Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Off to the wild blue yonder

I know you're all distraught just thinking about it, but don't expect to hear much from me over the next week or so. I'll be spending Easter Purim weekend in the land of the free, where winter still seems to be in its dying throes. I shiver just thinking about it. I will have net access, but not much blogging time.

While I'm there, I look forward to attending the First Annual Purim Masquerade Party of Anonymous Jewish Bloggers. How else can we meet without blowing cover? I'm already imagining what costumes other bloggers will wear. DovBear is obvious; Chayyei Sarah would be Carrie Bradshaw; MoChassid would be dressed Modern Orthodox on his left side, Chassidic on his right.

Any other suggestions? I don't have time to come up with more; I have a flight to catch.

Waving to Daf Yomi

Don't be fooled by the sidebar: "What I'm learning - BT Berachot 22b".

No, I'm not learning Daf Yomi. Daf Yomi's just caught up with me.

I've been learning Berachot since August. Lately, I've been on the same page for way too long.

Meanwhile, Daf Yomi has just come around for another lap, zoomed into Berachot, and before I blink will have overtaken me in the passing lane.

All I can do is wave at it from the window. And keep driving in the slow lane.

It won't take any notice of me, though. Big shot in its fast car!

Monday, March 21, 2005

Schiavo: Don't make a federal case out of it

My sympathies in the Terri Schiavo case lie entirely with those wishing to keep her alive. But however strongly I feel about that, I can't justify the federal government intervening on her behalf. Issues of medical ethics, individual rights and legal guardianship belong firmly to the state courts. For Congress and the president to interfere, however compelling this particular case, is bad law and undermines the Constitution.

Responsibility here lies entirely with the Florida authorities. That's where it should stay.

Karpas and the Purim Story

(Note: R' Ovdeich kindly asked me to post this insightful dvar Torah. Purim Sameach to all!)

Karpas and the Purim Story
by Rav R'vin Ovdeich

Near the beginning of the Megillah, we are treated to a detailed description of the lavish decorations in Achashverosh's royal palace:
Chur, karpas utcheilet, achuz b'chavlei vutz v'argaman al glilei khesef v'amudei sheish; mitot zahav vakhesef al ritzfat bahat vasheish v'dar v'socharet. (Esther 1:6)

Most of these terms are familiar to us as symbols of luxury. Tcheilet is the sky-blue color of tzitzit, argaman is royal purple, amudei sheish are marble pillars. The blatant exception is karpas, which of course is the green leafy vegetable which we eat at the Passover seder. The question: What makes karpas appropriate for the palace's decor?

Before approaching this question, let us investigate an unusual incident in the Megillah. As Esther wishes to approach the King, without permission, to plead for her people, she asks the Jews to fast for three days and three nights. This in itself is an extreme measure; usually public fasts last only one day.

But Esther goes even further. Commenting on verse 4:17, "And Mordechai passed (vayaavor)," Rashi says, "He transgressed the [Jewish] law by fasting on the first Yom Tov of Passover, as he fasted on the 14th of Nisan, the 15th and the 16th, for behold the scrolls [ordering the destruction of the Jews] were written on the 13th [see 3:12]." How can Esther proclaim fasts for the 15th and 16th of Nissan, the two seder nights?

The key to answering these questions lies in the history of the era. We learn from other books of the Bible and from the Midrash that the Megillah takes place 70 years after the beginning of the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem. Chazal emphasize how Achashverosh strives to demonstrate his dominion over his empire by degrading the memory of the Temple and insisting that there will never be a second one. This is why, for example, he uses the vessels of the Temple in his palace. He wishes to eradicate any hope that the Jews might rebuild the Temple.

As we know, the Passover seder service was modified after the destruction of the Temple, to emphasize the memory of the Temple and hopes for its return. Thus, to achieve his aims, it was necessary for Achashverosh to end the observance of the seder. To this end, he banned all green leafy vegetables from the kingdom, keeping only a remnant of karpas to decorate his palace as a symbol of his triumph over the Jews.

Without karpas, the Jews were unable to celebrate the seder. This in turn, barred them from eating for the rest of the day. This explains how they were allowed to fast on the two seder days of Passover: They were required to, due to the absence of karpas. Thus, Esther's fast was actually only one day long; the following two days they fasted only because they had no seders.

From this incident, we learn two incidental halachot: 1. It is forbidden to eat on Yom Tov Pesach unless one has the seder, and 2. It is forbidden to conduct the seder in the absence of karpas. This latter rule is especially surprising, as we usually consider the karpas to be a minor part of the seder.

This raises an obvious question: If Esther's fast was actually only for one day, why did she ask the Jews to fast for her for three days? After all, the other two days of fasting were not due to her.

The answer is that the first day fasting, the one called by Esther, changed the very character of the remaining two days. We know from the Talmud that three days is the limit of a human's ability to go without water. Thus, by extending the fasting period to three days, Esther's additional day made the fast much more difficult, changing the character of the fasting even on the other two days. The whole time period was transformed, imparting to it the character of a three-day fast for Esther.

One question remains: Why does Rashi say that fasting on the first days of Passover was against Jewish law? On the contrary, we have seen that they were in fact obligated to fast for lack of the seder. To this, we must answer that Rashi didn't know what he was talking about. Honestly, he's just not all he's cracked up to be.

The lesson for today is clear, and profound: One should never underestimate the importance of green, leafy vegetables.

May we soon merit the rebuilding of our Holy Temple, with the restoration of karpas to its rightful place therein.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Unorthodox Orthodox women?

The Jerusalem Post runs yet another feature story on Orthodox Jewish feminists (don't they ever get tired of this?). Most of it is old hat, but one line caught my eye:
Beyond individual rabbis, three sources told The Jerusalem Post that one unnamed institute of Jewish learning in Israel's Modern Orthodox community has been involved in very heated and hushed debates about possibly ordaining women, but is facing severe pressure from both insiders and outsiders.

Anyone know who they're talking about? Is this "unnamed institute" unequivocally recognized as Orthodox? Of the institutes which fit that description, I can't think of one which would conceivably take such a step.

(Note the curious phrases: How can a debate be both "very heated" and "hushed"? Is it very heated in a quiet sort of way? And why does "severe pressure from both insiders and outsiders" only describe the opponents of ordaining women, not its supporters?)

Meanwhile, in the accompanying sidebar about Orthodox "Rabbi" Eveline Goodman-Thau, she uses exactly the right words to confirm my opposition to Orthodox women rabbis:
"I call myself an unorthodox Orthodox woman, and I am trans-denominational," she says, "because I think divided religious movements are part of the patriarchy, so that they [the patriarchy] can remain institutionalized."

Talk about the "patriarchy", and the assertion that a self-perpetuating, self-serving, male-dominated hierarchical establishment is responsible for the ills of society, comes straight out of the ideological feminist phrasebook. It has no basis in Jewish sources, and is a blatant substitution of feminist modes of analysis for those of the Torah.

Orthodox women only have a chance of winning respect for the changes they seek in Orthodox society if they promote those changes out of respect for that society, and base them in sources and forms of argumentation accepted in the halachic community. Derisory language towards the Orthodox religious tradition and community will only undermine their objectives.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Women and communal Torah reading - IV

(Previous posts on this topic can be found here, here, here, and here.)


I neglected to mention why I've been interested in this topic. Aside from intellectual curiosity, there is currently a group of people in my community who may be interested in establishing a congregation inspired, in part, by Shira Hadasha. Some of those involved are friends of mine, and I've been looking to deepen my understanding of the issues at stake so I can decide where I stand on the matter. That's why I shlepped out to the event at Yedidya, and that's why I've blogged on it at such length.

The more I think about it, though, the more opposed I am to instituting changes in the participation of women in synagogue ritual, even in the context of a newly established community. My objections can be grouped into three categories: halachic, political and social.

Halachic objections
R' Sperber's halachic methodology seems questionable, to say the least. He appears to be reaching back to primary halachic sources to try and determine the original law at its earliest expression, in order to apply it in today's circumstances. Thus: 1) The Torah reading, as originally established, did not exclude women intrinsically, only conditionally; 2) The reasons for their exclusion have lapsed; 3) The current situation may be causing harm; so 4) Communities should now be free to call women to the Torah. Similarly, he noted the participation of women in communal leadership roles in ancient Greece, long before Rambam ruled against it. If it was okay then, he implies, it should be fine now.

R' Sperber's approach to halacha may well be valid (I am far from qualified to judge), but it seems inconsistent with how (at least) Ashkenazi authorities have generally decided halacha. It seems to minimize the significance of established traditional practices in establishing norms, and generally to ignore the conservative temperament of halachic development. R' Sperber is willing to give wide play to grand themes such as kevod habriyot, pushing aside the weight of precedent and explicit codified texts.

On that basis, for example, why not abolish the mechitza? It hardly appears in halachic sources, certainly not in ancient ones. But you can't just skip over centuries (millennia!) of halachic development to pick out the sources which support your position.

As R' Henkin explains in the opening of this essay, halachic psak does not end with determining the technicalities of halachic theory, what R' Henkin calls the "pure" halacha. It also entails considered judgment about the practical reality in which the posek rules. Not everything which is theoretically permissible is appropriate for implementation.

Instituting unprecedented practices which change the very structure of Jewish worship is inherently not consistent with the spirit of halachic development. Were such changes to be implemented, they would require the endorsement of authorities of greater stature - with all due respect - than R' Sperber, who admits that he is a scholar, not a posek.

R' Sperber is currently the only Orthodox rabbi who has endorsed the practice of aliyot for women, with all others, including R' Henkin, clearly opposed. What Orthodox community would adopt such radical practices on the sole say-so of a halachic maverick?

Furthermore, the theoretical permissibility is itself questionable. Gil Student summarizes the main objections here; many of the objections to women's prayer groups are also applicable.

Political objections
Even accepting the halachic acceptibility of the proposed changes, there are compelling political and social reasons not to implement them.

In Israel, especially, where the state is actively involved in Jewish life, halachic radicalism can have political implications. By implementing "egalitarian" changes rejected by the Orthodox mainstream, a community effectively endorses the critiques of the anti-religious factions in society. It risks being portrayed as the "good" synagogue, as opposed to all the "bad" synagogues which refuse to change with the times. It risks becoming a pawn in the constant religious-secular battles.

It's hard to get much done in the public sphere in Israel without political support. Who would support an "egalitarian Orthodox" synagogue? Not the mainstream Orthodox, clearly. That leaves the anti-religious factions, who would eagerly back their pet Orthodox community as an endorsement of their anti-religious, anti-halachic agenda. The potential here for hillul Hashem is palpable.

Social objections - external
Today's Orthodox community has no shortage of social rifts, but that doesn't mean we should deliberately deepen them. Instituting radical changes in synagogue practice does just that. I want a shul I can invite friends and relatives to without embarrassment on either side. I want my hareidi cousins and my elderly relatives to feel comfortable davening with me. The moment a woman steps up to the bimah or amud, for any ritual reason, that minimal social unity ends.

Most would, I expect, overlook a woman making announcements or giving a dvar Torah, especially if it is separate from the synagogue services. But that is clearly not true for any sort of shlichut tzibbur.

Social objections - internal
The other social objection relates to the self-styled "halachic egalitarian" community itself. I can't help but ask how committed many of the community members really are to halacha.

Clearly, "halachic egalitarian" is a contradiction in terms. The halacha is not egalitarian, period. Men and women have different roles, especially regarding public worship. When an individual or community calls itself "halachic egalitarian", aren't they implicitly prioritizing egalitarianism - an externally-derived value - over halacha? Aren't they implicitly criticizing the halacha for being insufficiently egalitarian? Aren't they implicitly declaring themselves to be better than all the non-egalitarian halachists before them and around them? Some, of course, are not implicit about this at all; they openly attack "the rabbinical establishment" or "the men who decide the halacha" - pick your derisory phrase. Is this the attitude of a halachic community?

Does a halachic community institute radical changes in practice despite the lack of any rabbinical support? That's what Shira Hadasha did, instituting women's aliyot on the basis of Mendel Shapiro's theoretical analysis, even though he opposed their implementation and R' Henkin also ruled against them. If anything, for an Orthodox community to implement changes in ritual, it must have rabbinical support for them; otherwise, who decides where to stop? A conventional shul can get along without a rabbi most of the time, since the rituals are familiar to all. An innovative shul requires rabbinical guidance, or it will quickly slide past the boundaries of halacha, by anyone's standards.

No doubt I will regret these generalizations, but those attracted by "halachic egalitarianism" seem to fall into a few broad categories: Orthodox women who have stopped going to shul because they find the experience so unpleasant; ba'alei (mostly ba'alot) teshuva, many of whom grew up in non-Orthodox communities and miss participating in synagogue rituals; liberal academics and intellectuals who look down on rabbis; political activists with an axe to grind; laymen without much halachic knowledge, who assume that if an "Orthodox" shul does something, it must be okay; and non-Orthodox congregants without a convenient Conservative synagogue. Many of them never approach a rabbi with a halachic question, unless perhaps they know the answer in advance. (One audience questioner at the Yedidya event said just that.)

As a rule, there is a correlation between an individual's level of halachic learning and their reluctance to implement radical changes. This is my sense of the group in my community. The most enthusiastic supporters of egalitarianism readily admit how little they know about the halachic issues. They talk about having a process of community learning to decide what practices to adopt. But if they are aware of their lack of learning, why not do the obvious, and consult someone with an established record of halachic knowledge: An expert rabbi!

Addressing legitimate gripes
So what is there to do? Women have legitimate gripes with many current synagogues, particularly in Israel. Often, the women's section is a cramped afterthought, with a nearly-solid mechitza which prevents them from even watching the service as spectators. Often, there are no adequate facilities for childcare, forcing someone to stay home with them. Often, many of the men are snide and derisive towards women who take davening seriously and care about Jewish learning.

None of this is necessary. Making shul a comfortable, accommodating place for women is itself a legitimate concern, and it can easily be accomplished without breaking the boundaries of halacha. (In our community, it would also address the main concerns of about half of the group looking to start a new congregation.)

An afterword
The fight over aliyot for women is just gearing up. Just a handful of "Orthodox" congregations have introduced them, and just within the last couple of years. Which way Yedidya falls will make a loud noise. If Yedidya adopts aliyot for women, will that constitute a mainstream endorsement of the practice, accelerating its penetration into the modern Orthodox community? Or will it simply marginalize Yedidya, moving it firmly beyond the fringes of Orthodoxy?

However this develops, it's hard to avoid asking whether Edah was acting responsibly in publishing Mendel Shapiro's original essay and the responses to it. Surely it was clear that a controversial article in an English-language lay publication would be widely distributed, and that not everyone would have the wisdom to distinguish between a theoretical exploration and practical psak. Surely the members of the editorial board know the difference between what R' Henkin calls the "pure" halacha and psak. If the objective was theoretical rather than practical, shouldn't the debate have taken place in a Torah journal, not a popular forum?

I also remain at a loss to explain R' Sperber's position. Granting his sincerity in the halachic analysis he espouses, is it reponsible for him to publicly endorse the adoption of radical, unprecedented changes in ritual, in opposition to every mainstream Orthodox authority? Is he unaware of the seriousness of the objections or simply indifferent to them? Is he not concerned for the potential social turmoil?

Among the group in our community, my sense is that, while about half are excited by the idea of "halachic egalitarianism", most are also aware of its risks. In practice, I doubt they will adopt the radical proposals for fear of breaking too far from the Orthodox community. I find it ironic that they are more concerned about this than R' Sperber or Edah seem to be.

(The next post on this topic can be found here.)

Dropping like black flies

Ghetto's Green
Hasidic Rebbele

Following on the heels of Bnei Levi

Hassidic bloggers seem to have a stunningly short half-life.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

And the winning brisket is...

The Washington Post reports on a Jewish cooking contest held by Temple Beth El of Alexandria, Virginia, a Reform congregation. The two categories: brisket and kugel. The reporter is rapturous:
Brisket and kugel are the cultural equivalents of fried chicken and biscuits. For those unfamiliar with Jewish cooking, the meat and starch perform a kind of Gene Kelly-Debbie Reynolds routine. They belong together. Done right, brisket glides from muscled customer to tender fellow, while kugel serves as dependable and versatile sidekick. The dishes have become a little heavy to eat often, by today's standards. But they continue to grace Sabbath and holiday platters. The leftovers are to die for.

Unsurprising for a Reform community, keeping kosher seems to have been a low priority:
"I was supposed to cook a brisket today, but Giant had run out of them," said kugel contender Leslie Haemer of Alexandria.

Out of towners take note: Giant is an unlikely place to shop for kosher brisket. In fact, last I heard there were no kosher butchers in northern Virginia.

But that's not to say they aren't devoted to tradition:
Kingstowne resident Ted Exstein displayed his platter next to his family's Sabbath wine cup and candlesticks on an heirloom tablecloth.

And they certainly take Shabbos seriously:
Az me est Shabbes kugel, iz men di gantseh vokh zat. Goodman has chosen to interpret that phrase with a generosity of spirit: To eat a delicious kugel on the Sabbath will fill you with a sense of warmth, comfort and joy -- a feeling that, ideally, will remain with you until the next Sabbath, and the next kugel.

Yes, I think I saw that in the Mishnah Berurah.

Some winning recipes are here. But you'd have to serve the kugels at kiddush, it seems:
...certainly neither of the kugels would normally be served with a meat meal in a kosher home, since they are made with dairy products.

It doesn't say whether or not the milchig kugels were all judged before the briskets, but clearly they deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

But why was the statue in a tyre?

Daily Star (Lebanon):
Second attack destroys statue of Hafez Assad in Tyre
The president of the Committee for Immortalizing Martyr Hafez Assad, Hussein Dakhlallah, accused the Israelis of perpetrating the attack.

"Dirty Israeli hands attacked the statue and those hands will be cut off for committing this stupid act," he said.

No word on whether they suspect any of the anti-disengagement protestors who blocked Israel's vital Ayalon Highway yesterday by burning tyres.

Incidentally, if Hafez Assad is a martyr, does that mean they think Israelis killed him too?

Of course, we'll know things have really changed the day we see statues of Assad coming down in Syria. (Bimhera biyamenu.)

And before you Americans pick on my spelling, be aware that it's correct in British English!

Ritual prayer, personal prayer

Anyone who davens regularly has thought about the paradox of ritualized prayer. We pray at fixed times from fixed texts, many of them virtually unchanged for millennia. Day after day I mumble through the same paragraphs, my mind rarely even aware of what my lips are doing. How can we reconcile that with the intensely personal character of prayer? Shouldn't it be between me and God? Shouldn't I just spill my guts in the most intimate way, each word an expression of my individual character and my current relationship with God?

Of course, even within the structure of Jewish prayer there is room for individual expression. This morning, I felt the need for just that. There was something specific and personal I needed to pray for. So, at the appropriate point in the Shema Koleinu blessing, I paused to insert my own request.

And I felt a bit foolish.

I'm fluent in Hebrew and comfortably familiar with Jewish texts. But try as I may, my words came out sounding silly. Awkward. Either too conversational or too formal. Random bursts of phrases from classical prayers stammered out haltingly between glaring pauses and clumsy segues. None of the grace and poetry of the rabbinically-composed blessings, none of the fluency of reciting familiar language, none of the connection to generations past through unchanging texts. Who did I think I was, trying to pray in my own words? Would I stand before a king stammering and improvising?

I don't regret making the effort. I've done so before, and I intend to do again. It is humbling, and renews my appreciation of the fixity of our prayer ritual.

Fixed, traditional texts actually facilitate our personal prayers, by expressing many of our personal needs in language of a sort most of us can only dream of composing ourselves. Meanwhile, it connects us to our forefathers and our ancient tradition, as well as to other Jews in our community and the world.

The real problem isn't with the ritualization of the prayer service. It's with the mindless way I usually mumble through it.

May all our prayers be answered speedily.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Spiffy new disclaimer

If you're wondering about the new disclaimer at the top of this page, it's meant to be seasonal. I'm getting an increasing number of visitors who came searching for "chametz", and I expect that only to increase as Pesach approaches.

Currently, this site is the number one Google search result for "chametz". Sad but true. And I feel a bit guilty about it. Just a bit, mind you.

So let me again remind chametz-searchers that you can find out more about Passover here and chametz here, and if you're curious why I chose such an utterly irrelevant title, you can read my lame explanation here.

I expect to take down the disclaimer around May 1. Meanwhile, have a happy Purim!

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Pre-Purim Jewish Raves

Latest Jewish Raves... Pre-Purim Edition

13/14 0:00 AM Israellycool: Polls open: Adar I or Adar II?
13/14 0:00 AM Bloghead: My Dad and I run the überblog. Keep drooling!
13/14 0:00 AM AJHistory by Menachem Butler: Rabbi Feivel Q. Brockowitz, "Lone Mohel" of Sioux City, 1927-1929
13/14 0:00 AM The Godol Hador: Flotsam-Jetsons Theory
13/14 0:00 AM Hirhurim - Musings: New Book: Introduction to a Prolegomenon to the Preliminary Study of Normative Halakhic Theology
13/14 0:00 AM A Simple Jew: What Am I Talking About?
13/14 0:00 AM Life in the Ghetto: New shul mattirs Eiruv, assurs Tube - how will I get to the shidduch?
13/14 0:00 AM YudelLine: YudelLine - The new Protocols?
13/14 0:00 AM Cross-Currents: Real Hareidim don't use the Internet
13/14 0:00 AM jewishwhistleblower: Confessed scumbag sheltering pedophilic gangsters in rabbinical corruption case... I forget which...
13/14 0:00 AM Blog in Dm: Forgettable new release by Shoeshine Boys
13/14 0:00 AM Rua da Judiaria: Eu não falo o português
13/14 0:00 AM The Town Crier: Waaaaaaaaahhhhhh! Boohoohooo! Sob, sob, sob...
13/14 0:00 AM Smooth Stone: Israel is in even worse danger than last time Israel was in danger
13/14 0:00 AM Chayyei Sarah: SJF, 32, MO blogging journalist, ISO SJM blogger who isn't a jerk and who I haven't already been set up with
13/14 0:00 AM Soccer Dad: Kayin and Heveil - was it terrorism? Mayor O'Malley says no!
13/14 0:00 AM //Comment This Out: C code. C code run. Run, code, run!
13/14 0:00 AM Dov Bear: Ha! Bush sucks! Down with GOP Jews!
13/14 0:00 AM News for Members of the Tribe: HAMAN, AHASUERUS ACCUSED OF ANTI-SEMITISM
13/14 0:00 AM Mis-Nagid: You don't really believe this Torah nonsense, do you?
13/14 0:00 AM Cong Ahavas Yisroel of Kew Gardens Hills: Mazal Tov on Disengagement: Hindenburg and Messerschmidt
13/14 0:00 AM FailedMessiah.com: EXCLUSIVE: Lubavitcher Rebbe Is Still Dead!

(With apologies to all.... Purim headlines I missed are welcome in the comments!)

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Tefillin: A mitzvah and an acupuncture technique!

I have much more experience with tefillin (six times a week, 21 years) than acupuncture (never), so I can't evaluate Dr. Steven Schram's research. He is the author of "Tefillin: An Ancient Acupuncture Point Prescription for Mental Clarity" (PDF), a 2002 article for the Journal of Chinese Medicine.

The paper features diagrams of tefillin-laying and explanations of the various acupuncture points they stimulate.

Some excerpts:
The acknowledged purpose of the tefillin is to raise spiritual consciousness of the men who wear it. If we examine where the knots and wrappings are placed from a TCM point of view, it appears that the tefillin and wraps form a potent acupuncture point formula focused on the Governing vessel (Du Mai) and aimed at elevating the spirit and clearing the mind.

I explored the four major variations in wrapping procedures: Chassidic, Sefardim, Sefard, and Ashkenazi. By experimenting on myself with these different wrapping procedures, I was able to map out the significant acupuncture points that are stimulated through the procedure.

If someone handed an acupuncturist the above point formula and asked what was being treated, there is little doubt that mental and shen issues would be a strong part of the pattern. What is surprising is that such a point formula would be found in a non-Chinese procedure that has been continuously practised for many thousands of years. It may be that the originators of the tefillin ritual had some inkling of its special effects, even though they may have lacked the depth and specific knowledge we have today.

Regardless of the belief system behind the procedure, it seems clear that putting on tefillin is a unique way of stimulating a very precise set of acupuncture points that appears designed to clear the mind and harmonise the spirit.

In an article for the layman, "Super Charge Your T'fillin: The Secret's in the Wrap" (PDF), Dr. Schram explains how precisely to wrap your tefillin to best stimulate the acupuncture points:
It is important to understand that acupuncture points have very specific locations, and you must be exactly on the point for it to be stimulated. A quarter inch off the position results in missing that point. This means that you must remain aware of where you wrap the retzuah and you must do it carefully. To get the greatest benefit, (because the effects of point stimulation are cumulative), you should wrap exactly the same way every time you don T'fillin.

Donning T'fillin remains a great spiritual mitzvah based on a Torah commandment going back over 3300 years. Because the information presented in this paper is in full accordance with the various Halachic and traditional guidelines, there should be no barrier to the inclusion and application of this knowledge to your ritual use of T'fillin. By stimulating the acupuncture points that already lie along the path of the retzuah, you can bring about a heightened mental clarity to your prayers. The result of doing this can only enhance your mental and spiritual experience, allowing you to fulfill the Mitzvah to its highest degree.

To think all these years I've been receiving daily acupressure treatment without knowing it!

Tuesday, March 08, 2005


I've learned a new word from Rich Lowry, who writes about how certain left-wingers have been coping with the recent spate of good news from the Middle East:
Schadenfreude has faded into its happiness-hating opposite, gluckschmerz. Liberal journalist Kurt Andersen has written in New York magazine of the guilty "pleasure liberals took in bad news from Iraq, which seemed sure to hurt the administration." According to Andersen, the successful Iraqi elections changed the mood. For Bush critics, this inspiring event was "unexpectedly unsettling," since they so "hat[ed] the idea of a victory presided over by the Bush team."

Gluckschmerz. Lightly rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? Words like that almost make German seem human. (If only my keyboard had an umlaut.)

Mark Twain, however, thought the German language was quite awful, as he demonstrates with his typical dry humor.

Laughing at the misfortunes of German speakers, though, would clearly be schadenfreude.

Update: Found an umlaut! Glückschmerz. Isn't that better? According to Wikipedia, without the umlaut the word should be spelled Glueckschmerz.

I'm starting to wonder if it's a real word, though. Google finds only a handful of hits for any of the spellings, none of them on German-language pages. Sounds fishy.

The Great Firewall of China

This week's episode of the BBC World Service's technology program, Go Digital, reports on the state of the Internet in China. Bloggers are burgeoning - so long as they avoid politics.

The central government actively censors content and prosecutes violators, while blocking unacceptable sites from outside China - including, among many, Blogspot. On the plus side, for the first time the government has a window into events in peripheral regions. A poor flow of information about the country to the government is one of those minor drawbacks of totalitarianism....

So if you're reading this in China, better watch your back!

The show can be accessed on video or audio.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Our neighbors to the north

It's been disconcerting lately to see the world press focusing on internal events in Lebanon and its relationship with Syria, with Israel hardly meriting a mention. I thought we were supposed to be the center of world attention! Who said they could generate news without us?

Sunday, March 06, 2005

You think Daf Yomi is fast-paced?

Daf Yomi may be relatively new, but the idea of regularly reviewing a major Jewish work on a fixed cycle dates back at least 450 years to the publication of the Shulchan Aruch. In his introduction, Rav Yosef Karo writes that he has divided the text into thirty sections to facilitate regular review. By reviewing one section a day, one can complete all of halacha once a month.

I've never seen a modern edition of Shulchan Aruch with those divisions, and I'm curious to know what happened to them. Even without the Rama and later commentators, 30 days seems lightning fast to review the Shulchan Aruch, even for someone (unlike me) who's studied it all before.

The modern Halacha Yomis cycle takes four years, and that's just for Orach Chayim, the first of the four volumes of Shulchan Aruch. To get through it in a month one would have to cover not three halachot a day, but 144! And that's before even opening Yoreh Deah.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Women and communal Torah reading - III

(Previous posts on this topic can be found below: here, here, and here.)

Reflections and reactions

I've summarized the arguments and the discussion. Now it's my turn.

Perhaps surprisingly, R' Henkin and R' Sperber differ little in their halachic analyses. R' Henkin rejects R' Sperber's application of kevod habriot, but that is not essential to the case for the permissibility of women's aliyot. R' Henkin tacitly accepts that case - perhaps he even originated it - and certainly does not rule that aliyot for women are forbidden by halacha.

I see two main disagreements between them, one about the wisdom of such a move, and the other about halachic methodology. (To some extent here, I'm putting words into their mouths. I hope they don't mind.)

Is it the right thing to do?
R' Sperber argues that too many Orthodox women today are frustrated by the limitations on their role in communal ritual, in particular by the gap between that restricted role and their advanced levels of education in Jewish as well as secular studies. Some leave Orthodoxy entirely, either for other movements or for nonobservance. Others (from my personal observation) harbor a bitter resentment against the "Orthodox establishment", or the "men who decide the halacha", or whatever derisory term they prefer. They may believe that halacha is being manipulated to suppress women's rights. Many stop going to shul since they find it makes them angry. I can only imagine how many of them pass on such attitudes to their children.

In such a setting, R' Sperber argues, rabbis and communities must go out of their way to accommodate the needs of such women to the maximum extent allowed by halacha.

R' Henkin, meanwhile, may well be fully aware of the issues motivating R' Sperber, and sympathetic to accommodating them. He is, however, concerned about the social consequences of women's aliyot, both for communities which adopt them and for the broader Orthodox community. Will they be accepted as Orthodox communities, and their members as Orthodox Jews? There may be a handful of modern Orthodox intellectuals and activists who read The Edah Journal and understand the halachic case for women's aliyot, but the Orthodox masses, however halachically literate, do not.

I can see the guests at the Shabbat table: "You give women aliyot? I see.... But you do still keep kosher, right? Can you pass me the green salad and some tap water please? No, no cholent - another slice of challah please! Oh, you wouldn't happen to have disposable plates I could use?"

Jewish practice is as much about cultural norms as halachic theory. This is especially true regarding the status of women. How many Orthodox women hold a zimun when they bench in a group, even though halacha clearly permits it? How many Orthodox women think (wrongly) they're not allowed to make kiddush even for themselves, let alone for their families? To do otherwise goes against a lifetime of upbringing, halacha or no halacha.

Were there no non-Orthodox movements bearing the banner of halachic flexibility, if not irrelevancy, it might not matter what practices were adopted by an odd Orthodox community. In the existing social context, though, such a community risks being viewed as having crossed the line to join the non-Orthodox. Whatever the actual halacha may be.

Must we permit the permissible?
Regarding halachic methodology, R' Sperber argues that what halacha permits is ipso facto permissible. Rabbis, at least today, have no authority to forbid the permissible. Furthermore, where there are benefits to society from a permissible practice, it should be actively supported. Certainly, being Orthodox means being true to the halacha, no more and no less. There are no other legitimate criteria.

Despite his awareness of the distinctions betwen a posek and a talmid chacham, R' Sperber had no reluctance at the Yedidya event to give psak, including specific halachic guidelines on how to implement women's aliyot or women's prayer groups. I can only conclude that he sees halacha as determined solely by the sources, uncontaminated by the "public policy" considerations a posek may incorporate.

R' Henkin, however, feels that not everything permitted by halacha should necessarily be implemented. There is such a thing as "halacha v'ein morin kein" - it is the halacha, but we don't rule that way in public. As a posek, his role is not just to analyze the halachic facts, but to assess the effects of a ruling on society.

To a certain extent, Orthodoxy is defined not just by the halacha, but also by the great reluctance to change Jewish rituals. Thus, prudence is called for in implementing controversial changes to deeply-entrenched rituals. Innovation is not a good in its own right. It must yield benefits at least as great as its risk. Hence he is willing to show more flexibility in a private setting than in synagogue services. Aliyot for women may not be forbidden, but neither are they wise, and therefore they should remain no more than an interesting chapter in theoretical halacha.

Orthodox or not?
Unlike when the original essays were published in 2001, R' Henkin's contention that a congregation adopting aliyot for women will not be considered Orthodox is no longer a theoretical proposition. Kehillat Shira Hadasha has been around for a couple of years now. Whether or not it is considered Orthodox is an empirical question - and probably a very subjective one. Many prominent community members work in Jewish education, and I understand they have not encountered sanctions due to their involvement in the controversial congregation.

It may yet be too soon to assess R' Henkin's assertion conclusively. I'd be curious to hear from those in and around the Shira Hadasha community, though. Is it possible to adopt such unconventional practices without being rejected by the mainstream Orthodox community?

Continued ambivalence
Personally, I admit to continued ambivalence about this. On the one hand, I have a deep sense of the distress facing many professional, educated, modern Orthodox women (my wife included). Halacha is a system of law; why should we be deterred from acting in ways it permits - especially in the face of genuine, sincere motivations? (That's why, for example, my wife makes kiddush at Friday night dinner; according to the Aruch Hashulchan, it's even preferable in some circumstances.)

Yet, the conservative (small-c) in me is skeptical of deliberate social change. The Law of Unintended Consequences is real. Can such a community maintain its fidelity to halacha over time, without succumbing to the temptations of constant reinterpretation? Will women continue to feel frustrated by their exclusion from rituals no amount of halachic argumentation can allow, such as leading Mussaf or Hallel? Will they discover, as many men do, that leading the services or receiving an aliyah is not necessarily a spiritual experience, and often far from it?

Maybe they'd be better off learning Daf Yomi?

Update (Mar. 6): The Forward reported on the phenomenon in Sept. 2002, including reactions from within the modern Orthodox community. The article apparently preceded R' Sperber's endorsement of the practice.

Update (Mar. 8): Miriam of Bloghead calls on congregations to just do it; the comments on that post are quite feisty. Gil from Hirhurim summarizes the problems with R' Sperber's position, and notes that the Yedidya panel did not include anyone who unequivocally opposes aliyot for women. In this comment, Shira (Leibowitz) Schmidt reports that "A serious discussion refuting Rabbis Henkin, Shapiro and Sperber was written by Professor Eliav Shochetman and will appear in the coming issue of the Torah journal Sinai (Hebrew, published by Mossad Harav Kook)."

I don't currently plan to address this topic further unless there are new developments.

(The next post on this topic can be found here.)

Daf Yomi: The enduring spirit of the Jewish people!

I have both great respect - and a dose of jealousy - for anyone who has finished the Daf Yomi cycle, and substantial skepticism as to the practical value for most participants of learning Talmud by drinking from a fire hose. But, of all the current wave of Daf Yomi adulation, the worst was dished out this morning by the editorialists of the Jerusalem Post, of all people:
The next step would be to see the growth of daf yomi, or some form of similarly dedicated Talmud study, spread outside of traditional Orthodox circles, and into the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

In recent years, there has been a growing realization among Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist leaders, and even Jewish educators without specific affiliation, that exposing their constituents directly to the study of Judaism's fundamental texts is essential to elevating their basic Jewish literacy. Talmudic study in some form or another is no less essential to Jewish cultural life than synagogue attendance, no matter at what level of Jewish observance.

Non-Orthodox Jewish educational institutions should take the daf yomi example as an inspiration for their own efforts to make the study of Jewish texts more accessible and inspirational to a broader audience. Perhaps it should also motivate them to lend greater support to such projects as the Steinsaltz English translation of the Talmud, which was expressly designed to reach beyond the Orthodox world, and still awaits completion.

Are they serious? Too many Orthodox Jews in the diaspora can barely read a page of Hebrew, let alone Talmud. What value can there possibly be to Talmud study for audiences who are nearly ignorant about the Chumash?

All Jews should have some exposure to Talmud, as a basic matter of cultural literacy. It is one of our founding texts. But regular Talmud study for the Jewish masses must surely take a back seat to more fundamental study.

"A daf is the instrument of our survival in today's stormy seas," said Rabbi Shapiro a century ago. And the survival of daf yomi itself, through each unbroken cycle, testifies to the enduring spirit of the Jewish people.

The Jewish spirit is about Daf Yomi? Not Shabbat or prayer? Not Chumash or Rambam? Get a grip, folks.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Women and communal Torah reading - II

(Previous posts on this topic can be found immediately below, here and here.)

The Discussion at Yedidya

This was my first visit to Kehillat Yedidya in Jerusalem, probably easiest to describe as a liberal Orthodox congregation. Yedidya, some 25 years old, is known for its pioneering role in expanding the participation of women, within the framework of halacha. In their words, for example, "Many years ago, after much halakhic debate, Yedidya decided to permit women to read from the Torah during a women's Torah reading and Bat Mitzvahs, to allow women to read the megillot during holiday services and to encourage women to offer sermons and Torah discussions on Shabbat and holidays."

Since the recent establishment of Kehillat Shira Hadasha, with aliyot and Torah reading by women in the regular minyan based on Mendel Shapiro's arguments, Yedidya has, perhaps for the first time, not been the envelope-pushers in the Orthodox community. This was, I gather, part of the motivation for the event last Motza'ei Shabbat: to help the congregation decide whether to adopt these latest innovations. The concern was expressed that they wished to remain firmly within the Orthodox community, to maintain their standing and influence in the Orthodox world, rather than risk being rejected and marginalized as beyond the limits of Orthodoxy.

This was also my first opportunity to hear either Rabbi Henkin or Rabbi Sperber speak. It was a privilege and a pleasure. They addressed the issues directly, without invective or rhetoric. The rabbis clearly had great respect for each other, and the entire discussion was conducted with dignity.

I took only sparse notes, so most of what I write here is reconstructed from memory. I hope I have faithfully summarized the views expressed. Some of the points I mention may have been stated in response to audience questions after the initial presentations.

The evening was videotaped, and I assume it is possible to obtain a copy from Kehillat Yedidya.

Rabbi Sperber spoke first (after the moderator's introduction), in the clear, measured tones of a fluent lecturer. He mostly recapped the arguments from his essay; I'd mostly like to pick out some points I don't believe he has addressed in writing.
  • He objected to R' Henkin's assertion that a community adopting women's aliyot would not be considered Orthodox; I don't recall the precise objection, but it was presumably along the lines that the only legitimate criterion for Orthodoxy is fidelity to halacha.

  • R' Sperber suggested that the difference between a posek (halachic decisor) and a talmid chacham (scholar) is that, as a scholar, he is interested in the historical development of halacha, not just its current state. He noted that archeological evidence from ancient Greece indicates that women had significant roles in the leadership of synagogues, contrary to the Rambam's ruling (barring women from most positions of communal leadership). His point was that the role of women in Jewish society has undergone many shifts, and should be seen in a societal context rather than as a fixed element.

  • The all-important baraita reads: "Everyone can be counted towards the seven, even a child and even a woman, but the sages said a woman should not read the Torah because of the dignity of the congregation." There are two layers here, one permitting women's participation in principle and one rejecting it in practice. This indicates that originally, a woman could be called to the Torah, and perhaps this was even the practice, until the sages decided it was inappropriate. Certainly, women's participation is not intrinsically invalid; its legitimacy is conditional on a social consideration.

  • R' Sperber noted that, everywhere it appears in the Talmud, the phrase "but the sages said..." is an advisory statement, not a statement of halacha. (I can't remember if he attributed this insight to R' Henkin; in any case, R' Henkin confirmed it and extended it to similar language in Rambam.) Thus, while the sages advised that women not read the Torah in public out of a concern for communal dignity, they did not forbid such behavior by a binding enactment. It does not even rise to the level of a takana derabbanan.

  • Furthermore, as the reason for the sages' enactment (or advice) is given, and as that reason (to avoid embarrassing the illiterate men) does not apply to our contemporary communities, the restriction on women's aliyot should no longer be applicable either.

  • Human dignity (kevod habriot) can at times override even a Torah-level obligation. In this case the severe frustration and distress felt by many women due to their exclusion from the synagogue ritual should surely take precedence over what is at most a rabbinic enactment, probably only rabbinic advice.

  • Many of these women are driven by their sense of exclusion into the arms of non-halachic streams of Judaism. We would be better served to accommodate their needs, especially as halacha permits it.

  • Regarding the reluctance to change established practice, he emphasized a statement by R' Kook, also cited in his essay: "There is no need for concern about permitting something that is permissible according to the law of the Torah, even if in practice there was no previous custom to permit it."

  • Aside from the Torah reading, he said women should be allowed to lead the congregation in any parts of the service which do not require a sheliach tzibur, in which the leader's function is only to set the pace of the prayers and focus communal attention, not to fulfill a halachic obligation. This would include, for example, pesukei d'zimra and kabbalat Shabbat.

  • He emphasized repeatedly that such practices must not be introduced in such a way as to cause division or antagonism within a community. This generally means a congregation must be established with the express purpose of adopting such practices, rather than introducing them into an existing congregation.

  • Establishing a new congregation in an existing town is not a problem, even if other congregations in town would object to such practices, as there are already diverse congregations in most communities which follow different forms of ritual.

Rabbi Henkin followed. Remaining seated at the desk, he spoke more briefly, mostly in rapid verbal bursts which were at times hard to follow. He apologized for being tired and seemed to have some sort of physical tic or habit. He shifted between cradling his cheeks between his hands and swaying his head back and forth past the microphone, neither of which enhanced his verbal clarity. Some of his points:
  • He noted that he is in the odd position of disagreeing with his own statements, as this entire discussion traces back to an insight of his. It was he who pointed out to Mendel Shapiro that the issue of kevod hatzibbur should be inapplicable now that we have a single ba'al kri'ah, and the oleh only makes the brachot. Yet he still maintains that aliyot for women should not be adopted.

  • R' Sperber is applying the concept of kevod habriot, human dignity, to realms to which it does not legitimately apply, much as the Israeli Supreme Court has done in its legislative interpretation. He is overreaching.

  • His statement that a community which adopts aliyot for women will not be considered Orthodox was an observation about social realities, not necessarily an expression of his personal preferences. It is not that he believes such a community should not be considered Orthodox, just that in fact it will have removed itself from the Orthodox community.

  • He rejected the suggestion that a posek is not interested in history; on the contrary. The difference between a posek and a talmid chacham, in his view, is that a posek must be concerned not just with the halachic sources, but also with the timing of a decision and its acceptability in society. He is certainly not averse to accommodating changes in the status of women where it seems appropriate, such as the saying of kaddish and sheva berachot.

  • One point which gives him pause as a posek is that we have no evidence that women have ever received aliyot, even though there have been circumstances which would be thought to warrant them. The Maharam MeRuttenburg famously ruled that in a town with only cohanim, a cohen should be given the first two aliyot, with the remainder given to women. This is based on the argument that the impugning of a cohen's reputation is more severe than kevod hatzibbur. Yet, though there have been numerous cases in history of towns with only cohanim, we have no record of women being given aliyot. This may indicate that there are other reasons to refrain from such practices.

  • R' Henkin mentioned an insight which came to him in recent weeks regarding women's obligation in hearing the Megilla. (I hope I understood him correctly.) While most rishonim (Rashi, Rambam) rule like the Gemara that men and women are equally obligated, and thus women can read the Megilla for men, the Behag rules that women have a lesser obligation and cannot read for men. Some (I missed who) have suggested that women were not allowed to read the Megilla for men because they were not allowed to read the Torah for men; allowing them to read the Megilla would be confusing and might lead to a situation where they read the Torah too.

    The difficulty with this is that the Purim story took place at least 20 years before the time of Ezra, who established our current practice of public Torah readings. So how could women be restricted from reading the Megilla based on the rules for Torah reading, when the Torah reading had yet to be enacted?

    R' Henkin suggested that this may indicate that the restriction on women reading the Torah may date back to an even earlier tradition of public Torah reading, from the time of the First Temple - and that even then women were barred from reading in public. The Megilla reading was then based on this practice.

    If this is so, he said, this offers a rare glimpse into the early origins of a rabbinic enactment generally assumed to be of much later provenance. It may imply that the restriction on women's aliyot is far more ancient than usually assumed.

Both rabbis rejected the suggestion that women's aliyot may be subject to kol isha, the bar on women's singing in the presence of men, though R' Henkin noted that a minority halachic opinion would apply kol isha to such circumstances.

The moderator made reference to a satire on halachic innovation making its rounds on the Internet. R' Henkin identified it as having appeared on Cross-Currents. So it seems safe to conclude that he is a blog reader!

That's enough for now. I hope to follow up again with some personal reflections.

(The next post on this topic can be found here.)