Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

85 Harrison Street, New Haven, CT 06515-1724 | P: 203.389.2108 | office@beki.org

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Dear Rabbi,
Regular family membership dues at BEKI are are $770. Habad [Lubavitch] Headquarters is at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Is there a connection?

Signed,  Code Seeker

Dear Code Seeker,

Yes, there is a connection. The Habad Lubavitch have adopted the Biblical verse-cum-folksong “ufaratsta — You shall spread out West, East, North and South” to indicate their missionary faith and expansionist politics. The number 770 times the four directions is 3080 — and the address of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (the Conservative Movement’s educational and administrative center) at 3080 Broadway in New York. Take BEKI’s address, 85 Harrison Street, multiply by 36 (the number of “Lamedvavnikim” Righteous Persons who sustain the world, or double “hai” – life), add the last digits of BEKI’s phone number (10 + 2 + 8 = 20) and again you get 3080. If using the last four digits of the phone number seems contrived, you can use the first three digits (3 + 8 + 9 = 20) instead. All roads lead home! If this isn’t Divine Codes hidden in daily life, I don’t know what is.

 


Dear Rabbi,

May Jews donate bodily organs?

Signed, Liver Giver

Dear Liver Giver,

Medical ethics are a controversial area in Jewish law. I advocate donating organs when the harvesting is done after proper certification of death (according to Jewish law) and when the organ will be used to help an individual in great need. Normally one is not allowed to tamper with the body of a dead person, but this rule is superseded when doing so will bring life to another.


 

Dear Rabbi

Why are there so many Cohens listed in the phone book?

Signed, Phoney Questioner

Dear Phoney,

Because they all have phones.
Now that’s what I call an old line.


 

Dear Reader,

Dear Rabbi has a few questions of his own and would be happy to receive written answers.

1. When someone posts a “Vote For Candidate X” bumper sticker on a “Stop” sign, do they intend to promote or to “stop” that candidate?

2. When one shampoo bottle says “for shiny manageable hair” and the second says “for dry damaged hair,” who buys the one that makes their hair dry and damaged?

3. When the orange juice carton advertises “squeezed orange juice,” how else might they have gotten the juice out?

4. When one person will not come to services if there is already a minyan as they are “not needed,” and another will not come unless they are sure there will be a minyan, how should we answer the question, “will there be a minyan?”

Signed, Dear Rabbi


Dear Rabbi,

The “voice of the turtle” is mentioned in the Bible and other books in the context of love poetry. I’ve never heard a turtle sing, but it doesn’t sound very romantic.

Signed, Turtle Soup

Dear Turtle,

“Turtle” in the Song of Songs refers to a “turtledove,” which is a kind of bird which mates for life and makes pleasant sounds.


 

Dear Rabbi,
If I had a son I would not want him circumcised. (I am not planning on having one soon.) We should oppose male circumcision just as we oppose female circumcision. Circumcision is a trauma that may create lasting psychological damage. According to men I have had sex with, the foreskin is a source of sexual pleasure and I would not want to deprive my son of that. Studies have shown that if proper hygiene is observed, the foreskin presents no medical disadvantage. What social disabilities would he face as an uncircumcised Jew? Why take away from a place where, if anything, we should be adding on?

Signed, for skin

Dear for skin,

Male circumcision should not be compared with female genital mutilation. The latter, only euphemistically called “circumcision,” by all accounts entails severe health risks and loss of sexual sensation and has no medical benefit whatsoever. There is no evidence that circumcision creates any transient or lasting psychological effect. In fact, that loud cry you hear at a brit mila is often a reaction to the removal of the baby’s diaper rather than the circumcision. Some babies don’t even cry at their brit mila.

Removal of the foreskin does indeed change sexual sensation. However, the few men with whom I have personally spoken who have undergone circumcision as an adult, and therefore have a basis for comparison, say that sexual activity is no less pleasurable without the foreskin. While some women may have a preference, if anything the evidence shows that “on average” women find relations with a circumcised man more pleasurable than with the uncircumcised man.

“If proper hygiene is observed” is a big if. The foreskin, when proper hygiene is not maintained, can lead to negative health consequences such as frequent infections and cervical cancer. Even if you can train your son to floss daily, shower regularly, and raise the seat and lower it again when he’s through, it’s not going to be easy training him for proper foreskin hygiene. It’s one thing to help your seven-year-old son shampoo his hair; it’s another to be retracting his foreskin for him; I’m not sure what the potential is for lasting psychological problems.

As an uncircumcised male, he would face some degree of ostracism within the male Jewish world, and indeed might very well be rejected as a potential mate by many fine Jewish women. “Uncircumcised one” is a most potent Biblical disparagement. Sometimes less is more.


 

Dear Rabbi,

I am a [non-Jewish] pre-operative Transsexual who is in my second year of what is referred to as the “real life test” (required two years of living as a women before surgery). There are references in the scriptures that my Jewish friends have trouble dealing with. Any help with these would be most appreciated.

Signed, B

Dear B,

One Biblical passage with direct bearing might be Deuteronomy 23:2: “No one whose testes are crushed or whose member is cut off shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord.” That is usually understood to be a case of voluntary or accidental mutilation, and would not apply according to most authorities to cases due to birth defect or, according to some, due to disease. (See Rambam, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’a 16:9; Shulhan Arukh E.H. 5:10.) In halakha (Jewish jurisprudence) this law is understood to apply to Jews, but has no bearing on those not under the jurisdiction of Jewish law. As far as Jewish law is concerned, you are free to undergo that procedure if you wish, as long as the surgeon is not a Jew. Were you Jewish it would be difficult to find a basis for permitting the procedure. Other than a life-threatening situation such as cancer it would be difficult to claim medical necessity for this procedure under the usual definitions of Jewish law. On the other hand, psychological factors have been increasingly recognized in determining medical necessity in Jewish law, and this area of law continues to develop.

The punishment provided under Biblical law for a Jew who performs such surgery is lashing. Technically one could avoid this Biblical prohibition by using non-mechanical (i.e. chemical) methods, but this would still be viewed as “worthy of punishment by lashing” as a violation of the general rule against circumventing law. (See Rambam, Hilhot Issurei Bi’a 16:12.)

The Biblical consequence for a Jew of not being “admitted into the congregation of the Lord” means not being able to marry a Jewish woman. (See Mishna Yevamot 9:1-2.) Marriage to a woman who became Jewish by conversion or possibly a mamzeret (the progeny of certain forbidden unions) would be permitted. Presumably a Male-to-Female transsexual would not experience this limitation as a disability in any event. The subject may still be included in and can lead (yotsei others for) public performances such as birkat ha-mazon (grace after meals), hearing the shofar (ram’s horn on Rosh HaShana), and reading the megilla (Book of Esther).

That is the legal “bottom line” with respect to that particular Biblical verse. On a philosophical level, one might wish that other less radical solutions to gender dysphoria might suffice. Many people are unhappy with their bodies — too short, too fat, too tall, too ugly, the wrong complexion, and in this case, the wrong gender. At some point we have to be able to accept ourselves as God made us. On the other hand this does not mean that we can’t try to overcome physical and psychological pain or disabilities. Some “elective” surgery is prohibited by Jewish law, particularly when it is life-threatening. Transsexual surgery has more implications than a “nose job,” but many of the same considerations apply.

For an analysis of the verse Deuteronomy 22:5, “A man’s item shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment; whoever does such a thing is an abhorrence unto Adonai,” see my article “Cross Dressing and Deuteronomy 22:5.” Again, though, it should be understood that this is meant to apply to a Jewish person.


 

Dear Rabbi,

Is a brit mila of a newborn different if the mother is not Jewish?

Signed, Preparing for Yom Clipper

Dear Clipper,

Let us skip all the bris jokes and cut right to the point.

The medical aspect is the same, and the ceremony may follow the same order as for an infant born to a Jewish mother. The blessings and language for a conversion are substituted in some places. Since the brit mila is performed for the purpose of conversion, it must be so noted on the certificate. The conversion is not complete until the child has undergone tevila (immersion in a miqva) and accepts the responsibilities of an adult Jew, under the supervision of a duly constituted beit din (religious court). This brit mila need not take place on the eighth day (although that may be desirable), and so cannot take place on Shabbat or a festival.


Dear Rabbi,

I’m planning a simha for the fall of 1999. Will the holidays be early or late next year?

Signed, Plan Ahead

Dear Ahead,

The holidays will be right on time.


Dear Rabbi,

I’m embarrassed to ask. What is the difference between shluggin kapores and tashlikh?

Signed, Afraid to Ask

Dear Chicken,

Kapores is the bird, tashlikh is the stuffing.


 

Dear Rabbi,

What is the “Lieberman clause” in the ketuba?

Signed, ‘clause I care

Dear ‘clause,

The “Lieberman clause” is a passage added to the ketuba (marriage contract) to help insure that Jewish law will be respected in case of divorce. The passage is based on the wording developed by Rabbi Saul Lieberman, considered by many the leading scholar of this century, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

In its current form, the clause reads (translated from the Aramaic): “And the Groom (name) and the Bride (name and appellation) agreed that if one of them were to contemplate or seek the termination of their marriage or if one of them were to terminate it in civil court, then either may summon the other to appear before the Beit Din (Court) of the Rabbinical Assembly and of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America or its designate or successor, and that both of them will abide by the decisions of this Beit Din in order that both may be able to live according to the rule of Torah.”

It may seem strange to speak of divorce in a marriage document. But the primary purpose of the ketuba is to protect the rights of the woman in the event of divorce. The Lieberman clause provides a basis for legal remedy should one of the parties fail to cooperate in Jewish divorce proceedings. It has also been suggested that the clause could be taken as a mechanism to bring a couple or individual to marriage or individual counseling or psychotherapy, although we are not aware of such an implementation.

While the language and form of the ketuba we use today is essentially the same as that used since the time of Shimon ben Shatah (over 2000 years ago), each generation has adapted it to meet their own circumstances. The Lieberman clause represents a continuation of that essential tradition.


 

Dear Rabbi,

Deuteronomy 22:28-29 reads: “If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, that is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty sheqels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he hath humbled her; he may not put her away all his days.”

I’m having a hard time explaining this passage to an unbeliever and even to myself. Is there some background to it that explains the apparent brutality to the virgin woman who must marry her rapist?

Signed,
Believer in disbelief

Dear Believer,

The law based on these verses is explained this way by Rabbi Moses Maimonides (Rambam), writing some 800 years ago, in Mishnei Torah, Hilkhot Na`ara Betula, 1:3:

“…As for the raped woman who does not want to marry the raper, whether she or her father does not want her to be married to the raper: it is permitted to either the woman or her father to refuse the marriage, and the raper pays a fine and the matter is settled. If she wants [to marry the raper] and this is also her father’s wish, they force him to, and he pays a fine, as it says in Scripture, ‘…and she shall be his wife,’ and this is a mitzvat `asei (prescription). Even if she is lame or blind or leprous, he is forced to marry her and can not send her out by his own will ever, as Scripture says, “… and he may not put her away all his days,’ and this is a mitzvat lo ta`ase (prohibition).”

This reading of the law is perfectly consistent with the Biblical verse. Nowhere does the law suggest that she must marry the perpetrator. The law simply needs to be read in the context of a larger legal framework and functioning social system.

Imagine if we read traffic signs without knowing their context. “Slow Down Get Ticket” (the sign you see approaching a New York toll plaza) might mean, “Don’t slow down or else you’ll get a ticket.” “Slow Children Ahead” might mean, “You can drive fast since these children are moving slowly.” “Do Not Pass” might mean, “You must stop here as you can’t drive past the sign.” “Stop” might mean, “You stop, but it never tells you that you can go again.”


 

Dear Rabbi,

Do nursing mothers fast on Yom Kippur? If not, what do they eat?

Signed,
Eating for Two

Dear for Two,

The sources say that nursing mothers do fast on Yom Kippur, unless there is some particular medical condition involved that would preclude doing so (Shulhan Arukh O.H. 617). One who must eat on Yom Kippur should eat the simplest foods in the minimum quantity or drink water only as necessary. For Tisha Be’av, in contrast, there is greater basis for leniency in observing the fast.

Fasting on Yom Kippur is only one of the forms of abstinence observed on that day. Others include bathing, using makeup, wearing shoes, watching television, using the telephone, and sexual activity. A person who cannot fast may be able to observe the other practices.


Dear Rabbi,

Does Yom Kippur ever fall on a Sunday? Signed, Weekend Warrior

Dear Warrior,

No. Yom Kippur will occur on a Monday 28.5% of the time, Wednesday 28.2%, Thursday 11.3%, and Shabbat 32.0%. In fixing the calendar in the second century C.E., our sages determined that Yom Kippur could not occur on Friday or Sunday, as that would result in two consecutive days on which cooking and related activities are prohibited. (If you find the occurrence of Passover on a Sunday to be a challenge, image what you would have to do if Yom Kippur were on a Friday.) The sages also determined that Hoshana Rabba (the last regular day of Sukkot) could not occur on Shabbat, since its observance cannot be postponed and its observance would involve numerous conflicts with Shabbat restrictions. As a result, Yom Kippur can never occur on a Friday, Sunday or Tuesday.

To facilitate this jiggering, there are two “leap days” available on the Hebrew calendar. Heshvan (eighth month) and Kislev (ninth month) can each have 29 or 30 days. A 12-month year may therefore have 353, 354 or 355 days, and a “leap year” (with a second month of Adar) to have 383, 384 or 385 days. A “regular” year has 354 or 384 days, but if Yom Kippur were to fall on a Friday, Sunday or Tuesday, one of these “leap days” can be added or subtracted.

While the Hebrew calendar seems somewhat complex, it has the advantage of having months with either 29 or 30 days (compared to our civil calendar, in which months have 28, 29, 30 or 31 days). The Hebrew calendar, unlike the civil calendar, corresponds with the phases of the moon as well as other natural cycles.

Some years ago, Congress declared that certain federal holidays such as Memorial Day and Labor Day will be observed on Mondays only. Even Independence Day, popularly known as “The Fourth of July,” is observed on a Monday. The result is that the Fourth of July might be celebrated on the third of July in some years. When the fourth of July falls on a Saturday, it may be observed the previous Friday, so as not to deprive workers of the day’s vacation. In its tinkering with the calendar, Congress was performing an old Jewish tradition. A we see, you don’t have to be Jewish to be Jewish, but it helps.


 

Dear Rabbi,

How can a person do teshuva (repentance) when the person can’t make amends for various reasons, e.g. because it will cost too much personally (or financially) to make amends or because the other person doesn’t know amends are due and to ask for forgiveness will only stir up trouble?

Signed, Sorry to Ask

Dear Sorry,

Our sages note that there are some circumstances in which teshuva cannot be made by directly making amends with the injured party, such as when the victim is no longer living or the victim’s identity is unknown. One might do an act of kindness toward the family of the deceased, or contribute tsedaqa (charity) in memory of the deceased. For an unknown victim, one might similarly do an act of kindness or give tsedaqa to another person of the same class or locale.

I do not believe that “it costs too much” is a valid reason not to make amends. How much is it worth, monetarily, to know that one has done the right thing, and to be able to go forward in life with a clear conscience? If it is likely that an attempt to seek forgiveness or make amends will result in violence or other serious harm, then it might be desirable to find a “safe” way to make amends indirectly, such as through giving tsedaqa in the name of the wronged party. Each case must be considered on its own.

For further ideas, consult Maimonides’ Hilkhot Teshuva – Laws of Repentance in his Mishne Torah Law Code, first published about 800 years ago.


 

Dear Rabbi,

I read your essay “Will the ‘Real’ Judaism Please Stand Up?” on the BEKI website with great interest. I was particularly struck by the Conservative movement’s halakhic (legal) reasoning behind the decision to create an egalitarian service, allowing women aliya, reading from the Torah, and simply being allowed to be on the bima. But there was an underlying issue which I want to discuss.

I recently joined a Conservative synagogue where I live with my fiance. My background was secular/Reform and hers was secular/Conservative. Only through constant reading, participating in services, attending an Orthodox sponsored summer retreat which taught me for the first time how to don teffilin and the basic laws of observing Shabbat, and practicing my Hebrew reading, have I become better acquainted with our Jewish heritage than I ever was growing up.

Motivating this question is my discussions with Orthodox rabbis on why, according to them, Conservative Judaism is not Judaism. What Orthodox rabbis have told me is that Judaism has a core belief system, summarized in Maimonides’ “Thirteen Principles of Faith.” Because the Conservative movement does not accept Principle Nine, that the Torah (both “oral” and “written”) is Divine and immutable from Sinai (the belief being an actual unique event with 600,000 male witnesses as proof that it happened), and Principle Thirteen, that the dead will be resurrected, the Orthodox rabbinate cannot accept Conservative conversions nor hold that Conservative Judaism is truly Judaism.

I find myself in agreement with the stand taken by the Conservative Rabbinate allowing women to read the Torah, as you explain it in your article, and being able to back it up with halakhic reasoning. However, the Orthodox rabbi tells me that if a Conservative or non-Orthodox Jew in general were to be serious, and intellectually explore the consequences of Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism, they would choose, if honest with themselves, Orthodox Judaism. To him it boils down to, you must accept the traditional version that Torah (including the oral law) is in fact the word of God recorded by Moses at Mt.Sinai, and all the events described in the Torah, including the miracle narratives, actually happened; and you must follow it up with ritual and ethical observance and thus have authentic Judaism. If you do not conform to this belief, then you have a deviation from actual Judaism. I guess I am in a state of spiritual confusion and saddened that a major part of our community, the keepers of traditional believing Judaism, are in a sense telling me and other members of Conservative synagogues, that we are wrong.

Would the Talmudic sages of our past agree with this analysis, that if you do not conform to certain core beliefs, then it isn’t Judaism, even if that synagogue’s members perform the traditional rituals, yet allow driving to shul at the Sabbath, conduct the same prayer service, and act ethically according to traditional Jewish law?

Sincerely, Perplexed

Dear Perplexed,

Numerous sages have tried to reduce Judaism to some number of core teachings. Hillel said, “Do not do unto others,” etc. The “Thirteen Principles” set out by Rambam is just one of many such sets and was not and is not universally accepted among mainstream observant Jews.

Even so, if you accept Rambam on this, then you might have to accept his teaching (in Guide for the Perplexed) where he tells us that much of the Torah, such as the talking donkey or the “angel” who fought with Jacob, is meant as accounts of prophetic visions, not things that really happened in the normal sense of the words.

Generally speaking, the Conservative rabbis accept the notion of Torah mi-Sinai, but, like our ancestors, differ on exactly what is meant by this. Read the Biblical account yourself and see what the Torah itself says directly. Many of our sages taught, “Torah is given in human language.” That fact inherently limits just how and what could be conveyed at Sinai. That is, the language and wording of Torah is limited by human capabilities at the outset.

Many or most of our sages (before the last couple hundred years) believed that at least parts of the Torah (by which I mean the Humash, the Five Books) was written by someone other than Moses, after his death. Typically, it is suggested that Joshua or the Sofrim (Scribes) were the writers. The Torah itself describes the death of Moses. Some sages said that this certainly must have been written by someone else later; others said that the Almighty dictated it to Moshe and Moshe wrote of his own death with tears in his eyes. A beautiful midrash (folklore), but in any case it is absolutely traditional to believe that at least parts of the Torah were not dictated verbatim to Moshe at Sinai.

Another passage that raised this question is in parashat Lekh Lekha, where the phrase “ve-ha-Kena`ani az ba-arets – the Canaanites were then in the land” is included parenthetically, as it were. It was only after the time of Joshua that the Canaanites were not in the land, and only in that period would a reader need to be reminded that the Canaanites were in the land during the period described in the narrative. Sure, one might answer, as some sages did, that this was written at the time of Moses with this phrase included only for the benefit of later generations. But the fact is that many sages (again, before the modern period, before the creation of “Orthodox” Judaism) believed that this phrase must have been written long after the time of Moses.

The reason given for saying that “Torah came from Sinai letter for letter,” despite the actual more nuanced view, was to counter the claims of Christians and others who said that the Jewish People do not have the true transmission of Torah. To defend against this charge, many sages promoted the line that the Torah as we have it was dictated word for word by God at Sinai, despite their own certainty that this was not exactly the case.

The Talmud records that the Humash was originally written in an alphabet other than the “Syrian” characters we use today. Given this fact, it is a stretch to claim that the very spelling of the words in Torah, letter by letter, could possibly be exactly as given to Moshe at Sinai.

How did this revelation occur exactly? Did God dictate letter by letter to Moshe as he wrote it down? Did God dictate word by word? Was it possible that the revelation was visual as well as, or instead of, verbal, and it was up to Moshe to verbalize it? The Torah’s own account suggests that there was a mixing of the senses (e.g., seeing sounds) even among the people who stood at a distance. Exactly how this revelation took place is left up to midrash and our imagination.

It is not necessary to know exactly how we got the Torah to feel bound by Jewish law. By comparison, many people feel bound by American law, and recognize the legitimacy of the US Government, even though we know for a fact that it was founded by traitors to the Crown, by white male property owners, slave owners, and that it was not accepted by many people, so much so that a war was fought. Even so, most of us accept American law and the existence of the US Federal government as somehow legitimate and binding. How much more so a law that has been followed by, and developed by, our own ancestors for 3,500 years, for our own benefit and that of humanity, based on Divine revelation (regardless of how you define “revelation”).

As for bodily resurrections, it is questionable as to whether Rambam himself actually believed this. In any event, many great sages through the ages have not believed this, or at least have not known what could possibly be meant by it. What happens to someone who was born missing a limb – is he resurrected whole? Is the grandfather the same age as his son? Is her first, second and third husband resurrected along with her fourth? Where are these people living? If someone wants to believe in bodily resurrection, they are free to do so. To claim it is an essential part of normative Jewish teaching is in my opinion unwarranted. No one knows exactly what happens to us after death, and we are not meant to know. The only thing that our sages agree on is that there is some kind of eternal existence to our souls, and that we are held accountable for our actions, but how this works is a mystery beyond our understanding.

I believe that fundamentalist Orthodoxy is an aberration and does not represent the mainstream of Jewish tradition. I believe that the world was created millions of years ago, and that dinosaurs once roamed this planet. If someone wants to believe that God created fossils of dinosaurs 5,761 years ago, they are free to believe that, but I wouldn’t want them to pass that teaching off as “traditional Judaism.”

There is a strong rationalist tendency in Judaism, which includes a system of respectful teaching that allows for varying opinions on many important issues. The traditional Judaism that I follow respects the intellectual integrity of each person and does not ask us to believe things contrary to reason.

Part of my personal journey included studying in a variety of settings, including with Orthodox groups and Habad, as well as in secular universities, along with the Jewish Theological Seminary. I can only tell you that my personal study of the original texts was eye opening, and that it seems to me that the approach of the Conservative Movement is the most authentic with respect to the traditions of our ancestors. Even more importantly, I believe it is the best path for us to follow to preserve a meaningful and authentic Judaism that our children can observe. My family was Conservative-affiliated, and my extended family runs the gamut from Orthodox to Pagan, and I had no pressure to go in any particular direction; my orientation is in large part the result of my study. I would agree with your non-Conservative rabbis in urging you to continue your own study, with an open mind, and with respect for your own intellect and that of others.

A couple of particular books that might be especially helpful in understanding halakha, are Rabbi Joel Roth’s The Halakhic Process: A Systemic Analysis, (New York: JTSA) 1986, and Menachem Elon’s Principles of Jewish Law (even though Elon identifies as Orthodox). The other book to read is Judith Hauptman’s Rereading the Rabbis: A Woman’s Voice (Westbrook Press) 1999. Moreover, read the Mishna and Shulhan Arukh (or Mishna Berura), or study Rambam’s writings yourself and draw your own conclusions.

I hope this is in some way helpful. To complete Hillel’s summation of Judaism, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study!”


 

Dear Rabbi,

I converted to Judaism through a Chabad rabbi and a Modern Orthodox shul. This process took many months of intensive study of Torah, learning the mitzvot, and struggling with “the women’s issue.”

I read every women’s book I could find. My rabbi is open and willing to discuss things with me. But I can’t get away from feeling degraded and held back from Godliness. I love Torah so much, I love halakha, I love the mitzvot, and I love hassidut. So I stayed with full (and naive) faith that Oral Torah was somehow beautiful and wonderful when it tells me I cannot do so many things, and that it was just a matter of study to uncover this beauty. Sometimes the problem is not Talmud, but rather tradition. Rabbi Solovetchik said that since women have never danced with a Torah on Simchas Torah in the past, we know it is not proper for them to do so. A rabbi said that since only men immerse in preparation for Shabbat, any woman who wants to do so is trying to grab for equality and men’s observances. The very tradition that I love prohibits me from embracing it to fullest extent of my person ability. If I were a man, everything would be wonderful for me. It is difficult for me to comprehend a limit placed on me because of my biology. My heart and mind are higher faculties than my reproductive organs, and yet somehow the higher faculties must submit to the lower.

When I mentioned a Conservative temple to my Rabbi, he became very upset and worried about me. He wonders if my conversion was a mistake, and if he will be forever held liable before God for my abandonment of traditional Torah. I’m told that I cannot even attend one service, because it would be a violation of rabbinic law. Can you advise me?

Signed, Hiding Seeker

Dear Hiding Seeker,

Your practical dilemma is between being an advocate for women’s advancement in the Chabad or Orthodox community, or being an advocate for traditional observance and outlook in a Conservative community. Either arena gives you the great challenge of tiqun olam and its attendant mitzva opportunities, with the knowledge that in either setting your own needs for religious community will not be completely satisfied.

The Mishna, Talmud and other rabbinic literature reflect the belief of our sages that it is valuable to present many viewpoints on issues of import. I am always suspicious of those who discourage open discourse and debate. It is important to respect your spiritual and intellectual integrity, and it is essential that you be as honest with yourself, and your teachers, as you can be. It sounds like you experience and value such trusting and honest relationships.

I would not underestimate the importance of Talmud Torah (Torah Study) as a central mitzva, one in which you ought to be able to partake fully as a woman. As you continue to grow in your knowledge of the classical sources, particularly Talmud and midrash, you may not need to rely so much on the interpretation of your teachers, at least for some things.

I have an understanding of “traditional Judaism with respect to the role of women (and other topics) that is significantly different from that typically presented by the Chabad movement. In part, this difference revolves around questions of history, or halakhic [legal] history. But I suppose that it is equally important to me to take into consideration a vision for the future, a vision of a just and affirming Jewish society, and I believe that social debilities imposed on women are inconsistent with that vision.

Would it make a difference for you if you could find within tradition — the writings of pre-modern rabbis — a convincing basis for your adoption of the “restricted” ritual performances?

My suggestion would be that if it is possible for you, explore the rest of the observant Jewish world, including other modern Orthodox congregations and observant Conservative shuls. Many Conservative shuls offer services designed more for the less educated or less traditionally observant, and for that reason you might find them unsatisfying. But perhaps there is in your area a more traditionally-oriented Conservative minyan. Even more, if you have the opportunity to study at Drisha Institute in New York, or the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, or in other observant settings, I think that might help you gain a broader perspective.

You should not have to choose between feeling loyal to your earlier teachers and your own integrity. If you are strong enough in your faith, you will be able to avert the dangers of associating with others who are not religiously committed while interacting with them, and will have the advantages of studying in a diverse and open setting. If this is not a practical option, perhaps there are local study groups of women or men with similar concerns. I think that you are now responsible for your own spiritual path, and it is unfortunate that your rabbi would feel threatened by your exploration or education. I would suppose that you are answerable to the Almighty for your own actions, and that your rabbi is not responsible for your actions. The Chabad practice of placing great importance on “loyalty” to the rabbi is, in my view, unfortunate. I think that Judaism teaches that we have other, and higher, loyalties.

Perhaps some of your teachers have tried to suggest that the mitzva areas off limits to you in orthodox settings — public worship, tefillin — really represent only a small fraction of religious life, and in that way try to minimize your concern. I would say that these areas are indeed small, but the fact that you experience the restriction, and the ideology behind them, as degrading, is telling.

Although the conflict you experience is painful, it is based on your love of Torah, the People Israel and the Almighty, and I am confident that you will find paths that are productive and that will enable you to do what is pleasing to your Maker. Perhaps that is what you are here for.


 

Dear Rabbi,

My dog just turned 13 in doggie years. Can he have a Bar Mitzva? He’s very smart.

Signed, Doggone curious in Beaver Hills.

PS: He sings better than you do, Rabbi.

Dear Doggone:

Your question gives us paws. Requests for Bar Mitzvas for dogs have hounded our synagogues for years and are still a bone of contention.

When a laddie turns 13 — or a lassie reaches 12 — he or she becomes an adult member of the community, with all of the attendant privileges and obligations.

Despite the popular usage in which “bar mitzva” refers to a ceremony, the Hebrew term actually means “a person obligated by the mitzvot,” that is, an adult according to Jewish Law who must curb their inclinations and observe the commandments.

A bar- or bat-mitzva is an adult with respect to criminal law, torts and ritual. A bar- or bat-mitzva becomes part of the Jewish mission in the world, which is to make the world better by performing mitzvot, Divine Commandments.

This applies to Jewish humans. Dogs, on the other hand, are not members of the People Israel, but rather are of Caninite origin.

The mitzvot that God gave to the People of Israel, and the commandments that God gave other people, simply do not apply to Rover. This may sound dogmatic, but you’re barking up the wrong tree. I think it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie.

Perhaps, though, we can give your four-footed friend a Bark-Mitzva.


Dear Rabbi,

 

I read in the New York Times (“Risque Names Reap Rewards for Some Companies”) that companies that adopt provocative names are more successful.  An outfit called HVLS Fan Company changed its name to “Big Ass Fans” and business soared; a wine called “Sassy Bitch” is a best-seller.  Maybe BEKI could really take off if we change to a catchier name.

 

Signed, Blow Up The Temple’s Name in the Headlines

 

Dear B.U.T.T. Head,

 

While a name such as “The Big Ass Shul,” “Congregation Beth El-Qaida” or “Damn Good Temple” might get more attention, it is not certain that a provocative name would be more effective in attracting or retaining members (at least, the kind we want), promoting our mission, or projecting our values and style.  The less provocative suggestion “Shul Haven” runs the risk of confusion with “Shoe Haven” – though on the other hand it might be a revenue opportunity.

“Big Ass Shul” is especially not fitting for a number of reasons, one of which is that we actually discourage people with large tushies from attending our Shabbat and Festival services.  Although entirely unintentional, the discouragement is real.  The sanctuary seats are 18 inches wide (compare with typical economy airplane seats at 17 inches or movie theatre seats at 22 to 25 inches), which means that the 5% or so of the population (one in twenty) who are larger than that are discouraged from attending (unless they want to stand in the back for three hours).  That does not include those who find the seating merely cramped or uncomfortable.  Even sitting next to an empty seat does not help, because the arm rests are fixed.

Similarly, people who are over five-foot-four, and people who do not enjoy knee pain, have a hard time with the narrow rows (“pitch” in airplane terminology).  The front row has greater legroom but has its own disadvantages, and not everyone can sit in the front.

A leading recommendation from the BEKI-2000 visioning process almost 20 years ago was to provide “a wider variety of seating options in the sanctuary.”  Perhaps they meant to say “a variety of wider” seating.  Short of spending over $120,000 to remove all of the current seats, buy quality moveable sanctuary chairs and recarpet, we might simply someday remove a couple of “middle” rows and create smaller zones of moveable seating to accommodate people with wider tushies, as well as people who use wheelchairs and walkers and those who suffer the disability of being taller than 5’-4”.  Then maybe we could rightfully change the name to “The Kickass Shul” – or not.

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