most blatant example is the role of the woman. 2 Women are relegated to sitting behind a mehitza restricting them from active participation. Furthermore, several prayers themselves are not amiable to many women. How can one properly worship when s/he3 is excluded from the primary religious mechanisms? This is a religious imperative.

However, there is a conflicting religious imperative: to maintain "The Tradition." The current actions of the community – following the practices of the previous generations – are as canonical as the Torah itself. It is arrogant at best – heretical at worst – to alter the practices of the previous generations.
Advocates of Egalitarianism could rightly point to the fact that liturgy has changed over time. Piyutim were added throughout the middle ages, many in response to actual events.4 For the proponents of tradition, the changes that happened in the past are valid, but we today have no right – or minimal right to make any further emendations. Furthermore, the nature of some of the changes currently suggested affect essential parts of the prayer service.

Specifics

To further understand this debate, we will have to examine some of the specific examples of the offending elements of Jewish liturgy.

I discussed the specific issue of prayer – the colloquial use of the term”liturgy”.; I noticed two categories of non-egalitarian prayer. The fist involves language of explicit or implicit exclusion. For example, “bessed are you…that you did not make me a woman is obviously exclusive of women. Other prayers exclude wicked people; in the amida prayer "velamalshinim" excludes heretics. An implicit exclusion would be the yekum purkan prayer which blesses “the congregation and their women and children” – implying that the women are not part of the community.

The other examples of non-egalitarian prayer do not excluded the petitioner, but somehow make the prayers inaccessible to the petitioner. "God" is most often referred to in the masculine. Or the use of the avot, the fathers and not the imahot, the mothers.

For the proponents of egalitarian liturgy, these types of passages exclude either the prayers from the individuals, or the individuals from the prayers.

Solutions?

Can there be a harmonious solution between the two conflicting religious imperatives? Regarding the issue of God language, I suggest that the imperative could be not to modify the language at all. According to all parties involved, God is supposed to be a non-gender. The Hebrew language lacks a gender-neutral conjugation; the masculine gender is used by default. By making a point of including feminine God language, one removes the neutral aspects of the masculine and instead emphasizes the gender. I will also theorize that this might have more of an impact on those communities who pray in English. The constant use of "Him" or "His" will have a greater impact on those who pray in Hebrew and will not be as sensitive to the masculine usage.

For the other changes, one would have to consider the nature of the prayer being modified. Of the passages mentioned, emending the yekum purkan would be the most plausible since it would have the least effect on the tradition. Few people would notice the change – assuming they know the aramaic and say all the words – and even if a community would still reject this change for themselves, they would not reject other communities who would adopt this change.5

Regarding the Amida, I cannot anticipate any substantive changes in the current siddurim. However, halakhically, it might be possible – if not preferable – to personalize the silent amida.6 The petitioner will then have the religious meaning while remaining in the halakhic tradition, and assuming the petitioner uses some discretion, s/he will not offend the social tradition.

Conclusion

Throughout the Jewish history, Rishonim and Achronim have reinterpreted Jewish laws to reflect the religious needs of the community.7 However, due to the fragmented nature of the Jewish community, there are rarely new religious needs which are applicable to all. It is not surprising that different communities will have different needs. Therefore, I cannot claim that there is a universal religious imperative for egalitarian prayer. I can say that it exists for certain individuals throughout all communities, and for separate communities themselves. However, so is the religious imperative of "Tradition" equally applicable across the spectrum of Judaism. When faced with this conflict, it is up to the communities to reconcile them for themselves. Each has free will to decide which imperative will take precedence. However, in the areas of conflict, both sides must realize there will be consequences – most often the ostracization of one community by another. This too is a religious imperative – and perhaps the real ethical imperative.

1. See for example the sponsors of the program.
2. There are inequalities among men which are not addressed. E.g. the preferential treatment to the kohen.
3. Although this would mostly apply to women, there are some men who are particularly sensitive to the exclusion of women from the service. For them, egalitarianism is also a religious imperative.
4. For more examples of the evolution of prayer, see the articles and books by Dr. Joseph Tabory
5. Or at least not for this reason alone. This would be in contrast to practices like women reading from the torah, which have a more divisive effect in the Orthodox Jewish community.
6. Minimally in the blessing of shema koleinu.
7. See the collected works of Jacob Katz among many others.

Posted in Random Acts of Scholarship, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah.

Coming Attractions

As you can imagine, things are busier at U of C since I have to catch up on readings ignored because of the hagim. I spent most of my “blogging time” this week finalizing the move and rewriting the FAQ which is why I haven’t had any new postings in a while.
This Friday I will be on a panel at Hillel discussing “Egalitarian Liturgy: An Ethical Imperative?” (I wonder if I’ll have to start rating my performances based on the number of chairs thrown at me). Will b’n get a post on this one.
I’ve also been working on a post about the recent secular college brouhaha. Due to the sensitive nature of these topics, I’m trying to be thougtful, coherent, and at the same time not offend anyone. Ambitious, if not impossible.
Stay Tuned…

Posted in Meta.

What Is YUTOPIA?

Updated on August 29th, 2006
First, let me welcome you to YUTOPIA – The Sometimes Updated Blog of Rabbi Josh Yuter. If you’re reading this entry, you’re probably looking for some more information about who I am and what I’m doing here.

As you might have guessed, my name is Joshua Yuter, and among other things, an ordained rabbi from Yeshiva University. After bouncing around for years, I’m currently landed in Washington Heights New York and employed as a computer programmer.

I started blogging primarily to improve my writing skills with minimal accountability. Meaning, I felt I needed a non-threatening public forum where I could speak my mind and not get villified. (yet). The short answer to my general hashkafa is is ashkenazi guf, non-kabbalistic sepharadi neshama. Long answer is…well, you’ll just have to come back here more often to figure that out, but in terms of halakha check out this series for starters. Of course you should read everything in the archives – not that it’s all gold, but some interesting things in there…somewhere.

The significance of the name YUTOPIA is often misattributed to my connections with Yeshiva University (YU). This is a reasonable guess considering I spent 7 years there, but I’ve moved on some time ago. Really, YUTOPIA is based off of my last name. The name first came to me way back when I was tinkering with RedHat Linux and needed a domain name. As with most things in college, it seemed clever at the time.

Initially, YUTOPIA was running on Blogger, but thanks to Shaya Potter’s uprgading of YUCS it was time to move on. At the time of the move, YUTOPIA had over 4,000 hits – mostly thanks to Protocols R.I.P.) – and a few other very odd poogle links. On October 20, 2003, YUTOPIA moved to YUCS where it has remained since. Since that time we’ve gone through a few redesigns and some other improvements.

YUTOPIA is a small sample of the many thoughts which run through my head on any given day. I may get intellectual, personal, or shticky. My general attitude has been that there is a lot of stupidity on the internet and I don’t really need to add to that. However, I usually bring a unique perspective on things which some people find interesting. I realize not everyone will agree with everything on here, if they leave here thinking a little more than they did previously, I’m happy.

So that’s the scoop. Take a look around, stay as long as you like, and feel free to comment – we’ve had some great flame-free discussions in the past, e-mail or IM anytime.
Enjoy!

Posted in Meta, Personal.

Forgive And Forget

In one of the more enlightening distractions of the day, I had a long conversation with the Elder Avraham on the nature and merits of forgiveness. The specific issue at hand was a recent Dr. Laura column in which she tells her readers “Don’t be so quick to forgive” because “knee-jerk forgiveness…will likely make you feel less important and make your pain feel inconsequential. ” In one example, she describes a caller who’s sister had an affair with her husband. Although the sister never expressed remorse, the father wanted the caller to forgive her sister for the sake of “peace” in the family.

On the other hand, it’s clearly not healthy if not prohibited (Lev. 19:18) to bear the grudge. Avraham was reading some texts for Kavvanah which apparently encouraged the offended party to forgive more easily.

How can we then reconcile two conflicting values? What is the middle ground between not becoming obsessed with revenge or self-pity, and not becoming a doormat?

There are several factors to consider. First, what is the nature of the offense? Eating someone’s donut should be easier to forgive than adultery. Not all offenses are equal in their severity and therefore not all forgiveness are equal in their absolution. Second, what is the nature of the apology? Is the offender sorry that s/he committed the wrong or that s/he got caught? Furthermore, there is a difference between saying “sorry” and being sorry. An empty apology serves the offender more than the victim as it gives the offender a sense of absolution and it obviates the guilt. A sincere apology would not only include remorse, but some matter of restitution if possible.

During the IM conversation, Avraham and I reached a similar conclusion from different perspectives. On one hand, a person should not be consumed by hatred, and on the other, shouldn’t be so quick to absolve the offender. Emotional wounds, like physical ones, take time to heal. The more severe the wound, the longer the recuperation. Just as discharging onesself from the hospital too early can have lasting physical effects, so can forgiving a person before s/he is ready. Therefore following this analogy, a person must come to terms with the action before any forgiveness may be given.

Sometimes we are too quick to forgive, or even worse, we’re expected to forgive. People feel obligated to forgive before they’re ready and consequently feel guilty in addition to whatever pain they have suffered. This forgiveness serves the offender more than the victim and is as empty as many apologies. This doesn’t mean a person should be consumed by the pain. Quite the contrary – s/he must undergo the process of healing. This process will vary from person to person and from offense to offense, but in all cases, it must be performed. Only when a person has “healed thyself” can forgiveness truly be given – and received.

Posted in Culture.

Was Marx A Hassid?

We’re in the “Marxism” section of the required “Perspectives in Social Science Analysis” class. If you’ve never read Marx inside, let me warn you it’s some of the most boring dense reading out there. Anyway, in one of his rants on alienation, Marx claims “all objects become for him objectifications of himself.” (not in the linked page, but you get the idea) Basically, when man produces an object, he invests part of himself – his essense – into creating this object. Thus, part of his essense is now “alienated” from himself, which for Marx is one of the worst things imaginable.

As I recall, the Keddushat Levi has a similar approach in explaining mishloah manot but with a positive spin. (Surprise – I do learn hassidut on occasion). Like Marx, he views the mishloach manot as the fruits of one’s labor, and consequently giving someone mishloach manot implies giving someone else a part of yourself. However, whereas Marx emphasizes the alienation factor of man losing himself, Keddushat Levi stresses the community building process of receiving the other.

This got me thinking that for all Marx talks about alienation and what the worker loses, I haven’t seen him discuss where the worker gets anything back. If a worker produces something in which he invests himself, and someone else acquires said object then following the Marxian analogy that person has also acquired the essense of someone else. Thus it’s not simply man losing his essence, but he is necesarilly gaining others in his role as a consumer.

I guess now would be the time to write a warm fuzzy derasha on the individual and his larger role in the community for Marxian and Hassidic thought. I have too much reading to do tonight, so I leave this as an excersize for the reader.

Posted in Academia, Jewish History, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Random Acts of Scholarship. Tagged with .

Must A Rabbi Know Anything?

Rabbi Dr. Jacob Neusner writes an opinion piece lamenting the lack of scholarship in the Rabbinate across all denominations. Protocols covered the editorial and it was met with some criticism from the Elder Avraham. I quickly posted a comment, but I feel this topic deserves some extra attention.

First, consider the different perspectives of Prof. Neusner, and Avraham. Prof. Neusner is an academic and so he thinks like an academic, valuing the formative intellectual development a PhD provides. (Although he has ordination from JTS, he is more known for his numerous writings than his pastoral skills). Second, Professor Neusner comes from a different generation where almost all Rabbis had PhD’s or equivilant degrees. Nowadays, they are a rarity. (As I mentioned in my comment, R. Aharon Rakeffet-Rothkoff made a similar observation in one of his classes in Gruss). Today’s Rabbis – or at least from what I’ve seen of those leaving YU – are as a whole less knowledgeable, less worldly, and less thoughtful than the rabbis of the previous generation.

Avraham’s response (aside from the dig at Neusner’s own acceptance in the academic field – a debatable point in its own right) is that it doesn’t really matter for the average pulpit rabbi. Most congregations would not want to sit through an hour long dissertation comparing Sir Isaac Newton and Maimonides. Many congregants are either unable or unwilling to concentrate on complex ideas before mussaf, especially if their tired and/or hungry. Assuming people are paying attention, you also have to be careful in terms of how far you can interpret. I once got flack for interpreting Leah as in some ways superior to Rachel. My sense is that most congregants are not interested in serious intellectual stimulation, or at least not at the level which requires a PhD education.

Consider the following quote from Neusner’s editorial: “But they stand for a religious system and are woefully unprepared to carry out their intellectual tasks.” [emphasis mine] It is this point where the divergence occurs. Neusner’s concept of the role of the Rabbi is different than Avraham. While at one point the Rabbi was looked upon as an intellectual as well as a religious leader, today most rabbis are simply pastors (although many would like a larger role). Perhaps Neusner is also lamenting the diminished role of the Rabbi as well (ignoring for the moment the question of causation).

Avraham is correct in that academic credentials are not essential for many pulpits. I’m sure many rabbis can go through their careers and not be seriously challenged intellectually. However, I think Neusner is correct that to some extent Rabbis do still stand for a religious system. I say this because as a Rabbi, I get questions about every aspect of Judaism – halakha and hashkafa. On some level I’m expected to know everything – otherwise people wouldn’t think of asking the Rabbi. I am viewed by others as someone who has, or more importantly should have all the answers. As I’m sure Avraham will agree, the RIETS education is hardly that thorough.

For a more specific example, assume a congregant goes off to a secular college and is exposed to bible criticism for the first time. The bewildered student then turns to his/her rabbi for some reconciliation. How can the rabbi respond effectively? Telling the student to drop the heretical class will not be helpful as it doesn’t answer any of the arguments. Nor would resorting to blind faith quell the student’s conflict. In order for an Orthodox rabbi to seriously answer this question, he must know the bible criticism as well as the critics, and know enough to formulate an intelligent response.

PhD’s are not magic pills which bestow knowledge – rather it is the culmination of a process of intellectual growth. Although the topic of one’s dissertation might never come up in one’s pulpit, minimally, the analytical skills will assist the Rabbi in formulating and articulating intelligent responses to the most difficult questions.

I’d like to add that I am turning into my father. Not that this is a bad thing, just a little scary.

Posted in Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava.

Gemar Hatima Tova

I’m still not able to put up a complete summary of the yamim noraim here, but I do have one story. As you could probably guess, there aren’t too many frum Jews on the U of C campus. Also, several of the regulars headed “up north” for Yom Kippur which diminished our talent pool even further.

Just how short-handed were we?

I davened neilah.

Yes, you read that right. On shabbat shuva, we realized that one of the regulars – who would normally take a tefillah or two – was probably not going to make it in for Yom Kippur. So, we divided up who would get what and I got neilah. I never thought I’d say this, but for a small second, I actually regretted not taking a Belz class.

My plan for Erev Yom Kippur was to go to the University’s Library to see if they had anything useful in their recordings collection. This was far more eventful than it should have been. First the library didn’t open until 12:00, and the recordings desk didn’t open until 1:00. On top of that, the search engine was down so I couldn’t even see if they had anything available.

Finally, I got the call number for this CD which seems like a live recording of an actual reform service complete with mixed chior and organ accompaniment. I wouldn’t have minded this so much, but they didn’t even use a normal nusach. (Carlebach’s simha l’artzekha for n’ilah????) I didn’t realize at the time that they also had this one which probably would have been more helpful. Still, kudos to U of C for actually having these CDs in their recordings library in the first place.

In the end, I think it went well. I love the acoustics in the chapel and we had enough ventilation such that it didn’t feel stuffy (which wreaks havok with my voice). Although I think I butchered the official nusach, I was able to fake enough of it such that no one seemed to mind and some actually liked the davening. (Oh – and no one seemed to care that I’m not married or that I don’t have a beard).

The Jewish community here is small and very special. Hopefully I can write more about it in a longer post on the yamim noraim sometime before pesach.

Posted in Personal.