Category: Jewish Culture

The Jewish Wedding Checklist

As word gets around of my proficiency and legality in performing weddings I’ve been getting more questions about the laws of weddings and keeping track of everything which is required. I complied a checklist for the first wedding I officiated and I’ve already needed to forward much of the contents a few times to other people asking similar questions. So once again as a combination of personal convenience and public service, I give to you the Jewish Wedding Checklist.
I’m going to assume that you have the big things like a wedding date, a hall, F.L.O.P.1 (or F.L.O.P.S2 as the case may be) taken care of and I’m going to focus on the aspects relating to the actual marriage ceremony. Note that some of the things will be taken care of by the mesader kiddushin or the caterer/wedding hall. While this should be useful in preparing for the ceremony and knowing what to expect, all halakhic matters should be discussed with your mesader kiddushin.

Backstage At A Bat Mitzvah

You might remember the post we did a while back on extravegant Bat Mitzvahs. Today’s Fark links to a cameramen’s detailed account of the $10 Million Bat Mitzvah held at New York’s Rainbow Room last November. Quoth the cameraman:

This wasn’t a concert in a restaurant. This was a f—–g arena show tucked into a closet. This was overkill. This was excessive. This was a rich man’s fantasy concert, not a Bat Mitzvah.

Hard to argue with the assessment given the entertainment:

  • Eagles Don Henley and Joe Walsh
  • Stevie Nicks
  • 50 Cent
  • Tom Petty
  • Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry

I can’t imagine what her wedding will be like, but if it’s also going to be in NYC, I’m available.

Review of R. Schachter’s Recent “Kuntres”

Despite the expectation from its title, Rabbi Herschel Schachter’s recent Beit Yitzchak article “Kuntres B’Inyanei Pesak Halakha” (PDF) does not articulate a system or method of deciding and applying Jewish law. Instead of outlining his views of how pesak works, the article is nearly entirely comprised of sources and anecdotes illustrating the dangers of blindly following observed practices even when they have been approved or enacted by rabbinic authorities. For example in some cases a rabbi could be responding to extenuating circumstances and in a different situation could pasken differently. It is also possible (if not likely) that a person will simply misunderstand or misinterpret the given pesak and thus not be competent to apply that pesak to other cases.

We’ve discussed these concerns in our Perils of Pesak from the perspective of the posek in terms of taking care in formulating responses. Here, R. Schachter passively argues that there is a corresponding responsibility on the recipient or observer of the pesak. Specifically, while non-gedolim are expected to follow the “hachmei ha-mesorah,” the typical Jew is not allowed to apply that pesak or observed practice to other situations since it is likely that a “ba’al ha-bayit” will be missing crucial information or intellectual sophistication to process and apply a gadol‘s pesak on his own.

By itself, this is a completely reasonable position considering how often people misunderstand or misquote Rabbis, but it does raise the question of what should be done. To answer this questions, R. Schachter tacitly argues for an additional level in a rabbinic hierarchy. Towards the conclusion of the first paragraph, R. Schachter refers to Rabba’s statement in (B. Avoda Zara 5b (English) that a person “does not stand/rely on the thoughts of his teacher until after forty years,” meaning it takes forty years to truly understand the methods of one’s teacher. This citation reveals the intention in the article’s first sentence, in which R. Schachter’s refers to his education with R. Soloveitchik “more than forty years ago.” Taking the Talmudic citation and the introductory statement together, R. Schachter establishes himself as one of the few genuine and authoritative interpreters of R. Soloveitchik.1

R. Schachter has previously argued for a restrictive model of halakhic discourse in which only certain individuals are entitled to an opinion. See for example his comments on Yom Tov Sheni:2

If one is a then he is entitled and indeed obligated to research each and every halakhic issue and to follow his own personal view on any matter. But, if one is not higia lehoraah (as the overwhelming majority of people who learned in yeshiva would be classified) then one may not pick and chose arbitrarily from amongst the various opinions of the poskim.

However, R. Schachter does not define exactly who is higi’ah l’hora’ah or how one achieves this status.3 From Kuntres, it is possible he is distinguishing higi’ah l’hora’ah with ba’al mesorah, where one can decide for himself but cannot speak for others, or if the two are in fact synonymous. In either case, pesak must only be made by approved people, but only those with the requisite experience may speak on behalf of the gedolim. I would suggest that for R. Schachter the two must work in tandem, since otherwise anyone who was in the Rav’s shiur 40 years ago would have equal standing for interpreting R. Soloveitchik – a common perception considering how many people claim to speak for R. Soloveitchik.

Practically speaking, R. Schachter’s suggestion further restricts the possibility of personal autonomy in following halakha. Only certain people allowed to go back to the original sources, and everyone else must ask them for halakhic decisions. However, even though one may have a pesak for one case, or observes how someone paskened in another case, one still should not repeat the pesak in other instances, but ostensibly should once again ask for another pesak. In other words, the solution to people not being able to follow the gadol system correctly, is to have an intermediary to explain and apply the gadol’s pesak for us.

While I can understand the pragmatic need for such a position, I think this is ultimately unhelpful since adding the additional rabbinic level simply creates another person to be misunderstood. If there is a risk of misapplying the pesak of a gadol, there is an equal risk of misapplying or misunderstanding the pesak of his student. Furthermore, we would also have to assume that the student does not have an agenda of his own or a desire to see his Rebbe portrayed in a certain light. Again using R. Soloveitchik as an example, there are numerous Rabbis trying to re-create R. Soloveitchik in their own image which requires ignoring or rationalizing certain decisions or behaviors of the Rav which are inconsistent with the student’s perception. For example, one Rabbi remarked at R. Soloveitchik’s funeral that he never saw the Rav reading a secular book. While this may be entirely true, the implication is misleading. Or for another example, despite R. Soloveitchik’s vehement stance against mixed seating, he allowed an uncle of mine to take a non-mehitza pulpit. When I mentioned this to one YU Rosh Yeshiva, the response was, “it couldn’t be – he must have misunderstood.” I cannot comment on who is right here, but the problem is the same regardless. If the gadol is widely accepted (or expected to be accepted), then of course there will be more of a desire to interpret his positions in a particular way to coincide with a student’s own hashkafa.

It would seem to me that the cause of such misapplications of halakha is the very lack of perceived autonomy in the “gadol system” of halakha. We have trained people to simply follow the gedolim, and that is exactly what people are doing. If the problem is that people do not know what they are doing in following the gedolim, then perhaps education in the halakhic nuances of pesak would be a more effective long-term solution.4

1. And by constantly referring to R. Soloveitchik as our teacher (rabbeinu), R. Schachter implies that this authority is sweeping.
2. Hat tip to Shaya for the link.
3. Though it’s clear that he does not consider most smikhas to be sufficient.
4. Or we could change the system, but that is not likely to happen anytime soon.

Adieu To Edah

Nine years ago Edah entered into the Modern Orthodox world with much fanfare and controversy. Touting the slogan “The Courage to be Modern and Orthodox,” Edah seemed poised to combat the perception of Orthodoxy moving increasingly “towards the right” with Yeshiva University leading the way.1 Those against Edah likened them to Korach or Conservative Judaism in breaking away from “the tradition.” Edah’s supporters felt they finally had a voice within the often stifling Orthodox world and optimism for effecting actual changes in their communities. The dissension was so great that there were even rumblings of a formal schism within Orthodoxy. Regardless of how one considered Edah, there was a near universal feeling that Edah was going to be significant.

Nine years later, we have the ingenious revelation that Edah is closing down its operations. For the past few years it seemed evident that Edah as an organization had been in a gradual decline. The initial lavish conventions held in eventually became glorified yimei iyyiun at the Skirball center. Aside from producing a consistently solid journal, Edah had been relatively quiet in terms of its programming and contributions in the Modern Orthodox world.
Considering all the hype which has followed Edah, its inconspicuous closing seems anticlimactic though not altogether unexpected. Today on YUTOPIA, we take a brief look back at our experiences with Edah and offer our take of what once the most controversial organization in Modern Orthodoxy.

Raising The Bar (Mitzvah)

A new Miramax film Keeping Up With The Steins explores the increasingly ostentatious world of Jewish celebrations. From what I can pick up from the trailer, the Adam Fiedler (Jeremy Piven) becomes obsessed with planning his son’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah after his neighbor Arnie Stein (Larry Miller) throws a lavish Titanic themed Bar Mitzvah for his son (“I’m king of the Torah!”). Being the good competitive suburban neighbor Fiedler goes all out to make sure his son has the best Bar Mitzvah available no matter what the cost (the trailer mentioned $500,000).
Unfortunately, this appears to be a case of art imitating life as these sorts of lavish events are gradually gaining in popularity and expense. Ostentatious Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations have become so prevalent that they are being covered by mainstream medea. CNN recently covered a $200,000 Bat Mitzvah held at the famous Hammerstein Ballroom, and an eerily prescient Miriam Shaviv blogged about a ?4m Bar Mitzvah.
The tendency to overspend on simchas is not limited to the uber-rich. Even in the more accessible “upper middle class,” simcha spending is skyrocketing to the point where R. Haskel Lookstein of the Upper East Side’s Congregation Kehilath Jerushurun tried instituting a policy where every dollar spent on an affair would be matched by a dollar to charity. Either events would become more reasonable or there would be a social if not religious value to the conspicuous consumption.
The obvious reason for such spending is competition and/or just showing off wealth, but at this point I think we’ve all given up on this ever changing. But there has been some discussion as to the declining significance of the Bar Mitzvah such that it turned into just another party.
Slate’s Emily Bazelon blames the fixed and forced nature of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Kids don’t choose to become Bar/Bat Mitzvah but are rather just another burden the parents are putting on them. They don’t embrace Judaism as much as they have extra homework for which they get paid handsomely for completing. Instead, Bazelon suggests a floating date for Bar/Bat Mitzvah such that the child can approach Judaism on his/her own terms and actually appreciate its significance.
Miraim rejects Bazelon’s arguments on the grounds that it is the parent’s responsibility to impart Judaism’s spiritual significance.

    If the parents, even the most secular among them, shifted the focus away from the $8m. party and onto study, meaning, community, history, etc., the kids would get a lot more out of it. Unfortunately, the parents are too materialistic, too unfamiliar with Judaism, and too divorced from spirituality…By suggesting that people drop the Bar Mitzvah ceremony instead of taking responsibility for it, the author, Emily Bazelon, is simply too accepting of our society’s faults.

Miriam also finds value in leaving the age exactly where it is:

    Unfortunately, we live in a culture where people in too many cases never grow up and where the line between child and adult remains forever blurred. I think it’s positive that in our Jewish culture there’s still some kind of formal statement that kids are expected to mature, and what better age to make this clear than 13.

While I think there is merit in all these arguments I also find that they miss the point. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration is by all accounts a relatively modern innovation. At best, it is a glorified se’udat mitzvah celebrating a change in religious status. But at its core, he Bar Mitzvah is not a rite-of-passage into adulthood, but a halakhic classification. It happens regardless of how well the child reads from the Torah or how many dancers get down on floor.
This is not to say that the modern day treatments of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah have not been beneficial. For many kids, it is the primary if not only regular Jewish education they will receive – especially in the more liberal denominations. True, many may not appreciate Judaism at the time, but one could give the same argument for teaching teenagers anything. By the time these kids are old enough to appreciate their studies, it is likely they’d have already lost most of their Jewish identity already. Learning about the prayer service, Jewish history, or whatever gets taught at these things does help foster Jewish identity.
But the cost of such contemporization is that the very celebration itself has become compromised. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah stopped being a primarilly religious affair some time ago and has instead become more of a social or cultural event.1 It isn’t forced because the religion demands it, but because that’s what the community expects. The fact that Bazelon entertains the hypothesis that the age should be moved simply stresses just how far the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is removed from the original religious meaning towards the anthropological liminal rituals. If anything, the reckless spending of the nouveau riche is simply indicative as to where the society currently stands vis-a-vis the religion.
Let me be clear that I am not opposing nice simchas, and while I do think people get far too worked up over details, people understandably want their special occaisons to go a certain way. Rather, my issue is with worshipping wealth in the name of God. Miriam is correct that we need to take responsibility for our rituals and our Jewish culture. It probably goes far beyond better Bar Mitzvah lessons, but I suppose we have to start somewhere.
Then maybe we could at least have more hope for the future generations.

Rob From The Rich, Give To The Shul

Jack Abramoff is about to be sentenced for that whole messy lobbyist scandal thing. Not surprisingly, here comes the support from the rabbi:

    The former Republican superlobbyist may have fleeced clients such as Indian tribes of millions of dollars, but Abramoff often donated half or more his income each year to charities and community projects, religious leaders told the court.
    Abramoff was “driven in a material world yet sought to find some balance and channel his considerable energy and creativity for a more noble purpose,” Rabbi Kalman Winter wrote U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck, who will sentence the lobbyist in the Florida case.

Ignoring for a moment the laws of mitzvah haba’ah b’aveira (fulfilling a commandment through a sin), I am wondering exactly what type of message this sends and what is really the appropriate “Jewish” response. Mr. Abramoff committed several felonies which challenged the very fabric of our legislative system, but then again the man isn’t completely evil and isn’t motivated entirely by avarice as evidenced by his numerous “good deeds.”
This case is actually a very good example of a much larger problem in Modern Jewish Ethics. When previously respectable people have their transgressions publicized, it is not uncommon to hear the “but he did so much good” defense to somehow mitigate the offense. In its most extreme form, the “good deed” defense can actually lead people to overlook or even deny the offense itself. For one extreme example, see the case of Baruch Lanner where his devoted followers ignored even the most damming of evidence to support their leader.
Naturally, our perspectives of the ethics involved would be different if we knew the people involved. It’s quite possible that if we met Mr. Abramoff in shul he would be cordial and maybe invite us for lunch. If we have known someone well for a longer period of time, and we have found that in that time this person has always acted with integrity, we would be disinclined to believe accusations which challenged our empirically reinforced perceptions.
But when our friends or acquaintances fall from grace, what should the reaction be? Paraphrasing Shel Silvertein’s poem The Zebra, are they good people with bad traits or bad people with good traits?
I suggest that the good and bad need not be contradictory, but rather necessary parts of a person. Kohelet 7:20 says that no one is entirely righteous such that he will not ever sin – i.e. no one is perfect. As such we would need to evaluate what was done (assuming it can be proven) and remember that even good people can make significant mistakes. It is unfair and unethical to simply characterize people as being entirely good or entirely evil since no one can live up to those standards.
But we must also remember that consideration for good deeds does not necessarily exempt someone from facing the consequences of his/her actions. To his credit, R. Winter is not asking for exoneration, but clemency in the form of a lenient sentence. I have not read the letter in its entirety, but it’s likely R. Winter explains Abramoff’s actions without actually justifying them. This difference is crucial in that the good and the bad are taken as a unit in a complete context as opposed to the simple dichotomies which many of us prefer.
Mr. Abramoff’s role in developing Red Scorpion or Red Scorpion 2 is a separate matter entirely…
UPDATE: The sentence was just announced at 5 years, 10 months, but that could be reduced pending cooperation in other cases.

Roughs In the Diamonds

There’s a great article in the L.A. Times about a diamond deal gone bad. What makes this so fascinating is that the diamond industry is one of the few which relies primarily on trust and where “word is bond.” Normally such scandals are rare since as the article notes, even the mere filing of lawsuits is enough to tarnish one’s reputation. I’m curious if the increase of globalization will turn the diamond trade into just another business.
For those with Lexis-Nexis or good Library access, I highly recommend the authoritative academic study by U of C law professor (and really cool person) Lisa Bernstein, “Opting Out of the Legal System: Extralegal Contractual Relations in the Diamond Industry,” 21 Journal of Legal Studies 115 (1992).

Chag Hasemikha Wrap-Up

To answer the question that’s been on everyone’s mind, I did not get hammered at Sunday’s Chag Hasemikha (although I probably could have were I keeping score). For the most part, everything went off as expected between the camaraderie, mixed emotions, and a really long ceremony.

For more of a play-by-play of the Chag Hasemikha, see Avraham’s comprehensive write-up of the details. Sadly, I wasn’t taking notes during the day so my recollections will be a bit fuzzier and stream-of-consciousnessy, but you’re free to check out the upcoming re-webcast.

The preliminary meet and greet turned into several mini-reunions from different chevras of shiur, Revel, Gruss, or the denizens of the 5th floor. Not surprisingly, the snark was fast and furious. The best line of the day goes to Rabbi Ben Skydel’s heter allowing the black-hatters to remove their haberdashery for the group photo on the grounds of sha’at ha-shemad. Nicely done.

But while there are many more humorously snide comments I could add – I even got in a whole slew of – IY’H By You’s – I believe I’ve already fulfilled my quota for sarcasm. Also to be truthful, the Chag Hasemikha is indeed a significant event, and perhaps the closest YU comes to having its own “State of the Yeshiva.” I don’t have the time now to get into the details, so I just share some personal reflections.

As expected, the speeches and presentations covered all the themes you’d expect from a YU Chag Hasemihka: the contributions of YU, the legacy of R. Soloveitchik, and of course the importance and challenges of being a Rabbi. R. Charlop’s honor was well deserved, and I’m still bewildered at the Marcos Katz receiving the “Etz Chaim” award. Yes he deserves recognition for his generosity and support, but the name of the award is ironic to say the least.

R. Lamm probably got too much flack for rambling (which in fairness, he did), but his message was probably the most important for future Rabbis. Short version: when things go badly, suck it up and move on because you’re really working for God. Granted he was more eloquent, but the point is well taken. Too many rabbis get caught up in the personal egotistical aspects of their job that they forget their mission and as such are more likely to get disheartened by setbacks.

On the other hand, there are several Rabbis out in the field doing excellent work – and YU showed a video to this effect, featuring Rabbis in the pulpit, education, chaplaincy, and outreach. I knew two of the featured Rabbis personally – one from Gush and one from R. Ben-Haim’s shiur – and both of whom are excellent people and well suited to their current positions.

On a personal level, the speeches, presentations, and socializations, all reminded me of how almost-but-not-quite fit in the YU model. By now it should be obvious to recurring readers that my hashkafa isn’t typical YU. Nor should it be surprising that my style is drastically different than most other Rabbis. But what I’ve been more aware of recently are the professional differences between myself and my colleagues. Many pursued careers in the Rabbinate, education, or academics with varying degrees of success. And as noted repeatedly during the ceremony, most of the musmakhim got married at some point and quite a few have already started having families.

Like most people at reunions, I started thinking about how things in my life have turned out in the three years since I finished semikha. And like my time spent in YU, I was once again made perfectly aware of how I’m hardly a typical model of, well, anything.

Not that this necessarily a bad thing, but the constant reinforcement of “outsider” status can be grating eventually. Case in point: Richard Joel said that it is impossible to get through semikha without the support of our spouses, which made me question if in fact I did somehow manage or if my mystery spouse was working behind the scenes in some way doctoring my Contemporary Halakha exams.

The thing is that even during my RIETS tenure I didn’t exactly follow the crowd either. R. Katz’s (AH’S) shiur wasn’t a popular choice, and despite the random acts of shehita, neither was R. Ben-Haim’s. I was one of three or four Talmud majors in Revel, though now it’s apparently “cool” again. Outside of YU, I participated in Meorot and Clal and held a computer job on the side. Maybe I shared individual experiences with a few people, but as you could expect, there was very little overlap between the different experiences.

As someone told my father during one of the receptions, my reputation is that I follow my own beat, but I’m serious. An accurate description, but I also must say that the Chag also reminded me that there are a few other intruments who do join in periodically. All those people from the different chevras went their own ways as well, and it just so happened that our paths converged every so often. I’ve often noted that althought YU will never admit it, it is the most religiously diverse and I daresay pluralistic Jewish institution such that it was possible for such various chevras to even exist.

In bringing back everyone under one roof, the Chag reminded me of the opportunities which are out there, as well as what is actually possible to accomplish. I’d say that’s four hours well spent.

Halakhic Madness

Thanks to a mistake in one of my brackets this year1 I had the following she’eilah:

    Question: Are you allowed to have North Carolina winning a Texas vs. UConn final?2

Putting aside the merits of the specific teams for a moment, is this a legitimate bracket? Do we count the winners of the games or simply who advances to the next round?
The answer I believe depends on how your bracket is scored. Most brackets are weighted such that victories in the second round are worth more “points” than the first round games, third round more than second, and so forth. The reason behind this system is obvious – the odds of a given team winning in the third round are significantly decreased when you consider that that team may not make it out of the second round. There are far too many variables and possibilities such that correctly picking the tournament champion ought to be worth more than correctly picking the 1-16 game.
Since weighted brackets are predicated on the logic of a formalized tournament, you cannot count a victory which would be impossible in the actual tournament. If you have a team eliminated in the sweet sixteen, that team cannot be counted in your final four. This error could be grounds for disqualification, but I’d be content to treat the errant pick as a loss even if that team does in fact advance in the appropriate round of the tournament itself.
However, in the unlikely event you’re involved in a pool which only scores the total number of wins – possible for a secondary prize – then the placement of these victories is no longer dependent on the actual tournament. As such, logic may be safely ignored and you’re free to pick whomever at any given stage even if you have that team losing in the first round.
UPDATE: Apparently, it’s not just me as even the famed sports guy made a similar mistake.

1. In a non-gambling pool, so no cracks about me being pasul l’eidut. Not for this anyway.
2. By “winning” I mean the actual game, not in some after-the-fact economic or recruiting benefits or the hana’ah (benefit) of mocking Duke for losing earlier in the tournament.