A Second Opinion on Second Opinions

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Dear Rabbi Klapper,

I am an American student spending a second consecutive “gap year” in Israel.  At the beginning of my shana aleph I called my shul rabbi about observing yom tov sheini.  He told me that his stance is to keep two days. I felt it was anti-halakhic for me to ask a rabbi in Israel who I knew would tell me one day, so I followed the opinion of my shul rabbi for all of the chagim.

This year I am increasingly resentful about keeping two days. The second day does not feel like yom tov, and because I have to find places where I can observe both days, the options for where I can go are limited. The limited options thereby impact the first day of chag as well, which means that both days suffer.

I am contemplating asking a different rabbi (whose position I don’t know) for a second opinion.  Can I?

Thank you!
G’mar chasimah tovah,
Yana Tzviyah

Dear Yana,

It sounds to me like your shul rabbi was properly careful not to pasken for you – he told you his stance, not what you must do.  Perhaps (to his great credit) he realizes that a serious gap year in Israel is an enormously maturing experience, in which young people find new mentors and role models, and that it would be appropriate for him to disclaim any ongoing authority over your religious life, even if you were willing to grant it to him.

In any case, it doesn’t sound like you asked him for a life-psak, but rather for term-limited guidance.  I don’t believe that a psak could be binding on you for a shanah bet you had not yet committed to.  Finally, as he and you are both aware, many of those who hold “two days” in principle would not apply that psak to a student spending a second consecutive year in Israel, especially if she had stayed in Israel for all the regalim.

So yes, I believe you can ask for a second opinion.

That’s the easy part.

The harder part is:  What should you do next?

You mention that you “felt it was anti-halakhic for me to ask a rabbi in Israel who I knew would tell me ‘one day’”.  The colloquial term for this is “shitah-shopping”, and I validate your sense that it lacks integrity.

On the other hand, what are your other choices?

You say that you’re considering asking a second rabbi, whose opinion you don’t yet know, for an opinion. I think you mean that you’re looking for a rabbi to ask whose opinion you don’t know, even if he wouldn’t otherwise be your first choice.  

That does seem better at first glance, but I’m not convinced that it is pointful.  If you ask for advice rather than a psak, you’re really just playing a game, as you’ll keep asking until someone gives you the “one day” answer.  And if you ask for psak, why is it religiously edifying to play halakhic roulette? Why should the answer of this particular rabbi be binding on you, if you have no particular reason to live within his subjective vision of Halakhah generally, or of yom tov or Israel/galut issues particularly? [1]

Here it may be useful for me to share an element of my halakhic autobiography.

Some years ago, an engaged SBM alum called me with “the birth control” sheilah; could he and his fiancée plan to use contraception for the opening year of marriage, so that she could finish her degree before dealing with childcare?  He reminded me that in SBM I had argued that requiring couples to ask for a heter (formal halakhic permission) made them understand the seriousness of the question better, even when they knew that a heter would be forthcoming if they asked.  But he said that it wasn’t working for him that way – it felt like he was manipulating the system by calling me, especially as he did not call me often for psak.  

His self-description still reverberates for me.  It changed my approach to the birth-control issue specifically, and made me rethink the whole question of how to deal with sheilot when both I and the shoeil are aware of a variety of contradictory answers, each held by numerous reputable poskim.  Certainly that is the case with regard to your issue – both you and I know that very great halakhists hold “two days”, “one day”, and even the misleadingly named “one and a half days” position (which seeks to avoid yom tov prohibitions while davening chol prayers etc.).    

Here a second element of halakhic autobiography is relevant.  I spent a year of YU Semikhah at the Gruss Center in Yerushalayim, when I was 22 and had just about no experience of halakhic decision-making.   I faced the same issue as you, and ended up following the “1.5 day” position out of kavod for Rav Lichtenstein zt”l’s well-known position. [2]  I was aware that Rav Amital zt”l held “1 day”, but in my family circles everyone held two days.  There was a certain transgressive thrill in visiting with my charedi American relatives at their hotel on Yom Tov Sheni in weekday clothes; I’m not sure I could have dealt with doing melakhah in front of them.

7 years later, I came back to Israel for Pesach as a newlywed.  My wife’s family was in Israel for the year, keeping one day. [3]  Deborah, my wife, very much wanted to do the same, which was also the position she had followed during her gap year.  

I was very uncomfortable changing from Rav Lichtenstein’s view, even though I had never found it intellectually convincing – indeed, Rav Lichtenstein did not present it as intellectually coherent, but rather as a gesture of respect to the great poskim who held 2 days.  But my in-laws bought me my first Bar Ilan Responsa Project CD on erev Pesach, and I very much wanted to play with my new toy.  So I had my sister-in-law (who was keeping one day) type the queries in for me on the second day.  In the end I became convinced that the one-day position was absolutely correct (see http://torahleadership.org/categories/yom_tov_sheni.pdf), and I paskened accordingly the week after we returned home, for someone else.  (My wife is still upset about this. [4])

This was perhaps the first time that I had paskened for someone else on the basis of my own interpretation of primary sources.  I think I was willing to do it because there was a clear safety net.  Even if my readings were completely mistaken, there was no doubt that the outcome was respectable.  

The price of that safety net was the risk of arrogance – wasn’t it chutzpah to believe that I had compelling evidence on an issue on which far greater minds than mine had been debating for hundreds of years?  But I thought (perhaps mistakenly) that I had genuinely new arguments, and also evidence that had been overlooked by or unavailable to many poskim.  Moreover, this evidence supported the intuition that Rav Lichtenstein had expressed, as a tradition from his rebbe the Rav, as a tradition from his grandfather Rav Chaim Brisker, that the one-day position was correct. [5]

I therefore encourage you to read and understand an article (or as many articles as you can) that lay out the technical halakhic issues well, and that enable(s) you to understand what fundamentally drives each position, or to at least understand one of the key drivers for each position.  I suggest also that you talk through the non-halakhic issues with someone (or many people) whose religious insight you trust.  If you do both of these, I think that this can be an opportunity for you, as it was for me, to dip a toe in the sea of serious psak.

I want to make clear, though, that yom tov sheni in Israel belongs to a limited class of cases, in which (at least within the Religious Zionist community) multiple great poskim legitimate each of a set of contradictory positions, and maintain their positions in full awareness of each other’s critiques.  Not every intellectually plausible halakhic argument can be used as the basis for action; in order to justify action, it also needs to be acknowledged as a basis for action by people with halakhic authority, aka poskim. [6]  Nothing I say here contradicts or is even in tension with that.  

At the same time, I am not a fan of the pure “aseh lekha rav” model, which requires everyone to pick a single halakhic authority and following them consistently.  

First, having a rav does not remove anyone’s moral and spiritual responsibility for their own decisions.  If the posek you first pick turns out to be a “bad shiddukh”, whether for subjective or objective reasons, you must find someone better for you.  (And I believe that your first posek’s decisions will not bind you, especially if you ask for hatarat nedarim.)

Second, it makes no sense to ask somebody for a binding psak unless you have a reason to prefer their judgment to yours, and to the judgment of others whom you could ask and whom you know would give a different answer.  So don’t pick a rav just because you think you have to.  That’s a bad idea with all sorts of shiddukhim.  

But in the absence of a designated rav muvhak, how can non-poskim make halakhic decisions?  I hope we’ll have occasion to discuss that soon.


Aryeh Klapper  


  1. Here I am leaving open two other possibilities, namely that you are choosing this posek because there is a specific reason to be bound by his or her opinion on this specific issue, or that you are more broadly shifting from your shul rabbi to this posek (or poseket) as your primary halakhic mentor/consultant.  Each of these possibilities deserves separate extended treatment.
  2. whom I saw myself as “in the presence of”, and therefore felt unable to decide for myself on (informal) moreh halakhah bifnei rabo (issuing a halakhic ruling in the presence of one’s primary teacher) grounds.
  3. I believe this was the pesak they had received from Rav Simchah Kuk,
  4. I’m leaving aside the question of why she felt bound to follow whatever psak I followed on this issue.
  5. As I understand it, the Soloveitchiks and Rav Lichtenstein followed the 1.5 day position because they thought it would be arrogance to decide for the one day position on the basis of intuition alone.
  6. Obviously this begs the question of how such authority is achieved, maintained, and recognized.

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Shirat Ha’azinu and Moshe’s Final Message

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Yakov Ellenbogen

There is a somewhat classic disagreement regarding Devarim 31:19. The verse reads

וְעַתָּה, כִּתְבוּ לָכֶם אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, וְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, שִׂימָהּ בְּפִיהֶם:  לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה-לִּי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לְעֵד–בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Now therefore write this song for you, and teach it the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel.

Moshe was commanded to write a shira whose purpose is to constantly serve as a testimony for Bnei Yisrael. The identity of this shira, however is unclear. Some classical commentaries, such as Ralbag, figure that it refers to the Torah as a whole. However, Rashi on that pasuk comments that:

את השירה הזאת: האזינו השמים עד (לב, מג) וכפר אדמתו עמו

This shira: [From] Ha’azinu HaShamayim until V’Kiper Admato Amo (Devarim 32:1- 43)

For Rashi then, it is Parshat Ha’azinu (or more properly, Shirat Ha’azinu) which is meant to serve as an enduring testimony for Bnei Yisrael for all time. Given this, then, Rashi’s first comment in Parshat Ha’azinu, which frames the chapter, is slightly confusing.

האזינו השמים: …ולמה העיד בהם שמים וארץ, אמר משה אני בשר ודם למחר אני מת, אם יאמרו ישראל לא קבלנו עלינו הברית מי בא ומכחישם, לפיכך העיד בהם שמים וארץ, עדים שהן קיימים לעולם

Listen, O heavens:… Now why did [Moshe] call upon heaven and earth to be witnesses for Bnei Yisrael? Moses said: “I am flesh and blood. Tomorrow I will die. If Israel says, ‘We never accepted the covenant,’ who will come and refute them?” Therefore, he called upon heaven and earth as witnesses for Bnei Yisrael- witnesses that endure forever.

The exact wording, and in effect the undertone of Shirat Ha’azinu in Rashi’s eyes, is extremely personal. Instead of the universalism we may expect, due to its purpose as a lasting testimony which all generations of Jews are meant to connect with, the shira is Moshe’s swan song. Before his preordained death (which we are told about in Devarim 31:14), he has one more lesson for Bnei Yisrael. The “I” in the phrase “And I will speak” (ואדברה), is not transitive to all Jews. First and foremost, it refers to Moshe. In future recitations of Shirat Ha’azinu, Jews will not just be praying, but will be filling the shoes of Moshe, their leader on the edge of death before entering Israel, a perspective which seems difficult for each person to identify with, to say the least.

Perhaps this somewhat fatalistic undertone fits the general themes of Shirat Ha’azinu. After all, the Parsha presents a deterministic look forward, where Bnei Yisrael is fated to fail in their observance of God’s Law, and will be punished because of it. The fact that Rashi recalls Moshe’s inevitable demise just sets the stage for this deterministic outlook. By beginning with Moshe’s death, a paradigm of preordained punishment, we already sense this theme.

However, this is not Moshe’s last word on the matter. Despite the overall thrust of Ha’azinu, after his recitation of the shira, Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, שִׂימוּ לְבַבְכֶם, לְכָל-הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מֵעִיד בָּכֶם הַיּוֹם:  אֲשֶׁר תְּצַוֻּם, אֶת-בְּנֵיכֶם, לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת

כִּי לֹא-דָבָר רֵק הוּא, מִכֶּם–כִּי-הוּא, חַיֵּיכֶם; וּבַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, תַּאֲרִיכוּ יָמִים עַל-הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה, לְרִשְׁתָּהּ

He said to them: ‘Set your heart to all the words that I testify against you this day; that you may charge your children to observe to do all the words of this law.

For it is no vain thing for you; because it is your life, and through this thing you shall prolong your days upon the land, which you go over the Jordan to possess it.’

Moshe’s last word, then, is in tension to the determinism which was presented earlier. Instead of Bnei Yisrael being at the mercy of history, Moshe assures them that human action in the form of following the Law has an effect on history. The placement of this Parsha after Yom Kippur seems especially relevant. Many of the tefilot we say over Yom Kippur emphasize God’s control over our lives. However, at the same time, we encourage ourselves to change in the upcoming year for our own benefit. The dual philosophy of Ha’azinu appears, then, even when not reciting Shirat Ha’azinu.

Shabbat Shalom

Yakov Ellenbogen (SBM 2013, 2014, 2015), a native of Sharon, MA, is a Junior at Yeshiva University. He previously attended Yeshivat Petach Tikvah, Yeshivat Sha’alavim and Yeshivat Har Etzion.

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Leadership in a Time of Possibly Radical Change

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Endings are hard, and I don’t believe that the collective wisdom of humanity will ever determine whether gradual or abrupt endings are easier to bear.  Jewish tradition will not help either.  The Rabbis tell us that illness entered the world when Yaakov prayed for a transition toward death.  But Mosheh Rabbeinu dies in defiant full possession of his faculties, “his eye undimmed and his moisture not fled”.  

Transitions are also hard.  Mosheh Rabbeinu was a political leader, and he and G-d seem to agree on the need for a political transition.  The Rabbis tell us that Mosheh was the sun and Yehoshua the moon, so Yehoshua needed Mosheh to shine on him.  The problem is that Yehoshua must become visible while Mosheh is still shining, and then remain visible when Mosheh’s radiance has ceased.  One can play with the metaphor and suggest that for Mosheh, death means only sinking behind the horizon, but this solution seems cute rather than compelling.

Mosheh himself seems to tell the Jews – against the narrator’s later assertion – that he has become aged.  “I am aged 120 years as of today; I will no longer be able to go out and in”, apparently meaning that he can no longer lead the Jews in battle, and thus must be replaced.  But this is an unconvincing argument, for two reasons:

First, Yehoshua led the Jews in their very first battle, with Amalek, while Mosheh prayed behind the scene, so why can’t that be the ongoing practice?  

Second, it seems likely that Mosheh’s vigorous delivery of this speech would put the lie to his claim (just as no one reading his eloquent initial attempt to refuse G-d’s initial mission could believe that he was genuinely כבד לשון= heavy-tongued.)

On Sotah 13b, Rav Shmuel bar Nachmeni in the name of Rabbi Yonatan suggests that Mosheh here is referring to מלחמתה של תורה, the battles of the Beit Midrash.  “to go out and come in – regarding Torah matters”.  Why could he no longer lead these battles?  נסתתמו ממנו שערי חכמה”  – the gates of wisdom were closed off from him”.

Rabbi Yonatan did not mean to suggest that Mosheh lost his overall intellectual acuity, or that he forgot his Torah knowledge.  Rather, as the late Lubavitcher Rebbe noted, Rabbi Yonatan is walking a delicate line.  He needs Mosheh to remain the sun, and yet must also make clear that the sun is setting.  So “gates of wisdom” must refer to a specific and bounded disability.

The problem (also noted by the late Rebbe) is that the text of Rabbi Yonatan’s statement is itself unstable.  Shitah Mekubetzet reports that other manuscripts had מסורת חכמה = the tradition of wisdom.  Manuscripts of the Ein Yaakov had מעינות החכמה = the springs of Wisdom.  Rashi to our verse has מסורות ומעינות החכמה = the traditions and springs of Wisdom.  

It seems plausible that each of these different versions reflects a different approach to the delicate line Rabbi Yonatan seeks to walk.  What capacities can a Torah leader lose that will leave them radiant, and yet point to the need for replacement, and allow for successors to become visible?

The text as we have it – שערי חכמה – suggests that a leader can lose their flexibility, their capacity to learn new things.  Having myself sat willingly in the shiurim of at least two great scholars at that point in their careers, I find this an eminently reasonable suggestion.  There was no question that they were the sun, and we students at best aspiring moons, and yet it was also clear that they could no longer make vital practical decisions for a community.  Flexibility is a necessity.  Effective generals do not always fight the last war, and effective poskim (halakhic decisors) do not always pasken the last sheilah.

The version reading “springs” makes a somewhat stronger claim.  It is not enough to be able to learn new things – you have to be able to adjust previous conclusions in light of new evidence.  A leader who learns, but can no longer be creative, will just end up fighting one of several previous wars.  Perhaps there is nothing objectively new under the sun, but no individual life is ever broad enough to preclude subjectively new experiences.

But it is very challenging to imagine Mosheh Rabbeinu, or lehavdil any great scholar, maintaining their identity when they have lost access to their traditions of wisdom.  For this reason among others the Rebbe zt”l suggested narrowing this term to traditions that have no point of origin in the text of chumash, the halakhot leMosheh miSinai that G-d for His own inscrutable reasons whispered to Mosheh at Sinai.  Without access to those traditions, Moshehh remained great but was no longer irreplaceable.  

Rashi, however, was satisfied with none of these.  He believes that Mosheh had to lose both the traditions and the spring – both the past and the future – if Yehoshua were to succeed and thrive.

Why?  Perhaps Rashi, better than any other version, truly does justice to Rabbi Yonatan’s task.  Mosheh had to lose access to the past, or else Yehoshua could not become visible.  But he also had to lose access to the future, so that Yehoshua could become a sun in his own right.  There had to be a recognizable limit to the questions Mosheh could answer, so that Yehoshua could be recognized as a contributor and not merely as a sustainer.

The truth is that just about every halakhic decisor over time ossifies in both these ways.  Initial intuitions become hardened into formal concepts and rulings, and new cases are more and more easily categorized as minor variants on established precedents.  All this has salutary impact with regard to predictability and accuracy, which are virtues of great significance, especially in stable communities and environments.  But Bnei Yisroel were about to experience an enormous discontinuity as they crossed into Israel.

The problem is that in just about every generation there are those who see radical discontinuities, and those who see fundamental stability.  To take examples from our own day: Is postmodernism a dead-end fad or a seismic philosophic shift?  Does/will the routine participation of women fundamentally change the nature of halakhic discourse?  Do contemporary roshei yeshiva (be they from RIETS, YCT, or Bnei Brak) consistently relate to their lay communities differently than did the leading halakhic decisors of past decades and centuries?

I hope it is clear that the question of whether these changes are radical, or not, does not settle the question of whether they are positive or negative.  But it nonetheless matters a great deal how we answer that question.  As a simple example:  If postmodernism is a noxious but passing cloud, we should not make painful sacrifices to combat it.  If it is a healthy but passing cloud, we should not build our theologies on it.  But if it is healthy and enduring, or noxious and enduring, then such sacrifices and constructions can be justified.  

Perhaps we can argue further that in every generation there are radical discontinuities, but there are also exaggerated claims of discontinuity.  

I am tempted to assimilate this suggestion to the classic rabbinic categories of repentance.  Radical discontinuities, like repentance out of love, turn past vices into virtues, while minor discontinuities, like repentance out of fear, at most allow us to correct and overcome those vices.  

But few things are more dangerous than a mistaken claim that a past vice is newly virtuous.

This Dvar Torah is a version of a Dvar Torah published in 2015.

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Saying the Unsayable: Why G-d Wore a Tallit to Lead the First Selichot

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

On Rosh HaShannah 17b, Rabbi Yochanan explains the opening of Exodus 34:6 via an arresting image.

–”ויעבר ה’ על פניו ויקרא . . .”

!אלמלא מקרא כתוב, אי אפשר לאומרו

,מלמד שנתעטף הקדוש ברוך הוא כשליח צבור

.והראה לו למשה סדר תפלה

:אמר לו

 – כל זמן שישראל חוטאין

.יעשו לפני כסדר הזה, ואני מוחל להם

“Hashem passed before h/His face, and h/He proclaimed”:

Were it not written in Scripture, it would be impossible to say this!

This teaches us that The Holy Blessed One wrapped Himself like a congregational prayer leader

and showed Mosheh the order of prayer.

He said to him:

Whenever Israel sins,

they should do before me just like this order, and I will forgive them.


Rabbi Yochanan seems shocked by his own theological audacity.  But what is it about this image that so shocks him?  Is it the blatant anthropomorphism of G-d wearing a tallit?

This aspect of the image certainly bothered many later rabbis.  Rabbi Yom Tov ibn Ashbili (RITVA) hastens to explain that the verse is written from Mosheh’s perspective – he saw this in a prophetic vision, but it was only a metaphor.  Rabbeinu Chananel contends that G-d ordered an angel to appear as if he were wearing a tallit, or alternatively, that G-d created an angel with the appearance of a tallit-wearing human.

I am not convinced, however, that Rabbi Yochanan’s shock issue here was anthropomorphism (or that any of the later rabbis believed it was).  Anthropomorphism is all over Tanakh, and RITVA and Rabbeinu Chananel are trotting out standard solutions for the issue.  Something more must have triggered Rabbi Yochanan’s assertion that Scripture here writes the otherwise unsayable.

What might this have been?

The declaration “Were it not written in Scripture, it would be impossible to say this!” appears seven times in the Talmud.  Several of these can be understood as referring to anthropomorphism, but several of them cannot.  The clearest example is Bava Batra 10a, also said by Rabbi Yochanan.

:א”ר יוחנן

?מאי דכתיב “מלוה ה’ חונן דל”

!אלמלא מקרא כתוב, אי אפשר לאומרו

כביכול – עבד לוה לאיש מלוה

Said Rabbi Yochanan:

What is the meaning of “Those who are gracious to the poor are Hashem’s creditors” (Proverbs 19:17)?

Were it not written in Scripture, it would be impossible to say this!

As if it were possible – the borrrower is slave to the [human] creditor.


There is no physical imagery at all here.  What then is the issue?

Let’s look at one more example, from Berakhot 32a:

“ועתה הניחה לי ויחר אפי בהם ואכלם  ואעשה אותך לגוי גדול וגו'”

:אמר רבי אבהו

!אלמלא מקרא כתוב, אי אפשר לאומרו

,מלמד שתפסו משה להקדוש ברוך הוא כאדם שהוא תופס את חבירו בבגדו,

:ואמר לפניו

!רבונו של עולם, אין אני מניחך עד שתמחול ותסלח להם

“Now you leave go of Me, and My anger will burn amidst them and consume them . . .”

Said Rabbi Abbahu:

Were it not written in Scripture, it would be impossible to say this!

This teaches that Mosheh seized The Holy Blessed One like a person seizing his fellow by the garment,

and said before Him:

Master of the Universe, I will not leave go of you until you absolve and forgive them!


I suggest that common denominator, the issue in each case, is not anthropomorphism, but rather the depiction of G-d as subject or servile to human beings.  Berkahot 32a depicts G-d as subject to detention by Mosheh; Bava Batra 10a as subject to the will of charitable people; and Rosh HaShannah 17a as manipulable by human beings via the recitation of a verbal formula, namely the “13 Attributes”.  Call it magic or theurgy, the last is surely the most shocking.

Now Rabbi Yochanan states that he can say this only because Scripture says it – but what if Scripture could be understood differently?  Would we be allowed to take one of several possible interpretations and claim that it permitted saying the otherwise unsayable?

Here again it is vital to understand exactly what Rabbi Yochanan thought was unsayable.  If the issue were anthropomorphism, he could simply agree with Ramban that ויעבור ה’ על פניו means that G-d passed before Mosheh’s face, and nothing would compel him to permit or accept the image of G-d’s tallit.  But he was bothered by magical theology, not by anthropomorphic metaphors.

Rabbi Yochanan could not evade the issue by having Mosheh be the subject of ויקרא (h/He proclaimed).  He knew that G-d was the One who proclaimed the 13 Attributes, and that He intended them to be recited efficaciously by Mosheh, because in Bamidbar 14:17-18 Moshe recited them after declaring that this is “as G-d had previously spoken = כאשר דברת לאמר”, and G-d then forgives them “in accordance with Moshe’s speech = כדבריך”.  Rabbi Yochanan’s challenge was to make sense of this apparent theological absurdity in some way.  His solution was the image of G-d as Shaliach Tzibbur.

Some background information is necessary here.  Rabbinic literature depicts human beings as wrapped in tallitot for prayer even when they are praying alone, and both G-d and humans as wrapped in tallitot even when not praying.  So Rabbi Yochanan has no exegetical need to introduce the notion of G-d as congregational prayer leader even if he translates “passed before His face” as a reference to wrapping a tallit.

Now only Mosheh was present atop Sinai – there was no “congregation” (although Mosheh was “equal to all of Israel”).  Furthermore, Bamidbar 14:17—18 proves only that Mosheh could use the formula, not that it would be useful permanently for the Jews.  Rabbi Yochanan presents G-d as a congregational prayer leader in order to move from the verse to a claim that the formula works for post-Mosheh congregations as well.

Based on Shemot 34 and Bamidbar 14, we can only know that reciting the 13 Attributes works to save all of Israel, so most likely Rabbi Yochanan treats a halakhic tzibbur as a formal representation of the entire Jewish people.

The question that remains is – (how) does presenting G-d in this way solve the underlying problem of G-d’s apparent manipulability?  Why does this image help make the verse’s theology sayable, if only barely?

My very tentative answer is that Rabbi Yochanan’s goal was to connect the verses to the practice of communal fasts.  Why?  Because if reciting the 13 Attributes were simply a matter of magic, with forgiveness automatic, there would be no need to fast or repent.  By limiting the efficacious recitation to the context of a communal effort at repentance, Rabbi Yochanan opens up the possibility that the 13 Attributes work only insofar as they help us change into the sort of people who can be at least plausibly worthy of Divine forgiveness.

At the same time, the depiction of G-d as shaliach tzibbur emphasizes that G-d very much wants us to make those changes, and that He Himself prays for His mercy to be revealed above His other attributes (see Berakhot 7a).

Shabbat shalom and shanah tovah!

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Is Teshuvah a Mitzvah?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Judah Kerbel

Presumably, Rambam wrote Hilkhot teshuvah to elaborate on a requirement to do teshuvah. But Avodat HaMelekh (R. Menachem Krakowski, d. 1930) notes something peculiar – Rambam’s language does not indicate that teshuvah itself is a mitzvah:

רמב”ם הלכות תשובה פרק א

כל מצות שבתורה בין עשה בין לא תעשה

אם עבר אדם על אחת מהן בין בזדון בין בשגגה

.כשיעשה תשובה וישוב מחטאו חייב להתודות

All commandments in the Torah, whether positive or negative,

if a person transgressed one of them, whether intentionally or unintentionally, when the person does teshuvah and repents from that sin, the person is obligated to confess.

It seems here that the obligation associated with teshuvah is the confession!  There is an assumption here that one will do teshuvah, but Rambam never says that there is an obligation to abandon sins and engage in a process called teshuvah.

The problem is sharpened when one looks at Devarim 30:1-2::

וְהָיָה כִי יָבֹאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה

הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ

וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל לְבָבֶךָ

:בְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר הִדִּיחֲךָ יְקֹוָק אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ שָׁמָּה

וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד יְקֹוָק אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ

כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם

:אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ

It will be that when all these things come upon you –

the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you –

then you will take it to your heart

among all the nations where Hashem, your God, has dispersed you;

and you will return to Hashem, your God, and listen to his voice, according to everything that I command you today, you and your children, with your heart and all your soul

Ramban understands the second verse as presenting a mitzvah of teshuvah (30:11), “you must return” rather than you will return.  In Hilkhot Teshuvah 7:5, however, Rambam sees this verse purely as a promise that G-d will redeem us and that we will do teshuvah.

What is the nature of teshuvah if viduy is the commandment, not teshuvah itself?

Avodat HaMelekh suggests that teshuvah is assumed by definition if one is going to keep the Torah at all. If one has violated a mitzvah, obviously one has to abandon that path! We do not need a verse to teach us that – it is unfathomable to think otherwise, it is the foundation of the entire Torah. Rather, the Torah elsewhere (Bamidbar 5:6-7) teaches the chiddush that teshuvah requires verbal confession, and Rambam asserts that is the emphasis here as well.

A person wishing to make a proper change in behavior going forward cannot assume that wishing will make it so. One has to verbally commit to making that change happen, and to making a conscious effort to act cautiously to avoid making future mistakes. For Rambam, lack of confession undermines the entire teshuvah process.

Minchat Chinukh disagrees (Mitzvah 364).  He holds agrees that there is a mitzvah to confess, and by not confessing one has not fulfilled that particular mitzvah – but if one genuinely repented in his heart without verbally confessing, one has fulfilled the separate commandment of “you must return”, and one has still properly atoned for one’s sins.

Whether or not the verses in our parasha speak of an actual mitzvah of teshuvah, it is certainly tied to redemption.  When we return to G-d, G-d will end the exile and bring us back to Eretz Yisrael. By working to strengthen our observance of mitzvot, and thereby reversing course when we have not met all of our obligations, we come closer to G-d (Rambam 7:6). As the Yamim Noraim approach, may will all merit to do our own teshuvah and to come together as a united people in doing teshuvah, to come closer to G-d, and to reap the benefits of the promises G-d made with our ancestors.

Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is in his third year at RIETS and his second year at the Bernard Revel Graduate School, concentrating in medieval Jewish history.

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Three stories about public halakhic policy from the past few days

Should Orthodox rabbis have authority over each other?  This issue has come to the fore in three episodes over the past few days.  In the brief essay below I try to explain how each episode helps illuminate the issue and to argue that we have been avoiding hard choices that we really have to make.

1) The RCA passed a resolution mandating that its members use a halakhic agunah-prevention prenup when officiating at weddings.

Modern Orthodox discussions on social media have generally cheered this.

SBM alum Yeshayahu Ginsburg deserves great credit for pointing out an underlying process issue – should rabbinic organizations or institutions be able to impose their will on rabbis with whom they have substantive halakhic, hashkafic, or sociological disagreements?

The RCA also recently passed a resolution forbidding its members from hiring women as clergy.

Modern Orthodox discussions on social media have generally booed this.

Bluntly – if you support prenuptial agreements and women as clergy, is it possible or legitimate to expect the RCA to effectively enforce the first while asking RCA members to ignore the latter?

2) The Chief Rabbinate failed to automatically approve conversions certified by two of the RCA’s formal Halakhic authorities, Rabbi Gedaliah Dov Schwartz and my teacher Rabbi Mordechai Willig.

The Chief Rabbinate’s decisions reveal yet again the hollowness of its supposed deal with the RCA on conversions.  As I have written many times before, its procedures in this regard violate the numerous Torah prohibitions against oppressing converts, Jews, and human beings.  Its blatant disregard for American Orthodoxy damages respect for Torah and halakhah.  We need to come up with and fight for immediate plausible alternatives to a rabbinic bureaucracy that seems incompetent at its best and often much, much worse.

It is fair to argue that with Israel out of the picture, the entire RCA drive to centralize US conversions via the GPS system becomes an obvious mistake, and should be dismantled.  The argument is that the GPS system’s standards are so restrictive that many Orthodox rabbis end up taking converts elsewhere, and so it leads to a proliferation of Orthodox converts who are not recognized universally in Orthodoxy.  Moreover, the system has applied its standards retroactively, so that many past Orthodox converts (and Orthodox children of Orthodox converts!) are being forced to reconvert.  As with the Chief Rabbinate’s policy, this means that every legitimate convert must live in constant fear for their own Jewish status, and for that of their descendants ad biat goel.  This violates all the same Torah prohibitions mentioned above.

I think this argument is substantively correct.  Except – it assumes that the alternative is a better world in which almost all Orthodox converts are generally recognized by almost everyone in Orthodoxy.  We have to consider the possibility that the alternative is one in which, let’s say, 49% of RCA members adopt the policy of the Chief Rabbinate and view every past and present conversion as presumptively invalid.

In other words: given that we can’t actually impose authority, reach genuine consensus, or achieve universal mutual recognition, would complete anarchy be better or worse than what happens now?

3) Yeshivat Chovevei Torah released a responsum by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz permitting women to lead selichot services (or, more technically, permitting groups coming together for selichot to designate themselves as ensembles of individuals rather than as congregations).

The responsum was released at a time that gave halakhic authorities no opportunity to consider its arguments, let alone a chance for public consideration of its merits, and yet seemed intended to generate immediate practice.  Rabbi Katz and YCT acknowledged that YCT Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Dov Linzer had previously issued a responsum with a different practical conclusion.

When creative arguments are proposed for new practices that are clearly both halakhically and sociologically controversial, halakhically serious leaders and congregations should engage in serious deliberation before acting.    I hope that this has now been the case regarding women leading selichot in all congregations and communities that aspire to halakhic seriousness, including partnership minyanim.

Let’s suppose that the overwhelming majority of RCA members conclude that Rabbi Katz’s responsum is totally wrong.  Would it be legitimate for them to pass an enforceable resolution declaring that rabbis must not permit women to lead selichot?  What can an Orthodox halakhist, or an Orthodox organization, legitimately say about a halakhic decision made by an acknowledged colleague that does not leave their lay audience saying “these and those are the words of the living G-d”, and we can act as we please?  (If the answer is nothing, the only recourse left Is delegitimating the author of the decision, i.e. denying collegiality.)  Under what circumstances should individual halakhists be bound by majority decisions, especially majorities of lesser scholars?  Is there a difference between majorities and overwhelming majorities?

Bottom line: We need a much deeper and more sophisticated conversation about rabbinic and halakhic authority.  We need to recognize that granting authority always involves agreeing to follow rulings we disagree with, and that denying authority always involves letting people do things we disagree with.  We need to develop ways of denying the l’maaseh legitimacy of a psak without denying the Orthodoxy or learning of the posek.  We need to acknowledge that halakhah legitimately has its own politics, and that if we persist in shallow or scorched-earth tactics, Orthodox society will soon resemble the US Congress or worse.

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Bikkurim and Gratitude

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Leora Balinksy

The mitzvah of Bikkurim found in Parshat Ki Tavo contains rich symbolism that highlights the importance of gratitude to God. I would like to share the ideas of three thinkers who adorn this message with their connections and explanations.

The Sfas Emes  (Ki Tavo, 5634) points out the juxtaposition of Ki Tavo with Parshat Zachor, wherein Bnei Yisrael are commanded to eradicate the name of Amalek.. In this week’s parsha, the fruits that must be brought as an offering are referred to as “Reishit Kol Pri Ha’adama” (Dev. 26:3). Similarly, Amalek is referred to elsewhere as “Reishit Goyim” (Bamidbar 24:20).

Amalek is conceived of as the spiritual, ideological enemy of Bnei Yisrael, who do not submit to God’s will.  The Sfas Emes explains that the name of God cannot be full until the name of Amalek is erased, because by seeing themselves as the first and most supreme, they deny the supremacy of Hashem. The mitzvah of Bikkurim showcases that Bnei Yisrael are not meant to share this trait. Through Bikkurim, we are meant to recognize the true First- God- and submit to Him.

Martin Buber, in his article “Bikkurim” (quoted by Rav Elchanan Samet) beautifully addresses this point:

“The essence of acknowledging Divine sovereignty lies in man’s gratitude to the Creator as the source of all the good, and his appreciation that man himself is, in no way, responsible for all that the might of his own hand has accomplished. Failure to realize this implies repudiation of the yoke and fear of heaven and all the evil consequences that flow therefrom. This is indeed the subject of the warnings contained in Moses’s address to the people in Deuteronomy. They would forget God’s bounty and imagine that they were the authors of all the benefits they were enjoying the in Promised Land. There were therefore bidden to perform a rite that would act as a constant reminder that the “earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”, that everything as a gift bestowed by Him and He was responsible for all their prosperity, the bringing of the first fruits. Indeed, all such offerings constituted acknowledgement of Divine overlordship.

Similarly, the Akeidat Yitzchak (citied by Nechama Leibowitz in her writings on Ki Tavo) connects this message of gratitude to the Psukim that must be uttered upon giving the Bikkurim.

“This ‘bringing’ of the bikkurim and that ‘bringing’ to the land are included together in the prayer with a covert parallel (9-10): ‘And He BROUGHT us to this place… and now I HAVE BROUGHT the first of the fruits of the land…’ What is expressed here is the mutual interaction between God and His nation. ‘I was brought by Him to this fertile land,’ says the farmer, ‘and now I am bringing Him some of its fruit.’ This conveys more than just gratitude. The entire land is given to the nation by God’s hand; the produce which the man who is brought there brings from the ground is likewise from God’s blessing and His actions; one cannot GIVE Him something of it, but one may BRING Him something – the choicest of the first fruits as a symbol and as sanctification.”

The idea of Hakarat Hatov, of gratitude, is simple and often spoken about, but too often not realized. May we merit to infuse the messages of Bikkurim laid out by the above thinkers into all facets of our lives.

Leora Balinksy (SBM 2016) is a sophomore at Barnard College.

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