Category Archives: Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava

Posts relating to Jewish Thought in all its forms

Episode 13 – The Death of R. Akiva

In the final “Who’s Who in the Talmud” segment on R. Akiva, Rabbi Yuter discusses R. Akiva’s days in prison and execution.

Who’s Who in the Talmud – The Death of R. Akiva Source Sheet PDF

Episode 13 – Who’s Who in the Talmud – The Death of R. Akiva

Posted in Jewish History, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Podcasts, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah, Who's Who in the Talmud. Tagged with .

Episode 10 – Who’s Who in the Talmud: R. Akiva and Bar Kochvah

Part of Rabbi Josh Yuter’s “Who Who in the Talmud” series, this class discusses R. Akiva’s messianic endorsement of Bar Kochva.

Click here for PDF source sheet for Y. Ta’anit 4:5 68d-69a.

Episode 10 – Who’s Who in the Talmud: R. Akiva and Bar Kochva

Posted in Jewish History, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Podcasts, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah, Who's Who in the Talmud. Tagged with , , , , , , , , .

Episode 9 – Politics of Exclusion, Rambam on Tzadok and Baitus

Episode 9 – Politics of Exclusion – Rambam on Tzadok and Baitus

In this part of his Politics of Exclusion Series, Rabbi Yuter discusses Rambam’s description of the Sadducean and Baithusian sects with its implications for today.

Posted in Jewish History, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Podcasts, Politics of Exclusion in Judaism, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah. Tagged with , , , , , , , .

Episode 8 – Encountering Avoda Zara

The first Tuesday of every month I lead a Beit Midrash session at the Stanton St. Shul. These topics vary from month to month, often coinciding with the Jewish or secular calendar. This month, I chose to deal with some issues of Avoda Zara due to some questions which kept coming up lately in shul.

This class is by no means comprehensive; covering this topic properly would probably take at least a year. Still the point is to raise certain issues and hopefully lead people to ask better halakhic questions.

Episode 8 – Encountering Avoda Zara

Posted in Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Podcasts, Religion, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah. Tagged with , , .

Episode 7 – Politics of Exclusion: Rambam and Rebellion

By popular request I started recording my classes. While I hope to organize and post them on the shul’s website, for now I’ll add it as one of my podcasts. I’m currently in the middle of a series called The Politics of Exclusion in Judaism where we define Who is a Jew by who doesn’t make the cut. We started months ago with Biblical Sources, followed up by Rabbinic sources, and we’re currently in the middle of going through Rambam’s Hilkhot Teshuva. Today’s class covered Hilkhot Teshuva 3:9, copied below for reference.

רמב”ם הלכות תשובה פרק ג הלכה ט
שנים הם המומרים מישראל: המומר לעבירה אחת והמומר לכל התורה כולה, מומר לעבירה אחת זה שהחזיק עצמו לעשות אותה עבירה בזדון והורגל ונתפרסם בה אפילו היתה מן הקלות כגון שהוחזק תמיד ללבוש שעטנז או להקיף פאה ונמצא כאלו בטלה מצוה זו מן העולם אצלו הרי זה מומר לאותו דבר והוא שיעשה להכעיס, מומר לכל התורה כולה כגון החוזרים לדתי העובדי כוכבים בשעה שגוזרין גזרה וידבק בהם ויאמר מה בצע לי להדבק בישראל שהם שפלים ונרדפים טוב לי שאדבק באלו שידם תקיפה, הרי זה מומר לכל התורה כולה. +/השגת הראב”ד/ לכל התורה כולה כגון החוזר לדת העובדי כוכבים. א”א ומי שחוזר לדת העובדי כוכבים הנה הוא מודה באלהיהם והרי הוא מין.+

Episode 7 – Politics of Exclusion Rambam and Rebellion

Posted in Jewish History, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava, Judaism, Podcasts, Politics of Exclusion in Judaism, Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah. Tagged with , , , , , , .

Why I Voted “No”: An Essay on Rabbinic Leadership

The opinions expressed here are my own and are not intended to reflect those of any individual or organization.

Introduction

This past week the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), voted on whether or not women ought to be admitted to the organization. This was not the first time the IRF considered such a proposition. In 2008, before the advent of “Maharat” or “Rabba“, the IRF recognized that women have been functioning as religious leaders within Orthodox Judaism. In Israel women serve as “To’anot Beit Din” – advocates for women in religious courts and “Yoatzot Halakha” – halakhic consultants regarding family purity. Even without formal titles women serve as Torah educators alongside men and several synagogues employ women in some religious capacity. In fact the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), under Orthodox Union (OU), sends married couples to college campuses across the country with the expectation that the wife serves the campus Jewish community alongside her rabbinic husband. Regardless of the semantics of titles – or lack thereof – Jewish women assume professional roles similar to those performed by male rabbinic counterparts and thus should not be excluded from conversations affecting the Jewish community at large based solely on gender.

When I was first confronted with this question I supported the theoretical inclusion of women into the group, even if it meant removing “Rabbinic” adjective from the organization’s name. I even submitted to a subcommittee my own proposal defining criteria for women to be treated as rabbinic colleagues given that no comparable title existed at the time.1 And yet despite my earlier positions and after hearing passionate arguments in favor of admitting women, when the IRF finally voted on including women, I voted “no”. My decision may appear at first glance to be inconsistent, dishonest, or indicative of intimidation from opposition. On the contrary, as I will explain in this essay my principles remain intact. My position is not based on the identity politics of gender but on what I perceive to be the role and function of rabbinic leadership in Judaism.
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Divine Providence, Free Will, and Ramban’s Paradox

In Jewish theology there are two essential yet contradictory doctrines: divine providence, defined for now as God’s active participation in the world, and free will, man’s ability to make his own decisions. The tension should be obvious, that any action or event taken by man is either the result of God’s direction as part of a divine plan, or that we as humans have the ability to make our own decisions and thus face natural consequences.1 The more one of these doctrines is emphasized the other is diminished.

These competing interests can sometimes form theological paradoxes, as we discussed in a class I gave last night on Elections in Judaism, particularly in the thought of Ramban.
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Jewish Law vs. Jewish Policy

One of the most important distinctions to make as a Rabbi is the distinction between halakha or Jewish law, and public policy. The difference is that Jewish Law, defined in terms of obligations and prohibitions, is binding on all Jews at all times. Decisions of Jewish Policy on the other hand are subjective, usually in the hands of community leaders. As such, these decisions cannot be imposed on every Jewish community since not only is there no such authoritative body, but each community will have its own needs and appropriate practices and customs.

If the above seems like an oversimplification, I refer you to my personal hashkafa series, however it should suffice for today’s post. I recently received an email from The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) responding to a recent statement by the Orthodox Union (OU) on the issue of women leading Kabbalat Shabbat services for men. The OU’s statement is simple enough:

With regard to the matter of a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat services before an audience of men and women, the position of the Orthodox Union is that such practice is improper and constitutes an unacceptable breach of Jewish tradition.

JOFA’s responded in the form of an article by Dr. Debby Koren, available as a PDF here. From the introduction, we notice that Dr. Koren misses the crucial distinction between Jewish Law and Jewish Policy:

Thus it was disquieting to see a recent statement issued by the Orthodox Union as to the impropriety of a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat when men are present, and interesting to note that the statement did not include any halakhic discussion or analysis. What are the possible reasons that it would be considered improper for a woman to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services with men present, and for such a practice (in the words of the Orthodox Union) to “constitute an unacceptable breach of Jewish tradition”? We address a number of possible concerns below.

Dr. Koren correctly notes that the OU did not include any “halakhic discussion or analysis.” This lacuna is of not only true, but necessary for two important and related reasons. The first is that that OU is itself not a halakhic body, nor to my knowledge does it ever claim to be. Rather, it is the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) which is responsible for determining matters of Jewish Law for the OU. Secondly, the OU’s statement did not employ the objective legal language of “assur” forbidden, but rather that it was “improper” and “unacceptable breach of Jewish tradition.” These statements are inherently subjective viewpoints relating to Jewish Policy, not Jewish Law. In fact, even RCA member R. Michael J. Broyde’s detailed analysis never claimed women leading Kabbalat Shabbat was “forbidden”, but rather concluded that it was a point of confusion. In other words, at no point did the RCA or OU issue a statement regarding Jewish Law, but rather Jewish Policy.

Practically speaking the ramifications are less halakhic than they are social. Even assuming an Orthodox approach to Jewish Law, one could easily justify permitting women to parts of the service for men, as Dr. Koren does in her article. However while the OU does not represent all of Orthodox Judaism, it does represent a non-trivial subset. The OU is not the arbiter of what is considered “Orthodox” but rather what is acceptable for its networked organization of synagogues. As such, the OU is free to set whatever policies it wishes for its member synagogues, and if a community wishes to be a part of this organization it has to consider the interests of the greater membership. Thus any synagogue may allow a woman to lead Kabbalat Shabbat and still be considered “Orthodox”, but it will have to accept the consequence of not being an OU member community.

This is where the distinction of Jewish Law vs. Jewish Policy becomes essential for meaningful dialogue. Dr. Koren’s article, however valid her arguments, is ultimately irrelevant for a discussion regarding inherently subjective organizational public policy.

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An Abominable Deception

ואינו דומה שונה פרקו מאה פעמים לשונה פרקו מאה ואחד
One who studied 100 times is not comparable to one who studied 101 times. (B. Chagiga 9b)

One of the reasons Jews spend so much time reviewing the Torah is that you never know when you miss something or the new insights you can clean from viewing the same text with fresh eyes. Speaking for myself, these “aha!” moments can be truly joyous at discovering a new approach, or frustrating in the, “how could I not have seen this before” sense. Today I’d like to discuss a recent example of the latter, one which will have profound implications for how Judaism, and indeed all biblical religions, ought to relate to homosexuals.

Note: I pre-apologize if anyone has already noted what I am about to write. My intent is not to present an innovative reading, but to demonstrate how easy it is to overlook the obvious.

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Land of Confusion – A Response to R. Broyde on Women Leading Kabbalat Shabbat

Since The Jewish Week reported that the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale had held a special minyan featuring a woman leading Kabbalat Shabbat, the Modern Orthodox Jewish establishment has been apoplectic with yet another example of R. Avi Weiss pushing the envelope of women’s roles in Judaism. Cutting through most of the distracting rhetoric is R. Michael J. Broyde who posts his thoughts on Hirhurim Torah Musings.
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