Category Archives: Sermons, Lectures, and Divrei Torah
So the return to Washington Heights for Shavuot was really nice. From what I can tell, the drasha went pretty well, although I think the delivery went better the second time when I was at the bridge shul. Anyway, here’s the quickie write-up of the shiur.
Rabbi Josh Joseph recently brought me on board the Orthodox Caucus’ new project called Torah Currents. Periodically I’ll be sending in anecdotes or short ideas mostly in the section called Thought of the Day and may or may not duplicate them on the blog. The first piece is up and titled Not Much to Ask.
I said I’d try to post some of my weekly divrei torah, so we’ll see how this goes. For now, just realize that this is part of the weekly Hillel announcements, and is hardly edited for mass publication. I usually have time for just a quick spell check, and sometimes not even that. Just try to enjoy what will probably be a unique interpretation of selected passages from the Torah reading or relevant midrashim.
The following was the most controversial derasha I gave last year as an intern (not typed verbatim – I’m in the middle of theorizing Judaism right now). If you feel you might be offended or otherwise upset, know that you have been warned.
It’s bothered me for some time that Leah tends to get shafted in Jewish thought. She is considered a secondary wife, and usually is viewed as inferior to her younger sister Rachel. As is my typical iconoclastic tradition (how’s that for a paradox) I suggest that Leah might deserve more admiration than we normally give her.
Bereishit 29:17 gives us the first descriptions of Rachel and Leah: Leah has “weak eyes” while Rachel was beautiful. However, these descriptions are not exactly parallel. Leah is described by how she views the world, and Rachel is defined by how she is viewed by others. While The Torah does not describe Leah’s appearance, it’s descriptions of their actions allows us to compare the utlook of the two sisters.
Although Leah’s having “weak eyes” is usually interpreted to be a physical deficiency, it is an adequate description for her “hashkafa” (outlook) on the world. Admittedly, Leah did get a raw deal. She gets forced into a marriage with someone who didn’t want to marry her, which probably created some resentment. We are told she was hated in 29:31 (although we are not told by whom in particular – perhaps by everyone). In naming her first three sons, Leah revealed more about her situation. 29:32 – Reuven is named because “God looked at my pain, for now my husband will love me.” However, things didn’t get much better, as Leah was still feeling pain and isolation from her husband and this was reflected in naming her next two sons Shimon and Levi (29:33-34).
For her fourth son, Leah doesn’t recall her situation. She simply calls him Yehuda as a thanks to God.(29:35) We are not told if anything changed between Leah and Ya’akov in the interim. It is clear, however, that she was going through a difficult time, and not surprisingly her faith was tested. Note her perception of Hashem’s involvement in her situation. First Hashem sees the pain (29:32), then he only hears the pain (29:33). In 29:34, Hashem isn’t even mentioned. However, when Leah names Yehuda she only mentions Hashem and nothing of her troubles. While it is possible that her marriage to Ya’akov improved during this time, the Torah gives no indication that it did. Rather, it seems that Leah was able to come to terms with her situation the best that she could.
Rachel, by contrast, is portrayed by the Torah as impatient if not impulsive. Out of jealousy, she demands Ya’akov give her children, to which Ya’akov responds that it’s in Hashem’s control, not his own (30:1-2). Rachel later demands the “dudaim” from Leah (30:14). When she finally has her first son, Rachel is hardly satisfied. She calls him Yosef – as if to say Hashem should give her another son (30:24). While Ya’akov prepares to flee from Lavan, Rachel steals her fathers idols and is less than forthcoming about admitting it. (31:19, 34-35) When she has her final son, she calls him “Ben Oni” – interpreted as “son of my pain.” (35:19)
Midrashically, many of these events are reinterpreted portraying Rachel more positively. Also in context, we cannot possibly know what Rachel was thinking at the time of each event. What we do know is that both Leah and Rachel faced different types of adversity (whose adversity was greater will also be subjective). Rachel, the beautiful one, never really matured. She handles her pain the same way up until the end, ruing her current situation. Leah, the one with the “weak eyes” developed her outlook, and gradually was able to accept if not enjoy her life. She might have had weak eyes, but they became stronger over time.
It’s just a matter of perspective.
When I first mentioned that I would be a panelist discussing Egalitarian Liturgy, the immediate reaction I got was cynical to say the least. "Why would I want to get into that," and "you’re being railroaded" were just two of the comments reflecting the broad sentiment. Initially, I too was skeptical for probably the same reasons.
First, the word "Egalitarian" recalls the classic conservative vs. orthodox debates, and is often employed by those with specific agendas. 1 However, knowing the nature of the Hillel, and after speaking to the Rabbi, it seemed obvious to me that the panel would be cordial and informative.
Some questions still remain: why take the chance or why bother with this at all?
It’s a good question; one which requires its own post.
The Ideological Conflict
I do not want to discuss the details of the other panelists’ positions, mainly because I do not want to misrepresent them. However, I can present my own take on egalitarian liturgy and how I presented it in the discussion.
I did not like the title of the panel. The term "ethical" presupposes the discussion is a moral one – that there is some inherent value towards egalitarianism to which all people are subsumed. While there is a value to egalitarianism, I do not see it as an "ethical" imperative, but rather as a "religious" imperative. For the sake of this essay, I will define "religious imperatives" as requirements necessarily for the sufficient observance of one’s faith.
As one of the other panelists correctly noted, the word "liturgy" is not limited to prayer, but it includes all manners of public worship. When discussing inequalities in Jewish liturgy, the most blatant example is the role of the woman. 2 Women are relegated to sitting behind a mehitza restricting them from active participation. Furthermore, several prayers themselves are not amiable to many women. How can one properly worship when s/he3 is excluded from the primary religious mechanisms? This is a religious imperative.
However, there is a conflicting religious imperative: to maintain "The Tradition." The current actions of the community – following the practices of the previous generations – are as canonical as the Torah itself. It is arrogant at best – heretical at worst – to alter the practices of the previous generations.
Advocates of Egalitarianism could rightly point to the fact that liturgy has changed over time. Piyutim were added throughout the middle ages, many in response to actual events.4 For the proponents of tradition, the changes that happened in the past are valid, but we today have no right – or minimal right to make any further emendations. Furthermore, the nature of some of the changes currently suggested affect essential parts of the prayer service.
To further understand this debate, we will have to examine some of the specific examples of the offending elements of Jewish liturgy.
I discussed the specific issue of prayer – the colloquial use of the term”liturgy”.; I noticed two categories of non-egalitarian prayer. The fist involves language of explicit or implicit exclusion. For example, “bessed are you…that you did not make me a woman is obviously exclusive of women. Other prayers exclude wicked people; in the amida prayer "velamalshinim" excludes heretics. An implicit exclusion would be the yekum purkan prayer which blesses “the congregation and their women and children” – implying that the women are not part of the community.
The other examples of non-egalitarian prayer do not excluded the petitioner, but somehow make the prayers inaccessible to the petitioner. "God" is most often referred to in the masculine. Or the use of the avot, the fathers and not the imahot, the mothers.
For the proponents of egalitarian liturgy, these types of passages exclude either the prayers from the individuals, or the individuals from the prayers.
Can there be a harmonious solution between the two conflicting religious imperatives? Regarding the issue of God language, I suggest that the imperative could be not to modify the language at all. According to all parties involved, God is supposed to be a non-gender. The Hebrew language lacks a gender-neutral conjugation; the masculine gender is used by default. By making a point of including feminine God language, one removes the neutral aspects of the masculine and instead emphasizes the gender. I will also theorize that this might have more of an impact on those communities who pray in English. The constant use of "Him" or "His" will have a greater impact on those who pray in Hebrew and will not be as sensitive to the masculine usage.
For the other changes, one would have to consider the nature of the prayer being modified. Of the passages mentioned, emending the yekum purkan would be the most plausible since it would have the least effect on the tradition. Few people would notice the change – assuming they know the aramaic and say all the words – and even if a community would still reject this change for themselves, they would not reject other communities who would adopt this change.5
Regarding the Amida, I cannot anticipate any substantive changes in the current siddurim. However, halakhically, it might be possible – if not preferable – to personalize the silent amida.6 The petitioner will then have the religious meaning while remaining in the halakhic tradition, and assuming the petitioner uses some discretion, s/he will not offend the social tradition.
Throughout the Jewish history, Rishonim and Achronim have reinterpreted Jewish laws to reflect the religious needs of the community.7 However, due to the fragmented nature of the Jewish community, there are rarely new religious needs which are applicable to all. It is not surprising that different communities will have different needs. Therefore, I cannot claim that there is a universal religious imperative for egalitarian prayer. I can say that it exists for certain individuals throughout all communities, and for separate communities themselves. However, so is the religious imperative of "Tradition" equally applicable across the spectrum of Judaism. When faced with this conflict, it is up to the communities to reconcile them for themselves. Each has free will to decide which imperative will take precedence. However, in the areas of conflict, both sides must realize there will be consequences – most often the ostracization of one community by another. This too is a religious imperative – and perhaps the real ethical imperative.
2. There are inequalities among men which are not addressed. E.g. the preferential treatment to the kohen.
3. Although this would mostly apply to women, there are some men who are particularly sensitive to the exclusion of women from the service. For them, egalitarianism is also a religious imperative.
4. For more examples of the evolution of prayer, see the articles and books by Dr. Joseph Tabory
5. Or at least not for this reason alone. This would be in contrast to practices like women reading from the torah, which have a more divisive effect in the Orthodox Jewish community.
6. Minimally in the blessing of shema koleinu.
7. See the collected works of Jacob Katz among many others.