When “Halacha” becomes “A goodly apple rotten at the heart”

Although Shammai had his differences with Hillel with respect to how one receives perspective converts to Judaism, one thing is evident—not even Shammai ever believed that a Beit Din [rabbinical court] has the right to keep perspective converts in a state of permanent probation. As we pointed out in the earlier postings on conversion, the Halacha makes it clear that even if the newly converted candidate goes astray from his Judaism, he is still nevertheless considered to be a Jew—a  “sinful” Jew, but his status as a Jew is never something that is ontologically kept in suspension or in doubt. [1]

However, much has changed in the last few decades in Israel. This simple Talmudic truth is no longer so obvious. A spirit of Haredi revisionism is making an assault on Jewish law that is far more threatening than anything else we have observed in Jewish history.

Recently, the High Court of Justice was asked to overturn a determination of the Rabbinical High Court regarding the conversion of a Danish-Israeli involved in a divorce case. Nonchalantly, the couple had appeared earlier before a lower-ranking rabbinical court where the woman was asked if she observed Jewish law, to which she answered that she no longer did. Little did she realize the ill-treatment she was about to create for herself and her family by simply being honest with her interrogators.

A bill of divorce was nonetheless arranged, according to Jewish law, but a divorce certificate was never issued. The court ruled that, as the woman is only,” ergo,  there was no technical  need for rabbinical divorce proceedings. They also said that by the same token, the woman and her children cannot marry Jews under Jewish law. The rabbinical court of appeals refused to reverse the lower court’s decision and thus the case arrived on the docket of the High Court of Justice.

Writing for the Rabbinic High Court of Justice, attorney and Rabbi Shimon Yaakobi wrote a legal opinion for the stating that all conversions to Judaism are never “final,” but remain in a fluidic state of Halachic abeyance.  Haredi rabbis maintain that they have the right to review the halachic status of any and all conversions that have taken place in Israel or elsewhere.

Now the way the Haredim rabbinate goes about sifting the “authentic” converts from the “inauthentic” converts is almost sleight of hand. The Orthodox feminist Rivkah Lubitch explains the insidious nature of this artifice:

“According to Yaakobi, the rabbinic courts have for many years routinely examined converts at the time of their divorce regarding their religious observance. As a rule, in all divorce procedures, it is customary to be very exact when referring to the names of the parties, as well as to their fathers’ names. Since the convert has separated herself from her biological family, her father’s name is not written. Instead, it is written: “The daughter/son of Avraham our Forefather.” However, Yaakobi claims that precedents exist that hold that if a convert has reverted to her old ways, it is an insult to refer to her as “the daughter of Avraham our Forefather.” So it is become the custom to ask the convert if she obeys the commandments. If she testifies that she obeys the commandments, the rabbis will write “the daughter of Avraham our Forefather”; but if she testifies that she does not obey the commandments, the rabbis will add the accolade “convert” after her name. So far, with respect to the divorce proceeding.” Continue reading “When “Halacha” becomes “A goodly apple rotten at the heart””

Religious Contortionism, Conversion, and the “Groucho Marx Syndrome”

While the government considers it a national task, the state of conversion in Israel continues to deteriorate. Official data indicate a 12% drop in the number of conversions to Judaism in Israel in 2009. Just 986 out of 300,000 people with no religious affiliation have converted to Judaism in the last year. The drop in the Israeli Defense Forces stands at 4% compared with 2008. The reason for this drop is because of the feeling shared by many potential converts who fear that the Haredi  rabbis in Israel may invalidate their conversions for whatever the reason they conjure. Therefore, the state itself – no longer considers them or their descendants to be Jewish.

What are the practical implications of such a scenario unfolding? All denominations of Judaism–from the Reform to the Modern Orthodox–suffer from the Haredi approach Halacha that violates both the letter and the spirit of the Shulchan Aruch. In an earlier blog, I have already demonstrated why revocations of conversion has never existed until fairly recent times. In a country where all personal status issues – from birth through marriage, divorce, and death – are all controlled by Haredi rabbis, this means children who suddenly will not be able marry, spouses can’t be buried next to one another. Unfortunately, this type of policy making establishes a cast system where converts have a second class status. We have not seen this type of marginalization of an entire group of people since the  Spanish Inquisition period, where the Marranos were singled out for stigmatization by their fellow Jews.

Why is there so much distrust toward the “Jew by Choice” in the ultra-Orthodox world?

I often wonder whether  Haredi or Hassidic Orthodoxy suffers from a psychological illness that I call, “The Groucho Marx Syndrome.” The story goes that once Groucho Marx wanted to join a certain country club. Much to his surprise, they refused to give him membership.  You see, the club had a policy: No Jews allowed. In one of the more spirited exchanges, Marx wrote:

‘I have received your reply, and I think I understand.   It seems that I cannot join your country club because I am Jewish.   Now, my wife is not Jewish, so I expect that she could join.   Where I am confused is about my son, whom I guess you would consider half-Jewish.  Does this mean that he could join, but only go swimming up to his waist?’

Several years later, when Groucho Marx resigned from Hollywood’s Friar Club with the following quip:   “Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” Continue reading “Religious Contortionism, Conversion, and the “Groucho Marx Syndrome””

Rabbi Ben Tsion Uziel’s Compassionate but Pragmatic Approach to Halacha

There is a tendency among most Jews to think that Halacha by definition must always lean toward conservatism. However, the historical facts do not support this hypothesis.

Modern Halacha examines an interesting question: Should we go out of our way to attract potential conversions?  There are serious circumstances where we should openly encourage conversion whenever possible– specifically when we have an intermarried couple. There is every valid Halachic reason to go out of our way to welcome the non-Jewish spouse and their offspring to Judaism. We have already examined Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman’s attitude and he certainly was not alone (see the previous thread for examples). Another great rabbinic scholar reflecting this liberal approach comes from Rabbi Ben Tsion Meir Hai Uziel, who later became the Chief Sephardic Rabbi Of Israel.

In 1943, the following case came before him requiring an important Halachic decision. The Chief Rabbi of Istanbul once wrote to Rabbi Ben Tsion Meir Hai Uziel, who was at that time the Rav of Rishon LeTzion. The Chief Rabbi asked Rav Uziel whether conversion for the sake of marriage is valid. Rav Uziel opened his Responsa with a citation from the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 268: 12) which states we must examine a potential convert to see whether his motives for accepting Judaism are sincere. Obviously, it would be wonderful that the potential convert for purely sincere reasons and certainly, the ideal is not to convert those who are insincere. Rav Uziel then goes on to state how intermarriages are common in the civil courts, and that we ought to convert the non-Jewish partner in order to free the Jewish partner from the problem of intermarriage. We should also do so that their children should not be lost to the Jewish fold.

But what do we do when the situation is less than ideal?

If we are faced with de facto case of mixed marriage, we are permitted to convert the non-Jewish spouse and the children whenever possible. If this is true when the couple is already married, it is certainly true before they have begun their forbidden marriage! Such a conversion could prevent future transgressions and religious difficulties. Continue reading “Rabbi Ben Tsion Uziel’s Compassionate but Pragmatic Approach to Halacha”

Hell has no fury like a Dybbuk scorned . . .

The story about Rabbi Yitzchak Batzri’s exorcism continues to surprise me. How can anyone be so gullible?

Channel 10 archives produced another one of the Kabbalist’s exorcisms involving a woman who claimed to be possessed by the spirit of her deceased husband, who had died about two-and-a-half years earlier. The man was believed to be a drunk who neglected to say Kaddish over his parents and dead sister. To make a long story short, the woman speaks in a deep voice (reminiscent of the Tacoma  trans-medium JZ Knight, a.k.a. “Ramtha”)  and Rabbi Batzri banishes the dybbuk from the woman’s big toe. How conjuring . . .  And so the story ended–or so we thought.

And now you are going to hear the rest of the story . . .

Sometime later, the formerly possessed woman receives an interview on Channel 10 where she claims the Rabbi owes her a substantial amount of money for failing to pay her for her services. To prove her point, she claims the entire story was staged, as she imitates the voice of the dybbuk the rabbi allegedly banished. She alleged that the rabbi paid her NIS 15,000 and had even agreed to pay her royalties from the copies of the tape of the exorcism which were widely distributed after the fact, but failed to live up to his promise.

Hmmm . . . If I were that woman, I would show the bank-records of the original check that the Rabbi gave her.

I am not sure about you, but I think that either this rabbi is either a fool or a charlatan. But again, what else would you expect from a man who gathered a group of kabbalists to circle Israel in a plane, while blowing shofars to drive away the unkosher Swine Flu? Incidentally, the influenza infection spiked up after his shofar-blowing concert.

The moral of our two-part story is simply this: Real life is more interesting than fiction could ever be. In an age of economic difficulties such as ours, people will believe in just about anything. Historically, in bad times, people have often gravitated to the Kabbalah for inspiration; yet, by the same token, there have been many charlatans who have misused Jewish mysticism for personal gain–the most famous being the 17th century charismatic Kabbalist, Shabbatai Tzvi.

My good friend Yochanan Lavie put together a new song I think our readers will enjoy humming to: Continue reading “Hell has no fury like a Dybbuk scorned . . .”

Rabbi Yitzchak Batzri–The Telegenic Exorcist Extraordinaire

Most people usually associate exorcism with the rites seen in the Catholic Church, but how many people are aware that exorcism rites exist also in Jewish tradition? Well, recently in the news once again [1], a Rabbi Yitzchak  Batzri, a telegenic exorcist extraordinaire, recently attempted to exorcize a “dybbuk” – an evil or morally demented spirit that has seized possession of a person. It is also known as “spirit possession.”

According to the news, a Brazilian man claimed that a dybbuk entered him, so he went to Rav Chaim Kanievsky who thought this man was truly possessed.

Reports about the possessed Brazilian man claim that witnesses heard voices emerging from the Brazilian man, even though his lips did not move. The spirit allegedly said, among other things, “The end is close,” and, “I sense many sins,” in a foreign language other than the man’s native tongue, which is the only language he purportedly knows. Curiously, although the man’s lips did not move, noises seemed to emanate out of the man’s stomach—of all places! His wife later said that he had been talking in his sleep as well, in a language other than his native tongue.

The young Brazilian man claimed to have lived during the days of the Second Temple, and called himself Petachyahu the son of Chava. Heaven denied him entry because of several heinous sins that included breaking into a house, murdering the man of the house, raping and murdering his wife, and sacrificing the son to an idol/foreign god.

How strange, last Sunday afternoon  I was reading a famous Jewish medieval story to my class at St. Ambrose University that is very reminiscent of this spirit’s evil deeds. The tale reads almost verbatim from a medieval classic text known as the Orhot HaTsadikim (“Pathways of the Righteous”) Chapter 14 on the attribute of “Envy.”  The parallels are so striking, if one did not know better, it sounds as if the entire story was scripted—word for word—from this perennial Jewish classic of the 15th century. Continue reading “Rabbi Yitzchak Batzri–The Telegenic Exorcist Extraordinaire”

In Praise of Naomi Ragan: An Israeli and Orthodox Rosa Parks

This story is somewhat dated, but most of the readers probably are unaware of what actually took place in Israel regarding a brave and outspoken Modern Orthodox feminist and famous authoress who dared to stand up to an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) juggernaut in a bus heading toward Israel.

In American history, every citizen knows how Rosa Parks made history on Dec. 1, 1955. This brave woman got arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a municipal bus to a white man. This incident sparked the famous Montgomery bus boycott. Today, Israeli women wish they had an Orthodox “Rosa Parks” to lead them in their fight for equality in the Haredi Jewish communities.

Well, actually Orthodox novelist Naomi Ragen did exactly that a few years ago not far from Jerusalem.  No, she didn’t deliberately set out to become a Jewish Rosa Parks. She just wanted to get home. An observant, Orthodox Jew, Ragen was on the No. 40 bus line, headed to her house near Jerusalem, when an ultra-Orthodox — or Haredi — man told her to move to the back. She recalls, “I was astonished . . . And I said ‘I’m not bothering anyone. You don’t have to look at me, sit next to me — but as long as this is a public bus, I will sit where I please, thank you very much.'” Ragen says the harassment grew worse at every stop. Soon an even more aggressive, bearded ultra-Orthodox man got on and commanded her to move. He weighed about 300 pounds and hovered over her like a sumo wrestler, she says, his long, black frock and wide hat in her face.

“And he started screaming and yelling,” she said, telling her to “move to the back of the bus — or else.” “My reaction to that was I looked him in the eye and said ‘Look, you show me in the code of Jewish law where it’s written that I’m not allowed to sit in this seat and I’ll move,'” Ragen said. “‘Until then, get out of my face!'”

Pretty gutsy.

Naomi was lucky; other women haven’t been so fortunate.  At one recent incident, five Ultra-Orthodox Jews assaulted a woman and an Israel Defense Forces soldier Sunday for sitting next to each other on a bus bound for Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, the civil rights movement in Israel has yet to really get off the ground. Prominent Israeli politicians are afraid to stand up against the Haredi centers of power. Even the Israeli Supreme Court has failed to grant the necessary changes to ensure equality for all its citizens. In fact, the social trends look bleaker than they did when Naomi Ragan stood up for women everywhere in Israel.

If you think about it, doesn’t it seems that misogyny might be the “Original Sin” that is behind much of the religious fundamentalism of our age?  This concept might bear looking into at another time.  Naomi Ragan represents the kind of Modern Orthodox woman who deserves our respect. I pray that more Modern Orthodox leaders show the courage to speak out against the moral and spiritual hijacking of their faith.

Freedom “of” Religion or Freedom “from” Religion?

The year: 2010.

Haredi rabbis demand separate buses to ensure the separation of the sexes.  Beyond that, they are now insisting on separate times for men and women whenever they go shopping at the local supermarket. Once again the politicians look the other way rather than deal with the real problem– the ubiquitous threat of religious coercion.

Any gentile or liberal Jew reading this news might smirk: Are they afraid shopping along the aisles or sitting in a bus might lead to mixed dancing? (If you haven’t seen Kevin Bacon’s cult classic, “Footloose,” I recommend you rent this film at the local video-store. Maybe we need a Haredi version of the movie, starring Kevin Kosher!) Bifurcation of the sexes continues to morph into new and even stranger directions. The story is far from over for the  Haredi rabbi’s newest “Halachic” innovation is: separate sidewalks! A few weeks ago or so, some Haredi used megaphones urging that men and women should walk on opposite sides of the road during a busy weekend.

Now that’s taking segregation to the streets!

One wonders: Are burkhas next?!

Anyone who has studied ancient Jewish history probably knows that Haredi piety seems a little bit like déjà vu. As intimated in the last paragraph, the displays of piety we are witnessing today also occurred over 2000 years ago in ancient Judea.

Here are the rabbinic texts that substantiate this observation:

Our Rabbis taught: There are seven types of Pharisees: a fool saint, a subtle knave, a woman Pharisee, and the plagues of Pharisees ruin the world (BT Sotah 20a).

Who is a man of piety that is a fool? He, for example, who if a woman is drowning, says, “It is unseemly for me to look at her, and therefore, I cannot rescue her.’ Who is the crafty scoundrel? R. Yochanan says, “He is the man who explains his case to the judge before his opponent arrives.

Who is the pious fool? He who sees a child struggling in the water, and says, ‘When I have taken off my phylacteries, I will go and save him.’ By the time he arrives to rescue him, the child has already expired. Who is the crafty scoundrel? R. Huna says, ‘He is the man who behaves leniently toward himself, while teaching others only the strictest rules” (T.J. Sotah 3:4, f. 19a, line 13.)

Our Rabbis have taught: There are seven types of Pharisees: the ostentatious Pharisee[1], the Pharisee who knocks his feet together and walks with exaggerated humility[2].  The third type of Pharisee knocks his face against the wall rather than gaze at a woman[3]. Then again, there is the Pharisee who who feigns religious piety while constantly exclaiming, ‘What is my duty that I may perform it?’[4] There are also Pharisees who act out of love, while others act out of fear, i.e., who serve God because of  ulterior motives or conversely—or because they fear retribution.[5] Lastly, there is the Pharisee who wraps himself in his cloak, feigning humility (BT Sotah 22b).

In short, religious piety takes all different kinds of shapes in the world. Whether it’s the Taliban persecuting barbers for shaving men, or imposing the burkha for women–it is a fanatical religion that seeks to totally micromanage the lives of its followers. Israelis also grapple with religious fundamentalism much like their Muslim counterparts. More and more people in Israel are demanding not just freedom of religion, many are now unfortunately clamoring for freedom from religion.

And now you know–the rest of the story.


[1] He behaves like Shechem, who circumcised himself for an unworthy purpose (Gen. 34) The J. Talmud explains: who carries his religious duties upon his shoulder (shekem), i.e., ostentatiously (Ber. 14b).

[2] He walks with exaggerated humility. According to the J. Talmud, he says: ‘Spare me a moment that I may perform a commandment.’ For such a Pharisee, it’s all about “looking good and pious.”

[3] The J. Talmud explains that this is a calculating Pharisee, i.e., he performs a good deed and then a bad deed, setting one off against the other–he behaves a lot like a religious accountant.

[4] He behaves as if he has fulfilled every religious obligation.

[5] This reading follows Rava and Abaye who view the Pharisee as interested in pecuniary gain; or fear the consequences of God’s wrath should they sin against His will.  In J. Ber., however, they are both taken in reference to God — i.e., love of God and fear of Him.

How was Jacob embalmed?

Byline: January 3rd, 2010 at 3:00 PM

Genesis 50:3: they spent forty days in doing this, for that is the time required for embalming. And the Egyptians wept for him seventy days.– This figure does not quite correspond either to Herodotus or to the Roman historian Diodorus (Histories 1:91) Herodotus wrote that the period of embalming took 30 days, while according to the Diodorus, it took 70 days. Perhaps in the case of Jacob, 40 days were all that was necessary for embalming. The 70 days of mourning may have also included the 40 days of embalming while the thirty additional days were necessary to complete the period of mourning  before the journey to Canaan began.

The famous Greek historian Herodotus (II, 86) offers one of the more detailed sources on these matters, mentions three methods of embalming. The first, and most expensive, necessitated extracting the brains by means of an iron hook. The emptied skull was subsequently filled with spices. Next, an incision was made with a sharp “Ethiopic stone” which is believed to be obsidian — a  glassy black volcanic rock that can be flaked to a razor’s edge.

Obsidian can be sharper and thinner than any surgeon’s scalpel.  The first organs to be removed are the upper intestinal tract, and the pancreas. Then comes the spleen, kidneys, bladder, and more of the digestive tract; then comes the colon, stomach and spleen. After the liver comes out the lungs. Only the heart is left in the rib cage because the Egyptians believed that when the deceased approached Osiris, the heart would be weighed.

If it was as light as the feather of Ma’at, the goddess of truth, the person was one step closer to becoming accepted by the gods. All the emptied parts of the body were then cleansed and also filled with spices. Afterwards the body was packed in dry natron for a period of seventy days.

The last stage of embalming by this method consisted of washing the body and wrapping it tightly in cloths soaked in resins. In this state the embalmed body was delivered to the relatives, who would put it in a wooden coffin made in the shape of a human body; this was then placed in an upright position in the burial chamber. The second method, a cheaper one, consisted of dissolving the intestines by infusing cedar oil through the anus.

As with the previous method, the body was packed in dry natron and after seventy days the oil, together with the dissolved intestines, would emerge, so that all that remained of the body were the bones and the skin. The third and cheapest method of embalming involved cleansing the body by means of an enema before packing it in natron for seventy days. The embalmed body was then ready for burial. The secrets of the art of embalming were forgotten early in the Roman period.

It is interesting to note that nowadays, Jewish law rules that embalming is forbidden unless the body is being transported over state lines, in which case it is permitted.

Explaining why Maimonides’ view of the Menorah is incorrect . . .

The menorah’s physical dimensions have puzzled many scholars for centuries. This famous image of the menorah raises several problems and much has been written on it.  The authenticity of the depicted menorah’s base is sometimes called in question since it consists of two hexagons, the one superimposed on the other, on whose sides dragons are depicted–images that one would hardly expect to see on a sacred Jewish artifact! Perhaps Roman artists added these embellishments for the public procession of Israel’s captured treasures.

Those scholars who regard it as genuine article insist that the Roman triumphal arches were designed as historical documents and toward that end; in general, they strove to be as accurate as possible. Most of the details demonstrate to the sculptors’ intimate knowledge of the Temple’s vessels as described in the Bible and other Jewish sources. Moreover, the proportions of the menorah, with its over-sized base, are in such blatant conflict with the classical notions of aesthetic form that it is inconceivable that a Roman craftsman would have invented them.

Conversely, those who argue against its authenticity are quick to point out that certain elements of the menorah are omitted in this depiction. For example, the menorah had feet extending from its base [1] whereas the menorah on the Arch of Titus has no feet. The base of the menorah certain fits the Hellenistic and Herodian style which was current at that time and there is ample reason to suggest Herod redesigned the menorah to make it more atheistically appealing. Perhaps Herod followed Solomon’s example who constructed ten single lampstands (1 Kings 7:49). Solomon built ten menorot of gold, five along the northern and five along the southern wall of the Heikhal (1 Kings 7:49; 2 Chron. 4:7). These were ornamented with carvings of flowers and furnished with appliances of gold for tending the lamps (1 Kings 7:49-50), the number of which on each menorah is not stated. This being the case, the Arch of Titus merely shows just one menorah which was taken by the Romans, to whom in all likelihood did not care what kind of  menorah they were carrying. One menorah was probably just as good as another.[2]

Over the last couple of years or so,  the feet of the menorah unearthed from a newly-discovered synagogue not far from the Migdal Beech in Jerusalem, strongly resembles the feet of the menorah depicted on the famous Hasmonean coin. But the synagogue menorah is resting on a square base, whereas the coin’s menorah is not. Perhaps the base of the menorah was placed on top of a square base in the days of the Temple, under Herod’s watchful engineering eye. Simply put, Herod added style and flare, and his aesthetic judgments were quite exceptional indeed.

It is also possible that when the menorah was taken to Rome, Roman artisans fused the base of the menorah with the menorah itself for practical and aesthetic purposes.

So much for history … Continue reading “Explaining why Maimonides’ view of the Menorah is incorrect . . .”

Is there a sequence for lighting the Hanukah candles? Should it be done from right to left, or from left to right?

ANSWER: There are a number of ways of lighting the Hanukah menorah and each method is considered appropriate. R. Israel Isserlein (a.k.a, the “Rema”) indicates that the Rhineland tradition began at the left of the menorah and continued in sequence day by day. On the other hand, he also notes that in Vienna, precisely the opposite sequence was used, and one moved from right to left, in other words, in the fashion of the Hebrew writing.[1] To the best of my knowledge, there is no earlier discussion of this matter and there is no Talmudic or Mishnaic basis for any decision. The Shulhan Arukh (the Code of Jewish Law) decided that the candles should be inserted from the right, with one added each night, but lit from the left, with the newest lit first, a kind of compromise.[2]

The Talmud (T.B. Shabat 21b) is concerned with another problem, i.e., should one add a light each night or diminish the number each night? The School of Shammai began with eight candles and diminished the number until on the last night only a single candle was lit. On the other hand, the School of Hillel began with one candle and built to a climax of eight candles. Tradition has chosen to follow the School of Hillel, and we continue in this pattern.

Clearly then, family tradition in this matter may be followed, though the path of the Shulhan Arukh has historically become a general custom, and we should follow this pattern along with the majority of the Jewish community.

Ask your Kids the following question: What is the most important candle of the Menorah? Try to justify your answer.  Let me know what kind of answers you come up in your postings.

[1] Responsa of the Terumat Hadeshen #105

[2]  Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 676.5.