Category: Judaism

This past Shabbat I gave the Devar Torah in my parent’s synagogue. Not only was this my first time since leaving my pulpit, but it was also the first time I had to speak in Hebrew. Although I’ve been in Ulpan for a few months, I’m still a long way off from being able to speak like a native, let alone infuse my usual sense of personality into my sermons. Thankfully, I did have help not only from Morfix but from friends who could not only correct grammar mistakes, but also assist with idioms and figures of speech. I take full responsibility for all errors.

The following text is from my working draft, though annotated with footnotes. Given my 7 minute time limit, 1 I had to use more “meivin yavin” textual references rather than provide actual citations.

Enjoy!

Notes:

  1. I actually went 8 minutes.

Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah

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“דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד – זו היא כל התורה כולה, ואידך – פירושה הוא, זיל גמור”

“What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.” (B. Shabbat 31a)

In the aftermath of the R. Freundel voyeurism scandal, the Orthodox Jewish community has been relentless in its criticism of its current religious establishments. Some have focused their attention on the vulnerability of converts, many of which received a reprieve when the Israeli rabbinate ultimately decided to uphold R. Freundel’s conversions. Others advocated for changes in how a mikvah is operated with Rabbanit Henkin arguing for giving women keys to the mikvah and R. Seth Farber insisting on modifying Jewish conversion law to prohibit men from witnessing a female convert’s immersion. 1 Still others targeting the Rabbinic establishment, epitomized in this case by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). 2 Rabbi Marc Angel pointed to the moral deficiencies of Judaism’s gatekeepers and Dr. Erica Brown criticized the lack of rabbinic accountability. 3

Naturally, certain members in the very same Rabbinic establishment aggressively defended the status-quo in the face of media “misrepresentations” and activists “hijacking” the scandal to further their own agendas. I have no doubt others perceive the defamation of their institutions to be the result of an unfair generalization, where the entire system is disparaged due to criminal acts of one lone individual.

My concern today is not the propriety of these critical generalizations, but rather the predictability of them occuring after a major scandal. Not only have Jews long engaged in generalized delegitimizations, but this traditional rhetorical stratagem has been repeatedly employed by the current Rabbinic establishment, including, ironically enough, the RCA’s own approach to conversion.

Notes:

  1. In Farber’s words, “The facts are that while we must meet halachic requirements, we also cannot allow a situation to continue where men are in the mikveh when women are immersing.” The problem however is that Jewish not only does not prohibit men from witnessing this immersion, it most likely requires it. B. Yevamot 47b describes the procedure for converting women as having women assist the convert in the water while the male witnesses stand at a safe distance outside of the mikvah waters. Rambam in Hilkhot Issurei Biah 14:6 adds that the men should turn their faces away so as not to see the naked woman exiting the water, which not only is an affirmation of modesty, but reinforces the obligation for the act of immersion to be witnessed by the men. Even if argues that men need not personally observe the dunking, claiming that men must not be present requires a demonstrating that Biblical or Rabbinic Law is being violated, which necessitates citing chapter and verse of the specific violation. It is only through Rabbinic legislation that specific interpretations be mandated on the entire Jewish population or new prohibitions be innovated. See my series on The Halakhic Process for a more detailed exposition on the system of Jewish Law.
  2. Disclosure: I am currently a member of the RCA, though I hold no position on its board or any of its committees. All opinions expressed here are my own and are not intended to reflect the views of the RCA or any of its members.
  3. This is only a small sample of quotes, articles, and op-eds published in public venues. My Facebook wall was inundated with countless more comments regarding these positions and many more.

Judaism

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

Since I became a pulpit Rabbi I have rarely posted my sermons. In part this is because with the exception of the High Holidays I don’t write out my sermons word for word, preferring to deliver my sermons with a more conversational tone rather than a monologue. 1 However, given that this was my last Shabbat as Rav of The Stanton St. Shul, I had requests to share my final sermon to the congregation. Even when I do write out sermons in advance, I use my text less as a “published” document and more as a guideline in to ensure my focus. Consequently, the actual sermon I actually deliver occasionally deviates from the text in front of me, not in its essence or point, but in terms of word choices or spur of the moment editorials to include or exclude some material.

I hesitate to call my final sermon a “classic,” but I can say that this is fairly typical of the sermons I would give with its crucial elements being:

  1. A close read of a text, usually as in this case the Bible, but occasionally a Rabbinic teaching.
  2. A message or point based off of the text, presented as a “suggestion” or “possibility” and hopefully relevant to the congregation.
  3. Explicit and/or subtle references to outside works. 2
  4. Optional: explicit or subtle puns, usually bad.
  5. Do all of the above in 10-15 minutes.

Without further ado, the working notes from my final sermon at The Stanton Street Shul, with annotations.

Notes:

  1. Although I was trained to give very formal sermons, I realized early on that not only did that style take substantially more time to prepare, but the extra effort would not have mattered to the congregation. I found the conversational style worked best in my synagogue to communicate ideas, and it allowed the freedom to adlib and respond to hecklers. For the High Holidays when I had to focus my mental energies on managing the service as well as meeting higher expectations, writing out the entire sermon was essential.
  2. I also don’t title my sermons, but if I had to for this one, I’d have used this one, taken from the series finale of ST:TNG.

Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah

Current Jewish Questions Judaism

Religious Jews often talk about halakhah, and by their self-identification will attempt to frame their practices within a halakhic framework, but few if any can offer a logically coherent or consistent system to describe how halakhah is supposed to work. For example, one of the recurring issues in the Jewish community is what are the rules of halakhic adaptation, how does Jewish Law change, and how do we determine which changes are legitimate or flawed.

This is a subject about which I have discussed extensively on this site and even devoted a 30 part series dedicated to describing The Halakhic Process. However, it appears that for many people on the internet it is too much trouble to listen to classes, consult primary sources necessary for an argument, read long posts with a critical eye towards comprehension, let alone suffer the inconvenience of having to substantiate their own opinions with any semblance of rigor. 1

Thus, as a quasi-public service, today I am going to illustrate fundamental differences in approaches to halakhah by actually providing illustrations.

Notes:

  1. See for example the comments of John Stuart Mill discussed here way back in 2006.

Jewish Law / Halakha

Introduction

Regular readers of halakhic literature will inevitably encounter appeals to “consensus,” either of a select sample of halakhic decisiors, frequently using the Hebrew idiom “rov poskim,” or of a community’s popular perceptions. 1 The distinguishing characteristic of these appeals to consensus is that the legitimacy or rejection of an opinion is not determined by intrinsic, objective, qualifiable criteria or its merits, but by its adoption by certain people. 2 The primary premise of such arguments is that unanimity or a plurality of agreement among a given collective is halakhically binding on the Jewish population 3 and cannot be further contested or subject to review. 4

Appeals to consensus are common and relatively simply to assert, but those who rely on consensus rarely if ever acknowledge, address, or defend, the assumptions inherent with the invoking of consensus as a source – if not the determinant – of practical Jewish law. As I will demonstrate, appeals to consensus are laden with problematic logical and halakhic assumptions such that while “consensus” may constitute one factor in determining a specific psak, it is not nearly the definitive halakhic criterion its proponents would like to believe.

Notes:

  1. While in this essay I am focusing on halakhah, similar appeals to consensus are found in discussions of Jewish thought, in particular regarding the status of Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith.
  2. In Brisker terms, this would be a distinction between the “heftza” of a position’s content versus the “gavra” of those who accept it.
  3. This is not to be confused with the use of consensus as a form of colloquial rhetorical flourish. For example, The Talmud records hundreds of claims of “kulei ‘alma,” literally meaning “the whole world” agrees to a particular position. Given the certitude that one can produce a single lone dissenter on the planet to falsify this claim, it seems reasonable to assume that Talmudic sages were conscious of their hyperbole. But even in the Talmudic vernacular, an appeal to “kulei ‘alma” was most often employed to define a point of agreement between specific parties in order to better understand the true point of halakhic contention. See B. Berachot 23a for just one example. These appeals to “the whole world” are not the basis of a halakhic argument – which must be defended on its merits – but instead are descriptive of a certain context, albeit exaggerated, with the intent of advancing a specific point in the discussion.
  4. Alternative or contradictory opinions may be suggested, but only with the caveat they remain theoretical and are not to be implemented in practice.

Jewish Law / Halakha YUTOPIA's 10th Year Anniversary

My recent post Women, Tefillin, and the Rise of the Rav seems to have struck a nerve in the Orthodox community. By far, it has elicited the greatest response, and divisiveness, than anything else I have written to this point. For those who have not been following, a quick recap is in order. In response to R. Tully Harcsztark recent decision permitting two female students to wear tefillin during school services, R. Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University wrote a scathing critique not only of the decision itself, but of how it was made, equating intellectual independence with Korach’s rebellion. My own response to R. Schachter linked above elicited extreme contrasting reactions. As to be expected with any controversy, there is bound to be some degree of partisanship with people being predisposed towards one side or another.

The astute reader noticed that while the subject of women wearing tefillin was the impetus, my main point dealt with the broader question of rabbinic authority, and it was this issue which prompted the most passionate responses. In particular, many readers took specific exception to my tone, which was characterized in various forms of “flippant,” “disrespectful,” or simply not deferential enough in that I treated R. Schachter as a peer rather than a superior. Many others had no such objections to my tone and found well within the bounds of propriety. 1 In truth, the question of “respect” and how a Torah scholar ought to communicate was, in my opinion, a distraction from the more central question of authentic Rabbinic authority. After all, if one’s status as a Torah scholar is measured by the tone of one’s discourse, then it would seem that R. Schachter would have crossed that line in his initial letter. 2 My critics contended that my post and R. Schachter’s letter are not valid subjects for equal comparison because the authors of these respective writings are not of the same “stature.” The argument may be summarized that as a more prominent rabbinic authority, R. Schachter is not only unconstrained by the rules or halakhot of proper discourse, but he is beyond reproach and not subject to any form of criticism by lesser rabbis. According to this perception of Jewish law, there are different rules for different roles. 3 Furthermore, some argued that by not giving proper deference to R. Schachter, I was essentially challenging the entire chain of Jewish halakhot tradition, very similar to the argument of R. Schachter himself.

But herein lies the point of contention; I have received a very different tradition than what is currently disseminated in the Orthodox world. While I attended and received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, but I do not count R. Schachter among my primary teachers nor would most of my teachers consider themselves followers of his tradition. In fact, the three Rabbis from whom I have learned the most, my father, his teacher Haham Yosef Faur, and R. Moshe Tendler, have all been vocal critics of R. Schachter at one point or another. The latter two I even cited in my earlier post since both differentiated between the positions of Rav and Rosh Yeshiva. While I have previously addressed the logical flaws in appealing to a “gadol’s” authority, today I wish to demonstrate how, despite any assumptions to the contrary, I have been following the tradition of my own teachers.

Notes:

  1. One Rabbi (not my father) actually thought I was too respectful.
  2. Assuming he had not done so long ago.
  3. I resisted the temptation to respond to certain individuals by arguing that according to this logic, no non-rabbi would have any right to argue with me on the grounds that my having rabbinic ordination would make me superior to all those who do not. While this argument is logically sound, it would have been impossible for me to make without giving the pretense of pretentiousness. There are limits to the extent that I argue with others on their terms.

Jewish Law / Halakha Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava Judaism

This class, replete with random references, covers Chapter 8 of Maimonides’ Laws of Shabbat. Laws of Shabbat 12 – Rambam Chapter 8 BONUS: The Calvin and Hobbes reference.

Judaism

לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲלֶה לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה: וְלֹא מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲבָר לָנוּ אֶל עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה: דברים ל:יב-יג

It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” (Deut. 30:12-13)

My previous post publicized a recent letter (PDF) authored by Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University. At the time of posting I did not have time for a thorough analysis, but several people took offense at my initial glib reactions on social media, calling it various forms of “disrespectful” or “not nice.” While I found these responses to be somewhat ironic given that R. Schachter himself used his letter to delegitimize those with whom he disagrees by comparing them to Korach and stating that they violate yehareg ve’al ya’avor, the rebuke is nevertheless well taken. Given his perceived stature in the Orthodox community, R. Schachter’s letter deserves a thorough analysis, as I’ve done before regarding his approach to Jewish law, especially as it pertains to the imposition of select religious authority.

Jewish Law / Halakha Judaism