Tuesday, 31 May 2011

JVO: The Death Penalty

Jewish Values Online (jewishvaluesonline.org) is a website that asks the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us -- and then presents answers from each of the dominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster Rabbi Wolpoe serves as an Orthodox member of their Panel of Scholars, offering answers from our perspective.

This post is part of a weekly series on the Nishmablog presenting the questions to which he responded and the answers that he gave.

* * * * *

Question:We haven't heard much about the death penalty lately, but public debate surrounding capital punishment seems to flare every so often. I'm never sure how I feel about it - on one hand, "an eye for an eye" is surely justice served. On the other, who are we to play God, particularly when the US criminal justice system is so flawed? How can Jewish values inform our views on the issue?

Judaism has two "Torahs" or Torot The Written Torah and the Oral Torah The Written Torah is quite in favor of capital punishment The Oral Law is largely opposed - though not entirely.

What is certain is that Talmudic Judaism opposes an "eye for an eye" in a physical sense. The best understanding is this is a legal idiom denoting "just compensation" The Pentateuch has numerous capital offenses. While Talmudic Law makes it almost impossible to implement. The beauty of this tension is that Judaism is reluctant to execute, BUT it does reserve this right. For example, the State of Israel has banned capital punishment but had no compunctions executing the evil Adolf Eichmann.

This, in my opinion, is the paradigm for the Torah approach. That is many crimes deserve capital punishment from a sense of rooting out evil. Or - from a spiritual perspective - many crimes are deemed worthy of capital punishment, as an act of treason towards Our Heavenly Ruler. However, we humans are too imperfect to use this authority, and so we reserve it for only the most extraordinary cases. It must meet several severely limiting criteria. Thus, from even a Talmudic perspective, Nuremberg,and similar major crimes would justify capital punishment.

Mishnah Makkot 1:10

1) A Sanhedrin that executes once in seven years, is called murderous.
One) Rabbi Eliezer b. Azariah Says: once in seventy years.
Two) Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say: “Had we been members of a sanhedrin, no person would ever be put to death.
Three) Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel remarked: “They would also multiply murderers in Israel.”

Section three: This famous piece of mishnah testifies to some of the Rabbis’ deep hesitations with regards to the death penalty. As we have seen throughout tractate Sanhedrin and tractate Makkoth, convicting a person of a capital crime is no easy matter. The person must be warned beforehand and then the crime has to be explicitly witnessed by two valid witnesses. Therefore, the first opinion in our mishnah, concludes that a court that executes once every seven years is a murderous court. Since the laws of testimony are so strict, any court that executes more often than this is assumed to be illegally suspending the laws and is therefore, in a sense, engaging in murder itself. Rabbi Elezar ben Azariah says that once in seventy years already makes a court murderous. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva brag that had they been on a sanhedrin no one would have ever been executed. At the end of the mishnah Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel, the political leader of the Jews at the time, notes a sound of caution. The Rabbinic tendency to be overly lenient on executing murderers can take its toll on society. In his opinion the attitudes of the other Rabbis cause the numbers of murderers to rise.

Elu V'Elu - Talmudic Dialectic

Originally published 5/31/11, 11:53 am.
Maybe Beth Hillel and Beth Shammai each see the truth as equivalent to their position. Yet we - at the meta-level - see that the reason we need them to dispute is in order for US to reach the truth via dialectically analyzing their respective positions

«The dialectical method thus views the whole of reality as an evolving process.»

Later on in history, the Baalei Tosafot realized there is no closing or sealing of the dialectic process. Such a notion would only served to undermine the Talmud which by nature and design can never be complete.
Similarly, the Rambam in Hillchot Talmud Torah ch. 1 describes Talmud not as a text but as a process of "l'vain davar mittoch davar" it is Eternal.
Why did the Rambam seek to end the Dialectic and codify a monistic code? This is a topic for a future post BE"H.
The "last laugh" is on the Rambam - whose codified decisions only succeeded to create many brand new debates and dialectics of their own.

Sources -
Dialectic [Wikipedia]
«Another way to understand dialectics is to view it as a method of thinking to overcome formal dualism and monistic reductionism. For example, formal dualism regards the opposites as mutually exclusive entities, whilst monism finds each to be an epiphenomenon of the other. Dialectical thinking rejects both views. The dialectical method requires focus on both at the same time. It looks for a transcendence of the opposites entailing a leap of the imagination to a higher level, which (1) provides justification for rejecting both alternatives as false and/or (2) helps elucidate a real but previously veiled integral relationship between apparent opposites that have been kept apart and regarded as distinct. For example, the superposition principle of quantum physics can be explained using the dialectical method of thinking—likewise the example below from dialectical biology. Such examples showing the relationship of the dialectic method of thinking to the scientific method to a large part negates the criticism of Popper (see text below) that the two are mutually exclusive. The dialectic method also examines false alternatives presented by formal dualism (materialism vs idealism; rationalism vs empiricism; mind vs body, etc.) and looks for ways to transcend the opposites and form synthesis. In the dialectical method, both have something in common, and understanding of the parts requires understanding their relationship with the whole system. The dialectical method thus views the whole of reality as an evolving process.»

Mishneh Torah

הלכות תלמוד תורה פרק א

יג   [יא] וחייב לשלש את זמן למידתו:  שליש בתורה שבכתב; ושליש בתורה שבעל פה; ושליש יבין וישכיל אחרית דבר מראשיתו, ויוציא דבר מדבר, וידמה דבר לדבר, וידין במידות שהתורה נדרשת בהן עד שיידע היאך הוא עיקר המידות והיאך יוציא האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן מדברים שלמד מפי השמועה--ועניין זה, הוא הנקרא תלמוד.


Monday, 30 May 2011

Obama's Middle East speech

Guest Blogger:
Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

A Question of Principle

Five years ago I received a written response from the then Illinois' Junior Senator regarding my letter to him concerning the vital issue of Palestinian terrorist acts rained upon the civilian population of Israel.  Then Senator Obama wrote that he was in full support of S2370, The Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, which eventually was signed into law by the President.  The record shows that then Senator Bidden, now our Vice-President, also supported this legislation.
The law reflects the concerns of the United States regarding the severe obstacle continued terrorism against Israel plays in forestalling any possible peace negotiation.  It establishes parameters regarding this issue that must be met as well as steps the United States will take if those parameters are ignored.  Five years later none of those parameters have been met and we have witnessed the recent "marriage" of Hamas and Fatah, yet the President felt the need to place new demands upon Israel in his recent speech regarding "Freedom in the Middle East."
Let me review some of the points of this ant-terrorist legislation.
"…it shall be U.S. policy to: (1) support a peaceful, two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in accordance with the Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Roadmap), and oppose those organizations, individuals, and countries that support terrorism and violently reject such two-state solution; (2) promote democracy and the cessation of terrorism and incitement in institutions and territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA); and (3) urge members of the international community to avoid contact with and refrain from financially supporting the terrorist organization Hamas until it agrees to recognize Israel, renounce violence, disarm, and accept prior agreements, including the Roadmap… no PA ministry, agency, or instrumentality is controlled by Hamas unless the Hamas-controlled PA has publicly acknowledged the Jewish state of Israel's right to exist and is adhering to all previous agreements and understandings with the United States, Israel, and the international community, including agreements and understandings pursuant to the Roadmap; and (2) the Hamas-controlled PA has made demonstrable progress toward purging from its security services individuals with ties to terrorism, dismantling all terrorist infrastructure and cooperating with Israel's security services, halting anti-American and anti-Israel incitement, and ensuring democracy and financial transparency.
Prohibits funds for the State Department from being used by any U.S. officer or employee to negotiate with members or official representatives of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, or any other Palestinian terrorist organization (except in emergency or humanitarian situations) until such organization: (1) recognizes Israel's right to exist; (2) renounces terrorism; (3) dismantles the terrorist infrastructure; and (4) recognizes all previous agreements and understandings between Israel and the PA."
I thought the then Senator's support of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act was his affirmation of core principles by which the United States would address the Israel-Palestinian conflict. How else could one understand his support of this legislation?  And yet today, while calling for measures aimed at democratization of Arab countries, in is recent Freedom in the Middle East speech, he ignores his own principled support of just such demands of the Palestinians placing upon Israel the new demand of returning to its 1967 boarders.
One is left with the glaring and fundamental question – Can one depend upon our President to stand by any principled position he takes?  Is his foreign policy predicated solely upon pragmatism as he understands events on the ground or is there some overarching direction that governs his decisions?  This is a real problem for any nation attempting to deal with the United States, especially for the State of Israel, which, sadly, has but one ally in dealing with its ever more difficult and hostile neighborhood.
Is it no wonder that Prime Minister Netanyahu literally took the President to the woodshed?  How is Israel to face the many issues it must deal with when its "staunchest ally", the United States, vacillates on stated principles regarding terrorism?
I urge all Americans who are committed to freedom and democracy, to write our President reminding him of his support of The Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 and asking him to reaffirm his principled commitment to this important law.

Thank You R Lefkowitz!

Sunday, 29 May 2011

naomi's question of the day - #15

"naomi's question of the day" is a new feature of the Nishmablog featuring a question for you to ponder, extend and/or respond to through your comments.


May 29, 2011

Was the Tower of Babel the last united human act? Was there a noble and even sound aspect to the builder's intentions in that they lived with a sense of God's actual presence? Why was God's response to create dis-unity? It led to fragmentation -- and now we search for each other rather than God. Is human unity a negative force?

The Empire Strikes Back? - The New Periodical: Dialogue 1:1

« § Controversy of Contrivance: The Attempted Justification for Uncovered Married Women's Hair by R. Yosef Wiener and R. Yosef Ifrah –

Two kollel guys write a lengthy article to rehash old arguments against R. Michael Broyde's article on womens' hair coverings ... »

New Periodical: Dialogue 1:1 | Hirhurim – Torah Musings

Editorial -

Is this Eid naasah Dayyan?!

The two authors brought telling proof texts which question R Broyde's entire thesis

BUT - I think they should have left the challenge as Kushiyot uVayot and not promoted themselves from testifying to JUDGING R Broyde's article EG "as Contrived."

Throwing down the Gauntlet? GOOD

Drawing Negative conclusions? Questionable

I say to leave the Judging to the Blogs and present the scholarship in the magazine.

A DIALOGUE should allow for debate. Perhaps R Broyde can answer the challenges presented?

Let's have positive feelings that we have solid sources brought to bare

And pray for withholding judgment until later. B'Tzedek Tishpot Amitecha. 


Saturday, 28 May 2011

Who Said "All Rabbis are Created Equal"?

Originally published on 5/28/11, 9:52 pm.
There are some who deny that there is such a thing as superiority or a hierarchy within the post Sanhedrin Rabbinate
Yet, the words of the Rambam Mishneh Torah Sanhedrin 6:9[13] suggest otherwise. Not all rabbis are equal even if "all men are created equal".
There may indeed be a movement to Democratize the Rabbinate. It does not appear to be rooted in Rabbinic Tradition
Note, too, the Rambam's appeal to Minhag S'pharad as a kind of proof text.

Text -

הלכות סנהדרין פרק ו

יג  [ט] וכן הדין בזמן הזה, שאין שם בית דין גדול, אבל יש מקומות שיש בהן חכמים גדולים מומחין לרבים, ומקומות שיש בהן תלמידים שאינן כמותן:  אם אמר המלווה, נלך למקום פלוני שבארצו לפני פלוני הגדול, ונדון לפניו בדין זה--שכופין את הלווה, והולך עימו.  וכך היו מעשים בספרד בכל יום.


Friday, 27 May 2011

naomi's question of the day - #14

"naomi's question of the day" is a new feature of the Nishmablog featuring a question for you to ponder, extend and/or respond to through your comments.


May 27, 2011

When I am afraid, I beg God to eliminate the object of my fear. Should I only pray not to be afraid -- for a more steadfast faith: that I am at all times in God's Hands and in God's Hands, I am safe? What prayer in our moment of pleading does He want and how is it to be found with absolute truth when the primary truth is a sense of rampant vulnerability?

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Did you know that Jews Like Hairy Chicken?

Originally published on 5/26/11, 7:10 pm.
I work for a Glatt Kosher Chinese Restaurant
As many of us Jews know, the laws of Kashrut make removing hairs from chicken difficult before soaking and salting. Therefore, most kosher chickens we get have many more hairs than do Treif Chickens
The conclusion of our Chinese Workers?

Jews must like hairy chickens! Why? Because that's what we buy FROM other Jews and that's what we sell TO other Jews EG when we sell chicken wings.
This conclusion is the logical perspective of the outsider. But it fails to understand that at most Jews might tolerate hair more, but we still prefer hairless chicken and still mostly detest the hair that's there!

Conclusion? Outsiders don't get it!

The Nimshal can often be applied to communal Minhaggim. EG Hungarians would "get" Hungarian Minhaggim, outsiders would not
For example, recently, a Rabbi described a Chossid wearing a bekesher AND his Tefillin on Hol Hamoed Pesach. At first I could not fathom it. Then he said the magic words "Oberlander"* then it all clicked together. But to those unfamiliar with Oberlanders, it would remain an enigmatic mystery


* Oberlanders come from a section of Hungary that remained steadfastly loyal to Minhag Ashkenaz as did the Yekkes. Many of them did become Hassidim but nevertheless refused to alter their Minhag Avot regarding Nusach, etc. They never abandoned Minhag Ashkenaz in favor of Nusach Arizal - though I'm told this is eroding in some communities.


naomi's question of the day - #13

"naomi's question of the day" is a new feature of the Nishmablog featuring a question for you to ponder, extend and/or respond to through your comments.


May 26, 2011

We are told (by Rambam, I think) that if we are conscious of God constantly, we will be safe.
"...existential psychology recognizes that for man, the only 'norm' can be creativity, some form of self-transcendence." (C. Wilson)
To transcend the self - is this to come in contact with Godliness? But to create is to feel God-like -- and it necessitates a powerful and focused self, a self that hears all of its own voice. How is it possible to clearly attend to that voice and, simultaneously, be conscious of God?

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Who really inflicted the Naqba?

« .... Only the Arab states acted completely differently from the rest of the world. They crushed the refugees despite the fact that they were their coreligionists and members of the Arab nation. They instituted a régime of apartheid to all intents and purposes. So we must remember that the "nakba" was not caused by the actual dispossession, which had also been experienced by tens of millions of others. The "nakba" is the story of the apartheid and abuse suffered by the Arab refugees (it was only later that they became "Palestinians") in Arab countries. .. »

Daled Amos: Ben Dror Yemini: The Arab Apartheid



naomi's question of the day - #12

"naomi's question of the day" is a new feature of the Nishmablog featuring a question for you to ponder, extend and/or respond to through your comments.


May 25, 2011

In the Amidah, it is written
"[He] resurrects the dead with great mercy"
and also
"[He] fulfills His trust to those who sleep in the dust."
What is the distinction? And if we sleep in the dust, how are we to understand the glory that is described as the World-To-Come?

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

JVO: Lag Ba'omer

Originally published on 5/24/11, 9:57 pm.
Jewish Values Online is a website that asks about the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us --  then presents answers from each of the dominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster, Rabbi Wolpoe,  serves as an Orthodox member of their Panel of Scholars, offering answers from our perspective.

This post is part of a weekly series on the Nishmablog presenting the questions to which he responded and the answers that he gave.

* * * * *

Question: Lag Baomer - the 33rd day of the 7 weeks observant Jews count between Passover and Shavuot - is a total mystery to me. The celebrations, what seems to border on pagan ritual at rabbis' graves - all of it...very odd. Can you provide clarity / insight / rationale?

S.C.J. FAQ: Section 5.1. Jewish Holidays: What are the different holidays?


«Lag Ba'Omer (Iyar 18--The 33rd day of the Omer)
Thirty-third day of Omer counting, as indicated by the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters lamed (30) and gimmel (3), hence the word lag. . Lag Ba'Omer takes place during the Sefirah. During this day there was a break in the Hadrianic persecution. Weddings and joyful occasions are permitted.

Lag Ba'Omer is considered a joyous day on which the semi-mourning observed during the seven-week Omer period is suspended. It is commemorated as the day of the cessation of the plague in which 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiba were said to have died during the Bar Kokhba revolt (TB. Yev. 62b). It also marks the yahrzeit of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. Lag ba-Omer has been traditionally celebrated with the lighting of bonfires on the eve and during the day, and with hiking excursions in the countryside. Sporting events and games with bows and arrows are held, as a symbolic remembrance of the Bar Kokhba revolt and the physical prowess and courage required of his soldiers. In Israel, it is customary to light bonfires at the tombs of Simeon bar Yohai and his son Eliezer at Meron, near Safed, and at the tomb of Simeon the Just in Jerusalem. Throngs congregate to sing and dance, and to honor the memories of Simeon bar Yohai and Rabbi Akiba, who were among the main rabbinic supporters of anti-Roman resistance

==> In hasidic circles, three-year-old boys are traditionally given their first haircut at these festivals. <== Older Torah students and adults celebrate the day as the "Scholars' Holiday". Lag ba-Omer is also a traditional day for wedding ceremonies to be held because of the general halakhic injunction against weddings during the period of the Omer counting.»

Full Disclosure  I myself am a Misnaged/Mithnaged an Opponent of Hassidism  As such I belong to a group that either opposes Mysticism/Kabbalah entirely, or at least any public manifestations thereof. *(See below)

Even granting solid Kabbalistic reasons, the public nature of "Odd Customs"  leaves onlookers with a negative impression of Jewish Ritual

The reality is that since they have gone public, the best antidote is education and information.   Since I'm not well-versed in Kabbalistic Ritual I solicited help from some colleagues

Perhaps The single best article may be found here


The aish.com site has other articles in the same vein.

For me the bottom line is that Kabbalah and Esoteric Judaism ought to be private. But once it has gone public we need to seek the best possible rationales we can in order to understand what's going on.

As far as practicing these for oneself, it's a matter of taste. As far as Jewish Halachah goes these are optional;  and so  if they enhance one's connection to the Eternal then go for it! If they turn you off, shun it.

So while I DEIGN not to practice some these ritualls myself, I try not to DISDAIN those who do!   <Smile>
*Some people were a little startled when reading the fourth paragraph so here is some background I count myself as a Yecke, and while 19th century German gedolim had widely divergent attitudes regarding Kabbalah, ranging from those who dismissed or abstained alltogeher from engaging in kabbalah, to  those who were themselves great kabbalists. However, there was an almost unanimous agreement that mystical teachings and practices were not for public consumption and should not be incorporated as popular practices.

naomi's question of the day - #11

"naomi's question of the day" is a new feature of the Nishmablog featuring a question for you to ponder, extend and/or respond to through your comments.


May , 2011

If we are aware that learning Torah will make us better able to serve God, and we choose to be involved in professions and lives that create parameters that limit our ability to learn, how can we not feel deprived?

How can we be okay with our decision?

Furthermore, how are we supposed to fulfill our known obligation to be Torah-observant if we don't have adequate knowledge?

Monday, 23 May 2011

How Anorexics and Others Deal with Denial

Originally published 5/23/11, 4:51 pm.
«Just as an Anorexic untreated will realize they are the victim of an illness that is killing them, only after it is too late. So too, the well meaning bodies forcing Israel to essentially commit suicide, will only be able to see the error of their plan after irreparable damage will be caused to Israel, and the rest of the civilized world.»

Obama's Israeli Anorexia. – Jewish Values Online Blog


Turnabout is Fair Play; Midah k'Neged Midah in the Mideast

Originally published on 5/23/11, 9:57 am. Link no longer works.
« "Tens of thousands of ordinary Mexicans were driven out of their homes – the only homes they had known for centuries – and forced to live in poverty and squalor south of the border imposed by American aggression," Netanyahu said. "The Israeli and Mexican people agree on this: This festering wound will never heal until America takes bold steps to return to the internationally accepted lines of 1845. Clearly the settlement activity that..»

Netanyahu Urges U.S. Return To 1845 Borders



Sunday, 22 May 2011

Information's Effect on Religion

Originally published on 5/22/11, 7:54 pm.
This a link to an article by Lisa Miller, described on the site as "formerly the religion editor at Newsweek, [and] the author of “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife,” recently released in paperback." It would seem that she knows of what she writes.


Here article concludes with the following line:
"Without a doubt, this represents a new crisis for organized religion, a challenge to think again about what it means to be a “body” of believers."

It seems that the open access to scriptural information presents a challenge, from Ms. Miller's perspective, to organized religion. Her words, of course, could not be considered as applying to Orthodox Judaism as Torah advocates for the open accessibility of Torah information. We have all continuously heard how Torah Judaism is fundamentally different because of the prime mitzvah of limud haTorah. What is interesting, though, is that similar fears actually are felt within the Torah world precisely, also, because of the open accessibility of Torah information. What maintained the power of the authority of Torah scholars within our community was not, though, their accessibility to the sources over the accessibility of the general populace to the sources. What distinguished Torah scholars was their very ability to understand the sources because of the inherent difficult challenge of Torah study. It is not the simple accessibility of the sources that is the challenge that Judaism faces but it is the seemingly simple ability to understand the sources that is our present challenge (of a similar nature to what Ms. Miller is describing). Now that everyone thinks they can also understand the material due to the abundance of explanatory books, the status of gadol because of the ability to understand is not appreciated because everyone today can be made to think that they do understand. The result is a challenge to authority but also a challenge to the reason for authority. The result is that the real reason for Torah authority which is the exceptional ability to understand the sources is lost. Everyone thinks they already understand -- so the gadol must be special because of some other reason, a reason that does not foster the further development of the thought of Torah.

I share this article because I think it is most interesting, both in the ways that it does not apply to the Judaism and in the strange way that some of these ideas do apply to what is occurring in present Judaism.

Rabbi Ben Hecht.

Tony Kushner's honorary degree

Guest blogger -- Douglas Aronin

Shalom, RRW

Tony Kushner's honorary degree

By now, most of those who have followed the brouhaha over the honorary degree being given by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to playwright Tony Kushner (whose best known work is the award-winning play Angels in America) would probably like the controversy to go away.  After all, the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY), of which John Jay is part, has now reversed its earlier decision and allowed John Jay to award Kushner the honorary degree, so the issue, as a practical matter, has been resolved.  Before we let this controversy’s allotted fifteen minutes expire, however, it is worth taking another look at what happened and why, and trying to figure out if there is anything of value to be learned from it.
The controversy about the proposed honorary degree to Kushner began on May 2, when the CUNY board, near the end of its regularly scheduled meeting, took up the slate of candidates for honorary degrees that had been recommended by CUNY’s various schools.  The board’s approval is required for the award of honorary degrees, but usually the slate of candidates proposed by the various CUNY colleges is approved without debate or dissent.  On this occasion, however, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a CUNY board member since 1999 who was appointed by former Governor George Pataki, objected to John Jay’s proposed award of an honorary degree to Kushner because of Kushner’s extreme anti-Israel views.  Wiesenfeld later told an interviewer that he had not expected the board to deny approval to Kushner but wanted to use the opportunity to register a dissent, thus calling attention to Kushner’s extremism.  While the details of exactly what happened next are somewhat murky, the bottom line is clear: the board tabled John Jay’s recommendation of Kushner for an honorary degree while approving the remainder of the slate of proposed honorary degree recipients.  Since the board’s next regular meeting was scheduled to occur after John Jay’s commencement, tabling that recommendation effectively denied Kushner the honorary degree, at least for this year.
It was the Jewish Week that initially reported the CUNY board’s action (or, more accurately, its non-action) on its website.  The board’s refusal to approve Kushner’s honorary degree created an avalanche  of criticism that obviously took everyone by surprise.  Kushner himself added fuel to the fire with a May 4 letter to the CUNY board in which he accused Wiesenfeld of mounting a “vicious attack “ on him that constituted “slander.” He demanded an apology from the other board members for paying attention to Wiesenfeld, and asserted that Wiesenfeld, “like most bullies, prefers an unfair fight.”  Others joined in the attack on Wiesenfeld, demanding that the board reverse its position.  To put additional pressure on the board, several prior recipients of CUNY honorary degrees threatened to return their awards.
Under mounting pressure, Benno Schmidt, the CUNY board’s chairman, hastily convened a special meeting of its executive committee (of which Wiesenfeld is not a member), which reversed the board’s decision and approved John Jay’s honorary degree award to Kushner.  (Apparently, the executive committee has the authority to reverse the board under some circumstances, although that authority is rarely exercised.)  Some of those who had spoken out in favor went further, urging that Wiesenfeld resign or be removed from the board. Wiesenfeld has subsequently made it clear that he has no intention of resigning, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the only one with legal authority to remove him, surely has more pressing issues to worry about and is unlikely to wade into the middle of this controversy.
Are there any lessons worth learning from this course of events? At the risk of belaboring the obvious, Tony Kushner’s views on Israel really should be abhorrent, not only to anyone who loves Israel but also to anyone who loves truth.  Kushner, in his letter to CUNY’s board, accused Wiesenfeld  of “deliver[ing] a grotesque caricature of my political beliefs regarding the state of Israel.”  His letter carefully avoids delving too far into the substance of those beliefs, however, though he admits that he has accused Israel of following a policy of “ethnic cleansing” vis-à-vis the Palestinians, a characterization that should be beyond the pale of civil discussion.    Kushner’s letter tries to validate his use of the odious phrase “ethnic cleansing” by reference to the work of Israeli historian Benny Morris, but Morris, to the best of my knowledge, has never used that phrase (and Kushner’s letter, if read carefully, doesn’t actually claim that he has).   Though Morris’s early scholarship on Israel’s founding was controversial, he has over time substantially moderated his harsher criticisms.  Even at his most critical, moreover, Morris’s views were always more nuanced that Kushner’s – admittedly, not a difficult standard to meet.  Kushner’s letter to the CUNY board also admits that he serves on the advisory board of the Jewish Voice for Peace, which has rightly been the center of controversy of late.  Unlike those organizations (such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now) that are part of what might be called the mainstream peace camp, JVP supports the anti-Israel boycott and refuses to endorse a two-state solution.
But even though Kushner’s views on Israel should be abhorrent to any decent person, Wiesenfeld erred by raising those views as a reason to deny Kushner an honorary degree.  I do not mean to suggest, as have some of Wiesenfeld’s critics, that the board’s initial rejection of the proposed honorary degree was an infringement of Kushner’s right of free speech. As many of Wiesenfeld’s defenders have correctly pointed out, no one has a right to an honorary degree.  Indeed, John Jay’s Procedures for Awarding Honorary Degrees, available on the school’s web site, expressly stipulates that “the conferral of the honorary degree is conditional on the approval of the CUNY Chancellor and of the CUNY Board of Trustees.”  Weisenfeld himself pointed out, in an op-ed written in his own defense the day after Kushner’s letter to the CUNY board, the difference between honorary degrees and degrees in course.  The CUNY board cannot deny a student a degree that he or she has earned because of that student’s views, however abhorrent.   By contrast, the Board had the legal right to refuse to honor Kushner for whatever reason it thought appropriate.  As a public university, CUNY may be somewhat more constrained than a private college as to its reasons for denying honors, but it’s difficult to believe that any court would hold that a public university’s board cannot consider an honorary degree candidate’s views in deciding whether he or she is worthy of such an honor.
Wiesenfeld’s error was not constitutional but strategic.  He may not have noticed, but Israel has become a bit more controversial in recent years than it once was, even here in the United States.  There was a time, not all that long ago, when supporters of Israel could count on strong support not only from virtually all Jews, but from the vast majority of Americans.  Most Americans still have a positive view of Israel, but it’s becoming a harder sell, particularly on college campuses.  The increased controversy surrounding Israel emphatically does not excuse its supporters from the obligation to defend it, but it does suggest that we need to choose our battles a bit more carefully than we once did. 
There are occasions, of course, when those hostile to Israel attack it in ways that force its defenders to join battle in venues and under circumstances that are disadvantageous to its cause, such as when a mainline Protestant denomination is considering endorsing an anti-Israel boycott. When that happens, Israel’s supporters have no choice but to mobilize, even if the odds of prevailing are less than optimal.
John Jay’s proposed honorary degree to Kushner, however, was not one of those occasions.  John Jay’s honoring of Kushner has nothing to do with his views on Israel, and no one would have seen the two as linked but for Wiesenfeld’s ill-advised decision to link them.  The ensuing controversy not only created the misimpression that John Jay is endorsing Kushner’s views on Israel, but also placed Israel on what most will see as the wrong side of a battle over freedom of expression.  The resulting uproar provided Kushner with an opportunity he would not otherwise have had to reiterate—under guise of clarifying –his anti-Israel views.  It also provided opportunities for others of Israel’s enemies to use Wiesenfeld’s actions as additional proof of Israel’s supposed suppression of dissent.  To take but one example, Stephen Walt, of Walt-Mearsheimer infamy, used the Kushner controversy as a pretext to reiterate his claim (this time on the website of Foreign Policy) that the denial of Kushner’s proposed honor is “one of the many attempts by self-appointed ‘defenders’ of Israel to control discourse on this issue.”
With all the ink that has been spilled (or its cyber equivalent) in this controversy, one question that I would have thought obvious appears not to have been asked: Why did the faculty of John Jay want to award an honorary degree to Kushner in the first place?  That college, according to the mission statement on its web site, is “a liberal arts college dedicated to education, research and service in the fields of criminal justice, fire science and related areas of public safety and public service,” – in none of which areas Kushner has any expertise or involvement.  I posed that question to a John Jay student of my acquaintance, but he was mystified as well.  Colleges often seek out “big names” for their commencement exercises however irrelevant or inappropriate they may be to the school’s mission, and I suspect that was the primary motivation in this case as well.  It’s noteworthy in this context that despite the highly public nature of the controversy, John Jay’s own website remained silent throughout.
The CUNY executive committee’s approval of Kushner’s honorary degree should end the controversy, though I suspect that there will be unusual media interest in the John Jay commencement itself.  It’s unlikely that Wiesenfeld’s detractors, despite their hostile rhetoric, will make a serious attempt to oust him from the board (which would expose them as hypocrites jumping on the free speech bandwagon to further a different agenda), and virtually inconceivable that they would succeed even if they tried.  For the world at large, the Kushner/John Jay controversy will soon be over.
For the Jewish community, however, the Kushner controversy is a symptom of a much larger malady.  This course of events has highlighted yet again the growing divisions within the community as to the boundaries of acceptable criticism of Israel.   Jonathan Sarna, the respected American Jewish historian, was quoted in last week’s Jewish Week as saying that “no one knows any longer what the boundaries” of legitimate dissent are.  Neither Wiesenfeld nor Kushner created this uncertainty, and the end of their rhetorical combat won’t end it.  The internal debate over the boundaries of legitimate criticism of Israel is likely to recur with some regularity in the months and possibly the years ahead.  If there is any benefit to be derived from this controversy, it is a timely reminder that Israel’s advocates need to choose their battlegrounds with care. 
Douglas Aronin

Friday, 20 May 2011

Is Hadash Assur Min Hatorah? 1 - Sheitels

Originally published on 5/20/11, 12:42 pm.
Two Hundred years ago, wearing a Wig or Peruke was a radical innovation to cover women's hair. Many posqim opposed it - can hair be a mafsik for other hair?
Now sheitels are standard. And the fact that they are highly attractive does not seem to bother anyone.
What changed? What makes it so kosher nowadays, that it would seem that no frum married woman would leave home without it?


Thursday, 19 May 2011

Forgiveness or Revenge: Justice?

Originally published 5/19/11, 10:53 pm.
There is a case in Iran that has raised the consternation of not only many around the world but even of many within this country who otherwise may be supporters of the regime.

It seems that a young woman in her twenties has had acid thrown at her face by a rejected would-be-suitor. The acid not only grossly disfigured this woman, who was previously described as attractive, but it also left her blind. The question now is: what to do with the assailant?

It seems that according to Sharia law, there are two options, both dependent on the wishes of the injured woman. She can either choose to forgive this man or she can choose to punish this man by causing to him what he did to her -- having acid poured on his face leaving him also disfigured and blind. Iranians are lining up on both sides in advising this woman what she should do Further on this story, see http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2071529,00.html?hpt=C2

On the surface, it would seem to be the classic choice of justice v. mercy. Should this woman exhibit mercy or demand justice? But is this really the question? Is this woman forgiving this man really an act of mercy? Is this woman demanding that acid be poured on the face of this man really justice? This case and the response of Sharia Law may actually raise in us the greater question of what is justice and what is mercy.

Forgiving this man for his behaviour would seem to be, clearly, an act of mercy. There are those who argue, however, that this conclusion would only arise from a narrow perspective and that allowing this man to escape without any punishment would really, from a broader perspective, be an act of cruelty. Advocates of this position claim that mercy for this man would, in the end, only create the possibility of greater terror for women in general. Other men of a similar nature would feel more empowered to force themselves upon a woman who rejects them believing that public pressure, in any event, would demand of her to exercise mercy. A true definition of what is merciful cannot arise by seeing an individual case in a vacuum without a recognition of the consequences of such a decision on the general society is very near sighted. This recognition is being highlighted in this case as both sides are actually contending that they have the more sensitive and merciful position -- the question being whether one should be merciful to this man or to women in general.  Chazal point out that mercy to the wrong person can result in greater cruelty. Would forgiving this man really be an act of mercy?

It is the insight into the definition of justice that this case highlights, though, that has caught my attention. We all know that the Torah's declaration of "an eye for an eye" never meant that the one who injures should, in return, face the same injury but rather it meant monetary compensation. The gemara argues that the Torah could not possibly mean perfect retribution because perfect retribution is an impossibility. No eyes of different individuals are similar so how could you demand of one to face the exact same injury that he/she caused to the other for an exactly the same injury is an impossibility. Thus the Torah in using this phrase must mean monetary compensation. But is retribution, even though it is impossible, still to be seen as a form of justice? I believe that the gemara may also be informing us that such retribution is not really a form of justice -- and this case in Iran highlights this.

There is a thin line between justice and revenge -- and many people if not most do not see this distinction. This is clearly highlighted in this case in Iran for it is the woman who was injured, herself, that is to inflict the acid upon the man. In the eyes of so many, the idea of justice is that a person should get what he/she deserves -- and if you inflict injury on another, you should face the same injury. And this same injury should also take into account the emotional effects of what happened and thus the one hurt the other should then be hurt by this other. But is this really justice? What the gemara is saying in declaring that no two eyes are the same is, in my opinion, a strong statement on the nature of justice. Justice is not retribution but rather an attempt to correct the situation. Justice is not about pain and punishment per se but it is about the necessary steps that must be undertaken to establish and/or re-establish the necessary equilibrium in both the narrow realm of the individuals and the broader societal and global realm. You can't hurt a person the same way this person hurt another for there is no the same. If you think in that way, you miss the point. Justice is figuring out what really is the right next thing to do to move from here to a higher plane. This will result in the person who caused the damage having to carry more of the burden of this correction, but this is justice. The key, though, is the correction.

In the grander scheme of things, we may now wonder: how can you expect a population to act justly if they don't even understand what justice is in the first place?

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Mimetics and their Rationalizations: LW, RW, Centre. 1 - The Questions

How much critical thinking is healthy when confronting a questionable

1. Tur assumes Shabbat Hagadol stems from taking the lamb on the 10th of Nissan
2 SA takes mourning during Sefirat Ho'omer as stemming from R Akiva.
3. Rema says N'siat kappayim is limited to days of Simchah
4 We cover mirrors @ a shiva. The common reason given is due to sheidim.
5. We don't eat nuts on R"H. The folk reason is gemat'ria of "heit".

How do we approach these cases -
1 Since the reason given is silly therefore the underlying practice is silly?
2. We un-critically accept the practices and their reasons as axiomatically correct?
3. We accept the custom as correct and critically question their popular Rationale?
4. We accept the Rationale and we feel free to Revise the practice?


Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Sefirah - Missing Liturgy

Originally published 5/18/11, 7:19 pm.
Given -
A. We recite a Qinah for G'zeirot Tatnu [1096] on Tisha b'Av
B We add Av Horachamim on Shabbat [especialy during sefirah] for kehilot shemosru nafsham al kiddush Hashem
C. We have a Qinah and a S'lichah for assarah harugei malchut
D We even have Qinot for the Sho'ah!

Question: Why is there no Qinah or S'licha for the 24K Talmiddim of R Akiva? How did that slip through the cracks?


naomi's question of the day - #10

"naomi's question of the day" is a new feature of the Nishmablog featuring a question for you to ponder, extend and/or respond to through your comments.

May 18, 2011

Am  I able to forgive myself --  I am supposed to believe that with proper repentance I will be forgiven by God -- but I exist as a standing entity and I must face myself -- is this a fight between my self as all consciousness and the True Greater Consciousness that might be a comfort and a guide?

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

JVO: Supporting Israel

Jewish Values Online (jewishvaluesonline.org) is a website that asks the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us -- and then presents answers from each of the dominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster Rabbi Wolpoe serves as an Orthodox member of their Panel of Scholars, offering answers from our perspective.

This post is part of a weekly series on the Nishmablog presenting the questions to which he responded and the answers that he gave.

* * * * *

Question: I truly support Israel, but in this day and age it is difficult to do so, with so much dissent in the news and on the streets. Where in the Torah does it state that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews? Does the Torah delineate borders?

"I truly support Israel, but in this day and age it is difficult to do so, with so much dissent in the news and on the streets. Where in the Torah does it state that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews? Does the Torah delineate borders?"

The connection between the People of Israel and the Land of Israel is long and complex. A good portion of our Tanach is a "love story" between the people and the land. And so the scope of this article is too brief to do it Justice.

The Torah Based claims of the Torah Observant Jews and the Historical claims of the Jewish Nationalists are all based upon Tanach - albeit from slightly different perspectives. Yet these perspectives overlap. Even those Orthodox Jews who oppose Politcal Zionism all favor re-settlement of Our Holy Land.

It could be argued that we have no right to Israel without permission from the rest of the world.  And that permission has been granted both by the League of Nations and the United Nations.

"Where in the Torah does it state that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews?"

The "Promised Land" was designated for the descendants of Abrham Isaac and Jacob - numerous times. Caveat - Only to that subset of our forefathers that was exiled  to Egypt and left via the Exodus!  By process of elimination this encompasses  only the descendants of Jacob-Israel, Rachel, Leah etc.

See EG
Genesis ch. 15
Exodus ch 3

Technically it was not given only to Jews [Judeans] but all Israel. But with 10 of the original trines having been "Lost" -practicall speaking   it means Jews as the only identifiable Israelites today.

"Does the Torah delineate borders?"

Indeed it does
The Boundaries are delineated in Numbers 34

Also in the Book of Joshua.

Note too that
David conquered other territitories and when Ezra and Nehmiah returned the boundaries evolved again.  To know the precise boundaries requires a detailed knowledge of geography - which I lack.

The so-called Trans-Jordan was assigned to Reuben Gad and half of Menasseh [see Numbers 32].  Later in history -  Jabotinksy and the Revisionists revived  the Jewish claim to those territories - which were apparently included in the original Balfour based Mandate before the first Palestinian Partition circa 1924.

Many Christians and even some Moslems recognize the Israelite claim to its ancestral land based upon scripture

Further Sources:

  • The Very First Rashi on Humash
  • Nachmanides on the Torah
  • The Kuzari of R Yehudah Halevi
  • The Qinot [elegies] for the ninth of Av - in the "Zionide" section

naomi's question of the day - #9

"naomi's question of the day" is a new feature of the Nishmablog featuring a question for you to ponder, extend and/or respond to through your comments.


May 17, 2011

It is written in the Shmona Esrah of Shacharit -- "We thankfully acknowledge that You are the Lord our God and God of our fathers forever."
What has happened has happened and cannot be changed (transformed) --
why isn't it written that you will be the God of our sons forever: something that is to come, that is unknown and hoped-for.
Because what has occurred is not an anticipated gift -- and what has happened cannot change.
Wouldn't it be a greater blessing -- and doesn't blessing refer to what is coming -- to say that God will be the God of our offspring?

Monday, 16 May 2011

Once upon a time on the 5th of Iyyar....

Originally published 5/16/11, 5:18 pm.
I received this letter and made some cosmetic changes to it

«Dear Rabbi Wolpoe,

Many years ago I was on a date in Manhattan when a local rabbi needed help with his maariv minyan...

I went gladly and I shlepped another reluctant fellow saying "after all, it's only 10 minutes"

So we went

Lo and behold - he conducted a full-blown Yom Ho'atzma'ut service with us as a captive audience. Our dates were miffed. My acquaintance whom I shlepped was murmuring "I told you so" etc.

Did this rabbi "do the right thing" by holding us there beyond the regular Maariv Service?


Here was my quick response

«Dear Abie,

First the rabbi could have warned you or consulted you first But I guess he wasn't very proactive.

Second the rabbi could have finished Aleinu and Kaddish, then sent you fellows back and continued the special service sans a minyan. But I guess the rabbi wasn't thinking about you, or perhaps he felt it was a good idea for you guys to experience the glory of the entire service, despite your personal discomfort.

Third, I guess you may have become gun shy in the future about "helping out". Otherwise why did you need to express yourself? I find that rabbis who make a captive audience wait do turn off some people. Others may not care.

I hope you have more positive experiences in the future.»

Dear Readers, any other elegant solutions to this dilemma?


naomi's question of the day - #8

"naomi's question of the day" is a new feature of the Nishmablog featuring a question for you to ponder, extend and/or respond to through your comments.


May 16, 2011

We are told to ivdu et Hashem b'simcha but also we are informed to remember daily the destruction of the Temple and that it is more advised to attend a shiva than a wedding -- is there a happiness that requires sadness to be the true happiness with which we are to serve God? How is it understood?

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Results of Poll on: Proper Pathways to Personal Spirituality

In our last poll, we inquired:

New Poll: Proper Pathways to Personal Spiritualliy

What are the preferred parameters for enhancing one’s spirituality
and d’veiqut?

A. Anything above Halachic norms is a form of deviation and bal tosif. 
Be in the world and eschew spirituality in favour of simply observing the  
Halachah, and no more. Spend the excess of one’s energy having a life.

B. The more the merrier.  “Tie yellow ribbons around old oak trees” in 
addition to scarlet threads. If it makes you feel good about Hashem
go for it - unless it violates a definite halachah

C. The starting point is just to be m’daqdeiq in the Shulchan Aruch. 
Any extra energy, then, should be spent on learning Torah lishmah.

D. Do Jewish Meditation.  

E. It all depends upon the context of the times, the society, and, most 
practically, the individual. 
People should focus on their unique one characteristic, one be it  
Biqqur Holim, Singing,  Tz’daqah, Torah, etc. 
What's your choice?

Your Responses (total 1)

Choice A - 00% (0)
Choice B - 00% (0)
Choice C - 00% (0)
Choice D - 00% (0)
Choice E - 20% (1)

naomi's question of the day - #7

"naomi's question of the day" is a new feature of the Nishmablog featuring a question for you to ponder, extend and/or respond to through your comments.


May 15, 2011

I know a student who is in an academic environment and she has this question:

Is it worth it? To put oneself in a secular environment in order to do something you believe in, in a secular world? Sometimes my teachers say things that seem contrary to my conception of Holiness. If a person’s Holiness can be positively influenced by being close to people who are Holy, does it chip away at their Holiness being exposed to those who are not or to that which is not?

Saturday, 14 May 2011

What Should a Rabbi Know? 4 - The Ideal According to Avot 4:1


NishmaBlog: What Should a Rabbi Know? - 1 - The Rambam's List for Dayyanim


Now - Based Upon Avot 4:1 * - I submit that no subject is outside Torah or perhaps even CAN BE outside of Torah. Of course subjects such as "Avodat G'lilim" is mostly about the Negative, meaning what's WRONG with A"G. But that the Midrash Teaches us that Avraham Avinu had 400 chapters of Masechta Avodah Zarah is most instructive. Avraham Avinu, the pioneer of discovering the ONE TRUE G-D knew more about idol worship - and its shortcomings - than anyone else. Yitro had a similar Path of discovery.

Certainly Torah encompasses all of life. If Homer is outside the Pale, a Rabbi needs to know how and why. EG The Hatam Sofer knew Mendelsohnn's Beiur in sufficient detail to attack specific passages.

So which Rabbis - or other great Jewish figures - actually succeeded in transcending their own comfort zones?

Well, no one's perfect, but here are some nominees

Mosheh Rabbenu might come first, but I'm totally inadequate to addressing that task

These towering figures come to mind -

Shlomoh Hamelech
R Saadya Gaon
Vilna Gaon
RSR Hirsch
RAY Kook
RYD Soloveichik.

We will address some of them BE"H

* Text of Avot 4:1

מסכת אבות פרק ד

ד,א בן זומא אומר, איזה הוא חכם--הלמד מכל אדם, שנאמר "מכל מלמדיי, השכלתי" (תהילים קיט,צט).


Friday, 13 May 2011

naomi's question of the day - #6

"naomi's question of the day" is a new feature of the Nishmablog featuring a question for you to ponder, extend and/or respond to through your comments.


May 13, 2011

Why doesn't the Torah begin with the word God -- as it is written, isn't it possible to believe that time pre-existed God's creation of the world: what reason could there be for time to exist in eternity? Was time the map of creation? -- I thought Torah was? But Torah too is filled with chronology and measurements of time -- is our world only distinct from God because of (thru) time?

Thursday, 12 May 2011

naomi's question of the day - #5

"naomi's question of the day" is a new feature of the Nishmablog featuring a question for you to ponder, extend and/or respond to through your comments.


May 12, 2011

In Ashrei is stated:
God is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth
Why isn't is just written "to all who call upon Him in truth"?

Should we assume stylistic flourishes exist in tefillas?

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

What Should a Rabbi Know? 3 - What Rabbis REALLY Seem to be Saying

It seems based upon my survey that the following hypothesis sums it up
It's all about one's "Comfort Zone"
Rabbis only deal with subjects within in their own comfort zones and zone out the rest!
And whatever is outside that zone - they go on to dismiss as being unimportant or trivial or a waste of time etc.
And what they DO deal with they consider THE most important things in the universe
<Tongue in Cheek>
So can you show me ONE rabbi - Just ONE rabbi - who fails these principles?
Stay tuned for Part 4


JVO: Necessity of Circumcision

Jewish Values Online (jewishvaluesonline.org) is a website that asks the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us -- and then presents answers from each of the dominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster Rabbi Wolpoe serves as an Orthodox member of their Panel of Scholars, offering answers from our perspective.

This post is part of a weekly series on the Nishmablog presenting the questions to which he responded and the answers that he gave.

* * * * *

Question: Is circumcision absolutely necessary for baby boys?

From an Orthodox perspective, it is absolutely necessary. The only exceptions I know are limited to health concerns. E.G., Circumcisions must be delayed if the baby is not yet robust enough to withstand the procedure

In the case of a hemophiliac, the Bris is postponed indefinitely due to the danger of bleeding.

Sources: My primary reference is Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Milah

naomi's question of the day - #4

"naomi's question of the day" is a new feature of the Nishmablog featuring a question for you to ponder, extend and/or respond to through your comments.


May 11, 2011

If the first verse of the Torah pre-supposes the existence of God -- is it necessary to pursue and claim absolute faith before studying Torah?

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Clinton Non-Photo

Originally published on 5/10/11, 6:32 pm.
The story is all over the news, both within the Jewish media and the general one. Even CNN has a piece on it (see http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/us/2011/05/09/tsr.snow.manipulated.photo.cnn?iref=allsearch). A Yiddish, clearly chassidic newspaper in Brooklyn presented a story on the killing of Osama bin Laden (significantly, I think, under a banner B'Ibud Risha'im Rina, In the Fall of Evil Ones There is Joy) and with the story also published what is now being termed that iconic photo of President Obama with his National Security Team in the White House Situation Room watching the attack on bin Laden's lair. There was, though, one difference in this case. The women in the photo, including Secretary of State Clinton, were removed from the one published in this paper. Comments abounded on this slight of Mrs. Clinton and, perhaps with more intensity, what was deemed to be a slight of women, especially women in powerful offices, in general. In another vein, there was just simply mockery.

Clearly, on a personal level, I was somewhat critical of this action to 'photoshop' the photo. Halachically, I clearly disagree with the standards and even the understanding of tzniut expressed by this paper. Yet, as one who believes strongly in the concept of eilu v'eilu, I also believed that, within this framework, I was called upon to temper any critiques I may have of this action with a recognition, on this level, I would still have to respect this action as part of the corpus of Torah. In this regard, I felt for the editor of this newspaper as he responded to the questions of the CNN reporter about what the paper did. My thoughts were on the Rashi in Chukkot that states that the nations of the world will laugh at us in our practice of chukkim. The editor knew that he was being seen by the world as a fool yet he stood firm simply stating that he was following the Jewish laws of modesty. While I would disagree with his understanding of the halacha, the fact that the world may mock this behaviour cannot be one of my arguments. In the editor's mind, he believed that he was just following Torah and he handled himself in this regard in what I felt was a positive manner. He made it clear that this should not be seen as an attack on the value of women but beside that, he simply defended himself as simply following Torah. He was thus doing what he felt was right even though he knew that the world was laughing. Is this not what Rashi says will happen when we follow chukkim?

But isn't this also exactly the point -- this is what Rashi says will happen when we follow chukkim. There is another problem when we try to take chukkim and express them as understandable from a human perspective. It is when we do this, in fact, that we really open ourselves up to mockery that could even border on chilul Hashem, when the world mocks what we define as our Torah behaviour not because it mocks our behaviour but rather mocks the reason we give for this behaviour. It is such a phenomenon that occurred in this matter with the result that Torah was portrayed as foolish not so much in what the paper actually did but how people interpreted the reason for the paper's actions.

While the editor of this newspaper simply stated that he was following the Jewish laws of modesty, the Jewish Week, in describing the events, said that the position of the paper was that it "would not include any images of women in the paper because it could be considered sexually suggestive." The paper's actual comment in part was:
“In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status… Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.”
It would seem that the Jewish Week understood that in stating that it was following the Jewish laws of modesty the paper was implying that the paper was contending that any image of a woman could be considered sexually suggestive. That is a jump. The laws of tzniut can be understood as having many different considerations and the reason this paper may not publish such photos may have nothing to do with a belief that such a photo would be sexually suggestive.
Stating that the paper did not publish the photos because they were potentially sexually suggestive, though, really opens up the action to mockery. I just saw the small clip from the Colbert show on this matter. It was embarrassing; Torah was mocked. But really it was not the action of Torah that was mocked but rather the explanation that is given for this action. And perhaps the greatest mockery is in the very fact that we give such a reason. The problem is that once the paper referred to the laws of modesty, the Jewish Week expressed its explanation of what they believed this meant: laws of modesty mean concern for sexual suggestiveness. The greater problem, though, is that the Jewish Week got its impression from the very way we describe the laws of modesty. The laws of tzniut are actually most complex and they are not exclusively, even essentially, about sexual suggestiveness. That is the reason given in order to simplify this concept of tzniut and in the humour of the Colbert show, what is really being mocked is this false simplicity.

When you can have Jewish women believing that they should dress in a manner similar to a Muslim woman in a burka, what you have is not just extremism but a total lack of understanding of the very concept of tzniut. They are not just stupid; they simply do not know what they are talking about. This is where I draw the line on eilu v'eilu. I am assuming that the people truly behind the policy of this paper to not publish photos of women have adopted this policy based upon a thoughtful investigation of the concept of tzniut and, while I may disagree with this understanding, I still am called upon to respect it to some extent. That is though when such conclusions emerge from a true investigation of Torah which in this matter includes a full study of the concept of tzniut with all its complexities. Yet, I have no tolerance, even under eilu v'eilu, for simple understandings of what are actually deep and complex Torah concepts and for explanations given under these parameters. The world will mock us -- and in a certain way, in such a case, rightfully so. We are not being mocked for following God's edicts even as we do not understand them. We are being mocked for applying a simplistic and foolish understanding to God's edicts and making decisions based upon such foolishness. If one believes that the whole purpose of the laws of tzniut flows from the sexual suggestiveness of women and that these laws, for this reason, called upon this paper to 'photoshop' these women out of the paper, one deserves the mocking of Colbert -- for such a person caused a chilul Hashem in people thinking that the God of Torah believes this.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

naomi's question of the day - #3

"naomi's question of the day" is a new feature of the Nishmablog featuring a question for you to ponder, extend and/or respond to through your comments. 


May 10, 2011

I have a friend, an Orthodox Jew, who tells me that for the last several years he has felt numb on Yom Ha'atzma'ut. For most of his life, he experienced a poignant pride and gratitude whenever he thought of Israel -- and an almost bursting passion of citizenship on Ha'atzma'ut.He wonders what has changed -- does living in exile eventually make us more familiar with the idea of ourselves as strangers or has the promise faded from the promised land?

Monday, 9 May 2011

Wit and Wisdom of RYG #7

RYG had a knack for seeing through any "pretense". Anyone acting showy or hypocritical would often meet with his scorn.

Sometimes there was a bit of disconnect with the American boys, some of whom were "baalei teshuvah"

RYG was opposed to us wearing our tzitzit "out". Now these seemed odd, given that RYG himself wore his begged exposed.

Two caveats -
1. For him - a card-carrying yeshivishe, Aggudist, European Rav, [what we would today call Hareidi], it was OK. But for us American boys, we simply were not on that madreigah. If we were, we'd have been in Lakewood and Not YU.

2. He once explained to us why he wore his "arba kanfos" as he did. You see, he wore the begged over his shirt, with a vest over the begged. While his tzitzit indeed were "out" he claimed it was a function of wearing each tassel in its own corner, preserving "arba kanfot". When they were tucked in, the 4 corners were not usually well-preserved, because they tended to bunch together. This implied that wearing two tassels together on either side was a big no-no.

Now comes a visual story, with no memorable quip

One day at the end of shiur, before the next secular class began, in walked a young fellow * with long hair, an informal shirt [tee-shirt?], and Jean shorts - and his tztzit were showing

RYG looked him up-and-down. His expression varied from intense curiosity, to disapproval, to disbelief, to confusion. It was as if to say: "What is this creature in front of me?". To RYG, a young man with long hair and shorts was not a "bar hochi" to be wearing his tzitzit out.
And he muttered a few barely audible remarks and turned to us as if to say "can you believe this?"

* full disclosure. While I do not recall this fellow's name, I had met him before my YU
Days at an NCSY event. It seems to me that he was a sincere BT from the West Coast, who simply dressed in a laid-back way.


naomi's question of the day - #2

"naomi's question of the day" is a new feature of the Nishmablog featuring a question for you to ponder, extend and/or respond to through your comments. 


May 9, 2011

In Hallel it says:
Let those who fear the Lord declare that His kindness is everlasting
-- if His kindness is everlasting, why are we afraid of Him?

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Broiling Liver on a George Foreman Grill - the Question

Originally published 5/8/11, 7:38 pm.
Given: Livers require broiling because salting is deemed insufficient to remove all of its blood

Question: May we broil a liver on a "George Foreman" Grill?

See Ben Ish Chai Parshat K'doshim year 2 #1

Broiling atop hot coals directly is OK even without any space in between, because there is still room for the blood to ooze out and escape

And secondary heat is permitted by rov Poskim. That is if a fire heats an oven, that hot oven is good enough to broil a liver.

Broiling in a frying pan - no matter how hot - is not deemed z'liyah.

The George Foreman Grill has aspects similar to each of the above...

Like coals, it has a heat source and it is designed to have drains which drain off the fat. It is also on an angle. This would allow blood to ooze without collecting.

Like a frying pan - it's still a kli and not an oven nor a set of coals.

What is the p'saq here? Does this grill accomplish "nura mishav sha'iv" and keep the blood from pooling? Or is it inadequate to the task?


naomi's question of the day - #1

"naomi's question of the day" is a new feature of the Nishmablog featuring a question for you to ponder, extend and/or respond to through your comments. This is the inaugural post of this new series.


May 8, 2011

If one's financial situation is dire and thus, he/she feels financial despair -- does this indicate that this person's faith in God is weak?

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Hadar's Popular Egalitarian Yeshiva Grapples With Sex Before Marriage

Originally published 5/7/11, 9:58 pm.
This Forward article on the new egalitarian yeshiva in New York City, Hadar, caught my attention for many reasons. It was even actually the first time that I had even heard of the place. There was one thing about the article that bothered me although I couldn't clearly put my finger on it -- and this had nothing to do with my general issues when I read of such new innovations.

Of course, I have my own personal response to the institution and admit that I am naturally wary of such views of Judaism. To me, though, my personal response when I first encounter variant positions within Judaism is not a priority. My first question is whether, notwithstanding my personal view or even halachic opinion, this is a position that could be defended within the parameters of Torah or not. Is Hadar part of the world of eilu v'eilu or is it outside the pale? The article does not clearly answer that question although many of the faculty member's connection with Conservative Judaism does leave me somewhat questioning. On that level, the issue is not the specific conclusion reached but how the conclusion was reached. The difference between Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism is only secondarily in their variant conclusions but primarily in the a prioris that are applied within the system. That Hadar wishes to find some standard for connecting Torah with modernity is not the issue for me. The question is whether they wish to do so applying Orthodox parameters of the halachic system or whether they wish to apply Conservative or other non-Orthodox parameters. I even was not necessarily taken aback from this discussion in the context of sexuality for I remember once even reading an attempt to legitimize pre-marital relations by someone trying to apply Orthodox parameters. (I must admit found the article lacking.) The question for me was how Hadar was approaching the issue.

Yet this question in itself was not what bothered me about this article. That type of question is the natural result of such an article. This is the issue and then this is my response to the issue as a reader. There was something though about the article that intrinsically bothered me -- something about what it presented as the issue that missed the boat...and then it dawned on me. The article did touch upon the issue of niddah in passing, specifically in the context of some seminars at the institution, but it did not raise the issue of niddah in the primary context. What is practice in regard to niddah of these individuals, connected to Hadar, who are living together outside of marriage? That's the real question that needs to be asked within the context of this whole discussion within a Jewish context. It dawned on me that this article was written from the perspective of the change in North American mores. It was written in the context of the change in sexual attitudes from the 1950's to today. It was not written in the context of how Torah connects to modernity. I am not stating that pre-marital relations are okay or that I agree with Hadar's policy even if these individuals are observing the laws of niddah. What I am saying, though, is that if this is supposed to be an adventure in connecting Torah to modernity, the issue should be framed as such and not within the general context of the change in sexuality in the past half century. To be honest, this may have been a problem with the writer of this article and reflect this individual's lack of understanding of the Jewish issues. It may not reflect what is going on in Hadar. My point, though, is that in regard to the question of how Torah relates to modernity, it must be framed within this context and not within the general world perception relating to how old time religions relate to the changing mores of the world.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Friday, 6 May 2011

What is the Eariest Source? - Listening to Music During Sefirah

Originally published 5/6/11, 11:40 am.
We all KNOW it's ASSUR

Or is it?

Music During Sefira | Hirhurim – Torah Musings

A. Could Yom Ho'atzmaut be exempted from this prohibition?

B. Could Yom Yerushalayim be exempted?

C. What about s'machot such as Bar Mitzvah or a Brit Milah?


Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Day Osama Died

Noted Author R Benjamin Blech

«.. Was there perhaps some divine message in the striking link between the day on which Osama bin Ladin was finally brought to justice and the Jewish calendar which marked it as Yom HaShoah - the date selected to commemorate the Holocaust?

I have no doubt that Osama's death deserved a great measure of jubilation »



My Gut Reaction to Bin Laden's YS"V Execution

When first I heard of the execution of Bin Laden - All I could hear in my head was the sound of [the leining] of this passuk

י ויתלו, את-המן, על-העץ, אשר-הכין למרדכי; וחמת המלך, שככה. 

Doesn't that say it all?


Wednesday, 4 May 2011

What Should a Rabbi Know? 2 - An Informal Survey of Actual Rabbis

Originally published 5/4/11, 3:27 pm.
These snippets are based upon actual statements made to me directly or reported to me. Some of these paraphrases were technically NOT from actual rabbis, but from other self-styled "experts".

In Part 3 I will advance my hypothesis. These underlying attitudes will serve to support my findings.

Rabbi A - Astrology is only for the feeble minded

Rabbi B - Philosophy as per Rambam and Aristotle is essential

Rabbi C - Philosophy is treif - do Kabbalah * [see more detail on this below]

Rabbi D - secular learning is essential

Rabbi E - secular learning is Treif

Rabbi F - Kabbalah is good, and Yesodei Hatorah the Moreh and the first Shaar of Hovot Halvaavot is Kosher "Mechqar"

Rabbi G - Kabbalah is good, and Yesodei Hatorah the Moreh and the first Shaar of Hovot Halvaavot is Treif "Mechqar"

Rabbi H - Kabbalah up to the Arizal is good - afterwards it's bad

Rabbi I - Kabbalah before Arizal is a waste of time

Rabbi J -the Pardeis Rimonim is an important introduction to Kabbalah

Rabbi K -the Arizal made the Pardeis obsolete, thus the Pardeis has been superceded.

Rabbi L - all Kabbalah is a waste

Rabbi M - Kabbalah is not a waste but it must be a closely guarded secret

Rabbi N - Kabbalah is for everyone and ought to be promoted.

Rabbi O - Mussar Good. Kabbalah Bad

Rabbi P - don't bother with anything else besides Tanya

Rabbi Q - don't bother with anything else besides [Rav Nachman's] Likkutei Moharan

Rabbi R - don't bother with anything else besides [R Chaim Volozhener's] Nefesh Hachaim

Rabbi S - R Aryeh Kaplan teaches sufficient Kabbalah for any good Jew

Rabbi T - R Aryeh Kaplan teaches a superficial subset of Kabbalah which is really not sufficient for any intelligent Jew

Rabbi U - Since the answer to your question requires advanced Kabballah, I'm not addressing it

Rabbi V - Since the answer to your question requires advanced Kabballah, therefore it's incumbent upon me to coach you on Kabbalah so that I may fully explain to you the answer.


Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Yom HaShoah veHaGevurah -- Holocaust Memorial Day

Originally published 5/3/11, 3:50 pm.
Guest Blogger

- Posted with permission from a private email from:
Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels
Congregation Shaarei Tefillah
35 Morseland Avenue
Newton Centre, Massachusetts 02459
29 Nisan, 5771
Monday, May 1, 2011
13th Day of the Omer
Yom HaShoah veHaGevurah -- Holocaust Memorial Day
Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day.  Its official name is “Yom
HaShoah veHaGevurah – the Day of (Commemorating) the Holocaust and
Heroism,” so named having been purposely established on the 
anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.   None of us will forget
that this year truly was a day of heroism as last night, at 11:35 pm, 
President Barack Obama announced to the world that Osama Bin Laden 
had been killed earlier that day by a surgical strike of  US Specials 
Forces in Pakistan and that Bin Laden’s body was in the custody of the
United States.  While I would not deny a victory song and dance to the 
families of the victims of 9/11 or to our armed forces and to our 
Commander-in-Chief, my own prayer of thanksgiving was not of 
celebration but of somber relief and satisfaction that no matter how 
dark the times, no matter how dastardly and destructive the crimes, in
the end good will prevail and justice will be served.
It is this same sentiment that I gleaned from having read Professor 
Deborah E. Lipstadt’s extraordinary new book on The Eichmann Trial,
whose 50th anniversary is being commemorated this year.  I had the 
great privilege of travelling to Poland and Budapest on a heritage
tour with the ever amazing Prof. Lipstadt just a few years ago.  Adolf
Eichmann was a transportation specialist who applied and honed his
expertise in commercial shipping to the mass transportation of the
human chattel of Jews to concentration camps during the Shoah.  I was
not yet born in 1961 (I was born in 1968) and have no experience or
memory of the trial.  Upon reading Lipstadt’s riveting account, I was,
at first, but then not really, surprised to learn that Israel was attacked 
in the news media for its own strike against one of the masterminds 
of the Holocaust.   As opposed to a strategic assassination as in the 
case of Bin Laden, Israel apprehended Eichmann from his safe haven 
in Argentina and then brought him to justice through a comprehensive 
trial in Jerusalem.   While many celebrated Israel’s bold capture of one 
of the worst war criminals, Israel was also, at least at first, excoriated 
by significant media outlets in the US and world press, for example, the 
Washington Post and Time Magazine, for “animal vengeance” and the 
administration of “jungle law” (p. 24 ff).   Bin Laden and Eichmann alike 
were buried at sea to prevent their burial sites from becoming sites of 
pilgrimage and veneration (p. 147).  Lipstadt’s book is worth reading
for her gripping narrative of Eichmann’s capture and trial, as well as her 
trenchant analysis and critique of Hannah Arendt’s legacy.  Lipstadt’s 
thesis and contribution to Holocaust studies, however, is that the
Eichmann trial empowered, encouraged and validated survivor testimony
ultimately enabling the survivors themselves to shape the ongoing
memory and memorialization of the Shoah.
For more on Prof. Deborah E. Lipstadt’s new book, see her short video
at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SziZ4iWTOI 
or read a NYT book review of it at
Last night, our community commemorated Yom HaShoah veHaGevurah 
through survivor memory.  Over 300 people from seven different Orthodox 
synagogues joined together at Shaarei for our annual Community Yom
HaShoah Commemoration.  It was perhaps our strongest Yom HaShoah 
program to date thanks to the moving first person testimony of Mr.Morris 
Hollender, a Holocaust survivor residing in Waltham.  Born  in 1926 in 
Vysni Remety, a small town in the Carpathian region of Czechoslovakia, 
Mr. Hollender shared the fate of Hungarian Jewry, as the area of his 
hometown was under Hungarian control during most of World War II.  
When Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, the Jews of the Carpathian 
region were rounded up, forced into ghettos, and sent by cattle-car to the 
Auschwitz death camp.   The Hollender family arrived at Auschwitz on 
May 25, 1944. Though most of his relatives were murdered, Mr. Hollender 
survived selection, starvation, slave labor, and a horrendous death march 
to the Ebensee concentration camp in Austria.  After the war, Mr. Hollender 
married Edith Grossman, a fellow survivor.  They immigrated to the United 
States in 1967 and settled in Waltham, where he worked as an electronics 
technician.  Mr. Hollender's remembered songs and prayers from his youth 
in the Carpathians have been collected by the National Yiddish Book Center
and performed by Klezmer music star Hankus Netsky in Boston-area
concerts and on the radio.
Mr. Hollender’s moving testimony can be downloaded and heard in full
at http://bit.ly/j9FPDY . 
Please do not miss Mr. Hollender’s heart-felt and heart-moving 
“Kel Molei Rachamim” at the end of the recording.
Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels