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.

Vote for Rabbi…….

Well I did not make it to the Newsweek Rabbi list, or even the My Jewish Learning Real Top Rabbi list.  It would therefore be easy for me to be critical of this whole venture of voting for America’s Real Top Rabbis.  However, this Real Top Rabbi vote is a reminder that rabbinic work is being carried on daily by some genuinely talented rabbis who do not make the headlines, but really deserve a thank you from all of us.

This whole phenomenon does raise a vital question as to what characteristics we look for in our rabbinic leadership. This is certainly a very old question without a simple answer neither today nor in years past.

This past Shabbat I taught a Rashi from Leviticus 9:7. Moses instructs Aaron to approach the altar. Since Aaron was already involved with the needed sacrifices, Rashi apparently saw this instruction as superfluous and therefore assumed something was happening that warranted this command from Moses to Aaron. “Aaron was bashful and afraid to approach [the altar]. So Moses said to him: “Why are you ashamed? For this [function] you have been chosen!”

One could imagine Moses being critical with Aaron here: Nu- get on with it, offer the required sacrifices, and do not hesitate!  The Sefat Emet does not follow this approach. He understands Aaron’s bashfulness or reticence as a genuine religious/spiritual characteristic and one worthy of emulation. When commanded, Aaron acted, but with a certain hesitancy. What is that source for hesitating? Why not simply plow ahead eagerly?

I think it is not an expression of inadequacy to the task at hand. Rather, the Sefat Emet is suggesting that the serious religious personality has to take a breath, pause and consider: “what an awesome responsibility I have and an amazing opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah! What I am about to do is not something to be taken lightly. It is an extraordinary privilege to serve God and others.  Am I truly worthy of it?” Not only a duty one must perform, a mitzvah is a statement of our worth and dignity. Have I earned the right to perform it?

As I write this it is Yom Hazikaron and this is being posted on Yom Ha-atzmaut. In this context I am reminded of one of my teachers,  Rav Yehuda Amital, the founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He built an amazing educational institution whose students and teachers play important roles in Israel and world-wide. At a number of celebrations of the Yeshiva and at certain family celebrations he would walk around and sometimes express to nobody in particular “What did I do to merit this?”  Now Rav Amital knew his talents and was not expressing false humility, but his sentiment was genuine. I think it came from this sense of amazement; how did he merit the privilege to create and nurture a yeshiva of the highest, spiritual, educational and moral order. It is the appreciation of this privilege that gives the religious person pause.

So, if you vote, vote for all the rabbis!  And before you vote, pause and appreciate the privilege you have that these rabbis are your teachers and leaders.

Posted on April 26, 2012

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Sacred Snacking

It is very hard after the seder to get excited about the last days of Passover. Seven/eight days of eating matzoh! Once we have focused so much on the drama of redemption of the seder, there is little left to focus on other than food. For some the seder was a time to reflect on personal moments of redemption, for others a vision of social justice was discussed, for others the historical background was of interest and for many perhaps multiple themes were explored. However, how much reflection really happens during the rest of Passover? There is no ritual that sets such a dramatic stage as the seder. The story has already been told. All we are really left with is more matzoh to eat.

The Sefat Emet suggests that this very well might be the point. He reminds us that the Garden of Eden was all about food, the first sin was one of eating, and with our banishment from Eden we were told in Genesis 3: 17-19

“And to man He said, “Because you listened to your wife, and you ate from the tree from which I commanded you saying, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed be the ground for your sake; with toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life. And it will cause thorns and thistles to grow for you, and you shall eat the herbs of the field. With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, for you were taken therefrom, for dust you are, and to dust you will return.”

For the Sefat Emet, Passover is the holiday that transforms this eating from one of toil to one of blessing. Passover is about eating because it makes eating sacred. Redemption from Egypt undoes the curse of Eden and transforms it into blessing. He quotes Deuteronomy 16:3

“You shall not eat leaven with it; for seven days you shall eat with it matzoth, the bread of affliction, for in haste you went out of the land of Egypt, so that you shall remember the day when you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life.”

In Genesis we are told “cursed be the ground for your sake; with toil shall you eat of it (bread) all the days of your life“. Eating each day is a reminder of our exile from Paradise and our fundamental conflict and struggle with nature. However after the Exodus, our consuming of matzoh is now to be remembered “all the days of your life.”

Our eating is transformed from a tragic repercussion of sin into a sacred memory of hope and possibility. Our eating becomes not a sign of alienation but one of relationship to God and command/mitzvah. We will still toil and the production of food will still be complex. What has changed is our perception of the work. What was once a story of rejection by God is now the story of freedom and meaning. “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.”

Posted on April 11, 2012

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Me, You and We

I have been an active participant in a group of Muslims, Christians and Jews that meets two to three times a year for presentations and dialogue. All of us would define ourselves as active religious practitioners.  Our conversations have moved into areas of genuine dialogue and have space for disagreements and different views from both within our religious traditions as well as between religions.  In other words, we have begun to trust each other.

Our meeting last week looked at the question of interfaith marriage. I was asked to be the Jewish presenter and a Catholic priest and Muslim chaplain at a local university presented their traditions.

What I found fascinating was that the priest, although an expert in canon law, approached the question from a pastoral care perspective. He clearly saw the couple and the success of their marriage as his desired outcome. The Muslim presenter gave a legal discourse and argued that while Muslim law allowed men to marry Christian and Jewish women, the reverse was not accepted. She argued that this should not be the case and that Muslim women should be allowed to marry Christian or Jewish men, citing a number of contemporary Muslim authorities. Parenthetically, at my table during conversation one of the Muslim participants commented that most Muslims would not find the contemporary authorities cited as being authoritative. This certainly has its parallels in contemporary Jewish legal debates and sounded very familiar to me as an Orthodox rabbi.  My primary focus was a theological argument why Jews should marry other Jews.  It was not intended to be an argument against interfaith marriage which would be silly and futile for reasons that my readers surely understand. Rather the primary focus was on understanding Jewish Peoplehood in theological/legal terms and how one’s decision whom to marry might be shaped by this understanding.

This is what I said:

“Jews stand in relationship to God as members of the covenant. In the Bible, this covenant while it begins in the Bible with Abraham and Sarah, the Jewish people as a nation enter into this covenant at Mount Sinai when they receive and accept the Torah and it is reaffirmed forty years later in the Book of Deuteronomy before the death of Moses.

“You are standing, this day, all of you, before the Lord your God – the leaders of your tribes, your elders, your officers, every Jewish individual; your children, your wives, the strangers in the midst of your camp, from the hewers of wood to the drawers of water; to bring you into the covenant of Lord your God and His oath, which God is making with you today.

In order to establish you today as a nation unto Him, and He shall be your God, as He told you; and as He promised your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And not only with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath; but rather, with those that are here with us standing today before the Lord, our God, and with those THAT ARE NOT HERE WITH US TODAY.” (Deut. 29, 9-11).

This Deuteronomy passage reaffirms the covenant that began in Genesis with a family, continued in the Book of Exodus as a nation at Sinai-thus the reference to be your God, and then adds with those who are not here today. This is understood to include all those not yet born. Covenant is rooted in family and peoplehood. It is not a relationship made with a single individual qua individual, but with a family and then a nation.

The next passage from the Mekhilta, a third century rabbinic text, builds on this and elaborates on the implications of this covenant relationship.

“Rabbi says: This proclaims the excellence of Israel. For when they all stood before Mount Sinai to receive the Torah they all made up their mind alike’ to accept the reign of God joyfully. Further­more, they pledged themselves for one another. And it was not only concerning overt acts that God, revealing Himself to them, wished to make His covenant with them but also concerning secret acts, as it is said: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God’ and the things that are revealed,” etc. (Deut. 29.28). But they said to Him: Concerning overt acts we are ready to make a covenant with You, but we will not make a covenant with You in regard to secret acts lest one of us commit a sin secretly and the entire community be held responsible for it.”

Now this passage is seen as a dialogue between God and the people. God makes a covenant, but the implications of the covenant are that that the people are responsible one for another and therefore accountable when people sin and transgress. Here the people agree to that but with one limitation, it only applies to public transgressions. How can I be responsible for something someone has done in private? God agrees and therefore a text from Deuteronomy 29 is quoted that secret acts belong to God, but revealed public acts are the responsibility of the people.

Now this understanding creates the principle of “All Jews are responsible one for another, kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”. Now this was not understood as only responsibility and accountability on a social level, but as a metaphysical construct of creating a religious sense of peoplehood.  Let me describe how this plays out. For example, before I eat I am required to make a blessing over the food. It is quick and usually all of 7-9 words. However, Friday night for example in my home before we eat the bread at the Sabbath dinner only my wife makes the blessing and everyone answers Amen. Now if it is my responsibility to say the blessing, how can my wife recite it for me or the others at the table? The answer is we share this covenantal peoplehood bond, and her reciting of it is as if I have done it as well. We are linked together in the performance of commandments. 

You can see this also in the Jewish wedding ceremony. This is the last blessing recited at the wedding ceremony.

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King/Ruler of the universe, who created joy and happiness, groom and bride, gladness, jubilation, cheer and delight, love, friendship, harmony and fellowship. Lord our God, let there speedily be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and the sound of happiness, the sound of a groom and the sound of a bride, the sound of exultation of grooms from under their huppah, and youths from their joyous banquets. Blessed are You Lord, who gladdens the groom with the bride.”

The wedding ceremony is not only about my joining in marriage with another person, but it also means we share the same vision. The vision of redemption in this blessing is the vision of a redeemed people, and a wedding is the manifestation of that redemption. The prophet Jeremiah whose words are paraphrased here sees weddings as sign of the redemption and in getting married my wedding is a foretaste, a hint, a statement of faith, of the redemption of my people And this redemption is not a spiritual redemption of the soul, but a physical, in history redemption of a people into an ideal political, spiritual life. Weddings here are not a metaphor of redemption, but an expression of it.  Under the huppah, the wedding canopy, is this affirmation of peoplehood, again not a social construct, but a religious entity.

Finally, the vehicle, the institution for teaching the faith, but more importantly for living Judaism is not the synagogue, although it is needed and important, but it really is the family. Shabbat is observed at my table, I transmit and teach my children at the Passover Seder centered around my table. My table is an altar and the Temple, long destroyed, is recreated in my home. It is around this table that I teach my children. In particular we see this at Passover and  Deuteronomy 6 is an important text of the Seder.If your son asks you in time to come, saying, “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the ordinances, which the Lord our God has commanded you?”.  You shall say to your son, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. (Deuteronomy 6:20-21)

My child asks what does this mean to you and I answer we. It is not about me and you, but about us. Our religious identity is centered in our we, being part of the people who stood at Sinai and we are in covenant with God. And it is that sense of we that I transmit to my family in the holy moments we gather in family.

This is why I married a Jew, this is why I want my children to marry Jews, and I cannot simply imagine sharing this covenantal responsibility and bond with someone who is not part of the people who share this consciousness. I cannot imagine having the deepest most intimate relationship with someone with whom it is only me and you and not we, sharing a sense of covenantal peoplehood. Can I fall in love with someone outside my faith who is a wonderful person in all the right ways, yes. Can I have a successful marriage, very possibly yes. But can I share a common religious bond, common religious language, stand as covenantal partners reaffirming Sinai and transmitting this consciousness? Here I would answer in the negative.”

What do you think?

Posted on March 29, 2012

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I Don’t Go To Brooklyn

Cruising on Fifth Avenue one day, a taxi is hailed by a man standing on the corner. Entering the cab, the man says, “Take me to the Palmer House.”

“The Palmer House?” says the cabbie. “That’s in Chicago.”

“I know,” says his fare. “That’s where I want to go.” “I’ll drive you to Kennedy,” says the cabbie. “You can fly.”

“I’m afraid of flying.”

“Then I’ll drive you over to Grand Central and you can take the train.”

“No, the train takes too long and besides, then I’d have to get from Union Station to the Palmer House.”

“If I drove you all the way to Chicago it would cost a fortune. Twice a fortune, because you’d have to pay for me to deadhead back to New York.”

“That’s OK, I can afford it. Here’s a few hundred dollars now. I’ll pay the rest when we get there.”

With no further argument to make, the cabbie drives out of Manhattan into New Jersey and then con­nects with the Pennsylvania Turnpike, thence to the Ohio Turnpike, the Indiana Turnpike, and finally the Skyway into Chicago. He takes Stony Island to 57th Street, where he turns onto Lake Shore Drive. He drives north as far as Congress, cuts over to Michigan Avenue, goes north again until he can pull over to Wabash, drives back one block south, and screeches to a stop in front of the Wabash entrance to the Palmer House-after two days and one night of non­stop driving.

The passenger peers at the meter, gives the cabbie several hundred dollars to cover the fare and a decent tip, and then opens the door to step onto the sidewalk.

Before anyone can close the door, two women who have been standing at the curb slide into the back seat. Before the startled cabbie can speak, one of the women says, “We want to go to an address on Flat­bush Avenue.”

“Uh-uh, lady,” says the cabbie. “I don’t go to Brooklyn.”

While you may have to be a New Yorker to fully appreciate the joke, the truth is there are many places we are willing to go and also some to which we refuse to venture.  Some places we refuse to go based on principle, while other places we may be scared to approach. Sometimes there are borders or boundaries that may actually prevent us from going forth and other times we may not realize that all we have to do is gather up some courage and move forward.

This past week I had the opportunity to speak with students at a local university. There were two rabbis and each of us was asked to describe our formative moments in our Jewish development. What stood out for me was my first rabbinic position as the associate director of Hillel at major Midwest university. I was fresh out of eight years at Yeshiva. My boss was a Reform rabbi. Working with him and the hundreds of students I met forced me to move from having some deep commitments to issues to also having deep responsibilities to people.  When issues became people, things became much more complex. Boundaries may have expanded or in some cases contracted, but they became rooted in genuine human experiences. My responsibility was no longer only to the issue or ideology, but to the person as well.

In traditional congregations, an additional Torah portion will be read this Shabbat known as Parashat Parah-or Red Heifer Shabbat. To enter the Sanctuary or later the Temple, one had to be in a state of religious purity. If one had encountered a dead body, even in a circumstance of burial and fulfilling a commandment to look after the dead, one would become ritually impure. You would require a sprinkling of the ashes from the Red Heifer as part of the ritual purification process. To cross the sacred boundary in an impure state would result in karet, spiritual excision. 

What are the boundaries worth crossing? What borders should remain closed? When might our desires to be embracing of others open up doors for us. When do we say we cannot go there? What are the limits of the sacred we should not cross?

Posted on March 15, 2012

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Some Purim Torah

Those of us who fall under the general rubric of “believers” may feel a sense of God’s presence in our lives at most, if not every moment, and others may find God hidden or seemingly absent much of the time.  This experience of God’s absence probably goes back to time eternal and the Bible records how our ancestors confronted it.  Much has been written, and much will be written as people of deep faith continue to face this question.

One of the much discussed themes of Purim is this hiddenness of God in the Book of Esther. I will not attempt to add anything new to this theological concern, except to point out something that emerges from the mitzvot/practices of Purim.

After describing the mitzvot of Purim which include reading the Megillah, giving gifts to the poor, gifts of food one to another and have a festive meal, Maimonides (Mishneh Torah Laws of Megillah 2:17) adds:

“It is preferable to spend more on gifts to the poor than on the Purim meal or on presents to friends. For no joy is greater or more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. Indeed, he who causes the hearts of these unfortunates to rejoice emulates the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Is. 57:15)”

Maimonides reminds us that while all the mitzvot of Purim are binding, gifts to the poor should be of greatest importance. What is striking is his use of the idea that to support the poor is an expression of imitating God. This is a theme expressed in a number of areas by Maimonides (see my previous post Hysteron Proteron for one example).  While Jewish law has its specific applications in all areas, we who follow the law should also be a certain type of religious personality whose goal is to lead a life in imitation of the Divine. Thus when I come to Purim, I must observe all its practices. The serious religious personality who understands that they must be seeking to emulate God, will pursue supporting the poor to a greater extent than the other mitzvot.  

While I have no illusion that Maimonides intended this, supporting the poor on Purim (and any other time as well) is a way of addressing the problem of God’s apparent absence. On Purim I “emulate the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones”.  While God’s absence may and perhaps should bother us theologically, it in no way can hamper us morally and ethically.  I must always act as if I am in God’s presence, seeking to emulate all that God does.

Posted on March 1, 2012

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Hysteron Proteron

And Moses read the Book of the Covenant to the people and they said “All that God has commanded we will heed and do! (Exodus 24:7)

Jewish tradition takes pride in these words, we will do and heed-na’aseh v’nishmah and one Talmudic passage even have God wondering who revealed this great secret, these words to the Jewish People. The context of course is Sinai and these words are seen as the great acceptance of Torah. The technical term for these words is hysteron proteron, “latter before” where the first term actually occurs after the second term, for example, put on your shoes and socks, but is placed first to emphasize its importance. Israel commits herself at Sinai to the totality of practice, even without necessarily knowing the extent of the laws.

Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, author of the Netivot Shalom, offers an additional reading of these words. He sees na’aseh as a commitment to do God’s will, even in the absence of specific details or legal injuctions. While fully faithful to traditional Jewish practice as legally binding, Berezovsky still understands that even in the most strict attention to observance, one must ask am I doing God’s will. While one could use this idea in an antinomian direction, for Berezovsky the question might be as I observe a particular practice, am I doing it in a way pleasing to God and one that really reflects the will of the Divine?

One of the best examples where this insight can be seen is in the case of Maimonides. In his legal work, he discusses the laws of slavery. While many would initially recoil from imagining that such laws should play a role in our tradition, nonetheless they are firmly rooted in Biblical practice. While the laws associated with Jewish slaves serve as a way for a slave to pay off enormous debt, Jews were permitted to own non-Jewish slaves. Even while acknowledging this, and codifying it, Maimonides says as follows:

It is permissible to have a Canaanite slave perform excruciating labor. Although this is the law, the attribute of piety and the way of wisdom is for a person to be merciful and to pursue justice, not to make his slaves carry a heavy yoke, nor cause them distress. He should allow them to partake of all the food and drink he serves. This was the practice of the Sages of the first generations who would give their slaves from every dish of which they themselves would partake. And they would provide food for their animals and slaves before partaking of their own meals. And so, it is written Psalms 123:2: “As the eyes of slaves to their master’s hand, and like the eyes of a maid-servant to her mistress’ hand, so are our eyes to God.”

Similarly, we should not embarrass a slave by our deeds or with words, for the Torah prescribed that they perform service, not that they be humiliated. Nor should one shout or vent anger upon them extensively. Instead, one should speak to them gently, and listen to their claims. This is explicitly stated with regard to the positive paths of Job for which he was praised Job 31:13, 15: “Have I ever shunned justice for my slave and maid-servant when they quarreled with me…. Did not He who made me in the belly make him? Was it not the One who prepared us in the womb?”

Cruelty and arrogance are found only among idol-worshipping gentiles. By contrast, the descendants of Abraham our patriarch, i.e., the Jews whom the Holy One, blessed be He, granted the goodness of the Torah and commanded to observe righteous statutes and judgments, are merciful to all.

And similarly, with regard to the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He, which He commanded us to emulate, it is written Psalms 145:9: “His mercies are upon all of His works.” And whoever shows mercy to others will have mercy shown to him, as implied by Deuteronomy 13:18: “He will show you mercy, and be merciful upon you and multiply you.”

In effect what Maimonides has done here is to be honest with what exists within Jewish tradition in a specific case and then asked what really the will of God should be in this case. Looking at the tradition as a whole, Maimonides transform the question of what is permissible or forbidden to rather one of how does my behavior best reflect God’s will. For Maimonides it is to emulate God’s practice of mercy which effectively undoes what one is theoretically permitted to do. The righteous statutes and judgments, our commandments, must lead us to be merciful in all our actions.

This being the case, then we can suggest na’aseh v’nishmah is not a revolutionary call, but rather one of evolutionary development. It seeks to move us in a direction that does not undermine past practice as primitive or lacking authority, but rather pushes us to ask the broader religious question. It is not a commitment only to mechanical practice, but to a deep moral conscious behavior.

Posted on February 16, 2012

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Returning Home?

The Exodus from Egypt is considered to be the foundational/orienting event for our sacred history. Many commandments are attached to its memory and it can be argued that our experience there is a source for our ethics and morality. “Do not afflict the stranger because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.”  Morality is not only a product of reason, but of historical experience. Included in our tradition as well is a prohibition to return to Egypt. For some the Biblical source is Exodus 14:13, when just as the People came to the Red Sea and were being pursued by the Egyptians “Moses said to the people, Don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians is [only] today, [but] you shall no longer continue to see them for eternity.”

There are a number of explanations offered for this prohibition, but it does appear that the Torah is wary of our returning to the place of intense degradation and suffering. Egypt is the place we left from in order to become a People.  Does returning there somehow undo and reverse our sacred history? Should you return to a place of oppression and suffering? Can it ever be home?

We know that this prohibition was not followed and a Jewish community flourished in Egypt since the time of the Second Temple. Traditional commentaries wrestle with this seeming violation and offer a number of justifications for Jews living in Egypt. Indeed our source of so much knowledge of our history was unearthed in the past century from the riches of the Cairo Genizah.

This particular case of Egypt comes to mind for me because last week I spent two days in Berlin with rabbis from Chicago. Berlin is a magnificent city and while many buildings are new, many damaged during the War have been restored. As Jews, it is a city central to modern Jewish history.  Berlin is also a city of over 130 Holocaust memorials, many of which were constructed as grass roots efforts by the residents of the city and are scattered in many neighborhoods. There is the striking Jewish museum visited by mostly non Jews. But the German Jewish community that thrived there is no more.

This is not however, the end of the story. Berlin is a city with a Jewish community that is slowly being reconstituted with Jews from the former Soviet Union. There are two rabbinical seminaries, one Liberal and one Orthodox. They are training rabbis to serve throughout Germany. Chabad is there as well. Yet one wonders: is this the place Jews should return to after the horrors of the Holocaust? Even as Germany has recognized itself as the perpetrator of the crime, should Jewish civilization reconstitute itself here?

In 1961, Gershom Scholem spoke in Israel at a program celebrating Martin Buber’s translation of the Bible into German, a project begun by him and Franz Rosenzweig in Berlin before the War. Scholem ended his speech with: “For many of us the living sound you tried to evoke in the German language has faded away. Will anyone be found to take it up again?” On my recent trip the German born Masorati rabbi in Berlin, when asked what it meant to live in a city and country that sought to annihilate us answered: Where else can you read Zunz, Buber and Rosenzweig in the original? And finally when asked why go into the rabbinate in Germany, one of the rabbis responded that they were engaged in the ultimate rebuttal of Hitler.

Posted on February 3, 2012

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Silence and Slavery

My daughter sings in the choir at her Jewish high school.  Only her mother can attend the annual concert. I am not allowed to attend as this would violate “kol isha” hearing the voice of a woman sing. While the school certainly allows my daughter to sing, out of modesty it cannot take place in front of men.

In many Hasidic sources, based on a Zohar passage, the Exodus from Egypt is viewed as the movement from silence to speech. Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites was so intense that initially the people could not even respond to God and Moses’s call of redemption. They lacked the strength to simply listen to Moses.  The Exodus became the restoration of the authentic Jewish voice to the People, for at Sinai they spoke loud and clear as one to accept the Torah. Moses who in Egypt complained he cannot speak well gained a full voice at Sinai and for the rest of his life. It is no accident that our annual retelling of the Exodus story at Passover is such an important verbal activity. It is precisely though telling and talking that we show we are free of the oppression from Egypt. What emerges from this is that to give someone voice is to liberate them and to suppress voice is to enslave them.

In an American context this can certainly resonate with our concern for free speech. While Jewish tradition has many laws concerning proper speech and would recoil from the repugnant nature of much of what passes today as protected free speech, nonetheless one should be very hesitant to suppress someone’s voice because that borders on enslaving them. At the same time, there is much American society could learn from the ethics of speech that plays a role in Jewish tradition.

As an Orthodox rabbi, I have followed as many have, the issues of “kol isha” hearing a women’s voice that have played out both in a singing context and even women not being allowed to present at a medical conference in Israel recently sponsored by a very important organization Puah which works on issues in fertility. While this is not the place to enter into the legal arguments, there is an underlying tension being played out between traditional understandings of modesty, unfortunately and incorrectly placed as a burden/responsibility on women, and an open society where women are full participants in the public square. At least one leading rabbi has argued for a more open understanding of this issue, but what I have seen lacking is this viewing of suppressing women’s voices as an act of oppression. It returns the woman to a form of slavery and the silencer to a type of Pharaoh. However this will play itself out in Israel and in America, this imperative of giving voice to people must begin to enter into the discussion, even as the community wrestles with the imperative of modesty.

Posted on January 19, 2012

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Exile, Authenticity and Truth

There is an oft quoted description of Torah being a combination of black fire and white fire and, perhaps surprisingly, the white fire is holier than the black fire.  The black fire represents the letters of the Torah scroll and the white fire is the parchments upon which it is written. Meaning is derived from not only the letters and the words, but the spaces in between, the gaps between words, the interpretive possibilities the Text leaves open for us, the “seventy faces of the Torah.”  While many may correctly debate the boundaries of possible interpretation, the tradition is rich with multiple viewpoints on just about everything.

In a certain twist, the Torah portion for this week, Parashat V’yechi, begins without the white fire, the usual open space between the conclusion of the previous week’s portion and the beginning of the new one. This anomaly also calls for interpretation and the Biblical commentator Rashi suggests that this lack of open space, this closure, alludes to the dimming and closing of the hearts and minds of the Israelites in Egypt as they began to become slaves to Pharaoh and lose their freedom.

The great Hasidic commentator, the Sefat Emet, points out that the actual slavery did not begin until some years later after the passing of all of Jacob’s children. He suggests that with Jacob’s death they suffered a deep spiritual loss, a loss of inner spiritual authenticity, of which they were not even aware. They became closed to their inner spiritual truth and this was the beginning of slavery and exile for the Israelites. They were not even aware of this closing. This inner spiritual loss is the true meaning of exile.

My friend Rabbi Josh Feigelson runs an exciting project for Hillel called “Ask Big Questions.”  One of these reflective questions is “Where is home?”  It is not really a question of geography, although one’s answer can certainly include certain geographical space.  George Steiner, in a beautiful (and somewhat anti-Zionist) essay, Our Homeland, the Text (1985) asserts that home is the “…the ‘textual’ fabric, the interpretative practices in Judaism are ontologically and historically at the heart of Jewish identity.”  There is no question that I feel most at home in that textual fabric.

The “big question” the Sefat Emet asks us is “Where is exile?”   It is an important question to keep in mind and challenge us as we so often feel at home in so many places and environments that welcome us and engage us.  It also compels us to ask that specifically in the places where we feel most comfortable are we remaining true to our inner spiritual truth.  Given all that has happened the past couple of weeks in Israel, this teaching can remind us that one can be in exile even at home when our inner core is hidden and our concern for external appearance governs our behavior.

Posted on January 5, 2012

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What is Hanukah?

“What is Hanukah?”  the Talmud asks and typically each year at this time we are reminded by a variety of writers what the “true” meaning of Hanukah is.  From the pages of the Wall Street Journal to numerous websites, scholars, rabbis, educators, and the “man (sic) on the street” offer their take on the nature of Hanukah.  To be clear, many of these pieces are quite engaging and informative and this year I have certainly profited from their insights.

It is in this vein, I want to share an approach of Rabbi Isaac Hutner obm. In one of his teachings R. Hutner suggests that the lasting impact of Greece on Israel was the development of machloket-differences of opinion as to the practice of Torah. The Greeks, through their decrees, caused Torah to be forgotten and it was this forgetting that created differences of opinions as to what the correct practice was and should be. It was the war with the Greeks and their defeat at the time of Hanukah that created the “war over Torah”, the sometimes acrimonious debates in which rabbis and sages engage in order to recover what was lost during the persecutions by the Greeks .  The legacy of Greece is the legacy of the darkness caused by the accurate tradition of Torah being lost. However, this legacy of darkness and forgetting is compensated by the recovery project of the sages, the “war over Torah” which increased the knowledge of Torah itself. Debate led to new understandings and insights. Even the rejected positions had to be justified and explained. The legacy of Hanukah is the increased light of knowledge of Torah overcoming the darkness of the forgotten Torah. It was the forgetting caused by the Greeks that allowed Torah to expand exponentially  in its scope and knowledge.

This rather inadequate summary of my reading of R. Hutner’s teaching I hope will lead the reader to explore it in depth in the original.  To be sure not all agree with R Hutner’s understanding of the origin of machloket- differences of opinion. In the context of his teaching I do want to reflect on “war over Torah”. While the tradition itself hopes and expects that the “enemies” in this battle, who are after all sages, will become “lovers” in the end, there is a danger in intellectual/religious battle that one  go overboard and flex one’s muscles in a way that ventures far beyond a search for truth to a destruction of civility. There are examples of this in the Talmud. We certainly see this problem pervading our own political and religious discourse. Perhaps even in this pursuit of truth we may have to stop sometimes and not use it as a license for slamming those with whom we may have even profound disagreement.

However R. Hutner asserts something that may appear at first as counterintuitive. True love he says only can emerge from those with whom you have disagreement.  Becoming “lovers” is only possible because you had profound differences and were able to engage them in a way that brought you closer in the end. Becoming closer does not mean reaching full agreement, but it does mean having a deep attachment to your ideological opponent.  What might our discourse look like if we retained this as a goal even while maintaining our deep convictions and commitment to pursuing the truth as we conceive it?

Is this true of our most intimate relationships as well? Might it be that learning how to truly argue without achieving full agreement  is what can bring lovers the closest? The answer to that I leave to you, in the meantime Happy Hanukah.

Posted on December 19, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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