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.