Author Archives: Michael Balinsky

Michael Balinsky

About Michael Balinsky

Rabbi Michael Balinsky is the Executive Vice President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, an organization representing two hundred rabbis of all denominations. Previously he was Director of Faculty Development for the Florence Melton Adult Mini-Schools and was a Hillel director for twenty- two years, over nineteen of those as the director of the Louis and Saerree Fiedler Hillel Center at Northwestern University, after two and a half years as the Associate Director of Hillel at the University of Michigan. He is a long time member of the Jewish Catholic Scholars Dialogue in Chicago and is an executive member of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago. Rabbi Balinsky is a graduate of Yeshiva University where he also received his ordination. He is married to Dr. Myra Rapoport and they are the parents of three daughters.

Give Me Some of that Old Time Blasphemy

There is much discussion currently about imposing limits on blasphemy. It seems clear that the vast majority of those in the West oppose it and many in Muslim majority countries support it. I would argue that Judaism has not only tolerated blasphemy, but found a place for it in its sacred texts.  This does not mean that communities have always handled heretics well or to suggest pluralism and liberalism are found everywhere in the community, but I do feel there is a model Judaism has that might contribute to a broad religious discussion and conversation.

Rabbinic literature has many examples of challenges to God, explicitly questioning God’s justice. An early precedent in the Bible is Abraham in Genesis 18 (Will not the Judge of the earth do justice?). A well known passage from the Talmud (Menachot 29b) is where Moses questions God after seeing Rabbi Akiva being viciously killed by the Romans. Moses asks: Is this Torah and its reward?” God responds by telling Moses to shut up!

These two passages share a number of things in common even as one is biblical and one rabbinic. Religious figures are allowed to question God. Indeed, placed in their mouths are the most challenging questions. If Abraham can speak out against God’s justice surely can I. If Moses cannot accept that there is reward in the world for following Torah, surely I do not have to accept that belief.

Secondly, and more importantly, what these texts suggest is that our role is not to defend God or attempt to offer interpretations that let God off the hook. Our job is to defend the people against God. Moses must stand up for Rabbi Akiva. Moses is doing much more than ask a question why good people, in this case Rabbi Akiva, suffers.  He is raising it as blasphemy. “ Is this Torah and is this its reward?” It is a rhetorical question that has no answer. God does not attempt one. The response of literally: “Quiet! Or shut up, so it has come to My mind” fails to answer anything. Its abruptness only affirms the legitimacy of the challenge.

There are many other texts I can harness, but a blog post is not the place. I will add that Judaism by and large can accommodate blasphemy and heresy as long as it is placed in the mouths of believers and practitioners.  It is because nobody questions Moses’s faith that he ask the heretical questions.  Ironically it is the most traditional who can be the most radical and yet remain inside the fold.

Posted on September 27, 2012

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Do You Remember Me?

One of the things that sometimes is embarrassing and/or sometimes frustrating, is when someone comes up to me and says: “Hi, do you remember me?”  Being 59 years old, having been in the rabbinate  for 34 years, and having taught many hundreds of people during this period, sometimes the answer is yes, but remind me your name and other times, the answer might very well be no. Which is why I wish people would say, hi, I am so and so, I do not know if you remember me but I took a class etc. and fill in the context. And, you really want to remember them and they want to be remembered and deserve to be remembered. Indeed, a new colleague to the area described one important part of his rabbinate is getting to know his congregants names. People are valued and honored when we remember who they are.

There is an amazing and yet terrifying text in the Reishit Chochmah by Eliyahu de Vidas who was a student of Rabbi Moshe Codevero

They asked Rabbi Eliezer: “What is the judgment of the grave?”

[He responded:] “When a person passes away, the Angel of Death arrives, hits his grave with his hand, and says ‘Tell me your name!’ He replies: ‘It is revealed and known to the One who Spoke and Created the World that I do not know my name.’”

Associated with this is a custom by some to recite 18 verses a day that contain your name, with the hope you will remember it on your Judgment Day.  Rav Yehudah Amital understands this as the need to find our name in Torah, our unique place in Torah, our special connection that is unique to each individual, a piece of Torah that will be known by our name.  One can expand this and include do I behave in a way that manifests a concern of the Torah. Am I an exemplar of chachnasat orchim, welcoming guests.  Am I a hospitable personality that welcomes others in my presence. Am I a tzedakah, charitable personality, to whom people can turn. Am I identified with a particular mitzvah that then carries my name and with which I will be indentified.

There is a teaching in the Talmud that when two friends depart from one another they should teach each other a short halachah because through that they will remember each other. What do we express whether through actual teaching or behavior that is worthwhile for someone to remember us?

The Unetaneh Tokef prayer ends with the following passage describing God:

There is no set span to Your years and there is no end to the length of Your days. It is impossible to estimate the angelic chariots of Your glory and to elucidate Your Name’s inscrutability. Your Name is worthy of You and You are worthy of Your Name, and You have included Your Name in our name.

We have ultimate worth because God has included His name along with ours. We who are created in the image of God must ask what do we do in our lives that makes us worthy and reflects God’s name in us.

Posted on September 13, 2012

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The Command to Forget

Deuteronomy 24

19. When you cut down your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go again to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

20. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow.

21. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow.

22. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing.

These gifts to the poor are one key example of helping those in need. While beneficial to the poor, one can certainly argue that what is left behind is not enough to actually sustain the needy. A number of commentaries suggest that the primary purpose of these commandments is to build the moral personality of the owner of the field who must understand there are limits even to his/her ownership of the property. The poor also have a claim to it, albeit limited to certain categories. God is after all, the true owner of the field.

The forgotten sheaf which must be left for the poor is an odd example of a commandment to fulfill. There can be no intent here by definition, the sheaf was forgotten. I am forbidden to return to harvest it. It must remain forgotten. In a religion in which memory is so foundational, and it is precisely because we are commanded to remember we were slaves in Egypt, that when it comes to sheaves in the field, I must truly learn how to forget.

As we struggle in Elul to honestly look at ourselves and begin to reconcile with those we have hurt, we must first remember where we erred with others and with God. With repentance and forgiveness must then come a form of forgetting as we begin the new year.  

For a full discussion, please see Nehama Leibowitz Studies in Deuteronomy  pp 243-249.

Posted on August 30, 2012

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Where Were You?

The first two weeks of August my wife and I visited the Canadian Rockies which are magnificent. Most of the time there was blessedly no cell reception so we missed hearing the news and receiving emails. It was not until we got to our hotel room late Sunday evening that we heard about the shootings at the Sikh center in Wisconsin. Before we left Monday morning for touring, I spent some time working on a visible response from the Rabbinic community in Chicago to the violence. All sorts of positive things have occurred  since that time, even as some incidents have taken place at  two mosques in the area and  shootings continue in other parts of Chicago daily.

That Monday among the places we visited was a waterfall. After a short hike, we came to it. The paths get you really close to the falls and it was easy to get soaked from the spray.

I stood for a while just at the top of the falls overlooking the powerful streams of the water before they cascaded downward. For years, their power has cut new paths in the rock but these are hardly noticeable while it occurs. Come back in five hundred years and you can see the difference!

As I watched the surging waters, God’s words to Job came to mind: “Where were you when I made the foundations of the earth?”  To put it another way, I felt irrelevant. These falls were here long before I was born and will be here long after I die.

As I reflected more, I knew I could not dismiss the importance of who we are and what we do. But the experience did reinforce in me a need to cultivate greater humility. We do not have to relinquish our passions or belief. We do not have to give up our traditions and practices. However a genuine ethic of humility can allow us to stand with others. I may want you to believe as I believe, but I must make room for you to believe and practice as you desire. Your places of worship may be “other” for me, but I must allow them to stand.  This is more than mere tolerance, even if it does not reach the level of pluralism. If those of us involved in interreligious dialogue have something to offer, it might be how we model and act with humility toward each other.

Posted on August 16, 2012

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Does Prayer Work?

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This week’s Torah portion begins with Moses’s request to enter the Promised Land.

Deuteronomy 3

23. And I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying,

24. O Lord God, you have begun to show your servant your greatness, and your mighty hand; for what God is there in heaven or in earth, that can do according to your works, and according to your might?

25. I beg you, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly mountain region, and Lebanon.

26. But the Lord was angry with me for your sakes, and would not hear me; and the Lord said to me, Let it suffice you; speak no more to me of this matter.

The response by God to Moses is to essentially tell him to stop bothering Him about this. Enough already! Stop bugging Me about this.

Whatever the reason for this lack of response by God or better yet, this dismissive response, I leave to you. What is striking for me is how Rabbi Simlai from the Talmud (Brachot 32a) uses this passage:

R. Simlai expounded: A person should always first recount the praise of the Holy One, blessed be He, and then pray. Whence do we know this? From Moses; for it is written, And I besought the Lord at that time, and it goes on, O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand; for what god is there in heaven and earth who can do according to Your works and according to Your mighty acts, and afterwards is written, Let me go over, I pray Thee, and see the good land etc.

For Rabbi Simlai, you want to learn how to pray correctly, follow the example of Moses. Begin with praise and only then you can ask God for something.  This structure is an integral part of out liturgy. Praising God is required before you can plead your case. Rabbi Simlai does not explain why this should be the case. One can speculate that one has to first recognize Someone greater than yourself before one can focus on one’s own request. The almost absolute Otherness of God may remind you that what you are seeking better be really significant.

Whatever the case may be, Rabbi Simlai chooses the example where the prayer of Moses failed!  He had succeeded other times, the Golden Calf, the spies when God almost destroyed the Jewish People. Yet the example to learn how to pray is when prayer is not successful, when the request is not only denied, but dismissed out of hand.

For Rabbi Simlai and adopted by our tradition, there is a necessary structure to prayer. This is the way it must be done. First praise, then request. I assume Rabbi Simlai followed this practice thrice daily, as do I and many. Our prayers are usually genuine and sincere, even if sometimes done without much conscious thought.

But do our prayers work? What do you think Rabbi Simlai might be teaching us about prayer? About Moses whose prayer is rejected? What do we think we are doing when we call out to God?

Posted on August 1, 2012

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Hanging in the Air

Numbers 30.

2. And Moses spoke to the chiefs of the tribes concerning the people of Israel, saying, This is the thing which the Lord has commanded.

3. If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.

Jewish tradition has consistently emphasized the importance of language and the creative/destructive potential it contains. After all, it is God’s speech which created the world! (Genesis 1)We all know from our personal experiences when the right word made a significant impact and the wrong word spoken or written hurt us badly. It should therefore not surprise us that the Torah commands when you take a vow you must fulfill it. Language and speech are very serious matters and are not to be dismissed easily.

It is therefore all the more striking that the rabbis create a category where vows can be easily dismissed, even to the point of describing the releasing of vows as “hanging in the air” with no scriptural basis to justify or support this conclusion. A somewhat dissenting voice agrees that vows can be released, but is done with some scriptural support. In an almost hyper literal reading of the verse “he shall not break his word,” he shall not break it but others may break it for him and release him from his vow!

Why allow this departure from the plain meaning of the Torah?  Why enable people to break their word?

On the one hand, this might be a great act of compassion.  We often make claims for ourselves in the heat of the moment that are nigh impossible to fulfill. As important as language and speech are, we can easily go overboard and so the rabbis give us an out.

I think there is a deeper message here as well.  “He shall not break his word,” he shall not break it but others may break it for him and release him from his vow” The “others” are critical players here in helping a person release their vows.  I do not live in isolation. An impetuous act affects many more than myself. Whatever I think I impose upon myself is not really the case. It touches others as well, family, friends or the community at large. Perhaps this hyper literal reading of the Torah is exposing the moral flaw of taking a vow upon myself because “myself” is really an artificial construct. I only exist with others, in some form of community. Any vow I take is never only about me.

Posted on July 19, 2012

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Which Reminds Me of ….

There is an old joke about the itinerant maggid (preacher) who would go from town to town and give a public sermon. He was a passionate speaker and developed quite a reputation. The only problem was that he had only one good sermon for Parashat (Torah portion of) Korach. This was quite troubling as he was asked to speak in many towns on different weeks of the year and the expectation was he would speak on the weekly Parashah.

So what would he do? As he began his talk, he would “accidentally” knock his Bible off the lectern, bend down to retrieve it and declare, “Oy, the earth has swallowed up the book which reminds me of when Korach and his followers were swallowed up by the earth”, and proceed to give his Korach sermon.

To rehash the role and importance of memory in Judaism is not needed. However, there is a quality of “which reminds me” that is a staple of traditional Jewish life.  This is true of our sacred texts. It is quite common in Talmudic literature to see later debates being described as manifestations of earlier ones. Debates about particular issues are analyzed in what might first appear as not easily related other debates.  There is a mode of thinking that draws on the tradition and earlier contexts. While you are a voice in the discussion, you are only a voice. The conversation requires many voices over time. Your creative input is welcomed and desired in the broader context.

Continue reading

Posted on June 21, 2012

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Woe to Their Wives

When stories are told, we sometimes see them through the lens of the characters, sometimes from the vantage point of the omniscient narrator, and often from a combination of the above.  This week’s Torah reading presents a fine example of this. This is shaped in part by a Midrash, the result being of that which looks on the surface as a laudatory moment contains within it much greater moral complexity.

Numbers 11:26-29
26. Now two men remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the second was Medad, and the spirit rested upon them. They were among those written, but they did not go out to the tent, but prophesied in the camp. 27. The lad ran and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” 28. Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ servant from his youth, answered and said, Moses, my master, imprison them!” 29. Moses said to him, “Are you zealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!”

There are many questions here including the identity of the lad and the sudden appearance of Eldad and Medad. This passage and its larger context deserve much study.

There is a powerful contrast between Joshua and Moses. What Joshua sees as a threat to Moses by Eldad and Medad, Moses views as a cause for celebration. The capacity of Eldad and Medad to prophesize is a sign of their greatness and is not to be viewed as an act of rebellion against Moses. Moses is happy for others to share the spirit of God.

But the story does not end here. The Midrash picked up by Rashi describes the following scenario.  “R. Nathan says: Miriam was beside Zipporah (Moses’s wife)  when Moses was told that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp. When Zipporah heard this, she said, “Woe to their wives if they are required to prophesy, for they will separate from their wives just my husband separated from me.”

For Moses’s wife,  the achievement of prophecy is a tragedy.  Her fear is for the wives of Eldad and Medad.  To be the wife of a prophet as great as Moses is to be abandoned by her husband. Moses has experienced so much of the presence of God that he can never return to his tent and be intimate with his wife.  Zipporah understands that Eldad and Medad are indeed a threat, but not to Moses, but rather to their families and wives in particular.

It is this very complexity and mixture of viewpoints that draws me to Torah.  However the attraction cannot only be to the pleasure of reading the text. Rather moral questions must emerge from Torah as well.  Who suffers for my spiritual success?   As I strive for meaning and purpose do I leave anyone behind in the wake?  Through whose lens do I properly judge a situation?  Torah calls me to face these questions. And rabbis should ask them on a regular basis.

Posted on June 7, 2012

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Not My Concern…

President Obama’s comments on gay marriage provoked much comment and consternation.  In the Jewish world, while one national Democratic leader endorsed it under a rubric of tikkun olam, others reacted publicly against it. Both the Orthodox Union and the National Council of Young Israel issued short but forceful statements against the President.

Adding to the mix were two additional responses in the Orthodox community. One was an article in Tablet by a law professor and the other a petition of Orthodox Jews who were disappointed by the statements of the Orthodox Union and Young Israel. As the petition stated: “However, we remind the OU and NCYI that same-sex civil marriage is a legal and not a religious issue.” Professor Levin in Tablet wrote:”For good reason, then, American Jews and Orthodox Jews in particular are usually reticent about imposing our religious values and views on others….Same-sex marriage does not threaten any aspect of Orthodox Jewish religious beliefs or practices. Orthodox Jews should decide whether or not to support it on purely neutral, secular terms, and we should reconcile ourselves to our detachment from mainstream culture just as we always have.”

I am not going to enter into the fray of the gay marriage debate. However what I do fine striking in the Professor’s and petition’s response is the retreat from having Judaism say anything about this question to the broader American community.

As a participant in RWB, one challenge made very clear to us was that Judaism and the wisdom of our tradition has much to offer beyond the borders of our community. While I am personally very committed to defining appropriate borders and maintaining real ritual and social boundaries, is this retreat from a public discussion of this question really the way to go? While one may disagree with the formulations of the Orthodox Union and NCYI, is not a definition of marriage a serious moral question that our tradition has much to address? Would we exhibit the same reticence to discuss our understanding of tzedakah, Shabbat, stem cell research, and medical ethics in the public square? Are we embarrassed to acknowledge the genuine conflict between our tradition and this gay marriage question? Do we feel our moral voices do not in this case fall on the side of our tradition and so we radically divide Judaism from the society in which we live in order to simultaneously maintain our Jewish and moral commitments?

What do you think?

Posted on May 24, 2012

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There Are Places I Remember…..

An Orthodox rabbinic colleague Rabbi Zev Farber recently posted on Morethodoxy a piece on the experience of place women have in Orthodox synagogues.  He concludes his post with: “Rather my aim here is the underlying message that our synagogues are sending to women. We all want to remain true to halakhah and create a synagogue environment where men and women thrive, but I fear that without addressing the underlying message of women not really being in the room, instead of creating a home for all Jews, we are creating a men’s club.”

In response to this, I posted a comment to him “While I share the sentiments here, I am wondering why Rabbi Farber has written what is essentially a thirty or forty year old dated post, including the Flintstone and Ozick references. My fifty two year old wife would vigorously nod in agreement and my age seventeen and twenty seven daughters’ eyes would glaze over and say deal with it”.  (My twenty four year old is a less frequent synagogue attendee, but the one she attends less frequently would be Orthodox.)

It is interesting where we draw our lines in the sand. My daughters would never put up with being denied equal access to Jewish text, but are more at peace with ritual inequality or difference.  They do not harbor a secret desire to put on tefillen.  As my daughter put it “Why would I? Nobody in my community does”.

I am left to wonder why this is the case. What changed between my wife’s generation and my daughters’?  I think part of the answer is that my daughters are the beneficiaries of those women and men who came before them and fought the battles, created the learning environments and opened up the doors of the Beit Midrash.  What is striking is that the ritual practices per se are not the issue.  The fact that their voices can now be heard appears to be critical.  They are not silent but engaged participants in the debates of Jewish life. If they are not bothered by not being able to read Torah, it is because their voices can still be heard in the Beit Midrash actively engaging our sacred texts.

In a different vein, but I think not unrelated, I see a liberal approach to social issues. On the one hand they are committed to Taharat Hamishpacha (family purity laws) and there was no question my daughter would cover her hair after her wedding. However my sense is that on issues confronting their gay friends, my daughters simply want their friends to be happy in whatever relationship they are in.  

In acquiring a voice and becoming active learners, these young Orthodox women are at peace with their place in the synagogue.  They love the best of the Orthodox community, but they retain their moral voice.  As committed to halakhah as they are, they retain their sovereign self.

Posted on May 10, 2012

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