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Posts Tagged ‘rabbis’

YCT, Heterodoxy, and Agudah

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Agudath Israel has come out with a new statement about Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT). They are ‘deeply troubled’ that YCT is hosting a group of 4 non-Orthodox rabbis at the installation of their new president, Rabbi Asher Lopatin. They will be involved in a roundtable discussion entitled “Training New Rabbis for a New Generation”.

I have mixed emotions about this. But I am in fact pleased that Agudah has responded to it – even if in a negative way. This shows that they must recognize YCT as an Orthodox institution. Which it is, in my view. I don’t for example believe they would be criticizing the Conservative Movement if they invited Reform rabbis to a roundtable of their own.

My feelings about this issue are mixed for the following reasons.

On the one hand – there is the rather well known decision by the Gedolei HaDor of the previous generation to forbid any interaction with non Orthodox movements. The fear was that by doing so, it would tacitly imply recognizing their legitimacy. Orthodoxy rejects heterodox movements and considers them illegitimate.

It is also rather well known that Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik made a distinction between interacting with them on any theological matters – which he also forbade; and interacting with them on non theological matters that impacted on the welfare of all of Jewry – which he permitted.

I agree with Rav Soloveitchik’s perspective. The question is whether this round table falls into the category of theological discussion or not. I’m not sure – but if I had to peg it, I would lean toward putting such a roundtable on the theological side of the argument and thus forbid it.

That said, I wonder if that would be true if matters of actual theology were expressly left out of the discussion. And the round table was limited to a discussion of practical non-theological rabbinics. Like psychological counseling or how to go about giving advice to congregants. The truth is that heterodox rabbis probably have a lot to offer in the realm of practical non theological rabbinics. As would say a mental health professional or even a priest or minister for that matter.

On the other hand, since this is a Yeshiva hosting heterodox rabbis I would be hard pressed to say that there would be no theological aspect to it. It is a virtual impossibility to completely leave out theology in such a discussion. Which is why I would be opposed to it.

There is, however, another thing to consider. What is extant today was not extant when the Gedolei HaDor forbade such interactions. Times have changed in ways which make me wonder if we should re-examine our positions. Let me hasten to add that I do not advocate the policies of Open Orthodoxy that YCT represents. They have rejected the prohibition of interacting with non-Orthodox rabbis and now freely advocate full engagement with them at all levels – including theological ones.

But I think it is fair to evaluate the reasons they have done it. Times have indeed changed. When the prohibition was made, it was a time that Reform and Conservative movements were on the ascendancy. They were a real threat to Orthodox Judaism. Orthodoxy in America was in relative infancy then. To wit – Rav Aharon Kotler who was the driving force behind the prohibition headed a Yeshiva of about 300 students when he died. Today there are over 6000 students there and they are growing exponentially. There are also now many smaller Yeshivos like Lakewood that are now thriving. They did not exist at that time.

There is no question that the small group of Orthodox Jews at the time were seen by most non Orthodox observers as a dying relic of an ancient past. While Heterodox movements were flourishing and growing by leaps and bounds. It is very understandable that the Gedolei HaDor did not want to give any semblance of recognition to them. Their ‘David’ was fighting a very large Goliath.

But today – the tables have turned. We are the ones growing. They are either shrinking (Conservative) or redefining Jewishness to include non Halachic Jews (Reform).

It is therefore a fact that heterodoxy is no longer the threat to Orthodoxy it once was – if at all. It is now apathy and indifference that is the enemy. Jews are leaving Judaism in droves. They do not see any denomination as relevant to their lives. They see themselves as secular human beings in the brotherhood of man – without the slightest connection to Judaism. One might even say that Conservative and even Reform Judaism today is at least trying to get them to retain their Jewish identity if nothing else.

In the light of all this, perhaps this is a Hora’as Shah – time to act and change the paradigm. Maybe YCT is not so terribly wrong headed in partnering up with these movements. I do not see legitimizing them as a danger anymore. The danger is in the growing numbers of unaffiliated Jews who have no problem with intermarriage and tend to buy into the ‘Apartheid’ narrative about Israel found in the secular liberal/leftist environment in which they live.

This is not to say that I agree with YCT. I don’t. I am not qualified to make judgments about Hora’as Shah. I am just thinking out loud. For example one might argue that giving them legitimacy in any setting, no less a Yeshiva, is forbidden in principal – having nothing to do with whether doing so is some sort of existential danger to Orthodoxy. I can just as easily see this argument as I can YCT’s argument.

Perhaps the fact that there is another aspect to this now that did not exist before is why Agudah has not thrown YCT out of Orthodoxy – as publications like the Yated have advocated. They must realize that they are Orthodox in that they follow Halacha… and that their intentions with respect to heterodoxy are good – even if badly mistaken for the reasons stated. And for that, I applaud them.

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Torah & Norman Solomon

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Having just celebrated Simchat Torah, the festival of the Torah, the question of its source and authority remains at the very center of our current religious debate. But it’s a minefield, quicksand that can consume and even destroy the best of minds. In all the years I have worked in the rabbinate I have come across many devoted, hardworking men, but very few of them have been innovative thinkers of any note. Whatever gifts they may have had as speakers or writers, they have almost all avoided tackling fundamental theological issues. Some out of fear for their jobs, others out of fear of their peers, and of course others simply had neither the inclination nor the training to question and challenge core beliefs. It may be that the demands of the rabbinate are so overwhelming that they afford insufficient time. The fact is that almost all the intellectually creative rabbis I have come across throughout the Jewish world have left the full time rabbinate, mainly for academia.

Indeed it is in academia nowadays that all the creative Orthodox Jewish thinking is taking place. One can now find Charedi academics working in Israeli universities on what hitherto were always regarded as heretical approaches to Torah. Synagogues and communities, on the other hand, are centers of conformity and socialization. They do of course fulfill a very important need. Most people come to synagogues precisely to reinforce their social identity and needs and not to be forced into the painful process of grappling with ideas of faith.

I have just read Norman Solomon’s Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith. It is an important book for anyone grappling with traditional Judaism. And it calls to mind the great Louis Jacobs controversy that rocked and soured Anglo-Jewry for so long.

Louis Jacobs was a product of traditional Yeshivot and Kollels, a Jew who adhered strictly to halacha throughout his life, a gifted teacher, a caring pastoral rabbi and, his biggest fault if you could call it a fault, a painfully honest man. He was a man of such impeccable stature and religious integrity that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe called him to give testimony at a court hearing in New York over the Rebbe’s library. In a small work, We Have Reason to Believe, he brought traditional sources to show how the idea that all of the Torah was given to Moses on Sinai, was a complex idea, with textual, historical, and philosophical problems that needed to be addressed, and indeed could be, in modern philosophical terms. He was a senior lecturer at Jews College, a pulpit rabbi and a candidate to succeed Israel Brodie as Chief Rabbi.

But appointing Chief Rabbis has always been a fraught, Machiavellian political process, as recent maneuverings perfectly illustrate. Louis Jacobs was blocked by an unholy alliance of envious, narrow-minded, and politically ambitious rabbis whose background was both anti-intellectual and fundamentalist. They needed an excuse to hound him out of contention for leadership of Anglo-Jewry, and they succeeded. The result was that he was treated immorally by the religious leadership of Anglo-Jewry to his dying day, even being denied an aliyah at his own grandson’s Bar Mitzvah under a much lauded Chief Rabbi who ought to have known better. One can think of no better example of the moral bankruptcy of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy. I myself was banned at one stage from contributing to an establishment publication called Leylah because I had written a sympathetic article about him.

Norman Solomon was a distinguished rabbi in the Anglo-Jewish Orthodox United Synagogue with whom I have had intermittent contact over the years and whom I admire and respect. We share a Cardiff connection, as well as Cambridge and philosophy. Intellectually rigorous, sensitive, and modest, he served major communities with distinction before retiring to academia. First he helped establish the Centre for the Study of Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations at the Selly Oak Colleges, which put him in the forefront of interfaith activity, and then he became fellow in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and a member of Wolfson College. Now, in the late stages of his career, he has tackled in public the very same issue that Louis Jacobs tried to deal with fifty years ago, but in greater depth and width.

It is a sad reflection on the current state of intellectual dishonesty and censorship in the Orthodox world that fundamentalism rules in the rabbinate. Only in academia can we find men like Marc Shapiro and Menachem Kellner, to name the best known, who are willing, from a position of committed Orthodoxy, to stand up and refuse to be deterred from examining honestly received ideas and showing how they are not simplistic clichés of belief but important, complex concepts that need more than superficial assent. Torah from Heaven stands with Marc Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology as a seminal work that delves into the richness of our heritage to show that there is more than one way of looking at core religious ideas.

Catholicism reacted to the challenge of science in the nineteenth century by retreating behind the walls of certainty and dogma, insisting on papal infallibility. Orthodox Judaism has now adopted this mode. But I believe the easy access that modern technology and the internet gives us to the variety of texts and opinions that have existed in Judaism over thousands of years is taking the seals off the archives. The light shed will inevitably open minds and produce new approaches. The current battle over conscription in Israel gives the impression that the Charedi world in its entirety is set against secular education. But in reality, the interesting fact is that more and more Charedim are getting PhDs in Judaica nowadays, which means that new ideas are simmering within the fortress of Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy lives by practice rather than theology. I get really offended when zealots try to suggest that unless you believe a specific formulation of whatever, then you are “beyond the pale”. The Torah does not use the formulation, “You must believe,” which is a very Greek idea. Instead it posits certain fundamental assertions and leaves it up to us as to how we understand them. If God did not insist on a rigidly defined credo, why should we? If we want to retain critical, thinking, and open minds, we must offer intellectual rigor, not just religiously correct slogans. This book gives us a history of the issues and how different thinkers over the centuries have dealt with the challenges of the Torah. It is a major contribution. Thank you, Norman.

Why Did Kayin Kill Hevel? (Rabbi Goldin Gets It Wrong)

Monday, September 30th, 2013

My encounter with Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s “Unlocking the Torah Text” this weekend nearly gave me a stroke. And all I covered was his section on parsha Bereshis.

There were two terrible passages. We’ll deal with one now, and get to the other later.

In brief, I hold there are two incorrect theories of midrash. I call them the “moron approach” and the “skeptical approach.” The moron approach, beloved by idiots who think their stupidity proves their piousness, hold that our sages were merely receiving vessels who did nothing but repeat whatever they heard from their own rebbes. They say the midrashim, in their entirety, go back to Sinai, in one long game of telephone, with not one of the Sages ever making use of his own intelligence or creative powers to add or subtract from the original teaching.

This, thankfully, is not Goldin’s approach.

Instead, Goldin embraces the skeptical approach telling us that midrashim are not really interpretations of verses. Instead, they are something the Sages used to encode and transmit Deep Ideas. Here’s how he puts it:

Midrashim are vehicles through which the Rabbis.. transmit significant messages and lessons. As such, they are not necessarily meant… to explain the factual meaning of a Torah passage.

The Goldin passage I quote above is actually a (unattributed) paraphrase of something that the Ramchal says in Maamar al Haagadot. And let me make this clear: The Ramchal’s approach is a sound way of dealing with problematic midrashim. Trouble is, too many people use this approach to deal with midrashim that are not problematic at all. And this is precisely what Goldin does.

The Midrash he attempts, in this example,  to reveal as a vehicle for transmitting secret lessons is found in Berashis Raba, Berashis 23:16 where various rabbis are quoted discussing competing reasons for Kayin’s attack on Hevel.

In summary:

(1) The brothers divided up the world, with one taking the land, and the other taking the animals. When Kayin saw Hevel standing on “his” land he objected.

(2) The brothers divided up the land and the animals even-steven but both wanted the land where the future Bes Hamikdash would stand. So they fought

(3) The brothers both wanted Chava Rishona, and fought over her. (Chava Rishona is how the Midrash solves the problem of Eve’s two creation stories. The first Chava (the one created alongside Adam in Genesis 1:27) was rejected, and replaced by the Chava created from Adam’s rib in 2:21 leading Adam to declare in 2:23 “Zos Hapaam / This time [I am happy with the Chava]!”)

(4) Hevel had two twin sisters while Kayin had only one. They fought over Hevel’s extra sister (the existence of the twins are indicated by the superfluous word “es” in 4:1 and 4:2 where Kayin’s birth announcement is accompanied with only one “es”, thus one twin, while Hevel’s birth announcement has two appearances of “es” which to the Rabbis suggested two twins.

According to Goldin, none of this should be construed at an attempt to interpret and explain the Kayin and Hevel story. Instead the Sages are “expressing global observations” regarding the real reasons why men go to war, namely territory, religion and women.

And then he makes it abundantly clear that he hasn’t even taken the elementary first step of consulting the midrash in question, writing:

Fundamentally, the Rabbis make the following statement in this Midrash: We were not present when Kayin killed Hevel. Nor can we glean any information directly from the biblical text concerning the source of their dispute.”

Only, even the briefest glance at the text of the Midrash shows this is not true! The Rabbis are not making a statement in unison about Global Facts, nor are they sharing Big Ideas. Rather they are arguing about nothing more than the plain meaning of the verse.

Each of the four suggested reasons for the fight are based on something specific and anomalous in the text, as the Midrash itself tells us, namely the seemingly extra detail about where the fight occurred.

The verse says: “While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.”

Why mention the field?

(1) Because Kayin and Hevel split the world, with one (the farmer) taking the land, and the other (the sheep herder) taking the animals. In the field, Kayin objected to his brother standing on land, which he owned, so they fought.

(2) The word “field” is often a keyword for the Bes Hamikdash  (eg Micha 3:12) The brothers successfully divided up the entire world, but when they got to the field, ie, the Bes Hamikdash they fought

(3 and 4) Field is also a keyword for women. Both are, um,  plowed (Not my pun! Its in chazal!) and also because of Deuteronomy 22:25 where it says: “If a man finds a girl in the field.” So when the brothers reached the field, ie the woman, they fought.

None of this, by the way,  is a DovBear interpretation. All of it is right there in the plain text of the midrash – which Goldin would have encountered had he checked the midrash before embarking on his unnecessary attempt to “decode” it.

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White House Briefs Reform and Conservative Rabbis on Syria

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

Nearly 700 rabbis and other Jewish communal officials were briefed by a top White House aide on President Obama’s Syria plans.

The call Tuesday with Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, was organized by the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and attracted 691 callers from all religious streams, according to Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the RA’s executive vice president.

She said that rabbis were eager to be briefed on Syria so they could better discuss the issue in their Yom Kippur sermons.

Rabbis on the call pressed Rhodes on the moral underpinnings of striking Syria, distinctions between responses to the use of conventional weapons on civilians as opposed to chemical weapons, what the administration’s endgame in Syria was, and on how its Syria considerations affected its relationship with Israel.

Agunot Activist Woman Appointed to Panel for Jewish Judges

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has appointed the first woman as one of the members of the State Committee for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.

Dr. Rachel Levmore, director of the Project for the Prevention of Agunot and Get-Refusal of the International Young Israel Movement and the Jewish Agency, was named to the panel based on her expertise in Talmudic and Jewish law and her social activism on behalf of “agunim,” women who cannot re-marry because their ex-husbands refused to grant them a divorce, as required by Jewish law before re-marriage.

Dr. Levmore has actively brought about the spread of the acceptance of prenuptial agreements as a successful preventative tool to the problem of the agunah.

Violent Guards and Violent Haredi Extremists Duel in Beit Shemesh

Monday, September 9th, 2013

Six people were wounded and 10 were arrested at a Beit Shemesh construction site Monday when violent Arab guards beat Haredi extremists who broke into a construction site where the Haredim claim Jewish graves are being desecrated.

The guards blocked medics from treating the injured, one paramedic said.

One of the construction site’s project managers is Aryeh Golobinzitz, who is Haredi from Jerusalem and who previously has been beaten up by members of the extremist Atra Kadisha sect. Police detained Golobinzitz and another manager for questioning, along with six security guards and two Haredim.

The protesters broke into the site, and the guards beat them, and one of the victims claimed he was hit with a metal rod during the brawl, which is only the latest of several clashes. Police arrested more than two dozen people last month after hundreds of  Haredi extremists blocked roads and set fires.

Leading Haredi rabbis have rejected Atra Kadisha claims that the construction is taking place over Jewish graves.

In the spirit of the Days of Awe and Repentance, rabbis from Atra Kadisha and from the opposing Edat Haredim community agreed that an inspector from Bnei Brak would be present at the site to make sure no Jewish graves are desecrated.

The agreement lasted as long as Rosh HaShanah and the Fast of Gedaliah, the day afterwards.

On Monday, five days before Yom Kippur, the agreement was as worth as much as the Rosh HaShanah vows to be law abiding Jews reaching out to each other with love and understanding.

On Yom Kippur, which falls on Shabbat this year, there probably will not be any protests, but nothing is certain.

Failing in Order to Succeed

Monday, August 19th, 2013

The rabbis teach that we can only truly understand Torah when we allow ourselves to fail at it (Gittin 43a). Unless we push ourselves to reach for deeper understanding, where we inevitably get it wrong before we can get it right, we will not grasp the very essence of the Jewish enterprise. Rashi here seems to think that it’s the public shame of getting it wrong (and the concomitant rebuke) that strengthens one’s intellectual rigor. It is not hard to think about giving constructive feedback (“rebuke”) when it comes to moral matters, but do we care enough about ideas that we (respectfully) challenge others when ideas are misinterpreted or misapplied? How much do we really value the marketplace of ideas and the assurance that we as individuals and as a society get it right?

History is full of examples of leaders who acknowledged that persistence in the face of failure was more important than individual failures. President Abraham Lincoln, whose army suffered many crushing defeats in the early years of the Civil War, said: “I am not concerned that you have fallen — I am concerned that you arise.” A century later, Robert F. Kennedy echoed the optimistic spirit of youth when he said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Besides for being tragically assassinated, what these presidents have in common in that their causes lasted, their legacies carried on, and they are remembered as being among the greatest and most successful men to occupy the Oval Office.

Very often, one can be lured by the traps of conformism (just follow others’ ideas or practices) or isolationism (just follow one’s own marginal ideas and practices). Our job as Jews is to break free from these ploys for mediocrity. We must challenge ourselves and the status quo to reach higher by engaging with societal ideas but without blindly accepting them.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the Chassidic movement) and founder and intellectual-spiritual leader in his own right, was anything but a conformist. He not only told his followers to be happy, but he also encouraged them to do silly things, highly unusual for a religious leader. Rebbe Nachman stated that each person had to fall in order to rise, and stressed the universality of this concept:

[E]ach person who fell … thinks that these words weren’t spoken for him, for he imagines that these ideas are only for great people who are always climbing from one level to the next. But truthfully, you should know and believe, that all these words were also said concerning the smallest of the small and the worst of the worst, for Hashem is forever good to all.

However, Rebbe Nachman went further, stating that it is “a great thing for a person to still have an evil inclination.” Even the tendency to evil could serve G-d, as people worked through these passions and eventually overcame them. To Rebbe Nachman, it seems, spiritual stasis is the only unacceptable path.

We must be willing to learn and debate with others. Ideas matter. Inevitably that will lead to some level of shame when we get it wrong, but the promise land afterwards is much greater. It offers a culture of more honest, informed, connected individuals who are willing to be vulnerable for the sake of truth and who are willing to be wrong in order to get it right. Our great rabbinic and presidential leaders wouldn’t have it any other way.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/failing-in-order-to-succeed/2013/08/19/

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