Friday, February 28, 2014


Some thoughts on the ever-present abortion debate, and the partisanship that accompanies it, prompted by a friend's Facebook post and the ensuing discussion. This was a comment I wrote on that post:

I've often thought that abortion was a poor issue for people to be reflexively political about. We ARE talking about life, and the issue of when life begins is a very tricky one, one that is more subject to religious beliefs or emotion than it is to science. Frankly, unlike right-wing accusations, most people I know on the left are not blithely "pro-abortion". "Pro-choice" acknowledges that however one might feel about abortion, the ultimate right to make that uncomfortable choice belongs to the mother.

However, there certainly are lines. Despite being strongly pro-choice, my line is drawn earlier in the pregnancy than what is commonly termed "late-term" abortion. Unless it is to save the life of the mother, killing a fetus who could survive outside the womb should, I believe, be illegal.

Science gives various answers about when life begins, but ultimately it's a philosophical question. While I strongly oppose pro-lifers' absolutist positions, I can't just dismiss them as extremists. Their opposition may be based on religious beliefs, but "religious beliefs" is just another term for philosophy, and philosophy is, ultimately, how most of us determine when life begins. As long as they avoid obscene tactics, (like harassing women entering clinics), pro-lifers have just as valid a voice in the public debate as pro-choicers. And I would hope that pro-lifers would feel the same way about we pro-choicers.

Friday, February 21, 2014

My official designation equals Orthodox, but

Funny thing about labels.

"Orthodox" is a label.

I'm a Jew who doesn't believe in a literal Torah MiSinai and who often participates in egalitarian minyanim.

But because I keep Shabbat & kashrut and go to an Orthodox shul most of the time, people label me "Orthodox". That, and because I grew up Orthodox, and have never declared that I'm not.

So because people perceive me as "Orthodox", I'm included in the "us & them" conversation. Even some other Orthodox Jews who know my hashkafic bent still think of me as playing for "team Orthodox", and that I stand separate from heterodox movements, which are the "other".

Let's try a thought experiment. What if I made a tiny shift, and made the Conservative shul in my neighborhood my primary place of tefilla, and only occasionally went to the Orthodox shul, (the reverse of what I do now)? My halachic practices and my hashkafic beliefs would remain exactly the same. What would happen?

I think I'd suddenly be "the other", still retained as a friend, but not seen on being on the same team. I'd suddenly be a Conservative Jew (or a Conservadox, take your pick), and be subtly excluded from the endless conversation of what Orthodoxy stands for.

For example, instead of being seen as having an authorized voice to argue that Biblical Criticism should be acceptable within Orthodoxy, (a la Zev Farber), or that Chovevei Torah should still be included in the Orthodox world, I'd be an outside voice trying to tell Orthodoxy what it should or shouldn't be. I've seen this with various friends who straddle the denominational divide.

This isn't a polemic against labels. I certainly understand their convenience and how they're often necessary. When I started blogging, 7 years ago, my raison d'etre (which I soon abandoned) was to push a new label for the Open Orthodox crowd, so as to become an independent entity, distinct from Charedim. I was suggesting "Hilchati", hence my blogging name at the time, "Yehudi Hilchati".

But labels are quite subjective. The set of people who identify with a label is shaped like a bell curve, so yes, you do get a clumping of like-minded people in the middle. But the closer you are to the edge of that bell curve, the more arbitrary the labels feel.

I'm not sure if I have a real point in writing this post - it's more of a musing. But if I have any point, it's that my ability to argue that views like mine should be accepted within Orthodoxy, as Rabbi Zev Farber or do, is facilitated by the fact that most people view me as "Orthodox".

Interestingly, there's another side to the coin. Were I to step over the label line by making that slight shift in my life that I mentioned above, none of these beliefs would be an issue. If I'm labeled as "Conservative", nobody would care if I agree with the theories of biblical criticism. They're only an issue because of the side of the denominational divide I supposedly stand on at this point in time.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why do we insist on "glatt"?

Crown Market in West Hartford has announced that they are closing, after three quarters of a century.

I've been working in Hartford for a year or so, so I occasionally do kosher shopping in West Hartford. But I never went into Crown until a few weeks ago. It didn't look too good on the outside, and most of the meat is under kashrut certification that doesn't meet my community's standards.

I finally stopped in a few weeks ago. And was pleasantly surprised. It's clean & has a great selection of kosher groceries. I was looking forward to going back there often, and am very disappointed by the news.

If they had switched to a hechsher that was acceptable to the Orthodox community for their meat, and offered only glatt, they might have been able to survive.

But why should they have kowtowed to pressure? Non-glatt meat was perfectly fine when I was a kid, and I grew up Orthodox in Brooklyn.

Of course, I've kowtowed myself. I want people from my community to trust the kashrut of my home, so I only buy glatt, despite that I think it's nonsense.

Is there any way to move the goalposts back, or will the Orthodox community continue mandating unfounded chumrot? Most chumrot are not as much of an issue, because they effect individuals or sub-groups. But kashrut chumrot effect the community at large. Bringing non-glatt into your home has become a kosher dividing line.

If people really want a dividing line on meat, why can't it be about things like humane treatment of the animals? Wouldn't it be great if a hechsher became communally unacceptable because the rav didn't care about hoist & shackle, or the like?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Do we need permission to subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis?

A friend mentioned on Facebook that according to Yehuda Mirsky in his work on Rav Kook, "He [Rav Kook] suggests that one may accept the findings of Biblical criticism and still keep faith with tradition."

It got me thinking. For believers who have confronted truths about biblical authorship, does this really matter? We dig for hints of "permission" to believe what we know to be true, i.e. the Torah is a humanly composed composite document.

But what if there were no such hints? What if, instead of being 99% opposed to Biblical Criticism, traditional Judaism (which Orthodoxy claims to be the only conduit of) it was 100% opposed, with no cracks or openings for hope from relatively open-minded rishonim or achronim? What if you could't appeal to the phlisophical direction of Ibn Ezra or to vague statements by Rav Kook? What if Zev Farber wasn't out there making a splash and trying to carve out a niche?

Would any of that matter? Once you've seen the man behind the curtain, you can't just go back and believe that the Torah was given by Hashem at Sinai, word for word. You can't suddenly reject what you know of history and archaeology and re-decide that the Torah is about real history.

Once you know the truth, you have to either make your own accommodation with tradition or lose faith entirely. So ultimately, while it's certainly nice to get validation from purported interpretations of Rav Kook, it doesn't really make much of a difference in the end.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Is Stephen Walt really behind Obama's Middle East policy?

Lee Smith has a new article on Tablet about how Stephen Walt (of Walt & Mearsheimer fame) is the true mastermind behind Obama's Middle East policy.

All you need to know about the bias of this ridiculous article is contained in the second paragraph:

"In the midst of widespread regional upheaval, the Obama Administration has seemingly abandoned longtime allies, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, while embracing traditional adversaries, like Iran. Few can make sense of the United States’ refusal to maintain what it had previously defined as core national interests in the region for nearly half a century, like peace in the eastern Mediterranean—an objective forsaken by the decision not to intervene in the Syrian civil war."

Let's see: Obama repeatedly defends Israel and stands up for them. He supports crippling sanctions that force Iran to the negotiating table and works hard to hammer out an agreement.

However, in the mind of Lee Smith, Obama has "abandoned" Israel and "embraced" Iran. All because he didn't obey the almighty Netanyahu's wagging finger to bomb Iran immediately.

Oh, and Obama has apparently also betrayed the Middle East by not defying overwhelming American public opinion and sending troops into Syria to get embroiled in another years-long quagmire.

After just that one paragraph, I take anything else Lee writes about Walt's influence on Obama with many grains of salt.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Gil Student on Limmud

Next week is Limmud NY, which I am attending. I will be moderating a discussion group on J-blogging on Monday, February 17th.

Gil Student has a thoughtful article in The Jewish Press today. In it, he expresses concern over whether Orthodox Jews should attend Limmud or not. He writes:

"I see three main issues with attending Limmud. The first is the legitimacy given to the non-Orthodox teachers... 
"Additionally, if Orthodox rabbis widely embrace Limmud, the Orthodox laity will follow in large numbers...
"Many, currently most [of those who will be teaching at Limmud] base their teachings on beliefs that Orthodox Jews consider heresy. They will speak about the human authors of the Torah, the bias of the Sages, the immorality of halacha and choosing whether to follow even basic biblical laws..."

Gil does throw a bone:

"I am not saying that non-Orthodox scholars have nothing to teach us. Quite the opposite. They offer a fresh perspective that will take us out of our comfort zones and force us to look anew at well-worn texts. It is precisely because they have much to teach us that we have to be very careful about the unconscious and insidious de-sanctification of sacred texts."

While my first reaction was to roll my eyes and comment about Gil's rightward drift, I think his article illustrates an important divide.

The assumption behind what he writes is that all Orthodox Jews believe that Orthodoxy is "true" Judaism, more or less, and that any other denomination is a lesser, or warped version.

If you are like me, and simply believe that Orthodox Judaism is one interpretation, with no monopoly on truth, then studying with other Jews is simply a personal choice, and probably a positive thing to do.

But if you believe that your denomination holds the truth, then of course the question of attendance hinges on whether anything is to be gained, and whether one's ideas might be tainted.

My gut feeling is that even for "Orthodoxy is truth" folks, Limmud would be a wonderful and positive experience, and that Gil is wrong in his hesitation. But in a sense I'm coming from outside the system (although I do affiliate mostly with Orthodoxy), and we are speaking different languages.

In any case, I will happily be attending Limmud NY next week, and hope to see many of you there.