Rabbi Yosef’s Surprising View on Plagiarizing

The Jerusalem Post featured an unusual article about the Chief Rabbi of Holon Rabbi Avraham Yosef, the son of the late Sefardic-Haredi leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. His son sits on the Israel Chief Rabbinate’s council and commands considerable influence in Orthodox politics in Israel and abroad.

In one of his Moreshet Orthodox website, somebody asked him the following question:

  • My friend needs to submit university work; she took the work from someone else and asked me to change the wording so that the work will not look like the same. Is it permissible for me to help my friend to re-word the work?” a woman asked.

Rabbi Yosef said that it is permissible to plagiarize and cheat. “[It is] permitted. And it is [fulfilling the] commandment of bestowing kindness, especially if she has a good command of the material,” Yosef ruled.[1]

There are several halachic problems with R. Yosef’s advice. The primary problem I wish to point out is the issue of ge’nei’vat da’at, which in Hebrew means, “stealing one’s mind,” which can easily apply to all forms of misrepresentation, taking credit for someone’s work. Anytime a person deliberately tries to create a mistaken assumption in the minds of others, this is considered a major breach of Jewish ethics and law. Arguably,ge’nei’vat da’at goes far beyond just lying. It is also a clear violation against bearing false witness—a law that is considered one of the most important of the Ten Commandments.

It is surprising that some medieval scholars thought this is only a rabbinical prohibition, but the verses pertaining to all forms of theft are well-known. In fact, the Tanakh even mentions the crime of plagiarism “See, therefore, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who steal my words from one another” (Jer.  23:30). More seriously, Rabbi Yosef is misleading others to sin, which is arguably Judaism’s most cardinal sins and violates just about every biblical law pertaining to fraud and deception. [2]

Then again, there is a famous rabbinical dictum: R. Eleazar further said in the name of R. Hanina: Whoever reports a saying in the name of its originator brings redemption to the world, as it says, And Esther told the king in the name of Mordecai (Esther 2:22). [3]

The literal meaning of ge’nei’vat da’at in Hebrew is theft of one’s mind, thoughts, wisdom, or knowledge, i.e., fooling someone and thereby causing him or her to have a mistaken assumption, belief, and/or impression. Thus, the term is used in Jewish law to indicate deception, cheating, creating a false impression, and acquiring undeserved goodwill. Ge’nei’vat da’at goes beyond lying. Deliberately creating false impressions about one’s behavior is also subsumed in this prohibition—whether in words or in deeds.  The Tosefta reads:

There are seven kinds of thieves.

(1)   The first among them is the one who steals the minds of people.

(2)  He who urges his friend to come as his guest, but in his heart does not really wish to invite him.

(3)  One who excessively offers gifts to his friend, knowing that the latter will not accept them;

(4)  One who opens up barrels for another, that were sold to a shopkeeper;

(5)  Anyone who falsifies measures.

(6)  One who secretly pads scales . . .

(7)  Anyone who deceives people is called a thief, as it is written: “And Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel” (2 Samuel, 15:6).[4]

As a case in point, the sages believed that there are seven types of thieves and, of these, the most serious offenders is someone who “steals the minds” of people.

The Talmud  discusses the principle of ge’nei’vat da’at  and cites the 3rd century scholar named  Shmuel, who taught: It is forbidden to steal the mind of anyone, even idolaters.” [5] The Talmud observes that Shmuel never expressly stated such a law, but it was deduced from an incident in which his attendant duped a heathen ferryman. Scholars were not sure what exactly happened, but here is how the discussion went: One view asserts that Shmuel once told his attendant to give the ferryman a chicken and the latter thought he was getting a kosher chicken but was actually given one that was unkosher. Another opinion is that the ferryman thought he was receiving undiluted wine but was instead given diluted wine.[6]

The “Lemon Laws” of our country certainly have strong antecedents in biblical and rabbinical laws that demand personal integrity and moral excellence.

After the death of his father, the Israeli rabbinate considered him as a possible successor for his the Sephardic position of Chief Rabbi. However, when the police began Examining alleged issues involving a breach of trust, and other sundry ethical violations, they forced him to withdraw his candidacy. “Yosef was a candidate for Sefardi chief rabbi but his candidacy ended when police began investigating him for alleged breach of public trust and an illegal conflict of interest. Yosef allegedly coerced store and restaurant owners to get kosher supervision from a private kosher supervision company started by his late father and run by one of Yosef’s brothers” (JPost). [7]

So what can we deduce from all of this?

Shakespeare perhaps said it best:

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

An evil soul producing holy witness

Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,

A goodly apple rotten at the heart.

O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”

  • William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, I, iii, 93);

When one examines the religious politics and chicanery in Israel today, we could also add, “The devil can cite Talmud, Halacha, Midrash, Hassidut and Kabbalah as well.”

When one considers the amount of fraud that is publicized on the Web involving kickbacks, racketeering, and other numerous criminal offenses, the Rabbi Yosef embarrasses his community as well as every non-Orthodox Jewish community. If we wish to become a light unto the nations of the world, then we had better start becoming a light to ourselves first.

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Notes

[1] http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-News/Rabbi-rules-copying-work-in-university-is-permitted-in-Jewish-law-346738

[2]  Regarding theft:

Exod. 21:16. 22:1-5, 7-13. Le 6:1-7. 19:11, 13, 35-37. 25:17. Deut 5:19. 19:14. 23:24, 25. 24:7. 25:13-16. 27:17. Josh 7:24, 25. Job 20:19-22. 24:2. Ps 37:21. 50:18. 62:10. Pro. 1:13-15. 3:27. 6:30, 31. 11:1. 16:11. 20:10, 23. 22:22, 28. 23:10. 28:24. 29:24. 30:8, 9. Isa 1:23. 61:8. Jer 5:26-29. 7:8-11. 22:13. Ezek 33:15. 45:10. Hos. 4:2. 12:7. Amos 3:10. 5:11, 12. 8:4-6. Mic. 6:10, 11. 7:3. Zach. 5:3, 4. Mal. 3:5,

Regarding Fraud and Dishonesty, see Lev. 19:11; Lev. 19:35–36; Lev. 25:14; Deut. 19:14; Deut. 25:13–16; Deut. 27:17; Job 24:2; Ps. 37:21; Prov. 11:1; Prov. 11:26; Prov. 16:11; Prov. 20:14, 17, 23; Prov. 22:28; Prov. 23:10–11; Hos. 12:7–8, 14; Amos 8:5–6; Mic. 6:10–13; Hab. 2:6.

Regarding the sins involving hypocrisy: Job 17:1, 3–9; Ps. 5:9; Ps. 26:4; Ps. 50:16–23; Isa. 29:13; Isa. 32:5–8; Isa. 48:1; Isa. 58:1–2; Ezek. 33:31–32.

Lying and Falsity:  Exod. 20:16; Job 15:35; Job 21:34; Job 24:25; Job 31:33; Ps. 5:6; Ps. 31:18; Ps. 50:19; Ps. 52:2–4; Ps. 55:20–21; Ps. 62:4; Ps. 63:11; Ps. 116:11; Ps. 119:69; Ps. 120:3–4; Prov. 2:12–15; Prov. 6:16–17, 19; Prov. 10:18; Prov. 12:22; Prov. 17:4; Prov. 19:22; Prov. 21:6; Prov. 26:23–26; Isa. 59:2–3; Jer. 5:2; Jer. 7:8; Jer. 9:3–6; Hos. 4:1–2; Hos. 11:12; Zech. 8:16–17.

Causing others  to sin: Num. 25:1–2; Neh. 6:13; Prov. 1:10–16; Prov. 4:14–15, 25–27; Prov. 16:29; Prov. 28:10; Isa. 33:15–16.

[3] BT Megilah 15a, Mishnah Avot 6:6 

[4] Tosefta Bava Kama 7:8; it is shocking that some medieval scholars think that the prohibition against ge’nei’vat da’at is not Biblical but rabbinical (Semak, 262). Such rationalizations only create scandal in the Jewish community and it also reenforces the impression that all Jews are dishonest in business.

[5.] BT Chullin 94a-b.

[6] Tosefta Bava Kama 7:3.

[7]  http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-News/Rabbi-rules-copying-work-in-university-is-permitted-in-Jewish-law-346738

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”

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)”

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)”

A Halachic Reductio ad absurdum

One of my favorite concepts in logic is the reductio ad absurdum (Latin: “reduction to the absurd”)  argument, which is a logical method of argument that proves the falsity of a premise  by following its implications to a logical but absurd conclusion.

“Fortifying the Walls of Conversion” ?

Today, at a conference dedicated to “fortifying walls of conversion,”  the Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger expressed moral support for Rabbi Sherman, who annulled thousands of conversions carried out by Rabbi Chaim Druckman, who has been the past acting  director of the National Conversion Authority in Israel.

In the past couple of years or more, Haredi politicians in Israel have on a number of occasions tried to oust the rabbi, most notably under the corrupt leadership of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert , but Rav Druckman refused to go and there was nothing his critics could do to force him to leave. Even after his departure from the directorship, Haredi politicians and rabbis are still trying to overturn all of his conversions, which may affect the status of about 15,000 converts in Israel.

Explaining Why Revoking Conversions is Wrongheaded

The concept of revoking a conversion is a recent innovation in rabbinic law. As we have posted in other places, the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) does not sanction revocation of conversions at all. Should a convert return to his former gentile roots, the halacha still considers him as a “sinful Israelite.” [1]

Simply stated, revoking conversions is risky business and can cause unspeakable harm to countless innocents who are indirectly or directly  triangulated in the rabbinic web the Haredi rabbis have woven.

Reductio ad absurdum in Action

Say, for example, a woman converts from Catholicism and becomes a pious Haredi Jewess at the tender age of 20; she then raises a Haredi family and has  20 children of her own–all who live pious Haredi lives. Now each of those 20 children of the second generation have 20 children of their own, and they too, remain pious and God fearing Haredim.

As time passes, each person of the the third generation of 20 children produces  20 children–all who remain within the Haredi community. Continue reading “A Halachic Reductio ad absurdum”

A Short History of the Sabbatical Year in Late Antiquity

Sometimes even the most obvious biblical passages can be perplexing. One interesting verse is a case in point:

“Therefore, do not say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we do not then sow or reap our crop?’ I will bestow such blessings on you in the sixth year that there will then be crop enough for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will continue to eat from the old crop; and even into the ninth year, when the crop comes in, you will still have the old to eat from” (Lev. 25:20-22).

It is difficult to determine how seriously the ancient Jews observed the שמיטה‎  “Sabbatical Year” (literally “release”). The fact that people attempted to keep it at all, given the hard economic realities, is  remarkable.  The inhabitants of Jerusalem in the 5th cent. B.C.E. swore to let the ground remain fallow during the seventh year (Neh. 10:31). During the Maccabean revolution, the Syrian army led by general Lysias, took over the fortress of Beth-zur because food was in short supply during the sabbatical year when the attack was made. Its people “evacuated the city, because they had no provisions there to withstand a siege, since it was a sabbatical year for the land” (1 Maccabees 6:49, cf. vv. 53-54).

Josephus records that both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar remitted Israel’s taxes during the Sabbatical years.[1] Tactius also attests to the Jewish observance of the Sabbatical year but attributed the custom to “indolence.”[2]

Given the animosity between Judea and Rome, the Romans demanded that the Jewish remnant of Judea continue paying the crop tax. No exceptions were made whatsoever for the struggling Jewish population of the land.

In the aftermath of the failed Bar Kochba revolution, the rabbis modified the law regarding the Sabbatical year during the Roman period to allow for food to be grown in order so that the people should survive, and be able to pay its taxes to a hostile Roman government.

What makes this an intriguing passage is the fact that the Sabbatical year continued to be observed even in a post-exilic era and most Halachic authorities ruled that the Sabbatical year was still a rabbinic obligation.  The only reason the Sages exempted the farmers was because the imminent danger they faced should they have disobeyed. Other authorities insisted that it was biblically required, while others still maintained it was a nothing more than a pious custom.[3] Continue reading “A Short History of the Sabbatical Year in Late Antiquity”

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””

When Haredim go drag

Whenever I celebrated Purim in Me’ah Sharim, the Haredi epicenter of Jerusalem, I always marveled at the costumes the Haaredim used to wear. Every year, the Haredim participate in cross-dressing. Haredim in drag. What a sight to behold. Haredim and Hasidim literally let their hair down.

Any good Christian bible reader knows that cross-dressing is forbidden in the Torah. Men are forbidden to dress as women, since the proscription reads, “neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment, neither may a man wear a woman’s garment ” (Deut. 22:5).

The law aims to maintain gender distinctions, while preventing potentially licentious behavior.  Cross-dressing during Purim is nothing new in Halachic literature; pious Jews have been cross-dressing on this holiday for several centuries.

In the 16th century, somebody asked Rabbi Moshe Iserseles (a.k.a., “Rema”), whether cross-dressing on Purim was permitted or not. Rema cites two opinions, one says, “Yea!” while the other says, “Nay!” (and the cross-dresser says, “Hurray!”). Rema rules that it is permitted to follow the more lenient opinion. [1] Continue reading “When Haredim go drag”

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.

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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)”

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 1)

When I was looking at the numbers of Ethiopian Jews living in Israel, I felt very proud of those rabbis and Jewish leaders that knew how to respond in times of great crisis. Jewish ethics teaches that anyone who saves one life is considered as though he saves an entire world.

The collaborative effort of Jewish leaders across denominational lines accomplished one of the great feats of Exodus in our day. Rarely has the Jewish community of Israel and the Diaspora shown such unity–I only wish we could replicate the experience in other areas of Jewish life today.

One particular American rabbinic leader, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1885-1986, Lithuania), acted as a catalyst  in mobilizing other rabbinic leaders to come to aid. This Lithuanian  rabbi proved to be the real Moses of his day. Here is a little bit of background information for readers who may not have heard about this great man. Widely regarded as America Orthodoxy’s greatest Halachic scholar, Rav Feinstein’s  humanity exceeded his vast encyclopedic grasp of Jewish law. When he died, over 300,000 people in Israel attended his funeral–the largest number seen since the Mishnaic era. He will long  be remembered as one of Haredi Judaism’s greatest leaders.

Rav Feinstein also distinguished himself as an expert in Jewish medical ethics; in addition, he was famous for knowing how to resolve labor and business disputes; he was the first Haredi rabbi to accept brain death as a viable definition of death at a time when no other rabbi did. Although he was not a religious pluralist, Rav Moshe (as he was affectionately called by many of his students) knew how to respond to the endangered Ethiopian Jewish community and added his voice to those participating in their rescue. Thinking ahead, Rav Moshe also worked with other leading Israeli rabbis in  laying out a practical Halachic plan that would accelerate their reintegration within the Jewish people. [1]

Perhaps Rav Moshe’s best legacy is his multi-volume exposition dealing with the thousands of questions people asked concerning Jewish law  that rabbinic and historical scholars refer to as “Responsa.”

What exactly is Responsa? Here is a brief explanation.

Without the aid of an Internet,  rabbis managed to develop a literary  phenomenon, viz. the rabbinical correspondence that is better known today as “Responsa.” About 1700 years ago, the great rabbinic scholars known as the “Geonim” (savants) of Persia corresponded with the rabbis of North Africa and Spain, and exchanged ideas and thoughts on a variety of topics affecting their communities. This genre of literature constitutes one of the most fertile sources of information for Jewish life in the middle ages. Maimonides, Rav Hai Gaon, Ramban and countless other luminaries sustained an ongoing relationship with other Jewish communities that were across the ancient world. Continue reading “Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the Rescue of Ethiopian Jewry (Part 1)”