Monthly Archives: November 2015

Wrestling with Our Enemy – Then and Now

Jacob_Wrestling_with_the_Angel“And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, [saying] ‘for I have seen God face to face, and my life was saved.’  And as he passed over Penuel, the sun rose over him, and he was limping on his thigh.  Therefore, the people of Israel shall not eat the displaced sinew, which is in the hollow of the thigh, unto this day” (Genesis 32:31-33)

This has been a difficult week here in Gush Etzion, as we’ve been mourning three holy Jews (my friend and neighbor Rabbi Yaakov Don, American yeshiva student Ezra Schwartz, and Israeli seminary student Hadar Buchris, may God avenge their deaths) who were murdered in recent days at the Gush Etzion junction, just down the road from my home.

Of course, violence, terrorism and senseless murder are nothing new.  We Jews have experienced this many times before – in recent weeks and months here in Gush Etzion and every other part of Israel, and before that for the past hundred years or so since the local Arabs adopted terrorism as their primary weapon against us, and before that all over the world throughout centuries of exile.  But still, human nature is such that when it hits close to home and affects people you know or have some personal connection to, it feels different.  So it’s been a pretty depressing week here in the Gush.

We are facing bitter adversaries who see great glory in the act of randomly and mercilessly cutting down the lives of good people whom they have never met.  We are infuriated at these enemies, horrified by the depth of their evil, and frustrated that our security forces have not yet found the tools to effectively prevent this newest pattern of atrocities.  And, as always happens when tragedy strikes good people, the religious questions about why God allows these things to happen – questions we usually live with because we understand that humans can never have an answer – bubble up to the surface and dominate our thinking.  At times, even for a diehard optimist like myself, it becomes hard to know how to keep on going.

Perhaps an insight can be found in today’s Torah portion (Vayishlach).

This morning, we read about the strange prohibition on eating the gid hanasheh (literally “displaced sinew”, interpreted in Jewish law as referring to an animal’s sciatic nerve).  As the above-quoted verses tell us, this commandment recalls the strange encounter between our forefather Jacob and the mysterious “man” who wrestled with him all night long.  Our sages identify Jacob’s opponent as an angelic figure, and Rashi tells us that it was the spiritual representative of his earthly brother and opponent, Esau.  Regarding the commandment itself, the medieval Sefer HaChinuch says that it is meant to serve as an encouraging reminder: by refraining from consuming the gid hanasheh, we are to remember that even though we may suffer much throughout history at the hands of our enemies, we will always survive and ultimately prevail, just as our ancestor Jacob did when confronted by his enemy.

This explanation always seemed strange to me.  If the mitzva is meant to encourage, then why choose something which reminds us that Jacob’s enemy managed to wound him, rather than a symbol of his eventual triumph?  And also, how is a prohibition meant to help us remember something?  If the gid hanasheh somehow reminds us of Jacob’s victory, then perhaps the mitzva should not be to abstain from it, but rather to specifically eat it as a reminder, just as we do with matza on Passover.

In our current circumstance, though, I think the Sefer HaChinuch’s point becomes clear.  At times, just like our forefather Jacob, we will be wounded.  But we will survive – not only in spite of the injury but in some sense because of it.  The wound is excruciatingly painful, it is crippling, and for a time it seems as though we can barely move ahead.   Though we managed to squeeze some sort of a victory out of the last round of fighting, we wonder if we’ll win in the long run.

This is when the gid hanasheh comes and reminds us, first of all, that in the perspective of history, these setbacks – however painful they may be – are temporary (in the very next chapter, we read that Jacob’s injury was fully cured; see Rashi on 36:18).  And as a mitzvah that is observed passively through the mode of shev v’al ta’aseh (sit and do nothing), it reminds us that this is also how Jacob achieved his victory:

“And he wrestled with him until daybreak.  And when he saw that he could not defeat him, he touched the hollow of his thigh [wounding him]…. and he said ‘Release me, for the morning has come’, and [Jacob] said ‘I will not release you unless you bless me’… and he blessed him there.” (32:26-30)

Although he fought long and hard, Jacob didn’t manage to defeat his enemy.  All he was able to achieve was a stalemate – a bitter night-long struggle that wore both sides down, with no winner.  In that situation, he wasn’t able to actually do anything; just to absorb the blows, and persevere.  But the gid hanasheh teaches us that sometimes, when there is no action to be taken, shev v’al ta’aseh is enough.  Sometimes, the key to victory is just staying where you are and refusing to be knocked down, and to keep on going without paying too much attention to the pain.

After the long night of exile, the morning eventually comes.  And when it does, the enemy melts away and asks for a release, which he receives only after issuing a blessing.  Until then, we have to continue the struggle.

Solving the “Women Rabbis” Argument

rcaAll of the noise surrounding last week’s highly unfortunate RCA resolution makes it seem as though the question of women rabbis is the most contentious issue in Orthodoxy right now [1].  But actually, it isn’t.

There are, in fact, some deep and significant disagreements between the movement calling itself “Open Orthodoxy” and the RCA- and YU-led establishment [2].  But regarding women rabbis, there really isn’t much of an argument.  I know that sounds absurd, but it’s true.

Let me explain.

Open Orthodox institutions, led by Rabbi Avi Weiss’ Yeshivat Maharat, have been arguing for years that there is no halachic reason why women can’t be rabbis.  The RCA, for its part, has insisted adamantly and repeatedly that such a step would be a prohibited violation of tradition.

But at the same time, the RCA emphatically affirmed that women may serve in various communal positions involving Torah scholarship, teaching and leadership.  They even provided a list of several such approved positions, all of which are very similar to functions carried out by rabbis.  The only restriction the RCA placed on these female religious leaders is that they must not “use a title implying rabbinic ordination” or “be recognized as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used”.

This strange and incoherent demand is the crux of the argument.  It was an unfortunate statement, because it created the impression that this is all about symbolism, not substance, and therefore led to a lot of cynicism and nasty accusations against the RCA and its rabbis.  But in truth, it actually wasn’t a childish statement about semantics and recognition.  Rather, it was a very poorly-expressed attempt to make an important point about which Open Orthodoxy basically agrees!

The entire problem here is that the term “rabbi,” as commonly used today, does not have any halachic significance [3].  The same is true for the terms “ordination,” “rabbinate” and “clergy” used in the RCA resolution: none of these are halachic categories.  Rather, these terms are all rooted in aspects of our contemporary reality, and each one of them refers to a variety of different roles.  Open Orthodox leaders agree that women are indeed barred from serving in some of the positions referred to by those terms.  But other such positions include the very same roles the RCA endorsed for women.

For example, the judges on a Bet Din (a halachic court which is often called a “rabbinical court”) are usually called “rabbis”, although their more accurate title is “dayanim“.  As far as I know, all those arguing in favor of women’s ordination acknowledge that women cannot serve as dayanim, and therefore when they speak of “ordaining women as rabbis” they don’t mean to say that these women can then serve on Batei Din.  Rather, as is made clear in this post, they use the term to mean something else.

On the other hand, many hospitals, nursing homes and other such institutions employ a Jewish religious figure whose job it is to provide counseling and spiritual comfort to patients and residents.  Although this chaplain is usually also referred to as “rabbi”, I assume all agree that there is no problem with a woman filling this role.

People who teach Torah are also called “rabbis”.  So are kashrut supervisors and others who are entrusted with upholding halachic standards.  And of course, leaders of synagogues who deliver speeches during prayer services, sometimes also serving as shliach tzibbur or reading from the Torah, are also called “rabbis”.

While there is some debate as to exactly which of these functions women can perform and which they cannot, both camps agree that women can definitely perform some of them, and can definitely not perform others.

So what it boils down to is that the Open Orthodox people want to ordain women as “rabbis”, with the understanding that the authority granted by this title is somewhat different than that which is granted to a man.  The RCA, though, is concerned about blurring these differences.

As an attempt to address that problem, the term “Maharat” was invented.  However, the RCA seems to feel that this change of terminology is insufficient, and felt the need to emphasize once more that these women leaders are doing wonderful things but “are not rabbis or members of the rabbinate”.

The problem, though, is that although they endorsed female religious leaders and clarified what title or status they do not have, they neglected to grant them any alternate title or status instead.  And that is the entire problem.

Here is what the RCA needs to do in order to solve the argument: They must create a title and status for women religious leaders, using any terminology they find appropriate.  They can explain that these female leaders are not “rabbis”, but rather religious leaders of a different type.  They should then create a women’s division within the RCA, or a separate sister organization to represent these female leaders, and should make clear that they and the rabbis are colleagues with different responsibilities and authorities, but equal status.

They may continue to clarify that since these female leaders are not “rabbis,” they are also not “members of the rabbinate”. But they should also clarify that the women and the rabbis together constitute the joint leadership of the Jewish community (perhaps the term “clergy” can be helpful here as an umbrella that can encompass both the rabbinate and the women’s branch of the Orthodox religious leadership).  They should make sure there are some scholarly, outspoken women who are well-respected and fully committed to scrupulous halachic observance heading the new branch.

If the RCA would do this, regardless of the title they choose, they can solve the argument and win back the respect of people.

[1]This post concerns the controversy currently playing out in the United States.  We have similar issues here in Israel, but they aren’t coming to a head just yet.

[2]See, for example, this important article by my teacher Rabbi Dr. David Berger.

[3]The terms “rabbi” and “semicha” (ordination) do appear in the Talmud, but they refer to a form of halachic authority which was suspended at least 1000 years ago and is currently inoperable.  The document currently referred to as “semicha” is merely a license to answer halachic questions.  This license does have halachic significance (see Sanhedrin 5a, Rambam Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:8 and Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 242), and there is a debate among contemporary authorities as to whether it may or may not be granted to women. However, as I make clear above, this argument is only tangentially related to the issue at hand.