Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Making of a Gadol 2.0

R' Moshe Feinstein
There is a new online publication called Lehrhaus. It features essays by a variety of Orthodox Jewish thinkers of varying Hashkafos  on topics that affect the Jewish people. Kind of like the mission of this blog. 

I know 2 of the editors. Dr. Leslie Ginsparg is someone I know fairly well and am related to through marriage (…she is my son-in-law’s sister). Rabbi Dr. Zev Eleff is someone that has published many scholarly articles and books. I met him upon his becoming Chief Academic Officer of my alma mater HTC.  I can personally testify to the high level of scholarship they both bring to this enterprise. I’m sure the other editors are of equal stature. It is with this in mind that I am going to discuss a recent article by Professor Chaim Saiman entitled The Market for Gedolim: A Tale of Supply and Demand.

On the whole I tend to agree with much (but not all) of what he said. On the other hand I detected a bit of cynicism about the subject under discussion. The very title touches on that cynicism. As if to say that a Gadol is a commodity much like wheat or corn – to be purchased by a consumer. Rabbi Saiman later uses the term Gadolhood. Which I find somewhat deprecating. As I do using baseball metaphors like 3rd baseman, All Star, and Hall-of-Famer’.

It is as though becoming a Gadol was something one can strive for and achieve through a disciplined course of study and determination without any other factors. Like personal character traits or communal acceptance. This is not how a Gadol is made. One can strive. But there is no guarantee that they will achieve that status. One may even argue that striving to be a Gadol takes a bit of Gavah – hubris! If there is one thing that a Gadol should have – it is humility. Not hubris.

Becoming a Gadol is far from being a structured enterprise . It is something that is organic. One doesn’t choose to become a Gadol. One cannot study his way into it. Not even if he spends decades in pure Torah study. Nor is one elected to that position by an official vote. Nor are they chosen by a group of peers. One just grows into it via public recognition of the depth and breadth of an individual’s Torah knowledge. That makes him a Gadol BaTorah. 

To become a Gadol B'Yisroel one needs more that that. There has to be a public acceptance of that individual as a rabbinic leader. Someone that the Torah world can turn to with confidence knowing that he is God fearing and that his views are among the most authoritative in the Jewish world in matters of Halacha and Hashkafa. 

This is how one becomes a Gadol. Rav Moshe Feinstein was one such individual. Many considered him the Gadol HaDor  – the greatest rabbi of his generation! He was interviewed by a reporter from Time Magazine back in the 80s and asked how he came to be such a respected rabbinic leader. He responded that people just started asking him difficult questions in Halacha and accepted his answers. That acceptance grew until he was seen by most of the Jewish people as a Gadol and by many as the Gadol HaDor.

Professor Saiman distinguishes how different Hashkafic groups define a Gadol and how important the need to have them is to each. There are basically 3 distinct groups within Orthodoxy: Charedim, Centrist Orthodox, and Liberal Orthodox.  

Charedim can be divided into Chasidim and Lithuaian Yeshiva types. Chasidim have an entirely different approach to their rabbinic leadership and generally do not speak of Gedolim. They instead speak of a ‘Rebbe’. A Chasidic Rebbe is an inherited position going to the son (or son in law if there is no son) of a previous Rebbe –  chosen by him from among all of his sons. Most often the oldest. 

As Rabbi Saiman notes, a Rebbe need not be of the highest caliber Torah scholar. There may in fact be other Chasidim that are greater in Torah scholarship but they too will look to the Rebbe as their leader on all matters – both Halachic and Hashkafic.

It is in the  non Chasidic Lithuanian type Yeshiva circles where merit is the measure by which a rabbinic leader is chosen. At least in theory.

R' Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Centrists generally have additional requirements for their Gedolim. Usually in the form of having expertise in secular knowledge – matching the caliber of their Torah knowledge. The two most prominent examples of that - correctly cited by Professor Saiman – are Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. (I would add Rav Ahron Soloveichik to that category even though Rabbi Saiman mentions him only in the context of Rav Lichtenstein’s own personal mentors).

What Professor Saiman fails to mention is that for most Centrists, Gedolim like R’ Moshe Feinstein are considered Gedolim too. This is a serious omission in my view since it gives the impression that Centrists only see people with their own Hashkafos capable of being a Gadol. Case in point - Rav Lichtenstein used to ask Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach - a Charedi Gadol - all of his difficult questions.

Peofessor Saiman correctly notes that Liberal Orthodoxy has no Gedolim. They see their congregational rabbis as their only source for Halacha and Hashkafa. He calls this ‘Horizontal authority’. Difficult questions asked by congregational members are directly answered by these rabbis. Liberal Orthodoxy believes that an ordained rabbi is given a mandate to do so by virtue of their Semicha. While he agrees that Liberal Orthodoxy does have its Torah scholars – like Rabbi Daniel Sperber - they are not seen as Gedolim. There is no hierarchy that Liberal Orthodox rabbis turn too.

R' Daniel Sperber
The point of his article is that Gedolim are a function of supply and demand by each community.

In the Charedi world the need for Gedolim is definitional. Their concept of Daas Torah demands a hierarchy that will determine how they will live. Only Gedolim are capable of answering difficult question in Halacha and Hashkafa. Even though these kinds of questions are often asked of a local Charedi Rav – that Rav has his own mentor. A Gadol that he will turn to – not trusting his own knowledge to suffice in many matters. And the Charedi public knows that – seeing those mentors as Gedolim. That need requires fulfillment no matter what level of Torah knowledge exists among contemporary rabbinic leaders. There is for example no one alive today on the level of Rav Moshe Feinstein. Not even close. And yet there is a group of rabbis that are seen by virtually every Charedi in the non Chasidic world as their Gedolim. 

The standard by which they decide is based on the Gemarah, which states Yiftach B’Doro – K’Shmuel B’Doro - Yiftach was in his generation as Shmuel was in his. Yiftach and Shmuel were 2 Shoftim – leaders of the Jewish people that served in two different eras. Shmuel was the greatest Navi  (prophet) since Moshe. Yiftach was a bit short of that greatness – based on a very unflattering description of him in that Gemarah. And yet the Talmud tells us that we must have a leader and therefore must chose among what we have. Not among what we should have but don’t!

Even though most Charedim realize that their rabbinic leaders are not anywhere near the caliber of previous generations - they nonetheless vest them with the same authority. In other words the demand for Gedolim that defines the Charedi world makes leaders of lesser stature then previous generations - leaders just the same

Centrists do not see the need to fill any gaps. While they agree with the concept of a Gadol they can turn to - they do not lower the standards they seek in a Gadol. If there is a Rav Soloveitchik or Rav Lichtenstein – they will turn to them. If not, they simply do not have a Gadol they can turn to. This does not mean they don’t recognize Charedi rabbinic leaders. They do. And in some case they will be consulted on difficult issues. But they are not seen in the same light as Charedim do. I should add that many -perhaps most - Charedim (especially those I call moderate) take that leadership with a grain of salt – all while most will acknowledge that these are their Gedolim.

There is one more thing Rabbi Staiman mentions with which I more or less agree. It is worth quoting and I will end with it: 
If liberal Orthodox communities can create a structure of commandedness that feels consonant, even if not identical, with classical forms, then eventually other Orthodox subgroups will come to recognize it—much as centrist Orthodoxy eventually gained the begrudging acknowledgment of haredim. But if it fails to do so, then claims that liberal Orthodoxy is engaged in a qualitatively different project than Orthodoxy will ring true, and comparisons to the trajectory of Conservative and Reform Judaism may yet prove accurate. So while I am rooting for liberal Orthodoxy’s success, it bears the burden of proving its vitality. From where I sit, the jury is still out.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Biggest Challenge to Faith of Our Time Has Four Parts: Halacha, Hashkafa, Pastoral and Values

Guest Contribution by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde

Rabbi Michael J. Broyde
I am pleased to host the thoughts of Rabbi Michael J. Broyde on one of the most controversial subjects of our time. I ask only that any comments be based on the substance of the post and not an any personal issues. Ad hominems are not permitted here and any comments that have even a hint of such an attack will be completely deleted. As always the views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect my own.


The Biggest Challenge to Emunah of Our Time, by Rabbi Ari Segal, is worth reading: he argues that the issues of Orthodoxy’s relationship with LGBT is the central ideological challenge of our era.  As an initial matter see “Homosexuality and Halacha: Five Critical Points co-authored with Rabbi Shlomo Brody and published many years ago in the Jewish Press. That article does not address Rabbi Segal’s points directly, but it touches on many related points and its theme in this letter.

Three separate issues drive Rabbi Segal’s discussion.  The first is halachic, the second is philosophical and the third is pastoral.  I discuss each in turn and my final thoughts on values are in the penultimate section.  (In this essay, I do not deal with “L” or the “T” for now in “LGBT”, as there is a place for “T” in a halachic society and the “L” can be approached with a variety of halachic tools unique to that (most likely) rabbinic prohibition. Indeed, “T” maybe even has a better place in halacha than in the common law, but both of these are too complex for now and are worthy of a further essay.)


The halachic issues are clear.  Male same sex intimate relationships are a Torah violation of Jewish law.  The issue here, however, is not how to be gay and Orthodox. Engaging in sinful conduct does not stop one from living an otherwise halachic life.  Indeed, at some basic level, each of us asks God every day to forgive us for our sins and let us live, so that we all can continue to do other good deeds. All of us regret our sins, and seek virtue, even if we cannot stop what we do that is a violation; we try to do good. Many people live in the pale shadow of Godliness as well; struggling to be better, and not always succeeding continuing to endeavor in the pursuit of virtue.

In the case of homosexual attraction, this endeavoring to live a virtuous life is compounded by difficulty, first discussed by Rabbi Norman Lamm, that people who experience exclusively same sex attractions are under some duress with respect to their choices and should be treated under the halachic rubric of one who is under duress.  That approach does not generally permit the conduct as a matter of halacha, but it does provide some flexibility in analysis to allow communal participation.  Orthodoxy has always had flexible doctrines about welcoming transgressors into the community without denying that the conduct is a violation of Jewish law.  That is the case here as well.  See the very worthwhile remarks of the late and great Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l.


Philosophical value compatibility is less clear cut.  There is some philosophical virtue in the basic approach of one of my rabbinic colleagues (who asked not to be identified) that:

As Rambam teaches in the Moreh, the Torah is given for the majority of cases in history and sometimes individuals suffer. So what if one were to conjecture that the Torah prohibited all homosexual congress because it wanted sexual expression to be limited to the marriage arena and not outside of it in any way and focused on procreation or that potential? In majority homosexual union would be outside of the established relationships, sometimes would be degrading, sometimes would be to dominate etc. But the Torah made a kind of biblical lo plug that even if one could create a loving monogamous relationship in the context of homosexual love, it was still forbidden because of the overwhelming majority of cases. Thus, the Torah makes an absolute statement and we are bound by that. But in the eyes of God, the person who is a gay and monogamous is viewed differently and will be understood on those terms, even though in the real world we cannot celebrate such a union or give it equal legitimacy to heterosexual marriage. It obviously doesn't change the Jewish law on the ground but maybe allows people to think about their place in the community. It also allows us to recognize that while we cannot sanction or encourage homosexual behavior, we certainly see a monogamous, committed relationship with companionship and loyalty as infinitely better and more valued than a promiscuous homosexual lifestyle of hooking up that is disconnected from family and commitment.

This approach encourages people to build a life as consistent with Torah values as possible without diluting the idea that such conduct is prohibited.

Of course, the philosophical problems with this approach are clear also,[1] and I might be inclined to a religious approach to this problem which is grounded in biological evolutionary views to explain same sex attraction as much as the view of Rambam in the Moreh.  In this approach, a tendency to homosexuality is genetic and along a spectrum with having some amount of the homosexual genetic makeup being a good thing.[2]  Of course, like all reasons for commandments, there is an aspect of speculation present and I am uncertain of more.


On a pastoral level, it is completely reasonable that a synagogue may choose to be religiously available and seeking to serve a community that is not fully observant of Jewish law.  Gay people are welcome in many Orthodox institutions and we have many tools in our halachic tool box to avoid condemning individuals. Our article in the Jewish Press notes:
Even as halacha clearly labels the act a sin, Judaism does not seek to label the actors as evildoers whom we must shun. The halachic tradition has a longstanding policy of diverse attitudes to transgressors, and only in the most rare of circumstances does it mandate excluding people from the community, especially for wrongdoing that does not explicitly harm others. Some communities have expectations that all of their members maintain total Orthodox practice. Other communities maintain more open membership standards, sensing a need to create a place for all to come and worship, including those who drive to synagogue on Shabbat, do not observe taharahat hamishpacha (family purity restrictions), eat out in non-kosher restaurants, or even cheat in business. As in the case with Shabbat violators, many communities will find it more appropriate to welcome gays who remain discreet about their personal activity and who respect the Orthodox setting, with no aim of sparking denigration of Torah law.

Of course, provocateurs with anti-halachic agendas will find themselves less welcome in almost all synagogues, and rightly so. The larger point remains that accepting a gay individual within one’s shul does not reflect any less commitment to halacha than accepting an intermarried couple.

Homosexuality is not much different than some other transgressions – there is a place within Orthodoxy for those who do not observe completely, and which sins are tolerated and which are not is mostly a social concern and not a halachic one.  If we can live in a community with people who openly cheat in business – where the Torah describes the person who cheats in business as a toeveah -- we can certainly live with people whose conduct (but not personhood) is described as a toevah also.

A Summary of these Three Sections

An interim summary is worthwhile before moving on. There are monogamous gay individuals who [like many others who violate Jewish law regularly] just want a practical accommodation so that they can function in a community guided by Torah and mitzvot without feeling ostracized or stared at or perpetually diminished.  This can be done on all three primary fronts: halachically, philosophically and pastorally if a community wants to make the accommodations.  This community will, at some level, look the many Orthodox synagogues around the world in which many congregants are not personally Orthodox, and the parking lot is open on Shabbat or people park around the corner, and the rabbi does not speak about certain topics, although if you ask him, he is happy to explain the Torah’s view in private.

From here, this article turns to a different issue that is related to values.

Values Compatibility

The rise of a cultural norm in which sexual liberty or sexual equality is core cultural value of our secular society could signal the end of a certain historical construct of Modern Orthodoxy and the beginning of a new flavor.

(It is important to be clear: the term "sexual liberty" or “sexual equality” is not referring to "what is legal" in secular society. I personally fully support a grander vision of gay rights under the law and always have, even before it was popular to do so.  Sexual liberty and equality is the idea that God approves of all sexual choices a person makes.  The Orthodox Jewish tradition cannot instruct our children thus.  Same sex relationships cannot be one of the many things fit under the category of tov shebeyefet be'ohalay shem – that the best of the world’s values and ideas should be welcomed in our homes.[3])

Many of us where raised thinking – and it mostly was correct in bygone era -- that the core of American legal, social, and ethical values was intellectually compatible with Orthodox Jewish values.  Very little filtering of important higher Western culture was needed in order to be an Orthodox Jew in this model.  It is quite possible that this era is over and the rise of sexual liberty and equality as a philosophical value of higher Western culture is a harbinger of that.

Above, some practical solutions concerning homosexual men and Orthodox community are suggested in practice.  On a values level, however, there is no solution. There is no honest place for Orthodox Judaism’s values within a modern Western world that deeply and robustly validates any sexual choice as equal as part of its higher culture and which views same sex relations as part of Mathew Arnolds “study of perfection”. On an ideological level, a community that sees gay and bisexual relations on par with heterosexual marriage and sees that idea as central to its world view is incompatible with a Modern Orthodox community.

Once we acknowledge that aspect of Orthodox Judaism’s values is incompatible with what is widely viewed as the best of modern western values, then we as a community need to focus not only on what we incorporate from modern culture, but also what and how we filter some values out.[4] We must become better at sharing with our community that there are aspects of modernity that we do not accept.  We have few tools other than our fundamentalism here, as the values are deeply incompatible and that fundamentalist tool will not work well in a general Orthodox Religious culture that claims Orthodox Jewish and Western values are always compatible.

If students press -- and Rabbi Segal is arguing that they are pressing hard -- we must abandon the basic idea of telling our children that Judaism and all that is part of higher western culture are compatible, since they are not.  Instead, we must teach our children – and ourselves – how to filter the values of the modern world to insure compatibility.  We must be more open and honest about what and how we expect our children to filter.  Raising our children in a society that ascribes to sexual values that we reject is harder than raising them in a society whose sexual values we broadly ascribe to.  Of course, same sex normalcy is not the only ideologically validated Western value that must be filtered out but it is much more ideologically central and prevalent than many others.[5]


We must share two messages.

First, almost all individuals can have a place in the Orthodox community.  Gay men certainly can find a place within Orthodoxy if they wish.

Second, not every value choice is compatible with Orthodoxy.  In this case, what cannot be harmonized with traditional Judaism are the ideas that same sex sexual conduct is morally neutral and that God does not care if one engages in this conduct or not.

Furthermore, if the acceptability of any sexual choice is now a central one to Western liberal thought, then this a bridge too far, and both sides would be better served with ideological distance.

The classical Modern Orthodoxy that Rabbi Lamm wrote about decades ago -- the idea that the central core values of our Modern Western world can be generally harmonized with Orthodox values –becomes less than completely true, if this idea of “sexual liberty” or “sexual equality” is a deep and core value of Western thought.

Most American ideas and ideals and Orthodox Judaism can be harmonized: from abortion to xenotransplants, but this one can not be done with any integrity at all.  It requires ripping the heart out of either traditional Judaism or Modern Western values or both, neither of which works well as a heartless corpse.

Of course, Orthodoxy will not end, and large swaths of Modern Orthodoxy will continue to function but the ideology of our community will change.  The tensions between the Modern and Orthodox part will become unbridgeable in part.  Better filtering methods must be introduced in order to maintain a stable Modern Orthodox community.

Please do not misunderstand:  Orthodox Judaism and Orthodox Jews can and will continue to function without much difficulty, practically – rather it is about value compatibility and religious orientation between our community and the Western world.

So too, there are practical approaches that work that welcome individuals and their families into the community: we all can welcome people who are incompletely observant or even argue that absent certain knowledge of sin, we can assume that no one is truly sinning. But these approaches will not suffice to harmonize our values with the ethos of the liberal Western ideology around us of sexual liberty and equality.

This issue could be the beginnings of the death knell of the one of the classical models of Modern Orthodoxy as we know it, since if sexual liberty is a core value of modernity [maddah], then Torah and modernity are not fully compatible.  It won't be Torah uMaddah but Torah and some filtered Maddah in this model, since a core value of modernity and maddah will be in some central aspects incompatible with the unanimous view of Torah.[6]  At the very least, we will move to the model in which it is clear that Torah umaddah means that we actively participate only in those facets of Western Culture that do not contradict Orthodox Judaism

Maybe we will need to move to a different model of secular education within Orthodoxy where we need not accept the basic ideas and ideals of western thought anymore and just take the things we need.  Maybe we can move into what Rabbi Lamm call a "more diligent sifting" mode of Western ideas, since he was aware from about 1990 onward of the fact that incompatibility was deeply possible in fact, which he called "Torah first, and then Maddah."

One pedagogic answer can be suggested flowing from this essay: The future of Modern Orthodox education is going to be quite different from the past – from now on, a central mission of Modern Orthodox schools is to teach its students how and what to filter.  We still live in a wonderful society with many spectacular virtues, from religious freedom to democracy and includes other values that the Orthodox should incorporate.  But, not all the values of our secular society are positive.  The mission of Modern Orthodox schools and Modern Orthodox educators for the next generation ought to be to teach students how and what to filter. Particularly in our educational system and in its outreach to parents, as well as in our campus work, we need to help people get a stronger spine to withstand some of the new storm winds blowing across society.

What Rabbi Segal wrote was honest and open and questioning -- but the silence of the Modern Orthodox leadership that he bemoans is because there is no answer of deep religious value from our Modern Orthodox community: value harmonization here is just not possible in the Modern Orthodox model. It might well be that other streams of Orthodoxy with other approaches can resolve this problem. But, I doubt it.  Simply put, to the extent that the Western world wants validation and not accommodation of sexuality liberty, no flavor of Orthodoxy has the tool of religious validation in their tool box.

A Personal Postscript

As I wrote this, I was reminded of the desperation Yeats must have felt as he wrote his poem "The Second Coming":

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Certainly, us Modern Orthodox harmonizers are silent in this case.  Like Aaron Hakohen, we are dumbstruck.  People always hesitate to answer with "abandon ship" as it is very sad to even ponder that possibility.  I want to cry even as just writing it. [7]

Michael J. Broyde is professor of law at Emory Law and a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law Religion at Emory University. 
Professor Broyde is ordained (yoreh yoreh ve-yadin yadin) as a rabbi by Yeshiva University and was a member (dayan) of the Beth Din of America, the largest Jewish law court in America and the founding rabbi of the Young Israel synagogue in Atlanta, a founder of the Atlanta Torah MiTzion kollel study program and a board member of many organizations in Atlanta.
Professor Broyde has published more than 75 articles and book chapters on various aspects of law and religion and Jewish law. \

[1]If this approach were a correct read of the will of the Almighty, an easier lo plug would have been to mandate an appropriate kiddushin for same sex couples.  Of course, the Rambam’s basic approach is that halacha (law) cannot adjust for the individual case; Rambam argues that this is in the very nature of law, so even God could not have mandated a different law that wouldn’t have edge cases.   But this is uniquely inapplicable in mattes of sexuality, since God created a nature that at least sometimes includes homosexual love (and in which many of those who have such an impulse, do not find love in heterosexual relationships). God could have chosen not to do such a thing which obviates the point of the Rambam here to a great degree.   Then just as some heterosexual relationships are good and some are flawed, so too would hold for homosexual relationships.  Indeed, one could claim exactly that the problems in same sex relationships is because society deprives them of the marriage writ, exactly flipping this approach on its head.
[2] In this view, same sex attraction was created [by God, if religious; by nature if scientific] exactly because it confers some positive values on humanity and reproduction which we all want in our community.  For a popular article on this approach, see this philosophical approach, the Jewish tradition would view people who have only same sex attraction as having too much of a good thing.
[3] One early reader asked:
I am wondering if the crisis is truly as bad as you suggest.  Do you think this is any different than the tension between Western values and Torah over gender equality and egalitarian values?  Would you also say:
There is no honest place really for Orthodox Judaism’s values within a modern Western world that views categorical gender-based discrimination for important communal roles as immoral.
Yet the MO community deals with it.  I think the values conflict over equality for women is arguably as deep as the values conflict over homosexuality, and it hasn't killed Modern Orthodoxy or Torah u-Madda yet.  So maybe there is hope.
I do not agree with this.  I think that most of the gender issues are solvable within the framework of halacha and that there is much less unanimity of the sources and thus much more flexibility.  Exactly because the sources are so monochromatic in their criticism of same sex activity and so much more ambiguous in the area of gender issues, these cases are not analogous.
[4] Of course, one should not idealize western culture of fifty years ago.  Rather, those aspects of Western culture [such as the banality of adultery in the 1950’s) were papered over because the best of western culture repudiated it.  The values were compatible, even if many people did not live the life high western culture expected.
[5] In this sense, premarital sexuality is a more common breach, but both halachically and practically a less serious violation.  Adultery is a more serious problem and an equally serious violation, but still is deeply lacking in ideological validation in secular society.
[6] See for example, the which notes simply and directly “Halakhic Judaism views all male and female sexual interactions as prohibited.”
[7]A friend raised as an Orthodox Jew who left over the same sex issues noted something very important.  He stated:
Most LGBT people don’t care what Orthodoxy thinks at all. This is a problem of the Orthodox community, not the LGBT community, per se. However, there are many gays and lesbians that care very deeply about where they fit in. They care about the functional implication for gay kids, families, and the ability of kids to come out safely. For the many gays who love Torah, they care about having a place in Orthodox society. So accommodation is fine.
He then added something very important:
Right now, when gay kids are struggling with their identities, they hear every nuance of what is being said. So your argument will be heard as “yeah, there’s some apologetics, but ultimately Orthodoxy rejects me”.
This is a real fear, but Orthodoxy seeks to reject no one, and it has a place for all kinds of people.
He then added something very worrisome that all need to grasp.
Much more serious, this kind of narrative that permits parents to avoid coming to terms with their child’s sexuality. So while you are trying to give the halachic and philosophical and communal fig leaf to the gay person, this last section gives the fig leaf to the parents (and teachers) to advocate for conversion therapy, doubt the kids’ sexual intuition and identity, ask for them to remaining closeted, and so on.  I know many people who have been and who are hurt by this dynamic.
There is truth to this claim and I am not sure how to honestly address it.  It is clear that conversion therapy does not work, and the closet is rarely an appropriate place to reside.  It is not clear how to write a single proper piece for (1) the Modern Orthodox who are bothered by this issue, (2) the Orthodox adolescent homosexual who is struggling and (3) the general community who is reading.  I can only pray that I have struck the right balance and seek forgiveness for any errors in formulation.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Joyous Time for the Jewish People*

As we are about to enter Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah I thought I would address why it is that the Torah specifices Simcha – joy  - only to the Yom Tov of Sukkos. I saw an answer to this question given by Rav Moshe Sternbuch which appealed to me.  He points out that there is no greater joy than being forgiven our sins. And on Yom Kippur - just a few days before Sukkos - that is exactly what happened.  

One may note a similar idea expressed about joy and being sin free at the time of one’s wedding. There is a custom for a bride and groom to fast on the day of their wedding. That day is compared to Yom Kippur where one is forgiven their sins. This is done on the day just prior to the actual wedding ceremony so that the bride and groom can enter their new lives in complete joy knowing that their new lives will begin free of sin. The joy expressed on that day is therefore unburdened – free of sin because of the Yom Kippur like aspect of the day just prior to the Chupah.

The few days between Yom Kippur and Sukkos are spent almost entirely on preparing for the Mitzvos that pertain to this Yom Tov – like building and decorating the Sukkah; and purchasing the Daled Minim (Lulav, Esrog, Hadasim, and Aravos).  So as we enter this Yom Tov we are relatively free of sin spending little time on anything other than Mitzvah or Mitzvah preparation. As such Sukkos is referred to as Zman Simchasenu. As the Torah tells us in reference to this Yom Tov U’Semachtem Lifnei HaShem Elokechem Shivas Yomim – And rejoice before the Lord, your God  for 7 days’ (Vayikra 23:40).

This is also why there is  celebratory atmosphere on Simchas Torah when we complete the yearly cycle of weekly Torah readings instead of on Shavuous when the Torah was actually given. Because the day before (today- Hashana Rabba) we participate in the  final expression of Teshuva where we can finally feel confident that our sins are truly forgiven. There is no greater feeling of joy than that... which carries over to the very next day, Shemini Atzeres. Which in Israel is also Simchas Torah and outside of Israel is the day after. That day – instead of Shavuous is when we can best express our joy.

Good Yom Tov

*Adapted from Torah L’Daas by Rabbi Matis Blum

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Unintended Consequences of Conservative Judaism

Tzedek Chicago founder Rabbi Brant Rosen addressing a BLM  rally (TOI)
One of the attendees at a recent meeting between Senator Mark Kirk and Chicago’s Orthodox Jewish leaders (lay and rabbinic) made a somewhat shocking remark to me. He said that Senator Kirk told him that in his encounters with the general Jewish community, he found that Jews don’t care about Israel. He said this in the context of finding it refreshing that at least one segment of the Jewish people – Orthodox Jews – do care.

This is yet another reason to support Senator Kirk’s re-election to the US Senate. It shows that his support of the Jewish State is not because he seeks the Jewish vote or Jewish money. That goal would be better served by advocating the liberal Jewish causes that most non Orthodox Jews support. As student of history, he supports Israel for moral reasons.

I said ‘shocking’. But I suppose it shouldn’t be that shocking to understand that the vast majority of the Jewish people in the United States have little to no Jewish education. Most are secular with humanistic values. At best they are cultural Jews. They place a lot more importance on Yiddish theater, literature, or poetry than they do on following the dictates of the Torah (of which they know little about). They in fact see no relevance to an ancient document whose values are archaic -  a throwback to primitive times. Many in academia have labeled the Torah a literary document written by man. Which in our day has little value based on modern concepts of equality and justice. In some cases Torah law is seen as sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, or even barbaric.

The rabbis of the Talmud are at best seen as flawed human beings that were a product of their primitive times. Which caused them to create laws that are anathema to modern day values.

And that’s only that segment that even cares about it. My guess is that most Jews in America do not know – or even care to know what the Torah and the sages say about anything. Which is why (according to a Pew Research poll) so many intermarry and/or assimilate out of Judaism. Is it any wonder that they don’t care about Israel either?

This is the unintended consequence of the Conservative movement. What was once the largest segment of Jewry in America has fallen to a distant 2nd place behind Reform which is increasing their number via redefining who is and isn’t a Jew to the point of absurdity.

It is ironic that a movement that was created to ‘conserve’ Judaism has done the opposite. They were the original ‘Open Orthodox’. They wanted to open up Judaism to the masses who would not or could not remain fully observant because they believed their livelihoods depended on working on Shabbos.

While claiming loyalty to Halacha - the Conservative Movement’s rabbinic leadership did much to subvert it - albeit unintentionally. For exampe - they ‘Paskined’ that since their members were going to drive anyway, let them drive to Shul. This ‘Heter’ gave a rabbinic imprimatur for driving on Shabbos in general. Most non Orthodox Jews of that time saw little difference between driving to Shul or driving to the beach.

Conservative rabbis  - most of whom were observant back then - did nothing to stop that. They rationalized that if they admonish their congregants for driving on Shabbos, they would lose them entirely. So they looked the other way. And thus over time virtually all Halachic observance was frittered away. Certainly the most of the ‘Don’ts’ of Halacha - observing some of ‘Dos’ for cultural or social reasons. And with each succeeding generation ignorance increased while the cultural motives decreased. And that’s where we are today. Support for Israel was once a pillar of Conservative Judaism. That too is now gone. Today we see more criticism of Israel than ever!

It should therefore not be surprising that there are Conservative or Reform synagogues and temples like Tzedek Chicago that bills itself as a non Zionist synagogue. From the Forward
Tzedek “bills itself as non-Zionist.” We are a values-based community, and our core values include “a Judaism beyond nationalism.” But we are not a one-issue congregation, and we don’t refer to ourselves as such…
Tzedek and its members are active in many progressive issues, from immigration justice to #BlackLivesMatter to fighting Islamophobia to #StandWithStandingRock. Our second day Rosh Hashanah service was a prayerful solidarity action with the Chicago Teachers Union in Chicago’s City Hall.  We uphold non-Zionism as part of our core values...
(A)mong us, there are a-Zionists, those indifferent; post-Zionists; anti-Zionists; those unsure of their position regarding Zionism, and even a few political Zionists who appreciate our anti-Occupation activism. We impose no litmus test for membership. 
Now it is true that this synagogue is outside even the mainstream of the Conseravtive of Reform Movements. Its founder, Brant Rosen is an avowed supporter of the Palestinian cause. And yet according to the Times of Israel millenials are flocking to it! That is disturbing!

That it exists at all shows just how far removed some Jews can be from the core values of Judaism – which first and foremost are represented by the Mitzvos of the Torah. 

That these young Jews view only popular liberal causes as their primary focus without a even a trace of Halachic observance – or even cultural activites  - as any part of their identity is surely the by-product of the Conservative Movement virtual indifference to the Halachic observance of its members over the years - save for Tikun Olam.  Tikun Olam is surely a Jewish value - but one that is shared by Christianity, secular humanists, and others. It is not distinctively Jewish.
Tikun Olam – especially one that is no longer supportive of the Jewish  State - has now become the sole identifier of many non Orthodox Jews. And it’s why we have synagogues like Tzedek Chicago. One might argue that even this is better than assimilating out as is the case with so many Jews these days. But I would argue that there is little practical difference between the two. And perhaps it’s even worse.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Reasonable Request in Meah Shearim

Poster asking for separation of the sexes in Meah Shearim (Ynet)
I am not a fan of segregation. Whether by race, religion, or gender. And yet gender separation has taken hold in Orthodoxy more than ever. Particularly at banquets and weddings, Neither of which are Halachicly required to do so.

Gender separation is the result of the constant ‘move to the right’. A pattern many of us in Orthodoxy has fallen into.

As it applies to America - there was a time when even the most right wing organizations had mixed seating (except in Chasidic circles). Great European Roshei Yeshiva that had immigrated to America (like Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky) and world class Poskim (like Rav Moshe Feinstein) could be found sitting at tables with their wives and other couples - proudly introducing their wives to friends and acquaintances as they passed by. That was the culturally accepted custom of Orthodox Jews in America.

Things were not that different in pre-war non Chasidic Europe. I recall back in the late 60s when a student of European Gadol, Rav Mordechai Rogov asked him if he should insist on separate seating at his own wedding as this custom was beginning to take hold among the right. Rav Rogov answered in Yiddish: In der Lita, zenen mir nit geven makpid. Separate seating was not an issue even in Lithuania - the heart of the Torah world back then.

Today a even a non Chasidic Rosh Yeshiva will never be found sitting with his wife at mixed table at wedding. It has become anathema to them and pro forma for their students to only have separate seating at their weddings.

The Talmudic source for separating the sexes is based on the Gemarah in Sukkah (5b). It describes the situation on Simchas Beis HaShoeva. Men and women used to be in the same area, women were on the inside and men on the outside. Because of the great celebration men and women came to  light-headeness and frivolity. That generated a rabbinic decree that separated them – requiring them to be in a balcony and enjoy the celebration from there.

That kind of segregation expanded to other times and other places. Like weddings. It was the norm among observant Jewry – centuries ago. And based on the culture of the times. Women were generally not found walking around in public. So being seated with them was considered immodest.

Today that is no longer the case. As explained by 16th century Posek, the Maharam Yaffa (more popularly known as the Levush), women are as commonly found in public as men.

I am not going to go into detail as to why this push backward is so troubling. Been there and done that many times.

But I am going to discuss one very disturbing trend among the extreme right that is an offshoot of the mentality that wants to completely segregate the sexes.  Even though the stated intent of gender segregation is to keep us holy by avoiding any contact between the sexes at all, there is such a thing as going too far. Going too far is when the desired effect is overshadowed by the harm it causes.  Unfortunately there are ample examples of that. Just to cite one example: How many times have we heard about a woman being beaten up or bullied for sitting in the wrong seat on a bus?! Although no one - even in the extreme right - condones it. Their tepid responses do little to change the harm requiring separate seating on buses causes. Certainly not enough to eliminate the separate  seating requirement. This leaves room for it to happen again!

But sometimes there is a legitimate reason to separate the sexes in public areas.  Not that I feel it has to be done in those cases. But I do think that requests for doing so are reasonable and understandable.

An article in Ynet is a case in point. Apparently signs were put up in the Meah Shearim neighborhood that included the following statement: 
"And a special request to the women – residents of the area as well as passersby – try to minimize as much as possible crossings of the main street of Mea Shearim in Chol Hamoed night times, and only go through side streets, and in general minimize visits in the (Mea Shearim) neighborhood in those hours," one of the posters said. 
I personally believe that such signs are unnecessary. But I completely understand why this community feels that they are. Anyone that has been to Meah Shearim will note just how narrow the streets and sidewalks are. The slightest number of people congregating in the street will create a crowded situation. And as the number increases, the crowds become very tight. Physical contact among people in that crowd may very well be unavoidable. To request (not demand) that women avoid the certain crowding that takes place on Chol Hamoed Sukkos when Shuls are celebrating Simchas Beis HaShoeva with loud music and exuberant dancing is a reasonable request.

That I personally don’t think it’s necessary is irrelevant. I don’t see a problem with incidental contact. But many Orthodox Jews do see that as a problem and want to avoid it as much as possible. So at least in this one instance, I would give this community a pass. Let them put up those signs in their own Meah Shearim neighborhoods during Chol HaMoed Sukkos. And let us try to honor them if we happen to be in there then.

There are plenty of things to be critical of in this community. And I have been. But this is not one of them.

Are they ‘breaking the law’ by putting up signs that call for gender separation? Maybe. But if there is ever a time for law enforcement to look the other way, this is it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Sickening Antisemitism of Great Nations

Kotel Plaza
In 2000 Israel made an historic and very controversial concession to the Palestinian leadership. In what began at Oslo as an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to come to a serious and workable compromise that would end decades of conflict, Israel was willing to give up half of Jerusalem to the Palestinians as part of a peace settlement. 

Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat had almost agreed to the terms of the agreement. Which – had it been implemented – may have finally seen peaceful co-existence between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors. And more importantly  between Palestinians and Israelis. Imagine the possibilities of such a realtionship!

I supported that deal. I had hoped that if it came to fruition, it would effectively end all hostilities. How dare I - one may ask - support giving up half the eternal capital of Israel? Especially since that’s where the Temple Mount and the  Kotel were located?  For me, a true peace that would end the bloodshed was worth the price. Besides, the deal would have permitted free access to the Kotel to anyone that wanted it.

True, I was naïve then. I should have known that Islamic fundamentalists would never honor such a deal no matter who made it. Not even their hero, Arafat! Fundamentalist groups like Hamas have only one goal: to free all of all of Palestine (Israel) from Jewish control and rid it of Jews. By any means necessary. This has been their stated goal. They don’t hide it. They have implemented those means against Israel in Gaza ever since Gaza was given to them. 

Fortunately Arafat could not bring himself to accept the compromise reached at Camp David. And that deal never took place. Thankfully Israel still controls all of Jerusalem.Trying to reach any kind of deal under current conditions would be suicidal. 

This is an unfortunate result for the Palestinians. They will continue to live under Israeli rule indefinitely until such time that it can be demonstrably shown that a peace deal will not result in the West Bank becoming Gaza 2.0! 

I do not see making any kind of peace deal in the foreseeable future. Not since Gaza has shown us what it might be like in the West Bank if we did. And not with what’s going on in many Muslim states in that region. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, all of which are in chaos to one degree or another due to Islamic fundamentalist control.

This seem so clear to me. And yet so many western nations, including the United States (under the current administration) keep insisting that Israel must make concessions for peace. For some inexplicable reason, they are ignoring the obvious. Halting settlement construction (which I actually agree with as a matter of showing good will) will nonetheless not stop the carnage from being perpetrated by fundamentalists like ISIS, Al Qaida, Hamas, and Hezbollah. They will continue to pursue their goals using terror and carnage! 

If Israel were to make ‘peace’ right now, it would be an invitation to annihilation! The civilized world seems oblivious to the very likely result of the West Bank becoming Gaza 2.0. How can can they possibly believe that fundamentalists would lay down their arms and allow a Jewish state to exist in what they believe to be their legitimate territory. One that extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River!  To a Muslim fundamentalist - there is nothing Jewish about any part of Israel. Not even the Kotel.

Apparently UNESCO agrees with them. From the Times of Israel:  
The United Nations’ cultural arm on Thursday passed a resolution ignoring Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall in a move derided in Israel as “anti-Semitic” and absurd.
The resolution, adopted at the committee stage, used only Muslim names for the Jerusalem Old City holy sites and was harshly critical of Israel for what it termed “provocative abuses that violate the sanctity and integrity” of the area.
Twenty-four countries in the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) backed the document, while six voted against and 26 abstained at a meeting in Paris.  
If there was ever any proof needed that this organization is antisemitic – this is it. Which is too bad. The concept of an organization in a world body that is dedicated to preserving and promoting educational, scientific and cultural activities around the world is surely a worthwhile enterprise. One deserving to be an independent entity within the United Nations in order to assure that goal. But that is hardly how this organization seems to function when it comes to the Jewish State. UNESCO seems to recognize the culture of only one group in that part of the world.  Muslims. 

By their statements, there is no tie between any other religion to the holy site of Har Habayis - the Temple Mount. Where both Batei HaMikdash (Holy Temples) were located. We, the Jewish people consider this to be sacred ground to this day. The Kotel is the remnant of the outer retaining wall of the 2nd Temple and is recognized as such by Jews and Christians. To ignore that and refer to that area as culturally only as Islamic, is to deny the very bible that identifies this location in other terms. 

But that doesn’t seem to bother the 24 member UNESCO countries that backed the resolution or the 26 that abstained. Truth be damned. Thankfully Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and United States voted against it.

It is one thing to say that a concession for peace requires sacrificing what we believe to be our sacred land. This was the case in that 2000 deal that then Israeli Prime Mister Ehud Barak agreed to. But to deny any connection to it is a lie.  A lie whose only motive is to legitimize our beliefs. Which is not much different that how fundamentalist Muslims see things. And that will just fuel more terrorism and carnage. Not only against the Jewish people. Not only in Israel, But Everywhere! And that is truly sickening!  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Short Vort and Chag Sameach

Image of typical Sukkah interior from Cross-Currents
One of the two primary Mitzvah requirements on Sukkos – which commences this evening – is Yeshivas Sukkah - living (eating and sleeping) in a hut-like temporary dwelling for seven days. (The other is the taking of the four species - Lulav, Esrog, Haddaism, and Aravos. Women are exempt from both but are permitted - and generally do - eat in the Sukkah in a family setting. And they generally take the 4 species). 

When I awoke this morning, it was raining. Hard.  A real downpour. The sages say that if it rains or if there is any other Tzar (pain - e.g. extreme cold) we are absolved of this obligation and do not eat in the Sukkah. This is the Halacha as stated  in the Shulchan Aruch.

I thought if the rain continues – all of that effort putting up the Sukkah ...and now we won’t be able to enjoy it. Although on first night we are required to eat a Kezayis of bread in the Sukkah no matter what, there will be no joy in eating it in the rain! The rest of the meal will be in the house.

But the Chasam Sofer offers some words of consolation. He tells us that one of the things the Sukkah symbolizes is the Ananei HaKavod – the clouds of Godly protection that accompanied and hovered over our ancestors on their exodus from Egypt until their entry to Israel. In honoring that Godly symbol - Chas V’Shalom (God forbid) that the Ananei HaKavod should have any connection to pain. That is why we should avoid eating and sleeping there. He adds that under such circumstances eating in the house is as if we were eating in the Sukkah – and thus fulfilling the Mitzvah.

Good Yom Tov 

Friday, October 14, 2016

Senator Mark Kirk - A Proven Friend

Chicago's Orthodox leaders meeting with Senator Kirk last week (Matzav)
One problem (among many) with Donald Trump’s candidacy that is that it will affect the down ballot candidates of the Republican Party. I say this as a non partisan - although a right leaning one on most issues. I vote for the individual not the party. If one looks at my voting record - that would be amply reflected. I voted for Bill Clinton twice as I did for Ronald Reagan. As much as I don’t like Hillary Clinton, she is the lesser of two evils. I will vote for her over the disastrous Trump. 

Many of Clinton’s supporters say she will govern from the center. But I think her primary opponent, Socialist Bernie Sanders, has pushed her even further to the left than she was before. A lot more than her husband, former President Bill Clinton.  

The way to prevent some of her liberal agenda from bearing fruit is to vote for a Republican congress in both the House and the Senate. Because even though Clinton is less of a disaster than Trump by far, she is still a disaster. Her economic programs consisting of more tax and spend entitlements will increase the budget deficit and the national debt. And we already owe China the family farm!

What’s worse is that she will continue the foreign policy of her predecessor. That too is a disaster. Just to take one example - instead of increasing the crippling sanctions on Iran and bringing them to their knees, where the world could have dictated much better terms for removing those sanctions - the deal made by the US gave Iran - the biggest state sponsor of terrorism - billions of dollars to further that cause; allowed them to keep most of their nuclear infrastructure intact; and a few years hence allows them to pursue nuclear weapons freely. This is a country that has vowed to wipe Israel off the map. They have been vowing this for over 35 years. Soon they will have the means to do it.

This is not a foreign policy that will benefit mankind. It is a prescription for a major nuclear conflagration in the not too distant future that will affect the entire world. And yet this is the kind of foreign policy she enthusiastically supports.

I am still going to vote for her for what are becoming increasingly obvious reasons. But in my view it is vital to do what we can to counteract her agenda on both the economy and on foreign policy. Which means voting for Republicans down ballot. I say this even though I do not vote ‘party’ but ‘individual’. That should still be the guiding principle for everyone. But surely one should not vote against someone because of their party’s Presidential candidate. That would be biting off your nose to spite your face.

In Illinois, Republican Senator Mark Kirk is being challenged by a war hero, Democrat Tammy Duckworth. She is an Iraq War veteran that suffered severe combat wounds, losing both of her legs and damaging her right arm.  I salute her service. For her sacrifice and dedication, she deserves the eternal gratitude and respect of all the American people regardless of party affiliation.  But that does not make her an ideal candidate for office. We must look at her policies

For those who care about the welfare of the Jewish State, her policies are not so stellar. She is party loyalist that supports the Iran deal. More telling is her endorsement by J-Street, the liberal lobbying group that was established as a counter to AIPAC. This the pro Israel lobbying group has been successful in arguing Israel’s case to our elected officials. AIPAC is respected in Washington on both sides of the political aisle. They are seen as a required stop for every Presidential candidate seeking office.

J-Street tends is tends toward a more Palestinian view of things –albeit without the antisemitism that often accompanies it. Their view is that Israel should make peace right now with a 2 state solution. This ignores the increased terrorism that would be generated if the entire West Bank were handed over to them. A lesson that should have been learned by handing over Gaza. Israel thought that would be a great gesture.  Palestinians could then show us what peaceful co-existence would be like in a 2 state solution. 

We all know how well that worked out. We cannot give Palestinians control of the West Bank until we can be assured that they will not turn it into another Gaza. Which is the opposite of what their popular leadership (Hamas) has all but promised to do. Tammy Duckworth is of the J-Street mindset apparently. She apparently feels that Israel can ignore the reality of Gaza and hand over the West Bank to their leaders.

The United States cannot afford to do this to its closest ally in the Middle East. It would be against America’s best interests. Not to mention immoral.The West Bank must remain in Israel’s hands until such time it can be proven that it will not turn into another Gaza.

Both Kirk and Duckworth were invited by Agudath Israel of Illinois to address a group of rabbinic and lay leaders across the spectrum of Orthodoxy in Chicago. Kirk accepted and met with this group. Duckworth has not yet decided if she can swing it. The following excerpt is why anyone that cares about the State of Israel should vote for Kirk. From Matzav
In a passionate response to a participant who asked what motivated him to fight for Israel and the Jewish people, Senator Kirk explained that he views it as a primary moral obligation. He described himself as a student of history who appreciates the uniqueness of the Jewish people and the persecution they have endured for generations. “We must learn lessons from the 1930’s: take the threats of Israel’s enemies seriously and understand that appeasement only emboldens them. We must do whatever we can to right the wrong done to the Jewish people. It is the moral test of our generation to stand up and do what we can to protect this special nation.” 
Senator Kirk did not just have this meeting for political expediency. He is a true friend of the Jewish people. After he was elected in the last election he requested to address the Jewish community to express his views about Israel and the Jewish people. The Jewish community responded by inviting him to speak at KINS, a Modern Orthodox Shul in Chicago’s West Roger Park. A neighborhood heavily saturated with Orthodox Jews. He did not have to do this. He was already elected. And yet he still expressed a desire to show us who he is.

This is the man we should support. Mark Kirk is a Republican that must remain in congress. He is a good man and deserves to be re-elected. Even if only to retain a Republican seat in a very likely Democratic administration.  We could use a lot more like him. This is not to say that Ms. Duckworth is an antisemite. I’m sure she is not. 

But why go with an unproven candidate endorsed by J-Street – while the proven one is such a great friend to the Jewish people? 

The media has been reporting that it is a very close race. (The same cannot be said for the vote for President. Illinois rarely goes Republican and it will surely not do so this time.) Please do not stay home – even if you can’t stand either candidate. Your vote will count. This election is too important to ignore. Come out and vote for Kirk. I will be. I hope you will too.