Can a Person sell a Defective Torah to a Heretical Congregation?


From Jewish Values Online:

The Chofetz Chaim (Of Blessed Memory) states that a Torah written by a heretic must be burned. At an economic loss of $15,000 upwards, Is it permissible ethically and according to Jewish values to make full disclosure of the defects of such a Torah, and sell it under those conditions to a Conservative or Reform (or any) congregation that is in need of one? It is assumed that the text of the Torah itself is without error or shmad (heretical defect). 

Thank you for writing to me about your concern. Now, let us take a look at the issues you raise.

Part 1: Defining the Problem

There are many issues and presumptions that you make in your question that are in my opinion, dubious in nature. For example, you presume that a Torah written by a “heretic” “ought to be burned.” However, you never define “Who is a heretic?” Just as the “Who is a Jew?” is a debate, so too is the question, “Who is a heretic?” Still and all, you never defined your terms and such assumptions can only lead to erroneous conclusions that are not warranted by the Halacha. Given the political nature of Judaism today, I must question whether it even proper to assert that “Reform” or “Conservative” rabbis are justly considered “heretics” because of their alleged “heretical” views.”

Historically, unlike Christianity that posits proper belief is essential for salvation, Judaism has historically been more concerned about “Ortho-prax,” proper religious behavior rather than the matter of “Orthodox” (“correct opinions”). According to Webster’s Dictionary, “orthodox derives from the Latin orthodoxus, Greek ὀρθόδοξος; ὀρθός right, true + δόξα opinion, δοκεῖν to think.” Webster goes on to add.

  1. Sound in opinion or doctrine, especially in religious doctrine; hence, holding the Christian faith; believing the doctrines taught in the Scriptures;—opposed to heretical and heterodox; as, an orthodox Christian.
  2. According or congruous with the doctrines of Scripture, the creed of a church, the decree of a council, or the like; as, an orthodox opinion, book, etc.
  3. Approved; conventional.

As you can see, the very term that many “observant” Jews use to define themselves reflects—ironically and paradoxically—Christian influence. One might even say that many observant Jews today are oblivious to the Christianization of Judaic belief; throughout Jewish history, no one rabbi has ever had the authority to speak “ex cathedra,” so to speak. (Please pardon my pun.)

Part 2: The Talmudic Origin of the Law Regarding the Heretic’s Torah

Before going any further in answering the other halachic issues you raise,  I think it is important to examine the origin of this particular halacha, which derives from the Talmudic tractate Gittin 45b:

  • R. Nahman said: We have it on tradition that a Torah scroll that has been written by a Min should be burnt, and one written by a heathen should be stored away.

In the interest of brevity, we need to define what exactly is meant by the term “min”  and after we define this term, we need to determine whether one may apply “min” to anyone who happens to be a non-Orthodox rabbi or a member of a non-Orthodox synagogue.

According to the Soncino Talmud (which was written by Modern Orthodox scholars led by R. Isadore Epstein), the term “min” refers specifically to “either a heathen bigot or fanatic.” The reason that a Torah written by a pagan is forbidden to read is because the “Torah scroll may have been written for an idolatrous purpose.”

R. Adin Steinsaltz explains that the “heretic” in the Talmud probably refers to someone who was a member of the Christian faith. Since the element of intentionality is significant and has profound halachic importance whenever the scribe writes any of the Divine Names, we fear that the Jewish Christian scribe most likely associated God’s Name with Jesus and the Trinity.[1]

The Jerusalem Talmud lists that twenty-four types of minim (heretics) existed in the first and subsequent centuries that followed the destruction of the Second Temple. Alleged heretical beliefs included many types of belief:

(1)   Anyone who denies God’s unity.

(2)   Dualism in all of its forms (Gnostic, Trinitarian, or Zoroastrian)

(3)   Denial of Providence

(4)   Denial of Israel’s mission to the world

(5)   Denial of salvation

(6)   Denial of Resurrection

(7)   Denial of a Messianic Redeemer or Messianic Age[2]

Maimonides himself viewed minut as atheism, or anyone who denied the existence in the theological doctrine of creatio ex nihilo “creation from nothing”) or the notion that man requires an intermediary to worship God (MT Hilchot Teshuva 3:7).

Contrary to many Talmudists—both ancient and modern—there is an impressive list of Jewish thinkers who rejected the belief in creatio ex nihilo and argued that bara does not necessarily mean “creation from nothing.” Ibn Ezra and even Maimonides both felt that creatio ex nihilo need not necessarily be implied by the verb bara. The 15th-16th century Jewish philosopher, R. Josef Albo concluded that creatio ex nihilo is not a fundamental principle of the Torah.

Maimonides’ own views are far more nuanced than one might realize for he himself did not really believe in physical resurrection—a point that many of Maimonides’ greatest critics suggested. If you wish to familiarize yourself with this discussion, see  Marc B. Shapiro’s brilliant book, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised (Portland Or; Littman Library, 2004), pp. 71-78; 132-157. Any Orthodox person reading this book must come to the inevitable conclusion that beliefs have always varied throughout Jewish history and that any attempt to create a Procrustean theology that consists of one voice is wrong-headed and foolish. [3]

 Part 3: The “Heretic’s Torah Scroll”

It is astounding in my view how any responsible Orthodox thinker could think that  profiting from a “heretical” Torah scroll is considered permitted—especially when one can make a tidy $15,000 profit selling such a scroll to a “heretical” place of worship such as a Conservative or Reform synagogue. One gets the distinct impression from your original letter that whenever there is a profit to be made, one can sell anything to the “heretic,” for all money is kosher.

Such an attitude is not God-centered, but it is mammon centered.

Halacha provides an interesting analogy to our situation: A person is forbidden by law to sell a forbidden unkosher mixture of meat and milk, or for that matter—any forbidden substance to a Jew. Aside from the fact that one is placing “a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14). With regard to your original question, it seems to me that you have no right—ethical or religious—to financially benefit from a Torah scroll that you consider to be defective by selling it to members of a “heretical” Jewish community. The very use of such terminology when used regarding Jews of different beliefs is potentially incendiary and divisive; such attitudes lead only to more sinat hinnum.

Since Conservative or Reform Jews and their rabbis are clearly not the heretics that the Talmud was originally speaking of.  I suggest to you that it is permitted to sell a defective Torah scroll provided you inform the purchaser that it needs repair. Heresy is a complete non-issue here. In short, under no circumstances should you burn the Sefer Torah. If its errors cannot be corrected, I suggest you give the Torah to a skilled scribe who knows how to repair it.



Notes:

[1]Peter Schäfer’s new book, Jesus in the Talmud, takes umbrage with the old Christian view that asserts “min” to be invariably  “Christian,” whenever it appears in the Talmud.

[2] Cf. BT Sanhedrin 38b-39a; BT Sanhedrin 91a &  91a.

[3]  Incidentally, Shapiro completely demolishes the responsa of R. Moshe Feinstein who alleges that all Conservative and Reform rabbis are “heretics” and that it is even forbidden to answer “Amen!” to their prayers. See Igrot Moshe YD Vol.1, Responsa 172; OH Vol. 4: 91. Like Rabbi Schnersohn and R. David Bleich, R. Feinstein believed anyone who rejected Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles was and is a “heretic.”

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The Castration Complex and the Halachic Mind

At one of my classes, some student asked a pretty interesting question: In Orthodox Judaism, can a woman perform brit milah (ritual circumcision)?

A Talmudic Discussion

There is a controversy in the Talmud  regarding this very issue between Daru bar Papa who cites in the name of Rav, and Rabbi Yochanan, who differs with Rav. Here is the substance of the argument. Daru b. Papa held that only someone who is obligated to observe the precept of circumcision can act as mohel (the one who performs the circumcision) for others, whereas R. Yochanan felt that a woman can act as a mohelet as indicated in the story of Tziporah (see Exod. 4:24‑26 for details). [1]

In practical terms, R. Yosef Caro, the Halacha follows R. Yochanan and a woman may act as mohelet [2] but Maimonides adds one stipulation: this only applies in the event that a male Mohel is not available, however, she is certainly permitted to do so as a religious duty.[3] However, Rema cites authorities who differ on this matter, and discourages a woman from doing acting in this capacity. In fact, the same passage in the halacha states there is no legal obligation on the part of the mother to even circumcise her child, for the duty falls upon the father.

To the best of my knowledge, there is not a single Haredi or Hasidic scholar living today who would literally endorse such a scandalous halachic position. Were such an opinion like this considered halachically normative, many young Jewish men would choose never to get circumcised.

By the way, some rabbinic commentaries assert that Tziporah merely started the act of circumcision on her son, but it was really Moses who completed it.

Adding a Psychological Perspective

From a psychological perspective, the reluctance to utilize a female mohelet may have something to do with Freud’s theory of the “castration complex.” Freud theorized that castration anxiety is based on a deep‑seated fear or anxiety in boys and men said to originate during the genital stage of sexual development; Freud asserts that a boy, when seeing a girl’s genitalia, falsely presumes that the girl had her penis removed probably as punishment for some misbehavior. The young boy then becomes anxious lest the same happen to him.[4]

It is worth noting that in some cultures, notably 19th century Europe, it was not unheard of for parents to threaten their children with castration, or to otherwise threaten their genitals, a phenomenon Freud documents several times.

Freud’s Castration Complex in Patriarchal Religious Societies

Freud’s controversial theory may also help clarify why some Halachic authorities are reluctant to go along with a female mohelet. Freud’s controversial theory may even help explain why male dominated societies like the Muslim and Haredi fundamentalists fear women’s liberation.

The fear that the patriarchal conceptions of masculinity being broken, may explain in part why there exists such an animus directed toward women in these closed societies. Basically, male dominated cultures are fearful of appearing “impotent,” and will do almost anything to promote the image of strength and virility–the trademark of mullahs and Haredi Gedolim (“Giants” ) alike (obviously, another example of Freudian wish-fulfillment, or the Nietzschean “will to power”).

The unraveling of the patriarchal order frightens men, perhaps on a very primordial level. Some scholars suggest that the ascendancy of the patriarchal religions of antiquity was because of their unconscious fear of the goddess religions. Whether this theory is correct or not, remains to be seen. However, it does fit a Freudian castration theory quite well. Continue reading “The Castration Complex and the Halachic Mind”

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Who Says an Orthodox Woman Can’t Serve as a Rabbi? (Part 2)

Let me apologize if the following material seems obtusely worded. Some rabbis have a serious problem expressing coherent thoughts that appeal to common sense. Clearly, some of our ancestors were lacking in this department. The Talmudic style of reasoning called, “pilpul” (“peppered” didactic reasoning) can appeal to the inner sophist we all have. At times, I like to refer to this style of argumentation as, “rabbinicspeak,” and to understand or argue with it, you have to almost think like a mental contortionist.

Continuing with our last thought, how could Deborah in the Bible (Judg. 4:4) serve as a judge, according to the Talmudic and medieval rabbis?  The 13th century of scholars known as the Tosfot, try to make sense of the problem posed. To their credit, Tosfot offers at least adds fluidity to much of its interpretation; they are a lot like the girl with the curl, when they are good . .  . you know the rest of the story. The same may be said of the Tosfot interpretations.

Ba’ale Tosfot discuss the problem from a variety of perspectives:

A. One answer proposed suggests that that Deborah was a judge because her community accepted her. Tosfot also admits that a woman is considered to be an equal in every matter of jurisprudence, except when it comes to serving as a witness. [1]

B. The Jerusalem Talmud rules that a woman is not allowed to act as a judge [2]; the case of Deborah is the exception–and certainly not the norm. Deborah was chosen by virtue of the Shekhinah resting upon her.[3]

C. Alternatively, one may accept a woman to serve as a judge, just like two litigants may accept a relative to serve as a judge–provided each party agrees. [4]

D. Some scholars say that Deborah could only “teach,” but she could not render legal decisions–only men could do that.[5] Continue reading “Who Says an Orthodox Woman Can’t Serve as a Rabbi? (Part 2)”

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Who Says an Orthodox Woman Can’t Serve as a Rabbi? (Part 1)

This past week, the Jewish Star updated its article about the maverick Modern Orthodox named Rabbi Avi Weiss, who recently backed down from a confrontation with the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) over his decision to offer ordination to a Sara Hurwitz, as an Orthodox rabbi.

Frankly, I am not surprised at all by the series of events that ensued. Surprisingly, Agudath Israel spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran admitted that the issue whether women may become rabbis or not is not a matter of “Torah law,” or not; in his opinion, it is morally wrong. Shafran remarked, “[If] Weiss had the backing of a world-class posek (halachic decisor) he would have a claim that he’s not departing [from the mesorah], but he does not have any such backings on the recognized Orthodox spectrum, chareidi or central. He’s changing the face of mesorah without anyone of stature behind him.”

I am curious: Where does the Torah speak about rabbis in the first place, since “rabbis” did not exist in biblical times?

But wait, it gets more interesting than just that.

Rabbi Shafran further argues that the ordination of a woman ran counter to the concept of tzniut, (modesty). It includes the idea that women are demeaned, not honoured, when they are placed in the public eye,” said Rabbi Shafran, “and that a position like the one suggested here is violative of that concept.”

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck, NJ, expresses a similar position in his blog: “There are two greater objections: the utter disregard of norms of tzniut, with which ModOs generally struggle, and the corruption of the methodology of psak that transmits the Mesora and Jewish cultural norms and societal values. The only way to consider in this context the compelling Jewish value of “the glory of the King’s daughter is within” (kal kevuda bat melech penima- Tehillim 45:14) is essentially to discount it and say it has no relevance in the modern Western world. Thus, this ideal of Jewish femininity – the disinclination to seek a public spiritual role, cited by Chazal hundreds of times – is simply written out of the Torah system. And why ? …” Continue reading “Who Says an Orthodox Woman Can’t Serve as a Rabbi? (Part 1)”

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Are Animals Endowed with a Soul?

The just man knows the soul of his beast, but the heart of the wicked is merciless.

Proverbs 12:10

The author of Proverbs stresses an important ethical lesson: a humane person considers the needs of his animals and acts kindly towards them.[1] The world of Creation is full of sentient beings, which also experience many of the joys and blessings that people commonly enjoy: like humankind, these creatures also experience pain. Suffering is a common language that links humanity with other species of animal life.

Therefore, Jewish ethics take sharp issue with French philosopher Rene Descartes (ca. 1596–1650), who compares animals to machines that service people, stating that their suffering “means nothing more than the creaking of a wheel.”[2] In physiological terms, according to Descartes, what human beings and animals share is that their bodies function by the laws of mechanics. One might respond: How then do human beings differ from animals? Descartes argues that the Creator endows human beings with a divine soul and a moral conscience—qualities that are lacking in animals.

In addition, unlike animals, human beings possess the ability to conceptualize and verbalize ideas. Most importantly, only human beings are capable of conscious and rational thought since they are uniquely endowed with the ability to be self-reflective. Only a human being is capable of exclaiming, “Cogito ergo sum.” Continue reading “Are Animals Endowed with a Soul?”

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Can a Golem be counted as part of a minyan?

Childhood Memories

As a child, I used to love reading the golem stories attributed to Rabbi Judah Lowe, a.k.a., the famous “Maharal of Prague” (1525-1609).  Since my father came from Czechoslovakia, I grew up hearing many family tales about the golem. These stories were especially delightful since my father was a naturally talented storyteller.  The golem was something like a medieval super-hero who protected the Jewish community from pogroms in its time.  It is interesting to note, that despite the numerous tracts Maharal wrote on various philosophical, talmudic, and mystical themes, never once does he ever refer to the golem that is associated with his name.

What is a Golem?

The term gōlem is a “shapeless mass” (Ps. 139:16), but according to Jewish folklore, a golem is a creature that is made from clay, and is animated by magical and mystical means. One of the more apocryphal stories of the Talmud relates how a 4th century scholar named Rava, magically created a man through the Sefer Yetzirah and sent him to Rabbi Zera. The latter tried speaking to him, but the poor golem could not speak. When there was no response, he declared: ‘You must be a  product of our colleague. Return to your dust!’ and so he died (BT Sanhedrin 65b).

Ironically, it is with no precedent in the Bible, except for the creation of Adam–except, now, it is man who is attempting to act as a mini-creator. How could such hubris not fail?

Indeed, in nearly all the golem legends, it appears that anytime mortals attempt to create human life, it is an activity that is fraught with danger. It seems that our ancestors felt suspicious about the full extent of man’s creative powers. In many of the stories, the golem goes out of control, destroying everything in sight.

Adaptations of the Golem in Western Literature and Cinema

The Frankenstein story is a European re-adaptation of the golem legends. In J. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Hobbit Gollum devolves into a treacherous shape-shifter under the malign influence of the Ring, it seems obvious that the author had these legends in mind.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, the character Data personifies  the golem legend. When attempting to integrate the emotional chip, he becomes capable of erratic behavior–even violence. Countless sci-fi films have developed this theme in numerous tales about humanoid-like robots turning against their masters, i.e., like the Terminator series. Even the X-Files had an interesting episode of a betrothed woman who turns her murdered husband into a golem, in order to avenge his death.

According to some medieval tales, the golem is indestructible; if the golem had been created by writing the Hebrew word “אמת” (emet; “truth”) on its forehead, it could be destroyed by erasing the first letter to produce the word “מת” (met; “dead”). If one had created a golem by placing the name of God in its mouth, all that was needed was to remove the parchment. Continue reading “Can a Golem be counted as part of a minyan?”

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From The Age of “Seducing By Scents” to “The Emergence of Ortho-Feminism”

I have often felt that misogyny has been one of the oldest sins since Adam and Eve.  The woman’s liberation movement has some remarkable antecedents in American history. It is remarkable how much the 20th century fight for gender rights have completely overturned thousands of years of  male hegemony.  It is no wonder why traditional religious societies across the globe fear it–change is necessary as it is inevitable.

Seducing By Scents

I came across an interesting article from House and Garden Magazine that illustrates just how much we have changed as a society over the last 300 years. It reads, “Legislation proposed in England in the 1700s: All women of whatever age, rank, profession, or degree, whether virgin, maid or widow, that shall impose upon, seduce and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects, by scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high‑heeled shoes or bolstered hips shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft and the like misdemeanors and that marriage, upon conviction, shall stand null and void.” —- Act of Parliament, 1670

Incidentally, one of our readers (see comments) points out that this story was originally a joke that appeared in the magazine. That is an interesting thought, but who really knows for sure?

The Humble Beginnings of Women’s Liberation

Now move the clock ahead about 100 years later . . . Abagail Adams penned one of the most famous letters of her era, demanding that the new Declaration of Independence respect the rights of its female citizens, which she unabashedly says:

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws, which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation. That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy, willingly give tip the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend. Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity?” [1]

—-Abigail (Smith) Adams (1744-1818), Letter to John Adams, [March 31, 1776]

John Adam’s Fear of “Petticoat Despotism

Her husband John Adams replied:

I cannot but laugh…We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bands of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out. Depend on it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and in practice you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight. [2]

Back to the Future: The early 2oth Century  Debate Concerning Women’s Suffrage

It is remarkable that the world has changed so much over the last 250 years. Some of you might be surprised to know that back in the 1915 many Orthodox rabbis opposed the right for women to vote. Woman’s suffrage proved to be a very divisive issue among American Orthodox Jews. Some rabbis felt that a women’s place is in the home. The rabbis feared that society will become corrupt should women invade the institutions of political power.

Chief Sephardic Rabbi Ben Tzion Uziel pointed out that there was nothing in the Torah to forbid women voting.  However, other rabbis argued, it’s against tradition—a woman’s place is in her home. Let the men worry about the politics!

Rabbi Uziel replied that in the olden days, men used to live in tents, in the desert, should we all go back to living in the wilderness just like our ancestors did? Ah, but the rabbis replied. If we give women equal rights to vote, they will want more freedom tomorrow, and who knows where that will lead to?

And That was Only the Beginning . . .

In a way, those early 20th century Orthodox rabbis were right.

An interesting debate has been developing in the Orthodox Jewish community. And that is the issue of Women’s “Prayer Groups.” Some have taken offense to women having “Minyanim” because only men can have Minyans.

Outraged by the growth of Ortho-feminism, a Queens-Long Island council of Modern Orthodox rabbis, the event symbolized a larger, possibly dangerous trend – the growing acceptance of women’s prayer groups.

Its action this month to ban groups such as the one in Hillcrest that hosted the bat mitzvah has shocked hundreds of observant women worldwide and a number of Orthodox leaders, elicited at least two letters urging reconsideration, and caused one leader of the rabbinical council to resign. Continue reading “From The Age of “Seducing By Scents” to “The Emergence of Ortho-Feminism””

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Tales of the Haredi Zone: Resurrecting “Jim Crow Laws”

The “Jim Crow Laws”  remind us of one of the most shameful chapters of American history, a time when many Southern states enacted laws designed to keep Afro-Americans from enjoying the same civil liberties and rights that blacks enjoyed in the Northern states.

Intimidation tactics were routinely carried out for several decades until the last of the Jim Crow laws were banned once and for all by 1971, In 1971, the Supreme Court, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, upheld desegregation busing  of students to achieve integration.

Of course these laws also affected poor and illiterate Americans. Jews, blacks, and Asians could not purchase homes in certain restrictive neighborhoods until 1948, when the Supreme Court outlawed some forms of private discrimination in Shelley v. Kraemer 334 US 1 (1948).

Who would ever suspect that Jim Crow Laws would find a comfortable new home among the Haredim?  But this time the Haredi Jim Crow Laws target women. Consider the following examples:

Over the past few months, Israeli society has witnessed a whole series of newly constructed practices for what are undoubtedly extreme views of the need for gender segregation:
•  Separate sides of the street designated for a Sukkot holiday public festival in Jerusalem.

•  The corpse of a woman removed from its burial place because it was next to a man in Tiberias

•  Separate cashiers at the supermarket for men and women in Ramot.

•  Separate public buses for men and women in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem, and more

•  Separate El Al airline flights for men and women

•  Separate offices for men and women in Modi’in Illit (some companies will not hire women in a company where men work)

•  Separate exit times from synagogue in Safed (women were locked inside until all the men left)

•  Banning of women from cemeteries in places including Elyachin, and silencing of women’s cries of mourning.

•  The removal of all pictures of women from public advertisements – even women politicians, like Kadima head and former prime ministerial candidate MK Tzipi Livni Continue reading “Tales of the Haredi Zone: Resurrecting “Jim Crow Laws””

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Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 2)

Shmarya Rosenberg posted a correspondence he had with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein on the plight of Ethiopian Jewry. It is a valuable historical document–one that will most likely be studied by future generations. Here is the record of  his correspondence with Rav Moshe  Feinstein.

===================

Recently, I found Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s 1984 teshuva-letter on Ethiopian Jews stuck between two file folders. (You can click the thumbnail image for a larger, more readable image or download a PDF.[1]) This letter was written in response to a question I asked through Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Rav Moshe’s son-in-law. He referred the question to his son, Mordechai, who then served as Rav Moshe’s secretary-assistant. What follows is a (rough) translation:

With the Help of HaShem

26 Sivan 5744

To the honored, my beloved grandson ha rav ha-gaon moreinu ha-rav Rabbi Mordechai Tendler, shlit’a, with blessings of peace and blessing and all good:

With my best regards,

Here as per your request, I reaffirm what you wrote in my name several years ago regarding the “Falashas,” that it is known what is written in the Responsa of the Radba”z, section seven, §9, that it is understood he considers them to be Jews; however for practical application of the law it is difficult to rely on this, for it is not clear if the Radba”z knew well the reality regarding them, nor is it clear whether up until our time their status has [remained the same and] not changed. But in regard to practical application of the law they are not mamzerim or the like, for the Radba”z mentions there that many many doubts apply to them. Review my responsa where I detail at length the qualifications of the rabbinical prohibitions regarding the legal status of ‘an illegitimate child of unknown fatherhood’ and ‘a child found in the street whose parents are (both) unknown’. Continue reading “Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 2)”

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The Odyssey of a Prodigal Son

I personally know of many prodigal sons and daughters of Lubavitch, people who left the famous Hasidic movement for a variety of reasons.  Their stories are all too familiar to me. Some became disillusioned with its values and philosophy; others could no longer reconcile the contradictions of a modern vs. pre-modern lifestyle. In each of these personal narratives,  it is always the individual who redefines his or her own identity.

For members of any closed society, it is typically the community that does the defining.  To leave this kind of world within a world takes a virtual Kierkegaardian leap of faith– into the realm of the unknown, where one undergoes a new kind of genesis. Or perhaps to use a more platonic metaphor, leaving Lubavitch is a lot like the man who left his fellow prisoners in the cave, only to discover a  different kind of reality (The Republic, Book 7). Yes, life  is a series of miniature rebirths. Here is a story about one man’s rebirth that I think many of you will find fascinating.

Shmarya (Scott) Rosenberg  is the owner of the Failedmessiah website. Shmarya’s spiritual journey is a remarkable one. He, like many of us, has taken the road less traveled.  His story began when the late Lubavitcher Rebbe refused to get involved with the rescue of  Ethiopian Jews. The Rebbe’s refusal ultimately resulted in Shmarya’s exodus from Lubavitch.

In a personal letter he received from the Rebbe to Shmarya, the Rebbe wrote that “spiritually” rescuing American Jews from assimilation was an  urgent matter that took precedence over rescuing the “Jewish” community of Ethiopia. Rabbi Schneerson probably felt that  saving American Jews was a matter of triage. However, most of the other great rabbis of that era like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rav Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, supported the rescue efforts regardless of the practical Halachic doubts some of them  had concerning the “Jewishness” of the Ethiopian Jews. Even as of today, Lubavitch still refuses to have any kind of outreach with Ethiopian Jews, despite the fact they underwent Orthodox conversions in Israel.

It is difficult to blame Shmarya for his animus against the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, but his alienation from the movement has led him to a renewed sense of personal and spiritual discovery. Shmarya has long since  become a voice of Jewish conscience. He routinely holds the Orthodox world accountable for its countless misdeeds and foibles.

Much in the spirit of the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, Shmarya reveals the Monty Python-esque characteristics of nearly all the great Orthodox rabbis of our present generation, and most of these anecdotes are outrageous. After reading his blog, one gets the inescapable feeling that the age of Gedolim (authentic rabbinic scholars who embody the best qualities of Judaism) has become either of thing of the past, or is an endangered species.

In a century or two from now, future generations will find this material historically valuable; students will read Failedmessiah much like we now study the 17th century diaries  of Samuel Pepys from London. Anyone interested, may want to read Shmarya’s critique of Rabbi Shafran, who recently blamed the Haiti earthquake on Jewish cartoonists who dared to castigate Orthodox outreach programs. His stories  on the  “holy Kabbalists” usually depict them as con-artists, who prey (pun intended) upon the gullible public. For the most part, Shmarya exposes a ruthlessness that exists within the Lubavitcher organization itself which its supporters never see. Frankly, Chabad can gain great wisdom from his criticisms.

To his credit, the Failedmessiah has literally forced the entire Orthodox world to become more circumspect and responsible with its members’ group behavior. Without his website, it is doubtful whether the yeshiva world would ever have taken ownership of the pedophilia cases that exist within their rank and file members and spiritual leadership. Really now, shouldn’t  the Orthodox members police their communities for everyone’s sake?

Historically, such issues have always plagued Jewish traditional observant communities. Prior to the Internet and blogging, these scandals would have most certainly been swept under the rug, away from public scrutiny. However, thanks to Failedmessiah and other bloggers that he has inspired, a conspiracy of silence is no longer possible.

Sigmund Freud was one of the first modern secular Jewish thinkers to see the profound spiritual and ethical disconnect of  the “religious” people of his era. He realized that it is far easier to worship God through mechanical ritual than it is to behave as an ethical human being. Freud subsequently viewed religion as a neurosis–and probably for good reason. When one observes the kind of shenanigans the Orthodox in Israel perpetuate daily in Israel, it is obvious that we do a pretty good job creating our own brand of anti-Semitism without the help of David Duke and his ilk. Shmarya Rosenberg provides an invaluable service for the Jewish community by forcing all of us to examine our shadow side. Continue reading “The Odyssey of a Prodigal Son”

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