Thursday, December 26, 2013

He might have possibly maybe said what? I'm appalled!

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky is now purported to have stated that anyone who uses an iPhone is invalid as a witness, or as a mesader kiddushin.

But why does Haaretz report on this story with the words "Prominent rabbi reportedly declares marriages and divorces witnessed by those who have Internet access invalid."

Why "reportedly"?

Why does Harry Maryles write in The Jewish Press that he's sure R Kanievsky was either misquoted or misled?

Why isn't there a clear process of communication for "gedolim" to communicate to the Jewish world they supposedly represent? Why is everything hearsay?

I know that the Charedi world doesn't work this way, but I wish there was a publication and verification process, like there is in the academic and reputable journalistic worlds. Otherwise, we depend on rumor and hearsay about what these rabbinic statements.

We should not be having endless conversations about whether a famous rav actually said what he is purported to have said or not. The conversation should be about agreement or disagreement with these statements. It's ridiculous that so much time is spent discussing who said what.

If a well known rav makes a statement, it should be unambiguous and he can then be called upon to defend or explain himself. Vague statements from behind closed doors reported by followers with agendas should not be taken seriously.

For those who adhere to the guidance of "Daas Torah", any directives of this sort should be disregarded unless there is a clear communication from the rabbi in question himself.

And for those of us, like myself, who do not subscribe to the concept of "Daas Torah"? We should similarly demand a clear and unequivocal statement from the source before we attack the rabbi in question for statements he only may have said.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Can you support gay marriage and be Orthodox?

There's a new article on Huffington Post by Rabbi Shmuley Yanklowitz titled "5 Reasons Being an Orthodox Rabbi Compelled Me to Support Gay Marriage"

First of all, I want to say that agree with him 100%. But the point I want to make here is another one.

We've seen this script before. Several times, in fact, over the last couple of years.

A graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah publicly declares support for something that Orthodoxy traditionally rejects. Orthodox Jewish social media then spends weeks obsessing over and over again about whether he can be called Orthodox or not. And in all the debate, virtually no ink is spilled on the actual issues he raised. And that's a shame.

For the record, I support gay marriage, 100%. As a human being. As the right thing to do from my personal moral perspective. My religiosity is irrelevant to this issue. And whatever denominational label my coreligionists want to slap on me as a result is truly irrelevant to my identity as a Jew.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

V'ten Tal U'matar, Thanksgivikkah, and the slippage of the Hebrew calendar

The unusual juxtaposition of Chanukah and American Thanksgiving got a lot of attention this year, and many
people excitedly repeated the statistic that this won't happen again for another almost 80,000 years.

What many people are unaware of, though, is the reason for this. It's not because of random coincidence. Rather, it's because of the slight "slippage" of the Jewish calendar relative to the solar year. The Jewish calendar is very slowly getting out of sync with the seasons.

At the current rate, it'll take around 40 millennia for the holidays to end up in the opposite season from where they are now, and around 80 millennia to come back to their appropriate seasons. So in around 40,000 years, we'll be celebrating Pesach in the Autumn, and Sukkot in the spring. Tisha B'Av will be a marvelously short fast day, ending with an early sunset, and Shavuot will be associated with Christmas in popular culture.

Thus far, most of our holidays and rituals have continued with this being just an interesting curiosity. After all, the fixed Jewish calendar is less than 2,000 years old, perhaps much younger, depending on who you ask. Before that, the mechanism for keeping on seasonal track required a bet din to establish a leap year when needed. A millennium or two isn't enough to throw us seriously off track.

However, there is one, (and only one), day of the year where this slippage is actually visible in Jewish ritual. That day was last week, December 5th, the first full day day we started reciting V'ten Tal U'matar Livracha outside of Israel (we actually start at Maariv of December 4th). Halacha, following a practice established in Babylonia, states that we should start inserting this prayer into the Amidah 60 days after the Autumnal Equinox.

The Equinox this year was September 22nd, so technically, that should have been November 21st. However, due to seasonal slippage in the Julian calendar, Pope Gregory introduced the Gregorian calendar some 450 years ago, which reset the date of the equinox. Jews, however, simply saw that an adjustment of around 10 days had occurred (that first year of the new calendar, Pope Gregory removed 10 days from October for re-alignment), and ignoring the reason for the new calendar's introduction, moved the annual initiation of V'ten Tal U'Matar 10 days later into early December.

So we have an odd situation: A Jewish ritual timed for the agricultural cycle of Babylonia becomes the norm for the rest of the Jewish world (excepting Israel), and that ritual is, unusually, relative to a point in the solar cycle, rather than the Jewish calendar, AND because of over-reliance on the Julian calendar to identify that solar event, the ritual gets pushed even further away from it upon the initiation of a new, more accurate, solar calendar.

Those oddities aside, we do recognize the slippage of the Jewish calendar against the solar year, and against the more solarically accurate Gregorian calendar. This results in the slow advancement of the date we start saying V'ten Tal U'matar. A few hundred years ago, we started on December 2nd. Now we start on December 5th. In the year 2100, that will change to the 6th. This happens every 231 years.

Of course, there's another factor to consider. While we start reciting V'ten Tal U'matar on a date of the secular calendar, we stop at Pesach time. So in approximately the year 30000, we will start saying the prayer in early April and we will stop at Pesach time.... in November or December. We will then start reciting just "V'ten Bracha", the spring prayer, just in time for winter.

Or course, someone will presumably (hopefully!) fix the Jewish calendar by then, so it's highly unlikely we'll really have to wait 80,000 years for another Thanksgivikkah.

And if either Chanukah or Thanksgiving still exists in 80,000 years, I'm betting on Chanukah.

Related links:
Joel M Hoffman: How the Secular Date of Dec. 5 Made Its Way into the Jewish Calendar
Daniel J. Lasker - "December 6 Is Coming: Get Out the Umbrellas"

Friday, November 8, 2013

Why Orthodoxy?

My hashkafa is closer to Conservative Judaism than Orthodox Judaism, yet I affiliate with Orthodoxy for the most part.

I've often articulated it this way - aside from some small pockets (think JTS or Hadar, etc) in big cities (in which I do not live), nowhere can you find the living vibrancy that you can in Orthodoxy, nowhere else is there such a high level of Jewish literacy among many, not just a few, and nowhere else is there the mass observance of Shabbat & Kashrut. So I generally spend my religious time in Orthodox synagogues, though I reside at the very leftwing edge of that spectrum, and sometimes go to the local Conservative shul.

But I particularly like this line by Sarah Miriam Liben, in her article on the gender divide in Conservative Judaism (men are becoming Orthodox) and her desire to stay true to her egalitarian Conservative Jewish ideals. Though she is talking about college campuses, I think this is applicable to the feelings of people like myself in the adult world:

"Given this picture, it is easy to understand the pull factor of the vibrant Orthodox communities in college where being a committed Jew doesn’t make you a rarity or simply the most educated or most observant, but places you among a sea of peers."

A defense and a minor apology to R Yair Hoffman

It's very easy to attack or make fun of people's writing on the internet without thinking about them as real human beings, only caricatures.

Rabbi Yair Hoffman wrote a piece on women's tzniyus the other day. He did put it out there, and he opened himself up to criticism. And cricize him many of us did. The piece certainly deserves strong criticism. I wrote a post myself, titled "Tziyus Fetish"

This morning, Rabbi Hoffman himself commented on the post:

"Actually I wikipedia-ed the information and never saw the issue of non-tzniyus drop-ffs myself. The information was brought to me by a number of women, a few of them. I wrote the correct halacha and do not appreciate the attacks on my character for simply writing halacha. I have been called a sexual pervert, a fetishist, and worse for this article - for simply writing halacha. I am not sure why people think that it is okay to do this. I am very disappointed."
I obviously hurt the feelings of Rabbi Hoffman. His article, in my opinion, was ridiculous and deserved deep criticism. But I should not have implied that he was a sexual fetishist. I obviously never believed that, I was just using hyperbole to make my point. Here is the reply I wrote to Rabbi Hoffman's comment, which contains a more balanced criticism and an apology:

I think there is something deeply wrong with the contemporary charedi obsession with and focus on tzniyus, which sexualizes women just as much as contemporary secular society. The way you and others elevate this to the main thing that girls and women should focus on, has, in my opinion, the unspoken purpose of shutting them up, hiding them, and stifling them.

The attention paid by rabbanim such as yourself to the minutae of women's clothing DOES appear to be highly disturbing to most people not in the charedi culture, and seems like the OPPOSITE of tzniyus, if anything.

And it is that obsession with the way women dress that makes men sensitive to every single accidental glimpse of a woman's leg, when more modern people would never even notice. The more that needs to be covered up, and the more focus on every single collarbone or knee is what sexualizes these parts. I have no doubt that Taliban men find women's faces arousing,. That is what you are doing here.

All that being said, it's easy to write a blog post impulsively, and to insult people. I deliberately chose the last words of my post to be "seem like fetishists", rather than "are fetishists". I should not have attacked you personally, and I apologize for that. I am deeply disturbed by the way the Charedi community as a whole deals with this issue, but I should not have implied fetishism to you personally. You are obviously also greater than this one issue, as your defense of R Dov Lipman in July indicates.

I will update my post pointing people to this apology in the comments.

Shabbat Shalom.

R Dovid Feinstein - "oh, my poor nephew is being prevented from having kids!"

In response to the recent New York Post article by Gital Dodelson, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, who I think is Avrohom Meir Weiss' uncle, wrote a letter disingenuously titled "Set Gital Free", when his point is to provide excuses for Weiss' disgusting withholding of the get, and to blame the situation on Dodelson herself.

But the point of this post is just to comment on one aspect of his letter that is only tangentially related to the main topic. He writes:

"Right now, there are 3 lives that are being ruined, or are at least on hold. Just look at Gital, the poor Agunah, whose personal life is in limbo at the prime time of her life, wasting away years. The same for Avrom Meir, as I watch his younger siblings, with their families growing past his."

(the third life he references is their child, addressed in the letter's next paragraph)

This reveals so much about the perspective of the Yeshivish community when it comes to life goals. His life is being ruined because he can't churn out children like his younger siblings. Because apparently,.that's the only point to life.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Avrohom Meir Weiss has no excuse

Someone named Yossi left a comment on my Gital Dodelson post from the other day with this link, containing a defense of her ex, saying that Weiss had agreed to binding arbitration in May and that she was the one who abandoned that arbitration.

The telling sentence is this:
"If Gital really wants a Get - it is clearly available - but only through good faith negotiations."
How is that not withholding a get, and using it as leverage? How is that not holding her hostage to get what he wants in the arbitration? In what world is it acceptable to withhold a get pending the resolution of arbitration? In what way does this make his actions any less appalling?

The fact that halacha has left a loophole which gives men power over women in divorce is horrible. In the 21st century, any man who utilizes that mysoginistic power, no matter the circumstances, no matter who behaved badly in the divorce, deserves all the public shaming that can be mustered against him.

Let him give the get, and then they can resolve the remaining differences in their divorce as equals.

Tzniyus Fetish

Apparently, Rabbi Yair Hoffman has too much time on his hands.

In an article in the 5 Towns Jewish Times, he calls attention to a serious problem, that of women dressed inappropriately when dropping off their sons at Yeshiva, because they are heading for the gym and are dressed for exercising.

Among other things, he writes:

"What further complicates the issue is that many women are entirely unaware of the problem. They do not know that it is the nature of a pencil skirt worn with leggings to rise above the knee."

The problem, actually, is that Rabbi Yair Hoffman spends enough time thinking about this so that he knows what a pencil skirt is (I don't) and is familiar with the details of leggings "a nylon-lycra blend" and that pencil skirts are apparently made of spandex. He also apparently thinks deeply about the necessity of "a skirt that entirely conceals the shape and form of the thigh"

When do we start telling the truth, that rabbis who are obsessed with women's clothing seem like fetishists?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Gital Dodelson, agunah

She would desperately like to be something else. But the "agunah" label is what has unfortunately defined her for the last 3 1/2 years while her ex has denied her a get.

She finally went public in the secular press. The result is this article in the New York Post.

Even well over a year before this article came out, Gital had publicized her case against her ex husband, Avrohom Meir Weiss, resulting in protests outside his home and condemnation of him and his prominent rabbinic family (he is a grandson of Rabbi Reuven Feinstein and a great grandson of Rav Moshe Feinstein), which has strongly supported him. So they put out this packet of information to defend themselves.

I looked through the information there and here's the thing. Maybe she's the guilty party here in the custody battle. Maybe he's right that he was condemned unjustly for going to the secular courts, when she put him in a situation where he had no choice. Maybe neither of them are blameless in this extremely ugly divorce.

But NONE of that justifies, in ANY way, the withholding of a get. Nowhere in the Weiss defense did I see a justification for that.

That she may not be blameless has absolutely nothing to do with the get. A get should NEVER be hostage to ANY part of divorce proceedings. To use it in that way is disgusting, and justifies any and all vilification of Avrohom Meir Weiss.

He should give her the get, then they can hash out the rest. That's what decent people do. The man gives the wife a get. Then they can negotiate the terms of the other details of the divorce.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

My thoughts on Gordimer

Originally a comment I wrote on Facebook on R Gordimer's article against Chovevei Torah:

R Gordimer is both right & wrong. He's wrong in that he has a narrowly defined view of what traditional halacha allows, and he's wrong in asserting that the innovations regarding women's roles are unjustifiable in the traditional halachic framework.

But he's right that certain statements about Torah MiSinai and Mashiach would have been considered outside the pale in any generation. Personally, I'm very sympathetic to Rabbis Farber & Yanklowitz. Their viewpoints are in line with my own hashkafa. But I am fully aware that my hashkafa not only doesn't fit in with today's Orthodoxy, it doesn't even fit in to the Judaism of the Tana'im, Amoraim, Geonim, and Rishonim.

Today's Orthodox Judaism is a very narrowly defined (and distasteful) crystalized version of certain practices and beliefs in traditional Judaism. YCT's problem is that they want to be considered part of that world, and that is why they present such a target to those on the right.

Just as many Modern Orthodox (rightfully) wish to disassociate from certain elements of the Charedi world by saying "that's not real Orthodox Judaism, it's a perversion", the Charedim see things the same way, but in the opposite direction.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Yom Tov Sheni Shel Galuyot

This holiday, many visitors to Israel are preparing to keep 2 days of Yom Tov, in contrast to the Israelis around them. And many Israelis visiting or even living abroad are planning only one day of Yom Tov.

Here's what I don't understand. If keeping the minhag of your home country is because of minhag avoteinu b'yadenu, then the current practice makes no sense.

The reason that the Jews in Bavel (Babylonia) kept 2 days was because they didn’t know when Rosh Chodesh of that month really was, since that time was set by the sighting of the new moon in Jerusalem. Even with the signal fires, the messages wouldn’t always go through, sometimes because of natural occurrences, sometimes because of Shomronim (Samaritans) deliberately lighting false fires to confuse the dates.

Well, why didn’t they just send a messenger? Well, obviously, a messenger couldn’t make the trip on time. If he could, there would be no need for the much speedier signal fire system.

So what about a traveler who lived in Jerusalem but was spending Sukkot in Bavel? Could he travel any faster than the messenger could have? Obviously not. So to spend Sukkot in Bavel, he would have to have departed Jerusalem well before Rosh Chodesh Tishrei. So how would he have had any idea when Rosh Chodesh was declared, any better than those who lived in Bavel year round? No way at all! So he would have had to keep the same 2 days of yom tov that everyone else did there, despite of that fact that most of the time he lived in Eretz Yisrael!

Today we have a set calendar. Even if we didn’t, we have instantaneous communication with Eretz Yisrael. We could get word immediately of the time of the molad (new moon) in Jerusalem. But we commemorate the way it was done in ancient times by keeping 2 days of Yom Tov outside of Eretz Yisrael because of Minhag Avoteinu B'Yadenu.

Well, if we’re keeping it the way it was done then, what sense does it make for someone who just happens to live in Eretz Yisrael to keep one day of Yom Tov in the Diaspora? His corresponding traveling ancestor wouldn’t have been able to do so. How is it consistent in any way for him to keep one day while all around him the other Jews are keeping two?

And once we establish that, the converse must follow – a Diaspora Jew should keep only one day in Israel. Otherwise the system has no consistency.

I'm not trying to mock the minhag, I'm just genuinely trying to understand. So how is the minhag of keeping 2 days in E"Y following Minhag Avoteinu?

Monday, August 19, 2013

I wish the Charedi world had peer review

A comment I left on another blog, on a post about another outrageous statement a Charedi rav was purported to say:
I know that the Charedi world doesn't work this way, but I wish there was a publication process and peer review, like there is in the academic world. Otherwise, we depend on rumor and hearsay about what these rabbanim say. These endless conversations should not be about whether a famous rav said what he is purported to have said or not. The conversation should be about agreement or disagreement with these statements. It's ridiculous that so much time is spent discussing who said what.
If a well known rav makes a statement, it should be unambiguous and he can then be called upon to defend or explain himself. Vague statements from behind closed doors reported by followers with agendas should not be taken seriously.

Would Ibn Ezra have supported Zev Farber?

I'm still working on my longer post about my thoughts in response to the current brouhaha about divine authorship of the Torah kicked off by R Zev Farber's article on However, in the meantime, here's a couple of quick thoughts that were originally a comment to this post.
Rabbi Farber and others have sought to provide support for their views by quoting medieval commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, who questioned the divine authorship of very small parts of the Torah. Criticism of this approach has been along the lines of this sentence, by Yossi Bloch, in his post referenced above:
"There's a world of difference between saying that Abraham didn't have camels or live until 175 and saying that he never existed."

I agree that denying a Sinaitic event, or denying the existence of Moshe or the factuality of the exodus from Egypt is an entirely different level of magnitude than saying that some verses, or chapters, or even all of Devarim were not written by God. Some medieval commentators who may have opined the latter, nonetheless believed deeply that these events occurred and the people existed. The only dispute was did Moshe or even Yehoshua write a small minority of it.
Furthermore, it's obvious that even the most open minded of the Rishonim when it comes to the above would have seen R Farber's views as utmost heresy.
But does that matter?
The point of bringing up ancient or medieval opinions that question the divinity of some parts of the Torah isn't to assert that those commentators would have supported contemporary views that question the entirety of biblical divinity. The point is to show that there's a precedent for modifying beliefs about biblical authorship in the face of contradictory evidence. And that precedent has been shown to exist, no matter the degree.
Ibn Ezra and his rough contemporaries did not question Moshe's existence. In their day, no one did. Their world was divided between Christendom and Islam, with Jews on the fringes. In that world, Moshe's existence was history, and no one doubted it. Who knows what they would have believed the same evidence available to us today? And faced with new evidence today, is there room in traditional Judaism to follow the spirit of Ibn Ezra, even while espousing views he would have considered unacceptable?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The "off the derech crisis"

Today, Harry Maryles wrote about the "off the derech" phenomenon, which many have labeled a "crisis".

Harry makes some good and compassionate suggestions, such as families remaining accepting of their children, no matter the path they choose.

I'd like to look at this from another perspective, with just a few short points:

  • Who says that Orthodoxy is the right path for everyone? Even if you believe it contains ultimate truth, one-size-fits-all is a very doubtful proposition when it comes to religion.

  • Young, autonomous individuals should have the right to make their own choices, and those choices should be respected, not seen as mistakes that should only be tolerated in the name of compassion and family harmony.

  • Here is my biggest point: by declaring an "OTD phenomenon", Orthodoxy lumps all young people who have left that sect into one group. It lumps someone like Abandoning Eden, a blogger who is a successful academic and has a happy marriage, into the same pool as young yeshiva dropouts who may be on drugs and have no jobs, no marketable skills, and sometimes, nowhere to live. Not only is this disrespectful of the Abandoning Eden types, but far worse, it treats the very real problems of the young dropouts as symptoms of their having left Orthodoxy. And their real problems, which need solutions like rehab, job training, and support sytems, get ignored.

    Until we look at young people with such problems as individuals, we won't be able to help those who actually need help.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Egla Arufa and some drunk rabbis

This week's parsha (Shoftim) ends with the halachot of Egla Arufa, which also make an appearance in Bereshit Rabba 94:3


Scene: Roughly 2 millenia ago, a group of rabbis are sitting around somewhere in the ancient near east, getting drunk on some good wine

R. Yankel: Dude, this is good (hic!) stuff! 45 BCE! A good year.

R. Chazkel: Gimme some

R. Yankel: Hey, have you ever noticed that Rav Mendel is cross eyed? That's why his class is so noisy. He can't control his pupils!

R. Chazkel and R. Dovid: Groan! That's terrible!

R. Zevulun: Hey, when Hashem wanted to have a flood but save 2 of every animal, he didn't know who to ask. Then his buddy said, "I Noah guy"!

(R. Dovid looks daggers at R. Zevulun)

R. Levi: Hey, I once heard a good one from Rav Yochanan bar Shaul...

R. Chazkel: (interrupting) No, don't say it. His are the worst!

R. Levi: Hold on, this one is good! You know how Yaakov knew that Yosef was alive only when he saw the wagons Yosef sent? Because they'd been studying the halachos of Egla Arufa before Yosef left, and the wagons were a sign!

(stunned silence)

R. Levi: Don't you get it? Agala, Egla?

(others shake their heads with exasperation)

R. Levi: Screw you guys, it's funny!

(Unnoticed in the corner, a naive and innocent student is feverishly taking notes.)

A century or so later, the Amora Hoshaya is putting together Bereshit Rabba, and needs some more material...

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Is Rabbi Zev Farber Orthodox?

So much of the reaction to R Farber's big essay has focused on whether he can still be considered Orthodox or not, whether Orthodoxy should nor reject him, etc, etc.

If R Farber isn't Orthodox, than I definitely am not. Not being a rabbi or a community leader, I don't really care what label people slap on my set of beliefs. I'd just like to see more focus on what R Farber actually wrote. Is it a viable theology or not? (irrespective of labels).

I'm in the middle of writing my own essay in reaction to what R Farber wrote and some of the other reactions, as well as outlining my own theology and how I approach the challenges of Academic Biblical study. Look for it here in a few days.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

From liberally minded to racist

What is it that makes liberally minded individuals become mild racists once they become frum? Does entering an insular community mean you leave your egalitarian ideals behind and suddenly believe the worst stereotypes about other ethnic groups?

It's just sad.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


I was discussing the term "Orthoprax" over on Sefer Hapanim and how I dislike it. It implies people that secretly disbelieve in all religion, but only stay publicly religious for social reasons or fear of condemnation. Because of simplistic thinking, many frum Jews place anyone who doesn't adhere to the Maimonidean dogma in the category of "orthoprax", and assume that those like myself who don't believe in a literal Torah MiSinai must all be secretly irreligious.

A more fitting term might be "Observadox"

Friday, July 19, 2013

An old stone wall - part of King David's palace?

Some archaeologists claim to have found one of King David's palaces:

One of the biggest problems I've noticed in these archaeological wars is that there's very little consensus on scientific method, as opposed to, say, the field of biology. Half the archaeologists (who also tend to be the loudest) seem to come with many many preconceptions & agendas, and they make wild assertions, both in the biblical maximalist and minimalist directions. And these aren't armchair archaeologists, these are the people who are actually carrying out the excavations. So it's very hard to get objective information about what was found, to have a purely scientific perspective.

Ancient texts, including Tanach, are, of course, relevant to ANE archaeology. But many archaeologists seem to have already made up their minds about the Torah and then interpret what they dig up in light of those preexisting beliefs. There's no objective standard.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Is Judaism 3,300 years old?

Someone on Facebook, while making a point, claimed Judaism was 3,325 years old. Because it was relevant to his point, I felt the need to respond. Here is what I wrote:

Actually, what may have existed 3,000 years ago was a proto-Judaism, an Israelite sacrifice cult. YHVH had physical form and lived in various temples, which were eventually centralized in Jerusalem, mostly for political purposes. The Israelites descended from the hill-dwelling Canaanites. This way of life ("religion" wasn't a separate concept back then) was mostly concerned with ritual purity and sacrifice.

Judaism itself wasn't really its own thing till late in the 2nd temple period. (The Maccabees were most likely Sadducee). Rabbinic Judaism was a remarkable achievement, something that was built to serve the masses who lived outside the land of Israel, even while the beit hamikdash still stood. It continued to evolve after the temple's destruction, and it still evolves today. That's the Judaism I love and keep. I feel it's a conduit to spirituality & God, even if it is man-made.

But it's most certainly not 3,300 years old.

Egypt's dilemma

Egypt has a big problem. Morsi was elected democratically, fair & square. On the other hand, he's Morsi. A new uprising may bring him down, and most of us in the west won't be sorry to see him gone. But what's next? Do they go to new elections? What if the results of those elections is another Muslim Brotherhood president? Will there then be yet ANOTHER uprising?

On the one hand, the people of Egypt deserve democracy, as do all people on earth. But what if that democracy keeps producing a theocratic regime that suppresses the rights of women and ethnic minorities?

I don't envy the Egyptians their dilemma.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Devarim 22 - a rapist required to marry his victim?

In a Facebook discussion, someone asked:
"How would an Aish Rabbi respond to Devarim 22:28-29?"

Here's the relevant verses (JPS translation):

כח  כִּי-יִמְצָא אִישׁ, נַעֲרָ בְתוּלָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא-אֹרָשָׂה, וּתְפָשָׂהּ, וְשָׁכַב עִמָּהּ; וְנִמְצָאוּ.28 If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, that is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found;
כט  וְנָתַן הָאִישׁ הַשֹּׁכֵב עִמָּהּ, לַאֲבִי הַנַּעֲרָ--חֲמִשִּׁים כָּסֶף; וְלוֹ-תִהְיֶה לְאִשָּׁה, תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר עִנָּהּ--לֹא-יוּכַל שַׁלְּחָהּ, כָּל-יָמָיו.  {ס}29 then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he hath humbled her; he may not put her away all his days. {S}

This is obviously extremely offensive to our contemporary sensibilities, and, I would venture to say, offensive by any objective standards, even if earlier millenia did not recognize that objective truth.

But in the Ancient Near East, a woman was not much more than property, and the idea was, basically, you break it, you buy it.

But there can still be an uplifting perspective in these verses. The fact is that the Torah was progressive for the time, since that was the ANE version of women's rights and the ANE version of punishment for a rapist. And while it's difficult to claim that the message is timeless or still relevant, it's important to remember that Judaism is not Biblical, it's Rabbinic, and we certainly don't require such a horrific thing today. And Rabbinic Judaism has room to stretch and grow and change with the times. So the inspirational message in Devarim 22 is the fact that traditional Judaism was able to evolve beyond such laws and that shows its worth.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

How can we follow an imperfect Torah?

On Facebook, in a Jewish group dedicated to debate and discussion between believers and non-believers someone asked:

"How can a book such as this, written with misleading passages, be used as a guide?"
I answered:

Short answer? It can't.
Not so much because of scientifically inexact passages, but more because of the commandments of slavery and genocide called for therein.
That's why very few Jews today actually use the Torah as any sort of guide for living. Rather, they use a vast body of interpretations of the Torah as their guides, interpretations that span well over 2 millenia. It is upon those interpretations that Judaism rests, not the original document (which even has interpretations in the actual text).
It's not about the foundational text, admittedly a composite document of bronze and iron age legends and laws, it's what we do with it. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Refuting the Kuzari hypothesis

In a discussion on Facebook, a friend (a non-believer, BTW) made an incidental argument that the Kuzari hypothesis a slightly stronger argument that other "proofs" for the Torah's authenticity. He does not believe that the Kuzari proof is any sort of "proof", but that since its claim is more philosophically based than empirically based, it's less disprovable, since empirical proof is not the currency of argument in the philosophical realm.

However, the Kuzari hypothesis does rest on an empirical assumption of an unbroken chain of transmission of the mesorah since Mount Sinai. However, that very mesorah tells of several "re-introductions" of the Torah, such as Ezra's. Therefore, the entire "proof" is refutable in a somewhat empiric manner.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The better place was unreachable

Sad - A Better Place, which was an ambitious project to introduce a very innovative business model for electric cars in Israel, is filing for the Israeli version of bankruptcy and liquidation.

I had high hopes for this back in 2010:

Maybe it was just before its time. Maybe in another few years, someone will take another stab at it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Women's ritual roles - March 2008

One side effect of "going public", so to speak, is that I'm looking back at a lot of posts that I wrote some 5 or 6 years ago, to decide if I want to publish them under my own name. In the process, I'm seeing how my thinking has evolved since then (which is appropriate, given the name of this blog).

In a post titled "Women's ritual roles", in March 2008, I praised the new partnership-type minyanim for giving women more of a role, and for taking up a time-honored tradition of "stretching (not breaking) halacha to enable women to expand their roles."

Though I still greatly admire those minyanim for the work they are doing, I've accepted a more pluralistic perspective since then, and feel that there are multiple approaches to worship. I happen to affiliate with Orthodoxy, for the most part, but I have no problem with full egalitarianism. My way works for me, but halachic mores on shul seating and gender roles is entirely man-made, and everyone should choose the path that's most meaningful for them.

Isn't this a new blog? Where are your old posts coming from?

I've been blogging for over 6 years, under a variety of names, including Yehudi Hilchati, DYS, Rabba bar bar Chana, and Philo. This is a new blog in the sense that the site is new, and I'm using my real name, but I've imported most of my old posts. However, I don't feel comfortable posting them all at once, so I've kept them private and will gradually be making public the ones I feel comfortable sharing under my real name. That will eventually likely be most of them. But there may be a few posts where I've changed my mind from my feelings at the time, or ones that are no longer remotely topical, like posts about the 2008 presidential election.

For the ones that I feel are still of current interest, I'll be putting up a new post pointing out the emergence of that old post, perhaps with some introductory comments.

Hope this clears up any confusion!

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Faith vs Evidence - December 2007

I originally posted these under my blogging name "Yehudi Hilchati" in December 2007. My thinking on this topic has definitely evolved somewhat since then, as I no longer have a "salvage what I can of the dogma" attitude. But my basic overall perspective remains the same. I still see no reason not to see holiness and value in my Judaism.

1) Faith vs Evidence, posted December 24, 2007

2) More on Faith vs. Evidence, Dec 27, 2007

3) Answers to a couple of recent comments on Faith vs. Evidence, Dec 31, 2007

TABS: Torah And Academic Biblical Scholarship

There's a new project out there called TABS, which stands for Torah and Academic Biblical Scholarship.
It's got a lot of big name advisors, some of whom I've heard speak, and was founded by Marc Zvi Brettler and David D. Steinberg. The website,, seems to be a site for religiously committed Jews who nonetheless accept the scholarship of the documentary hypothesis. That's me, so I was very happy to discover it!

The site is definitely a work in progress, but they do have a few things posted. One is an overview of the various different approaches for dealing with modern biblical scholarship.

The list includes:
  • Cumulative Revelation
  • Myth of Origin
  • Core Revelation
  • The Maculate Torah
  • The Interpreted Torah as Service of God
  • Rejection of Dogma
  • Sanctified by the Community
  • Aspects Theory
  • Liberal Supernaturalism

The full list and accompanying descriptions of each approach is here:

My personal sympathies are closest to "Sanctified by the Community", which reads:
"According to this approach, the fundamental insights of academic biblical studies are true. The Torah is a composite document that has developed over time; it is not always historically accurate, and indeed should not be taken as a historical or as a scientific treatise. Nevertheless, the historical-critical method and traditional Jewish observance are compatible, as the dogmatic content of Judaism is not binding. 
"Whether one affirms revelation or not, the Bible remains a sacred work. However, its sacredness is connected to the Jewish community that declares it to be sacred.  The earlier Jewish community, the real and spiritual ancestors of the Jews, understood the Bible to be sacred, and we follow their example.  The Bible, in this approach, becomes a sourcebook for current Jews, who select, reevaluate and interpret its texts to give meaning and substance to contemporary Judaism."
I was gratified to see that the source given for this approach is a book by Mark Zvi Brettler, who is one of the founders of the project, which bodes well (from my perspective) for its future.

What approach do you take? Do any of them strike a chord with you?

Monday, May 20, 2013

My First Post?

Well, not really. I've been blogging since 2007, under a variety of names. But I'm leaving my pseudo-anonymity behind.

Here's what I wrote on my old blog (of the same name, but on Wordpress) today:

A new chapter for me

I realize I haven’t posted much in the past couple of years. My heaviest blogging time was probably around 2008-2010. Lately, I’ve been more focused on what I love about Judaism, and a more positive perspective. That doesn’t change my opinions about the authorship of the Torah, or about issues that confront Judaism today. But I want to be able to have a public dialogue about these ideas and issues. I want to be able to chat in shul with a friend about something that excites me in the parsha and comfortably point him to a post on the topic on my blog. Yes, some of my ideas may be unorthodox (pun intended), but I’m at an age, and I live in a community, where I don’t feel like I need to hide certain ideas out of fear of possible repercussions. I am a religiously observant Jew who loves the Torah and my Judaism, even if my beliefs aren’t precisely in line with what tradition demands.
Still, though on the whole I feel like I’ve been respectful and non-sensationalistic, I need to think about which of my old posts I want the public to see under my own name.
So I’m yet again starting a new blog. I like the name “The Evolving Jew”, so I’m keeping it, but moving over to Blogger (which I’ve decided I like better anyway). I’ve made all the posts here private, for now, but will be posting them on the new blog from time to time, if I deem them appropriate. Where I might have been too strident in the past, I may edit the post to soften the tone and make it more respectful. And I hope to continue to write new posts under my real name, David Staum, at the new blog,, exploring Torah, Jewish history, and many other topics.
Thanks for reading!
David Staum
AKA Yehudi Hilchati, DYS, Torat Ezra, Rabba bar bar Chana, and Philo