Category: Jewish Culture

A Facebook friend recently posted a “personal list of essential reading for a thinking Orthodox Jew.” These sorts of questions are fun exercises (especially for book geeks like myself) since it requires a degree of thought, introspection, and strategy. For a list to be useful to others it cannot be comprehensive; telling people to read everything is not terribly practical. 1 But there also has to be thought as to the criteria for the list. For example, there is a perpetual debate in professional sports over the Most Valuable Player award regarding whether it should it go to the “best” player or the one who contributes the most “value” to his team. Books are even more subjective in that what might be “essential” for one person might be irrelevant to someone else. In my capacity as a community Rav I was in a position where I could give targeted recommendations to individuals, accounting for their background, interests, and affinities. 2 The RCA has a reading list appropriate for prospective converts which may or may not be “good,” but they can service as decent “starting points” for future discussion.

Since this is my list I’m going to make my own rules and qualifications:

  • I’m limiting myself to 15 books. Why 15? Because that’s how many books I came up with.
  • Order does not matter.
  • All books will be in English because I’m simply more familiar with English books than those in other languages.
  • I’m ignoring “primary” works such as the Bible or Talmud on the grounds that these are too obvious for inclusion and someone interested in Judaism ought to be reading them anyway.
  • I’m assuming that readers have a more intellectual disposition which means more academic books than popular ones, though I give greater weight to books which are more accessible and “readable.”
  • My goal in compiling this list is not for basic literacy in Torah, but for understanding the Jewish religion, particularly the manifestations of Orthodox Judaism.
  • These books don’t simply represent books I like but the ones I’ve found myself citing, referencing, or recommending most often. Here I get to explain why.
  • Omissions from this list are not to be considered as a value judgement on those works.
  • All selections naturally reflect my personal biases, but I’m going to try to give a short explanation for each of my choices.

I’ll conclude the introduction by saying that if you only read these books to the exclusion of everything else, you will only be moderately less well-informed. Consider these books only as isolated moments on a lifelong journey of intellectual growth.

Now, let’s get to it…

Notes:

  1. Though most enjoyable and highly recommended regardless.
  2. I had the great pleasure to do so for my pre-Aliyah “Raid the Rabbi” event where I invited fellow book geek friends to lighten my load. Compare the before and after pics. I have some wonderful friends.

Jewish Culture

Last night was my first experience at the Jewish Book Council’s “Raid the Shelves” event where a $5 donation entitles you to take whatever books you want. Some people came prepared with multiple bags and several even had the foresight to bring rolling suitcases. Since I’m at a loss for space as it is, I figured a backpack would be good enough and would force me to be more judicious with my selections. While I missed out on a few interesting books, here’s what I took home. Keep in mind, I almost entirely judged books by their cover, and selections do not constitute endorsements or recommendations.

Without further ado, this was my haul…

Jewish Culture

The paradox of JOFA is not “Orthodox Feminist” but “Jewish Alliance” A few weeks ago I received an email from the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) promoting their upcoming conference.…

Jewish Culture

Anyone who has been in charge of leading Simchat Torah hakafot knows how difficult it is to coordinate songs on the spur of the moment while keeping up the energy.…

Jewish Culture

The following essay is derived from two recent classes/podcasts Understanding the Agunah Problem and Solutions to the Agunah Problem. These classes include several of the primary sources referenced below

Introduction

The protracted divorce battle between Aharon Friedman and Tamar Epstein is the most publicized case of agunah in recent memory. An aggressive campaign led by the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) capitalized on Mr. Friedman’s relatively prominent status as a congressional aide for David Camp. The efforts of numerous online and personal protests eventually led to mainstream media coverage from outlets such as Fox News, The New York Times and Politico which called national attention to Mr. Friedman’s refusal to grant his wife a halakhic divorce. As with virtually all cases of agunah, the recalcitrant party is vilified with public condemnations and communal pressure to acquiesce.1 When the specific goal is obtaining the immediate divorce, it is a relatively simple matter to identify the party responsible for obstructing the process and to protest accordingly. Others, however, find fault with the halakhic system, and in a desire to change the status quo identify other sources of blame.

In a recent Forward blog post titled “On Agunah Issue, Pressure Rabbis, Not Rep” Dvora Myers argues that the plight of agunot is not only the fault of a recalcitrant husband, but of the Rabbis for creating the regulations in the first place.

However, if withholding a get constitutes abuse, if the husband is indeed brandishing a psychological weapon and threatening his wife with it, then the question that should be asked: How did the gun get into his hand?

The answer is clear: It was put there by Jewish law, the rabbis who formulated it, and the rabbis who refuse to amend it.

Myers’ understanding of Jewish law is informed by Blu Greenberg’s famous dictum, “where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way,” thus placing the burden of agunot squarely with the Rabbis. Ultimately Myers concludes,

If maintaining a nearly thousand-year-old ruling is more important than offering women equality within the religion, I would at least like to see one of these rabbis condemning Friedman admit as much. It would be refreshingly honest to hear one of them say something like, “When faced with the choice of preserving tradition and promoting justice and equality that would give women the freedom to divorce, we choose the former.”

Most Orthodox Jews would agree that adhering to a thousand year old ruling is in fact more important than fulfilling the prevailing ethic of the day. This is due to a fundamentally different approach to Jewish law, one which assumes that halakhah is ultimately a representation of Divine Will. In this case it would be strict adherence to the biblical laws of divorce in Deut. 24:1-1 and the capital offense for adultery in Lev. 20:10. It is important to consider that this approach to halakhah is shared by the agunot themselves, who while having the free will to ignore Jewish law and remarry as they wish, are committed first and foremost to keeping halakhah despite the immense challenges it presents.2 Thus, when a Rabbi adheres to Jewish law, even if it is unpopular, inconvinient, or even difficult for him to do so, he is not being an obstinate misogynist, but rather fulfilling his duty as a Rabbi.

But while it is misguided to blame Rabbis for following halakhah, it is completely legitimate to hold Rabbis accountable to the very halakhah which they espouse. Unfortunately, the Orthodox Rabbinate has not always lived up to their own ideals even when the lives agunot were at stake.

  1. While the majority of agunot are women whose husbands refuse to give their wife a get, it is not impossible for a woman to be obstinate in agreeing to be divorced. Rarely does the husband in these cases elicit the same sympathy as a woman who is an agunah who is only “chained” due to the inherent inequality in the halakhot of divorce which require the husband to willingly issue the divorce while the wife’s consent is not needed, nor can she initiate the divorce (M. Yevamot 14:1).
  2. I do not wish to categorize agunot as martyrs to a cause, but to note the religious commitment required for one to choose to remain an agunah is rarely acknowledged let alone supported.

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Jewish Culture Religion

At times it seems that the Orthodox rabbinate has little more to contribute to the world of Jewish ideas than proclamations declaring who is, or more precisely who is not, “Orthodox.” Consider a few recent examples. This past summer Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky wrote a blog post (since removed) discussing his aversion to reciting the daily blessing shelo asani isha, thanking God for not having made him a woman. In response, Rabbi Dov Fischer castigated R. Kanefsky and the community he represents as, “propagating their views without being subjected to scrutiny and critique by those committed to a Mesorah-driven frumkeit” [emphasis added]. In other words, R. Kanefsky’s halakhic opinion is not part of the genuine “mesorah/tradition,” which R. Fischer apparently does possess. Another writer echoes R. Fischer sentiment more explicitly, “In my view this not only takes Rabbi Kanefsky out of the realm of Orthodoxy, it firmly puts him into the realm of Conservative Judaism.”

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