We Need an Islamic Reformation–NOW!

Credit: Catholic Charities/Jeffrey Bruno (CC BY 2.0).

Reformations are good for the soul. They keep the religious leaders and faiths in check. In the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, people began to read the Bible critically for the first time without having the local priest spoon-feed it to  them while they sat on their Church pews. Of course, the spread of literacy made a huge difference—thanks to the Gutenberg’s printing press. It impacts these technological innovations can probably be compared to the impact that computers and digitalization of literature are having on our society today. The Reformation underwent numerous schisms. Lutherans, Calvinists sprouted up everywhere, and the Baptists were not far behind. Pietist movements, Reformers created enormous conflict—even wars between the Catholics and the Protestants, as recorded in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, written by John Foxe in 1563; he narrated the tortures Catholics and Protestants did to one another in lurid detail.

Yet, Europe managed to survive its birth pangs of a new and more tolerant Christianity. The Catholic Church no longer dominated people’s lives. People wanted not just the freedom of religion, but also yearned for the freedom from religion.
While Orthodox Jews lament the birth of the Reform Movement in Judaism, the Jewish Reformation led to many significant changes that even the Orthodox movement benefits from having. For example, the Bat Mitzvah is one example of a change (introduced by R. Mordechai Kaplan of the Reconstructionist Movement) that is widely observed even in some of the most Orthodox Jewish communities—all over the nation. Often, young women will read to a mixed audience from the Megillah on Purim, or from Megillat Ruth on Shavuoth. These are dynamic changes we have witnessed in our time. The emergence of woman scholars in Halacha threatens to expand the discussions concerning traditional Jewish texts such as the Talmud. A woman’s voice is not only heard at the traditional Orthodox Shabbat tables or at the young women’s yeshivot, women are adding their voice to the formation of modern Halacha.

So what about Islam? Is Islam ready for a Reformation within its own ranks? As outsiders, do we have the right to encourage and even demand that Muslims consider this option and take the steps to implement it?

President Sisi of Egypt is a remarkable man in the Arab world.  He says it best last December when he urged reform of Islamic discourse and called on Islamic scholars to send Christmas greetings to Christians. In the televised speech to Islamic scholars, President Sisi stated, “We talk a lot about the importance of religious discourse… In our schools, institutes and universities, do we teach and practice respect for the others?” He continued, “We neither teach or practice it.”
Egyptian Streets quoted President Sisi during the speech, stating, “God did not create the world for the ‘ummah’ [Arabic for ‘nation’ or ‘community’] to be alone. [He didn’t create it] for one community, but for communities. [He didn’t create it] for one religion, but for religions.” President Sisi continued, “Can I impose upon someone pressure, physically or morally, to change their religion? Would God accept this?… What are we afraid of? Are we custodians of people’s minds or choices? No, we are not. In religion specifically, no. Each of us will be judged independently… and [people] will have to answer [for their choices and what they choose to believe].” [2]
To admit that Islam needs a Reformation might sound like heresy, but without it, not only will Islam as a religion completely implode, it may implode the rest of the civilized world along with it.
While there have been relatively peaceful relations between Islam and the West, there have been atavistic forces within Islam that wish to relive the good old days of the 7th century.
In Europe, we are witnessing retrogressive religion at its worse attempting to bring back the burqa, rape squads, sexual slavery advertised on the Internet and Twitter of thirteen year-old girls. The violence of atavistic Muslim young men who enslave and gang rape young girls continues to be ignored by the press. If you turn on your television, chances are you will not see progressive women march down the streets of Berlin or Paris, Stockholm or London protesting in mass against the seventh-century male mentality that defines considerable part of today’s Muslim world, who wish to make Sharia the law of the West.
Many Muslim countries are very concerned about the radical Islamicists that promote Sharia and ISIS, and a host of other arcane early 7th century Muslim practices—such as child weddings, female circumcision, stoning married women who cannot produce four witnesses that she was raped.
The apathy  or moral indifference of these crimes against humanity stem from their craven fear of being labeled “Islamophobic.”
There is nothing “racist” in criticizing the origins of religious intolerance in Islam, for Islam—like Judaism and Christianity—are predicated upon a belief system and is not based upon color.

The bully pulpit of the Presidency is remarkably silent whenever it comes to criticizing Islamic abuse of women and religious minorities faced with genocide. Yet, the progressive voices who could make a difference are deliberately silenced.

Sister Diana Morneka is probably a name you have never heard of before. She is a Catholic nun from Iraq who wanted to come to the United States to speak about the persecution of women and religious minorities of her country. One would think that the United States of all countries would allow this courageous champion of human rights to come and speak to our Congress, yet, inexplicably, our State Department will not give her a visa.
“Sister Diana represents tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians, forced to convert or die or flee their homes. She’ll tell us the truth about what’s happening,” U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) told the Catholic News Agency (CNA) May 7.  “Like thousands of other Christians in the region, Sister Diana is a victim of ISIS,” Collins said in a May 5 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry. “She has devoted her life to helping other victims and advocating for them.”
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has won numerous human rights awards for speaking up for women’s rights in Muslim countries. In 2004, she collaborated with the artist  Theo van Gogh (before some radical Muslims killed him) who produced a film called, Islam, which documents the oppression of women living under Islam. She is one of many moderates calling for a Reformation in Islam. Ali has also won numerous awards in various European countries. Yet, she has yet to be invited by the Congress or by the President.
If we want Islam to embrace a 21st religious sensibility, then it behooves us to add our voices demanding that such a change take place. Denying the voices of progressives who have lived or grown up in Muslim countries only serves to keep Islam locked up in the shackles of the 7th century.
Isn’t it about time that our President start inviting progressive voices like Zahudi Yasser, President Sisi, Ayann Hirsi Ali, or Sister Diana to the White House to help present an image of Islam that is introspective and self-critical? These are the kind of voices our country needs to hear, instead of gangster rappers, or people like GloZell, who eats cereal out of a bathtub.
As moral people concerned about the human condition, we need even at the risk of being called “politically incorrect,” to address the issue of modern day Islamo-fascists threatening Christians, Yazidi, and Jewish lives in the Middle East today. Just the other day, an Iranian general boasted how Iran has over 100,000 missiles aimed at Israel.
Why in the world would we ignore their threats to complete the job started by Hitler?
Yes, we need an Islamic Reformation—and we need it now!

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Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Shalom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via michael.samuel@sdjewishworld.com. Comments intended for publication in the space below MUST be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the United States.)

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When the Complexities of Life Converge with Jewish Tradition

 

 One of the best-known blessings Orthodox Jews recite every day is the blessing, “Thank you God for not making me a woman.”

The recent transformation on the cover of Vanity Fair’s 22-page cover story featuring Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce, raises a number of fascinating questions pertaining to Halacha as well as Jewish ethics.

To begin with, persons wishing to undergo transsexual surgery are a minority—in fact one per million men and even less with regard to women. Historically, such surgery began in Europe in the 1930s and in the United States in the 1960s.

Historically, the subject of the saris (eunuch) is recorded about forty times in the Tanakh. Ancient societies often positioned the eunuch as court officials, military commanders, and other positions of high authority (Gen. 37:36; 2 Kgs. 9:32; 25:19; Esther 1:10). In the case of Potiphar, he was married—and his status as  a eunuch probably became the principle reason Madam Potiphar fooled around when he wasn’t looking (see Gen. 39ff.).

Traditional Judaic texts raise a number of issues involved:

  • The prohibition against castration pertains to human beings and animals (Lev. 22:24; cf. BT Shabbat 110b-111a)
  • The prohibition against wounding or crushing genitalia of any person wishing to enter the Jewish community (Deut. 23:2).
  • The prohibition against cross-dressing, which would some scholars argue includes acting like someone of the opposite sex (Deut. 22:5).

Superficially, castrating or neutering an animal is prohibited in the Torah—and this applies no less to human beings.[1] The fundamental proof text derives from the Scriptural text, “He did not create it as a chaos, but to be inhabited” (Isa. 45:18). However, we should note that many people—including homosexuals and transgendered people can raise children to fulfill the precept of procreation, much like a heterosexual couple can if one is medically unable to sire or bear children.

According to the 13th century anonymous author of the famous Sefer HaChinuch:

  • The Creator blessed all living beings, to be fruitful and multiply, and even commanded the male of the species of the human on this, that it might endure. Without this imperative, a species would eventually die, as would all of its kind. Therefore, if anyone who destroys the procreative organs of generation, demonstrates that this person cannot tolerate the work of the Creator and desires the destruction of God’s good world.”[2]

If a man underwent such a surgery, would he have to grant his wife a religious divorce?

This question applies no less to performing the levirate marriage, which is now effectively been made null and void.

Traditionalist also wonder “Is intimacy with a transsexual permitted or not?’

In the case of a woman who undergoes the procedure, is she obliged to observe ritual circumcision?

Already, in Israel a practical question arose: A transsexual Jew was prohibited from praying with men in the men’s section, as well as in the women’s section! If Caitlyn were visiting Israel, which section would she attend services at the Western Wall?

In short, some Halachic scholars think that appearance is the driving issue here; ergo, if a man undergoes this procedure, then he is now exempt from performing all the precepts that are traditionally incumbent upon men.  One notable Orthodox scholar who makes this point was Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, who served as a judge in the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem. [3]

Of course other scholars differ and think that the transsexual surgery does not impact the halacha in any meaningful way.—Caitlyn  is still considered “Bruce” in terms of fulfilling his manly obligations. According to this perspective, human sexuality is something that is fixed and rigid.[4]  Most notably, Rabbi David Bleich’s views offers a sober exposition of the more conservative Halacha perspective:

  • The commandment, “A woman shall not wear that which pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment” (Deut. 22:5)  is not limited to the wearing of apparel associated with the opposite sex but encompasses any action uniquely identified with the opposite sex, proscribing, for example, shaving of armpits or dyeing of hair by a male.” In this vein, “a procedure designed to transform sexual characteristics violates the very essence of this prohibition.”[5]

One must always keep in mind that among many Orthodox scholars the maintenance of the patriarchal order is one of the most important principles that define masculine power in the Orthodox Jewish community. When a person willfully undergoes such a procedure, the act is often perceived as a serious threat to masculine power. In the Muslim community, this same attitude exists as well.

In short, it is intriguing to note that in Jewish tradition, answers come and go, but a good question is an eternal constant. Some of the questions we discussed here in this brief article may be a good case in point. In any event, personal choices like this question are ultimately a matter of personal conscience–and each person must be true to him or herself. In any event, Jewish ethics demands that we never embarrass or shame any human being–which applies no less to transgendered  men and women.

As society continues to change, it is this writer’s view that Halachic responses will continue to evolve with time.

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Notes:

[1] See BT Sanhedrin 56b.

[2] Sefer HaHinnukh, No. 291.

[3] Tzitz Eliezer 2:78.

[4] R. Moshe Steinberg, Assia Vol. 1., p. 144; Nishmat Avraham Even HaEzer 44:3.

[5] David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems (  New York: KTAV & Yeshiva University Press) Vol. 1 – Page 100

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Brandeis University’s Moral Cowardice (revised)

 

einstein_thumbs_down_4-10-14-2

One of the most important feminists fighting for women’s rights in the Islamic world is a woman named Ayaan Hirsi Ali. This remarkable woman was born in Somalia where she was raised as a Muslim. She spent her youth and young adulthood in Africa and Saudi Arabia. In 1992, her life took a radically new direction. She escaped from a forced marriage to a distant cousin and traveled to the Netherlands.

While she was there, she learned Dutch and worked as an interpreter in the abortion clinics and shelters for battered women. She went on to earn a college degree in political science.  The September 11 terrorist attacks convinced her she could no longer identify as a Muslim. Now she fights for Muslim women everywhere; she has been an ardent critic of Islamic extremism.

This past week, Brandeis University rescinded an invitation to confer an honorary doctorate degree because of her strident views of Islam as a religion. Ironically, as one think-tank named Fear Inc., observes, “One of Al Qaeda’s greatest recruitment and propaganda tools is the assertion that the West is at war with Islam and Muslims — an argument that is strengthened every day by those who suggest all Muslims are terrorists and all those practicing Islam are jeopardizing U.S. security.”

In one interview with she told Reason Magazine,  “There is no moderate Islam. … There are Muslims who are passive, who don’t all follow the rules of Islam, but there’s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There’s nothing moderate about it.”

The Brandeis University leadership criticized her for not differentiating between Radical Islam and Moderate Islam. Given her experiences in the Muslim world, which forcibly removed her clitoris when she was a child, it is not hard to see why she feels the way she does.

The decision to withdraw the honorary degree completely surprised her. She wrote:

•        ” Yesterday Brandeis University decided to withdraw an honorary degree they were to confer upon me next month during their Commencement exercises. I wish to dissociate myself from the university’s statement, which implies that I was in any way consulted about this decision. On the contrary, I was completely shocked when President Frederick Lawrence called me — just a few hours before issuing a public statement — to say that such a decision had been made.

•         “When Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution’s distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students. I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin. For over a decade, I have spoken out against such practices as female genital mutilation, so-called ‘honor killings,’ and applications of Sharia Law that justify such forms of domestic abuse as wife beating or child beating. Part of my work has been to question the role of Islam in legitimizing such abhorrent practices. So, I was not surprised when my usual critics, notably the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), protested against my being honored in this way.

•        ”What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not “overlook certain of my past statements,” which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation — lines from interviews taken out of context — designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree.[1]

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While I can understand Brandeis University’s withdrawal of the honor, it seems to me that it was still wrong to do so for many reasons. For one thing, the time to do the research on her background was before Brandeis offered it to her in the first place. For a stellar educational institution like Brandeis University, the time for doing due diligence is before it decided to honor her—not after. Since this was not properly done, the ethical thing is to confer the honor and learn from this “mistake” for the future.

Secondly, this woman is a heroine despite her atheistic attitudes about religion. Her community work has brought to light some very ghastly problems that we in the West must confront the Muslim community with so that they will issue fatwas and take a stronger moral stand against these hideous practices. Shaming her before the entire world was cruel as it was unnecessary.

Secular Muslims, or, people who have renounced Islam as a religion, have every right to express an opinion that runs contrary to the guardians of CAIR. In the intellectual history of the West, we have seen many great figures of history, e.g., Voltaire, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud criticize religion for its many moral failures. If these men were alive today, would Brandeis University refuse to listen to their criticism of Islam (or any faith for that matter)? Who can forget Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses; his brilliant literary work earned him a death fatwa from Muslim fanatics.

If I were Rushdie, I sure would like to know: “Where are the Muslim moderates?”

If I were a Muslim woman being stoned to death in Iran after being raped, I would sure want to know, “Where are the Muslim moderates?”

Is Hirsi Ali correct about Moderate Islam being non-existent?  I, for one, hope she is wrong. I have known a number of outstanding moderate Muslim leaders with whom I have done many interfaith programs with over the years. Unfortunately, they have only a marginal presence in the news. This is not necessarily their fault; the media in our country prefers to portray the extremists more than the moderates.

The international Muslim community can only benefit from the critics who will not accept the blatant sexism that is harming women in their society. If women’s liberation is good for the West and its religions, it is especially important for the Muslim countries where women are terrorized on a daily basis.

Rushdie and other outspoken secular Arabs or former Muslims have every right to speak their truth. The leadership at Brandeis refuses to treat atheistic thinkers with a modicum of respect. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Ibn Warraq are among a few of the luminaries who mince no words about what is wrong with religion—especially as it pertains to today’s decadent form of Radical Islam.  While I do not agree with the atheistic belief system, I do believe atheists today offer a wonderful critique of what is wrong with organized religion today.

Is Hirsi Ali an extremist? Hardly, this woman has received international awards from numerous liberal and conservative organizations. Here is a partial list, as compiled from Wikipedia:

•         •         Denmark: awarded the Freedom Prize of Denmark’s Liberal Party (20 November 2004), “for her work to further freedom of speech and the rights of women.”

•         •         From the European Union: Voted European of the Year for 2006 by the European editors of Reader’s Digest magazine. At a ceremony in The Hague on 23 January, Hirsi Ali accepted this award from EU Competition Commissioner, Neelie Kroes.[118]

•         •          Belgium: awarded the Prize of Liberty by Nova Civitas, a classical liberal think tank in the Low Countries (January 2004).

•         •          Germany: She received the civilian prize Glas der Vernunft Kassel, Germany. The organization rewarded her with this prize for her courage in criticizing Islam (1 October 2006).

•         •          Netherlands: given the Harriet Freezerring Emancipation Prize by Cisca Dresselhuys, editor of the feminist magazine Opzij (25 February 2005).

•         •          Norway: awarded the annual European Bellwether Prize by the Norwegian think tank Human Rights Service. According to HRS, Hirsi Ali is “beyond a doubt, the leading European politician in the field of integration. (She is) a master at the art of mediating the most difficult issues with insurmountable courage, wisdom, reflectiveness, and clarity” (June 2005).

•         •         Sweden: awarded the annual Democracy Prize of the Swedish Liberal People’s Party “for her courageous work for democracy, human rights and women’s rights.” She received the prize at a ceremony at the Swedish Riksdag from the party leader Lars Leijonborg (29 August 2005)

•         •         United States: listed by Time Magazine amongst the 100 Most Influential Persons of the World. She was put in the category “Leaders & Revolutionaries” (18 April 2005).

•         •         United States: accepted the Moral Courage Award from the American Jewish Committee (4 May 2006).

•         United States: given the Goldwater Award for 2007 from the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, at a dinner attended by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), Rep. John Shadegg (R-Arizona), and Steve Forbes (7 December 2007).

•         United States: Won the Richard Dawkins Prize (2008), by the Atheist Alliance International.

Contrary to what CAIR would like you to believe, Hirsi Ali is a champion respected by much of the Western world. Her goal of “defeating Islam” refers to those fanatics who have harmed and threatened innocent lives. She envisions a peaceful Islam but demands a full-scale reformation of the religion. Hirsi Ali has never advocated genocide or violence against Muslims. Her words pertain to the extremists and their enablers, such as CAIR, an organization that has long supported Hamas. Like many of today’s “New Atheists,” she believes religion is part of the problem and we need to break people of its spell. That means, among other things, getting people away from the literal words in the Koran.

Brandeis University owes this great woman an apology.

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The Mystical Wanderings of the Shekhinah (revised)

As Creator, and the Source of our being, God continuously brings our existence out of the abyss of nothingness, and is renewed with the possibility of new life.  God’s love and compassion is bio-centric and embraces the universe in its totality.  God’s power is not all-powerful (in the simplistic sense); nor is it coercive in achieving this end, but is all-relational in His capacity to relate to the world—even suffer with it as well. God’s love initiates new beginnings and endless possibilities ex nihilo to a suffering people. In the Exodus narrative, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה   (´e|hyè ´ášer ´e|hyè) “I will always be present as I will always be present.”

The early rabbis referred to God’s indwelling among mortals by the designation of שְׁכִינָה (“Shekhinah”), which signifies, “that which dwells.” The root word שָׁכֵן, (shakhen), or שָׁכַן, (shakhan) “to dwell,” “reside,” cf. Isaiah 60:2). Rabbinical wisdom traces this epithet of God to the well-known biblical verse,  וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם   “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exod. 25:8). Most biblical translations overlook a more literal meaning that conveys a mystical meaning, “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that  I shall dwell in them.” God dwells not outside the human heart, but within the human heart. Hence, the idea of the Shekhinah best means “Divine Indwelling.”

Throughout much of the Jewish midrashic and mystical literature, the rabbis depict the Shekhinah in feminine terms; this aspect of the Divine personifies God’s maternal love. Although the Shekhinah freely embraces suffering, She is not overwhelmed or defeated by human evil and stubbornness. Whenever the Shekhinah sees suffering, She identifies with the pain of her errant children, “My head is heavy; My arm is heavy.  And If God grieves  over the blood of the wicked whose blood is justifiably shed,  how much more so is the Shekhinah grieved over the blood of the just!”[1] The Shekhinah represents the part of God that each human being possesses. In William Blake’s famous depictions of Job, the observant reader will note that the face of God and the face of Job are the same. This aspect of God corresponds in biblical terms to the “image of God” that each of us bears inside us.

One Midrashic text connects the Shekhinah with the opening passage of Song of Songs 1:1, which speaks about the Lover (God) entering into the Garden (symbolizing Eden), to be alone with His beloved (symbolized by Israel):

I come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spice, I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk. Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.

According to the Midrash, all of Song of Songs is an extended metaphor about God’s love for Israel. The word “my garden” has Edenic overtones and significance. The term “gani” (“My garden,”) implies not just any “garden,” but specifically to “My garden,” i.e., the bridal chamber where a bride and groom consummate their love for one another. By saying “My bridal chamber,” the text mystically suggests a return to a time when God’s Being was originally present and revealed. The Midrash teaches that when Moses built the Tabernacle, the Shekhinah returned to co-inhabit the earth just as She did in the days of Eden before the primal couple’s great fall. In Eden, God “walked” alongside mortals (Gen 3:8). However, after the primal couple sinned, the Shekhinah began retreating Her Presence from the earthly realm. Bereft of Her divine intimacy, Adam and his wife hid themselves because they felt alienated from the deepest dimension of their souls.  Adam’s spiritual stature underwent a radical reduction.

However, the Shekhinah’s mystical ascent was far from finished, for when Cain murdered his brother Abel, the Feminine Presence felt disgusted with human violence and retreated unto the second level of Heaven in a panic. Alas, Her ascent away from the earth still continued;  Enosh forgot his Creator when he worshiped idols, so the Shekhinah retreated to the third level; after watching more of man’s inhumanity to man, a flood occurs, and the saddened Shekhinah retreats because She could not watch Her children perish. With the passage of time, the Shekhinah develops revulsion for violence. Once again, human cruelty chased Her, one more degree away from the earth.

After the Tower Builders announced their designs to conquer the heavens, the Shekhinah retreated yet another degree because she found human arrogance repugnant. The violence of the Sodomites upset Her even more, as she wanted nothing to do with men because of their barbarism and sadism. The Shekhinah’s withdrawal from the world reached Her zenith after the Egyptians mistreated their fellow earthly brothers and sisters, by enslaving the Israelites to a life of suffering and pain. She could not bear to watch. She wondered, “Could the rift with humanity get any worse than this?”

However, the Shekhinah could not remain in a permanent state of estrangement from humanity—despite its errant ways. Abraham was the first to recognize the Shekhinah’s reality and he sought to make her more intimate with mortals once more. Isaac’s willingness to die for Her, as a show of his love and devotion, made the Shekhinah yearn yet more for intimacy with mortals. Through his many struggles within himself, Jacob comes to discover the Shekhinah’s luminosity and beauty and finally understands the true meaning of blessing.  In an effort to purge himself from the violence that defiled his life after he and his brother Simeon massacred the inhabitants of Shechem (Gen. 34-31), Levi sought to renew his relationship with Her. The Shekhinah pitied this pathetic excuse for a human being and granted him a peacefulness of mind. She was determined to make Levi’s descendants do penance for their forefather’s crimes against humanity  by making them serve as priests to their Maker. She mused, “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future–this applies even to Levi!”

The Shekhinah brought Yochebed and Amram together, and they became the parents of Moses—the liberator of Israel.  Mysteriously, She finds herself drawn back to the earth. With Moses, the Shekhinah found a lover who decided to build a new home for the Divine—The Tabernacle–a place that would permanently restore Her Presence to our world, where She would walk once more with humankind. [2] From the various rabbinical texts written about the Shekhinah, She appears in a world that suffers from the ruptures of history. She is vaguely Present when the fullness of God’s reality seems absence of God in human history because of radical evil and senseless suffering. Yet, the Shekhinah is the often associated with the Spirit of God that gives shape to the chaos of Creation, forming it into a cosmos. In the Midrashic imagination, the purpose of the Creation is to serve as a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. Creation. However, only human beings can create the space for the Shekhinah to dwell.



[1] Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5.

[2] Numbers Rabbah 12:13.

 

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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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Tales From the Hollywood Zone: Was Jesus actually married?

You probably heard the story before a hundred times before.

A Catholic scholar, devoted to the Church and its doctrines throughout his life, died and went to Heaven, where he was greeted by St. Peter. For his heavenly reward, the scholar asked to see the heavenly archives where he could examine the original manuscripts of the New Testament. Hours later, St. Peter discovers that the scholar is distraught by what his eyes had discovered. One of the main tenets of the manuscript that was believed to state that all members, “…should stay celibate in all matters of sex…” has been found to be in error. The new translation has found the phrase to more accurately read that members, “…should stay, and celebrate in all matters of sex…” In other words, “Celebrate,” not “Celibate!”

The Church and sex . . . it sort of reminds me of the biblical prohibition against mixing meat and milk together–well, guess what? They don’t mix!

Well recently at my Introduction to Judaism class, one of my conversion students asked me the following two questions: “After reading the Da Vinci Codes, I began to wonder: Was Jesus actually married? Was a rabbi of that era supposed to be married? Secondly, what did you think of the movie’s overall premise?”

Let me say from the outset, that in ancient times, there was no official office of the rabbinate in the first century; generally speaking the epithet “rabbi” was an honorific title. Oftentimes, a wise person was called a “Chacham” (a Sage), or “Abba” since a spiritual teacher was considered to be like one who had given birth to a child or a disciple. Let us now examine the issues this person raised.

Now with respect to the old question, “Was Jesus ever mary-ied?” (great pun on “Mary”) The Talmud records an interesting question about Rav Huna (216-296) of Babylon. He is recorded as saying to one of his student, “‘See to it that you do not appear before me again before you are married,’ said he.” The Talmudic redactor observes, that R. Huna felt that “A man who has reached twenty years of age and still has not married, he will spend all his days in sin. ‘In sin’ — can you really think so? — But say, spends all his days in sinful thoughts.”

Another teacher, Rava (Abba ben Joseph bar Ḥama, ca. 280-350) adds, “The Academy of R. Ishmael also taught until the age of twenty, the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and waits. When will he take a wife? As soon as one attains twenty and has not married, he exclaims, ‘Blasted be his bones!’”  In the discussion that immediately follows, the Talmud cites a view from R. Hisda, who got married at a much younger age than 20. He recalls, “The reason that I am superior to my colleagues is that I married at sixteen. And had I married at fourteen, I would have said to Satan, ‘An arrow in your eye.’” [1]

It would be fairly safe to say that many Jews in the first century generally got married at a fairly young age so that they could fulfill the precept of raising a family. One rabbinic aphorism attributed to Ben Azzai (ca. 2nd century) reads: “Whosoever abstains from the precept of procreation is considered as if he shed blood” (T.B. Yebamoth 63b). Despite Ben Azzai’s endorsement of marriage, Ben Azzai remained a bachelor for all of his life, although some rabbinic traditions claim that he was married for a short period of time and got divorced. When accused of not practicing what he preached, he answered: “What shall I do if my soul yearns for Torah? The world can be performed by others” (Ibid.).

After Ben Azzai died, people used to say, “With the passing of Ben Azzai, diligent scholars passed from the earth” (Sot. 9:15). His intellectual pursuits were intensely passionate; he never wanted to be distracted from his Torah studies.

Perhaps Jesus had a similar attitude; and for that reason, he never married. On the other hand, perhaps he did get married; in all likelihood we cannot  know for sure. New Testament scholars readily admit that we know practically nothing about Jesus’ formative years.  This question is of little importance to Jews per se, but is obviously important to Catholics who have long rejected the idea of marriage as a biblical ideal for all of its spiritual leaders, which would explain why celibacy is so important in the Catholic faith.

Now, with respect to the Da Vinci Codes, Brown seems to take the goddess imagery a bit too far.  The protagonist Professor Langdon, observes, “The Grail,” Langdon said, “is symbolic of the lost goddess. When Christianity came along, the old pagan religions did not die easily. Legends of chivalric quests for the Holy Grail were in fact stories of forbidden quests to find the lost sacred feminine. Knights who claimed to be “searching for the chalice” were speaking in code as a way to protect themselves from a Church that had subjugated women, banished the Goddess, burned non-believers, and forbidden the pagan reverence for the sacred feminine.” [2] Continue reading “Tales From the Hollywood Zone: Was Jesus actually married?”

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What Inspired the Rabbis to say, “Thank God for not making me a woman!”? (Part 1)

As we have pointed out in other postings, a strong case can be made that one of the most serious  “deadly sins” of history is the sin of misogyny. Every faith grapples with this problem in one form or another. In Judaism, there is a well known blessing men say every day upon getting up in the morning:

“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler the universe who has not created me a woman.”

The Original Rabbinical Source of the Blessing

The origin of this prayer is found in the Tosefta to Berakhot 6:16 that reads:

R. Judah says: “A man is bound to say the following three blessings daily: (1) ‘[Blessed are You . . .] Who has not made me a heathen’, ‘. . . . (2) Who has not made me a woman’; and  (3) ‘ . . . who has not made me an uncouth person.’”

The Tosefta then explains its rational:  (1)    “. . . a heathen,” because it is written:  ‘Before him all the nations are as nought, as nothing and void he accounts them,’” (Isa. 40:17). (2)   “. . . an uncouth person,” because it is said, “an uncouth person cannot be pious” (Avot 2:5). (3)   “. . . a woman,” for women are not legally required to observe all the precepts.

To what is this matter (i.e., gentile, uncouth people, women who perform the precepts) analogous to? A mortal king once said to his servant, ‘Go cook a meal for me.’ However, unbeknownst to the king, the servant had never cooked a meal in his life! After cooking a meal, the king got upset with him. Another analogy: A king once asked his servant to hem a garment for him, but having never hemmed a garment before, the servant ruined the garment, thus angering the king. [The moral of the story: Let those who are unfamiliar with the observance of the commandments be exempt from observing them, lest they be an affront to their Maker.]

It is interesting to note that unlike the canned apologetic responses seen in subsequent rabbinic literature, which purports that women are essentially exempt from the performance of certain time-bound precepts because of her family obligations, the Tosefta dismisses such a perspective. Her legal exemption from the commandments is because of incompetence and not because of the lack of opportunity.

Re-interpreting the Tosefta

The Talmud discusses part of the Tosefta in BT Menachot 43b:

A learned discussion began: “ R. Judah [1] used to say, ‘A man is bound to say the following three blessings daily: ‘[Blessed are You . . .] who has not made me a heathen’, ‘. . . . who hast not made me a woman’; and ‘ . . . who hast not made me a brutish man.’

One of the Sages, R. Aha b. Jacob, once overhead his son saying ‘[Blessed are You. . .] who has not made me a brutish man’, when he immediately said to him, ‘Isn’t this blessing a tad bit presumptuous?’ (Who says the rabbis didn’t have a wry sense of humor?) His son retorted, ‘OK, what would you have me say instead?’ Surely it is better to say, ‘. . . Who has not made me a slave.’ Once again his son retorted, “ How is this blessing different from that of a woman (seeing that neither one is fully obligated to carry out the precepts of the Torah; in fact they are on equal footing in terms of their obligations)?  His father rejoined, “A slave is more contemptible” (since his character is generally prone to licentious behavior, which is not the case with women).

Now the 2nd century Roman emancipated slave Epictetus would have certainly took serious offense to the Talmudic discussion, had he been included as one of the respondents–but that too, is another discussion for a future date.

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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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