Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Women's Prayer Groups: R. Hershel Schachter's Position II

I post the following in response to Comments by Ben to this post. Angry White Male, whoever he is, wrote generally in the same vein as I am.

Ben: In order to evaluate his arguments, you need to ask if he applies them boardly, or only in this case.
Evaluate his arguments for what purpose? To understand what he says or to determine whether you would rule likewise? If the latter, and you are of sufficient stature to disagree with him, then you are correct. I doubt that. If you wish to understand then you might want to reread my "Prefatory Comments" about why R. Schachter might rule more strictly in this matter than in others.

Ben: For example, in I and IV he is concerned that women are giving up on the various benefits of shul davening to go to the WPG. Is he similarly insistent that all women go to shul?
I already addressed this in the last paragraph of section I. Women are not obligated to pray with a minyan but if they are willing to put in the effort to do so but instead choose to pray without a minyan, they are essentially slapping the greater mitzvah in the face and saying "We don't want you." It is a quintessential ma'avirin al ha-mitzvos which is a non-halakhic (maybe even anti-halakhic) attitude.

Ben: Further, the lack of an eruv in his community of Washington Heights prevents most women from leaving their homes to engage in tefila betzibbur, hear kaddish and kedusha, etc. So where's the eruv?
This is not a valid argument, but it is still wrong. R. Schachter is the posek for the YU eruv. If you mean the other side of Washington Heights, that is Breuers territory and it would be wrong for anyone other than Rav Gelley to put up an eruv there.

Ben: Similarly with Gentile practices (IX and X) and new customs (XI, XII, and XIII). I think a lot of the concern about shul decorum comes from Christian influence.
It all depends on the reasons behind each individual practice. The posekim speak about this at length and are truly concerned with these issues. I emphasize the following statements from my post which might prove helpful to you:

While this prohibition has limits, it certainly forbids practices that might lead to licentiousness.

Exactly which practices can be termed sufficiently egalitarian to be prohibited and which not is not a simple matter and must be decided by our greatest scholars.

Ben: echoes the empty argument of "chadash assur min hatorah" - everything new is assur (except actual chadash, or course).
It might be better to understand what was meant by the slogan "hadash assur min ha-Torah" before denigrating it. It certainly did not rule out all innovation. It ruled out innovation that would lead to diminished observance and heretical beliefs. In mid-19th century Germany and Hungary, that ruled out almost all innovation (in the learned view of many great scholars) but in late 20th and early 21st centuries America, it might have a different application.

On Interfaith Dialogue

There is an excellent discussion in the "comments" section of The House of Hock regarding interfaith dialogue. The question revolves around Rav Soloveitchik's claim, in his famous essay "Confrontation", that religious experience is very personal and cannot be communicated through dialogue. While this would rule out interfaith dialogue, it also seems to rule out intrafaith dialogue, a seemingly ludicrous proposition. The following is Dr. David Berger's resolution of this dilemma, one that I believe to be entirely correct.

Great thinkers do not write transparent nonsense. They do sometimes engage in rhetorical hyperbole, and the more obvious it is that the literal understanding of a hyperbolic assertion cannot be intended, the more an author has the right to rely on the reader to understand this. But one must also be careful not to denude the rhetoric of all meaning, to the point where it says something so removed from its presumed intent that the formulation misses the point entirely...

The entire thrust of "Confrontation"'s inspirational rhetoric about the private character of the religious experience is incommensurate with an interpretation that sees it as a straightforward injunction against trying to "prove" your faith; the issue is explicitly communicating an experience, not demonstrating the truth of a position. In other words, though the existential character of R. Soloveitchik's stance correctly noted by Dr. Korn is indeed inimical to the notion that religious positions can be definitively proven, the larger argument is that the personal experience of faith cannot even be communicated. What can be communicated is intellectual apprehension of faith. The problem is that such communication is pitifully inadequate.

This, I think, is the real thrust of R. Soloveitchik's position. Of course many elements of religious doctrine, of the content of religious belief, can be conveyed. The assertion that the great encounter between God and man cannot be communicated, applied in the same breath even to individuals of the same faith, cannot mean that no theological discourse is possible. It means that the deepest levels of the faith experience are inaccessible to outsiders, and Rabbi Soloveitchik applies this to a collective of believers as well as to individuals. Thus, as much as theological propositions can be conveyed, as much as even religious emotions can be partially expressed, that which ultimately commits a person to God or a faith community to its particular relationship with God remains essentially private, leaving not only a lonely man of faith but a lonely people of faith—a nation that dwells alone.

Since Rabbi Soloveitchik believed that untrammeled interfaith dialogue presumes to enter into that realm, he declares it out of bounds. Even though dialogue among believers concentrating on social issues has a religious dimension, it does not presume to enter that innermost realm, and its value therefore outweighs its residual dangers...

Rabbi Soloveitchik worried that theological dialogue would create pressure to "trade favors pertaining to fundamental matters of faith, to reconcile 'some' differences." He argued against any Jewish interference in the faith of Christians both on grounds of principle and out of concern that this would create the framework for reciprocal expectations...

It is precisely friendly theological discussion and not religious disputation that generates these dangers, all the more so when the discussion is formalized as a theological encounter not between individuals but between communities.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Women's Prayer Groups: R. Hershel Schachter's Position

Prefatory Comments

When a question is posed before a posek, there are a whole host of considerations for him to take into account. This is particularly true when the underlying issues are subject to dispute and can go either way. The posek, then, has the right to rule according to whichever opinions he believes to be appropriate. If a posek believes that the contemporary context requires stringency then he may certainly rule strictly on any questionable matter. Furthermore, if he believes that there is a general laxity in an area of practice he may even prohibit something that is techincally permissible. For example, the Amora Rav found that people were insufficiently careful regarding forbidden mixtures of meat and milk so he went even further and prohibited the consumption of an animal's udder (Hullin 110a). An overly strict approach does not not make a posek's ruling illegitimate and, indeed, in many cases is the most responsible and traditional halakhic approach.

This, I believe, is a necessary introduction to R. Hershel Schachter's important 1985 responsum on the issue of Women's Prayer Groups (henceforth, WPGs). Responsum is the correct description, not article. R. Louis Bernstein, at the time the president of the RCA, had submitted the question of Women's Prayer Groups and R. Hershel Schachter wrote this responsum to explain his opposition to this new practice. It was first published in the 1985 Yeshiva University journal Beis Yitzhak under the title "Tze'i Lakh be-Ikvei ha-Tzon" and has subsequently been published as a chapter in R. Schachter's book Be-Ikvei ha-Tzon (Jerusalem: 1997).

The knowledgable reader will certainly be struck by two things when reading this responsum: First, how expansive and overwhelming R. Schachter's mastery of the whole range of halakhic literature is. Second, how he consistently rules strictly on every issue. It is clear that R. Schachter is of the view that Women's Prayer Groups are an improper and even dangerous innovation, as he makes clear in his article, and therefore rules strictly on every related issue. This is an entirely legitimate approach and, quite possibly, the optimal handling of the matter. Let me be clear. He is not stating that technical halakhah permits Women's Prayer Groups but other "public policy" considerations prohibit them. Rather, he is using public policy considerations in determining the direction in which to take his technical halakhich considerations. What results is a strict ruling on the issue based on technical halakhah. His conclusions can certainly be debated but only a scholar with similar or greater authority can rule differently. Personally, I would never pasken against R. Schachter and I know a number of rabbis, even roshei yeshiva, who also humbly defer to his authority.

This was certainly the approach of the Hasam Sofer and his students when dealing with the innovations of the nascent Reform movement. But it was also the approach of more moderate scholars. R. Azriel Hildesheimer, one of the founders of Modern Orthodoxy, advocated such an approach in his response to the 1865 pesak din released by R. Hillel Lichtenstein and signed by many others, including R. Shlomo Ganzfried and R. Hayim Halberstam of Sanz. R. Hildesheimer wrote:

Just as it is forbidden to allow that which is prohibited, so too it is forbidden to prohibit that which is permissible, as explained in the Shakh (Yoreh De'ah, end of ch. 242). However, in order to safeguard matters (le-migdar mil'sa) it is permissible to even be lenient against a biblical prohibition -- as explained in Yevamos 90b and in the Rambam (Hilkhos Yesodei ha-Torah 9:3) -- and even moreso to be strict. The Rambam already suficiently explained this in ch. 2 of Hilkhos Mamrim. It is without question that these illustrious rabbis knew that in their region it is proper to institute a safeguard even in a matter in which no prohibition can be found in Shas and posekim. Even though we do not enact a gezerah on the community if the majority of the community cannot uphold it -- as explained in chapter Ein Ma'amidin and in Rambam, Hilkhos Mamrim 2:5 -- these rabbis certainly know that in their region the majority of the community can truly uphold these enactments, and a judge has only what his eyes see...

(R. Azriel Hildesheimer, Gesammelte Aufaetze [Frankfurt a. M.: Hermon, A. G. 1923], pp. 24-25)
Let us now proceed to R. Schachter's arguments.

I. Incomplete Mitzvos

R. Schachter here makes a very simple and clear point. Women who attend WPGs do not fulfill completely and optimally the mitzvos that they are trying to do. Thus, they lack a minyan and all of the prayers limited to a minyan may not be recited. Women who attend WPGs miss out on kaddish, kedushah, barekhu, repetition of the amidah and an official reading of the Torah.

One can also add that women who pray in a WPG also miss out on tefillas ha-tzibbur. It can be countered that even if one does not pray in a shul, as long as one prays at the same time as the general community one's prayer is part of the community's. However, that is at best a bedi'avad situation. If one cannot attend communal services then one should at least try to pray at the same time as the community.

One can counter that none of this is really relevant since women are not obligated to pray with a minyan. If so, and certainly many, many women of the frummest varieties do not regularly attend synagogue during the week or on Shabbos, then why would anyone object to women going to a WPG instead of staying home? I believe the answer to this question is as follows.

It is true that women are not obligated to pray with a minyan (it is also a matter of debate whether men are obligated to do so). However, when women get all dressed up on Shabbos and leave their homes to pray in an organized service, and they choose to go to a WPG instead of a minyan, they are choosing a sub-optimal mitzvah over an optimal mitzvah; they are actively rejecting the more complete fulfillment for the lesser. If they stayed home, they are opting to pray alone rather than put in the effort to go to shul. However, when they put in that effort but go to a WPG instead of a synagogue, they are making a statement that they prefer the lesser fulfillment over the greater. They are figuratively being ma'avir al ha-mitzvos, stepping over a mitzvah. That, I believe, is sufficient reason to label a WPG a distortion of Torah principles. If most of the attendees of a WPG are actively choosing it over a minyan, the WPG is an instrument of misguided Torah principles, a teacher of distorted values.

II. Distortion of the Torah

In some places, WPGs are intended to demonstrate that women can also count to a minyan as long as it is a "women's minyan". This is incorrect and is a distortion of the Torah.

However, I do not know of any such WPGs anymore. It must be kept in mind that R. Schachter's article was first published in 1985, a generation ago. Things have changed since then and I am not certain that this particular concern is a viable critique today. A similar argument to this is offered by R. J. David Bleich in his Contemparary Halakhic Problems but that, too, is a dated work.

III. Breaking from Normative Halakhah

Normative halakhah is that women may not lead services, read from the Torah, etc. By breaking away from a synagogue in which this is observed and creating a group where this will not be practiced, these women are intentionally doing the exact opposite of what halakhah demands and establishing their own environment in which they can contravene the standard practice. They are essentially saying, "Your rules apply over there. Let us follow our rules over here." This is not only dangerous divisiveness but, in a sense, rebellion against normative practice.

IV. Be-rov Am Hadras Melekh

There is a general principle that prayer should be in the largest group possible because a large gathering of praisers is a greater glory for God. Therefore, as some prominent posekim have ruled, one is forbidden to institute "break-off" prayer services absent extreme necessity. Women who go to WPGs are choosing to pray in smaller groups rather than with the larger group in the community synagogue.

One can easily counter that this is simply not the standard practice. Beginning with Hassidic shtiebles in the 18th century and continuing to hashkamah minyanim today, it is very common for "break-off" prayer services to be started. Indeed, it is not uncommon for shtiebels to temporarily break a minyan in half so that two mourners may each lead their own service. In this case, normative practice seems to significantly limit the application of be-rov am hadras melekh. However, R. Schachter still retains the right to rule strictly on this matter if he feels that a stringent ruling is necessary.

V. Misunderstanding of a Complex Principle

There is a general rule in halakhah that a mitzvah is best performed by the individual who is obligated and not his messenger (mitzvah bo yoser mi-bi-shlukho). This has, in the past, been used as an argument for why WPGs are beneficial. With this innovation, women will be able to perform these mitzvos on their own and not require a "messenger." However, this reasoning is incorrect because the principle is limited and certainly does not apply to leading prayer services. If women misunderstand this concept then we must educate them about the proper intent and encourage them to live their lives in consonance with this Torah value.

VI. Innovating Practices

R. Schachter is adamant that innovation of practices is not necessarily a bad thing. However, such innovation must be done with the purest of motives. If, however, a practice was started without such pure motives, particularly if it was begun by those who are not entirely loyal to traditional Judaism, then the practice must be rejected even if, on its own, the practice is beneficial. A new practice, therefore, must have the following two components to be valid:

1. It must be similar to and consonant with the values of established biblical and rabbinic practices, an evaluation of which requires extensive knowledge and understanding of halakhah.

2. The innovation must be instituted in a way that guarantees that it was done out of pure motivations.

This was not the case with WPGs and two of the greatest scholars of the past generation, R. Moshe Feinstein and R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, were opposed to WPGs (more on R. Soloveitchik's view in a subsequent post). Indeed, WPGs fails on both criteria. It is neither consistent with halakhah nor its values, and it was not instituted with entirely pure motives.

WPG advocates will, of course, deny these origins of the practice but to anyone whose memory extends beyond twenty years ago this history is extremely clear.

VII. Established Custom

Custom in the performance of mitzvos is extremely important and cannot be overlooked. As posekim throughout the centuries have ruled -- including most recently R. Yehiel Ya'akov Weinberg, the author of Seridei Esh -- we cannot institute practices that contravene established customs. Women have never attended WPGs in the past and even such a negative custom has normative value (cf. Shakh, Yoreh De'ah 1:1). Of course, not everything falls into the category of custom. However, exactly what does and what does not requires the judgement of an experienced and expert halakhist.

Some will object that negative customs do not have power -- lo ra'inu eino ra'ayah -- and that the Shakh quoted by R. Schachter is disputed by the Beis Yosef. Be that as it may, R. Schachter certainly has the right to rule like the Shakh against the Beis Yosef, as many others have done, especially considering the other precedents he brings that indicate that negative customs are binding.

VIII. Synagogue Customs

This is even more significant in regard to synagogue customs. The synagogue is our miniature Temple and, therefore, we must treat it with the extra sanctity necessary to such a holy place. The customs of a synagogue have even more import than other traditional practices.

One can suggest that this importance of synagogue customs only came into play in the 19th century as a response to the innovations of the Reform movement, which tended to focus on the synagogue. Even if this is true, it might be legitimately argued that the innovaters of WPGs are taking on the legacy of the early Reform movement and those staunch stances might still be entirely appropriate. Additionally, no generation is bereft of innovative Torah thought -- ein beis midrash beli hiddush. The halakhic exegesis of the 19th century has become part and parcel of the Torah and cannot be set aside by merely noting the historical context of its genesis. If it was legitimate Torah then, it is certainly legitimate Torah today.

IX. Imitating the Gentiles

It is biblically prohibited to imitate Gentile practices. While this prohibition has limits, it certainly forbids practices that might lead to licentiousness. Since, as the past thirty-five years have taught us, the drive towards egalitarianism includes -- in practice if not inherently -- a push towards promiscuity, significant steps towards egalitarianism is prohibited as a forbidden imitation of Gentile practice. Exactly which practices can be termed sufficiently egalitarian to be prohibited and which not is not a simple matter and must be decided by our greatest scholars.

Yet, the reader will certainly ask, what could be promiscuous about an all-woman prayer service? Quite the opposite. There might be less of a "social scene" at a WPG than at some regular synagogues. This, however, is taking a very limited view of the phenomenon. "Women's Liberation" and the "Sexual Revolution" are inherently tied together. The correspondence need not be direct for it to be entirely real. WPGs, as a facet of "Women's Liberation", are fundamentally linked to promiscuity. Keep in mind, also, that what can be labeled promsicuity in the Torah world is much less severe than what the general secular world would consider promiscuity. Even a mere loosening of societal bonds is a promiscuity in the world of Torah observance.

X. Gentile Practices in the Synagogue

R. Soloveitchik was extremely strict regarding allowing any Gentile practices into the synagogue. He believed that this is biblically prohibited and was adamant in his opposition to such practices. Religious egalitarianism first emerged in churches and only later spread to synagogues. Therefore, it is forbidden to imitate this practice that began in churches.

XI. Heterodox Practices

Aditionally, it is prohibited to imitate sectarian and non-Orthodox practices because it encourages these movements in their forbidden ways. Moving towards egalitarianism via WPGs is certainly an encouragement of the Conservative movement. It is really unquestionable that the Orthodox feminist rhetoric includes calls for practices that are currently considered to be non-Orthodox. The Conservative Jews who adopted various levels of egalitarianism a mere few decades ago certainly see a reflection of their own struggle in the Orthodox feminist movement. Permitting WPGs would legitimate their struggle and "confirm them in their practices" (Rashi, Hullin 41a). This is a concern that a number of posekim have considered in issuing rulings, including such Modern Orthodox luminaries as R. David Zvi Hoffman (Melamed le-Ho'il, vol. 1 no. 6), Rav Kook (Orah Mishpat, Orah Hayim no. 36) and R. Yehiel Ya'akov Weinberg (Seridei Esh, vol. 2 no. 80, vol. 3 nos. 11, 93).

XII. Representing Religious Rebellion

R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik was asked whether a synagogue may hire a Gentile to drive a bus on Shabbos that will pick up congregants and take them back and forth from the synagogue. R. Soloveitchik ruled that even though the technical halakhos of Shabbos would allow such a practice, because driving on Shabbos has come to represent the removal of the yoke of Torah it has special significance and cannot be allowed. Technical halakhah, and not public policy considerations, prohibit such an activity. When it moves from a simple practice to a symbol of anti-Torah sentiment, it gains larger significance and must be judged from that global perspective. WPGs, too, have gained similar symbolic value of the overthrowing of the male-dominated halakhic system and, therefore, must also be prohibited.

For this reason, even those rabbis who had previously ruled that WPGs are permissible must reconsider their rulings. This issue has moved beyond a simple Orah Hayim discussion into the meta-halakhic realm of symbolism -- issues that are no less halakhically significant but much more complex. Once WPGs gained a special place in the feminist crusade its status significantly changed and must be evaluated as such.

However, it is unclear to me whether this is still true. While in 1985 WPGs may have been the front line of the feminist battle, it seems to me that this has changed and the war has largely moved into other areas.


For all of these reasons, R. Hershel Schachter paskened that WPGs are prohibited. While some are more convincing than others, his ruling is one that I believe to be consistent and legitimate (I add the latter only because some have boldly accused it of halakhic illegitimacy). In future posts we will examine other approaches on both sides of this debate. But in my opinion, the overwhelming weight of halakhic opinion is on the side of stringency.

Women's Prayer Groups: Coming Soon

This is just to notify readers that my current plans include initiating a discussion of Women's Prayer Groups. The plan is to post four separate summaries of the positions of the following rabbis (in this order): R. Hershel Schachter, R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, R. Yehuda Henkin, R. Eliezer Berkovits & others. Interlaced in my summary will be my own comments and critiques, from which my readers will be easily able to discern my views.

This will hopefully lead to some lively and insightful inter-blog discussions.

However, I will be offline for most of Pesah so this will have to be a longer-term project.

Cardinals in the Beis Midrash II

In further to the discussion about the officially sanctioned visit of cardinals to Yeshiva University's beis midrash, I thought the following analysis of R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik's position by Prof. Lawrence Kaplan is worthy of note. This is taken from Prof. Kaplan's article in Judaism 48:3 (1999), provocatively titled "Revisionism and the Rav; the Struggle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy". (My citation of Prof. Kaplan's views should not be taken as my agreement with his analysis)

First excerpt:

Because R. Meiselman misunderstands the Rav's position regarding universalism and singularism, he also misunderstands and misrepresents the Rav's stance on interfaith dialogue. R. Meiselman, referring to the Rav's essay "Confrontation," claims that "When Pope John XXIII opened dialogue with the Jews, the Rav viewed this as a serious danger to Judaism, and declared that no such dialogue pursued.... Despite the opposition of a few Orthodox rabbis the Rav's position carried the day and almost without exception no dialogues have been conducted between Orthodox rabbis and the Catholic Church." [32] But, as is well known, the Rav, with his delicate balance between universalism and singularism, never opposed interfaith dialogue. What he opposed, as he states in "Confrontation," was interfaith theological dialogue. [33] He always, however, approved of interfaith dialogue about matters of general ethical and social concern. Again, this position comes out with particular force and clarity in the Rav's position paper, "On Interfaith Relationships:" "We are...opposed to any public debate, dialogue or symposium concerning the doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of our faith vis-a-vis 'similar' aspects of another faith community.... When, however, we move from the private world of faith to the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavors, communication among the various faith communities is desirable and even essential. We are ready to enter into dialogue on such topics as War and Peace, Poverty, Freedom, Man's Moral Values... Civil Rights, etc., which revolve about the religious spiritual aspects of our civilization. Discussion within these areas will, of course, be within the framework of our religious outlooks and terminology" (emphases added). [34]

In this connection, it is worth citing another "insider" view. The past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Bernard Rosensweig, who worked closely with the Rav on matters of communal policy, writes in his article "The Rav as Communal Leader": "The RCA remained loyal to the guidelines which the Rav had set down [concerning interfaith dialogue] and distinguished between theological discussions and ethical-secular concerns, which have universal validity. Every program involving either Catholic or Protestant churches in which we participated was carefully scrutinized.... Every topic which had possible theological nuances or implications was vetoed, and only when the Ray pronounced it to be satisfactory did we proceed to the dialogue." [35]

So much for R. Meiselman's claim that, in accordance with the Ray's position, "almost... no dialogues have been conducted between Orthodox rabbis and the Catholic Church."


(33.) "Confrontation," pp. 23-24.

(34.) "On Interfaith Relationships," p. 79.

(35.) Bernard Rosenzweig, "The Rav as Communal Leader," Tradition 30.4 (1996): 214-215. In this connection, the following story, related by a long time confidant of the Rav, the distinguished rabbi and philosopher, Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger, may be of interest. An RCA committee was once reviewing possible topics for an inter-faith dialogue. One of the suggested topics was "Man in the Image of God." Several members of the committee felt that the topic had too theological a ring, and wished to veto it. When the Rav was consulted he approved the topic and quipped, "What should the topic have been? Man as a Naturalistic Creature?!" Cf. "On Interfaith Relationships," p. 80.

Second excerpt:

With reference to the problem that Rabbis Greenberg and Hartman discern with regard to the Rav's position regarding interfaith theological dialogue, even if we grant that their objection is valid, this does not constitute a sufficient reason for not taking the Ray at his word. But, in point of fact, I would argue that the problem they raise may be resolved if we look at the Ray's more nuanced discussion of this matter as found in "On Interfaith Relationships."

In this article the Rav's description of the boundary between permissible and forbidden interfaith dialogue differs subtly but importantly from his description of that boundary in "Confrontation."

As we saw earlier, the Rav in "On Interfaith Relationships" was "opposed to any public debate, dialogue or symposium concerning the doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of faith," aspects belonging to "the private world of faith." He, however, supported "communication among the various faith communities" in "the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavors," on topics which "revolve about the religious spiritual aspects of our civilization." But it is important to note how the Rav understood this distinction. The Rav in this article is careful never to speak of "the secular orders" or "the secular sphere." He speaks of "the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavors," of "areas of universal concern," of "socio-cultural and moral problems." Most important, he speaks of "universal religious problems." For, as the Rav emphasizes: "Discussion within these areas will, of course, be within the framework of our religious outlooks and terminology....As men of God, our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and terminologies bear the imprint of a religious world outlook. We define ideas in religious categories ... incomprehensible to the secularist.... In a word, even our dialogue at a sociohumanitarian level must ... be grounded in religious categories and values. However, these categories and values, even though religious in nature and Biblical in origin, represent the universal and public--not the individual and private--in religion" [54].

In sum, the line between permissible and impermissible interfaith dialogue is not between interfaith dialogue in "the realm of faith" and interfaith dialogue in "the secular sphere." It is between two types of religious interfaith dialogue. The Rav, that is, was opposed to interfaith religious theological dialogue "concerning the doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of faith," for those aspects represent the individual, unique, and private side of religion, but he supported interfaith religious humanitarian dialogue concerning sociocultural and moral issues, for such dialogue was grounded in religious categories and values that represent the universal and public side of religion. [55]


(54.) "On Interfaith Relationships," pp. 79-80.

(55.) In truth, I believe that even in "Confrontation" the Rav had this distinction in mind, though his imprecise language blurred his point and left his argument in that essay open to the criticism leveled against it by Rabbis Greenberg and Hartman. He got it just right the second time around. To be sure, the distinction the Rav draws in "On Interfaith Relationships" may also be called into question. But while it is possible to charge the Rav's discussion in "Confrontation" with being inconsistent, such a charge, in my view, can not be brought against his discussion in "On Interfaith Relationships."...

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Judging Favorably

Over Shabbos, I was discussing with my wife the recent stories in the news about prominent members of the frum community whose sins (particularly sex-related) have been recently publicly revealed. My wife wisely said that it is incumbent upon us to believe that, if these allegations are true, these people are the rare exceptions and certainly nowhere near the norm in our community. If we believe that adhering to basic standards is unusual then we will be more complacent with our own spiritual standing. For selfish reasons, if for no other, we must judge our community favorably.

My wife is not learned enough to have sources for this idea but her pious intuition served her well. This can be found in R. Yitzhak of Corbille’s Semak, mitzvah 225:

Included in this [mitzvah] is to judge one’s fellow favorably because through judging favorably one will think that no one sins but me, and will repent/return to his Creator...

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Homosexuality in Halakhah IV

R. Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb in this week's The Jewish Week:

The position of traditional Judaism on homosexual behavior is clear and unambiguous, terse and absolute. Homosexual behavior between males or between females is absolutely forbidden by Jewish law, beginning with the biblical imperative, alluded to numerous times in the Talmud and codified in the Shulchan Aruch...

Nevertheless, while the sources irrevocably forbid homosexual relationships and overt homosexual behavior, there are other issues that are more nuanced and must be clarified. One has to do with the attitude toward homosexual individuals prescribed by Jewish tradition. Here it is critical to adopt the distinction, already implicit in numerous rabbinical texts, between the sin and the sinner; that is, between the person and his or her behavior. Given the nature of our times, it is impossible to formally condemn people who violate Jewish norms. Orthodox Jews and Orthodox synagogues display various degrees of tolerance and acceptance to individuals who are violators of the halachic aspects of the Sabbath, or individuals who flagrantly violate the kashrut laws. The tolerance rightly shown to these individuals by no means condones their behavior, but accepts them as people who may be misled or uninformed. While tolerance for individuals who manifest homosexual tendencies is certainly a Jewish value, and consistent with some of the core values to which Rabbi Ellenson refers, there is a great difference between tolerance for an individual and recognition of a movement which wishes to turn something clearly wrong by Jewish standards into something not only tolerated but normative...

Observant Jews must have an attitude of empathy and understanding for individuals who say, “I have these urges, I can’t help them.” But we cannot accept those who would say, “I have these urges, they are God-given and therefore it is a mitzvah to follow them.”

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Zebu Controversy II

Another online article that discusses the issues involved in the Zebu controversy:

Buffalo, Giraffe, and the Babirusa ("Kosher Pig"): The Halakhic and Scientific Factors in Determining their Kashrut Status by R. Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky, originally published in the Bar Ilan journal BDD, 2001.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Homosexuality in Halakhah III

As further to this ongoing discussion, and in response to my friend Sholem's recent post on his blog, I continue the dialogue.

Let me start out by saying that the burden of proof is on those who wish to limit - for all intents and purposes, set aside - a biblical prohibition. This is a very serious suggestion, one over which the proposer should tremble from the weight of the responsibility. Yet, as many have shown, the arguments in favor of this proposal are at best tenuous and at worst simply untenable.

Exhibit A

Can God address relationships that did not exist at the time of the Torah? To the extent that such a thing can be directly predicated of God, I say, "Sure, why not?" The only problem is showing that God does address, via the prohibition in Leviticus, these currently existing relationships. That is, we need to see where the Gemara addresses loving homosexual couples.

Maybe God was referring to loving homosexual couples and maybe He was not. It is certainly possible that He was. So the statement, "Maybe He wasn't" is the best that can be offered in support of this daring proposal. What we both agree may not be said is that the Torah cannot be addressing consitutional homosexuals.

Exhibit B

2. Even if loving homosexual relationships did not exist in the ancient world, the rabbis were renownedfor their creativity and imagination. If they could conceive of such a relationship, then perhaps they were prohibiting it as well. CR. Artson has entirely failed to prove that the rabbis never addressed such a relationship.

Surely R' Simcha knows that לא ראינו אינו ראיה -- negative proof does not constitute proof. The rabbis were creative, imaginative, brilliant men, but neither superhuman nor superhistorical. To expect them to have addressed such a relationship is asking of them these qualities.

Now we have an argument from plausibility. It is implausible, supposedly, that the rabbis would address a relationship that did not exist in their time. We are getting closer to a proof but are not quite there yet. What we have now is an argument that 1) is a negative argument, 2) is based on the questionable proposition that there are no explicit mentions of loving homosexual couples in rabbinic literature (discussed later in this post) and 3) is strongly colored by the a priori assumption that the Sages could not had addressed this matter.


1. The Gemara in Hullin attributes to Ulla the statement that the Noachides "do not write a ketubbah for a male."... But it is a lot less of a stretch, I think, to explain that Rashi's commentary is referring to those who choose certain men as sexual partners -- much closer to the way that heterosexuals today wrongly understood homosexuality, i.e., as a serial pairing of man with man, rather than a possible foundation for loving relationships.

The problem with this theory, though, is that they were writing ketuvot for these relationships. A purely sexual relationship would not merit a ketuvah, like a pilegesh does not receive a ketuvah (cf. Sanhedrin 21a).

2... RJR again takes issue with RBA's interpretation of the Greek-derived word (גמומסיות) that's central to the passage. He claims the term is a positive one, while RBA, for his part, sees the term as pejorative... However, he does not support these translations with any parallel uses of the word in the Rabbinic literature, nor is it clear to the reader whether this word is, in fact, being used in mocking fashion. RJR needs to do more work here to support his assertion.

For the translation he cites extensive backing for his translation of marriage contracts:
I have translated the term גמומסיות as "marriage contracts" on the basis of both Theodor-Albeck and Mordecai Margulies. It clearly comes from the Greek gamikon, which means marriage. It is possible that it is a shortened form of gamikoi humnoi, in which case it would refer to "wedding songs."43

43. Rabbi Artson.s translation, "coupling songs," comes from Jastrow, it seems to me. That translation carries a very negative connotation essential to Rabbi Artson's understanding, but not really present in the original. Jastrow may be asserting that the presence of the word מומ in the term גמומסיות is the sages derisive perversion of the Greek term. Theodor-Albeck, Margulies, Sefer he-Arukh (s.v., גמס). Modern translations of Midrash Rabbah and the variants in both Genesis and Leviticus Rabbah argue against his understanding.

3. The final passage is from Sifra: "I [God] have forbidden only those practices which they and their ancestors have established. And what did they do? A man would marry a man and a woman marry a woman, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, and a woman would be married to two men."

RJR correctly points out (presumably in objection to RBA's approach) that "there is no way to read this passage as implying only lustful, non-supportive, loveless relationships." But that is not what RJR needs to show. He needs to prove that the passage implies supportive, loving relationships in these categories -- which is not the same thing at all. It might be, for example, that the Rabbis knew of loving relationships in the other enumerated categories, but that does not imply that the same reason can be applied to all categories together.

The simple reading is that all of the relationships are similar. "Nosei - marry" is the term used and I fail to see any reason why it should be taken as being an unequal, non-supportive relationship.


There is something else here that needs to be said, in the spirit of rendering explicit what has been up to now been only implicit. Halacha is directly related to morality, and we need to have convincing moral and ritual reasons for our halachot. Even if the rabbis knew of loving homosexual relationships, which I strongly doubt, it does not follow that their moral reasoning, and therefore their halachic approach, is one we should adopt.

This is, indeed, an interesting argument that would take us far off track. Od hazon la-mo'ed.

The Camel, The Hare, And The Hyrax II

I got my copy of R. Nosson Slifkin's The Camel, The Hare, And The Hyrax. As is the author's usual style, the book is beautifully done, with many pictures and a colorful cover. Unlike his other books, this one does not have enormous margins. This book is legitimately 200+ pages (albeit with a large font, but I attribute that to concern for readability). The book has three letters of approbation - one in Hebrew from R. Yisroel Belsky of Torah Vodaas and the OU (although his letterhead does not mention any position); one from R. Chaim Malinowitz, the general editor of the Artscroll Gemara series; and one from R. Mordechai Kornfeld, rosh kollel of Kollel Iyun Hadaf. The last two are in English but the first, which I find the most interesting, is in Hebrew. Below is my woefully inadequate translation of R. Yisroel Belsky's haskamah (keep in mind that it was written in flowery rabbinic Hebrew):
Rabbi Nosson Slifkim showed me his great work on the identification of the gamal, arneves and shafan. I read it from beginning to end with an enthusiastic and joyful heart as I saw how much he deepened, expanded and enwisened to analyze the section of the Torah that is concealed from all eyes and hidden, and how he presented his explanations in a beautiful and clear way for the the eyes of the students who are thirsty for the word of God. The upright will see, rejoice and contemplate his pleasant words. This work has helped fulfill two important things:

The first is regarding what the Sages said (Hullin 42a): "It is taught in the school of Rabbi Yishmael: 'This is the animal which you shall eat' - This teaches that God took each species, showed it to Moshe and said to him, 'This eat and this do not eat.'" It is clear that recognizing the species is an integral part of knowledge of the holy Torah. Until each species is identified we are missing from this knowledge, even if it has almost no practical ramifications. Regardless, knowledge of the Torah is inherently a mitzvah.

The second is that if what the author suggests is verified, that the issue of "ma'aleh gerah" is different from the simple understanding as found among the kosher species i.e. raising the food from its place of digestion - the stomach - back to the mouth, according to his view cecotrophy and merycism may also be considered "ma'aleh gerah", the Rambam counted as a mitzvah among the positive commandments in the Torah (no. 149) to check the signs of animals. If so, one who only has a superficial knowledge in the explanation of this sign cannot properly fulfill this mitzvah. One can discuss this at length but this is not the place.

In addition to all the above, every additional explanation and understanding in the verses of the Torah is a great fulfillment in its learning. About the author and the readers of his work it is truly written, "I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word." [Tehillim 119:15-16]

I will say a true thing - until I examined this book I had leaned towards the precious explanation that my friend R. Meir Lubin, one of the elderly students of the great genius R. Shlomo Heiman, innovated and passed on to me. According to his approach it is possible to understand "ma'aleh gerah" of the arneves and shafan simply. He also explained with this in an amazing way why the Torah distinguishes in its language - that regarding the arneves it speaks in the past tense "u-farsah lo hifrisah, regarding the gamal it speaks in the present tense "u-farsah einenu mafris" and regarding the shafan it changes to the future tense "u-farsah lo yafris". However, the author overcame this with his proofs and demonstrations. Even though the matter is still undetermined, my view leans towards this approach. Despite that there is no conclusive proof, this is a very important view. However, he left a number of issues from the rishonim, the princes of Torah, as difficulties and one can still engage his words. Never the less, he correctly repelled the complaints of the instigators and showed with his clear mind that the Torah spoke uprightly. He invalidated like dust all of the words of the complainers and also explained in his writings a number of sayings of the Sages with good judgment and knowledge. Therefore, I say praiseworthy is the portion of R. Nosson Slifkin. May his wealth in the Torah be increased and may it please [God] that his words reach the world.

Signing on Thursday, the 8th of Shevat, 5764 in Brooklyn,

Yisroel HaLevi Belsky

Monday, March 22, 2004

Cardinals in the Beis Midrash: A Rundown of Positions

On Monday, January 19th, a delegation of Roman Catholic cardinals, along with some Yeshiva University (YU) roshei yeshiva, entered YU's main beis midrash (study hall) and proceeded to look around and talk with some of the men who were studying in the packed beis midrash at the time. Yeshiva College's undergraduate newspaper, The Commentator, reported the following from an interview with YU Chancellor R. Dr. Norman Lamm: "In addition, Dr. Lamm sees no further role for Yeshiva in ongoing discussions. 'We acted as hosts at the request of the World Jewish Congress,' he said. 'We're not involved in further dialogue and we don't intend to get involved.'" The newspaper further reported from an interview with a mashgi'ah ruhani in YU, R. Yosef Blau: "Rabbi Blau added that the cardinals asked to see the Beit Midrash on their own volition. 'That shifts the Halakhic parameters,' he said."

This incident quickly grew into a major storm that has polarized the YU world. Of particular note are the very vocal responses from leading scholars. The following is a summary of the responses of which I am aware:

R. Zevulun Charlop, the dean of YU's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS); R. Yosef Blau, the mashgi'ah ruhani of RIETS; and R. Dr. Norman Lamm, chancellor of YU have spoken out in favor of the visit. Dr. Lamm and R. Charlop spoke in YU's main beis midrash to justify the visit to the students. Accoding to a summary posted by R. Avraham Bronstein to his blog, the rabbis emphasized that the interfaith dialogue was only about social and not religious issues, and that Christianity is considered by many Jewish scholars to be outside of the parameters of avodah zarah.

R. Abba Bronspiegel, a former rosh yeshiva in RIETS and a well-known opponent of Dr. Lamm's, wrote a letter to The Commentator protesting the cardinals' visit. He contended that the Catholic Church has, historically, been the cause of so much Jewish death that it is highly insensitive to allow their representatives into our holiest place, the beis midrash. Furthermore, the wearing of crosses in our holy place is sacrilegious and reminiscent of historical sacrileges performed in our holy places. Additionally, one of the cardinals, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, was born Jewish and is technically an apostate who abandoned the Jewish religion for Christianity. Showing him great respect is not the proper way to treat such an apostate. And, finally, R. Bronspiegel noted that R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik had been extremely opposed to interfaith dialogue and it is entirely improper for the school he lead for decades to engage in such an enterprise.

In direct response to R. Bronspiegel's letter, the noted historian Dr. Lawrence H. Schiffman sent in a letter to The Commentator. Writing as a participant in the interfaith conference of which the visit was a part, Dr. Schiffman noted the very positive impression that the visit left on the cardinals. He also cautioned against blaming individual Christians for the sins of other Christians.

R. Hershel Reichman, a rosh yeshiva in RIETS and the author of four volumes of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik's lectures on the Talmud, published an essay in The Commentator in which he enumerated the reasons he felt the visit to be problematic. First, Rav Soloveitchik explicitly prohibited interfaith dialogue on religious issues. "To my mind, priests listening to bachurei yeshivah learning Torah in a Beis Midrash is a 'religious' event. I would also say the same if rabbis went into churches to listen in on Christian religious classes. I understand the term 'religious dialogue' as used by the Rav z'tzal to include not only discussing with priests the Gospels -- their theology, but also l'havdil, discussing the Torah -- which is our theology." Second, history teaches us that we need to be suspicious of Church attempts to proselytize to Jews. Third, "[u]ntil this day, the Catholic Church has never renounced totally and unequivocally its basic tenet that Jews must convert to Catholicism for true salvation." Additionally, and the relevance of this issue is not clear, the visit was shortly before the release of the film The Passion that seems to blame the Jews for killing Jesus. Neither the Pope nor the cardinals have denounced the movie on this point. Fourth, some may interpret the visit as YU conferring forgiveness on the Catholic Church for its past sins against Jews, something that YU lacks the authority to offer even if it wanted to (which it should not). Fifth, the visit gives the impression of Jewish compromise and weakness.

Most recently, R. Jeremy Wieder, a young rosh yeshiva in RIETS, weighed in with his view on the matter in an essay published in The Commentator. He starts out by saying what, I think, is the most intelligent statement yet made on the subject. "I should state at the outset that I do not view the visit as having enormous significance, positive or negative." Very true. He then states that there was nothing halakhically wrong with the visit, especially considering that it was initiated by Cardinal Lustiger and Dr. Lamm would have insulted him by refusing the request. R. Wieder then proceeds to argue that the visit (and presumably the accompanying sessions) did not constitute dialogue on religious issues. Rather than being religious dialogue, the speeches were "religious monologue" because there was no give-and-take on the topics. He further points out that Cardinal Lustiger is not technically an apostate because of the exceptional circumstances of his youth (being saved from Nazis by Catholics and raised in their home). Additionally, he questions the suspicion of the Catholic Church and how deep it should run.

R. Julius Berman, a prominent Modern Orthodox scholar and the chairman of the RIETS board, published an extensive analysis of the visit in The Commentator. He conveniently numbered his points and I will follow that enumeration. 1. Forgiveness of the Catholic Church is not an issue here. 2. There was no interfaith dialogue on religious issues during the visit. 3. YU bungled the PR of the event. 4. The cardinals should have been diplomatically asked to remove or cover their crosses. 5. We cannot and should not voice admiration for a Jew who accepts Christianity. 6. The visit does not fall within the technichal realms of kiddush and hillul Hashem. However, those terms are frequently used on a colloquial level. 7. As a minority in the world with such a long history of persecution, it would have been unwise of us to turn down the request.

Finally, R. Eugene Korn, a prominent supporter of interfaith dialogue, weighed in with his own analysis in The Commentator. As he has done elsewhere, R. Korn argued that even R. Soloveitchik would approve of interfaith dialogue - even on religious issues - due to changes (a virtual revolution) within the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has changed on many positions and we must acknowledge it. The Catholic Church never attempted to convert Jews via dialogue but through hostile disputations. Dialogue today, including the discussions associated with the visit to YU, are "done with dignity, equality, and respect" and with "no hint of formal theology or conversion." "What I witnessed during the Cardinals' visit was not weakness, but strength." No student of Rav Soloveitchik's with whom I have discussed this believes that R. Korn is correct in his interpretation. Indeed, Dr. David Berger has, in my opinion, convincingly refuted him on this matter.

My analysis to follow when I find the time to write down my thoughts.

The Bialystoker Controversy II

The following is an excerpt from a letter that R. Zvi Romm, rabbi of the Bialystoker Synagogue, sent to The Jewish Press in response to R. J. Simcha Cohen's column about carrying children in the Lower East Side. Let me just add that R. Romm is a jolly, gentle person - basically, Rabbi Smurf - and he does not have a bone of malice in his body.
The Jewish Press
Feb. 13, 2004

A Community And Its Poskim

    We in the Bialystoker Synagogue enjoyed a pleasant Shabbat Bereishit when Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen regaled us with a sparkling lecture, delivered with wit and aplomb. Apparently the experience made an impression on him as well, because Rabbi Cohen's most recent column ("Carrying a Child on the Sabbath," Jewish Press, February 6) makes reference to an incident he witnessed that Shabbat and uses it as a springboard to discuss some broader issues which he applies specifically to our community. Since our community and our synagogue had the honor of being singled out in Rabbi Cohen's article, I feel entitled to address some of the points he makes...

    Rabbi Cohen then opines that the Lower East Side in particular is a neighborhood where "one certainly should not criticize those who carry children," because it lies within the confines of the Manhattan eruv, which was sanctioned by the Gaon Rav Menachem Mendel Kasher, zt"l. Here, too, one wonders how we transitioned from "what to do" to "what not to criticize." But the issue runs much deeper, and a bit more clarification is required than what Rabbi Cohen provides in his article.

    Rabbi Cohen notes that at the time that Rav Kasher offered his support for the Manhattan eruv, "the Agudat Harabbanim and many roshei yeshiva disagreed with Rav Kasher." He fails to mention that among these many roshei yeshiva was an individual whose name on the Lower East Side is essentially synonymous with "rosh yeshiva" - the Gaon Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, who respectfully but firmly felt that Manhattan by definition could not halachically maintain a traditional community eruv.

    We are currently blessed on the Lower East Side with the presence of Rav Moshe's two sons, Rav Dovid Feinstein and Rav Reuven Feinstein, shlita, whose status as internationally consulted decisors of halacha makes them universally accepted as the poskim on Lower East Side community matters. They are both on record as affirming their illustrious father's pesak. The article's statement that "local rabbis have not formally sanctioned carrying in the area" implies that the position of the Lower East Side rabbinate is somehow equivocal. It is not. The rabbanim of the Lower East Side universally affirm the pesak of Rav Moshe and his sons and pasken for the balebatim that carrying on Shabbat on the Lower East Side involves a Torah prohibition.

    That being the case, it would be incorrect to say that one cannot criticize those who carry a child on the Lower East Side on Shabbat. Whatever one affirms in the complex area of Hilchot Eruvin - and certainly many great and saintly poskim disputed and continue to dispute Rav Moshe's halachic conclusions - one fact is clear. One has no right to challenge a pesak of a community's recognized mara d'atra, the halachic "master of the locale." The Talmud relates (Shabbat 19b) that Rav Hamnuna excommunicated a student who paskened according to the normative halacha in the town of Rav, who was known for espousing an opinion that was stricter than the norm.

    Other neighborhoods are certainly within their rights to follow the poskim who set halachic policies for their areas. We may, and should, follow ours.

Rabbi Zvi Romm
Rav, Bialystoker Synagogue
Rebbe, Isaac Breuer College, Yeshiva University
I find it difficult to argue with this logic. But Rabbi Cohen had no problem doing so. Here is an excerpt of his letter in response.
The Jewish Press
Feb. 20, 2004

Response To The Case Of The Crying Child

    Rabbi Romm cites a Talmudic passage that condemns ruling according to normative halacha in an area that follows a practice stricter than the norm. This implies that the Lower East Side observes practices above and beyond normative halacha.

    Which is it? What is to be halachic policy for a community? Normative, or stricter than normative, halacha?...

    Coupled with this is the fact that the incident took place in an area ruled by a number of rabbis as permissible to carry, for it is included in the Manhattan eruv sanctioned by the major synagogues and rabbis of the Upper East Side. Of interest is how HaGaon Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l, would rule concerning the crying child in the street on Shabbat.

    At issue is the local policy. Have all the local rabbis in fact actually ruled that it is proper to leave a child on the street crying on Shabbat? If so, then Rabbi Romm's premise may be correct. Namely, the local community has a policy stricter than normative halacha. That's a situation anyone and any community may observe. But it is quite harsh to maintain that those who follow another halachic perspective should be castigated, especially in an area included in the revised Manhattan eruv (revised years after HaGaon Rav Feinstein was niftar).

Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen
Vice Chancellor
Ariel Israel Institutes
He just doesn't seem to get it. The Lower East Side is subject to R. Feinstein's ruling and he held that there is not currently and can never be an eruv there. It does not exist to residents of that neighborhood.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Zebu Controversy

The Zoo Rabbi, R. Nosson Slifkin, has posted a write-up on the Zebu controversy going on in Israel. To those of us in America, who eat turkey and whose rabbinical supervisory agencies approve of serving bison, there is no issue at all and Zebu is a kosher animal.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

The Bialystoker Controversy

The following column was in The Jewish Press over a month ago and started quite a controversy. I will reproduce portions of the column, with my comments interpersed.

The Jewish Press
Friday, February 6, 2004

Halachic Questions
Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen

Carrying A Child On The Sabbath

       Question: What is one to do on the Sabbath, in an area not covered by an eruv, when a child who is already in a thoroughfare simply refuses to walk?

       Response: Not too long ago I was on the Lower East Side on Shabbat in order to deliver the opening monthly Friday evening lecture at the Bialystoker Synagogue. As I was walking home the next morning after prayer services, I witnessed the following scene.
       A young child was sitting on the sidewalk, crying. Standing next to him was his mother, who was pleading with him to get up and start walking home. The area has no official eruv sanctioned by the local rabbinate that would permit carrying on the Sabbath. Therefore the mother, who was obviously religious, simply would not pick up the child and carry him home. The child ignored his mother’s words and continued to cry. The mother, looking somewhat embarrassed, merely stood next to the child, constantly pleading that he stop crying and begin to walk home with her. Was there another option available for the parent?…
       My grandfather, a renowned halachic scholar who authored Minchat Shabbat, pointed out that in Europe many parents carried their children in the street on the Sabbath even when there was no eruv. He noted the following in defense of their behavior (lelammed zechut):
I just want to point out that an halakhic scholar who is really renowned does not need to be introduced as such. It is only because almost none of the readers have ever heard of his father that R. Cohen has to introduce him to us. The term "renowned" is, essentially, self-contradictory.
       The Peri Megadim rules that on Shabbat a shevut di’shevut bi’mekom mitzva is permissible. This means that if an action is potentially forbidden on the Sabbath only because of the combination of two distinct rabbinic ordinances, and the action is performed for the sake of a mitzva, it is permissible. It is well known that carrying a child who is able to walk is prohibited only by rabbinic decree, since chai nosei et atzmo - a living being, especially a human being, carries itself. It is not a Biblical transgression.
He could have stopped here and said that a child until the age of nine or ten has a status of a holeh she-ein bo sakanah (a non-critical sick person - see Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 276:1, 328:17; Shemirat Shabbat Ke-Hilkhatah, ch. 37 par. 2 vol. 1 p. 495) and, if such a child is hysterical one may violate a rabbinic prohibition on his behalf. Since, if a child can walk on his own the prohibition to carry him is only of rabbinic origin, and if a child is hysterical he has a status of a holeh she-ein bo sakanah for whom one may violate a rabbinic prohibition, it follows that one may carry such a hysterical child. There is no need for further lenient factors, the kind that get you into trouble with the local rabbinic authorities. But R. J. Simcha Cohen did not stop here.
       In addition, the majority of halachic scholars maintain that our streets are not a "Biblical thoroughfare" (reshut harabbim de’oraita). Out streets are designated as a karmelit, which means that carrying therein is prohibited only by rabbinic law. Thus, carrying a child in our streets on the Sabbath is prohibited only if we combine both rabbinic bans. Therefore, rules the Peri Megadim, it is permissible if done for the sake of a mitzva. (See Orach Chayyim, Mishbetzot Zahav 325:1.)... The conclusion of the Minchat Shabbat is that such a legal loophole should not be advocated as a lechat’chila (at the outset) ruling but can serve as a rationale for withholding criticism of those who are lenient and carry children in public on the Sabbath in communities without an eruv (Minchat Shabbat 82:28).
Pay close attention because here is where the trouble starts.
       There is another consideration of importance. Many years ago HaRavh HaGaon R. Menachem Kasher rules that one may carry on the Sabbath thoughout the entire island of Manhattan. At that time the Aggudat HaRabbonim and many Roshei Yeshiva disagreed with Rav Kasher. In recent years the Manhattan Eruv was revised (tikkunim were made) and it is checked weekly for the Sabbath. On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, for example, the congregant of all major Orthodox synagogues openly carry on the Sabbath and rely on the eruv - with the sanction of their rabbis. Of interest is the fact that this same eruv extends to and includes the area of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Now if the Minchat Shabbat ruled that one may not object to parents carrying children in areas without an eruv altogether, one certainly should not criticize those who carry children on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is part of the Manhattan Eruv, despite the fact that local rabbis have not formally sanctioned carrying in the area.
R. J. Simcha Cohen just committed a big no-no. It is one thing to suggest that an eruv in Manhattan of Brooklyn is valid despite the strident opposition to them of R. Moshe Feinstein, R. Aharon Kotler and many other great scholars. To take such a position is valid, although gutsy (because of the great scholars opposing you) and politically dangerous. You are guaranteed to be called all sorts of names by going against the "accepted" position in this very touch subject. But R. Cohen went one step further. He suggested to people in the Lower East Side that the eruv might serve some purpose to them. Of course, the Lower East Side was the home of R. Moshe Feinstein and his rulings are followed very closely by its rabbis and residents. Just like the residents of R. Yossi Ha-Gelili’s hometown followed his rulings and no one has the right to tell them not to, the residents of the Lower East Side are bound to the rulings of their local posek, none other than R. Moshe Feinstein (who need not be called renowned because he really is). R. Cohen could have made his overly stringent (in my opinion) point without mentioning the eruv and would not have been criticized. But implying that the eruv exists for residents bound to R. Moshe Feinstein’s rulings is simply inappropriate.

Furthermore, R. Cohen was a guest of the Bialystoker Synagogue and really has no business making rulings for the attendees of that synagogue or any other synagogue that has a rabbi. Let local rabbis rule for their congregants, as I am sure R. Cohen would have requested of any visiting scholar when he had his own pulpit.

Soon to come... the reaction of the rabbi of the Bialystoker Synagogue and other local residents.

Friday, March 19, 2004

The Limits of Orthodox Theology II

More on this subject.

The following is based on someone else's notes of R. Dr. Shnayer Z. Leiman's shiur on Marc Shapiro's new book.

1. It is methodologically unsound to argue that the Rambam did not believe in a literal tehiyas ha-meisim (bodily resurrection of the dead) when the Rambam himself wrote an essay declaring that he did believe in it.

2. No rishon disagreed with all or even most of the Rambam's 13 principles. Some even criticized the Rambam for not including more. Rather, the 13 principles represents the consensus of rishonim - and not just moderns.

3. Dr. Shapiro did not show the proper respect in disagreeing with or simply dismissing important scholars.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

The Shape of the Menorah

The exact shape of the menorah that was used in the Temple is, to a degree, a matter of debate. In particular, the shape of the branches of the menorah was a matter about which the rishonim disagreed. R. Avraham Ibn Ezra, in his long commentary to Shemos 25:32, writes that the branches were half circles. Rashi, ad loc., writes that the branches were diagonal, but that statement is, in my opinion, inconclusive because he could have been implying a diagonal curve rather than a straight line. However, R. Avraham Ben HaRambam writes in his commentary to that verse that the branches were straight and not curved.

The archaeological evidence has strongly supported the Ibn Ezra's position, as Prof. Daniel Sperber of Bar Ilan has demonstrated in volume 5 of his Minhagei Yisrael. See also some of the images at the bottom of this article. A good discussion of the archaeological issues by R. Dr. Seth Mandel can be found here.

The Rambam's position has been somewhat controversial. In the 19th century a drawing that he personally made of the menorah was discovered in manuscripts of his Commentary to the Mishnah and that drawing, which has since been published in the Qafih edition of Rambam's commentary, portrays a menorah with straight branches. However, this is inconclusive because the drawing is clearly just a rough example of how the various pieces of the menorah - the bulbs, cups and flowers - are supposed to placed, i.e. how many on the branches, how many on the central stem, etc. The lines and circles are so exact that they were certainly drawn with a ruler and compass. So it is no surprise that the Rambam drew the branches straight for the sake of his illustration because that served his purposes. However, it seems to me that the Rambam's son's testimony is sufficient proof - and the only proof - that the Rambam's position was that the branches of the menorah were straight.

Who really cares?

In more recent times, the Lubavitcher Rebbe z"l emphatically stated (correctly, in my opinion) that, according to the Rambam, the branches of the menorah were straight. He said this on a number of occasions and it was printed in Likkutei Sichos, vol. 21 pp. 168, 169, 170 & 171. In English, see this article. The Lubavitcher Rebbe further directed his followers to try to change the image of the menorah as visualized by the public. Given the Lubavitch mindset, this not only concludes the debate but creates an imperative to shove this view down the throat of anyone who is willing to listen and many who are not. Which is what made the following find both interesting and frustrating. Keep in mind that I agree that the Rambam's view is that the branches of the menorah were straight.

Regarding the shape of the branches of the menorah in the Temple, the Rambam writes in Hilkhos Beis Ha-Behirah 3:2:
U-sheloshah kaftorim aheiros hayu be-kaneh ha-menorah, she-meihen yotz'in sheisheis ha-kanim.
In his translation of the entire Mishneh Torah, R. Eliyahu Touger, a Lubavitcher hassid, renders this passage as follows:
Six [diagonal] branches extended from three other bulbs in the [central] shaft of the Menorah
Diagonal? Where does the Rambam mention diagonal? But wait, R. Touger adds the following in his comments:
The Rambam implies that the branches of the Menorah extended diagonally from its central shaft.
No, the Rambam implies nothing of the sort. This is nothing more than inserting Lubavitch propaganda into the words of the Rambam where it does not belong.

More on the Zoo Rabbi

The Torah Tour of the Bronx Zoo

Back again by popular demand for the fourth year! One of the largest urban zoos in the world, the Bronx Zoo has a stunning variety of displays. There will be a Torah tour of the Bronx Zoo on March 28, 2004, and possibly also on May 2. The price is $18 for adults and $12 for children (2-12) which does not include admission. The first tour starts at 10 a.m., the second at 1:30 pm. Both tours last around 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Advance reservations are required and places will be limited; please email with the number of adults and children, and a contact phone number (preferably a cellphone) to make a reservation.

Please help spread the word! You can download a poster for this tour in PDF format by clicking here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

New Book: The Camel, The Hare, And The Hyrax

The Camel, The Hare, And The Hyrax
A study of the laws of animals with one kosher sign in light of modern zoology

by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin

Free sample chapter (pdf): Shafan - The Hyrax

Homosexuality in Halakhah II

As posted earlier, Zackary Sholem Berger was kind enough to post to his blog my comments on CR. Simchah Roth’s paper on homosexuality. ZS Berger also added his own super-comments onto my comments. The following is my response to ZS Berger:

1. Main Thesis

First and foremost, we must understand what S. Roth was trying to do in his paper. On p. 5 n. 26, S. Roth offers the following important statement:

Other Conservative respondents have made a case for a re-interpretation or new understanding of the relevant biblical verses. Of these the most important by far is the valiant responsum of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, which was not accepted by the CJLS… My hesitation concerning his responsum is not regarding what I find in it but regarding what I do not find in it. My own preference, as I indicated in the preface, is to base this responsum on the way our sages and rabbis have understood these biblical verses and associated issues through the ages, without re-interpretation...
In other words, while CRS Roth accepts CRabbi Bradley Shavit Artson’s "re-interpretation" of the prohibition against homosexuality, his paper is an attempt to argue within a more traditional framework that does not espouse such re-interpretation.

Sholem, it seems to me from your response that you find CR. Artson’s re-interpretation to be correct. If so, you have no need for CRS Roth’s paper and, quite possibly, disagree with his entire premise. Indeed, his proposal is extremely bold. He is taking on the entire community of Orthodox scholars as well as the right wing of Conservative scholarship on their own turf. And, in my opinion, he does a poor job of it.

But before we return to CRS Roth’s main thesis, I would like to point to a flaw in CR. Artson’s argument. CR. Artson claims that the homosexual relationships in the ancient world, and the ones which the rabbis addressed, were unequal and abusive. There were no "constitutional homosexuals" who had equal, loving relationships and, therefore, neither the Torah nor the rabbis could have prohibited something that did not exist at the time.

I find this argument flawed for a number of reasons:

1. This assumes that the prohibition in the Torah was written by humans to address their contemporary world. I deny this because I believe that the Torah was written by God and addresses the world on many levels, at least one of them being eternal. Even those who believe that the Torah was only written under Divine inspiration and not dictated by God, would still agree that the Torah addresses more than just the contemporary ancient world. God can address relationships that did not exist at that time.

2. Even if loving homosexual relationships did not exist in the ancient world, the rabbis were renowned for their creativity and imagination. If they could conceive of such a relationship, then perhaps they were prohibiting it as well. CR. Artson has entirely failed to prove that the rabbis never addressed such a relationship.

3. There is an explicit and oft-quoted source that contradicts CR. Artson’s entire thesis. The Gemara in Hullin (92a-b) quotes Ulla (late 3rd, early 4th cen.) who praises the ancient nations for not writing a ketuvah, a marriage contract, for homosexuals. Similarly, the midrash Bereshit Rabbah (26:5) relates: "Rav Huna [said] in the name of Rav Yosef: ‘The generation of the flood was not obliterated until they wrote marriage contracts for males and animals.’" Marriages - loving, mutual relationships - between two men were conceivable to the rabbis of the Talmud and were unequivocally opposed by them. (See CR. Joel Roth’s paper on the subject, p. 7 on this subject.)

Thus, in my opinion, even if CR. Artson’s methodology was valid - which I do not concede - he has not proven his point. Furthermore, CRS. Roth has not proven his point in the traditional halakhic realm. So we are left with a conservative, strict approach.

2. Politics of Science

I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist. But I am not deaf, dumb and blind either. There is unquestionably a good deal of politics involved in the science of homosexuality. There are serious professionals with different opinions on homosexuality and claiming that there are not is as equally a willful denial as claiming that all professionals agree that homosexuality is a deviance. I don’t claim to know enough to be able to discern who is correct, or if they are all correct. But I do realize that these issues are so complex that any view that lacks nuance is probably incorrect. One reference for an alternate view is JONAH, an organization that my psychologist friends consider legitimate.

Additionally, homosexuality is not a monolithic attitude. There are varying levels of attraction to the same sex - something that CRJ. Roth addresses but CRS. Roth does not - and it would be wrong not to address that. Someone who is attracted to both sexes and can maintain a healthy relationship with someone of the opposite sex has no ones whatsoever to justify any homosexual behavior.

3. Ulla’s Action

I am not going to continue the discussion about wheter Ulla kissed his sister’s breast or her chest and whether the act was intended as a sexual contact (right after leaving the synagogue) or a non-sexual contact. I will only state that I stand by my original comments and leave it to the interested reader to properly research the topic.

4. Kleptomania and Homosexuality

CRS. Roth argued that kleptomania and homosexuality are different and cannot be compared. I suggested that he failed to make a valid argument. Both kleptomaniacs and (some) homosexuals feel forced to commit forbidden acts and either both must be liable or both must be free from guilt. ZS Berger seems to have been a bit confused on this and assumed that a kleptomaniac is not liable for his theft. Therefore, a homosexual should also not be liable for his illicit behavior. However, a kleptomaniac is liable for his actions.

5. Discrimination in Halakhah

CRS. Roth argued that halakhah does not discriminate against people for characteristics that are beyond their control. I gave a number of examples in which halakhah does, in fact, discriminate in precisely this fashion. ZS Berger ably argued that these laws are no longer actively followed today.

This could be (or it could not be; I don’t know what everyone is doing). However, it is one step to say that "Catholic Israel" (to use Prof. Solomon Schechter’s term) has stopped observing certain laws, among them some that discriminate against the physically handicapped (if I may appropriate this term and use it more literally). It is quite a larger leap - and an as of yet unproven one - to state that all such "discriminatory" laws have been nullified by Catholic Israel. If so, the argument that homosexuality is inborn, like left-handedness and other non-normalities, and therefore cannot lead to halakhic disadvantages is incorrect.

6. Homosexual Non-Intercourse

The self-proclaimed proponent of Apikorsus has taken issue with my comments. Most of her statements are about the general Conservative approach to halakhah, and I will set them aside for now. But she makes one claim that I wish to address:

Similarly, Rabbi Roth does not eliminate the prohibition of homosexual intercourse. Instead, he limits it to anal intercourse between men, rendering other types of homosexual relationships permissible.
That is incorrect because there are issues above and beyond the prohibition against actual intercourse. These include the prohibition against "coming close" to intercourse, which includes fondling and other sexual contact, and a prohibition against fantasizing or contact that may lead to emission of seed. These are all very serious issues. The (incorrect, in my opinion) argument that oral stimulation or the like is permissible for homosexuals leads to the inevitable question of why it is not also permissible for heterosexuals. Is the author of the Apikorsus blog ready to tell teenagers and college students that halakhah permits all forms of hanky-panky as long as they do not have actual intercourse? I think that there is a vast literature contradicting such conclusions.

7. Conclusion

I think that the halakhah is clear on this issue. The practice, though, is much more complicated because rabbis have to deal with people who may not be able to fully observe the halakhah. Navigating these waters is extremely difficult, but so is life.

It is worth noting that a book on this subject just came off the presses. Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View by Rabbi Chaim Rapoport. I have not yet read the book but I know that Rabbi Rapoport is a brilliant and insightful man and I have full confidence that his treatment is both comprehensive and sensitive.

Monday, March 15, 2004

The Limits of Orthodox Theology

Professor Marc B. Shapiro, of Scranton University, recently published a fascinating book titled The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised which is an expanded version of an article he published 11 years ago in The Torah u-Mada Journal. An excellent article by Steven I. Weiss was published in the Forward newspaper about this book and its controversial nature.

The following are some of my comments after carefully reading the book. I have written a more complete critique and submitted it for publication in a scholarly journal. For now, these short comments will have to suffice.

1. Extreme Interpretations

Shapiro consistently conveys the most extreme interpretations of sources and, while he notes that there are other possible explanations, assumes that these radical interpretations are valid and may therefore enter the discussion. Conservative scholars such as this writer (if you can call me a scholar) do not really care about these extreme interpretations because we believe them to be incorrect. Let Prof. Meir Bar Ilan say what he wants about the scholars of the Talmud, I do not accept as viable the claim that they believed in a corporeal God. The fact that Prof. Bar Ilan makes such a claim does not, in my view, give any validity to the argument that the incorporeality of God was a matter of dispute among the talmudic scholars. Quoting radical positions such as these does not bolster Shapiro's thesis one bit.

2. Lack of Proper Respect

In a number of places Shapiro does not give the proper respect to great Torah scholars. For example, he merely brushes aside R. Moshe Feinstein more than once as if this venerable giant were a schoolchild. His offhand comment about the sexuality of R. Ya'akov Emden is scurrilous, regardless of whatever questions outrageous scholars may ask based on the most tenuous of evidence. Despite Shapiro's public apology to R. Yehuda Parnes (for which he deserves great credit), Shapiro fails to acknowledge that he is debating with giants. Even without deferring to their views one can still show respect.

3. Ignoring Halakhic Issues

Shapiro fails to recognize that the definitions of the fundamental principles of Judaism is an halakhic issue. The status of the shehitah of someone who denies one of these principles is a legal matter that requires clarification and, therefore, a posek needs to determine what the fundamental beliefs are and who is someone who denies them. If we declare that the definition of a heretic is not an halakhic matter then we are functionally declaring halakhah to be paralyzed on this subject. I do not believe that this is a viable position.

4. What is his Position?

Shapiro never fully clarifies his stance. Does he believe that there are no fundamental beliefs at all? I don't think so. Does he believe that they are indefinable or that they are merely widely defined (e.g. any position ever once taken by a legitimate scholar)? Does he believe that there is such a thing as heresy that a beginning student is forbidden to read or not? These are the issues that started Shapiro on his journey that culminated with this book but he never really offers his conclusions.


I apologize that the first major post on the Hirhurim* blog is about homosexuality. No, the irony was not lost on me. But this was not intended to shed light on the intended meaning of the blog's name.

* Hirhurim is a term that frequently refers to sexual fantasies

Homosexuality in Halakhah

In a post titled "Conservosexuality, II", blogger Zackary Sholem Berger linked to a number of halakhic papers from scholars of the Conservative movement regarding Homosexuality and halakhah. Being the industrious and curious person that I am, I printed out two of the papers to read -- one paper by CRabbi Joel Roth titled simply Homosexuality and another by CRabbi Simchah Roth titled "Dear David - Homosexual Relations: A Halakhic Investigation".

Mr. ZS Berger evidently found the Simcha Roth paper to be convincing while I did not. Below are my comments that I sent to ZS Berger and asked him to post on his blog. He graciously did so and appended his comments to the post. The following are my uninterrupted comments with minor changes:

Dear Sholem,

On your blog you raised the issue of halakhah and homosexuality, pointing readers to the papers of CRs. Simcha and Joel Roth on the subject. Allow me to respond to some significant deficiencies I found in CR. Simchah Roth’s paper. I am just looking at Part 1 of his paper and I am intentionally focusing on the dry legal aspects because that is what interests me and because I have no pastoral obligations or experience. I do not pretend that such issues are unimportant because, in real life, they are probably most important.

Page 7: “Rabbi Aharon Feldman in Jerusalem tells a story about the Brisker Rav.” In footnote 33, CRS Roth misidentifies the Brisker Rav as Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik rather than his son, R. Yitzhak Ze’ev Soloveitchik, who is widely referred to as the Brisker Rav.

Page 8: “Women are not obligated to marry and procreate.” CRS Roth is correct that women are not obligated to procreate and his prooftext from Mishneh Torah is right on target. However, he fails to distinguish between an obligation to marry and an obligation to procreate. Rambam lists them separately in Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (positive commandments 212 and 213) and only regarding procreation does he say that women are not obligated. The Sefer Ha-Hinukh follows suit (commandments 1 and 552). Nevertheless, it is quite likely that a lesbian is exempt from the obligation to marry.

Page 12: “This requirement does not seem to have been strictly enforced in talmudic times.” CRS Roth states that the prohibition against fondling and kissing was not enforced in the times of the Talmud and brings proof from a story about Ulla who reportedly kissed his sisters on their hands. Even according to the original version of the story, that he kissed them on their chests (surely CRS Roth recognizes that there is more to a woman’s chest than merely her breasts, especially when dealing with young girls), CRS Roth fails to distinguish between non-sexual contact - she-lo be-derekh hibah­ - and sexual contact. The story about Ulla is a proof that non-sexual contact, such as handshaking, is permissible. It implies nothing about touching that sexually stimulates.

Pages 12-13: “Someone who is under constraint is not required to fulfill a mitzvah at all” CRS Roth correctly cites R. Yosef Engel as stating that there is no sinful act for an anus. This is also the view of R. Chaim Soloveitchik as cited by his student R. Baruch Ber Leibowitz in his novellae to Ketuvot. However, this is not an undisputed matter. No less an authority than R. Akiva Eiger disputes the entire idea, as clarified by R. Elchanan Wasserman in his Kovetz Shiurim. This is a very complex and difficult matter that cannot be stated matter-of-factly.

Page 13: “Pedophilia and kleptomania (and so forth) are recognized psychological disorders… homosexuality is not a pathological condition of the psyche” So what? It is a distinction but distinctions are only meaningful if they are relevant to the topic of discussion. CRS Roth quoted R. Reuven Kimmelman as arguing that kleptomaniacs are anus to sin just like homosexuals are anus to sin. CRS Roth responds that the reasons for the ones are different but fails to explain why that difference is significant. At the end of the day, regardless of the cause of the psychological duress, both kleptomaniacs and homosexuals are anussim. Therefore, according to CRS Roth’s reasoning, kleptomaniacs do not sin when they steal. I find that to be a fatal flaw in his approach.

Page 13: “But halakhah does not discriminate against left-handed people because they have a natural and non-pathological condition…” But it does. A left-handed cohen is considered to be defective and may not perform the avodah. Halakhah also discriminates against people with bad voices, who should not be appointed as permanent Hazzanim; kohanim with deformed hands, who may not recite the priestly blessing in the synagogue; men who cannot grow beards, who are not considered to be fully adult until they reach the age of twenty; etc. etc.

Page 15: “Rava states that the human male must always be held to be in control of his sexual behavior… today, any male - straight or gay - will vouch for the fact that he can have an erection even at moments that cause him the most embarrassment” CRS Roth totally misses the point. According to Rava, ones can only apply to actual, physical restraint. If a man is extremely attracted to a forbidden woman, something that Rava surely would acknowledge as possible, he may not claim that he was forced by his passion to sleep with her. Rava added that, in addition to the inability to claim attraction as duress, a man also may not claim physical duress. This totally undermines CRS Roth’s argument that attraction is a form of duress. If it were, then even a heterosexual man would be able to claim such ones for, e.g., sleeping with a married woman to whom he is extremely attracted. (As an aside, it is highly problematic from an historical perspective to claim that Rava ignored the possibility of an unintentional erection. I can think of a number of possible explanations, but something this obvious would certainly not have eluded him.)

Page 17: “I strongly suspect that in all segments of Conservative Jewish society masturbation is not looked upon as an unforgivable sin, under any circumstances” A rabbi must teach halakhah even if it is ignored. There is a difference between overlooking a common sin and permitting it.

Page 17: “Apart from the gay person there is no one in the whole breadth of compassionate Jewish life to whom halakhah, as heretofore interpreted says, ‘you may never, ever, under any circumstances, find legitimate sexual expression and enjoy physical love’.” This is untrue. First, there is the agunah. CRS Roth addresses this by stating that the Conservative movement has adopted solutions to solve the problem. I’m not sure that they solve every type of agunah problem but it does not matter for this discussion. Since I reject the various Conservative attempts as insufficient, I see his categorical statement as incorrect. A woman whose husband simply disappears may never touch another person sexually for the rest of her life. A woman whose husband adamantly refuses to give her a get may also never do so. She might have a glimmer of hope, which is more than a homosexual has, but I assure you that it will not appease her one bit. She is no less deserving of our sympathy and tears than a homosexual. Furthermore, I have male friends who have already given up on ever marrying. They know that they will die as virgins. Is it their choice to be single? I hope that we can be more mature than blame the “single’s problem” on people being too choosy. They have tried but not succeeded and have given up. Some are socially awkward, others are so uniquely situated that they cannot find someone similar enough to marry and others are simply unattractive on various level, none of which is their fault. The bottom line is that they will never, ever have sex in their lives. I have sympathy for them, and I wonder how they can do it. But I would not distort the Torah and permit non-marital sex out of pity for them. The Torah is too important to be treated that way.

Page 17: “The alternative to condoning some homosexual acts is to condemn the observant gay person to a life without any possibility of expression of physical love” Here, CRS Roth sets two extreme positions and demands that we choose either the compassionate one or the ruthless one. He neglects the statements from Orthodox rabbis with which he started the paper that try to navigate a third way, namely state that such acts are sins but in private counseling sessions work with the homosexual person to minimize the sins and find ways to live as healthily and religiously as possible. A homosexual who can contain his needs is a tzadik. A homosexual who cannot is not a tzadik. I can live knowing that I am not a tzadik and I see no need to distort the Torah so that someone else need not feel guilty. I know religiously oriented people who fully believe that they must observe Shabbat but feel that it is so great a restriction on their lives that they will never be able to do it. So they live their lives knowing that they are not perfect. Never do they demand that a rabbi state that their actions are permissible. They know that what they are doing is wrong but they feel compelled to do it. This is, indeed, standard in many segments of the Sephardic community.

Page 18: “It is surely more laudable to adopt the path of ko’ah de-hetera adif” Here is what I have written on the margins of my copy of this paper: Augh!!! This talmudic saying is not a praise of leniencies. It is a statement that the burden of proof on someone being lenient is greater than on someone who is being stringent. Therefore, someone who reaches that state of having sufficient proof to be lenient must have a very strong case.

Pages 18-19: “You would not be aiding or encouraging him in his wrongdoing if he were going to do it anyway” This is a complicated matter and CRS Roth glossed over an entire issue. Lifnei iver only applies to someone who cannot otherwise sin. However, there is still a rabbinic prohibition of mesaye’a yedei ov’rei aveirah. CRS Roth ignores it. R. Moshe Feinstein and others jump through hoops in order to come to their conclusions in their specific cases. CRS Roth ignores those issues, explicitly discussed in the responsa he cites, and fails to explain why mesaye’a does not apply to homosexual acts. It could be that his conclusion is still correct, but he needs to address this complex issue.

Page 19: “We have already demonstrated that there is ample room for accommodation to their special needs through halakhically condoning them” CRS Roth explained earlier that we have to allow homosexuals to perform certain sins. Now he is claiming that his earlier logic proved that they are not sins at all. Condoning is not permitting.

In conclusion, CR Simchah Roth has failed to provide a sound halakhic reasoning to permit any form of homosexual activity. Both fondling and intercourse remain prohibited, despite our profound sympathy for the disadvantaged homosexual. How, exactly, to counsel individuals - when to tell them to fight their desires and when to instruct them on how to minimize their sins - is a very important pastoral issue that I am insufficiently qualified to address. However, I will add another halakhic issue - the largest problem I had with the CR Joel Roth’s paper. CR Joel Roth argues on pages 5-6 of his unnumbered paper that homoerotic fantasies are permissible as long as they do not lead to homosexual activity. He rightly contends that the discussion of hirhur is complex but states, “What is important to note is that the avoidance of hirhur is a desideratum, not a legal requirement. One must attempt to avoid hirhur, but is not legally liable for failure.” These two sentences are very different and, I believe, only the second is accurate. Hirhur - sexual fantasizing - is prohibited explicitly in the Talmud (Ketuvot 46a) and codes (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 21:5; Shulhan Arukh, Even Ha-Ezer 23:3). Both a heterosexual and a homosexual man must try to avoid sexual fantasies, even if complete success is impossible. This includes avoiding suggestive films and situations that will likely lead to such fantasies. Indeed, someone who fights his battle on the realm of thoughts will find that he is much less prone to more severe sins than otherwise.

I trust that my comments here will be seen as a confrontation with difficult halakhic concepts and not stereotyped as a homophobic response of hiding behing legalisms.



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