Category: Judaism

Evaluating Emergencies: Thoughts on Halakhic Decisions in Response to Corona

As the world copes with the coronavirus pandemic, soceities continue to grapple with the disruptions of social distancing in order to “flatten the curve” and curtail the spread of the fatal virus. Many feel the economic impact, either through loss of income or restrictions on what supplies we can provide for ourselves or families. Some even experience psychological and physical effects from being socially isolated.

Those who belong to social religions such as Judaism face additional pressures when their sacred rituals depend on (or are enhanced by) communal participation. Many if not most minyanim worldwide have been canceled, and others have gone to great lengths in order to say kaddish for a loved one.

These challenges may be reserved for a relatively small segment of the global poulation but they can also weigh more heavily on the members of religious communties due to their importance. And just as secular governments must wrestle with the appropriate amount of emergency encroachments on norms, religious communities are no less mindful of the long-term consequences of emergency decisions. 

Achievement Unlocked: Shas Completed

Reflections on finishing the study of the entire Talmud for the first time

This part January 4, 2020 marked the official completion of 13th cycle of daf yomi. Beginning on August 3, 2012,1 I, along with thousands of others worldwide, have studied one page of Talmud a day for 2,711 days.2 With this accomplishment, I can confidently assert the following without any hint of hubris or hyperbole:

I have forgotten more Talmud than most of you will ever know.

Religious Politics and Rabbinic Recognition

Introduction: Rabbinic Identities

About a month after I started as rabbi of the Stanton St. Shul, the first internal conflict I had to resolve was over a question of rabbinic recognition. A scheduled academic speaker had been ordained by a non-Orthodox institution, and one member objected to addressing this person by the title “Rabbi” on the grounds that non-Orthodox institutions tend to disregard Jewish law.1 In the end, my psak wasn’t so much to address the speaker as “Rabbi” but to ask how she preferred to be addressed and follow whatever she said.2 Still, I felt the need to defend my position to the congregant.

The answer I gave to the congregant was something I had written about fifteen years ago when I was first starting to develop my thoughts on authority in Judaism. I applied a “Brisker” distinction between the shem or “title” of “Rabbi” and the halot or “status” of being a religious authority. Just as people might still call incompetent physicians “doctor,” they wouldn’t necessarily consult them for medical advice. I suggested the same ought to apply for the rabbinate. We could still call people by their “title” out of professional courtesy, but we would not bestow the halakhic status of consulting over religious matters or give deference to those who are unworthy.

The congregant was not impressed with my distinction, and I can understand why. The rabbinic title is supposed to imply religious authority as it has since its inception.3 While this may have been appropriate in the past, conflating the rabbinic title and status has gradually led to a religious reality is at best confusing and at worst manipulative.

Lesser-Known Reasons for Jerusalem’s Destruction

As we approach Tisha B’Av, arguably the most tragic day in Jewish history, it is common for Jews to explore the religious causes for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. After all, the hurban, was cataclysmic for the Jewish people politically and religiously as we lost both our sovereignty in becoming exiles and our Temple through which we connected with God. And if such a cataclysm was the result of transgressing particular sins, then these sins must be among the most grievous, and thus the most urgent in need of correcting.

According to the Talmud in B. Yoma 9b, the sins which caused the destruction of the First Temple were idolatry, forbidden sexual relations, and murder. The severity of these sins is well documented in Jewish law as all of them are not only capital offenses, but they are known as יהרג ואל יעבור/yeihareig v’al ya’avor – sins for which one ought to let oneself be killed rather than violate.1

Regarding the destruction of the Second Temple, the Talmud in Yoma continues that even though the Jews were engaged in Torah study, fulfilling the commandments, and performing acts of kindness, the Second Temple was destroyed because of a שנאת חינם/sin’at hinam or “baseless hatred” throughout the nation.2 This demonstrates that the sin of baseless hatred is just as severe as the sins of idolatry, sexual transgressions, and murder since all of these transgressions were responsible for the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people.

In my experience, most Jews are familiar with the reasons for the destruction given in B. Yoma 9b, and why it’s common to find much discussion over the harms of “baseless hatred”3 around this time of year.4

But the Talmud records additional reasons given for the destruction of Jerusalem which are rarely discussed. Here is a sample of some of them from B. Shabbat 119b:

Facing Moral Failings – A Brief Devar Torah for Parashat VaYeitzei

I’ve always been sensitive to hypocrisy and double-standards, particularly those along partisan lines, so the past two years have been particularly exhausting. The same people who will excoriate political opponents for certain transgressions will forgive and justify those same transgressions when it’s politically expedient. This is true of Evangelicals who support Trump or excuse or even romanticize the transgressions of those who are (or have been) political allies.

To this end, I’m reminded of a sermon I gave for Parashat VaYeitzei in 2013 on the role personal connections affect our reactions to immoral behavior.

Another Argument for Requiring Rabbis to Use the Halakhic Prenup

Right before Shabbat I shared a new resolution adopted by the Rabbinic Council of America (RCA) requiring member rabbis who officiate weddings to use a halakhic prenup, that is, a documennt designed to facilitate the giving of a get in a timely fashion in the event of a divorce. This announcement predictably evoked strong feelings (at least on my FB wall), mostly positive with some detractors.

The core idea of a halakhic prenup is not new, 1 but most are probably familiar with the halakhic prenup of the Beit Din of America (BDA) which was initially developed in 1994 and discussed on this site in greater detail in an earlier podcast and blog post.

Over the years I’ve had many conversations with people over the halakhic prenup, and I would like to share an argument made by a rabbinic colleague which I found so convincing as to remove any reservations I previously had regarding mandating the use of a halakhic prenup. 2


  1. See Dr. Rachel Levmore’s article “Rabbinic Responses in Favor of Prenuptual Agreements” (PDF)
  2. The main reason why I’m sharing this now is because it’s an argument I do not think many rabbis consider; I know I certianly did not. It’s also a noteworthy example of someone getting me to change my typically obstinate self with a compelling argument.

Justice, Politics, and the Risks of Religious Rhetoric

For various personal and ideological reasons, I have avoiding signing on to rabbinic positions or statements for several years. I recently made an exception to join over 150 Jewish leaders in signing a petition supporting the Child Victims Act (CVA) which according to its summary, “Eliminates statute of limitations in criminal and civil actions and revives civil actions for certain sex offenses committed against a child less than eighteen years of age.”

Reasons in favor of supporting this bill should be obvious and others can do so more eloquently and persuasively than I can. What I would like to address today revolves around the subsequent discussions over the potentially negative unintended consequences of this legislation, they may provide useful insights regarding religious rhetoric for political activism.

How to Disappoint People: A Lesson in Leadership

There’s a saying regarding sports coaches along the lines of, “If you’re coaching for the stands, you’ll soon be sitting with them.” The point is that while sports teams are ultimately supported by their fan base, the fan base is often wholly ignorant regarding how to coach or run a team. Passion should never be confused for competence, which means coaches who strategize based on the capricious whims of a rabid fan base will likely be unsuccessful in performing the job for which they were hired.

I believe that anyone who serves in a leadership capacity will inevitably disappoint someone among the people the leaders is supposed to be serving. I do not only means in terms of making the same sort of mistakes all humans do, but leadership requires making decisions and as Alfred Einstein said, “What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.” But while decision making is an obvious component of leadership, an equally important yet often ignored requirement of leadership is managing the consequences of those decisions. How does a leader make difficult decisions without fomenting partisanship or resentment?

One common approach is “damage control,” which focuses on the fallout after the fact. Depending on the situation and individuals, leaders may attempt to mollify the disappointed or the leader can ignore them entirely focusing exclusively on the new direction, or even use the opportunity to purge the constituency of malcontents. Other tactics are preventative, taking place during or even before the decision-making process. For example, leaders can solicit input or incorporate representative interests along the way, such that the ultimate decision is formed by consensus.

All strategies have one crucial element in common: the rejection of an idea does not imply the rejection of a person.

I found in my own experience as a pulpit rabbi that individuals were more tolerant of disagreements when there was a personal relationship beyond any specific issue. Regular normal interactions reinforced the idea the rabbi and the community cared about the individual for who they were. When a sincere relationship is developed and maintained over time, the inevitable disappointments of decisions, while unpleasant, do not have to create resentments, divisions, or schisms. Any subsequent efforts to achieve equanimity would therefore not be “strategies” for keeping the peace, as much as simply demonstrating care for someone else’s well-being.

Pleasing everyone all of the time is an impossible task which good leaders would not even try to attempt, but the better leaders will know how to preempt most dissonance and discord through the regular maintenance of individual relationships. Of course, demonstrating genuine concern requires regular commitment and effort sustained over time. Those leaders who are unwilling or unable to accept this responsibility do no service by remaining in leadership positions for which they lack a crucial qualification.

While coaches do not have to satisfy the fanbase’s expectations, they also cannot hold the fans in contempt. This is in part why coaches speak to the media on a regular basis, explaining their decisions even after a tough and disappointing loss. Coaches who ignore the fanbase entirely, find themselves in the stands along with those who tried to appeal to their every whim.

Unpopular coaches can be run out of town while well-loved coaches can survive losing seasons. Similarly, leaders who continuously demonstrate they care about their constituents will have more latitude for disappointment than those who maintain a relationship of detachment.

Intellectualism vs. Spiritualism, and the Accusation of Arrogance

Some friends of mine found it odd when I moved to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot, at least in terms of fitting into the Jewish community. Nachlaot is known for being a “hippie”-ish type of community, and while like attracts like, I’m, to put it bluntly, not a hippie. This past Shabbat the tension of contradictory outlooks became apparent.

At the synagogue I attended on Friday night, the Rabbi in his discourse on unity in divine thought which involved gematrias and letter meditations, included a critique of intellectualism. Specifically, the Rabbi called reliance on the intellect “arrogant” and even “egotistical.” Later that evening, one of the people with whom I had Shabbat dinner described the intellectualism as inferior to the “higher level” of experiential spiritualism because whereas human beings are limited in their intellectual capabilities, our capacity for spiritualism is apparently infinite.

I’m generally more tolerant of laypeople dutifully repeating what they’ve heard from their teacher than the teachers who disseminate those ideas in the first place, but in any event I had neither the energy nor inclination to engage in what would most assuredly be a fruitless argument with people who clearly hold a different religious tradition. My point here is less about a disagreement than the antipathy if not outright rejection of intellectualism, particularly in light of the dual critiques against it.

As I understand the term, “intellectualism” would refer to attempts to reach the divine through the intellect, mostly through contemplating sacred canonical texts such as the Torah through the prism of the Rabbinic interpretive tradition. This approach in indeed limiting in at least two obvious ways. The first being that people are endowed with differing intellectual capabilities, and the second being that the texts being studied may not incorporate the totality of metaphysical truth, especially when texts may contradict each other.

Someone who follows this path honestly would embrace the uncertainty, recognizing that there are some things one simply cannot know. For example, when I teach the subject of Olam Haba (The World To Come), I begin with three sources in which the Sages acknowledge the lack of a definitive tradition. In fact one of the marks of a “Wise Man” is someone who admits when he has no tradition on a subject (Avot 5:10).

I would further suggest that the arrogance arises when one decides to speak definitively on God’s behalf, but this sort of arrogance may manifest independently of one’s tradition. After all, those who emphasize experiential spiritualism presume that their personal religious experience is in fact an actual connection with the Divine, or that the metaphysical teachings they have studied are both accurate and authentic. The “higher level” discussed may appeal to one’s emotions, but could simply reflect one of the many varieties of religious experiences encountered by people across the world.

The major difference I can discern between the two approaches is accountability. In the intellectual realm, claims must be supported by data which can then be evaluated. If I claim the Bible says something, I must provide the chapter and verse if challenged to produce my source. But not only is there no such accountability for mystical or experiential claims, the rejection of intellectualism precludes even questioning them. One can no longer ask, “how do you know?” but instead must accept the metaphysical claims Q.E.D.

If we assume God is infinitely unknowable, then the best we can do is share our conceptions of God in the present and how we have come to this point in our development. We can share teachings we have heard and explain why they resonate with us. We can also share our preferences without portraying them as the definitive dogma of Judaism.

An Actual Conversation Re: Women Dancing With a Torah on Simhat Torah

Arguments over women dancing with a Sefer Torah on Simhat Torah are by no means new. I had one memorable exchange way back in 2002 when I was doing my rabbinic internship at The Bridge Shul in Washington Heights. The Orthodox communal landscape of Washington Heights was much different back then; Mt. Sinai was not the automatic “go to” place for the prized young people and Simhat Torah was considered at that time to be a possible litmus test for attracting the younger demographic, and by extension, ensuring communal viability for the future.

Because I was just an intern, the responsibility of setting synagogue policy was well out of my hands, but as an intern I still had to field questions from people in the community.

One friend, a vocal feminist who knew how I operate halakhically, came up to me challenging, “Where in the Gemara does it say that women can’t dance with a Sefer Torah on Simhat Torah?”

To which I replied, “בבלי ביצה ל:א אין מטפחין ואין מספקין ואין מרקדין” – according to Jewish law, no one is allowed to dance with a Sefer Torah because dancing on Yom Tov is a rabbinic prohibition.

“But we don’t pasken like that Gemara!”

‘You just asked me for a Gemara, and there you have it.”

It was obviously a short conversation, but there is an obvious point to be made here about halakhic methodology and ideological consistency, both for those who wish to go back to the Gemara and for those who believe Halakhah (capital ה) can and should evolve, but only in the manner of their choosing.