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October 24, 2014 / 30 Tishri, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘rabbis’

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.

Hebrew Union Pres. Pulls Fast One in Non-Jewish Rabbi Debate

Friday, August 16th, 2013

Earlier this week, we ran a story about a reform cantor and rabbi whose father was Jewish but her mother was not, and who is serving in her two very Jewish sounding roles without the benefit of a proper—or even a Reform—conversion (It’s Official: You Can Be a Non-Jewish Rabbi). To me, it seemed like the ultimate, end-of-the-line kind of illustration of how far the Reform movement has strayed outside the rabbinical tent, although over the heated discussion that ensued by our readers it was mentioned that the lady in question is not the first non-Jewish Reform rabbi since the Reform movement enacted the doctrine of patrilineal descent to determine who is a Reform Jew.

We now received a response letter from David Ellenson, President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, protesting our article. I was conflicted over whether we should run the article as is, and expect our readers to debate it, or add my own running commentary. The reason I decided to do the latter, which, I admit, is taking advantage of my position as editor, at the expense of the author, is that the letter is rife with misleading information.

I debated this with our editor in chief, and we decided that, in the name of fairness, we’ll run only complete paragraphs of the Ellenson letter, in sequential order, and add comments only between paragraphs, much the way some people do when they respond to a long email. So, here we go:

To the Editor:

I recognize that the editors and authors of The Jewish Press have a different stance towards Judaism than we at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and in the Reform Movement do. Indeed, I do not question your right to approach Judaism and the issue of conversion as you deem proper even as our own principled position is distinct from yours. However, no less a rabbinic personage than Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer of Posen, the famed author of Drishat Tsiyon, referred to children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers – even without conversion – as zera kodesh. He asserted that “gdolei yisrael” could well spring from among these children.

The citation from Rabbi Kalischer of Posen (who vehemently rejected the Reform movement of his day, see Hertzberg, Arthur, The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader) is misleading, and a little bit offensive.

It suggests that Rabbi Kalischer—a student of Rabbi Akiva Eger and one of the most noted Zionist Rabbis of the early 1800s (he called for the redeeming of all of Eretz Israel and for the renewal of the Temple sacrifices, both values that I would love to see adopted by the Reform movement) supported the recognition of the offspring of Jewish men and their non-Jewish wives as Jews, without a halachic conversion.

Throwing such a ludicrous claim without proper citation does not befit the president of an academic institute, mostly because it forced yours truly to spend hours online in search of the cite. But I did. Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, affiliated with the RCA beit din in Montreal, told Paul Lungen of CJN (New standards possible for Orthodox conversions) about an 1864 case when two German rabbis, Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and Azriel Hildesheimer debated the standards to be applied to child conversion:

“Responding to a query from a rabbi in New Orleans, Rabbi Kalischer argued that if the child was brought up in a home where there was potential for him to grow in observance – even where the mother was gentile – the conversion should be approved. Rabbi Hildesheimer believed conversions should not be approved unless the parents were observant.”

In other words, the honorable president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is trying to pull off a dishonest shmear, suggesting that by his sweet comment that those children of Jewish fathers and gentile mothers are “holy seed” (zera kodesh) – he meant they could become rabbis without a proper conversion.

No, no, no. The debate was over whether a guy who marries a non-Jew can ask for a halachic conversion of their children, even though he is so outside the Jewish fold that he went and married a Jew.

In our own time, Rabbi Haim Amsalem of Israel, in his Zera Yisrael, has offered a broad survey of halakhic writing on this question and has made the same point as Rabbi Kalischer concerning the offspring of intermarried Russian families who have made aliyah to Israel. Rabbi Amsalem has written that such children, who share in the fate and destiny of our people, should be embraced.

This one is not merely a lie, but a stupid lie, because the rabbi in question is alive and well, and can speak for himself, which he did. Here, for the record, is rabbi Chaim Ansalem’s view on the conversion of children of intermarried Russian families (the text was shortened, the full version is available here):

Rabbis Urge Netanyahu to Quit Rather than Free Terrorists

Sunday, August 11th, 2013

The Rabbinical Congress for Peace (RCP), a group of 1,200 rabbis from the United States, Canada and Israel, has sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to each Cabinet minister, urging them to cancel their decision to release terrorists.

The agreement to free more than 100 terrorists was made to satisfy Palestinian Authority demands to resume direct talks on altering the borders of Israel, and the RCP it would be better for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to quit rather than buckle under American pressure.

“Out of all the deplorable and dangerous moves that governments in Israel carried out in the past to start a so called ‘peace process.’ the current move is the most dangerous of them,” the Rabbinical Congress wrote in a letter to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

“Today there is absolutely no expert or pundit who thinks that Abu Mazen is serious about peace with Israel, they know he has no control over the Arab street. ‘ In a final resolution, in the new Palestinian state we would not see the presence of a single Israeli,’ he told Egyptian journalists last week. Does he sound like a man seeking peace with Israel?”

The letter added that the Palestinian Authority “knows that the Obama Administration will never punish it if it balks but probably will only offer it more. The negotiations will, as in the past, only make matters worse and in the end the world will blame Israel.

“We unequivocally affirm that according to Jewish Law, if you cannot withstand the political pressure, each one of you is morally obligated to resign immediately. Releasing even one terrorist endangers Jewish lives. A recent research found that 75 percent of the terrorists that have been released in the past revert to attack Jews. This also encourages others to engage in terrorism confident that they will be released.

Thus it is better that the whole government resign than to release even one terrorist.

In a special message sent to Jewish Home party ministers, the rabbis added: “According to Jewish Law it is forbidden for you to remain even one day in a government that releases cruel terrorists and is prepared to negotiate with its enemies and murderers on the borders of Israel.

“You are not doing a favor to the Jewish nation by adding more apartments in Judea and Samaria because by remaining in a government that advances such dangerous policies you are stabbing the settlers in the back. Besides, there is no guarantee that you in fact will get these housing units following the international outcry against it.

“We pray and hope that the government of Israel will come to their senses the last minute and refrain from carrying out such an absurd policy. The Netanyahu government still has time to regret its life threatening decision and safeguard the security of the Jewish people in their land.

The RCP warned nearly 20 years ago repeatedly warned against negotiating surrender of land in Israel to the Palestinian Authority, a ruling that it has said “proved to be without error The Congress cited  the 2005 expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif and northern Gaza and their forced relocation elsewhere.” To their horror, they found their new homes repeatedly bombarded by missiles dispatched from the very homes that they themselves had built and from the very fields that they had tilled.

“Unfortunately, the predictions of this Ruling proved accurate: every single withdrawal in these years has invited waves of increased terror and bloodshed of thousands of Jews, men, women and children, young and old. And today, those withdrawals jeopardize the security of millions of Jews in Israel.”

Jewish Survival in the Face of Existential Threats: a Focus on Women

Friday, August 9th, 2013

Women have exercised their inherent gift of intuition and bravery to influence the course of Jewish history from the earliest time recorded.

The dramatic confrontation between Sarah and Avraham over the choice of successor, in effect a struggle over the survival of Judaism, was reenacted a generation later between Rivka and Yitzchak. In the face of his own preference, Rivka, just like Sarah, was intrinsically directed to choose the optimal heir to Yitzchak.

Egyptian Exile and Exodus are pivotal landmarks in the history of our people’s struggle for survival. References to Galut Mitzrayim (Exile in Egypt) and Yetziat Mitzrayim (Exodus from Egypt) are central to the entire corpus of Jewish socio-ethical teaching. Against such background, the rabbinic dictum that “It is to the credit of the righteous women that our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt” (Sotah 11) is quite remarkable. Our rabbis recognized the roles women played in making redemption possible.

The Hebrew midwives, who at the risk of their lives defied the edict of Pharaoh “and let the children live” (Sh’mot 1:17), were rewarded for their great courage, and “G-d granted a bounty for the midwives, and the nation multiplied and grew very mighty” (Sh’mot 1:20). The other women also did their share to ensure survival by keeping their appearance attractive and boosting their husbands’ morale.

Within this context the Midrash focuses on the role of Miriam whose admonishment prompted her own father to resume his marital duty. And so, the birth and survival of Moshe, the Divine instrument of Israel’s redemption, was the consequence of intuitive acts by a number of women which included, besides Miriam and Yocheved, even Pharaoh’s daughter who, by adopting Moshe and providing a Hebrew nurse for him, completed the first phase of Israel’s redemption.

Regarding the next phase of redemption, Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, our rabbis claim that the women were given the Torah first because it is they who teach their children “the ways of the Torah.” The teachers of “the way” to the next generation hold the secret of a people’s survival. They are the bridge to the Jewish future.

The Biblical precedent established a pattern for women of later generations to have a historically defined role as the vanguard in the struggle of Jewish survival. At every crucial juncture women have stepped into the historical vacuum to provide roles as unseen movers based on their prophetic intuition and their ability “to tune into” the existential self of the Jewish people.

From Rebbetzin Recha Freier who spearheaded a movement which evolved into the Youth Aliyah, a major instrument of rescue for Jewish children during the Holocaust, to Rivka Gruber, teacher, librarian, and social worker, who, after her two sons fell in Israel’s War of Independence, became the founder of a string of settlements in the Sharon Valley, women have been silent movers, creating educational, social, health and welfare infrastructures for the Jewish community.

And how about the women in our present situation of surrounding existential threat, the war of terror in Israel?

That chapter is being written even as we speak. Do you remember the name Chava Shatsky? How could you? She is one among innumerable heroines whose children were murdered by Arab terrorists, one name among hundreds. Her 15 year-old daughter Keren was killed by an Arab terrorist in the Karne Shomron mall on Motzei Shabbat, February 16, 2002.

I happen to remember because of a personal connection. Reading in The Jewish Press that Karen and the other casualties were pupils in Kedumim’s Ulpana Lehava, where someone from my family taught English, I immediately contacted her to offer my emotional support. When I started to speak and my words drowned in tears, it was she who comforted me. Yes, Keren was her pupil, she said, and Keren’s mother, Chava Shatsky, was the chairman of the department at Lehava.

“You must speak to Chava,” she advised me. “Chava will give you chizuk, strength… she gave chizuk to all of us. In our grief over Keren, the faith of Keren’s mother gave us all strength,” the young teacher said. When I expressed profound amazement, she continued: “Yes, it is amazing. Yet there are many other women who react similarly. And these women are the guarantee that we will make it,” she said with pride.

The young teacher’s words helped me. They helped me cope with the grief and face the future. Indeed, these heroic mothers, like Jewish women throughout our history of confrontation with existential threats are the guarantee that we will make it.

Want a Tzohar Rabbi for the Wedding? Avoid Petach Tikvah

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

The Religious Council of Petach Tikvah, located next to Tel Aviv, is generally known to give problems for couple wanting to get married by modern orthodox rabbis registered with the Tzohar organization, a rabbi told The Jewish Press Thursday.

Responding to the reported plight of a young man whose request for a certificate that he is single was rejected by the Petach Tikvah Religious Council, the rabbi, who has performed dozens of weddings, explained that the council is known for giving modern orthodox men a hard time.  He added that the rejection had nothing to do with the election loss  two weeks ago of Tzohar Rabbi David Stav to Haredi Rabbi David Lau

The Petach Council reportedly rejected the prospective groom’s request for a certificate because he opened a file with Tzohar. The Council tried to explain that the young man did not bring with him the required documents and that his wanting to be married by a Tzohar rabbi was irrelevant.

The rabbi who spoke with The Jewish Press suggested that the prospective groom travel to the nearby city of Shoham, where there is no problem with the Rabbinate.

Many Haredi rabbis on religious councils resent the growing popularity of Tzohar

 

 

Chief Rabbis & Politics

Monday, August 5th, 2013

I have never been a fan of chief rabbis. Anyone appointed by committees, politicians, or bureaucrats is suspect in my eyes. Perhaps my antipathy is rooted in the days when both Napoleon and the czar appointed state chief rabbis whom they approved of because they were likely to support their agendas. I can say with confidence that, in general, the greatest rabbis, whether intellectually or spiritually, have never been interested in public appointments.

I don’t mean to say that all chief rabbis have been duds. Israel’s Chief Rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook, Isaac Herzog, and Uziel were great men by any criteria. Chief Rabbi Goren was a dynamic overachiever and a fearless innovator. Some, like Ovadiah Yosef, have been great scholars but poor spokesmen. But there have been too many others who were undiplomatic, corrupt, or ineffective. The reason can simply be put down to politics. When appointments are made by groups of political appointees (or self-appointed grandees) they invariably make the wrong decisions. Neither is public acclaim a reliable test of the best person for the job. Those who seek or need public recognition are rarely willing or able to take the tough and controversial stands that are the mark of genuine leadership.

Israel recently appointed two chief rabbis, both the sons of previous chief rabbis. I do not know either of them. But remarks I have seen attributed to them leave me deeply depressed that they will reflect a xenophobic, narrow perspective and shrink from trying to humanize the rabbinate. The political maneuvering, the arm twisting, the deals behind closed doors all point to a corrupt system. And once gain the innovative, the exciting have lost out. If a good man ever emerges it is despite the system not because of it. Nepotism is a poor way of producing great leaders. Yet throughout Jewish religious institutions nepotism is the norm rather than the exception. Yeshivot nowadays are often big family businesses (as indeed are most Chasidic dynasties).

Israel has two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazi and the other Sefardi. This in itself is evidence of how flawed the system is, that in a small religion such as ours religious leadership cannot work together. In addition, in Israel, there is a huge disconnect between the religious leadership and the common person, between the state rabbinate and the Charedi world, which has its own authorities. Indeed the Charedi world always rubbished and abused the state rabbinate until, in the desperate search for jobs for the boys and power, it began to infiltrate and then take much of it over. Once again it has ensured that its candidates have got the jobs.

One of the first words in Ivrit I learnt was “protektsia” (yes, I know it comes from Russian). “Vitamin P” meant you could not get anywhere in Israeli life, from top to bottom, religious or secular, without knowing someone or having someone pull strings in your behalf. So it was and so it largely remains. When this disease infects religion, it loses its moral authority.

But surely, you will say, Judaism requires one to respect one’s religious leaders. In theory this is so. The Torah commands respect for princes and scholars. Our liturgy is full of references to their importance. But there are two very distinct types of leadership in our tradition. The prophet and the judge emerged through merit. That’s probably why there were women judges and prophets. Rabbis as a rule were the result of meritocracy (the rabbinic dynasties that began with Hillel wanted to have their cake and eat it). On the other hand, the priesthood and the monarchy were both hereditary, and both failed. Most of the Jewish kings were idolatrous, evil men, and most priests showed more interest in money and power than Divine service.

Moshe typified the meritocracy. This was why he always defended himself by referring to his spotless record. It is true we say that in each generation we must accept the leader, Jephtah in his generation as the equivalent of Samuel in his. But I believe that has another meaning, of the need to accept the best we can get.

“Pray for the welfare of the ruling powers because otherwise humans would swallow each other up,” says the Mishna. That very Hobbesian idea underpins our modern secular states. But as Locke argued, if the king failed to do his job, you could and should get rid of him. This is why we pray for the State wherever we live, even as we may try our best to vote out whoever the current prime minister is. We in the West have recently experienced the irrational hysteria over a royal baby. I have no interest in ordinary people being elevated to positions of power or even symbolic authority simply on the basis of birth. There are enough inequalities in life of rank and wealth. I like the fact that we can vote people out of office as much as in. If I choose to respect someone, it is on the basis of the respect he or she earns, not the position they have been given. The diploma should be greater than the diaper.

I look forward to Elijah’s arrival. I hope he will not try to reinstate the monarchy. But I am pretty sure he will not insist on two kings, one Ashkenazi and the other Sefardi.

One of the reasons for so much disillusion with religion is precisely this disconnect between how its leaders too often behave and speak and their own purported religious values. The more we see how susceptible religious leadership is to money, power, and fame, the less good the religion they represent looks. I don’t care too much what politicians like Spitzer or Weiner get up to, and if people want to vote for them that’s their problem. But when religious leadership behaves like political leadership, something is very wrong.

R. Lau to Submit Conversion Rulings to Haredi Review in Backroom Deal

Monday, August 5th, 2013

Three weeks after the stunning knockout a coalition of Haredi and Hardali (National religious Haredim) politicians delivered to Jewish Home and its hapless leader, Minister of Religious Services Naftalli Bennett, Ma’ariv reveals the price that had to be paid before the approval of Rabbi David Lau by the extremist Haredi camp: control over non-Haredi conversions.

Over the past three weeks, we’ve heard nothing but praise for the new Ashkenazi chief rabbi, who, as rabbi of Modi’in, a typical mixed religious and secular Israeli town, has shown the kind of moderation and acceptance one expects of a rabbinical shepherd. Some, like National Religious pundit Menachem Rahat, have gone so far as to suggest that under normal circumstances—meaning before the overwhelming sweep of Jewish Home and the ousting of the Haredim from government—someone as sweet and accepting as Rabbi David Lau would not have stood a chance to be selected, and that he was picked only as a desperate response to the popular Rabbi David Stav, a National Religious scholar and leader who was going to revamp the chief rabbinate.

And it worked. Like Menachem Rahat, the prevailing tone of the National Religious commentators following Lau’s election (and Stav’s defeat) has been that at least Rabbi Lau is a nice guy, a moderate, a uniter, not a divider.

All those well wishers may have to reexamine their praises now. According to Ma’ariv, in closed conversations Rabbi David Lau conducted with some Haredi decision makers before the vote, he gave them his commitment that all of his ruling regarding conversions would be submitted to a review by Rabbi Avraham Sherman, the man who gained his reputation as the killer of Rabbi Chaim Druckman’s thousands of kosher giurim-conversions.

Back in May of 2008, the Supreme Rabbinical Court judges Rabbis Hagai Izirer, Avraham Sherman and Avrohom Sheinfeld annulled thousands of conversions done by two National Religious rabbis, determining that:

“First, all conversions performed since 1999 by Rabbi Chaim Avior and Rabbi Chaim Drukman must be disqualified; second, conversions can be retroactively annulled for those who are not observant.”

Attorney Susan Weiss, founding director of the Center for Women’s Justice (JOFA), told Ynet in 2008 that the verdict had far-reaching implications on thousands of people who underwent conversion in the last few years—and on their children.

Much has been written and said about the case, which had territorial war written all over it. It was the first case of such massive, retroactive annulments of giurim-conversions, and the fact that the injured rabbis were renowned National Religious figures, while the court that destroyed their decades of work—as part of the chief rabbinate!—was comprised only of Haredim, was a sign that the Haredim were determined to annul not just the conversions, but also the foothold of the religious Zionists in the Chief Rabbinate.

In the spring of 2012, Israel’s Supreme Court re-affirmed the validity of the thousands of conversions disqualified retroactively by the Rabbinical Court in 2008, but stopped short of saying the rabbinical courts did not have the authority to annul conversions.

Still, the justices did not spare the rabbinical court their criticism. Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch wrote in the verdict:

“The Rabbinical Court of Appeals rode roughshod over basic procedural rules and the principles of natural justice. It demonstrated contempt for the special conversion courts, and above all, it hurt and did a shocking injustice to the petitioners and their children.”

Maariv spoke to Rabbi Sherman who confirmed the story about the condition for Rabbi Lau’s election. According to rabbi Sherman, Rabbi Lau met with Rabbi Yosef Efrati, a confidant of the late Rabbi Elyashiv, leader of the Lithuanian Haredim.

“Rabbi Lau told Rabbi Efrati that on all matters regarding conversions he would come to talk to me and consult in me before reaching a decision, because I have been involved in these issues as a confidant of Rabbi Elyashiv, and I am familiar with his rulings on these matters.”

And so the circle is complete: the most fundamental driving force behind the candidacy of Rabbi David Stav, the celebrated chairman of the Tzohar organization, dedicated to making life under halacha more palatable for secular Israelis, was the brutal treatment of thousands of converts by Rabbi Sherman and his co-justices. Now it is clear that not only did the Haredi politicians manage to subvert the attempts to ease their hold on religious life in the country, but that Religious Zionism has lost the most crucial battle of that campaign. The forces that gave us the disqualification of thousands of Jewish lives are back at the helm, stronger and smarter.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/r-lau-to-submit-conversion-rulings-to-haredi-review-in-vote-deal/2013/08/05/

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