Friday, December 25, 2015

Star Wars and my spirituality

My wife and I went to see the new Star Wars movie yesterday. And while I definitely enjoyed it, I also saw some plot holes that could have interfered with my pleasure. I won't mention those plot holes here, so as not to reveal any spoilers to readers.

But what about me? I noticed those plot holes while I was watching the movie itself, and while they couldn't serve as spoilers in the classic sense, since I now know the plot and outcome, they definitely could have acted as spoilers in the sense that had I let them, they could have harmed my viewing pleasure.

But they didn't. I noted the issues as they arose, but then tucked them away and just let the narrative carry me along. I didn't let small things destroy a wonderful experience. I immersed myself in the wonder of a modern myth legend of heroes and villains, and the of the epic quest romance adventure that once again, (after the disappointing prequels), represents Star Wars.

Over the years, I've come to see "plot holes" in Judaism as well. The innocent stories that I was told as a child don't add up. Things are not as black and white as I was taught. And most glaringly, the dogma of our religion doesn't stand up to scrutiny. I now no longer believe that the Torah was written directly by God. Nor do I believe that many of the Biblical figures really existed, and even if they did, certainly not as depicted. I recognize that our national aspirations of a future messianic era evolved out of a long and messy history and may not represent actual prophetic visions.

So I have a choice. Do I let these plot holes in Judaism be spoilers to my faith? Do I reject the whole experience because some of the pieces fit together?

I'm thankful that I made the choice not to let a few plot holes be spoilers of the immersive, inspirational, and deeply spiritual experience of being a Jew, and of my observance of Torah & Mitzvot. If I can put aside the flaws so I can enjoy a modern myth that is clearly fictional and only a few decades old, then I can certainly put into perspective the plot holes of Judaism as well, and not let them spoil the sacred myths of our people, which evolved out of hundreds of generations of our ancestors struggling to find their way to Hashem and creating stories that helped them to do so.

Whether I believe or not that Hashem literally commanded us to observe certain practices, I feel I am commanded to observe them by the experience of our people over 3,000 years through a history that is real, and deep, and incredible, and is deeply embedded in my heart and soul, and I would never give that up just because of a few plot holes.

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, November 23, 2015

Yitzchok Alderstein supports women's smicha?

According to R Alderstein, it's better for a woman to bring her taharat hamishpacha questions to a rabbi rather than a yoetzet. Why?

"A yoetzes course of study cannot hold a candle to years (or more!) of immersion in serious learning."

R Alderstein doesn't seem to have any idea how rigorous the course of study for yoatzot is. But leaving that aside, he seems to be saying that a yoetzet simply don't have the level of learning neccesary to give an accurate psak.

I am absolutely sure that he's not suggesting anything so blatantly sexist as the idea that women don't have the necessary intellectual skills to master the halachot. So it must be that he feels that studying for smicha itself, and the actual conferral of smicha, is what makes one truly qualified to rule on taharat hamishpacha.

Therefore, I am left with only one conclusion. Clearly R Alderstein feels that the yoetzet course is insufficient, and that women should be granted smicha so that they can accurately rule on questions of niddah.

I agree with R Alderstein that the time has come for women rabbis, and welcome his endorsement of that position.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Syrian refugees

When you think about the plight of the Syrian refugees, remember that we are Jews, and remember this pasuk:

כאזרח מכם יהיה לכם הגר הגר אתכם ואהבת לו כמוך כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים

ויקרא יט:לד

Monday, November 16, 2015

Rejecting refugees because of the actions of ISIS is immoral

On July 22, 1946, the Irgun bombed the King David hotel in the center of Jerusalem. 91 innocent people were killed.
In response, the US declared that they would no longer allow any of the hundreds of thousands of desperate Jewish refugees into the US, because any of them could be terrorists.

Except that's not what happened. President Truman realized the deep human crisis of the countless survivors in the DP camps and the many thousands of others fleeing virulent anti-Semitism. So over the next few years, the US raised the quotas higher and higher, allowing homeless and hopeless Jewish refugees homes and hope, a place to rebuild their lives.

Will Paris really make us forget the lessons of history and cause us to abandon our compassion?

Yes, I know it's not an exact parallel. But the lesson should stand, nonetheless. Punishing desperate refugees who are fleeing murder and hate, because of the actions of a few, is immoral and we, as Jews, should know this better than anyone.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Obama is the most anti-Israel president ever?

It's become an accepted fact among most Orthodox Jews that Obama is "the most anti-Israel president ever" and perhaps even an "anti-Semite"

I'm not here to argue whether his policies on Israel are damaging to Israel or not, nor whether the Iran deal was smart. That could be, and has been, argued ad nauseum.

What I do want to say is this. Given current trends of increasing international isolation of Israel, it's possible that in the future, say 20 years down the road, the US may very well have a president who is actually anti-Israel, one who cuts off aid to Israel, votes against Israel at the UN, imposes sanctions on Israel, and perhaps even threatens military action.

THAT would be what an actual anti-Israel president would look like. Calling Obama anti-Israel is beyond preposterous.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Last night's lynching of an innocent man in Be'er Sheva

As much as we are all horrified by every terror attack, we aren't shocked by the fact of the attacks. We know those terrorists want to kill Jews. Evil is evil.

But I must admit to being shocked by the lynching (yes, that's what it was) of the Eritrean man in Be'er Sheva last night. I'm trying to avoid passing judgement on the lynch mob. After all, they were terrified, they'd just been subject to an attack, and they genuinely thought the man was a terrorist as well. Still, it's horrific that people blocked police access to a man who was already down and yelling "Mavet LaAravim!" beat him, threw benches and chairs at him, kicked him, spat on him and cursed at him. Shouldn't we be better than that mob mentality? Aren't we better than the terrorists?

I'm sitting here in the US, safe and sound. As much as I fear for my family and friends, I have't been personally subjected to the existential fear that Israelis are going through day after day for the last month. So as I wrote above, I will try not to judge the mob itself. But we should all deplore that it has come to this, that the terror has worked and turned a crowd of normal, everyday Israelis into something akin to the historic lynch mobs of the US deep south.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Will the real Antoninus please stand up?

Avodah Zara 10a-b discusses the friendship between Antoninus (אנטונינוס), who seems to be the Roman emperor, and Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi. The gemara even describes how Antoninus built a tunnel from his home to R Yehuda Hanasi's home.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that this has at least some historical basis, and look at the attempts to identify Antoninus. The most obvious candidate would be Antoninus Pius, emperor from 138 to 161 CE. Soncino reports that that was the view of someone named "S.J. Rappaport". Does anyone know who that is? Here is the Soncino comment.

The gemara also reports that Antoninus had a son named Asvirus and a daughter named Gira. None of the children of Antoninus Pius match those names even closely, at least according to Wikipedia's list of his children, though Gira MIGHT be Annia Galeria Faustina Minor. The Soncino also cites Rappaport's (IMO fanciful) theory about the identity of Asvirus:

"Asverus is his adopted son Marcus Aurelius (161-180), who was also called Annius Verus — here contracted into A-S-Verus"

However, a friendship between Antonius Pius and R Yehuda Hanasi is difficult to posit, given that R Yehuda Hanasi was born in 138 CE and Antoninus Pius dies in 161, when R Yehuda Hanasi was only 22 or 23 years old. Was he such a renowned and wise figure at such a young age that the emperor would consult with him so heavily? And would he have been spending significant time in Rome so early in his life?

Another suggestion, which I *think* comes from R Mattis Kantor (the footnotes are confusing) is that Antoninus is Marcus Aurelius ("Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus"), whose reign was 161 to 180, at which point RY Hanasi would have been in his early 40's, certainly old enough to have been a famous rabbi and an advisor to an emperor, and also would have spent enough time visiting Rome to get to know Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius is also a better candidate to be the gemara's "Antoninus" when looking at his children. He had a son named "Marcus Annius Verus", which could have been "Asvirus". And while his daughter in the gemara is named "Gira" (גירא), the Soncino for some reason translates that as "Gilla". Maybe there's a variant reading? If this isn't a typo, (and even if it is), then perhaps Gira/Gilla is Marcus Aurelius' daughter Annia Aurelia Galeria Lucilla.

The identification of Marcus Aurelius would fit really neatly with a bow if this story in the gemara on Avodah Zara 10a was about his son Commodus instead of his son "Asvirus". The gemara there says that Roman kings do not appoint their own sons as king, but that Antoninus did so by a special request, and his natural son Asvirus succeeded him.

In fact, Marcus Aurelius did name his own, natural born son as his successor, as opposed to the longstanding practice of adopting an heir. That succession was quite controversial back in 180 AD. Unfortunately for our identification here, that son was Commodus, not Marcus Annius Verus. Still, things could easily have gotten garbled by the time this was written down, and there were an awful lot of Imperials named "Verus" or "Severus".

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Historical-Contextual Beit Midrash a new group that I started on Facebook a few weeks ago. We have over 350 members already, and we've had some interesting posts and discussions already on the length of a Parsa (Parasang), where is Beit Chortan in Syria, did Jewish men shave in Talmudic times, the climate of ancient Eretz Yisrael, kriya in mourning being a lesser version of tearing of the skin in ancient cultures, Hashem's "subcontracting" of his powers to angels, and the Talmudic perspective on figures like Alexander the Great and the emperor Titus.

Join us!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Psak shopping

According to the traditional viewpoint, you're "supposed" to find a posek and abide by his rulings. But let's be honest. In practice, especially in the internet age, many people shop around for a halachic ruling that they're comfortable with.

Is this so terrible? While I'm sure that some shop around just so they can engage in practices that they'll enjoy, I suspect that most do so for practical reasons, because their lives would be much more difficult if they had to rely only on their local rabbi. Especially in the last several decades, when compassionate kulot (leniencies) are much less part of your average Orthodox rabbi's toolkit than they used to be.

So people turn to the internet. They don't want to just violate halacha, but they sometimes desperately need a lenient ruling, whether it be for something as benign as a pressing business need or as serious as a sick family member. So they ask people in Jewish discussion groups, or look around at various responsa online.

Aside from the fact that this allows for them to find compassionate rulings, this practice can be good for another reason. It's people taking their halachic lives into their own hands, asserting their autonomy, and engaging much more deeply with halachic reasoning than if they just asked their shul rabbi.

Yes, there's certainly potential for abuse, and anyone who seeks a psak that they are more comfortable with has to be very self-aware of their motives. But on the whole, I think this is a positive development.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Tisha B'Av - a deep dive into Jewish history

The traditional reason given that Hashem allowed the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash is because of Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred. It might also be translated as pointless hatred.

Tisha B'Av, more than any other commemorative day on the Jewish calendar, provides us with a deep dive into Jewish history. We mourn the destruction of two temples and the loss of sovereignty in ancient times. But in the Kinot we recite, we also mourn events like the Rhineland massacres during the first crusade in 1096, the York Massacre in 1190, the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1242, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, and the Shoah in the 1940's. All of these events reverberate deeply through subsequent Jewish history, leaving their marks on who we are and what path Judaism followed.

We focus on Jewish history during happier commemorations as well, but not nearly as deeply. The old joke, that Jewish holidays have a narrative of "they tried to kill us, we won, let's eat" has some truth to it. The happiness and warmth that pervades most Jewish holidays keeps us from thinking too deeply about the massive sweep of Jewish history, the good AND the bad.

On Tisha B'Av, there's no such distraction. We can't minimize our history by way of zmirot or kugel. On Tisha B'Av, we face our history, the highs and the lows, the joys and the sorrows, the celebrations and the horrors, looking at them without filters.

Mourning doesn't mean wallowing with no purpose. There are positive reasons we fast and recall tragedy, and those reasons are many. We are meant to take away lessons that strengthen us as Jews and as human beings.

I'd like to suggest that one of those lessons has to do with the stated reason for the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash, that of Sinat Chinam, pointless hatred. Despite the passage of 2,000 years, we still haven't gotten past that Sinat Chinam. We still display hatred, intolerance, contempt, and anger towards one another. Often these feelings are ostensibly l'shem shamayim, for heaven's sake. We're defending our conception of Judaism against those whose conception of Judaism differs from ours. But the expression of that disagreement, especially online, takes on forms that cannot be described in any other way except Sinat Chinam, pointless hatred. For what is the point of calling names and belittling others? It may make us feel better, or superior, but are we convincing others when we use such language and tactics?

Staring at our history in the face should give us some perspective. Whether the topic is the role of women, the state of Israel, politics, Jewish education, or any of another thousand topics, these issues pale in comparison to what has taken place in our history. And confronting the sweep of centuries in an unblinking manner, as we do on this day, should make us think about where these debates and disputes will be in 10 years, 100, years or 300 years. Will they be remembered? Will they have shaped Judaism? And even if they have, will our descendants look back at the disputes with respect or with contempt?

Let our disputes be like that of Hillel and Shammai or Abaye and Rava. Let us show consideration for one another. That doesn't mean papering over differences, but rather presenting our positions respectfully, engaging in constructive dialogue rather than destructive dialogue. On a day when we are forced to see the grand sweep of our history, let us approach our disagreements with humility and perspective, and a realization that we are in this together. Let us connect with one another with Ahavat Chinam.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Time to dump the "Orthodox" label?

Let's face it. Left Wing Modern Orthodoxy, Open Orthodoxy, or whatever you want to call it, has much more in common, philosophically and in their general outlook, with heterodox movements than with right wing Orthodoxy. The only thing that binds LWMO/OO with RWO is basic halachic observance, and even the philosophical and practical approaches to halacha differ.

And then there's the independent minyan movement, which has a huge contingent of halachically observant folks, not to mention the observant JTS types, who people tend to dub "Conservadox". Beyond the variability of whether there's a mechitza or not, there's hardly any difference at all between LWMO, OO, Independent minyanim, and Conservadox.

Personally, I'm not a huge fan of labels, and most of the time I tend to just say that I'm halachically observant and attend an Orthodox shul. Functionally, I guess you could call me LWMO.

But given the ubiquity of labels and the fact that they do serve some functional purpose, I wish there was one that showed my affinity with those concerned with tikun olam, human rights, compassion for the less fortunate, exploration of intellectual truth, feminist ideals, and open dialogue.

As long as that "Orthodox" sits there in the labels that people would tend to apply to me (given my functional affiliations), it ties me to an increasingly out of touch, extremist, and fundamentalist world which exhibits xenophbia, sexism, racism, authoritarianism, contempt for others, anti-intellectualism, and close-mindedness.

The string between the Charedi world and the left wing of Orthodoxy is very frayed has little beyond semantic significance. Maybe it's time to just snap it, once and for all.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Should factory farmed eggs be considered treif?

Food for thought: How much should humane conditions factor into whether something gets a hechsher or not? Can we just go by the letter of the law and ignore the horrors of factory farming?

Eggs, for instance. Chickens are stuffed 5 to a cage, barely able to move around for their entire lives. This is basically torture. In my opinion, your conventional supermarket eggs should be treif, given the terrible צער בעלי חיים the chickens are subject to. But I still make compromises, because I'm not going to question hosts on what kinds of eggs they use. Nor do I buy the more expensive pasture raised eggs (the ideal), but settle for the cage-free variety, which are more affordable, and at least I know that the chickens aren't trapped in cages.

Where does halacha end and where does ethical eating begin?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Who is a Jew? Anyone who chooses to be.

The newest wrinkle in the who-is-a-jew question? UK Reform Judaism has now accepted patrilineal descent.

With the acrimonious debate in recent years over the Israeli rabbinate's control over conversions and the refusal to acknowledge the Judaism of anybody who doesn't fit their narrowly defined parameters, it's time for a new approach.

I've said before that Israel should have several state-sponsored denominational rabbinates, but as optional services only, no coercion.

So if there's no rabbinate with the legal authority to decide, how does Israel define someone's Jewishness?It's time to separate "Jewish" into two categories in Israel: Halachically Jewish and Civilly Jewish.

Who's a halachic Jew? That's up to the denomination a person subscribes to, and should have no impact on how the state views them.

So who's civilly Jewish?

Anyone who self-identifies with the Jewish nation and willingly chooses to join our grand millennia old journey. Had a Jewish father? You're in. Went through a Reconstructionist conversion? You're in. Married to a Jew? You're welcome in Israel as a Jew. Russian immigrant who came to Israel as a child and is not Jewish, but has grown up as a secular Israeli Jew? You're Jewish too.

The government's civil recognition of people as Jewish would in no way impinge upon the right of Orthodox Jews to only accept some of them as halachically Jewish. If the Orthodox rabbinate wants to keep lists, that's fine. As long as they have no power to limit the rights of those Civil Jews in relation to legal status and ability to marry.

A separation of Synagogue and State in Israel cannot be like that of America's separation of Church and State. Israel is and will continue to be a Jewish country. But Judaism isn't just a religious identity, it's a national identity. Just ask millions of secular Israelis. And that national identity, and all of the legal rights that go with it, should be extended to anyone who willingly chooses to identify with our nation.

The Iran deal is a bad one, but still might be worth it

Thoughts on the Iran deal:

I think many people already had their minds made up, and the actual details of the deal won't change their minds one way or the other. For instance, Netanyahu, and much of the Israeli public. Bibi wasn't going to like any deal, no matter the details. He made that very clear, very early, and for that reason, I don't feel he has much credibility on the details of the actual deal just signed.

As for myself, I don't know enough about the details to judge. I don't have the time to read the entire agreement, nor do I have the expertise to understand all the details. So what I'll end up doing is depend on pundits and commentators I trust and try to glean an informed opinion from them. (Which is what everyone does, mostly.)

Ultimately, the question isn't whether this is a good deal. No deal signed with Iran would be strictly "good". The question is, is this deal better than having no deal at all? That's where the details lie.

Obama's not naive, despite what his detractors claim. He's looking to make the best of a bad situation. Whether he conceded too much or not is the question. I think his intent is not to get a perfect deal (that's impossible), but to bring Iran into the sunlight of international diplomacy and defang them that way, as best as can reasonably be expected. Otherwise, what are the alternatives? Bomb Iran? Create another conflict in a middle east already on fire?

To reiterate, this deal is not a "good" one. No deal could achieve that with a fundamentalist regime. The analysis needs to focus on whether having this deal is better than no deal, taking into account all of the factors I mentioned above.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Why I'm not Open Orthodox

With all this talk of whether Open Orthodox is "in" or "out" of Orthodoxy, I wonder how many people actually identify as Open Orthodox, aside from the students, graduates, and hanhala of Chovevei Torah?

I can only speak for myself, but while I tend towards the far left of Orthodoxy, and deeply identify with many of the attitudes of OO, I don't actually use that label to define myself. I suspect that many of my like-thinking friends are like me - we don't feel the need to be pinned down by a label.

As a layman who does not work in the Orthodox world, I don't have to identify myself for professional reasons. I'm simply a Jew who attends an Orthodox shul and keeps normative traditional halacha in my everyday life. Beyond that, there's no reason to put myself into any sort of box. I can pick and choose elements of hashkafa that resonate with me from wherever they come.

If I were in a box that is officially labeled "Orthodox", then I would have to worry about things like what lines I can and cannot cross when it comes to biblical authorship, how to painfully reinterpret biblical verses to allow me to support same-sex marriage, and needing lines of my own (despite them being further left than mainstream) regarding women's participation in ritual. However, since I don't feel the need for a label, I can just be an halachic Jew, one who tends to affiliate with Orthodoxy, but who follows truth and morality to wherever they take me.

How many of you out there actually specifically identify yourselves as Open Orthodox?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Thoughts on the Israeli Rabbanut and conversion

Note: I just found this post in my blog's "drafts" folder, where I had composed it in 2008. It was really a collection of comments of mine from some other blog posts thrown together. I decided to edit it now to add some flow, and publish, but if it still comes across as slightly disjointed, that origin is the reason.

The madness of the current conversion process in Israel is staggering. However, it is important not to misrepresent the views of the Charedi Rabbanut.

When the Chazon Ish ruled that it is appropriate to trust Jews who state their identity as such, there weren't large numbers of potential olim who came from mixed marriages where the mother converted under Reform auspices. There are now. These children are raised Jewish, but do not practice halacha.

By traditional halachic standards, they are not Jewish. yet they come to Israel & claim to be. The Rabbanut, now under Charedi control, is desperate to keep it all straight and to identify Jews properly.

OK, that's as far as their rationale goes. I understand why, in their bumbling, inefficient, and condescending way, they do it. But the ends do not justify the means and far more harm than good is being done, even by Orthodox standards.

So what's the answer?

I don't think the Rabbinate in Israel needs to be abolished. Instead, it should become a state-sponsored OPTIONAL service provided to the Jewish residents of Israel. Take away their absolute monopoly on birth, marriage, funerals, kashrut, etc. Let there be a state-sponsored Rabbinate for each stream of Judaism, available for serving its constituents. And let there be a civil option as well.

It'll be hard enough taking away the Rabbinate's power. Abolishing them entirely will be virtually impossible. Limiting their influence is hard, but possibly doable.

Yes, yes, I know. Who decides what's a major stream of Judaism that deserves its own Rabbinate? Yes, that's an issue, but not an insurmounatble one. It'll get hashed out.

Let's be honest. It's all nonsense anyway. Am I to believe that in the past 3000 years no Jewish woman has ever had an affair and then passed off the child as her husband's? Statistically, it's very likely that something like this did happen. All it takes is one European Jewish woman 1000 years ago who did this, and considering the mathematics of intertwining family trees, that would make us all mamzerim today. So the obsession of keeping a "pure" bloodline is useless.

In any case, the time to remove the Rabbinate's power is now, if it's not already too late. Demographics favor the Charedim over the next 25 years and their voting power will block any attempt to weaken the Rabbinate.

When I made aliyah some years ago, I had a letter from my shul Rabbi. It turned out he wasn't on their approved list. I said that I could get a letter from Rabbi X, of the shul where I grew up instead. It turned out that Rabbi X was on the list of approved Rabbis. The woman in the office, a cute single British girl (I was single at the time too), started discussing with me where the Rabbi could send the letter and whether it could be faxed. We were flirting a little, some light banter, and then she stopped, smiled at me, and said "you know what? You mentioned the name of an approved Rabbi. Don't worry about the letter - I'll just stamp you approved!"

So, officially at least, the state of Israel considers me Jewish because I flirted with an office worker.

Maybe that's why the charedi rabbanut cracked down...

Wednesday, July 8, 2015


A comment of mine on a Facebook discussion today regarding techelet in one's tztitzit, which has been reinstituted by many after 2,000 years based on the claimed rediscovery of the source of techelet, a certain kind of snail:

I thought about doing it. But there's still plenty of dispute over whether what they have today is really the biblical techelet. And as someone who sees Judaism as an evolved religion (because really, what we practice today only superficially resembles what they practiced during Bayit Sheni), I've decided it's not a priority to go back to something that might be what they did 2,000 years ago. My grandfather and his grandfather, and his grandfather and HIS grandfather all wore tzitzit without techelet, and that's good enough for me too.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Embracing same-sex marriage is a Torah value

I celebrated Friday's Supreme Court decision. And I agree with the logic espoused my many of my fellow Orthodox Jews that despite what the Torah says, we have no right to foist a religious definition of marriage on a secular public. That's a handy and quick argument.

An argument that goes even further is that even in marriages between 2 Jews of the same sex, the only thing forbidden by the Torah is anal sex between two men, and who are we to assume what goes on behind closed doors?

But to be honest, it goes far beyond that for me. I'm not just simply dividing up my religious beliefs and my political beliefs. I would not hesitate to dance at a same-sex wedding of Jewish friends with wholehearted joy. Because when it comes right down to it, while the Torah says "toevah hee", I don't agree with the plain meaning of what the Torah says. I don't wrestle with how to reconcile my religious beliefs with my own personal morality, because, frankly, my religious beliefs reject the idea that there there's something wrong with homosexual activity.

There's no question that my acceptance of much of Academic Biblical scholarship helps me with this perspective. It's easier to reject something that does not jive with contemporary morality if I believe that the ancient prohibition should be seen in the context of the culture in which it was written.

Still, I don't use that argument to throw away Shabbat or Kashrut. I still lay tefillin and put mezuzot on my doors. In short, I believe in God and I live the life of a believing Jew.

So the question is this: How much of our morality should be derived from the Torah? Certainly Rabbinic Judaism adjusted many things in the Torah that they were uncomfortable with. We don't go around killing rebellious sons or making women drink sotah water. We don't literally take an eye for an eye. The chachamim ameliorated much of what they found deeply uncomfortable.

My own perspective is that we can certainly do the same, albeit cautiously. Reinterpreting the prohibition of "mishkav zachar" out of any applicability today is far more in the spirit of compassion of the chachamim than insisting on a literal interpretation.

Compassion is a Torah value, and I believe it is a mitzvah to fully embrace the concept of same-sex marriage, with no reservations, rather than hold on to a literal reading of something written in a far different time and place.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

New Charedi science & history curriculum

Yeshivas Torah Bli Derech Eretz is a Charedi school in Israel that has decided to start teaching science & history to their students!

Of course, it wouldn't do to teach the shmutz that goyim consider to be science and history. Only Torah True science and history will be taught.

Here are some of the courses being developed for the curriculum:

  • Entomology 101: In introductory look at the mechanism of spontaneous generation
  • Advanced Surgical Techniques: An in depth study of the drawings of the Chazon Ish
  • Ancient Babylonian History: How all the Jewish men in Bavel sat in Yeshiva and learned all day
  • Medieval European History: How all the Jewish men in Europe sat in Yeshiva and learned all day
  • Recent European History: How all the Jewish men in Europe sat in Yeshiva and learned all day while wearing black hats
  • Gender Psychology 103: An in depth study of the ways that the female brain is built for nurturing and not for advanced study of texts.

If anyone would like to contribute suggestions for the curriculum, please do so below.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Does Daas Torah make "gedolim" think they're experts in everything?

I know this is from September, but I had a thought I wanted to share.

“I see vaccinations as the problem,” Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky told the Baltimore Jewish Times in a story published in late August. “It’s a hoax. Even the Salk [polio] vaccine is a hoax. It’s just big business.”

Kamenetzky argued that schools should not exclude unvaccinated students, as they currently do under public health laws. He also claimed that school janitors would be spreading disease if vaccines worked. “They are mostly Mexican and are unvaccinated,” the rabbi said. “If there was a problem, the children would already have gotten sick.”

This is the inevitable result of taking the idea of "Da'as Torah" way too far.

Men like R Kamenetzky have no expertise whatsoever outside of their deep Torah knowledge and their piety. And they live fairly cloistered lives, so are unaware of responsible literature on science, medicine, and many other fields.

But when your followers believe that being a talmid chacham magically makes you somehow an expert in all disciplines, perhaps you begin to believe it yourself, resulting in ignorant statements like this.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Kosher by Ingredients? is a long-standing site belonging to R Yitzchak Abadi and his sons. The site has an extensive Q&A section about kashrut with many unusual answers, which indicate that in many cases hechsherim aren't necessary, and that that one can be "kosher by ingredients", so to speak. For example, this answer that allows eating certain sandwiches at Subway.

Unsurprisingly, the site is somewhat controversial, but I know people who depend on it. (Leaving aside the kashrut issues themselves, I personally have issues with the site because of the one or two word answers often given that can lend themselves to ambiguousness.)

There's one reader comment on the site from 2003 that has a bit of cult status. That comment, which attempted to explain the rationale of the Abadis' stance, is by Dr Marc Shapiro, of Seform Blog fame, and author of books like "The Limits of Orthodox Theology" and the just released "Changing the Immutable". I won't reproduce the whole long comment in this post, which you can read here, but I'll try to summarize:

The Rashba wrote that a non-kosher ingredient added to kosher food is only batel b'shishim if it was added accidentally. Dr Shapiro writes that "If you look at any of the standard Yoreh Deah books you will find, however, that the halakhah is not in accordance with this Rashba. Rather, any time the goy puts a small amount of treif into the food it is batel, even if it is intentional on his part." He then explains that until the 2nd half of the 20th century, the community did not rule according to the Rashba, and the change to the chumrah of the Rashba is what allowed the rise of Kashrut agencies. If one accepts that ingredients added intentionally are batel b'shishim, than most manufactured products that aren't blatantly treif are acceptable, and one can eat certain foods in many non-kosher restaurants, since one not worry about trace amounts of treif ingredients.

When I wrote to Shapiro a couple of years ago asking him for more sources, he was a little more ambiguous than in that original comment, and wrote that "it depends what books you look at, since this is actually a dispute. It all comes down to how you are taught the material. some believe that we don't pay attention to the Rashba and others think that we should try to be machmir. When you learn Yoreh Deah this is covered." This left me wondering if he regretted ever writing that 2003 comment.

In any case, this topic came up again a couple of days ago at a Yom Tov meal, and I thought it was worthy of a blog post to stimulate discussion.

Is there any merit to this argument? Is it indeed true that normative practice was NOT according to the Rashba until at least the mid-20th century? Do we really need the kashrut agencies for anything except meat?

Disclaimer: I'm not trying to ask halacha l'ma'aseh, or induce anyone to follow the Abadis' opinions. I just find the whole topic fascinating and worthy of discussion.

Monday, May 4, 2015

"That's how we did it in Europe"

Pet peeve: When the Yeshivish community declares that we did this or we didn't do that "in Europe". As if "Europe" was one small shtetl populated by frum Jews with long beards.

Europe is a large continent with many countries. And Jews there came in many different stripes. Jews lived in Europe for well over 1000 years. When people talk about how things were done in Europe, what era and region are they referring to? They probably have a vague notion that's based on a romanticized version of some shtetl in Poland in the 1890's. That's not "Europe". That's just one small place at a particular moment in time.

This isn't' just semantics. It promotes ignorance about the beautiful and rich tapestry of a Judaism that spanned centuries and had many different practices across many different lands.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Vote Torah? Is that what Israel actually needs right now?


There's only one more day to vote in the World Zionist Congress elections, and that's the message many of us have been bombarded with over the last couple of months, urging us to support the Orthodox party.

But are Orthodox values in Israel in danger? Is Torah study and education at risk of disappearing? Is there some public impediment to Shabbat observance? Is it difficult to get kosher food there?
If anything, Israel suffers from far too much religion in the public sphere. And it not only offends the secular public, but it harms religion as well. It adulterates the beauty and holiness of a religious lifestyle with ugliness and politics.

Yes, I'm an Orthodox affiliated Shabbat observant Jew. And I care about the future of Israel and about the future of religion there.

That's why I would never vote for a slate whose stated goal is to advance only one exclusivist vision of Judaism, in Israel and around the globe. A slate who would work to maintain a status quo that has only harmed Israel and Jewish life there, and who would continue to passively acquiesce and even subtly encourage the growing influence of the more fundamentalist side of Orthodoxy.

What's needed in Israel is a vision of pluralism, of tolerance, and of a separation of synagogue and state. A vision of coexistence.

So, with only one day left, I'm voting in the WZC elections for a party that may not represent the exact brand of religion I practice, but represents Torah nonetheless, and has a platform I can support. They encourage diversity, tolerance, and unity. Unlike the more parochial vision of the "Vote Torah" slate, MERCAZ USA of the Conservative movement has a platform that sounds like something a Religious Zionist party might have supported a couple of decades ago, before turning inward and becoming narrow-minded. That platform includes:

  • An Open Pluralistic Jewish Society
  • A Contemporary Zionist Agenda, including Aliyah, Hebrew and Zionist Education
  • A Negotiated Two-State Settlement between Israel and the Palestinians
  • Pro-Active Concern for Israel’s Environment

Rather than making a knee-jerk decision to vote for a party that claims to represent your particular Jewish denomination, I urge you to think about what the future of Israel really needs, and to vote for Mercaz USA as well.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Wild rice & green beans for Pesach

Kitniyot Minimization Project ™ update:

Last year we added raw peanuts and KFP for sephardim peanut butter. The 2 additions to our household this year will be:

  1. Wild rice, the North American variety, unknown in Europe at the time of the introduction of the minhag. The commonly sold variety is Northern Wild Rice (zizania palustris), native to the Great Lakes region of North America. It's unrelated to other rice, and is not really a "rice" at all. The only slight similarity is the shape. Early French explorers called it Folles Avoines (crazy oats). Other explorers called it a rice, not only because of the shape, but because they saw the plants rising above waters of the great lakes region, reminding them of rice paddies.
  2. Green (string) beans. While they may be called "beans", and are, indeed, in the legume family, no one considered them kitniyot until the mid-20th century. While there are some unclear sources that go back further, there are none before the start of the 20th century. Green beans are a perfect example of something that crept into the minhag only recently through a combination of misunderstanding, a confusion over the name, and dubious sources.

Disclaimer: I am not a posek. This is for informational purposes only, and to explain my own decisions.

Some links:
Some history & details about wild rice
Discussion - what is the earliest source for green beans as kitniyot?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Why is Obama stooping to Bibi's level?

I'm hesitant to write this, because it'll invite my right-wing friends to pour their scorn of Obama on this thread. But I've been surprised by his behavior the last few days and feel the need to write this out.
I've never had cause to complain about Obama's treatment of Israel. His administration always had Israel's back, diplomatically, and with military aid.

And I appreciated the fact that the childish behavior and tantrums of Netanyahu have always been met by the patience of the adult in the room, Obama.

However, while I can certainly understand Obama's frustration with Netanyahu's antics, (which I share), for the first time, it feels like Obama's abandoned that role as the adult.

Yes, Netanyahu's said some stupid things. But he's also backtracked since the election. Why this peculiar insistence by the White House that "Nuh, uh! You said it! Can't take it back now!".

Politics has always consisted of posturing and half-truths. Policy can be whatever it's presented to be. Diplomacy is accepting that another party is saying the right things at the moment, whether or not you think they're sincere. Sincerity is irrelevant in politics. The relationship between Israel and the US isn't a romantic one, and one party saying something hurtful isn't the basis for a breakup.

I would expect Obama to do what he has, until now, excelled at doing. Which is to ignore Netanyahu's nonsense as best as possible, rebuke him for what deservedly needs to be rebuked, privately AND publicly, but then move on. While I have no sympathy for Netanyahu, he's saying some of the right things now. Why pretend that what he said during the final days of a tight campaign, as reprehensible as they were, seal any door against diplomatic repair?

Don't get me wrong. The chill in the relationship between the White House and the Prime Minister's office can be blamed overwhelmingly on Netanyahu. But the icicles in the last few days are, in my opinion, a result of an uncharacteristic immaturity in the White House's response.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Bibi and the presidents

The president hated Bibi so much he interfered with the Israeli election and all but campaigned openly for the Labor candidate. He sent advisors to Israel to help Labor's campaign.

Yup, it was 1999, and relations with Netanyahu and the Clinton administration were at a low point. Clinton made his distaste for Bibi clear and wanted him out of office.

A couple of differences between then and now.

  1. Clinton succeeded, and Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu.
  2. Clinton actually interefered. Obama in 2015 did very little compared to Clinton's efforts in 1999.

What's the common thread? Bibi. So do you still think Obama "hates Israel" and is an "anti-Semite"? In that case, you have to say the same about Clinton.

Or maybe, just maybe, the problem lies with Bibi, the guy who seems to go out of his way to antagonize multiple US presidents.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Kitniyot Minimization Project ™

I's almost Pesach time, and as usual there's been a lot of ink spilled on whether keeping the minhag of kitniyot still makes any sense.

I have no objection to anyone giving up the prohibition of kitniyot. But my personal approach is that Halacha is an evolving system, and within that approach, the prohibition of kitniyot on Pesach is meaningful to me the same way all halacha is meaningful to me. Once you get beyond d'orayta, is there really such a difference between rules that were created 1,700 years ago and rules, like kitniyot, that are "only" around 700 years old?

That's old enough for it to have become embedded deeply into Ashkenazi Jewish life, and to become something kept by generations of my ancestors, alongside shabbat, kashrut, etc. So I'm not ready to just jettison it.

Here's the caveat, though. My stomach isn't nearly as hardy as it was when I was younger. I had a hard time last Pesach. As much as I keep telling myself I'll eat more vegetables and less matzah, without my usual rice-and-legume heavy diet, I end up hungry the entire time and eating way too much matzah and matzah derived products. Or potatoes and potato derived. Not great for my digestive system.

But I'm not ready to just start eating kitnoyot wholesale. As an Ashkenazi Jew with many generations of Ashkenazi ancestors who all refrained from eating kitniyot on Pesach, it means something to me.

So here's my (semi-serious) plan: I'm starting the Kitniyot Minimization Project ™!

The goal?

1) Formulate a definition for the prohibition of kitniyot that has some internal consistency, something like; any seed, legume, or non-wheatlike grain that was prohibited during the period when the kitniyot prohibition was based on a real rationale, should still be prohibited.

Anything else, such as things that only became popular AFTER the rationale lost its basis, should be permitted.

2) Create a list of items that are permitted or not permitted based on the above definition. North American wild rice, which is not actually rice? Was it known and prohibited? Or is it a more recent addition to the "kitniyot list"? What about green beans? I think I remember hearing that they never used to be considered kitniyot. Last year, my wife and I already started on this path by buying raw peanuts, and kosher l'pesach l'Sephardim peanut butter.

The goal is to make kitniyot a more manageable and sane minhag without abandoning it entirely.

Who's with me?

The Khazars and the nature of myth

I was reading a few articles on the Khazar hypothesis and had a couple of thoughts:

It's interesting how the popularity of myths wax and wane depending on their contemporary ramifications.

When I was a kid, the idea that there was an early medieval kingdom that converted entirely to Judaism was something that was embraced by the Orthodox Jewish community. It was empowering, exciting, and something to be proud of.

However, that's changed in recent years. Given that Shlomo Sand and others have used the legend as the basis of their theories that most of Ashkenazic Jewry is descended from the Khazars, and not of ancient Judeans, it's become highly politicized. Now it's become much more fashionable in the Orthodox Jewish community to reject the conversion as a myth, to avoid giving ammunition to those who would undermine the Jewish claim to Israel.

I suspect that the myth would have stayed that way, a myth, along with many other medieval myths, had R Yehuda Halevi not used it as the backdrop to his fictional philosophical dialogue in the Kuzari.