Category: Judaism

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

Notes:

  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.




To Seek and To Find – A Devar Torah for Va’etchanan

The following was submitted as a Devar Torah to Beit Hillel‘s email list.
I first delivered the exegetical component to Washington Heights Congregation
(The Bridge Shul) in 2001. The message has been updated.

In his “Varieties of Religious Experience,” William James identifies the “sad discordancy” of religious experiences in the secular world. “But they come seldom, and they do not come to everyone; and the rest of life makes no connection with them, or tends to contradict them than it confirms them.”  This sentiment is succinctly captured by the quote, “If you speak to God, you’re religious; if he answers, you’re psychotic.”

We are no doubt familiar with the spiritual spectacle of Sinai, where the Jewish people were gathered to experience mass revelation. But for all its glory and significance, the Sinaitic revelation was essentially passive. The Jewish people might have accepted with “na’aseh venishma,” but the revelation itself was dependent entirely on God.  Witnessing such an experience, especially en masse, leaves little room for spiritual skepticism.  But since the revelation at Sinai was a one-time event, we would need some guidance of encountering God when God’s presence is less explicit, or perhaps even distant.

While Va’etchanan recounts the revelation at Sinai, it also provides a such a scenario and it solution. In the (inevitable) event the Jewish people will eventually sin by worshipping other Gods, they will be exiled and scattered among the nations of the world where we will continue in our idolatrous ways. And yet despite being immersed in this physical and spiritual exile, there is hope for reconciliation. We are told, וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת־יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּמָצָאתָ כִּי תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶׁךָ – And from there you will seek out God and you will find him; Because/If you will seek with him with all of your heart and all of your soul (Devarim 4:29).

If we pay attention to the grammar of this verse, we notice a change in number in both halves. First we are told we will seek God in the plural (וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם) but we will find God in the singular (וּמָצָאתָ) The reason being that our seeking in the plural, תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ, would have been done with all of our hearts and souls as individuals בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶׁךָ.  I believe the message is that while we may search for God as a community we can “find” God only as individuals.

As individuals, we all have our own various skills and life experiences which will ultimately determine how we relate to God, and these skills and experiences will hopefully mature during the course of our lives.  Assuming the Maimonidean premise that God is essentially unknowable, the most anyone can hope for is an incomplete understanding.  If no one can achieve complete understanding, then we are all essentially grasping at fragments, none of which can be considered “better” than the other. All that is required is a complete devotion to the exploration.

This approach is not without its challenges, the most obvious being religious relativism. However, here too we are given some direction in that we are commanded to remember that in the Sinaitic revelation we saw no image (Devarim 4:15). Setting aside theological arguments as to the corporeality of God, it is apparent that God does not wish to be worshipped as a corporeal entity. It is, essentially, an “incorrect” belief. Following this precedent I would suggest that regardless of our personal conceptions of God or God’s role in the world, our primary responsibility is obedience to God’s commandments.

But perhaps the greater challenge we face is not rampant relativism but the assuredness certitude that our conception of God is correct and complete such that we may judge others’ to be incorrect, not because of explicit verses to the contrary, but on the sole basis that it contradicts our own comprehension. Just as we are charged with seeking God for ourselves, we cannot deny that very same directive of others, even as they reach a different understanding based on their own hearts and souls.

If complete knowledge of God is unknowable, we must appreciate that even our best understanding is only fragmentary, and that it is possible others may contribute other fragments of which we may be unaware. To seek God as a collective means accepting one’s own limitations as well as the varieties of religious experiences of others, to be open to different ideas without imposing our own incomplete knowledge as the absolute truth. Perhaps by incorporating all the fragments, even the conflicting ones, will we merit to find God, both as individuals and as spiritual community.




Thoughts on the RCA’s GPS Committee Report

Following recent high-profile scandals, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) commissioned a committee to review its centralized conversion system of Geirus Policies and Standards, otherwise known as the GPS. This independent committee, “was comprised of men and women, participants in the conversion process, Dayyanim, mental health professionals, and rabbinic leaders,” whose expertise and experience were especially suited for reviewing the halakhic, social, and psychological components of the conversion process.

At its recent convention, the RCA released the final report of the committee (PDF), which deserves some attention. 1

Notes:

  1. I also highly recommend reading committee member Evelyn Fruchter’s speech delivered at the same RCA convention, available here. (PDF)




The Simple Neglected Solution to Preventing Rabbinic Scandals

After yet another Rabbinic colleague’s unrabbinic behavior makes headline news, the Jewish web once again finds itself flooded with indignation, recriminations, and general critiques of Orthodox Judaism – if not thinly veiled dissertations on the evils of religion and power. If the predictable pattern continues, in due time we will inevitably be about systemic changes which need to be made to revamp the entire religious society. This sound and fury of righteous indignation will produce little more than perpetuating already deeply held resentments, produce even less by way of substantive change, while mostly benefiting the loudest remaining survivors on the battle of the moral high ground.

I cannot speak for my Rabbinic colleagues, but each scandal (and subsequent backlash) is something I cannot help but take personally. I do not mean that I am in any way a victim, nor am I pleading for sympathy or understanding. It’s personal for me in the sense that I have spent much thought, time, energy, and effort into perfecting the craft of being a pulpit Rabbi. This comes from years of growing up in a Rabbinic household as well as a brief but intense tenure at The Stanton St. Shul. To this day I still engage with colleagues and mentors about issues and strategies, not because I have immediate expectations to return to the Rabbinate, but because I take personal pride in the professional pulpit.

With this in mind, my interest today is not to defend the Rabbinate, but to improve it. To do so I would like to revisit one of my greatest grievances of the professional Rabbiante, about which I even devoted a class years ago. Specifically, in my opinion one of the most unconscionable oversights in Rabbinic education is the complete lack of attention and concern for the halakhic ethics of Religious leadership.