Category Archives: Jewish Culture

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YUTOPIA’s “Essential” Modern Orthodox Reading List – The Fine Fifteen

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…

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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.
Posted in Jewish Culture.

Raiding the Shelves – 2013 Edition

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…
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Posted in Jewish Culture.

JOFA 2013 Conference Preview

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. As a selling point for the conference, the email proclaimed:

It’s not just for feminists anymore…

It’s for… Singles, Halachacists, Hopefuls, Parents, Visionaries, Intellectuals, Students, Artists, Questioners, LGBT, Challengers…

The 2013 8th International JOFA Conference is for you.

Ignoring for a moment my initial snark about going to a feminist conference to pick up women, the marketing language employed is actually quite intriguing. After all, since the “F” in JOFA stands for “Feminist” it does seem odd that JOFA would so blatantly be expanding its target demographic to the point of even diminishing the importance of “Feminist.”

I do have a conjecture, which if true, would make this year’s conference particularly fascinating. Specifically, most of the stated goals of JOFA have either been accomplished or have been taken over by other organizations. Women’s participation in the synagogue not only continues to grow, but it is becoming more normalized in the Modern Orthodox world as opposed to an anomalous fringe. Furthermore, with the newly ordained Maharats, Jewish women are now assuming formal religious leadership positions within Orthodox synagogues and communities. With these advancements over the past 10 years, it would be interesting to see how JOFA answers the question “what next?” After all, simply advocating for “more of the same” is hardly a way to energize one’s base, let alone attract the next generation of woman, many of whom cannot appreciate how much needed to be done by others to provide what they take for granted.

My sense is by expanding beyond the limits of “Feminism” JOFA can attract not only this new generation of feminists (men and women) but also those who for various reasons are uncomfortable or disenchanted with “feminism” and its implications or those who think that the feminist movement has done all it can within the confines of “Orthodoxy.”

At any rate, I personally am looking forward to attending the conference – if nothing else than to see for myself where Orthodox Feminism may be heading in light of its successes.

Posted in Jewish Culture. Tagged with , .

Simchat Torah Song Sheet

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. This year I was tasked with creating a song sheet for my synagogue’s Simchat Torah hakafot and while I appreciated the need, I found this particular task somewhat tedious due to word processing and formatting quirks. Since I had some help in terms of song suggestions, I’d like to pay it forward as a public service by sharing my song sheet in Word and Open Document formats.1 This way you’re free to copy, edit, and update as you see fit, though I highly recommend keeping the finished song sheet to at most 2 pages which can be printed as one double-sided sheet.

To explain my song choices, my three main concerns were 1. what has traditionally played best in my congregation 2. helping the coherency by organizing songs into themed hakafot and 3. Picking fewer songs per hakafa in order to have stronger sustained ruach for a shorter time rather than having it peter out towards the end (i.e. leave them wanting more). Your mileage may vary.

Enjoy and Chag Sameach!

Stanton Street Shul Simhat Torah Song Sheet – MS Word

Stanton Street Shul Simhat Torah Song Sheet – Open Document

Stanton Street Shul Simhat Torah Song Sheet – PDF

  1. I actually did most of the work in Libre Office which I found to be far more useful for advanced Hebrew typesetting than Word. Plus I still have geek friends who run Linux :-)
Posted in Jewish Culture. Tagged with , .

Blame Rabbis For Agunot, But For The Right Reasons

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.
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  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.
Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish History, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Judaism, Random Acts of Scholarship. Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , .

Ep. 55 Current Jewish Questions 2 – Tzniut / Modesty

Just once I’d like to see a book on tznius/modesty published anonymously.”
Rabbi Josh Yuter – Jan 9, 2012
 

The topic of “tzniut” or “modesty” has recently become a prominent point of discussion in the Jewish community, mostly in response recent incidents of religious violence in Israel (some of which we covered in the previous class on Religious Coercion). Recent essays by Rabbi Dov Linzer in the New York Times, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper for a Rabbinical Council of America blog, and an earlier one by Rabbi Marc Angel for The Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals have all attempted to present a more “moderate” view from what is often conveyed by Orthodox Jewish society.

But the common theme in these essays, and indeed what dominates the discussion of Jewish modesty, is almost exclusively framing the issue in the context of women. In particular, modesty is most frequently defined in terms of how women ought to dress, how a woman is supposed to behave, and in some general instances the appropriate role of women in Jewish if not secular society. With this focus on women, it is not surprising that tzniut/modesty is almost exclusively construed as a sexual ethic.

In this shiur I challenge this assumption by approaching the topic of modesty not from the socially defined understanding of tzniut, but rather how and when the root “צנע” is used in the Talmud. While the term is certainly used in the context of female sexuality or displays of femininity (B. Ketuvot 3b, B. Berachot 8b, B. Shabbat 113b, B. Sotah 49b), the Rabbinic tradition also applies tzniut to men as it pertains to his relationship with his wife (B. Shabbat 53b) and his mode of dress (B. Menachot 43a). Furthermore, the ethic of tzniut is asserted in the contexts of going to the bathroom (B. Berachot 8b, 62a), eating (B. Berachot 8b), not displaying one’s wealth (B. Pesachim 113a), and even religious observance (M. Ma’aser Sheni 5:1, B. Sukkah 49b/B. Makkot 24a). (These and additional sources are in the attached source sheet with a modified Soncino translation.)

Given the contextual range of the root צנע, I suggest that tzniut in the Rabbinic tradition may best be described not as a sexual ethic at all (let alone a female one), but a general attitude of behavior of which sexual behavior is only one component. In other words, the true Jewish ethos of modesty does not exclusively pertain to sexuality, but rather reflects a universal ethic, one which is equally applicable to men and women in all facets of life.

Current Jewish Questions 2 – Tzniut / Modesty Sources (PDF)

Current Jewish Questions 2 – Tzniut-Modesty

Posted in Current Jewish Questions, Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Judaism, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah. Tagged with , , , , , .

Modesty Mussar For Rabbis

With the topic of tznius/modesty buzzing around the Orthodox Jewish world I wanted to share a brief but personally significant story from my rabbinical school days. In 2001-2002 I was in my third year of semikhah and fortunate enough to study in Yeshiva University’s Gruss Kollel in Bayit Vegan. It is perhaps one of the most unappreciated perk of YU’s rabbinical school in that accepted students pay they way to Israel but get free room and board, allowing for greater focus for one’s studies.1 The dorms are not what you’d consider “new” with relatively thin walls, thinner doors and apartments stacked on top of each other,2 My year of the 30 or so students only 9 were single, while the rest were married rabbinical students, some with children.

One day after our regular Yoreh Deah class, the Rosh Yeshiva called us in to give us some mussar. There was a concern that husbands and wives from other couples were socializing excessively with each other. After all, the Torah teaches “Be Holy” (Lev. 19:2 which Ramban interprets as “הוו פרושים מן העריות ומן העבירה” – separate yourself from illicit behavior and sin, and so forth.

I will stress here that I am/was unaware of any incident which could be classified in any way as inappropriate. Most of the kollel couples knew each other before coming and the relatively cloistered environment would understandably lead to inter-socialization. And even the Rosh Yeshiva had mentioned that he wasn’t responding to anything in particular, but was just making a general observation and expressing a concern.

Strictly speaking, this concern is not entirely unjustified. M. Avot 1:5 states explicitly, “Do not talk excessively with women. This was said about one’s own wife; how much more so about the wife of one’s neighbor” and B. Nedarim 20a explains that it is because this speech will lead to adultery.

Something else occurred to me at that time. The audience here consisted of rabbinical students who would at some point venture into communities as actual rabbis, which at some point would entail talking to women. One would hope that rabbis ought to be able to converse with female constituents without viewing them as sex objects, and if there were any doubt on this point then perhaps they ought not remain rabbinical students. If there was any concern of the moral integrity of the future rabbis of America, then perhaps we had bigger problems on our hands.

But it also occurred to me that it is precisely because of the nature of our profession that this mussar was appropriate. Most professional rabbis have countless interactions with congregants or students. If a rabbi is particularly outgoing or friendly, it is not inconceivable for a conversation to be interpreted in a way other than what was intended.3 In short, if interpersonal boundaries are important for Jews, they are much more so for professional rabbis.

I do not know if this was the message the Rosh Yeshiva actually intended, but it was an important lesson nonetheless.

  1. Academically it was a wonderfully productive year for me. I completed Yoreh Deah, 4th Year Halakhah Lema’aseh, and a triple Revel paper.
  2. Yes, I know that’s how apartments work, just using an expression.
  3. While rabbinic scandals do happen these are a negligible percentage compared to the rabbinate at large.
Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Personal.

RCA Press Release: Policies Regarding Same Sex Attraction, Marriage, and Reparative Therapy

I just received the following email from the Rabbinical Council of America, copied and pasted below.
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Posted in Jewish Culture, Religion. Tagged with , .

The Selective Sanctimony of Orthodox Judaism

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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Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Judaism. Tagged with , , .

Episode 40: Politics of Exclusion – Conclusion and Summary

Rabbi Josh Yuter concludes the Politics of Exclusion shiur series with a general discussion incorporating and previous classes. Many thanks for following!

Politics of Exclusion – Conclusion and Summary

Posted in Jewish Culture, Lectures, Politics of Exclusion in Judaism. Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , .