Year: 2010

Lag Ba’Yuter

Thoughts and Ruminations on Turning 33

For my annual birthday post it’s hard for me not to look back to the previous year especially in accounting for a whole slew of personal issues. Far from being a “year of the heart” as I had hoped, at times I look back on 32 as being a “lost year”, at least emotionally. Perhaps I’m still feeling the effects of the breakup or the regular stressors of being a rabbi, or just good old fashioned insecurity.

Typically this isn’t the way one wants to feel on one’s birthday, but I’d like to suggest that there is an important lesson – at least for myself – in turning 33.

Baltimore/DC Rabbis’ Open Letter on Gay Marriage

In response to my podcast on the “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community”, a friend sent in a PDF of “An Open Letter to the Greater Washington Community” included below which seems to focus on opposing gay marriage.

While it may be worthwhile comparing the tone to the aforementioned Statement of Principles, it is important to address the context. First, the open letter could be responding to the issue of civil marriage which the Statement did not address, or to the religious ceremonies which the Statement also rejected.1

Also worth noting is that as of this blog posting, only R. Joel Tessler signed on to both documents – though this could also be attributed to Baltimore/DC rabbinic politics as well.

Episode 6 – Statement of Principles on Homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism

Today’s podcast covers each point in the new “Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our (i.e. Orthodox) Community”, why I signed on and why it’s necessary. As always, comments welcome below.

Episode 6 – Statement of Principles on Homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism

Links Referenced in the Podcast

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.

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

And We’re Back!

Happy to say that after a minor hiccup the move to a new host went swimmingly. We now return to our regularly scheduled blogging.

Moving Blog…Again

YUTOPIA is moving hosts, so please excuse the forthcoming hiccups in the process. If this works, we’ll be good for the next 4 years.

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)

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.”