Monthly Archives: December 2015

Stars, Sand and Sefer Shemot

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Eli Reiter

Rashi uses the well-worn simile of Jews and stars to explain the counting of the Jews in the beginning of the parsha.

Although the people counted have passed away, Hashem loves them so much that he counts them again after they pass, lihodia chibosom =to make known how precious they are, shenimshilou likochavim = that they are similar to stars.

Why are stars a good analogy? The tribes are being counted posthumously, but stars are vibrant gas clusters. Their lives are bright but relatively short. If Jews are precious and many in number, sand would be a better metaphor. Sand survives in the harshest of conditions, the sea. Sand is insoluble, whether in a large group as part of a beach or a stray grain in the ocean. Even in the worst conditions, like being enslaved in Egypt, the Jews were incapable of dissolving and still rescued by Hashem. Sand may be a more appropriate to the narrative of Sefer Shemot.

Stars have exploded and died, yet we see their light many years later. (For some context, my favorite star, the sun, is nearly 93 million miles away.) By the time we earthlings see a star shining, it may have been dead for years. It’s a sad but astounding fact: The galaxy we see is an astrophysical graveyard, a testament to what the universe was, not is.  A tapestry for nostalgia.

And yet. It’s not nostalgia, with its purposeless rumination. We actually see the stars and enjoy them. They’re living, at least from our point of view. The bad news is light years away.

Hashem is counting us not simply because He cares about us, although that is obvious. He counts us posthumously to show that we as humans are effective and important in life.  How we act, what we do, etc.  Every action creates a ripple in the ocean. A small splash is all it takes. The creator moves on. Some catalysts dissipate while others grow into waves.

The light we shine exists for a long time after we die.

Rashi brings a passage from Isaiah to back up his case: “He brings forth his legions in number, calls them all by name.”  Leading up to this pasuk, the navi describes G-d as the center of the universe and an all-powerful being. All people, though, are “a drop in the bucket” (40:15). “He can cast away islands like dust.” But we, as Jews, are like stars.

Stars collapse and explode. Bits of carbon and nitrogen fly out and become part of gas clouds and then they form other ingredients of life. We’re in this universe and the universe is in us. By being stars, we’re connected, relevant, and participants in the world around us. That’s what we are as Jews.

This also touches upon the theme found in Sifrei Bereishit and Shemot of maase avot siman libanim. Our forefathers’ actions foreshadow ours. Our circumstances follow them, and how we respond in turn effects later generations. We make a difference for hundreds of years after our biological lives ends.

Eli Reiter (SBM 2015) is a recent graduate of Hunter College. He also hosts the long running storytelling show Long Story Long.

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The 2015 Summer Beit Midrash Teshuvot!

Read the 2015 Summer Beit Midrash Teshvuot here!

Dear Friends and Supporters:

Orthodox Judaism should participate deeply, honestly, and creatively in the moral conversation of humanity. Halakhah should learn from everyone and contributes to everything. These principles are at the core of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership. They are at the heart of the work of the amazing Fellows of our 5775 Summer Beit Midrash. I am proud to introduce their work to you in this booklet. 

Our topic this past summer, the 18th year of our flagship program, was halakhic competition law, a.k.a. hasagat gevul. Should this area of Halakhah have any application to a secular society? To a Jewish community which sees itself as economically a part of, rather than apart from, the broader society and nation in which it is located?To a capitalist society? To an age of stunning technological progress? What can Halakhah learn from the discipline of economics? From the (quite different) experiences and strategies of US antitrust and Canadian competition law? From general theories of regulation?

At the end of SBM, each fellow writes a responsum unique in reasoning and result based on the material we learned together, and then presents his or her work to the whole group. In the lively discussion that ensues, each fellow realizes that this diversity does not reflect arbitrariness, but rather that many positions can be reasonably and halakhically legitimate. Diverse rulings can emerge, even when there is agreement about the meaning of texts, because each decisor legitimately brings their whole personality and soul to the process of psak. Imagine if the entire Orthodox community had such an experience!

Modern Orthodox halakhah can emerge only from poskim who are confident that Modern Orthodox values should influence psak, just as Charedi halakhah emerges from poskim who seek to spread Charedi values and embody them in Torah. At the same time, both decisors and community must be aware that not all values have legal outlets in all times, and that a conflict between law and values should necessitate a rethinking of both. Poskim may not distort or falsify texts to support their values or sociological and scientific evaluations, but those values and evaluations should consciously play a significant role in weighing authority.

I want to express appreciation to the community of my hometown, Sharon, MA, which hosts the Fellows in private homes and the program as a whole at Young Israel of Sharon. Our extraordinary guest faculty this summer included Mr. Mark Katz of Davies Ward Phillips and Vineberg LLP, economists Dr. Ted Rosenbaum of the Federal Trade Commission and Dr. Martin Gaynor of Carnegie Mellon University, Prof. Chaim Saiman of Villanova University School of Law, and Rabbi Chaim Jachter of Sha’arei Orah and author of Gray Matters 1-4. Each of our visitors was highly impressed by our fellows and the entire Summer Beit Midrash program. We are gratified by our continuing capacity to attract such distinguished scholars and grateful to them for their time.

Please be in touch with the Center with your questions and feedback. Please support our work generously if it speaks to and for you.

B’virkat haTorah,

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Dean, Center for Modern Torah Leadership

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Reclaiming Scripture’s Evil Tongue

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

In this past Sunday’s NYTimes, Cynthia Ozick argues that the narratives of Scripture, by their very existence, contradict all the anti-gossip laws and moralisms in Scripture. Ozick asserts that gossip is the source of all literature:

The instant Eve took in that awakening morsel of serpentine gossip, Literature in all its variegated forms was born,

and that gossip is at the core of being human:

To be destined to live without gossip is to forfeit the perilous cost of being born human — gossip at its root is nothing less than metaphysical, Promethean, hubristic. Or, to frame it otherwise: To choose to live without gossip is to scorn storytelling. And to scorn storytelling is to join the anthill, where there are no secrets to pry open.

Or, to frame it otherwise: “The Novel’s Evil Tongue” launches a direct assault on halakhic speech ethics, the “evil tongue” (=lashon hora) of its title.

As someone who finds great value in literature, and great beauty in the laws of lashon hora, I cannot accept Ozick’s either/or. But I think her challenge does us a service by spurring a long-overdue revisiting of the overall intents and purposes of the Law in these areas.

Ozick’s reading of the tradition she seeks to subvert might fairly be described as conventionally Orthodox. Halakhic speech ethics as popularly presented often reduce permissible conversation topics to the weather, and ban any interest in the motives or actions of our fellows. Think of the tale of an unrecognized Chofetz Chayyim thanking his peasant train seat partner for hours of conversation about the virtues of various manures for different crops.

Now I myself love hearing from people about their fields of expertise. But this popular presentation cannot be the whole story. Halakhah requires people to choose leaders, exercise financial prudence, save people from danger; none of these can be done without the kind of insight into human nature that cannot be gained without vast experience, and without testing our judgments against those of our peers. Halakhah requires us to study intensely the very narratives Ozick claims contract its norms.

I generally start classes on Jewish speech ethics with a selection from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. No one is better than Austen at explaining both the necessity for judging others and the harm caused when negative judgments are spread. No one is better than Austen at conveying the genuine moral anguish of a good person who must harm the reputation of one person in order to prevent them from harming others. But in the end Edward Ferrars must speak to save Marianne from Mr. Willoughby.

Ozick rails against the prospect of an innocent society, with no illicit sex or violence. Her only alternative is our tawdry reality in all its tawdriness. But it is the purpose of some fiction, and history, to show us our reality so that it might be improved, not toward “second innocence” but rather toward mature virtue. Fiction, history, and Scripture must be allowed to present the psychology of evil without being presumed thereby to endorse it.

A world in which we always judge not, lest we be judged, is a recipe for ISIS rather than Eden, since the others we ostriches refuse to judge will not refrain from judging, and executing, us. But that does not mean that we must convey every judgement to everyone as soon as it is formed.

Jewish speech ethics, including but not limited to the laws of lashon hora (true but defamatory information) and rekhilut (= gossip, or information that the teller has not verified), recognize that information about others often must be shared, and that evaluating the character of one’s peers is an essential part of being human. We must judge, and prepare to be judged, and recognize that many of these judgements will be current in society.

But we can have great art, and still eschew People magazine; we can ban slander and yet celebrate whistle-blowers; we can prevent serial date-rape without slut-shaming. Partial or acontextual truths can be worse than lies, and brilliant art can nonetheless be evil. Not all whispering snakes should be celebrated.

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Christmas, Christians and the Jews

Here are some different articles by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper appropriate for Christmas:

What is the Halakhic Status of the Doctrine of the Trinity?

Revisiting “Confrontation” After Forty Years

The Meiris Halakhah about Christians and Christianity A Response to Halbertal

SBM 2004 Jews and Christians

Jewish Values Online: Jews, Art and Churches

Jewish Values Online: Jews and Gospel Music

Jewish Values Online: Jews Entering Churches for Secular Ceremonies

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Keeping Silent

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz

A common question at the core of the story of Yosef and his brothers is why Yosef never attempted to inform his father of his whereabouts. While he may have harbored animosity towards his brothers, he surely held no such feelings towards his father. Why wouldn’t he at least relay the message that he was alive?

In the well known commentary the אור החיים (R. Hayyim b”r Moshe ibn Attar, Morocco, Algeria and Israel 1696-1743), he compounds the question. He writes:

ותגדל עוד הקושיא על ימי הרעב שהיו עוברים ושבים מארץ מצרים לארץ כנען ולא חש על צערו ועוד
מי התיר לו אחר שבאו אחיו להאריך לו ימי צרה שלא להודיעו תיכף ומיד

To make the question even greater, what of the time of great famine that the family kept going back and forth between Egypt and Israel?

Also, who permitted him (i.e. Yosef) to not inform his brothers of his identity immediately upon their arrival?

Not only did Yosef cause his father more suffering by not informing him that he was alive, he allowed Yaakov and his family to struggle through a difficult famine for well over a year before giving them the peace of mind of knowing that they would be taken care of. Why would he do that to his father?

To answer this question, the אור החיים breaks up Yosef’s time in Egypt into two segments. He explains that in Yosef’s first 14 years in Egypt he was either a slave or a prisoner. He had no power or ability to send messages, and even if he did he would be afraid that the brothers would intercept the message before reaching Yaakov and send someone to kill him to maintain the lie they had been telling their father.

However, what of the final eight years? In a fascinating study, he writes:

וחש על כבוד האחים מלביישם לפני יעקב ויצחק וכל זרע יעקב וסבל שישאר אביו בצערו מלביישם

Yosef was concerned for the honor of his brothers, not wanting to embarrass them before Yaakov, Yitzchak and all of their children. He ultimately thought it was better for his father to be in pain than to embarrass them.

Yosef was in a complicated predicament. He needed to figure out whether his father would rather be kept in the dark but maintain the dignity of his family, or know the truth and risk the family being torn apart. He decided it would be best for his brothers, and ultimately his father, for his being sold into slavery to remain a secret, a secret they kept until Yaakov’s dying day.

Sometimes in life the greatest courage is doing what is best for someone even though you can never tell them what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. Yosef kept silent, knowing the pain it caused his father, because he was confident he was helping his father in a much greater way. May we always have that level of thoughtfulness, courage and sensitivity in our most difficult moral decisions.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz (SBM 2000) is the Resident Scholar at Ohab Zedek on the Upper West Side and on the faculty of Yeshiva University’s High School for Girls.

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How to Hold Modern Orthodoxy Together: A Detailed Prescription

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

For much of 2015, every effort was made, on both sides, to send American Modern Orthodoxy into schism and compel the formation of a separate denomination called Open Orthodoxy.  These efforts have often been disingenuous or irresponsible, and each side is accountable for its official and auxiliary spokespersons.  But it would be equally disingenuous and irresponsible to deny that there are deep substantive issues in play.

Recent weeks have seen encouraging efforts by some on both sides to rein in their rhetoric, and Rabbi Francis Nataf has wonderfully modeled the constructive critical discourse that Rabbi Gil Perl beautifully advocated for. But frank conversation and responsible leadership are still desperately needed.

I contend that schism will lead to disaster and eventual oblivion for both sides.  The “right” will lose its desire and capacity to engage seriously with modernity, and the “left” will lose its commitment to and capacity for rigorous halakhic analysis.  The “right” will come to reject any notion that halakhic decisions can be held accountable to ethics in any way, and the “left” will cease to see any value in genuine halakhic deliberation on ethical issues.

To prevent this, both left and right must take active steps to prioritize their confluent mainstreams over their dueling extremes, while at the same time seeking to keep those extremes within the same community to the extent possible.

Here is a set of concrete proposals to that end.  Each will require hard choices from some or all, and many will be unpopular.  But we are long past being able to find an easy way through.

1) The RCA must provide YCT graduates with a clear and plausible path to membership

YCT graduates need a professional organization.  If the RCA summarily rejects them, they cannot be blamed for steering a wholly autonomous course.  Moreover, they will be out of conversation with graduates of other yeshivot, and so will understandably care less and less about staying part of the same community.

This path to membership cannot require YCT graduates to renounce their teachers or their education.

At the same time, the RCA will not be compelled to accept all YCT graduates, nor will it be required to offer membership to graduates of Yeshivat Maharat.  The RCA may decide that davening in a partnership minyan generally excludes a candidate from membership regardless of the source of their semikhah.

 2) Orthodoxy must make room for theological and halakhic creativity and experimentation; it must allow people, even rabbis, to make mistakes in the effort to make things better

Both theological and halakhic creativity are desirable, and Modern Orthodoxy should celebrate noble and serious efforts to address serious issues even when they fail, even when they fail badly.  “No one finds his standing in words of Torah without first stumbling in them.”  But – theological creativity and creative halakhic practice must be kept separate.  When halakhic creativity is justified by theological creativity, it has lost all connection to the existing community Orthodox theological creativity must be compatible with obedience to existing halakhah, and Orthodox halakhic creativity must be compatible with acceptance of existing hashkafah.

3)  Communities and institutions on the left side of the Modern Orthodox spectrum must take responsibility for members and graduates who consciously and purposefully use the Orthodox mantle to legitimate positions that the RCA considers out of bounds.

They don’t have to reject or expel them, but they need to acknowledge and respect others’ refusal to admit them.  They need to acknowledge that communities have the right, and sometimes obligation, to draw boundaries, and that belonging to a community, and having the opportunity to influence it, sometimes means accepting boundaries one disagrees with.

The most challenging issue in this regard is clearly female clergy, and it will not work to have groups of men exclusively work out the solution to this issue.  But I believe that a workable solution can be found if there is trust and goodwill, albeit one that will be very uncomfortable for everyone.

It must be clearly acknowledged that the approach laid out here is fundamentally asymmetric, in that it leaves the RCA with no right-wing boundary.  For example, the RCA will not be required to exclude members who assert that it is forbidden for women to learn Talmud, or that get-withholding is a legitimate tactic in divorce negotiations.  My hope is that these positions are and will remain very, very marginal within the organization.

4)   None of us should tolerate the soft bigotry of excusing (let alone praising!) women for statements or achievements that in men would reflect theological or halakhic shallowness or error.  But-all of us must acknowledge the underlying scandal that Modern Orthodox women who want to learn Talmud deeply and thoroughly may choose institutions whose hashkafah makes them uncomfortable because the learning is better there, even though it does not approach the learning available to men in Yeshiva College, let alone RIETS.

Young women who learn at the same level as their top male counterparts are given no opportunities for growth at Stern College. GPATS at its best may equal what is available to a moderately talented Yeshiva College undergraduate, and undergraduate women are offered much less than that.  Yeshivat Maharat is no better.  I say this with great respect and appreciation for the many talented, learned, and dedicated faculty members at each of these institutions.  How can we tolerate this?

For those who rue the existence of Torah-educated women who take positions significantly to their left – the proper response is to insist that right-wing musmakhim, and the YU roshei yeshiva themselves, teach women at the highest level.  This will give them the same influence with talmidot that they have with talmidim, and eventually produce women scholars who will continue their masoret, teach at their level, and receive the kavod due them for their Torah achievements and contributions.

The approaches laid out above can reclaim the public square for constructive conversation and criticism, and enable us to approach all issues with a presumption that disagreements are leshem shomayim (for the sake of Heaven).

As dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, I know this is possible.  It happens each summer in our Summer Beit Midrash program, where young men and women from across the Modern Orthodox spectrum, and from all the relevant institutions, learn together in an atmosphere of profound halakhic commitment, uncompromising intellectual rigor, and critical moral engagement.  These future leaders deserve the opportunity to build a community together that will bring nachas to all of us.  Our current leadership must take the necessary steps to ensure they have that opportunity.

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2015 CMTL Anthology

Check out the best of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership this past year in the 2015 CMTL Anthology!

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