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The OU and Women Rabbis: Look Again!

glgAround two weeks ago in the US, the Orthodox Union issued its now-famous proclamation formally prohibiting affiliated synagogues from hiring women to serve as rabbis or “members of the clergy”.

Predictably, many vocal supporters of the idea of female rabbis immediately denounced the ruling as yet another example of what they see as the intransigence of an overly traditionalist, cowardly, misogynist and increasingly irrelevant Orthodox mainstream. Meanwhile, some of their equally vocal opponents from the other side of the aisle gleefully announced that with this statement added to previous ones from other organizations, there is now a wall-to-wall consensus in American Orthodoxy against any change in policy regarding a role for women as religious leaders.

Unfortunately, though, it seems that most commenters on both sides did not bother to actually read the 15-page OU statement or the 17-page rabbinic position paper that accompanied it (both available here).  Those relatively few people who did read it noticed that while a headline like “OU Confirms Ban on Women Rabbis” is accurate, it is only part of the story.  The truth is that the two OU statements were much more nuanced than the earlier pronouncements, in two very important ways.

First, while its conclusion that women cannot serve as rabbis did echo previous rabbinic statements from both the US and Israel, the OU’s Rabbinic Panel presented a detailed and documented halakhic rationale explaining that ruling.  Like any piece of proper halakhic argumentation, in a number of places (e.g., footnotes 17 and 22) it acknowledged the existence of opposing sources that could potentially lead to different conclusions, and explained why the authors do not view those positions as viable or normative.  And the main halakhic section of the paper concludes by emphatically stating its position that women may not serve as rabbis, while simultaneously inviting further discussion on the topic, correctly noting that “the burden of halakhic proof [now] rests on the side of changing the established practice” (page 10).

This is very different than most of the other recent public discussions of this topic, which have consisted mainly of ideological pronouncements and slogans.  If and when a detailed response is published by scholars who disagree with the ruling (some discussion has already begun on various internet forums), this will turn the conversation into a proper and genuine halakhic debate, which will enable the move towards an eventual consensus of one sort or another.

Even more importantly, though, while the OU statements emphatically ruled out women serving as rabbis or “members of the clergy”, both of them also affirmed – equally emphatically – that women’s participation in the leadership of our communities is essential, and must be greatly expanded.  For the benefit of those who won’t read the entire statements, here are a few sentences that should be noteworthy even to those who were disappointed by the ruling:

  • “Women should most enthusiastically be encouraged to share their knowledge, talents, and skills – as well as their passion and devotion – to synagogues, schools and community organizations…. We believe that it is appropriate for women to assume…professional roles within the synagogue setting…[including] teaching ongoing classes and shiurim, delivering lectures, serving as a visiting scholar-in-residence…senior managerial and administrative positions…community educator or institutional scholar…professional counselor to address the spiritual, psychological, or social needs of the community…teacher and mentor to guide females through the conversion process” (rabbinic statement, pp. 13-14)
  • “The spiritual growth of our community is dependent upon a steady stream of talented women both serving as role models and teachers, and filling positions of influence. As a community, we need the best and brightest women – and men – to be motivated and well-trained to pursue careers in avodat hakodesh…steps should be taken to properly recognize women who dedicate their lives and their abilities to serving and educating our community, including the attribution of fitting titles that convey the significance of these roles” (rabbinic statement, p. 16, emphasis added).
  • “We, therefore, underscore that the responses of the Rabbinic Panel that we transmit today are but the beginning of a process and not its end. We envision a continuing process of dialogue and exploration to begin to address these – and other – critical issues in a deliberate manner…. The failure to fully embrace the talents of women and encourage women to assume greater lay and professional roles is a tragic forfeiture of communal talent. We should focus on creating and institutionalizing roles for women that address the needs of Orthodox Jews today, by removing barriers that impede women from further contributing to our community, in halakhically appropriate ways…. Consideration should be given, within acceptable halakhic parameters, to developing appropriate titles for women of significant accomplishment, holding professional positions within the synagogue and communal structure, thereby acknowledging their achievement and status….” (OU statement, pp. 10-11, emphasis added).

I will suffice with these quotes, although there are additional significant points in each of the two documents – again, I encourage everyone interested or concerned about this to read them.  Even these short excerpts, though, should be enough to demonstrate that while the OU said “no” to female rabbis, it also said “yes” to much larger roles for women than currently exist in almost any Orthodox community, including official titles for those women reflecting their leadership status.

About fifteen months ago, I published a blog post criticizing the RCA’s most recent statement against women serving as rabbis.  I complained about the statement’s lack of halakhic explanation, and about the fact that it was very emphatic about what women can’t do, but said almost nothing about what they can, should and must do.  On both of those issues, the OU’s statements represent a considerable improvement.

I propose, therefore, that we move the discussion away from the angry shouting that has continued unabated on blogs and facebook pages, and into these two other, much more productive areas: How to begin to create the greatly expanded leadership roles and titles that the OU and its Rabbinical Panel called for, while developing and continuing a genuine, sophisticated and scholarly halakhic conversation about the exact parameters and limits of those roles and titles.

 

Dear Mr. President


An Open Letter to Donald Trump from a conservative Republican who didn’t vote for him

Dear Mr. President,donald-trump

I want you to know that I didn’t vote for you.

Don’t misunderstand me – I didn’t vote for your opponent either, because I strongly opposed her policies and despised her corruption.  And in contrast, your party’s platform matches my views rather closely.  Frankly, I’m thrilled that Republicans continue to control both houses of Congress, and I’m also quite happy with some of the names being floated for senior positions in your upcoming administration.

I also identify very closely with the anti-Obama sentiment that swept you into office.  Specifically when it comes to foreign policy (which, as an American living abroad, I see most clearly), I believe that Barack Obama has single-handedly destroyed America’s influence around the world, and the world is much worse off for it.  Like millions of others who were dismayed by his “lead from behind” diplomacy, I too want to “make America great again”.

And finally, as an Israeli resident of the Judean Hills (they call me a “settler”, whatever that means), I’m grateful for the possibility of an American administration that might finally recognize the truth.  I’m hopeful that you and the officials in your administration will differ from your predecessors and understand that the real “obstacles to peace” are not me and my Jewish neighbors, but rather the religious and political leadership of my Arab neighbors.

Perhaps, therefore, I should have enthusiastically supported you in the election.  But I didn’t.  Instead, for the first time since I turned 18 over three decades ago, I chose to not actualize my right to vote for a realistic candidate.

Although we’ve never met, I think you know exactly why I didn’t vote for you.  It’s the same reason that many others (including some very prominent members of your own party) refused to support you: we were deeply offended and alarmed by your rhetoric, and by your persona.

Interestingly, the reasons that I didn’t support you are closely tied to the reasons I didn’t support Clinton and Obama.  In large part, I opposed them because I don’t buy into the distorted political and intellectual culture they represent.  I reject their distortion of liberal values into demands for willful blindness, their refusal to state the truth that militant Islam is currently the single greatest threat to world security, and their condemning anyone who disagrees with them as immoral.

Like most of your supporters, I’m frustrated that one can’t criticize “Black Lives Matter” without being called a racist, can’t advocate a crackdown on militant Muslims without being called an “Islamaphobe” and can’t object to transgender people using bathrooms that don’t match their anatomy without being called a bigot.  And I’m amused that Hillary Clinton’s supporters continue to speak of a “glass ceiling” that ostensibly prevented her from getting elected.  In reality, her failed candidacy was the ultimate success of the feminist movement: she was judged on the basis of her qualifications, not her gender.  She was subject to plenty of criticism and attacks, but none of her detractors – not even you, Mr. Trump (!!) – ever said anything about her being a woman.

So it seems you calculated that enough people were upset about these things that you could ride those sentiments all the way to the White House.  Apparently, you were right about that.  I’m no strategist; perhaps you were right that your offensive, anti-establishment tone won you many votes.  But it also lost you many, including mine.

You see, I am very against the politically correct definition of racism, hatred and bigotry.  But even more, I am against real racism, hatred and bigotry.  I expect the President of the United States – the leader of what is still the greatest nation on earth – to reflect the values that America stands for.  And the world also needs you to act with caution and responsibility, characteristics you haven’t shown yourself to possess.  You’re about to become the President, so it’s now your obligation to change your words and your actions.

Mr. President, you were elected legitimately and democratically.  Personally, I respect that and therefore, as an American citizen, you are now my president.  I’m excited about what I hope your administration will accomplish, even as I continue to be very worried about what you might do and how you might act.

On January 20, you will become the most powerful person on this planet.  I hope and pray that you will internalize that awesome responsibility, rise to the occasion and surprise us by becoming a great leader.

May God bless you.

Sincerely,

An expat who still loves America

Shimon Peres’ Final Rosh Hashana Gift to the World

obama-peres-funeral

Getty Images

Many have already written about the extraordinary scene we witnessed last Friday: the funeral of Shimon Peres, an extraordinary man who led an extraordinary nation.

 

The exceptional scene was made even more remarkable by the fact that it took place on the morning before Parshat Nitzavim would be read in the synagogues (a fact which President Obama alluded to in his speech) and just a few days before Rosh Hashana.

Peres himself was, of course, an extraordinary person.  It’s not that everyone agreed with his positions or his actions.  I certainly didn’t. And it seems that neither did just about anyone else; in fact, during his long political career he managed to do at least one thing that angered pretty much everybody.  But, as Herb Keinon pointed out last week in the Jerusalem Post, the flip side of that is that he also did something else that just about everyone approved of.  And as Amotz Asa-El wrote (also in last week’s Post), it was in the final phase of his career, when he led the country as President, that he became the collective grandfather that the country adored and the world almost universally respected.

Asa-El also pointed out that the extraordinary nature of the event goes beyond Peres himself.  After all, Peres’s life story mirrored the path traveled by his entire nation during that same time period.  When Shimon was born in Poland shortly after World War I, the Jewish people were not in a good situation, by any measure.  But his funeral in Jerusalem 93 years later took place in an entirely different reality that was frankly unfathomable even just a few decades ago ,when Peres was Prime Minister.

The sight of the leaders of over seventy nations flying to Jerusalem on two days’ notice to pay their final respects to a retired statesman from a tiny country of 7.5 million people may be completely unprecedented in human history.   And its full significance might become a bit clearer if we ponder another interesting fact: On the day of Peres’ funeral, in accordance with a proclamation issued by President Obama, flags were flown at half-mast at U.S. government buildings around the world.  It turns out that it is quite rare for the U.S. to honor a foreign leader this way.  In fact, only seven other people have ever been accorded this sign of respect.  Here’s the full list:

  • 1961 – U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold
  • 1965 – British Prime Minister Winston Churchill
  • 1981 – Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat
  • 1995 – Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin
  • 1999 – Jordanian King Hussein
  • 2005 – Pope John Paul II
  • 2013 – South African revolutionary and President Nelson Mandela

Together with Peres, this means that a total of eight foreign leaders have been honored this way by the U.S.A.

Now look again at this list of the eight people who, according to the world’s greatest democracy, have made the most positive impacts on the world. Two out of the eight were Israeli Prime Ministers (making Israel the only country represented more than once).  Another two were Arab leaders who were honored for making peace with Israel.  And one can also add that Winston Churchill’s greatest achievement was helping to defeat Nazi Germany, and that Pope John Paul II was noteworthy to a very large extent because of the significant steps he took to improve his church’s relations with the Jewish People.  That leaves only two of eight great people whose mark on humanity didn’t relate very directly to the tiny nation known as the people of Israel.

Which brings me to the incredible timing of Peres’ funeral, the morning before Shabbat Parshat Nitzavim.  It was, after all, in yesterday’s Torah portion that we read the Biblical prophecy promising that one day, after centuries of exile, we will return to our land:

“It will be that when all these things have come upon you – the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you – that you will take it to your heart among all the nations where Hashem, your God, has dispersed you. And you will return unto Hashem your God and listen to His voice…then Hashem, your God, will bring back your captivity and have mercy upon you, and He will gather you in from all the peoples to which Hashem, your God, has scattered you. If your dispersed will be at the ends of heaven, from there Hashem, your God, will gather you in and from there he will take you. Hashem, your God, will bring you to the Land that your forefathers possessed and you shall possess it; He will do good to you and make you more numerous than your forefathers.” (Devarim 30:1-5, Artscroll translation)

The sight of all these world leaders flocking to Jerusalem – the sovereign capital of the Jewish people, regardless of where their embassies are – to pay their respects to the last of Israel’s founding fathers marks another stage in the manifest fulfillment of this prophecy.

It is also eloquent testimony to the fact that the entire world recognizes the importance of the Jewish People.  For some reason, many of us often have trouble understanding this, but pretty much the entire rest of the world sees it. This makes Peres’ funeral an incredible Kiddush shem Shamayim, sanctification of God’s name.

And the Kiddush Hashem was greatly magnified and increased by the fact that Peres himself, a man not who was not generally associated with religion, specifically asked in his will for the prayer Avinu Malkeinu to be sung there.

Was there some kind of Divine inspiration behind this?  Could Peres have possibly known that he would be buried so close to Rosh HaShana?  I have no idea.  But it is incredibly fitting that this was the final point in the great and long legacy of Shimon Peres: The scene of the leaders of most of the world’s nations solemnly listening to a Rosh Hashana prayer, less than 72 hours before the Jewish people will gather to recite that very prayer, as well as many others for the peace and well-being of the entire world.

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.

As Shemita Ebbs Away

wheatfieldA few hours from now, the Shemita year will come to an end.  Since the Torah describes Shemita as Shabbat HaAretz (the Shabbat of the land), that makes today sort of like those final moments at the end of the third Shabbat meal, as the sun sets and Shabbat comes to an end.  Each week, those moments are traditionally spent singing slow songs and reflecting on what we’ve learned and experienced.  I think the same should apply to Shabbat HaAretz, so let’s take a few minutes to do exactly that.

Exactly one year ago, a few hours before Rosh HaShana 5775, I wrote a post describing the awesome once-in-seven year opportunity we have here in Israel, as Shemita was about to begin.  A bit later on I wrote a second post discussing the practical dilemmas that observant consumers face during Shemita, regarding which produce to consume and which halachic positions to follow (by the way, these halachic questions remain relevant for at least another 6-8 months, until all of the fruits and vegetables from the Shemita year are used up and next year’s crops become available).

Over the course of the year and as recently as this morning, I’ve also had the privilege of giving many classes and lectures about Shemita, and leading many Shemita tours in which I took families and groups out on “field trips” (sorry – couldn’t resist the pun!) to learn about different aspects of this mitzva up close and meet heroic farmers who made great sacrifices to observe it.  In these final moments “as Shemita ebbs away”, I’d like to share one insight that I learned from a teenage girl on a seminar I spoke at earlier this year, and from a woman on one of my tours.

In a number of places, our rabbis tell us that Shemita is the key to Redemption.  In fact, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) even says that the Messiah is destined to come immediately after, and perhaps as a result of, a Shemita year.  The question, of course, is why this is so; what is the specific connection between Shemita and Redemption?

Whenever I speak about the various halachic approaches to Shemita, I express my strong preference for obtaining and consuming produce grown on Shemita-observant farms and marketed through the Otzar Bet Din system.  I prefer this method to all others, because I believe that it is the contemporary option that comes closest to the ideal that the Torah envisioned.  On Otzar Bet Din farms, the laws of Shemita are fully observed and the farmers refrain from all forbidden labors.  The farmers are also not able to sell their produce for profit, and instead are paid a fixed salary as employees of the Bet Din (the religious court that runs the farm during Shemita).

In theory, the produce is supposed to be distributed to the public for free, in keeping with the Torah’s law that all agricultural produce is ownerless this year.  However, in the current system the Bet Din does not have the financial resources to meet its obligations, and therefore has no choice other than to charge a service fee for the produce it distributes.   The net result of this is that the consumers need to pay a fee for each kilo of produce they obtain, and it winds up looking and feeling pretty much exactly the same as the way in which we buy our produce in other years.  For this reason, many people are unhappy with Otzar Bet Din and (mistakenly) view it as a meaningless formality.

When speaking at a seminar about Shemita earlier this year, I acknowledged this weakness, and explained to the participants how I think Otzar Bet Din would work in an ideal world.  The costs for running the farms would be paid in full by the government, with funds from the State budget.  The produce would be distributed to the consumers genuinely free of cost (I have a whole idea of how this can be done with a computerized database indicating how much of each type of produce each person is entitled to each week and distribution points where magnetic cards can be swiped to ensure that everyone gets only what they are entitled to), and in that way actually accomplish more of the socio-economic aspect of what the Torah actually envisioned.  I told the participants that I am sure this is how it will be done when the Messiah comes.

It was at that point that one girl raised her hand and said “I don’t understand.  Why does this have to wait for the Messiah to come?  Why can’t we implement that system right now?”  I thought about it for a moment and said, “You are right.  In principle, there is no reason we can’t do this right now – if the Jewish People would want to.  The problem is simply that most people aren’t yet ready to agree to such a concept.”

I few weeks later on a Shemita tour, I quoted this girl to a group I was leading, and one of the women suggested that this could be a project we should all work on.  We have seven years to convince people to do it – let’s get the Knesset to pass a law implementing and funding a national Otzar Bet Din for the Shemita of 5782.

Is this realistic?  I don’t know.  But it did make me realize one fundamental truth: many aspects of what we are waiting for in the Messianic Age are not up to God; they are up to us.  If only all of us wanted it, we could make it happen by just doing it ourselves.  So who is going to bring the Messiah anyway?  Is it something that God needs to do for us?  Or something we need to do for ourselves?

Certainly there are aspects of both.  But Shemita observance gives us an opportunity to see how much of this is really in our control.  Maybe that’s why Shemita is so closely connected to the Redemption.

So as we prepare to “make Havdalah” and move on to the auspicious post-Shemita year, let’s all contemplate that and think about what each of us can do to make this the Motzaei Shviit she-Ben David Ba (the post-Sabbatical year in which the Messiah comes).

Shana Tova

Birthright in Yiddish

מגנט תגליתEarlier this month, I had the privilege of serving as the tour guide/educator on a ten-day Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.  This was the first time I have served in this role; I hope it will be the first of many such opportunities.

As has been widely noted and acknowledged, Birthright is a phenomenally successful program.  Begun 16 years ago as the bold initiative of a single American philanthropist, as of this summer the program has brought over half a million (!) young Jewish adults to Israel.  For most participants, Birthright is the first time they have been to Israel; in many cases it is the first meaningful Jewish experience of their lives.  Statistics have shown a marked uptick in connection to Israel and engagement with Jewish life among Birthright participants.  I can personally attest to the lasting impact this trip has made on some young American Jews with whom my family and I are acquainted.  Therefore, I considered it a great privilege to be able to lead such an encounter.

Interestingly, the group I was given for my first Birthright experience was far from typical.  Although the participants in my trip met the ordinary eligibility requirements (they were Jewish, between the ages of 18-26, and had not been to Israel for more than three months since the age of 12 – in fact most had never been here at all), they did not match the profile of the average Birthright participant.   This is because my group was a specially-organized “niche” trip geared towards the “ultra-Orthodox” population.  It was comprised of nine married couples from the Hasidic communities of Brooklyn and Monsey, and another 22 single women, mostly graduates of “Bais Yaakov” high schools in New York and New Jersey.

The trip was an incredible, enlightening and uplifting experience for all.

First of all, it was a lot of fun.  In addition to getting some practice on my rusty Yiddish (I took it as my foreign language back in college), there were many moments of spontaneous excitement.  Perhaps the strangest for me was when I found myself dancing on the roof of one of those iconic “Na-Nach-Nachman” trucks.  (This is not something I do on a regular basis.)

Beyond this, though, the trip was a learning experience for everyone involved.

For the participants, this trip accomplished all the things that a “regular” Birthright trip does, and maybe more, starting with the fact that they got to see the land of Israel, in most cases for the first time.  I don’t know if I will ever forget the exhilaration I felt on the fourth day of the trip as we ascended to Jerusalem after several days in the north, singing “Im eshkachech Yerushalayim” (“If I forget you, O Jerusalem” – Psalms 137:5) as the bus slowly climbed the hills past Maaleh Adumim.  For most of the participants, this was the first time in their lives they had entered the holy city.  What a privilege to be able to facilitate that!

Although they have a much stronger background in Jewish studies than the typical Birthright participant, concepts such as Zionism, the Israeli government and army were very new to them. Of course it did not surprise me that, just like many Birthright groups, during the closing session a large number of participants listed Friday night prayers at the Western Wall as one of the most meaningful moments of their trip.  But I was amazed that so many of them also mentioned the visits to the Har Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem and to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv.  The group picture (above) taken spontaneously in front of a Merkava tank parked on a flatbed truck at the side of a road shows how significant this experience was for everyone.

But it wasn’t only the participants who learned a lot on this trip.  I (and some of my family who joined for Shabbat) learned just as much from them as well.  Having lived in Monsey, NY before making Aliya, and having subsequently worked for many years in a haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem, I have had many opportunities to interact with haredim and Hasidim.  Still, spending ten intense days together enabled me to get to know them and to experience their world in a deeper way than I have been able to previously do.

Seeing how they reacted to sites like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s grave on Har Meron and Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel’s at Amuka (especially for the young women; this site is considered a very auspicious location to pray for an appropriate shidduch) was eye-opening for me.  Sitting down after dinner on Friday night with the entire group for an hour and a half of singing (I usually call things like that an “Oneg”, but apparently it’s called something like “butteh” in Yiddish) with refreshments purchased by the participants themselves was also amazing.  The interactions among the participants from different communities, and the amount of respect, openness and genuine interest that they showed towards Jews from the National Religious and mesorati (Traditional) communities who they met during the trip was also very noteworthy.

In the end, perhaps the greatest lesson of this trip was that despite the unique religious and cultural demographic, ultimately this was a Birthright trip like any other.

According to the Birthright organization, the objective of the trip is “to ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities and connection with Israel…to foster participants’ understanding and identification with Israel, and…motivate young people to continue to explore their Jewish identity.”  I watched that miracle happen over a mere ten days with these 40 young adults, in pretty much exactly the same way it does for tens of thousands of others every year.

Maybe the biggest lesson of this is that despite our tendency to focus endlessly on the religious, ideological and political differences that divide us into a seemingly infinite amount of groups and sub-groups, we Jews are still one people, which so much more that should unite us and bring us together.