Thursday, January 26, 2012

My Laptop Doesn't Love Me Back! - Thursday Kavvanah, 1/26/2012

In anticipation of today's e-waste collection by the Town of North Hempstead, Judy and I decided late last night to clear out our old laptops.  So we fired 'em up to delete important items, and after a while they were ready to go.  Judy closed her erstwhile machine for the last time and sighed wistfully as she said goodbye.

How ironic, thought I.  Many of us communicate more with our devices than we do with each other, and so it makes sense for us to feel a sense of loss when an aging computer is put out to pasture.

But these are only tools; they are no more capable of loving or being loved than a hammer or an electric drill.  They (usually) do what we tell them to do, no more or less.  

By contrast, the bonds that we make with people are much more complicated and much deeper.  And all the more so with God; the modern Jewish philosopher Martin Buber describes the relationship with God as being the most intimate, the only partner upon which we place no conditions.

We will not be sitting shiv'ah (the seven day Jewish mourning period) for our discarded computers.  But as I reconsider my relationships with my current devices, I am grateful for the people in my life, and all the more so with the Unconditional.  We read three times a day in the Ashrei prayer:

קָרוב ה' לְכָל קרְאָיו. לְכל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת
Qarov Adonai lekhol qore'av, lekhol asher yiqra'uhu be'emet
God is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him with integrity. (Psalm 145:18)

However it is that God can be described as being near, I am fairly certain that God is nearer to me than my laptop.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"Organized Religion"? Not Really - Tuesday Kavvanah, 1/24/2012

As a rabbi, I advocate for Judaism.  Whenever I meet somebody who tells me that s/he does not believe in "organized religion", I can't help but joke: "You call this organized?"

To the uninitiated, the assortment of Jewish rituals - the mumbling of lengthy pages of tefillot, or the dietary restrictions, or the separation of Shabbat from the rest of the week, as a short list of examples - might seem at best curious and at worst burdensome.  Indeed, many Jews agree.

We are living in what you might call a devoutly independent age, in which what JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen has termed "the sovereign self" is the overriding personal element in our interaction with the world.  Individual choice is the ultimate guide.  Jewish practice, although hardly conceived in any orderly way, seems to have been designed to thwart this inclination.  Tefillah / prayer generally requires a minyan, a quorum of 10 people.  Jewish learning traditionally requires a partner, and often takes place in a beit midrash, a house of study.  Kashrut, lifecycle events, and many rituals necessitate communal involvement.  You can't be Jewish alone.

So while I hesitate to call Judaism organized, it surely works hard to build community.  And in these times, what could we possibly need more than relationships with others?

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Teaching our Children by Making Judaism Part of the Conversation - Thursday Kavvanah, 1/19/2011

I have been thinking lately quite a bit about parenting, not only because my wife has recently returned to work full-time and so I am spending more one-on-two time with my 4- and 2-year-old, but also because Rabbi Howard Stecker and I have been teaching a class on parenting to 40 eager parents. It occurred to me today that we read the words of the Shema incorrectly, at least in translation:
וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֖ בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֨ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃
Veshinantam levanekha vedibarta bam, beshivtekha beveitekha, uvlekhtekha baderekh, uvshokhbekha uvqumekha.
The translation from the Conservative movement's Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals (1998) reads as follows:
Teach them, diligently, to your children, and recite them at home and away, night and day.
But here's the problem: the etnakhta, the major pause of the verse dictated by the te'amei hamiqra (the trope or cantillation marks) is on the word "bam" ([recite] them).  That is, it should read is follows:
Teach them diligently to your children and recite them, at home and away, night and day.
with the comma grouping together the teaching and reciting, and the home and away / night and day bit is therefore modifying BOTH commandments.

That is, the way that we teach our children is by speaking the words of Torah in their presence, at home and away and night and day, i.e. all the time.  These should not be understood as two separate mitzvot, but rather a single commandment.

And how should we interpret this as modern Jews, firmly ensconced in the wider society and yet with a connection to ancient traditions?  That topics related to Judaism - God, the Torah, and Israel - should be readily discussed at home.  We cannot teach our children to appreciate Jewish life merely by dropping them off a couple of times a week at Hebrew school; we must make the words of Jewish living part of the fabric of conversation in our dining rooms, living rooms and bedrooms.

~Rabbi Seth Adelson

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Rabbi David Golinkin addresses "Qol Ishah" (men hearing women's voices)

In the wake of the current flap in Israel about issues surrounding what everybody is now calling "hadarat nashim," the exclusion of women, it is surely useful to take a balanced look at one of the issues on the table from a halakhic perspective with a historical eye.

Below is Rabbi David Golinkin's recent teshuvah (rabbinic response to a question regarding Jewish law) on the subject of qol ishah, literally, "a woman's voice."  The teshuvah was penned in response to an incident in September, 2011, when nine observant cadets in an officers' training program walked out of an IDF entertainment troupe performance at an official military function because they objected to listening to a woman sing solo.

Rabbi Golinkin was a featured Shabbat guest of Temple Israel of Great Neck last year, and he gave us a taste of his skill in interpreting halakhic questions for our times.  The teshuvah below is true to form.


In memory ofRabbi Moshe Zemer z"l(1932-2011)Rabbi, scholar and mentsch
Question: On September 5, 2011, an IDF entertainment troupe performed at an official military event focusing on Operation Cast Lead at Bahad Ehad, the officers' training base in the Negev. When a female soldier began to sing solo, nine observant Israeli officer cadets got up and left; they said that it was forbidden for them to listen to women singing. Their Regiment Commander Uzi Kliegler ran after them and ordered them to return to the ceremony. "Anyone refusing [this] order will be dismissed from the course." In the end, four cadets refused to return to the hall and were dismissed from the officers' training course while five were allowed to continue the course after convincing the committee that the move had not been preplanned. It should be noted that a considerable number of the officers' course cadets are observant and most of them did not walk out.
Subsequently, various Orthodox rabbis were quoted in the media as being for or against their action. The Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel Yonah Metzger issued a formal responsum on September 25th justifying their actions and urging the army to arrange that only men should sing at military events where many observant men are present. Is it really forbidden for Jewish men to listen to women singing? Was there any halakhic justification for the soldiers to walk out?
I) The Three Talmudic SourcesAll halakhic discussions of this topic are based primarily on one sentence uttered by the Amora Samuel in Babylon ca. 220 c.e. Some rabbis have claimed that his intent is clear; we shall see below that that is very far from the case. The sentence appears in three places in rabbinic literature, twice in the Babylonian Talmud and once in the Jerusalem Talmud.
1. Berakhot 24a contains a lengthy sugya about whether one may recite the Shema in immodest situations such as two men sharing a bed or a family sharing a bed or when the man's clothes are torn and do not cover his privates. The Talmud continues:Rabbi Yitzhak said: a handbreadth in a woman is ervah[=nakedness, unchastity, impropriety]. [The Talmud discusses this and concludes: "rather he is talking about his wife and when reciting Keriyat Shema."]Rav Hisda said: a thigh in a woman is ervah, as it is written (Isaiah 47:2) "Bare your thigh, wade through the rivers" and it is written (ibid., v. 3) "your ervah shall be uncovered and your shame shall be exposed".Samuel said: kol b'ishah ervah, a woman's voice is ervah, as it is written (Song of Songs 2:14) "for your voice is sweet and your appearance is comely".Rav Sheshet said: Hair in a woman is ervah, as it is written (ibid. 4:1) "your hair is like a flock of goats".There are at least three major problems with this sugya:
a. None of these four Amoraim mention the Shema at all and it appears that this unit was copied here in its entirety from some other context.
b. Jastrow in his Talmudic dictionary (s.v. ervah, p. 1114) and many others think that Samuel is referring to a woman singing. But it is not at all clear whether Samuel means the speaking voice of a woman or thesinging voice of a woman. On the one hand, he may mean the speakingvoice of a woman (see Psalm 104:24; 21; midrashim on the verse in Song of Songs 2:14 in the Bar Ilan Responsa Project; Metzudat David to Song of Songs ad loc.). On the other hand, he may mean the singingvoice of a woman (see the beginning of the verse in Song of Songs;Ta'anit 16a; and six midrashim on Song of Songs 2:14).
c. It is also not clear if this is halakhah or aggadah. If they were making halakhic statements, they would have said: "it is forbidden to look at a woman's thigh or to hear her voice or look at her hair"; therefore they seem to be making aggadic statements followed by verses.At the most, we can say that the editor of the sugya who copied this unit here was trying to say that when one recites the Shema he should avoid a woman's handbreadth or thigh or voice or hair.
2. Kiddushin 70a-b contains a lengthy story about a man from Nehardea who insults Rav Yehudah while visiting Pumbedita. Rav Yehudah then excommunicates him and declares him a "slave". The man then summons Rav Yehudah to a din torah in front of Rav Nahman in Nehardea. Rav Yehudah asks his friend Rav Huna whether he should go and Rav Huna advises him to go. Rav Yehudah then goes to Nehardea to the house of Rav Nahman but, since he resents going, he challenges everything that Rav Nahman does and says, frequently using the words of Samuel to do so. The story continues:[Rav Nahman:] May my daughter Dunag come and give us drink?[Rav Yehudah] said to him: So said Samuel: one does not use a woman.[Rav Nahman:] But she is a minor![Rav Yehudah:] Samuel said explicitly one does not use a woman at all, whether she is an adult or a minor![Rav Nahman:] would my Lord like to send shalom to my wife Yalta?[Rav Yehudah] said to him: So said Samuel: kol b'ishah ervah, a voice of a woman is ervah [i.e. I am not allowed to talk to her].[Rav Nahman:] it is possible to talk to her via a messenger.[Rav Yehudah] said to him: So said Samuel: one does not ask after the welfare of a woman.[Rav Nahman:] Via her husband![Rav Yehudah] said to him: So said Samuel: one does not ask after the welfare of a woman at all.[Yalta then tells her husband Nahman to get to the point so that Rav Yehudah should stop insulting him.]Once again, this sugya is making secondary use of Samuel's words "kol b'isha ervah", but in this case it is not the later anonymous editors of the Talmud who have quoted Samuel but Rav Yehudah, one of his main disciples, who quotes him almost 500 times in the Babylonian Talmud. Rav Yehudah understood Samuel to say: a voice of a woman is ervah i.e. do not talk to women. This is in keeping with other Talmudic dicta about avoiding conversations with women (Avot 1:5; Eruvin 53b; Nedarim 20a; Hagigah 5b;Sanhedrin 75a; Berakhot 43b at bottom; and cf. the brief discussion by Tal Ilan).
3. Yerushalmi Hallah Chapter 2:4, ed. Vilna fol. 12b = ed. Venice fol. 58cAccording to the Torah (Numbers 15:17-21), when a person bakes a loaf of bread or a cake, they are supposed to give a small portion of the dough calledhallah to a Kohen. Today this small portion is burned after reciting a blessing. The mishnah in Hallah (2:3) says that a woman can sit and separate herhallah [and make the blessing] while naked because she can cover herself. The Talmud Yerushalmi comments:From this we learn that her rear end is not forbidden because of ervah.This is true regarding her reciting the blessing for hallah, but to look at her, anything is forbidden. As we have learned: a person who looks at her heel is like one who looks at the house of her womb [=vagina], and a person who looks at the house of her womb is as if he slept with her.Samuel said: a voice of a woman is ervah. What is the reason? "vehaya mikol znutah, "the land was defiled from the sound of her harlotry" (Jeremiah 3:9; the new JPS tanakh translates following Radak: "the land was defiled by her casual immorality").For the third time, Samuel's words are quoted in a secondary fashion in a Talmudic discussion. He was not part of this discussion and his words are not connected to the main topic which is looking at a scantily clad woman who is sitting and separating dough for hallah. Once again, it is not clear what Samuel meant to say, but there is no hint whatsoever that he is referring to the singing voice of woman; it is more likely that he is referring to her speaking voice.Thus if we were to rule on the basis of the three Talmudic passages we could say that Samuel and his fellow Amoraim quoted in Berakhot were making aggadic statements about the dangers of looking at and listening to women. On the other hand, we could say on the basis of Kiddushin (and probablyYerushalmi Hallah) that Samuel made a halakhic ruling that it is forbidden to speak to women or, on the basis of the context in Berakhot, that it is forbidden to speak to or look at women while reciting Keriyat Shema. It is pretty clear from the careful analysis above that none of these three passages say anything about a woman singing.
II) The Rif Ignored Samuel's Statement in Both Passages in the Babylonian TalmudThe Rif, Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi (1013-1103) was one of the most influentialposkim [halakhic decisors] in Jewish history. Maimonides states that he relied on the Rif in his Mishneh Torah in all but thirty places (Responsa of the Rambam, ed. Blau, No. 251, p. 459 and the literature cited there in note 7).Hilkhot Harif, also known as Talmud Kattan, the little Talmud, codified Jewish law by abbreviating each sugya in the Talmud. He omitted the aggadic passages and most of the give and take of the Talmudic sugya, leaving only the opinions which he considered Jewish law. In the sugya in Berakhotquoted above, the Rif (ed. Vilna, fol. 15a) omitted the opinion of all four Amoraim quoted by the Talmud, as emphasized by Rabbi Zerahia Halevi (Hamaor Hakattanibid., fol. 15b) and by the Ra'avad of Posquieres (quoted by the Rashba to the sugya in Berakhot). In his code on Kiddushin (ed. Vilna, fol. 30b), the Rif quotes a few of the dicta of Samuel quoted by Rav Yehudah but omits the dictum "kol b'ishah ervah". This means that the Rif considered all four of the Amoraic statements in Berakhot to be aggadah and not halakhah!
III) It is Forbidden to Talk to Women or to Certain WomenIn the Rambam's (Egypt, 1135-1204) summary of the sugya in Berakhot(Hilkhot Keriyat Shema 3:16), he rules that one may not recite Keriyat Shemawhile looking at a woman, even his wife, as per the Talmud's explanation of Rabbi Yitzhak quoted above in Berakhot, but he omits Samuel's opinion entirely. But in his laws of forbidden sexual relationships (Hilkhot Issurei Biah21:2, 5) he rules that one should not wink at or laugh with or look at the little finger of one of the arayot, i.e. one of the forbidden sexual relationships listed in Leviticus 18, "and even to hear the voice of the ervah or to see her hair is forbidden". The Rambam seems to understand Samuel to mean "kol b'ishah-ervah[assur], "the voice of a woman who is an ervah" is forbidden. This is a rather novel interpretation since that is not exactly what Samuel said. In any case, the Rambam is clearly referring to her speaking voice and not to her singing voice.This is proven by his famous reponsum about listening to secular Arabic girdle poems sung to music (Responsa of the Rambam, ed. Blau, No. 224, pp. 398-400). After giving four reasons to forbid this music he writes: "And if the singer is a woman, there is a fifth prohibition, as they of blessed memory said kol b'ishah ervah, and how much the moreso if she is singing". In other words, Samuel was referring to women speaking and the Rambam adds that it is even more forbidden if she is singing.Rabbi Ya'akov ben Asher (Toledo, 1270-1343) followed the Rambam in his Tur, one of the major codes of Jewish law (Tur Even Haezer 21) as did the Maharshal (Cracow, 1510-1573, quoted by the Perishah to Even Haezer 21, subparagraph 2).A similar opinion is found in Sefer Hassidim, which is attributed to Rabbi Judah Hehassid, a contemporary of the Rambam (Regensburg, ca. 1150-1217; ed. Margaliot, paragraph 313). He says that "a young man should not teach girls practical Jewish law even if her father is standing there, lest he or the girl be overcome by their yetzer [=evil inclination] and kol b'ishah ervah, rather a father should teach his daughter and wife". Thus, Rabbi Judah thinks that Samuel was referring to listening to the speaking voice of a woman or girl.This also seems to be the opinion of Rabbi Yitzhak ben Isaac of Vienna (1180-1250; Or Zarua, Part I, fol. 24a, paragraph 133) and the Rosh (1250-1320; Piskey Harosh to Berakhot, Chapter 3, paragraph 37).
IV) It is Forbidden to Listen to Women Singing While Reciting the ShemaThe halakhic authorities in this camp ruled according to their understanding of the sugya in Berakhot which is connected to Keriyat Shema and ignored the sugya in Kiddushin.Rav Hai Gaon (Pumbedita, 939-1038) ruled (Otzar Hageonim to Berakhot,Perushim, p. 30, paragraph 102) that a man "should not recite the Shemawhen a woman is singing because kol b'ishah ervah... but when she is just talking normally it is permitted; and even if she is singing, if he can concentrate in his heart on his prayer so that he does not hear her or pay attention to her - it is permissible...". In other words, he understood from the context in Berakhot that Samuel only says kol b'isha ervah when one is reciting the shema and he further understood that Samuel is referring to a woman singing. Even so, Rav Hai allowed a man to recite keriyat shemawhen a woman is singing if he is able to ignore her voice.This general approach was followed by a number of classic Ashkenazic poskim such as Rabbi Eliezer of Metz (1115-1198; Sefer Yerei'im Hashalem, paragraph 392); the Ra'aviah (Cologne, 1140-1225; ed. Aptowitzer, Vol. 1, pp. 52-53, Berakhot, paragraph 76); and the Mordechai (Nuremberg, 1240-1298; to Berakhot, paragraph 80). Rabbi Eliezer of Metz, on the one hand, adds a stringency that one may not recite the Shema "or dvar kedushah" when a woman is singing; but also a leniency - that because of our sins we live among the Gentiles and therefore we are not careful not to learn while Gentile women are singing. The Ra'aviah adds a leniency that one may recite keriyat shema when a woman is singing if he is used to it (or: to her voice).This general approach was also followed by Aharonim such as the Bet Shmuel to Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer 21, subparagraph 4 who expands the prohibition to tefillah [= prayer] as opposed to only the shema.   
V) A Combination of the Previous Two ApproachesA number of prominent halakhic authorities combined the previous two approaches. They ruled that a man should not talk to a woman on the basis of Samuel in Kiddushin as in paragraph III above and that a man should not recite the Shema while a woman is singing on the basis of Berakhot as understood in paragraph IV above.This camp includes the Ra'avad of Posquieres (1120-1198; quoted inHiddushei Harashba to Berakhot 24a [mislabeled 25 in the printed editions]); the Meiri (Provence, d. 1315; in Bet Habehirah to Berakhot 24a, pp. 84-85); and Rabbi Yosef Karo in his Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 75:3 and Even Haezer 21:1, 6).
VI) It is Forbidden to Listen to All Women Singing at any TimeThis approach was first suggested as a possible interpretation by Rabbi Joshua Falk (Poland, 1555-1614) in his Perishah to Tur Even Haezer 21, subparagraph 2, but he himself rejected it. The first to actually rule this way in practice was Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Pressburg, d. 1839; Responsa Hatam Sofer, Hoshen Mishpat, No. 190).Aside from the fact that this very strict approach contradicts all of the halakhic sources we have seen above, we also know from the research of Emily Teitz that this approach contradicts the actual practice of Jewish women who sang in the home, on festive occasions, as singers and in the synagogue throughout the Middle Ages.Unfortunately, the Hatam Sofer's strict ruling was adopted by many later authorities. Some tried to find "leniencies" such as allowing girls and boys to sing at the same time (Rabbi Y.Y. Weinberg, Seridei Eish) or allowing men to listen to women who cannot be seen, such as on a record or on the radio.
VII) Kevod Haberiyot Sets Aside Various ProhibitionsIn any case, even if one were to rule entirely according to the Hatam Sofer, it would be forbidden to get up and leave a concert where women are singing. Even if Samuel meant to give a halakhic ruling (which is not at all clear) and even if he meant to prohibit listening to all women singing (which we have disproved above), there is a well-known halakhic principle that kevod haberiyot [=the honor of people] sets aside various prohibitions.(1) There is no question that leaving a concert is insulting to the women performing as well as to most of the soldiers at the concert and to the commanding officers - indeed that is why the commanding officer removed those soldiers from the officers' training course.
VIII) Summary and ConclusionsWe have seen above that there is no general prohibition against women singing in classic Jewish law based on the Talmud and subsequent codes and commentaries until the early nineteenth century. The current blanket prohibition accepted by Haredi and some modern Orthodox rabbis was first suggested and rejected by Rabbi Joshua Falk (d. 1614) and was only given as a halakhic ruling by Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the Hatam Sofer, in the early nineteenth century. However, this opinion is not in agreement with the simple meaning of the dictum by Samuel and with all of the opinions of the Rishonim. The Rif ignored Samuel's dictum in both Berakhot and Kiddushin. Some Rishonim ruled according to the sugya in Kiddushin that Samuel was referring to the speaking voice of women to the extent that such conversation would lead to forbidden sexual relations. This interpretation seems to be the intent of the parallel in Yerushalmi Hallah. On the other hand, Rav Hai Gaon and most of the Rishonim in Ashkenaz interpreted the words of Samuel according to the sugya in Berakhot and therefore ruled that it is forbidden to recite Keriyat Shema where a woman is singing because of kol b'isha ervah. Finally, some of the rabbis of Provence and Rabbi Joseph Karo ruled according to both of these interpretations. Furthermore, Emily Teitz has shown that in practice Jewish women sang at home, at semahot, as singers and in the synagogue throughout the Middle Ages. Thus, there is therefore no halakhic justification for anyone walking out when women sing. But even if one accepts the very strict ruling of the Hatam Sofer, it is forbidden to walk out in order not to insult the female performers.
David Golinkin Jerusalem 4 Kislev 5772

Notes1. See David Golinkin, Ma'amad Ha'ishah Bahalakhah: She'elot Uteshuvot, Jerusalem, 2001, pp. 120-121 and the literature cited there; Daniel Sperber,Darkah Shel Halakhah, Jerusalem, 2007, pp. 34 ff. and in a reworked form inWomen and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives, New York, 2010, pp. 74 and ff.; Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins and Avrum Reisner, "Homosexuality, Human Dignity and Halakhah", 2006 at Bibliography I) ArticlesRabbi Sol Berman, "Kol Isha", Joseph Lookstein Memorial Volume, New York, 1980, pp. 45-66 (the most thorough study of this topic; summarized in Hebrew by Kaddish Goldberg in Amudim 614 [Tishrei 5758], pp. 26-27)Rabbi Ben Cherney, "Kol Isha", Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 10 (Fall 1985), pp. 57-75Rabbi Boaz Cohen, Law and Tradition in Judaism, New York, 1959, p. 174, note 28Orah Cohen, On Both Sides of the Divide: Gender Separation in Jewish Law(Hebrew), Bet El, 2007, pp. 189-196Elyakim Getzel Ellenson, Ha'ishah Vehamitzvot (Hebrew), Vol. 2, Jerusalem, 1987, pp. 81-91Rabbi Louis Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism, New York, 1948, pp. 93-100M.Sh. Geshuri, "The Woman and Her Singing in the Biblical Period", (Hebrew), Mahanayim 98, pp. 92-103Rabbi M. Harari, Mikraei Kodesh, p. 233 quoted by Aviad Hacohen, Alon Shevut 11 (Nissan 5758), p. 64, note 3Tal Ilan, Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine, Tubingen, 1995, pp. 126-127Admiel Kosman, " 'And Miriam chanted for them' - Kol Isha?", online at Bar Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center, February 7, 2004Hannah Pinhassi, Deot 44 (October 2009), pp. 14-17Rabbi Moshe Halevi Steinberg, Hilkhot Nashim, Jerusalem, 1983, p. 45 and the literature in note 23Emily Taitz, "Kol Isha - The Voice of Women: Where was it heard in medieval Europe?", Conservative Judaism 38/3 (Spring 1986), pp. 46-61Rabbi Moshe Zemer, Halakhah Shefuyah, Tel Aviv, 1993, pp. 234-237, 347 =Evolving Halakhah, Woodstock, Vermont, 1999, pp. 278-279Rabbi Yonatan Rosenzweig, Tehumin 29 (5769), pp. 138-143; Reaction: Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, Tehumin 30 (5770), pp. 212-215II) ResponsaRabbi Moshe Alashkar, Responsa Maharam Alashkar, No. 35Rabbi Yisachar Baer Eilenburg, Responsa Be'er ShevaBe'er Mayyim Hayyim, No. 3Rabbi David Bigman, "A New Analysis of 'Kol B'isha Erva' ", February 4, 2009,www.jewishideas.orgRabbi Yuval Cherlow, Reshut Harabbim, Petah Tikvah, 2002, pp. 130-131Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen, Intermarriage and Conversion: A Halakhic Solution, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1987, Chapter 19Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim, Part I, No. 26; Part 4, No. 15, paragraph 2Rabbi Meir Friedmann, "Mitwurkung von Frauen beim Gottesdienste" (German), Hebrew Union College Annual 8-9 (1931-1932), pp. 511-523Rabbi David Golinkin, Ma'amad Ha'ishah Bahalakhah: She'elot Uteshuvot, Jerusalem, 2001, pp. 102-103Rabbi Yaakov Hagiz, Responsa Halakhot Ketanot, Vol. 2, No. 93Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, Aseh Lekhah Rav, Vol. I, No. 28; Vol. 3, No. 6Rabbi Jonah Metzger, "Kol B'ishah Ervah" (Hebrew), September 25. 2011Rabbi Meir Ben-Tziyon Hai Ouziel, Mishpitei Ouziel, Vol. 4, Hoshen Mishpat, No. 6Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer, Vol. 5, No. 2; Vol. 7, No. 28Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg, Seridei Eish, Vol. 2, No. 8Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Weiss, Minhat Yitzhak, Vol. 8, No. 126Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Yabia Omer, Vol. 1, Orah Hayyim, No. 6III) News Articles (in chronological order)The Jerusalem Post International Edition, August 19-25, 1979, p. 15 (the rabbi of the Wall ordered a mixed group of people singing with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to leave the Kotel Plaza)Haaretz, June 24, 2008 (IDF forbids observant soldiers from walking out of military assemblies)The Jerusalem Post, Nov. 21, 2008, p. 7; The Jerusalem Post Magazine, December 11, 2009, pp. 28-30 (on a film intended for women only)The Jewish Press, February 20, 2009, p. 30 (on a women's concert in Brooklyn)Ynet, September 9, 2011 (news report about the latest incident)Yizhar Hess, Yisrael Hayom, September 13, 2011, p. 35 (a Masorti reaction to the latest incident)The Jerusalem Post, September 16, 2011 (Orthodox rabbinic reactions to the latest incident)Shmuel Rosner, The New York Times, November 18, 2011
Yaakov Katz, The Jerusalem Post, November 25, 2011, pp. 14-15

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Shemot 5772: Seeking Transcendent Moments

Did you notice the new rack sitting in the front lobby, opposite the office window?  If you were here during the day this week, you might have seen it displaying children’s books.  We have not officially “rolled out” the program yet, but the books are courtesy of a program called PJ Library, which will soon be providing Jewish books free of cost to children of this community who are 8 years old and younger.  I am sure that you will hear more about it very soon.

But the more interesting thing at the moment about that rack is its placement, just opposite the office window, where Susan (who usually sits at the reception window during the day) can keep an eye on it.  Why?  Because we are all pretty sure that, if nobody’s watching the rack, the books will climb down and walk out the front door, perhaps assisted by members of this community.  That is to say, they will be stolen.  

On what basis would we make such an assumption?  Well, it seems that theft is not an uncommon problem in this building.  I am not going to go into details, but children’s books and other items around the building have been stolen.  That’s right - in a place where people come, at least in theory, to get a taste of qedushah, of holiness, some valuable items need to be carefully guarded.  (It might be worth it to point out that we offer unlimited quantites of contact with God for free.)

As a naive, trusting soul, I never would have expected that.  Then again, I am also continually surprised when I see cars blast through the stop sign in front of my house, or people who throw trash on the ground in public places, or other acts that seem to me selfish.

And let’s face it - we live in a world of plenty.  Americans have lots of stuff.  We have so much stuff that many of us actually rent storage space outside of our homes to keep it.  We have to have stuff, because our economy depends on our buying more of it.  Not to have lots of stuff is un-American. (Perhaps some of you are familiar with George Carlin’s routine on stuff, which I of course cannot repeat in this space.)

Ironic that in such an environment, there are those who simply cannot resist a “free” item.  Now, there are many possible reasons why people steal, and among them may be genuine poverty or the thrill of getting away with it.  Not all theft is equal.  But on some fundamental level, theft, like disobeying traffic laws, like selling houses to people who can’t afford them or derivative securities to those who don’t understand them, or even like cheating on tests, all of these are acts of selfishness.  Whether conscious of it or not, the thief makes a statement that goes as follows: I and my desires are more important than those of whoever owns this item.  In order for theft to happen, the owner must be depersonalized, unconnected.

Of course, in some ways, putting oneself before others is necessary to our survival.  The sage Hillel says so in Pirqei Avot (1:14): Im ein ani li, mi li?  If I am not for myself, who am I?  But I’m talking about the kind of worldview that places the self above all others, the kind that Hillel goes on to chastise: Ukhshe-ani le-atzmi, mah ani?  And if I am only for myself, what am I?  And in this sense there is no question that we are living in a very selfish age.  What can we do about it?

Put that thought on hold for a moment; we’ll come back to it.

* * *

Let’s turn our attention to the Torah.  From a narrative perspective, the Torah really only contains three parts: before Egypt (i.e. the book of Genesis), the Exodus story through the giving of the Torah, and then everything after, which is kind of a mish-mash of lots of different types of material.

But the middle narrative, the one about Egypt and the Israelites’ exit, up to and including the episode at Mt. Sinai, is the shortest and perhaps most intense tale of the book, and arguably the most central to Judaism and Jewish theology.  

The Exodus story, as I noted two weeks ago in our Torah discussion about whether or not Joseph was a success, is the pre-eminent national myth that pervades Jewish life.  (And here I use “myth” in the positive sense - not a story that is untrue, but a folkloric tale that helps a community make sense of its experience.)  We refer to Exodus constantly in liturgy, on holidays, in sermons, in calls to social action, and on and on.

Leaving Egypt, the departure of the Israelite slaves, the children and grandchildren of slaves, is the second most important moment of the Torah, eclipsed only by the episode at Mt. Sinai.  These are the moments that define us as a people.  (One popular take on Sinai has it that all Jewish souls were there.  That is, indeed, a statement of transcendence.)

Really, it was not even God who was the first to declare us a people, but rather Pharaoh.  Not the good Pharaoh that appointed Joseph the viceroy of Egypt, but the the bad Pharaoh, the one who “did not know Joseph,” who enslaved the Israelites.  As we read this morning at the beginning of Parashat Shemot:

(Ex. 1: 9-10)
Hineh am benei yisrael, rav ve-atzum mimenu; hava nithakkemah lo pen yirbeh.

“Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us.  Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase...” (Etz Hayyim, p. 318-319)

Even in the mouth of the Egyptian despot, this is a transcendent moment in the Torah narrative.  The 70 people, members of a family who went down to Egypt at the behest of Joseph and the earlier, good Pharaoh, have now become a nation, an “am.”  

This acknowledgement marks the beginning of Israel, the people, the point of transition from mishpahah to am.  The Israelites needed to crystallize as a nation before God could give them the Torah, before they could enter the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, before they could think of themselves as a connected to each other.

Transcendent moments, however, are not limited to the Torah.  I am sure that we can all think of them - times that connected us - to other Jews, for sure, but also to other Americans as a nation, or to our families, or schools, or workplaces, or the modern State of Israel, or to ourselves as sovereign individuals, or God.

The tragedy of 9-11 is probably the most powerful example in recent memory.  For my parents’ generation, the killing of JFK in 1963 was a transcendent moment.  Those of us in the room who remember the Six-Day War, when nobody was sure whether or not Israel would survive, and yet triumphed, might think of that as a transcendent moment.  You get the picture.

The events that connect us to each other, help to make us feel like a part of something greater than ourselves.  They are, I think, the exact opposite of what we do for so much of our waking existence - that is, make our own choices, think independently, and go about our lives as distinct creatures.  Every now and then, we need to be literally shaken and reminded that we are a part of a larger subset of humanity.

We as modern Jews need more transcendent moments.  Young and old, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Haredi, Reconstructionist, secular, in Israel or the diaspora, Ashkenazic, Sephardic, the Jewish world is fragmented.  We need shared experiences that bring us all together.

Given events of late here and in Israel, one might think that different corners of the Jewish world have little in common.  We have such a talent for cutting each other down, such formidable zeal for denying legitimacy or respect for this group or that group.  

And therein lies one problem that we all face.  If we have no shared moments of transcendence as a people, no experiences to bring us all together, then how can we possibly feel connected as a group moving forward?  How will we prevent the global forces of modernity from continuing to strip from us our personal interdependence?  How will we ensure that our children’s children feel connected to each other as Jews?

And this, of course, brings me back to the beginning: if members of a synagogue community do not feel connected to each other, what will prevent them from stealing children’s books in the lobby?  Hanging a sign in the lobby that says, “Lo tignov,” do not steal (Ex. 20:13), probably will not work.

OK, so there will never be another Exodus.  And we may have to give up on the rest of the Jewish world, the ones who do not belong to Temple Israel.  But we can create transcendent moments here.  And sometimes we do.

Some of us have shared a moment when families come together for Shabbat Hamishpahah on Saturday evening, hold candles aloft and sing a Hasidic niggun as we bid goodbye to Shabbat.  Some of us share a moment when we strain forward in hunger and exhaustion at the end of Yom Kippur to hear the shofar blown.  Some of us share a moment when we gather food and clothes to deliver late on Saturday night for Midnight Run.  Some of us might point to a lifecycle event: birth, berit milah, Bar Mitzvah, wedding.  Some of us might even point to the moment in the Musaf service on Shabbat morning when we embrace others with our tallitot during birkat kohanim.  

Let’s face it: connecting a community of over 900 families is next to impossible, especially when we live in such a selfish age.  But we are going to continue to try, and the more that we reach members of this community in smaller contexts, the better chance that we have to reach deeper into the larger group, to foster the sort of transcendence that makes us all feel that we are part of something greater.

Prayer, singing, eating, learning, studying the Torah (Talmud Torah keneged kulam!) together all work to connect each of us to the other, even if we do not know each other.  Until we can bring everybody along on our journey with us, Susan will still have to keep an eye on the PJ Library book rack.  But let’s hope for and work together for a day when she can turn her back and know that it will be OK, because we will have transcended selfishness.  Now that’s a vision for the future!
Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 1/14/2011.)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Rabbi Heschel, Dr. King, and Repairing the World

Today is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death, which serendipitously falls in the vicinity of Martin Luther King Day from year to year. The iconic photo below shows Rabbi Heschel marching with Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, a march about which he is known to have said, "I felt my legs were praying":

Rabbi Heschel's impact on American Jewry still resonates today.  In his writings, which continue to inspire many, he spoke of the Jewish obligation to a leap of action, rather than a leap of faith.  His commitment to the civil rights movement modeled the way in which we too should work to repair this world.  Rabbi Heschel saw the words of the second paragraph of the Aleinu prayer as inspiring us to act from a place of connection with tefillah:
At the beginning of all action is an inner vision in which things to be are experienced as real.  Prayer, too, is frequently an inner vision, an intense dreaming for God - the reflection of the Divine intentions in the soul of man.  We dream of a time "when the world will be perfected under the Kingship of God, and all the children of flesh will call upon Thy name, when Thou wilt turn unto Thyself all the wicked of the earth."*  We anticipate the fulfillment of the hope shared by both God and man.
To pray is to dream in league with God, to envision His holy visions. (I Asked for Wonder, p. 29)
Just as Dr. King saw his work as coming from religious tradition, so too did Rabbi Heschel draw on Jewish text to solicit the leap of action that living a full Jewish life mandates.

*לְתַקֵּן עולָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁדַּי. וְכָל בְּנֵי בָשר יִקְרְאוּ בִשְׁמֶךָ לְהַפְנות אֵלֶיךָ כָּל רִשְׁעֵי אָרֶץ

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Time for an Inventory of "Meaningful Stuff" - Thursday Kavvanah, 1/12/2012

We are currently seeking a Director of Education, and as such I have seen a number of resumes of late.  One crossed my e-desk last night, notable for the following bullet points under one of the candidate's recent positions (I am not making this up!):
  • Prepared and taught original classes and lectures several times per week
  • Hosted Shabbat services and meals
  • Did some other meaningful stuff

Considering the rather flippant (and quite amusing) third point, it seems to me that there are really only three possibilities here:
1.  The candidate is not really looking for a job.
2.  The candidate never learned how to put together a resume properly.
3.  The candidate used it as a placeholder for something else that he could not come up with at the time, and figured that he would come back to it later, but apparently never did.

I am going to go with the third possibility, giving him kaf zekhut (the benefit of the doubt).  But the lesson we can all learn here is the following: every now and then, it's a good idea to take inventory of all the "meaningful stuff" in our lives, and make sure that we have followed through.  Where are the placeholders, the important items to which we intended to return?  Who are the friends, relatives, and colleagues to whom we still owe a call, a coffee, a card?  What are the elements of our internal curricula vitae that remain unedited?

Perhaps now would be a good time for review.  Behatzlahah!  Good luck!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Choosing and Being Chosen - Tuesday Kavvanah, 1/10/2012

My first job after graduate school in chemical engineering was in Manchester, New Hampshire, and whenever I hear news about New Hampshire (to which few of us pay attention between presidential primaries), I get all misty-eyed.  In thinking about today's election there, I am reminded that democracy affords people choices.  In fact, the modern Hebrew word for elections is behirot - literally, "choices."

And of course, the same is true regarding modern Judaism - we may choose to participate, or not.  Our morning tefillot / liturgy points in several places to God's having chosen Abraham and the Jewish nation as the inheritors of a unique covenant.  Perhaps the most appealing example is this:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', הַבּוחֵר בְּעַמּו יִשרָאֵל בְּאַהֲבָה
Barukh atah Adonai, haboher be-amo Yisrael be-ahavah.
Blessed are You, God, Who chooses His people Israel in love.

The language is neither passive nor past.  God chooses us on an ongoing basis.

To make this partnership work, however, we choose God.  We do so when we come to weekday morning tefillot, or keep kosher, or light candles for a holiday, or acknowledge the sanctity of the Shabbat by not checking email for 25 hours.

These are the ways in which we uphold our covenant with God, and re-affirm our individual and national relationships based in holiness.  In a world of ever-expanding choice, the democratically-sanctioned opportunity to choose Jewish life and practice should never be underestimated.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Who Has Made Me a Woman and Not a Man

An illuminating piece of history crossed my desktop today.  Elana Sztokman's post on the Forward's Sisterhood blog calls attention to a woman's siddur from 1471 in the Jewish Theological Seminary library's collection, includes a variant on a controversial line in birkhot ha-shahar, the morning blessings.  Today's Orthodox siddurim read as follows:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם. שֶׁלּא עָשנִי אִשָּׁה
Barukh atah Adonai, eloheinu melekh ha-olam, shelo asani ishah.
Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has not made me a woman.*

The Conservative Siddur Sim Shalom (all three editions) has changed the traditional berakhah to read:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם. שֶׁעָשנִי בְּצַלְמו 
Barukh atah Adonai, eloheinu melekh ha-olam, she-asani betzalmo.
Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has made me in His image.

This avoids slighting the half of humanity that is female, yielding a positive formula that recognizes that both women and men were created in the divine image.

But the 15th-century siddur, produced by scribe and rabbi Abraham Farissol as a groom's gift to his bride, replaces the "traditional" formula with the following:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם. שֶׁעָשיתַנִי אִשָּׁה וְלא אִישׁ
Barukh atah Adonai, eloheinu melekh ha-olam, she-asitani ishah velo ish.
Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who has made me a woman and not a man.

You can see a scanned image of this page in the siddur here.  Select page MS-8255_005v, and you will find this formula in the tenth line down on the page.  (The first six words are condensed into two acronyms.)

What is the import of this liturgical innovation?  As Sztokman points out, 

it demonstrates the flexibility and ongoing evolution of the prayer texts, even when it comes to issues of gender. It is perhaps obvious that prayers are not fixed in stone — after all, there are so many variations in “nusach,” or version, that it would seem difficult to make the opposite argument. Yet, the staunch opposition in even the most liberal Orthodox circles to the slightest textual changes can be astounding.
Particularly prior to the printing of Jewish books, which began in the very same decade that this hand-written siddur was produced, variations abounded.  There was no sense of fixed liturgy that many of us have today, and innovations such as this were not unusual.

Furthermore, the change in this berakhah

also disproves the notion that history has some kind of linear progression. The medieval Italian rabbi was pre-modern, pre-feminism, and even pre-industrialism. And yet, he executed what was arguably a great feminist act. Orthodox women are so often told by rabbis that change takes time, that we cannot rush history, that social understandings have to evolve at their own natural pace.
A similar case was made by Dr. Elisheva Baumgarten when she visited Temple Israel last spring, when she taught us that there exists a wealth of evidence that some Jewish women in medieval times donned tefillin on a regular basis, a scandalous act in many corners of the Jewish world today.  What many of us perceive to be normative Orthodox practice today was not necessarily what existed in the Middle Ages, and those who defend "tradition" should take a close look at what they are in fact defending.

Now that we are facing, particularly in Israel, horrific encroachment on women's rights to live, dress, walk on sidewalks and ride buses according to their will at the hands of extremists, this fascinating artifact sheds light on how much ground we may have lost in the last 500 years.  All the more reason, in my mind, to embrace the historical approach that Conservative Judaism has always favored.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

* Some traditional siddurim substitute a line for women to say here, concluding with שֶׁעָשנִי כִּרְצונו, Who has made me according to His will.  That is, thank you, God, for choosing to make me something that is not quite as important or relevant as a man.