Pleading Before HaShem

Jul 31, 2009 at 3:44 AM

Parashat Ve'etchanan

This week’s Torah portion is called Ve’etchanan – “I pleaded.” It is Moshe pleading with the people to observe G-d’s mitzvot and live as the holy community G-d has purposed Israel to be.

Last week we discussed how Deuteronomy is an interesting book. It is actually a repetition of the entire Torah. The other peculiar aspect of the book is that it involves a different generation than the rest of the Torah. Meaning, the whole reason Moshe is pleading with the people at the beginning of this parasha is because it is the generation about to go into the Promised Land after wandering in the dessert for forty years. This is not the generation that left Egypt and was involved in the sin of the golden calf. Nor were they probably old enough to fully comprehend the impact of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. This was a new generation.

It is called Ve’etchanan because Moshe is pleading with this new generation to not be like the previous generation. Moshe is pleading with them to be faithful to HaShem’s covenant, to observe the mitzvot and be a holy people. He recounts the giving of the Torah, and explains the purpose of G-d’s Torah. Moshe instructs the people that if they will be faithful to HaShem, then He will be faithful to them and provide for them.

Yet, what is so powerful and mysterious about this parasha is that it is also not about a different generation. That this current generation (and every generation to follow) is actually also the previous generation which left Egypt, wandered in the dessert, and stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

For HaShem did not just make this covenant with our ancestors, but with us – with us who are alive today. HaShem spoke with you face to face from the fire on the mountain. (Deuteronomy 5:3-4)

This mystical idea is so central to the Jewish people that when we observe the commandments and festivals, we are not just remembering something that happened in the past – but we are reliving it. Every opportunity, and every chag, every holiday is a reliving of the events. When we remove a Torah scroll from an ark, it is not just a Torah service; it is reliving the experience at Sinai – with the fire, thunder, and all. When we celebrate Sukkot, we are back in the dessert homeless, hungry, tired and cold. When we observe Pesach, we are actually being redeemed from Egypt. As this week’s parasha also states:

Some day your child will ask you, ‘What is the meaning of the instructions, laws and rulings which HaShem our G-d has laid down for you?’ Then you will tell your child, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and HaShem brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand…’ (Deuteronomy 6:20-21)

Every one of us was once a slave (and in many ways still are). We all stood at Mt. Sinai, and all share the responsibility to follow in G-d’s ways and be faithful to His Torah. The next time you pick up a Siddur, light Shabbat candles, or put on a tallit – may you be enveloped in the idea that we are not just observing something that happened in the past; we are reliving it in the here and now. Each action is an opportunity to reengage G-d, and to relive the events surrounding each mitzvah.

Yinon is Moving!

Jul 28, 2009 at 3:58 AM

Announcement:  Yinon is moving to the Beltway in a few weeks!

We're vacating our Los Angeles apartment in mid-August and will settle into our new digs in Bethesda, Maryland (just outside of DC) in early September.  

I'm looking forward to returning to my former stomping grounds, where I'll sue people for a chicken feed salary and cluck around on the Metro in fabulously boring pantsuits.  Joshua will continue his graduate studies. 

Together, we'll try our hand at growing a new community that provides a spiritual home to young Jewish students, professionals, couples, and families in the area.  We think we'll call it ... drumroll please ... Yinon.  

Stay tuned!

Quote of the day

Jul 24, 2009 at 2:59 AM

The Jewish community has lost some of the most sensitive spiritual souls of this generation. They are Jews who were looking for G-d and found spiritual homes outside of Judaism. Their journeys traversed the Jewish community, but nothing there beckoned them. The creation of synagogue-communities in which the voices of seekers can be heard and their questions can be asked will challenge many loyalist Jews. It will upset and enrage them. But it would also enrich them.

-Rabbi Sidney Schwarz from "Finding a Spiritual Home"

Judaism in Crisis

Jul 21, 2009 at 9:10 PM

Is the Jewish community as we currently know it in crisis? Many Jewish leaders and thinkers seem to think so. Current discussions raging within the Jewish world cast a dark pall on the future of Judaism in America. A recent article on discusses the future of the American Jewish community, noting that the recent economic meltdown could have a negative influence on our community, both today and into the future.

The deeper question at stake is whether Judaism is even relevant to most Jews today. It doesn't take a degree in statistics to recognize that less than 25% of American Jews affiliate with a synagogue or a religious organization, and less than 15% attend services on a regular basis. Even the number of Jews who attend annual High Holiday services has dropped significantly.

Jewish institutions are closing, shrinking, or at best restructuring to meet the growing challenges of declining philanthropic giving and shrinking numbers of Jews affiliated with Jewish organizations. Just one of the most noticeable examples is the recent near closure of Hebrew Union College's historic campus in Cincinnati.

Jewish organizations and institutions are not alone in feeling these effects. The Jewish people are changing. With over 50% of the Jewish community intermarried, there are more children today with Jewish/non-Jewish parents than children with two Jewish parents. In the coming years (if trends stay the same), it will be highly unusual for Jewish children to have two Jewish parents. This has become such an issue that if Judaism is to become a vibrant religion once again, some scholars are calling for a Judaism that moves beyond ethnicity (a post-ethnic Judaism).

Although I may not be arguing for such a leap, what is true is that we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. What is wrong with our current congregational and organizational models? And why are we not attracting young, educated Jews into our fold?

Old habits die hard ... and they are also killing us. Few communities, especially within Messianic Judaism, have been successful at reaching Jews, let alone young, educated individuals and stable intermarried couples. We are also radically failing to impart a healthy Messianic Jewish spirituality into peoples’ lives. What's worse, the few communities that have been successful in these areas are openly criticized precisely for their innovation. And those die-hards clinging for dear life to expired congregational models are sadly – and naively - finding themselves sinking with their ships, yet still boldly proclaiming they are right.

It's a shame that it's taking the Great Recession to shake us from our slumber, but we can no longer ignore reality. If Judaism, and Messianic Judaism, are to persist well into the 21st century, it's high time that we figure out precisely why the models we're so endeared to are no longer working.

What do we call a woman rabbi?

Jul 16, 2009 at 12:15 PM

The question in Israel this week ... is what to call a woman Rabbi?

According to the Jerusalem Post hundreds of Orthodox and religious women gathered in Israel for a conference on women and women's issues within Orthodoxy. The conference is organized by Kolech, an Orthodox women's organization in Israel.

One of the primary discussions on Monday was the question of what to call a woman who has smicha. Rabanit? Rabbah? Maharat? ... maybe just Rabbi? A vote was taken on Monday and will be submitted to scholars to discuss the matter further before the group releases their recommendation.

According to Dr. Chana Kehat, a former chairwoman of Kolech:

I'd estimate that within five years, we will be seeing women making groundbreaking decisions on Halachah ... it will take a few more years for people to get used to the idea, but it will happen.

Although there are currently only two Orthodox women rabbis in Israel, there are a number of women who hold leadership positions, teaching positions, and those who are able to decide halachic matters.

Indeed, the times they are a changin ...

This is a subject we have blogged about several times in the past. Although there will still be small pockets within Orthodoxy who will hold out against women rabbis (and women serving in many different roles), the Orthodox world will look different in the future.

However, change never comes easy. The expanding role of women in Jewish life is not without criticism and opposition.

According to the JPost article, Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, head of the Ramat Gan Hesder Yeshiva, was one of the most prominent voices to attack changes in Jewish tradition. Shapira warned these reformers "undermine the Godliness of the Torah and its continuity today, both of which are based on contemporary rabbinic authority. "

Rachel Keren, Kolech's current chairwoman, shared:

The Kolech conference raises many issues that demonstrate so clearly the need for change in the Orthodox world. One of these issues is leadership. Suggesting that women can also be spiritual and community leaders undermines the existing hierarchies and frameworks.

But, Kolech also breaks other taboos, such as our demand to confront domestic sexual abuse and fight denial of this phenomenon. And for many rabbis, this is not easy to accept.

Keren touches on something important. What is at stake for many of these women is not so much women becoming rabbis. It is the empowerment of women within traditional Jewish life, and the need to confront a number of issues the rabbinic establishment as a whole still refuses to address. This is especially true in regard to Agunot (literally "chained" - women whose dead-beat husbands refuse to give them a Get - a writ of divorce). An Agunah withouot a get cannot remarry, and if she does, her children are considered mamzerim (bastards) and for the rest of their lives carry a halachic stigma - and can only marry other mamzerim.

To this day - the religious Beit-Din establishment around the world is still not willing to work out a compromise for those dead-beat husbands who maybe run off with another woman, who don't pay child support, and/or just simply refuse to give their wives a get. It is another abusive tactic to keep their wives chained - even after they are long gone.

The issue of Agunot is just one of many issues affecting religious women today. So a call for change is not just about what to call a woman rabbi. It has to do with women also being recognized as valued and empowered to best move Judaism forward.

Quote of the day

Jul 15, 2009 at 1:03 AM

Until relatively recently, virtually all the interpreters of scripture were men. Over the long centuries of Jewish and Christian biblical study, perspectives on female figures have been provided by male theologians, sages, artists, writers, clergy, and scientists. Directly or indirectly, this male-dominated interpretive tradition has affected the way all of us, female and male, read the Bible. My experience in teaching and writing about biblical and Israelite women has made me realize that when it comes to passages dealing with women, the traditional interpretive materials are often biased. They sometimes ignore women; they sometimes misrepresent them. Although I remain neutral on the question of whether or not such male-dominated scholarship intentionally distorts or ignores many of the female figures of the Jewish and Christian canons, I am passionately about the need for more balanced scholarship on gender-related matters.[1]

Professor Carol Meyers (Duke University)

[1] Carol Meyers, “Discovering Women in Scripture,” Bible Review, Aug. 2000, 2.

Quote of the Day

Jul 13, 2009 at 9:30 PM

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. It is widespread. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women's equal rights across the world for centuries. The male interpretations of religious texts and the way they interact with, and reinforce, traditional practices justify some of the most pervasive, persistent, flagrant and damaging examples of human rights abuses. At their most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities. The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.

-Former President Jimmy Carter (The words of G-d do not justify cruelty to women)

Yeshiva Hero or Moral Zero?

at 2:30 PM

An article in the Jerusalem Post today reports that Israel's Supreme Court has harshly criticized Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Drori for his acquittal of a yeshiva bochur who intentionally ran over an Ethiopian-Israeli parking attendant.

In January 2006, Noga Zoarish was working as a cashier in a parking lot in Jerusalem. The haredi driver, who aspires to become a rabbinical judge attempted to leave the parking lot without paying. Zoarish blocked the car's exit with her body. But the driver proceeded, intentionally hitting the woman and lifting her onto the hood of the car and carrying her 15 meters before knocking her to the ground. Zoarish lost consciousness from the impact and sustained head injuries.

The driver attempted to deny the incident until he was confronted with video from a security camera installed at the scene of the hit and run. Additionally, the driver was driving with a revoked license and had a previous conviction for theft.

What makes this incident even more frustrating is the cover-up within the haredi world. The yeshiva bochur brought to the court recommendations from Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Shas spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, asking Drori to be lenient, claiming that an excessively stringent ruling that constituted moral turpitude would block him from being appointed as a judge in the rabbinical courts, which is a public office.

In my humble opinion ... this yeshiva bochur should be barred from being a dayan (a judge on a rabbinical court - a Beis Din). A dayan must not only be able to interpret halachah, but be able to apply it to real people and real situations. People are the real issue - as we are all created b'tzelem Elokim (in the image of G-d), and apparently "people" are something this bochur has missed. You CANNOT intentionally run someone over and then expect to sit on a Beis Din!

A dayan must indeed be an upstanding mensch with moral turpitude. Is this really the rabbinic judge you want to decide your case? Based on the driver's previous conviction of theft, his driving without a license, a hit-and-run, and initial denial, it seems moral turpitude is something this guy lacks. He should certainly have his rabbinical aspirations squelched. This is a major Chillul HaShem (a desecration of G-d's Name).

People come first. This is the ethic of Yeshua, and the basic understanding of all halachah.

Quote of the day

Jul 9, 2009 at 10:16 PM

Davening is like being in love - while it can be described in words and rationally defined, the only way to truly understand and fully appreciate its sublime meaning, its profound power, and its spiritual potency, is to experience it personally and be caught up in its intense and awesome life-affirming energy.