By Avrohom Gordimer
There are times when one must take a firm stand and stake out a principled position, or deal with what may be the nightmarish consequences of not standing strong. And there are watershed moments in Jewish history, when new events and trends that portend substantial challenge to the stability of Jewish practice must be addressed. We have just witnessed both of the above transpire.
Leadership of mainstream Orthodox organs which largely represent Modern Orthodoxy has drawn a line and publicly declared that partnership minyanim (prayer groups that identify as Orthodox, in which men and women both lead parts of the service) are not within the parameters of acceptable Orthodox practice. Responding to a proliferation of partnership minyanim, including their occurrence in liberal Orthodox synagogues and the serious challenges to traditional Orthodox tefillah that the partnership minyan phenomenon has engendered, the Orthodox establishment has taken decisive action – action that hearkens back to the historically-defining actions by the same Orthodox establishment regarding the issue of mechitza over half a century ago.
The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) began the process with the publication of piskei halacha to this effect by R. Hershel Schachter, R. Gedalia Dov Schwartz and R. Nachum Rabinovitch, along with a lengthy research article by Rabbis Drs. Aryeh and Dov Frimer which concludes that partnership minyanim are beyond the halachic pale. Then, Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological seminary (RIETS) threatened to withhold semicha from one of its students over the matter and subsequently issued a statement affirming the necessity of commitment to normative halachic process and the essential role of preeminent rabbinic authority therein, which are the larger backdrop to the partnership minyanim discussion; the RIETS statement also specified that RIETS does not consider partnership minyanim acceptable. Subsequently, R. Jeremy Wieder of RIETS penned a compelling halachic essay in conformity with the position that partnership minyanim are not acceptable to Orthodoxy, while at the same time, Orthodox Union leadership affirmed the same position to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reporter, who wrote:
The consensus of the rabbis to whom the Orthodox Union turns for halachic guidance is unequivocal, that partnership minyanim are improper,” said the statement, signed by rabbis Steven Weil and Tzvi Hersh Weinreb. ”It is our goal to assert this position in a way that strives to maintain the unity of the Jewish people.
The only Orthodox institution in the country that seems open to the minyans is Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the liberal Orthodox rabbinical seminary in Riverdale. The founder of that school, Rabbi Avi Weiss, long has stirred controversy for his positions on women’s issues: He ordained the first Orthodox clergywoman several years ago and has established a yeshiva for ordaining women as clergy. His synagogue, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, has allowed partnership minyans to take place in the building.
As was to be expected, proponents of partnership minyanim and of a vision of Orthodoxy that does not defer to preeminent rabbinic authority on many issues pushed back. While such pushback to policies that reflect the controlling input of preeminent rabbinic authority is typical to some far-left Orthodox detractors of mainstream Orthodoxy, defenders of partnership minyanim have now come up with a new label to apply negatively to Orthodox leadership that does not accept partnership minyanim and other controversial religious innovations, in yet another attempt to discredit such leadership and set it up as a straw man to conveniently knock over.
In the latest of many recent efforts to undermine the legitimacy of mainstream Modern Orthodox leadership’s insistence on deference to preeminent rabbinic authority on issues such as partnership minyanim and other matters that touch upon the halachic and meta-halachic realms, Dr. Steven Bayme negatively labels the stance of this leadership as one of a “Da’as Torah” mentality, akin to the Haredi approach that Dr. Bayme dismisses with strident criticism. Dr. Bayme confuses the Da’as Torah concept of seeking rabbinic input on issues that are not inherently in the sphere of Halacha (such as choice of profession, choice of spouse, and the question of for whom to vote in elections – something that has greatly sullied the image of the Da’as Torah approach among much of the Israeli electorate in the past few decades) with the notion of Emunas Chachamim, which requires one to consult and heed the counsel of preeminent Torah experts on major religious issues, including but not limited to halachic innovations such as partnership minyanim. By throwing out the Da’as Torah card and conflating it with the real matter at hand, Dr. Bayme assigns a stereotype label to mainstream Modern Orthodox leadership in a confused effort to discredit it and its positions.
Dr. Bayme seeks precedent for his stance by invoking the legacy of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, grossly mistaking Rav Hirsch’s positive stance toward secular learning and culture (the aspects thereof which do not conflict with Torah values) as precedent for Dr. Bayme’s own viewpoint that is dismissive of seeking counsel from preeminent rabbinic authority. Dr. Bayme presents a vision of Orthodoxy that curtails rabbinic authority and leaves halachic and meta-halachic decision-making to those not expertly versed in these fields, even when pertaining to matters of immense halachic significance:
Modern Orthodoxy treads a far more difficult path of seeking both to preserve rabbinic authority yet constrain that authority so as to allow for intellectual freedom and expression of diverse viewpoints. Modern Orthodox leaders today may choose to engage modern culture and thereby exercise leadership on the critical questions of gender equality, conversion to Judaism, Jewish education, intra-Jewish relations, and the challenges of contemporary biblical scholarship to traditional faith, to say nothing of Israel’s future as a Jewish state.
Yes, Dr. Bayme envisions an Orthodoxy in which conversion standards, gender roles within religious practice, the propriety of Biblical Criticism and its relationship with issues of faith, and other very significant religious issues may be decided without or in contradiction to the input of preeminent rabbinic authority. Such an Orthodoxy substantially violates precedent and is antithetical to the serious halachic character of the issues under discussion.
Taking a step back, Dr. Bayme’s position reveals a vision of Orthodoxy which is in effect crafted to one’s liking, where Torah authority takes a back seat to one’s personal religious path and practice and whomever he or she selects as the local rabbi, beyond whose desk issues may not pass for consultation with those more expert.
Divorcing Orthodoxy from the counsel of preeminent Torah authorities may be empowering and creative, but Orthodox it is not.
Rabbi Gordimer is a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, as well as the New York Bar. The opinions in the above article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of any other individuals or entities.
Who’s on first?
I would score this as a victory for the team that batted second.
It is thoroughly in good taste.
It also, ironically, leaves no room for the genuine anti-charedi haters. It depicts graphically just how those who choose can easily, if given the chance, transition into roles in the IDF and the workforce, without losing their chitzoniyus or their commitment to halacha.
The comments on my previous post on this subject make a number of useful points. In the aggregate, however, they do not deal with what I am getting at, namely that the gay rights movement is different, both in its rapidity and its impact, than other major social movements that this country has experienced and that the consequences for religious Jewish life may be serious. A number of comments refer to intermarriage and how Orthodox life has proceeded without being impeded by the avalanche of intermarriage experienced by American Jewry. Apart from the not inconsequential matter that from a halachic standpoint homosexuality is a more serious violation than intermarriage, the reality is that the gay rights movement means to change not only how individuals may behave – that is people should be free to determine who they marry – it means to radically change how people deal with gay rights and SSM.
The point is made in Ross Douthat’s terrific piece in Monday’s NY Times. Its title, “The Terms of Our Surrender,” is what I am getting at. Douthat begins by recognizing that the battle against gay marriage is lost and then wonders what the terms of this surrender may be. One scenario, apparently advocated by Andrew Sullivan, is that gay righters should be content with their victory and not seek to impose their will on those who oppose SSM. The other camp is far more aggressive, so that as an example, a caterer or photographer would not be able to refuse his/her services at a gay marriage.
In this scenario, gay rights are placed in the same category as racial discrimination, so that there is no wiggle room – at least not legally – for those who want to assert their personal or religious preference.
The problem is that gay rights and civil rights ought not to be considered in the same breath. The latter was always wrongful, irrespective of the reality that too many people were bigoted and, indeed, too many people remain bigoted. Except for what apparently occurred in what may be regarded as ancient history, SSM has not been regarded as appropriate. It has come as a whirlwind or perhaps better yet as a hurricane, demolishing all that is in its path. If there is not a sense of restraint among gay righters, then the logic of their movement dictates that they can dictate what is appropriate/legal behavior for those who oppose SSM, irrespective of whether the opposition is predicated on religious or any other form of belief.
Flush with victory, the dominant instinct among gay righters today is to compel those who oppose SSM to yield and to be fully accommodatory to those who have married persons of the same sex. It strikes me as inevitable that this will at some point cause difficulty for some Orthodox Jews, especially since our largest population base is New York and this is a state that is strongly in the SSM camp. We need only reflect on what New York City’s so-called Human Rights Commission sought to do toward Williamsburg shopkeepers who asked customers to dress modestly.
[The clip has been removed from YouTube. Kudos to all those responsible, which includes those who realized how toxic the message was, and how counterproductive it was to the stated objectives of the atzeret tefillah. This also includes all those - charedim and non-charedim - who saw a bad thing for what it was, and spoke out. May the organizers of the upcoming American events act as responsibly!]
Sometimes, you just have to tell it like it is.
What is circulating as the “official” clip of the tefilah rally is vile and disgusting.
For all the skepticism that met the rally, the organizers could claim that they had achieved some positive goals. The size of the crowd, its peacefulness and general unity told a story of a remarkable commitment of a people to its Torah. The rally reminded the Israeli public that even in the face of the huge rift that has opened up between haredim and the rest of the country, this was not a community that could be ignored, or that would compromise on what it regarded as its principles. The optimist could hope that one day the rift would be healed, and that all would acknowledge that this community is a huge source of strength to the Nation.
In looking out at the crowd, you knew that the cheap pandering of Yesh Atid to the worst instincts of the public was offset by something bigger and longer lasting. Even in the face of the overheated rhetoric of the haredi press, and without forgetting about the serious internal problems of the haredi community, for a moment the participants did stake out a claim to at least part of the moral high road.
Whoever it was who produced the video – and anyone who stands behind it – detracted from that moment. The video’s depiction of the government, the IDF, the police as “devarim bateilim” plain and simple is obscene, and on par with the Eidah ha-Charedis’ infamous parading of protesters in concentration camp uniforms.
It is an embarrassment to all of those who proudly identify with the “yoshvei beis Medrash,” but stand in awe at the debt of gratitude they owe to those who support them and help protect them.
I hope that I, my children, and all my descendents will merit to be among the yoshvei beis Medrash. Today, however, I would like nothing more than to be able to reach out to all the “yoshvei kronos” and tell them, “I am so proud that you are our brothers. Thank you.”
It was gratifying to see that a recent essay of mine in the Forward stimulated thoughtful responses.
I had made the case for jettisoning the time-honored (if, to me, less than honorable) term “ultra-Orthodox.” I argued that, like “ultra-conservative” or “ultra-liberal” in domestic politics, the prefix implies extremism, something that isn’t accurate about most charedim.
What best to replace it with is less obvious, as “charedi” is a foreign word, and euphemisms like “fervently Orthodox” insult non-charedi Jews, many of whom are as fervent in their prayer and observances as any charedi Jew (not to mention that some charedi Jews are far from fervent).
I suggested using the unadorned word “Orthodox” to refer to charedim, whose lives, I contended, most resemble those of their forbears.
After all, I argued, self-described “Centrist” and “Modern” and “Open” Orthodox Jews are, well, self-described, with those prefixes of their choices. So why not use “Orthodox” alone, without any modifier, to refer to “black-hatters,” or “yeshivish” folks. (The charedi subset of Chassidim could simply be called Chassidim, a word familiar to English speakers.) Think Coke, Cherry Coke, Diet Coke…
One immediate response to my essay came from Samuel Heilman, a Queens College professor of sociology.
Professor Heilman’s jaundiced eye regarding charedim is legend. He is often quoted in the media as critical of Orthodox Jews more conservative in their practices than he. (After September 11, 2001, he famously, risibly, implied that charedi yeshivos are “quiescent” beds of potential terrorists.)
The professor rejects “ultra” too, but sees the prefix not as a pejorative but as reflecting the idea that charedim are “truer in their beliefs and practices than others.”
He also accuses charedim of departing from the Orthodoxy of the past. The example he offers is that, in the charedi world, “water must be certified kosher.” And he decries the charedi “notion that Orthodox Jews always shunned popular culture.” Hasidic rebbes,” he explains, were, “among the crowds who streamed to Marienbad, Karlsbad and the other spas and baths of Europe for the cure, so much a part of popular culture in pre-Holocaust Europe.”
Charedim, the professor pronounces, fear “the encounter with the world outside their own Jewish one,” unlike the true inheritors of the Jewish past, like himself, who “believe Judaism can meet and successfully encounter a culture outside itself and be strengthened rather than undermined by the contact.” They, he adds, “also have the right to be called Orthodox.”
If by “kosher water” Professor Heilman means filtering water in places where the supply contains visible organisms, that is something required by the Shulchan Aruch. Most cities’ tap water is free from such organisms, but New York’s, at least in some areas, is not. And applying codified halacha to contemporary realities is precisely what observant Jews, whatever their prefixes, do.
As to pre-war Chassidic rebbes’ visits to European hot springs spas, they were “taking the waters,” not attending the opera. (Contemporary charedi Jews, a sociologist should know, take vacations too.)
And nowhere in my article, of course, did I claim that non-charedim forfeit the right to be called Orthodox. Nor did I assert (or ever would) that a non-charedi Jew is in any way inferior to, or less “true” to Judaism, than a charedi.
What I wrote, rather, was that charedi attitudes and practices are those closest to the attitudes and practices of observant Jewish communities of centuries past. A familiarity with Jewish history and responsa literature readily evidences that fact.
In an “Editor’s Notebook” column, The Forward’s editor, Jane Eisner, whom I have personally met and come to respect, defended the paper’s use of “ultra-Orthodox,” taking issue with my contention that it is pejorative. “[J]ust as often,” she contends, “it connotes something desirable, a positive extreme.” She cites “ultra thin” used to laud things like military ribbons and computer mouses. But people, of course, aren’t ribbons, and Ms. Eisner declines to address my citation of “ultra” as used in political discourse, the rather more pertinent comparison here.
I was surprised to read that someone as thoughtful as she would echo the professor’s peeve. To my contention that charedim today are most similar to observant Jews of the past she asserts: “[N]ot my grandparents, who were strictly observant Orthodox Jews, but did not dress, act, or think like the Jews of Boro Park and Crown Heights today.” The latter, she contends, refuse “to engage in the modern, secular world, to partake of its culture, acknowledge its obligations and respect its differences.” Charedim, she writes, do not practice “normative Judaism. Or even normative Orthodoxy.”
I didn’t know Ms. Eisner’s grandparents, but I am prepared to trust her memory. I’m pretty sure, though, that she didn’t know their grandparents, who I’m also pretty sure looked and lived much more like charedi Jews today than she might suspect.
And while there may be charedim today who fit the unflattering description Ms. Eisner provides, there are many, many more who most certainly do not, who engage, if within limits, with the modern world and its culture, and who fully “acknowledge its obligations and respect its differences” even as they live lives centered on halachic observance. Is the editor of a major Jewish newspaper really unaware of the variations of charedi experience? And is not generalizing from individuals to an entire group the very essence of prejudice?
The Forward can call us whatever it likes. I did my best to explain why the term is insulting, but I can’t force anyone to accept that judgment. I’ll suffice with the hope that other media may prove more open to change, and with the knowledge that I helped foster some intellectual engagement with the issue.
But whatever any medium chooses to call us, the contention that the charedi community today is some sort of Jewish aberration is a wild fantasy, fueled, perhaps by demographic predictions. History and facts, though, are… well… history and facts.
And neither editors nor sociologists are entitled to their own.
© 2014 Rabbi Avi Shafran
Reading the news of the “Million Man Atzeres,” that was the statement of our Sages that came to mind. “The ‘destruction’ of elders builds, [while] the ‘building’ of children destroys” [Megillah 31b].
The Yesh Atid [There is a Future] party has no future, because it does not understand our past. This is why the other quote that came to mind is from a more proletarian source — reading that Deputy Finance Minister Mickey Levy (of Yesh Atid) said that “thousands of chareidim will be inducted into the IDF and begin doing their part,” the line that came unbidden to my mind was “Oh Mickey, what a pity, you don’t understand!”
It really is a pity. Levy does not understand how the Jewish people managed to survive for 2000 years without a land to call our own, something no other nation in history has done. This was only due to our following the Torah, and the voice of Torah sages in each generation. If they think there is a substitute, they should read the Pew Report and ponder the imminent collapse of heterodox Judaism in America and worldwide. Do they really think that simply by assembling Jews in … Read More >>
[YA - Dr. Finkelman submitted a long comment that can best be handled by turning it into a post, with my bracketed reactions to him embedded.]
A handful of initial responses.
As for social changes, it is not merely a question of “how much of [changes in the roles of women] we should embrace.” Some things are too pervasive to choose to embrace or not. Gender changes cannot simply be rejected since they are too central to culture.
[YA – I don’t agree at all. We have a pretty good track record rejecting what we need to reject, when we see it as foreign to Torah. We rejected ideas like an eternally-old world, and the superiority of Christianity when they were assumed by the entire cultural surround. All of us live with an abiding sense of authority, even as it has been supplanted by autonomy. We dismiss out of hand the sexual permissiveness that is at least as well established today as the egalitarianism of gender change.
Perhaps you speak here not of attitudinal embrace, but a practical one. Le-maaseh, our wives and daughters do utilize many of the opportunities created by gender change. That does not … Read More >>
Chevra – Let’s try to address your concerns serially. The phenomenal growth of the Orthodox community hardly touches the issue of the korbanos we lost to the heterodox movements. While Orthodoxy grew, that growth hardly matches the literally hundreds of thousands (if not more) for whom the last decades became the terminal point of thousands of years of Jewish lineage. We lived through, and are still living through, a period of shemad – of apostasy, of joining false belief systems. It was not a time of forced shemad, but shemad it was.
Nowhere did R Shachter call supporters of Partnership Minyanim “Adat Korach.” He said that they use a slogan popularized by Adat Korach: we all stood at Sinai; all of us have a vote, and an opinion that counts. R Schachter argues that in weighty matters, only a certain upper tier of talmidei chachamim can offer opinions worth considering.
You describe the leaders of Open Orthodoxy as “observant, learned mevakshei Hashem.” While this has not been my personal experience, let’s grant that description for the sake of argument. It would not change R Shachter’s position in the slightest. OO does not have people acclaimed as talmidei chachamim who … Read More >>
By Chaim Saiman and Yoel Finkelman
[Editor’s Note: Publishing what follows may seem out of character for Cross-Currents. While it does not violate our editorial policy, it does challenge what has become a theme of several writers: the illegitimacy of Open Orthodoxy. Nonetheless, we are going to publish it. Here is why:
We do encourage readers to familiarize themselves with different points of view, so long as they do not involve prohibited kefirah. The authors penned their piece respectfully. Both are known to me personally, and are worthwhile emulating in important ways.
Professor Saiman has deep roots outside the haredi world. Yet he does not shy away from going wherever he has to in order to enhance his own Torah study. I was introduced to him through and because of the many hours he spends at the Philadelphia Community Kollel. The rest of us should be so accepting of what we could gain from those outside our immediate community!
Dr. Finkelman writes some of the most trenchant criticism of the haredi world. That is one of his professional subjects of interest. But in private discussion, I have found him to be just as trenchant in his criticism of his … Read More >>
The Times Book Review of this past Sunday has a terrific piece by Fareed Zakaria on George F. Kennan’s diaries. In 1994, when Kennan was ninety, he noted America’s “pathological preoccupation with sex and violence” and then commented on “the weird efforts to claim for homosexuality the status of a proud, noble and promising way of life.”
Some revolutions come quickly and are unanticipated, even though they have long been in the womb of time. This is true, as we learn with regularity, of political revolutions and of the wonders wrought by technology. Social revolutions generally move much more slowly, witness in this country the far from complete war on poverty and, perhaps more tellingly, the creeping pace at which the civil rights movement now proceeds. This makes the extraordinary achievements of the gay rights movement even more spectacular. This is a social revolution that is breathtaking in the speed at which critical goals, primarily gay marriage, have been achieved. I cannot think of a parallel situation in all of American history.
One explanation, which tells much of the story, is the reality that gay rights advocacy has been primarily the mission of haves while most … Read More >>
by Raphael Davidovich
In the latest attempt to quell the ongoing culture wars in Israel, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni last year gave Law Professor Ruth Gavison a formidable task. Gavison was asked to help prepare “a constitutional arrangement dealing with Israel’s identity” as “a Jewish and Democratic state.” The task is a fascinating one, one I love discussing because it is an area of personal interest for me. But it is a task that should not be fulfilled.
Whenever someone in the Israeli Leadership advocates a new constitutional arrangement, it should be mandatory to reread the history of why Israel presently has no formal constitutional arrangement as most other countries do. The brief history is as follows: The Constituent Assembly charged with the writing of a Constitution for the State of Israel ended its task in 1949, its job undone, and instead became the newborn State’s first Parliament. It would be simple to conclude that the document wasn’t written because of the machinations and political ploys of Ben-Gurion, or this group or that power-hungry faction. It would also be simple to argue that the group couldn’t come to agreement because of the old truism that Jews are argumentative, like that old joke about Ben-Gurion being the Prime Minister of two million prime ministers. But these arguments would be wrong. We need to properly understand what happened, and it says something about Jewry in Israel and throughout the world.
The constituent assembly could not write a constitution because a true constitution can only be a viable document when applied to a group that has certain basic outlooks and principles in common that they wish to codify and establish as axiomatic, virtually unarguable, to future generations of leaders who might be tempted by the need for political expedience to ignore those principles.
To be clear, what Israelis who say they want a Constitutional Arrangement really mean is that they want a two-tier system of laws: One set of Supreme Laws, which usually includes a Bill of Individual Rights, and one set of all other laws passed by the Knesset which would be subservient to that first set. This concept originated in our times with the American Constitution.
The American Constitutional experiment contained a feature that was novel to the world of political realism at the time, even though nowadays it’s so common that it’s taken for granted; that a State should have an upper tier of Law and a lower tier of law. The higher level of law, with fewer words, usually loftier, dominates; it insists that all other laws passed by the legislature conform to it or be declared null and void. This is specifically what is meant nowadays by people when they speak of a country having a Written Constitution. This is actually sloppy wording, as it leads to such sentences as “England does not have a written constitution”, or “Israel does not have a written constitution.”
The reality is that of course, both England and Israel have written constitutions. What they lack is the legal framework that mandates that some laws be subservient to other laws. Their constitutions are in the laws that set up the government. They have laws that provide for various freedoms, civil and political rights and limitations. They do not set up a hierarchy among those laws, one trumping the other. They adhere to the older principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty, rejected by the US Constitution, that one Parliament cannot limit another. For example, one Parliament cannot pass a law that states that it may not be revoked except by unanimous consent. All laws are equal to each other, even the ones that scholars call “constitutional”.
Why do countries, such as the USA, want a two-tier system? The answer, briefly stated earlier, is that the founding people and founding leaders of a nation want certain laws enshrined at a level that later legislatures or leaders will not be allowed to override because of the political expediencies of the moment.
Now in many countries, including Israel, it is well known that different groups of people have different ideals they believe are worth preserving at all costs. If a nation has several groups of people with conflicting ideals, the differences cannot and should not be resolved at the “Constitutional” level at all! Put another way, if one group that does not have behind it the true political will of the vast majority of the people, tries to take advantage of a propitious moment and attempt to enact certain reforms at the constitutional level, trouble will usually ensue for one of several reasons:
Continue reading → On the making of Constitutional Arrangements
My interest in the recently concluded Winter Olympics in Sochi was roughly equivalent to my interest in the recently concluded International Kennel Club dog show in Chicago. Which is to say, nil.
But a “Jewish” issue that trailed in the snow behind the Sochi shenanigans was amusing. At least, initially. Pondered a bit, it was a reminder of something disturbing.
An ice dancer named Charlie White, who, with his partner, won a gold medal at the competition, was roundly celebrated by the media for his accomplishment, and by the Jewish media for his accomplishment… and Jewishness.
Despite the latter assertion, though, the skater’s mother apparently notified the Detroit Jewish News, the original reporter of Mr. White’s Jewish credentials, that neither she nor her son is a member of the tribe.
After some research, the paper discovered that the gold medal winner’s only Jewish connection was a Jewish stepfather; it apologized for its original reportage.
The Reform movement wouldn’t at present consider Charlie’s connection to the Jewish people sufficient to automatically qualify him as Jewish in its eyes. But it has long accepted a “patrilineal” definition of “Jewishness” – that is to say that, contrary to halacha, it … Read More >>
The article below appeared in Haaretz earlier this week, under the title “Partnership minyan is an innovation too far.” It is reproduced here with Haaretz’s permission.
What educators call a “teaching moment” is presented by the issue of “partnership minyanim,” prayer groups that aim to provide Orthodox Jewish women greater opportunity to participate in services.
Although halakha is distinctly male-centered in the realm of communal prayer (as in the requirement of ten men to establish a minyan, a quorum permitting the recital of certain prayers), “partnership minyanim” jury-rig prayer services so that women lead parts that arguably may not require a man.
The teaching moment is about how halakha works.
Differences of opinion are part and parcel of not only the Talmud but some contemporary halakhic issues; different conclusions may be made by different poskim, or halakhic decisors.
But a truth that tends to draw fire but remains a truth all the same is that not every rabbi is a qualified decisor. Few, indeed, are.
The most trenchant text here may be a Talmudic aphorism in Tractate Nedarim.
“[What might seem] constructive [advice] of the young [can in fact be] destructive; and [what might seem] destructive [advice] of … Read More >>
by Rabbi Akiva Males
In the closing months of 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to boycott Israeli universities. This move is part of a much larger effort in the ongoing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement intended to isolate Israel. In the aftermath of this academic boycott, many of Israel’s supporters rightfully voiced our hurt feelings, disappointment, and/or strong disagreement with the ASA’s offensive maneuver.
In January, before my wife and I traveled to visit family in Israel, I read an important article in The NY Jewish Week by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin which reminded me of a crucial yet simple concept. As supporters of Israel, we need to find responsible ways to express our outrage with the ASA. At the same time, we also need to recognize the many American universities who found the strength to resist joining in this boycott.
It is not enough to scream “gevalt” when we have been wounded. We also have to call out “thank you” to those who are our friends, to those who stood up for truth, to those who have refused to have their educational institutions seduced by the all too common siren song of anti-Israeli behavior. We … Read More >>
I have to add a few words of personal appreciation for Rabbi Schuster zt”l… just because I don’t know where I would be if not for his influence in my life. By the time I arrived in Israel between my sophomore and junior years of college, I had already considered becoming more observant, but had not stayed with it — and my trip to Israel wasn’t supposed to be about Jewish discovery.
If I was not what people called a “Wall bouncer,” someone whom Rav Schuster discovered at the Kotel, it was because I didn’t even make it to the Wall. By the time I descended from the bus to Jerusalem, Let’s Go guide in hand, I had plans to spend a few nights at a hostel on King George Street. But one of Reb Meir’s Heritage House employees was there, in t-shirt, jeans, ubiquitous sandalim, and Tzitzis. Once he knew I was looking for a place to stay and was, in fact, Jewish, he escorted me to Reb Meir’s free Jewish youth hostel, right there in the Old City.
Everything was set up to give student travelers the maximum opportunity to learn more about their Judaism while they … Read More >>
by Bracha Goetz
It was almost time for Shabbos.
There were a number of things I still needed to do, but it was hard for me to stop reading the stories that were just then being collected about Rabbi Meir Schuster, who, in his late sixties, had become very ill with a degenerative illness known as Lewy Body Disease, which combines the symptoms of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. The stories collected are all about what Reb Meir did with his own life, and the many, many lives that he helped transform. An intensity in my heart was building with each word I read, and I was transported back, over thirty years ago.
It is 1976. The man who was to become my husband was praying at the Kotel. Larry had finished his time in a kibbutz ulpan, and was still volunteering in a development town in the Negev, when he decided to spend the weekend in Jerusalem. He was scheduled to return to the States a few weeks later, with no clear plans. Larry put a note in a crevice in the Wall and then prayed sincerely to find his path in life. When he finished, there was a tap on his shoulder. It was Rabbi Schuster, asking him, “Do you have the time?” Thank G-d, Larry did have the time, and he followed Reb Meir to a yeshiva for baalei teshuva where he began the process of finding his life’s path. After nine years of learning and teaching at Yeshiva Aish HaTorah, young wandering Larry became Rabbi Aryeh Goetz.
It is 1978, and after completing my first year of medical school, I was volunteering on the oncology ward at Hadassah Hospital, visiting with patients who were dying, while my secret mission was to learn the purpose of living. During my first few days in Israel, I went to the Kotel, and Reb Meir Schuster found me there. His purity and his sincerity came right into my heart. I began to study with Rebbetzin Denah Weinberg, and at the women’s division of Ohr Someyach, as the process of understanding the purpose of living began for me as well.
It is 1979, and every torch is lit on the Menorah beside the Kotel, as it is the eighth night of Chanukah. My soon-to-be husband is sitting near me on a bench in the Kotel plaza. He tells me that on the eighth day of Chanukah, the spiritual potential for dedication is at its greatest. He wants to know if on this night full of the power of dedication, I will agree to be his partner in life, so we can continue our separate journeys together.
Reb Meir is there, too, on the night when my husband asked me to marry him. We both see him at the same moment. He is looking for more and more lost neshamas, waiting to be found, including those who, like us, will be blessed to find each other too.
Reb Meir has been with us ever since, as well, helping us raise our children to strive for the simple purity that he offered both of us. From our oldest son who has opened the Yeshiva High School of Arizona, to our youngest daughter, who was a madrecha in the Heritage House that Reb Meir established, Reb Meir’s pure idealism has gotten infused into our children’s lives. His gentle tap has even come to be felt by all the grandchildren that have also now blessed our lives, thank G-d.
And we were only two of the tens of thousands of neshamas that Reb Meir helped lead to the spiritual wellsprings craved. The ripples spreading out from all the neshamas he effected, are not possible to count. Not in this world. The reach of this one humble man is endless.
From what I learned from reading about Reb Meir, his parents were survivors of the Holocaust from Poland, and they were not observant, although Reb Meir’s grandmother still was. Stanley, as he was known then, was brought up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and attended public school there. When Rabbi Abraham Yehoshua Twerski opened a Talmud Torah in Milwaukee, through his bubbie’s gentle urging, her grandson, Meir Tzvi, known to everyone else as Stanley Schuster, became one of its first students. Rabbi Twerski was devoted to being m’karev Reb Meir, and he helped young Meir Schuster catch up in his Hebrew studies.
Rabbi Twerski recalled Reb Meir’s tremendous thirst for learning about Judaism, and he said that he used to daven and bentch with such tremendous fervor, soon after he learned how, that it inspired all around him. He remembered when “Stanley” at the age of 14, with his parents’ consent, went off to learn in yeshiva in Skokie, Illinois. He had already become a masmid (very devoted Torah learner) and from there, he went on to learn in Yeshiva Ner Israel in Baltimore, Maryland, where he studied for seven years, and got semicha.
At Ner Israel, he was known for being an extremely dedicated student and for doing a semi-speech fast on Shabbos, only speaking words of Torah. According to his friends, Reb Meir was an excellent listener, but a very quiet person who spoke very little, not wanting to speak one superfluous word. He was just about the last person any of them would have imagined going into the field of kiruv.
Reb Meir was always on the look-out for ways to do chesed and help others, and always with his great big, warm smile. Reb Meir also took on a job that was definitely not sought after, of going around to awaken his fellow students. He would faithfully walk through the dorms every morning, calling in Yiddish repeatedly and with such pure earnestness, “Wake up, Wake up – it’s time to serve Hashem.”
After Reb Meir got married, he and his wife, Esther, moved to Eretz Yisroel in 1968. They came with two suitcases , and intended to stay for a year, while Reb Meir learned in the Mir Yeshiva. He never went back to America until many years later, after he had established the Heritage House, and needed to raise funds for it. (No wonder he was able to encourage thousands of others to stay in Eretz Yisroel longer too!)
Continue reading → Rav Meir Schuster: The Man at The Wall, zt”l
One would be forgiven, especially were one an optimist, for imagining that recent reports of the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s donation of $400,000 to a Teheran Jewish hospital might signal something positive about Iran’s current leadership. With Purim within sight, the idea of good news coming out of Persia is an enticing one.
Our theoretical optimist would also likely have been gratified by the words of the hospital’s director, Dr. Ciamak Morsadegh, who said the Iranian leader “is showing that we [Jews], as a religious minority, are part of this country, too.”
But the Iranian leader’s smiles, largesse and (to flashback several months) Rosh Hashana good wishes to the world’s Jews were lopsidedly outweighed by another recent report, this one provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
(MEMRI, the single most valuable news source for happenings in the Arab and Muslim worlds, does not profess or evidence any political stance; it simply translates and makes available speeches, media reports and other information, positive and negative alike, that aren’t otherwise accessible to the English-reading public.)
The report included a video clip and transcript of a broadcast aired on Iran television’s Channel 1 on February 6. … Read More >>
By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com
It is a sad day for the Torah world because of the loss of this great, great man. Rav Meir Schuster zatzal passed away today after a debilitating illness. This man was singlehandedly responsible for bringing more people closer to Avinu sh’bashamayim than entire outreach organizations. Without exaggeration, many tens of thousands of people came to Torah observance because of the actions of this man.
The greatest insight into this man was perhaps a shailah that was presented to Rav Elyashiv zatzal, when Reb Meir had lost his father. According to the Torah, the period of mourning lasts for three days. Chazal extended this period to seven days. Rabbinic extensions of halachos are universally observed in Judaism. Chazal tell us (based on Koheles 10:8) regarding Rabbinic enactments – “Kol HaPoretz Geder yeshacheno nachash – anyone who breaks the fence (on a Rabbinic law) deserves that a snake should bite him.” Yet, here things were different. Every day that Rabbi Meir Schuster was not at the Kosel, the wailing wall, was a day that Jewish people would not get a chance to be brought to Torah-true Judaism. Should he sit … Read More >>
By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tJt.com
Recently, Yeshiva World News reported that one of the Rebbes of Satmar has been reporting an increase in cancer in his community rachmana litzlan. While no one can vouch for the accuracy of what was actually said, it seems that after some examination they (it is unclear who else was involved) concluded that it might possibly be due to a breach of tznius in their community – highlighting that it may be the wearing of excessive make-up. To this end, a new Vaad was created accompanied with a solicitation for funds.
It is this author’s opinion that such declarations are often counter-productive for a number of reasons. Firstly, it shortchanges the beauties of Torah Judaism, whose great commentators have offered fascinating insights into illness. Secondly, it is terribly insulting to a very fragile group of people that are looking toward Rabbinic leaders for solace and instead receive a brutal slap in the face. Thirdly, it may be a manifestation of a “blame something or some-one” mentality which diverts resources and attention from addressing other problems.
Recently this author was asked by a person who had experienced a tragic loss in his family to … Read More >>
by Avrohom Gordimer
When challenging a world-eminent halachic master, be prepared. Nice try, but… These thoughts immediately came to mind upon reading the response of R. Ysoscher Katz chair of the Department of Talmud at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, to R. Hershel Schachter’s p’sak prohibiting Partnership Minyanim – public prayer groups which identify themselves as Orthodox, in which women lead parts of the public service, such as Kabbalas Shabbos and Pesukei Z’Dimra. (See also here , here , here and here ) Let’s look at R. Schachter’s p’sak and then turn to R. Katz’ response. As this requires detail and focus, and cannot be presented summarily, we need to break it down by section.
I. R. Schachter’s P’sak In his p’sak, R. Schachter demonstrates that the Ruach Ha-Halacha (Spirit of the Law) is a legal principle that governs halachic decision-making, and that innovations in Torah practice, even if they otherwise would appear to be technically legitimate, must be vetted by the greatest halachic masters of the generation (gedolei ha-dor), who are trained and attuned to the Ruach Ha-Halacha and can discern whether a certain practice conforms thereto. R. Schachter … Read More >>
By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5TJT.com
In the past few months, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has occupied entire floors of hotels in Jerusalem. In early March, Mr Kerry is expected to present a copy of the so-called framework agreement to Benjamin Netanyahu when the Israeli prime minister visits Washington to both visit President Barack Obama and address the AIPAC conference of AIPAC.
The document will propose a peace deal along pre-1967 borders but with land swaps that take account of “demographic changes” on the ground. The document will attempt to influence the Netanyahu government to give up many different areas of Eretz Yisrael. It is therefore be an opportune time to review the halachos of what constitutes Eretz Yisrael. It must be stressed that this discussion does not chalilah condone the giving up of parts of Israel. It is merely a discussion of the status of its various parts.
TWO TYPES OF LAND Although the verse in Bereishis (17:8) tells us that Hashem told Avraham, “And I shall give you and your descendants after you…the entire Land of Canaan as an inheritance forever,” one can divide up Eretz Yisrael … Read More >>
By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com
Let’s picture the true story of a wonderful Bais Yaakov girl in high school.
She has friends, she loves her Torah classes. She does well in Limudei Chol. She has a life. We shall call her “Shaina.”
Little does she realize that, not too far away, there is a Yeshiva that has a policy which will help ruin Shaina’s life forever.
Let’s fast forward a few years. We see Shaina, our former Bais Yaakov girl, crying. She is carefully taking care of her soon to be deceased husband, “Chaim.” Chaim is lying in the ICU section of Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in Manhattan.
Her two kids are at home, with a baby-sitter. This time it is a baby-sitter – instead of their grandmother. The grandmother is too fatigued from watching them this past two weeks.
At the Levaya the Rabbanim speak about how wonderful her husband Chaim was. It is all true. Chaim was a masmid. He had good midos. They do not mention that there was a policy in place at Chaim’s Yeshiva high school that helped contribute to Chaim’s death.
It … Read More >>
I think it’s time I came clean regarding my doubts about Judaism, about everything I was taught by my parents and rabbaim in yeshiva. How can we be sure that the Torah was really given to my ancestors at Sinai? Are its laws really eternal? Is halacha really G-d’s will? Are Jews in fact a special people? And are Orthodox Jews true examples of what a Jew should be?
I came across some very compelling literature that called traditional Jewish beliefs into question, and was disturbed by what I had read, and so I read more, and did a good amount of serious thinking and research.
As to Orthodox Jews themselves, yes, most seem to be fine people, but there have also always been “characters” – people with strange fixations or behavior patterns. And then there are Jews proven or rumored to be… not so nice.
The thought that the “outside” world might provide a more rarified and thoughtful community was an enticing one. And so I began to entertain doubts about Jewish beliefs, my religious identity and my community.
I was 14.
To my relief now, many decades later, there was no Internet then to intensify my … Read More >>