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The Meaning of “Bashert” in Rabbinic Judaism and its Implications

YUTOPIA's 10 Year Anniversary SpecialIntroduction 1

In colloquial Jewish vernacular, the description “bashert” essentially means “from God” or the consequence of divine intervention. When someone refers to an event as “bashert,” he is asserting that the invisible Hand of God was intimately involved in its fruition. This is usually due to the improbably circumstances surrounding the event, or its heretofore unappreciated fortuitous outcome. Bashert is perhaps most used in the context of dating and marriage, where the divine intervention refers to the finding, or even the preordained selection, of one’s spouse. Thus the word “bashert” has become synonymous with “soul mate,” the person whom one was divinely ordained to marry.

The primary source for the Jewish idea of a soul mate is the statement by R. Yehuda in the name of Rav in B. Sotah 2a:

א”ר שמואל בר רב יצחק: כי הוה פתח ריש לקיש בסוטה, אמר הכי: אין מזווגין לו לאדם אשה אלא לפי מעשיו, שנא’: +תהלים קכה+ כי לא ינוח שבט הרשע על גורל הצדיקים. אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר ר’ יוחנן: וקשין לזווגן כקריעת ים סוף, שנאמר: +תהלים סח+ אלהים מושיב יחידים ביתה מוציא אסירים בכושרות. איני? והא אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: ארבעים יום קודם יצירת הולד, בת קול יוצאת ואומרת: בת פלוני לפלוני בית פלוני לפלוני שדה פלוני לפלוני! לא קשיא: הא בזוג ראשון, הא בזוג שני.

R. Samuel b. R. Isaac said: When Resh Lakish began to expound [the subject of] Sotah, he spoke thus: They only pair a woman with a man according to his deeds; as it is said: For the sceptre of wickedness shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous (Ps. 125:3). Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Johanan: It is as difficult to pair them as was the division of the Red Sea; as it is said: God setteth the solitary in families: He bringeth out the prisoners into prosperity (Ps. 68:7)! But it is not so; Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: Forty days before the formation of a child, a heavenly voice issues forth and proclaims, The daughter of this person is for that person; the house of this person is for that person; the field of this person is for that person! — There is no contradiction, the latter dictum referring to a first marriage and the former to a second marriage.[Emphasis added]

Although the idea of divinely matched soul mate is certainly romantic, it does pose significant theological problems especially in the aftermath of divorce or abusive relationships. Perhaps the most significant theological challenge to the preordained bashert is the denial of one’s free will. In fact this definition of bashert is explicitly rejected by Maimonides on these very grounds in his Shemoneh Perakim Chapter 8.

שמונה פרקים לרמב”ם פרק ח
אבל הלשון הנמצא לחכמים, והוא אומרם: “הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים” – הרי הוא אמת, ומכוון אל מה שזכרנו, אלא שהרבה יטעו בו בני אדם, ויחשבו בקצת מעשי האדם הבחיריים – שהוא מוכרח עליהם, כגון הזיווג לפלונית, או היות זה הממון בידו. וזה אינו אמת, כי זאת האשה, אם היתה לקיחתה בכתובה וקידושין, והיא מותרת, ונשאה לפריה ורביה – הרי זו מצוה, וה’ לא יגזור בעשיית מצוה; ואם היה בנשואיה פגם – הרי היא עבירה, וה’ לא יגזור בעבירה.

[There is no contradiction to this from the following] statement of our Sages: “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” 2 This statement is true and conforms to the conceptual framework that we have explained. Nevertheless, many people err with regard to it and imagine that a person is fated with regard to many of the matters in which he is given free choice: e.g., whether he will marry a particular woman or acquire a sum of money through theft.

This is absolutely not true. For if a person marries a woman, granting her a marriage contract and performing the rites of kiddushin, he is performing a mitzvah, 3 and God does not decree that we will perform any mitzvot. Should the marriage be forbidden, [entering into it] is a sin, and God does not decree that we will perform any sins. 4

Given the theological difficulties inherent in the classical definition of “bashert,” and based on numerous alternative contradictory sources in Rabbinic literature, I will propose a radical reinterpretation of the passage in B. Sotah 2a and redefine the Talmudic approach to bashert. Those who are personally committed to believing in a Jewish concept of a soul mate should minimally interpret this essay as an explanation for Maimonides who does seem to contradict an explicit Talmudic passage. 5 Otherwise, I hope to offer an approach which best represents the myriad of opinions found in the Rabbinic sources, and thus provide a more accurate and defensible portrayal of the compelte Rabbinic tradition.

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Notes:

  1. The following essay was initially prepared and presented in honor of the Auf Ruf of my friend, chavruta, and world-class educator Rabbi Mordy Friedman at the Hotel Paradise (now Leonardo) in Be’er Sheva in June 2002. But this study is also meaningful to me for other personal reasons. One of my greatest resentments in popular Judaism is the pervasive tendency among laity and Rabbis to cite one passage – in or out of context – as the singular opinion on a theological issue, often to the exclusion of all other conflicting sources. Even the specific corpus of Rabbinic literature is so vast that it is rare that one singular text may be honestly presented as exemplary of the entire body of work. Utilizing the academic methodologies I studied under Dr. Yaakov Elman in Revel and inspired by having finished reading Ephraim Urbach’s The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs cover to cover, I began compiling a series of classes in Rabbinic Thought and Theology or Machshevet Hazal. This essay on bashert was my first foray into my endeavor to prove that Torah does not necessitate obedience to a mono-dogmatic religion, while also attempting to dispell a popular, though possibly debilitating, theological myth.

    While I have given this essay as a class on multiple occasions, I had refrained from publishing it in essay form, preferring to wait until the event of my own engagement. Given the uncertainty of when that may actually occur (as an aside, any comments referring to my personal dating status will summarily be deleted) I decided that now would be as good of an alternative occasion as any being part of YUTOPIA’s 10th Anniversary and Tu B’Av.

  2. B. Berachot 32b, B. Megillah 25a, B. Niddah 16b
  3. See Hilkhot Ishut 1:2
  4. Translation by R. Eliyahu Touger p. 48
  5. Although there is no requirement to accept all aggadic statements as literal fact, it is unusual to reject a Talmudic passage so definitively.
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Ep. 106 Current Jewish Questions 26 – Music in Judaism

In this podcast Rabbi Yuter explores sources discussing how music may empower or degrade authentic Jewish practice and spirituality. Includes bonus discussion on kol isha

Current Jewish Questions 26 – Music in Judaism Sources (PDF)

Current Jewish Questions 26 – Music in Judaism

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Ep. 74 Rabbinic Thought and Theology 6 – Mazal

Everyone knows the exclamation “Mazal Tov!” but the definition and role of the “mazal” in rabbinic thought is itself presents a fascinating range of perspectives of how God’s world operates.

Rabbinic Thought And Theology – Mazal Sources (PDF)

Rabbinic Thought And Theology – Mazal

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The Statistics of Shidduchim – A Case Study In Futility

One man among a thousand I found,
but a woman among all these I have not found. (Kohelet 7:28)

 

There was a time on this website I used to write about my dating life, which as it turns out I haven’t really done since 2006. I think I’ve avoided doing so for a number of reasons, the main ones being my being in a long-term relationship (since ended) and now a relatively public figure as a pulpit rabbi. However, in two days time I will taking a significant step in the dating process by leaving the popular dating site Saw You At Sinai1 (SYAS) as a paying customer.

For those unfamiliar, SYAS is essentially an online implementation of the blind shidduch / matchmaking dating system. Users create profiles, but instead of searching for other singles users choose matchmakers who do the searching and suggesting for them. Some prefer this method to avoid being contacted directly by creeps, having a reliable person vet out the weirdos, or less cynically prefer to have a mutual acquaintance look out for the interests of both parties. The obvious limitation is that a user’s options are entirely dependant on the judgement of the matchmaker.

As of this posting, SYAS boasts 595 matches made and there are of course hundreds if not thousands of Jewish couples who continue to meet through the shidduch system. However, despite empty platitudes of encouragement, it is obvious that this system does not work for everyone, and I would place myself in this category. Thanks to the records of my SYAS account, I will prove mathematically just how ineffective and futile blind shidduch dating can be.

In the SYAS system, a matchmaker suggests a match which is then sent to either the man first, the women first, or both simultaneously (to avoid deadlocks the women make this decision in their preferences). Once a match is sent either party then “approves” or “declines” a match accordingly. If both parties approve, contact information is released and it is expected that they’ll call and arrange a date. Simple enough.

Now let’s start with my numbers. The first recorded match I have is in 2004 at which point I was still living in Chicago. That gives us about 7 years to work with, minus 2.5 years during which time I suspended my account while in a serious relationship. Here are the stats:

  • 711 suggested matches
  • 152 of which I accepted
  • Yielding 28 first dates
  • And zero (0) meaningful serious relationships

Breaking down these numbers, I approved approximately 21.37% of all suggestions and of those women whom I approved only 18.24% reciprocated. Out of all 711 total suggestions, only 3.93% resulted in an actual first date. As pathetic as these numbers are, they don’t even tell the full story. In the event a woman chose to receive the suggestion first, it would not necessarily appear in my list and thus I could be under counting just now many times I’ve been declined.

One could look at these numbers and say that I’m too selective even though my percentage of approving women at 21.37% is greater than the 18.24% reciprocity. From my experience, here are the main reasons why I declined matches:

  • Already Friends / Dated – I don’t have an inherent objection to dating people I already know, but I can tell if I’m not interested. If I’ve already dated someone, no point in trying again unless there’s a good reason. On the plus side, it does give me a sense if the matchmaker is on the right track.
  •  

  • Too Far / Distance – I’ve never done well with long distance relationships, and since becoming a rabbi I have neither the time nor money to travel. Despite saying this explicitly in my profile I’ve gotten many suggestions for people who live outside of my stated geographic range. (The most inexplicable one was London). A bad sign since it clearly indicates the matchmaker ignored what I had to say.
  •  

  • Personality – This is a little more complicated to quantify. As I discussed in my guide to online Jewish dating, writing profiles can be tricky. More often than not, women on SYAS write horribly generic statements which tell me nothing about themselves such that I have no idea how this person would match the personality for whom I am looking.2Even off the site I’ve found that many people find it difficult to answer the simple question, “how is she what I’m looking for and vice versa?” Just recently a good friend was pushing me to date a mutual friend of hers, however she was at a complete loss at how to describe her beyond the generic, “nice, sweet, pretty” bromides. Following what I’ve said years ago, I will only invest time, energy, and money into people whom I want to date. Meaning, there has to be a good reason for me to go out with this person as opposed to me justifying my reluctance.

I’d also add that I’ve periodically gone outside my range just for the sake of not being too obstinate, though the results have been the same.

Then of course is the actual date itself. In my experience, absolutely zero (0) blind shidduch date in any media has ever produced a meaningful serious relationship (though a few have resulted in good friendships). There are probably a whole slew of personal reasons for this, some of which I’ve explored at length elsewhere on this site. Both of the serious relationships I’ve had have come from meeting people in normal, if not optimal social settings.3

Has shidduch dating worked for some people? Absolutely. However, to insist that people continue to operate within the confines of a system which has clearly failed them is, as Einstein would put it, “insane.” One person is not a statistically significant sample, but I doubt my experience in the blind shidduch world is unique.

While I’m not quite giving up on dating, I am acknowledging based on the empirical evidence that this method is not working for me and it would thus be foolish to continue actively pursuing blind shidduch dates, let alone paying for the privilege. Since I started dating I would not be surprised if I have received at least 1,000 total dating suggestions; but like Kohelet, I have not found even one.

As Kohelet might say in this case, this is a time to move on.


1. The site’s name itself is sort of an inside Jewish joke, referring to Midrashic statements that all Jewish souls were present at the reveleation on Mt. Sinai. See for example B. Shabbat 146a.
2. To be sure, not everyone can express themselves verbally, but as I wrote in the guide to online Jewish dating, if you cannot get your personality across in a profile, don’t choose this medium since your profile is all someone has on which to rely. Additionally, it is possible to write good profiles; compare for example random ones found on Ok Cupid with any of the exclusively Jewish sites.
3. One at the first Edah conference, the other at a Shabbat meal in Washington Heights.

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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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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 , .

Conservative Judaism and Homosexuality: Understanding the New Debate

A few weeks ago I received the relieving news that my master’s thesis from the University of Chicago finally passed after several years and several attempts. The approved version was actually a draft and needed some degree of editing for typos, grammar, and a few structural changes. After mulling it over for a while and getting some positive feedback I’ve decided to post the thesis here with a few explanations.

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Posted in Articles, Papers, and Publications, Jewish Law / Halakha, Jewish Thought, Theology, and Machshava. Tagged with , , , , , .

Frumster Rant

Normally I’m better tempered than this; it takes a lot to get me annoyed enough to blog. However, in one day I’ve gotten messages from Frumster people who probably should….well you can decide what to do with them.

Person 1 (intentially leaving out their screen name) messages me with a “Hey – What’s up?” I was planning on ignoring it until somone who will remain nameless for now said that it’s hard for girls to be so forthcoming. So I politely responded. Then I get the generic message that she read my profile and doesn’t think we’re compatible. Meredith suggested that she could be a “Frumster Spammer” which I suppose is possibly, but unless she’s a hacker, she’d still have to look at my profile before sending a message. “What’s up” indeed.

Person 2 lives in England, doesn’t want to make aliyah, and isn’t even sure if she wants to relocate. She simply said, “Hey Josh, I likeyou rprofiel!!!” (sic). Best I could respond was “Thanks!” Then she e-mailed me asking if I’d consider living in London. For the record, I never want to be accused again of moving to fast.

Look, there are obvious problems with the dating world which have been explored at length elsewhere. Grayson Levy starts up a great free website to help people out, and yet people still can’t take the time to use it properly – or perhaps they’re just illiterate or confused by the color scheme.

My suggestion: A programmer with sufficient free time on his/her hands should implement an “Intelligence Factor” based on typos in a person’s comments and e-mails which would help weed out some people. Downside would be the increased odds of such people hooking up and eventually breeding….

Never mind.

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