Category Archives: Jewish Culture

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RCA Press Release on Israel’s Rotem Conversion Bill

RCA Statement Regarding The Rotem Knesset Legislation Pertaining to Conversions

The Rabbinical Council of America is fully aware of the current significant and broad-ranging communal debate regarding the so-called Rotem legislation in the Israel Knesset, dealing with the charged matter of conversion to Judaism, and Jewish identity in the Jewish State.

There can be no doubt that the State of Israel is the center of Jewish life in our time. Decisions made in the Knesset relating to Jewish status in the State impact on the entire Jewish world. This includes the status of those who have emigrated with family members from other countries, as well as those who may have converted elsewhere prior to emigration.

For this reason the RCA has expended major efforts in recent years to work with Israeli authorities to facilitate acceptance of RCA conversions in Israel. This effort has borne fruit with a significantly expanded number of conversion courts and judges whose converts are fully recognized in the State of Israel. For indeed every rabbinate around the world bears the responsibility to certify or recognize those who come under its jurisdiction, according to its own processes and principles.

And what is true of the rabbinate, is true of the sovereign and democratic State of Israel. North American Jews have long embraced the principle that the duly elected leadership of the State of Israel should not be subject to outside interference or pressure by other governments, religious bodies, or communal entities.

This is especially true when, as happens from time to time, there is no consensus – either among Diaspora Jews, or within the governing political and religious leaderships of Israel. While we have noted certain statements by a number of American Jewish religious and umbrella organizations, as far as we are concerned there is certainly no unanimity, or even consensus, among American Jews on the matter of the current Knesset legislation. It should be noted that the more traditionalist segments of North American Jewry, always in the forefront of support and advocacy for Israel and aliyah, have to our knowledge not been consulted by the North American Jewish Federation leadership.

While the legislation in question may not be perfect, we who live in North America must recognize that it does contain much to commend it. It is important to note that it was proposed and is championed by a secular political party whose constituents are the ones most directly affected by its outcome, and also has wide support among many in the Religious-Zionist camp. Crucially, for the future of the Jewish state, it addresses the existential challenge posed by the presence in Israel of hundreds of thousands of non-Jews who are members of Jewish families. It does so by significantly expanding the number of local rabbinical courts for conversion, so as to facilitate conversion in accordance with the relevant requirements of Jewish law and ethical sensitivity. It also prevents retroactive revocation of conversions by third parties. And not least, it has the support of Israel’s official rabbinate.

The legislation is designed to change nothing regarding North American Jewish issues, a matter which in any event is far less significant to the State of Israel and its citizens than the undoubted benefits that the bill promises. Modifications in the language of the legislation may further alleviate the concerns of the non-traditionalists, but that should be for Israel’s religious and political leadership to decide, without outside pressures or interference. As a Diaspora community we ought all to respect the internal political process that impact first and foremost on those who live within the boundaries of Israel, and only in a derivative fashion on us who have chosen to live in the Diaspora. It ill behooves us to intrude on Israel’s democratic processes, or to threaten, even indirectly or by implication, a lessening of our full and unequivocal support for the State of Israel, if our views do not prevail. It certainly is unacceptable to involve members of the United States Congress, acting in their official capacity as Members of Congress, in lobbying one way or another regarding internal Israeli legislative processes, as some have done.

We thus call on our fellow Jews to respect Israel’s internal political processes, so as to allow Israel and its citizens to make this decision in their own – albeit imperfect, but democratic – fashion, with our unqualified support, our heartfelt prayers, and – whatever the outcome – our undiluted blessing.

Posted in Jewish Culture, Politics.

International Rabbinic Fellowship Press Release

The International Rabbinic Fellowship recently held its annual conference at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center this past June 21-23. Below is the official press release, from the conference and I will posting or podcasting my personal thoughts in due time.

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Posted in Jewish Culture.

Episode 5 – Responsible Jewish Activism

Today’s topic covers the Rubashkin’s acquittal, and responds to the very poingiant questions posed by Rabbi Ben Greenberg.

As always, comments welcome below.

Episode 5 – Responsible Jewish Activism

Posted in Jewish Culture, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Podcasts.

Episode 4 – The Jewish Communities of Medellin Colombia

I recently had the privilege of being sent to Medellin Colombia from May 25-27. The purpose of this brief visit was twofold – to assist in the conversions in Medellin and to investigate the emerging Jewish community in Bello.

Lacking the time for a complete writeup, I decided to give a special presentation to my synagogue by condensing my experiences to a description of the different Jewish communities. While it may not be apparent from the presentation itself, the entire experience was personally transformative and inspirational.

Below are links to the audio from the presentation as well as a PDF of the PowerPoint slideshow. Questions are welcome in the comments section.

The Jewish Communities of Medellin ColombiaThe Jewish Communities of Medellín Colombia (PowerPoint PDF)

Episode 4 – The Jewish Communities of Medellin Colombia (Audio)

Posted in Jewish Culture, Podcasts. Tagged with , , , , .

Religion, Romance, and Rebbitzens

In my recent post “Defending the Rebbitzens” I discussed some ways in which the rabbi’s wife may be taken for granted by a congregation in terms of her communal contributions. Beyond those examples cited, there are many areas in which a rabbinic couple faces unfair if not unrealistic expectations, not the least of which is their marital relationship. Like other public figures or celebrities, the rabbinic couple is the de facto familial role model for the community, and subsequently held to a higher standard than “normal” couples. For better or worse, a community may look towards the rabbinic example with the intent to mimic their matrimonial model.1

This expectation no doubt can put a tremendous strain on a marriage, which some rabbinical schools attempt to address as part of the training process. Most of my colleagues in Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school were already married, but I do remember being told that those who were still single should not only look for a wife, but also a rebbitzen. Perhaps more helpfully, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah includes spouses in the rabbinic training program itself:

…we have instituted a monthly support group for spouses. YCT realizes that the role of rebbetzin is a complex one. Women come from varied personal and professional backgrounds and anticipate different degrees of engagement in their husbands’ professional lives. The support group, facilitated by a rebbetzin who is also a social worker, allows exploration of these issues and provides opportunities for students’ wives to talk with other rebbetzins who come to New York specifically for group meetings.2

It is clear that in addition to normal marital difficulties, rabbinic couples often must face additional if not magnified tensions. One such overlooked area of potential discord is, ironically, the matter of familial religious practice itself.

Conventional wisdom dictates that a healthy marriage is based on mutual trust, understanding, and a sense of equality and partnership. But while both the rabbi and rebbitzen may be equally passionate about their observance, the husband – by virtue of his rabbinic education – will be more knowledgeable than his wife in matters of religious observance. Thus, any religious dialogue will necessarily be unbalanced.

In order to convey this point, I will give a few general examples from my own experience in dating. In once particular instance I once found myself arguing over the proper use of a microwave in terms of kashrut. I was arguing my position based on my understanding of Yoreh Deah and she steadfastly held by whatever her rabbi said, regardless of whatever source I would happen to quote.3

In another relationship I found myself unable to even engage in the text themselves with my significant other. If I assumed a role of superiority I would come across as patronizing and condescending. On the other hand, if we exchanged as equals she would not be able to engage with sufficient textual and contextual background.

To be sure these exchanges may have been unique to my relationships, and I should remind the reader that I am still single after all. However I suspect these sorts of exchanges are not uncommon among other married rabbinic couples in some form or another.

Consider first that successful rabbis must already compromise on religious observance for their communities i.e. they know which stringencies and which leniencies are appropriate for their congregations. But at home one would suspect the rabbi would have some control over his own observance, if nothing else as a spiritually stabilizing element in his life.

Secondly, for a rabbi halakhic observance is not subject to negotiation like dishes, driving, or diapers. It is a way of life determined by ones understanding of technical legal sources imbued with religious significance, not to be traded for taking out the garbage.

Finally, even mature compromises will not prevent every possible conflict. For example, assume a rabbinic couple takes a position of respectful autonomy – where the husband and wife agree to follow their own understanding of Jewish law. This arrangement will only sustain until such time as one requires the other to compromise on their own expectation of religious independence.

Like any relationship dispute, the greater point of contention or seriousness of the dispute, the greater the tension. And just like “normal” marriages, rabbinic marriages sometimes do end in divorce. But given that rabbis and rebbitzens often live long and happy lives together, it is clear that none of these issues of religious tensions are necessarily insurmountable and that healthy couples can live together even with persistent religious disagreements.

I suppose the rabbinic couples may be considered role models after all.

1. In one extreme Talmudic example, R. Kahana spied (poorly) on his teacher Rav’s marital life on the grounds that even intimacy is a matter of Torah and must be learned by a teacher (B. Berachot 62a).
2. Friedman, Michelle. “Pastoral Counseling at YCT Rabbinical School.” Milin Chavivin vol. 1. (2005) p. 82-83. Despite this effort from the rabbinical school, there have still been multiple divorces and broken engagement, though it is difficult to tell if such rates are higher than those for other rabbinical students or the population at large.
3. There’s an often repeated story that R. Yosef Soloveitchik was once told by his wife, “you and your Shulhan Aruch are treifing up my kitchen.”
Posted in Jewish Dating. Tagged with , , , , .

Defending the Rebbitzens

The recent controversy surrounding orthodox women rabbis has reignited the general debates of gender discrimination in Orthodox Judaism. Jewish law precludes women from participating in many communal functions such as counting in a minyan or serving as witnesses. Since no such law or statute prohibits women from being ordained as rabbis or rabbinic figures – either in the classical or modern sense of the term – it is understandable if some women view their exclusion from leadership positions as a form of institutional misogyny.

However Jewish society has discriminated against both men and women in leadership positions for generations, often with the communal complicity of self-identified feminists. I am referring here to the expectations and demands of the Rabbi’s wife, better known as The Rebbitzen.
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Posted in Jewish Culture. Tagged with , , , , , , , , .

The Politics of Ordaining Orthodox Women Rabbis

(רבי צדוק אומר אל תעשם עטרה להתגדל בהם ולא קרדום לחפור בהם (משנה אבות ד:ה
“R. Tzadok said: Do not make [the words of Torah]
a crown with which to glorify yourself” (M. Avot 4:5)

The most recent significant communal and continuing “scandal” in Judaism this past year has been the issue of Orthodox women’s ordination. It began when R. Avi Weiss bestowed the newly created title “Maharat” on Sara Hurwitz and forming a new school dedicated to training future Maharats. While this innovation may have attracted some criticism the reaction was relatively minor. But when R. Weiss had “promoted” M. Hurwitz to “Rabbah” the subsequent backlash and rhetoric of “schism” (some even from within his own community) that he quicklybacked off the Rabba designation.

The positive and negative rhetoric over the title “Rabba” (and to some extent over women’s ritual leadership ) alternated between the halakhic – if ordaining women violated any Jewish laws, and the sociological – given the unprecedented opportunities in Jewish women’s education, formal ordination ought to be the next logical step. There has already been much written on this subject from either side of both perspectives which I will not repeat here. However, the passions of both advocates and detractors have obscured the real questions and implications of ordaining women rabbis in any form. In particular, I will argue that the argument over women rabbis – both for and against – have less to do with gender and competency than of religious influence, power, and the public recognition of religious authority.

When Conservative Judaism wrestled with this question in the 80’s, Rabbi Dr. David Novak framed the issue as one of altering the existing religious-political power structure:

Indeed, the question of rabbinical ordination for women epitomizes a confrontation which, in the broadest sense, is political. Feminism is asking the Jewish religious community to reconstitute its political order. A political order consists of institutions which structure relations among its participants. Authorities are those person within the order who determine the meaning of these institutional structures for the participants, that is, they legislate, administer, and, especially, judge. If Judaism is the constitution of the political order of the Jewish religious community, then the authorities in it, certainly since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and probably earlier, have been the rabbis. Inasmuch as women have been excluded from the rabbinate, they have been excluded from authority in the Jewish religious community.

The demand of Jewish feminists that women now be included in the rabbinate can only be considered as revolutionary. Furthermore, this demand epitomizes the confrontation between Feminism and Judaism, since revolutions always seek a radical change in the existing authority which, because the designation of authority in the community, more than anything else, determines the character of the political community (Novak 1984:39).

Based on the text of the RCA’s recent resolution, it appears that the Orthodox rabbinical organization concurs with Novak’s sentiment:

In light of the opportunity created by advanced women’s learning, the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a diversity of halakhically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women, in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our heritage. Due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title. [Emphasis added]

The RCA’s argument for not affirming or recognizing women rabbis as “Orthodox” is not based on Jewish law, but “sacred continuity.” In this statement the RCA validates what I described years ago that “Orthodox Judaism” is a social designation for a particular form of Judaism in which the society is itself sacred and the status quo is tautologically reified. For the RCA, internal social politics are indistinguishable from halakha and so a challenge to the political order – the Orthodox franchise – is comparable to challenging to the Torah itself.

But while the political perspective adequately accounts for the positions of the RCA (and presumably others), more explanation is required to apply this explanation for women’s ordination advocates to address the plurality of the arguments.1

One category of arguments is rooted in simple equality. In the academic sense, if women choose to attain the same knowledge and qualifications as men, then they should have the opportunity to receive the same title. While male colleagues are addressed with designation “Rabbi”, there is no equivalent honorific for women – even those who are equally qualified (or superior) to their male counterparts.

The lack of a rabbinic title for women also has professional and financial implications as well. Certain pastoral fields such as chaplaincies require a clerical title, which would not only limit Orthodox women from those fields but also deprive the fields of talented individuals. Alternatively, advanced degrees tend to demand higher salaries. While the rabbinic field is hardly lucrative, preemptively denying women the title potentially deprives them of financial opportunities.2

While there is truth to these arguments, they all suffer from the same fallacy that no options exist. Specifically, if the title “rabbi” is only a professional degree then even orthodox women would be able to receive ordination through one of the other denominations. That there is no Orthodox equivalent does not by itself restrict the acquisition of the title, but only of the communal acceptance of such a title.

And therein lies the rub. The underlying impetus for Orthodox women’s ordination is not merely in the semantics of creating an honorific, but rather in attaining social religious acceptance and validation for one’s Torah study from within their own Orthodox community.

This point is evident from the controversy itself. Unlike the other denominations in Judaism, there is no official regulating body for Orthodox Judaism,3 and thus there is no legal or halakhic impediment for any woman to call herself “Rabbi” and “Orthodox” simultaneously. However the communal opposition to the title Rabba from the Orthodox world was strong enough to compel R. Weiss to retreat from his position.

Were this a matter a pure ideology, based on the conviction that Orthodox women ought to be able to receive ordination, then such opposition would not matter. Women would be ordained and those who choose to accept or reject such ordinations – and the individual women rabbis as spiritual and educational leaders – would do so as their conscience dictates. However, this would inevitably lead to a controversy over exactly who has the right and authority to determine what meets the social criteria for “Orthodox Judaism.” Self-identification is one solution, but if the self-identification contradicts the establishment, individuals will find themselves excluded from the very communities they profess to identify.

The irony of the dispute over women’s ordination is that both sides are employing similar authoritarian tactics of forcing their authority on the broader community at large. The RCA could argue that it is fact their mandate to do so as a major Orthodox rabbinic organization. At the same time, no one who possesses any sort of rabbinic title has the right to demand or expect others to respect their degree or position as a religious authority. For example, a graduate of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school should not expect Jews in hareidi communities to seriously acknowledge their ordination and vice versa. In the spirit of egalitarianism, women who wish to be ordained as rabbis have no right to assume that because of their ordination they will be taken seriously as legitimate halakhic authorities, but just like male rabbis, they must constantly and consistently prove themselves to their specific constituents.

In contrast to the above debate, the Tanna Yehoshua Ben Perachya stated “עשה לך רב” – make for yourself a master (M. Avot 1:6). The choice of a spiritual leader is ultimately an individual one, not dictated by society, and there does not seem to be evidence to preclude a woman from being in this role regardless of title. This relationship is ideally a sacred bond, and one which must be entered into freely and nurtured regularly without the burdens of social politics. Similarly, all rabbis and rabbinic professionals must remember that their primary mission is not the defense of “Orthodox Judaism” – by any definition – but rather to teach Torah to the best of their ability.

It is my hope that the Orthodox Jewish collective remember this fundamental principle so that it need not become fractured further in the name of a Torah in which no one truly believes.

1. The following arguments are from private conversations with intelligent advocates of women’s ordination.

2. I am not implying here that the RCA and male rabbis are trying to maintain a male monopoly on the rabbinic market for competition reasons. While talented women rabbis may have additional skill sets, they would still be ineligible from counting in a minyan, leading services, or serving as witnesses – actions for which many Jewish communities depend on their rabbis. In other words, male and female rabbis would necessarily have different tasks and responsibilities.

Furthermore, the Sages explicitly reject preserving an educational monopoly, stating “קנאת סופרים תרבה חכמה” – the jealousy of scholars (lit. scribes) increases wisdom (B. Bava Batra 22a). This of course assumes the individuals in question are in fact scholars, but that is a discussion for another time.

3. Despite self serving PR statements to the contrary.

Novak, David. “Women in the Rabbinate?” Judaism, 33:1. (1984) 39-49.

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

Yeshiva vs. University

Being far removed from my alma mater, it is difficult for me to truly have a sense of what happens on campus anymore and second-hand reports fail to adequately capture the full zeitgeist of the community. The most recent controversy around Yeshiva University involves a forum on “Being Gay in the Orthodox World” and the expected. The topic of homosexuality in Orthodox Judaism has long been a controversial issue, one which we discussed years ago in “Lonely Men of Faith, but it is still considered taboo in certain Orthodox circles. Case in point, following said forum R. Meir Twersky responded with a public diatribe lambasting the entire event and its participants. This forum and the aftermath are helpfully recounted in great detail on Curious Jew’s blog. Since I did not attend the event nor did I hear R. Twersky’s statements firsthand I will not address either specifically. However, that such a controversy exists demonstrates that even after 123 YU is still struggling with its own identity as a “Yeshiva”, “University”, and a representative if not champion for “Modern Orthodoxy.”

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Posted in Jewish Culture.

Rabbi / Obama Health Care Conference Call

Yesterday morning I was one of 1,000 Rabbis listening in on a conference call with President Obama on the hot button issue of heath care reform. The call was organized by coalition of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist organizatoins including
The Central Conference of American Rabbis, Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbinical Assembly, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and coordinated by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Technically speaking I’m not sure I’m “supposed” to write about the call. The intent of the call was less informative on Obama’s position, but more for the Rabbis to explore how to address the health care controversy in their upcoming High Holiday sermons. (In a nice move by Obama’s handler’s he began his health care discussion by referencing unetaneh tokef). Nevertheless there were point which I took away from the call that I feel are worth sharing with the public at large.

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Posted in Jewish Culture, Politics. Tagged with .

A Fair And Balanced Approach To Jewish Social Justice

A few months ago I wrote a short article for the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals’ new journal Conversations. The purpose of this journal is to promote communal dialogue on various issues facing the Jewish community. Unlike the Edah/Meorot journals, the journal is supposed to be more accessible than academic and so I was given two editorial conditions:1. keep it short and 2. no footnotes.

As longtime blog readers know, that last condition was a tough one to overcome.

At any rate, I’m posting my article “A Fair And Balanced Approach To Jewish Social Justice” and I plan on revisiting the motivations for the article at some later point.

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Posted in Culture, Economics, Jewish Culture, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Random Acts of Scholarship, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah, Society. Tagged with , .