Monthly Archives: June 2017

The truth about agunot and annulment in Jewish law

Jewish law – halakhah הֲלָכָה – like any legal system, provides norms for marriages and divorces.  Yet there is a crisis in the Orthodox Jewish community on this issue – through an unfair legal loophole, men can leave their wives, marry another women – and yet still leave their original wife technically married to them.This problem has grown to the point where thousands of Orthodox Jewish women are functionally divorced – and may even have state/civil divorces – but they are still married in the eyes of the Orthodox Jewish community, and as such they are unable to move on with their lives.

A belief among today’s Orthodox is that halakhah forbids annulment; even agunah advocates are usually not well-versed on the subject, and as such, even the best-intentioned Orthodox advocates for agunot have been ineffective. As such, this resource is meant to educate Jews on the legal remedy that has always been available within halakha:  hafka’at kiddushin (annulment of a valid marriage) and kiddushei ta’ut, annulling a marriage conducted under false pretenses.

Agunot and Annulment

Eliezer Berkovits

Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992) was a rabbi, theologian, and educator in Modern Orthodox Judaism.

The core of his theology is the encounter as an actual meeting of God and human at Mt. Sinai. The encounter is paradoxical in that it transcends human comprehension, yet it demonstrates that God cares about human beings. He teaches that once human beings know God cares for them, they can act in ways that seek meaning, accept responsibility for their actions, and act with righteousness toward others. This implies the keeping of the commandments, ethical concern for others, and building the State of Israel.

In Berkovits’ view, Halakhah is determined by (1) the priority of the ethical in the value system of Judaism as reflected in the entire range of Jewish sacred literature, (2) common sense, (3) the wisdom of the feasible in the light of reality. In Not in Heaven he states that “in the spiritual realm nothing fails like compulsion” Yet, “Autonomy degenerates into everyone doing his own thing. The result is social and international decadence” (p. 83). Berkovits sees Judaism and halakhah as being inextricably intertwined, halakhah and our relationship to it having indeed shaped Judaism. “Through Halakhah the Word from Sinai has become the way of life of the Jewish people through history” (p. 84). He therefore sees a normative role for halakhah even in the modern world: “There has never been a greater need for Halakhah’s creative wisdom of Torah-application to the daily realities of human existence than in our day”

Responding to American Gods

Monotheism is incredibly different from polytheism (“paganism”). In Judaism, all forms of polytheism are understood as avodah zarah/idolatry. Monotheism is even more different from paganism when we have a non anthropomorphic view of God.

Still, in polytheism there are some interesting stories told about the ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Norse gods. For the most part we don’t have anything like that. Since we are interested in truth, and believe that God is unitary, that makes sense. But we miss out on some of the storytelling.

Is anyone familiar with the book “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman? It was recently made into a TV series ( it is very well-reviewed, but has some graphic themes which are not family friendly) In this story pagan gods of ancient times are actually real, and were somehow created by human thoughts and belief. To continue their existence, these gods need belief and sacrifice from human worshipers. The show revolves around a conflict between the classical ancient gods, and newly-created deities, gods based on media and the internet and modern-day beliefs.

As Jews, how do we respond to the show? Is it theologically permissible to watch such a show? If so, is there anything we can learn from it? Does it illustrate why we need to be monotheists? Does it offer points or counter points that offer interesting discussion?

We’re discussing this book on our forum Coffeehouse Torah Talk: A havurah for Jewish learning.

American gods

How to argue Jewishly

Analytical criticism – argumentation – is an essential part of Judaism.

We see this in the Mishnah and Talmud, in every student’s education in a kollel, yeshiva or Hebrew school. Yet arguments are aimed at reasoning and conclusions, they are not ad homenim (aimed at a person)

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In a deductive argument, premises guarantee the truth of the conclusion – but that is hard to do in religion, in general. So we usually see a combination of deductive argumentation, with some amount of inductive argument (one in which logic provides reasons for supporting the conclusion’s probable truth.)

In rabbinical Judaism, our premises are not secular atheism, or Christian texts, or Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist texts.

Our premises start with the Torah (five books of Moses) and Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), and read them through the evolving tradition of our oral law – including the Mishnah, Tosefta, Midrash, the two Talmuds and the responsa literature.

Responsa (Hebrew: She’elot u-Teshuvot,  שאלות ותשובות , questions and answers”) comprise the body of written decisions given by poskim (“deciders of Jewish law”)

A good overview of this topic may be found in History of responsa in Judaism (Wikipedia) and in Responsa in the Conservative/Masorti Jewish movement.

Timeline_Books_Judaism - Copy

An article on MyJewishLearning notes

Although Jews have excelled in many different sports, only one sport truly has a claim as being the Jewish national sport. Soccer? Dreidel? No. The Jewish national sport is…arguing! The rules to the sport are pretty slim: within a specific range, almost any opinion can be raised. One might read the story of Polemo and conclude that in Judaism there are a few topics about which you can’t ask questions. With a change of emphasis, that statement is quite accurate–there are only a few topics about which you can’t ask questions. Polemo (whose name is Greek for “I wage war”) just went a little too far.

Jewish texts, insofar as they seem to have personalities, are almost always either engaged in argument or perceived to be so. Some texts, such as the Mishnah, use the explicit language of dispute (“… these are the words of Rabbi Y. But Rabbi Z says…”) as their primary mode of expression. T

he Bible retells stories of disputes (such as the rebellion of Korah against Moses and Aaron), includes stories that contradict each other (the first chapter of Genesis says plants precede people but the second chapter says people precede plants), and dares to include writings that are at odds with the tone of most of the rest of the Bible. For instance, how could Jeremiah say that “[God] did not speak with your ancestors…about matters of offering and sacrifice” [7:22] in light of the book of Leviticus, which predominately deals with sacrifices?

In the Babylonian Talmud, argumentation is raised to an art form, with multi-tiered levels of hypothetical argument where it might seem as if the Talmud is just “picking fights.” A typical paragraph may look something like this: “This approach makes sense according to Rabbi V who asserts that Rabbi W thinks X in case Y, but could Rabbi V maintain this opinion about Rabbi W in case Z….”

Ironically, from a rhetorical point of view, the reduction of arguments to the proverbial hair-splitting differences serves to point out the broad areas of agreement that were shared by the rabbis and their disciples. Arguments about what we might see as trivial details presume that they agreed about the larger areas of practice and of process.

Conversation & Debate. An overview of the Jewish national sport: arguing. By MLJ staff.

The image below is really good; it shows the sources we use. One quibble. It implies primacy to a late medieval code of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Arukh. But the idea of it’s primacy is a post-1700’s belief, and not quite traditional.  For more on that see The Shulchan Aruch in perspective

rlgenremaphi

Sephardic Jewish views in the modern era

THE LEADERSHIP AND TRADITION OF SEPHARDIC SAGES IN THE MODERN ERA

Note: This article uses the term Sephardi colloquially; in this context it is inclusive of the three major Jewish ethnic groups distinct from Ashkenazi Judaism, namely Sephardic, Mizrachi and Maghrebi Judaism.

by Rabbi Yitzchak Chouraqu

Hamerkaz, Fall 2014

Sephardic culture throughout the ages developed in concurrence with general culture, thus continuing the tradition of the Golden Age of Spain, in which the internal Jewish world recognized the wider world without losing its own uniqueness.
The Sephardic Sages of recent generations were aware of current events and
changes in the world around them. This is especially true in more recent years,
since modernism in its European version arrived in the Eastern lands.

The Sephardic reaction to the changes of the new age was quite different from the Ashkenazic response. On the one hand, the educational model of the Sephardic sages approved of general studies, and even considered them as worthy endeavors in addition to a Jewish education; and in the spirit of this approach, the Sephardic sages did not withdraw from modern society in the way that some Ashkenazic Orthodox elements did. On the other hand, with the deepening of European rule in Muslim countries, the pull towards secular culture was in opposition to tradition.

Yet interestingly, the response of the Sages to protect the community’s traditions was not to develop the model of strict, isolationist Orthodoxy. Instead, they emphasized the principles that strengthen faith — especially those that have guarded Jewish identity and communal unity — all with the goal of keeping the members of the community connected to the Jewish world as much as possible.

What characterizes the legal/interpretive methods of the Sephardic sages as it relates to halakha (Jewish Law)?

One of the characteristic principles of the Sephardic sages is the way they determine
halakha. Sephardic Sages utilize the basic legal principle known in rabbinic language as kohah dehetra adif – the power of the lenient path is the preferred. This principle praises the greatness of the Hakham (wise sage) who delves deeply into an issue and finds a lenient halakhic solution.

Knowledge of life experience often accompanies and guides halakhic decision-making, together with a realistic viewpoint, according to which a harsh position would apply to only a small part of the public. In the view of Sephardic Judaism, the responsibility of the Hakham is to the whole community, to all of the Jewish people, perhaps for all future generations. Therefore it would not be responsible to set an excessively stringent standard of halakha that would cause a great portion of the community to be lost if they cannot abide by it.

Deciding halakha stringently does not reflect the greatness of a Hakham, and many times it attests to some theoretical educational theories taught in yeshivot, or to an outright fear of deciding the halakha. Such concerns prevent the Hakham from choosing the lenient path over the stricter one. Harsh halakhic decisions and the desire to accommodate all opinions have caused an accumulation of stringencies that makes it difficult for a later posek (Rabbinical decider) to weigh, maneuver, and navigate the halakhic process in the directions needed for a specific case that comes before him. Thus, fear of God pushes aside the true dynamic force of halakha.

Thus, between the strict and the liberal positions, the Sephardic Sages established a third path in which their great humility before God and their commitment to serve God brought them to adopt original halakhic stances in order to deal with new situations, without fearing lenient decisions, rulings or originality in the halakhic process.

Rabbi Yitzhak Chouraqui is the Director of MERHAV, the Joint Rabbinic
Leadership program of Memizrach Shemesh and the SEC. He also serves as
the Rabbi of Yad Ramah Synagogue in Jerusalem

Hamerkaz-2014 full issue (PDF)

Opioids, pain control and suicide

I want to say a perhaps untimely word on being – on occasion – pro- proper medical use of opioids. Although there is a raging, deadly opioid crisis in the USA, it is due to a huge misuse of science and medicine, but not due to medicine itself.
 
The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the official halakhic body of Conservative Judaism, published a teshuva on suicide and assisted suicide in the summer 1998 issue of “Conservative Judaism” Vol. L, No.4. The authors hold that there are cases – for instance some cancers, where we do need to proscribe very strong pain killing drugs.
 
The CJLS teshuva notes that suicide is forbidden by Jewish law: this includes assisted suicide. Yet there’s a trend of Americans and Europeans who are asking their friends/family to help kill themselves. As the Conservative teshuva points out, many people get sick, often with terminal illnesses, but most people don’t try and commit suicide. So why do some people ask for this? If we can find out, we should remove these reasons, so people don’t want to do this.
 
The author of the teshuva, Elliot Dorff, note that “those who commit suicide and those who aid others in doing so act out of a plethora of motives. Some of these reasons are less than noble, involving, for example, children’s desires to see Mom or Dad die with dispatch so as not to squander their inheritance on “futile” health care, or the desire of insurance companies to spend as little money as possible on the terminally ill.”
 
Some patients want to die because they are pain, but Rabbi Dorff points out that the proper response to pain is better pain control.
 
There is a new crisis in medical care of elderly and terminally ill patients : Many doctors are keeping such patients in perpetual, constant pain by refusing to grant them adequate pain killers. Some do this out of ignorance, others because they claim they want to avoid any possibility of the patient becoming a “drug addict”. Others claims that a good patient will grin-and-bear-it with the least amount of pain medication possible. The CJLS teshuva states that such reasoning is “bizarre”, and cruel. With today’s medications, there is no reason for people to be in perpetual torture.
 
The teshuva outlines theological reasons why Judaism is opposed to suicide. Another section discusses the social and economic forces that conspire to drive many people to this decision. Most importantly, the teshuva investigates the psychological reasons for the hopelessness felt by some patients.
 
It points out that “Physicians or others asked to assist in dying should recognize that people contemplating suicide are often alone, without anyone taking an interest in their continued living. Rather than assist the patient in dying, the proper response to such circumstances is to provide the patient with a group of people who clearly and repeatedly reaffirm their interest in the pateint’s continued life.”
 
“Requests to die, then, must be evaluated in the terms of degree of social support the patient has, for such requests are often withdrawn as soon as someone shows an interest in the patient staying alive. In this age of individualism and broken and scattered families, and in the antiseptic environment of hospitals where dying people usually find themselves, the mitzvah of visting the sick (bikkur Holim) becomes all the more crucial in sustaining the will to live”
 
None of this, of course, is to downplay the serious opiate crisis in the united states. It has affected even those close to me. I know that the producers of opiate drugs have engaged in unethical, possibly criminal activity, in pushing these drugs to doctors for the past 30 years, and doctors themselves pushed these drugs unwisely, helping create the current deadly crisis. So I just am noting that there is a legitimate medical role for such drugs, under clearly defined circumstances.
 
 
See
 
Elliot N. Dorff, “Assisted Suicide” YD 345.1997a
Statement on Assisted Suicide YD 345.1997b

Recreational sports and exercise on Shabbat

May one exercise or play recreational sports on Shabbat?

If so, what kinds of sports and exercise are compatible with Shabbat observance and what kinds are not?

May one pay golf on Shabbat ?

These practical and philosophical questions are discussed in RECREATIONAL SPORTS AND EXERCISE ON SHABBAT
Oreh Hayyim 301:2, by Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner

This is a responsa accepted by the CJLS (Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly)

The religious imperative of oneg Shabbat (enjoyment of the Sabbath) and the duty to differentiate the Seventh Day by refraining from activities associated with the work week — even when they do not violate per se any prohibition of the Torah — first finds expression in the book of Isaiah:
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your affairs on My holy day; if you call the sabbath “delight,” the Lord’s holy day “honored”; And if you honor it and go not your ways nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains — Then you can seek the favor of the Lord. I will set you astride the heights of the earth, and let you enjoy the heritage of your father Jacob — for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
-Isaiah 58:13-14
The Hasidic master, Rabbi Ya’akov Yitzhak of Przysucha, once observed, “It is almost impossible not to desecrate Shabbat in some minor way, unless one were bound hand and foot. Yet this would offer no solution since it would prevent oneg Shabbat.”
There has always been a dialectical tension between the commandment to enjoy Shabbat while consciously avoiding activities associated with the workaday world. It is this polarity which furnishes the matrix of our discussion in the following pages.
Notwithstanding that the character of specific recreational activities ipso facto render them incompatible with Shabbat observance, many kinds of physical exercise do not entail actual violations of Shabbat law. Indeed, one could credibly argue that
certain types of athletics fall within the rubric of oneg Shabbat; their enjoyable character
enhances rather than detracts from the joy of the day. It remains an open question, however, whether or not such activities compromise the rabbinic concept of shevut, i.e., behaviors to be avoided because they are not in the spirit of the Day of Rest (mishum uvdin d’hol) or because they may lead to actual violations of Shabbat (mishum gezerah).2
To answer the above questions requires an examination of the halakhic literature both
broadly and narrowly. A global understanding of the concepts of oneg Shabbat and shevut as they have evolved through time will afford us the critical context in which to locate generally the permissibility of exercise on Shabbat. At the same time, given the intrinsic differences between various types of athletic activities, it may well be that some are entirely permissible, while others are highly problematic. Accordingly, this teshuvah will explore the larger issues of oneg and its relationship with shevut. A series of separate responsa will follow, each focusing on a different type of recreational activity and its permissibility on Shabbat. Given the common practice of washing after exercise, the final responsum will deal with the halakhic issues of bathing on Shabbat