Category Archives: ethics

A Yizkor Meditation in Memory of a Parent Who Was Hurtful

A Yizkor Meditation in Memory of a Parent Who Was Hurtful. From Mahzor Lev Shalem, a new mahzor of the Conservative/Masorti Jewish movement .

See the 7th page in this excerpt from the Yizkor service, Mahzor Lev Shalem

Dear God,
You know my heart. Indeed, You know me better than I know myself, so I turn to You before I rise for Kaddish. My emotions swirl as I say this prayer. The parent I remember was not kind to me. His/her death left me with a legacy of unhealed wounds, of anger and of dismay that a parent could hurt a child as I was hurt.

I do not want to pretend to love, or to grief that I do not feel, but I do want to do what is right as a Jew and as a child.

Help me, O God, to subdue my bitter emotions that do me no good, and to find that place in myself where happier memories may lie hidden, and where
grief for all that could have been, all that should have been, may be calmed by forgiveness, or at least soothed by the passage of time.

I pray that You, who raise up slaves to freedom, will liberate me from the oppression of my hurt and anger, and that You will lead me from this desert to Your holy place.

— Robert Saks, Mahzor Lev Shalem

About this mahzor:  It presents a complete traditional liturgy, as well as having creative liturgical developments presenting the theology and gender-equality of non-Orthodox Judaism. It contains a variety of commentaries from classical and modern-day rabbis, gender-sensitive translations, and choreography instructions (when to sit, stand, bow, etc.)  It offers more literal translations of the prayers than previous non-Orthodox mahzorim. English transliterations are offered for all prayers and lines recited aloud by the congregation. The page layout surrounds prayers with a variety of English commentaries and readings, as one finds in classical rabbinic commentaries.

To learn more about mahzorim for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur click here.

Mahzor Lev Shalem

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Modesty

Jewish concepts of צניעות, tzniut, modesty.

Ashkenazi Orthodox Judaism has developed detailed rules for how women should dress, talk and act, both in private and public. Entire books are written about the subject with laws, customs, measurements, in exacting details.

Here is an example of an Ashkenazi right-wing Orthodox prescription for women:
(I am using these qualifiers precisely, for good reason: Such controls on women’s clothing did not develop in the Mizrachi, Sephardic, or Modern Orthodox community, although now these communities are being influenced by right-wing Orthodox.)

Haredi modest clothing for women

Orthodox authors assure the reader that these are traditional and inarguable, and come from Torah mitzvot that are elucidated in the Mishnah and Talmud.  Perhaps the main problem with their rules about  צניעות, tzniut, modesty, is that until the 1920’s, most of these rules didn’t even exist!

These rules on tzniut were invented recently, accompanied by a deliberate censorship & historical revisionism campaign, to make it appear as if they had always been there. This is a recurring pattern in fundamentalist religious communities.

But are there in fact traditional, Jewish, halakhic rules on modesty? Yes. There indeed are some guidelines in traditional rabbinical literature on modesty that we can learn from, we just should learn about these rules in their historical context.  Some great resources include:

The Observant Life: The Wisdom of Conservative Judaism for Contemporary Jews, Ed. Martin S. Cohen, especially the chapyer “Public Appearance and Behavior” by Rabbi Gordon Tucker.

 

This quote, without specifics on clothing, gives a Jewish perspective to the idea of modesty:

Kedusha is one of the most important aspects of tz‟niut; “privacy,” “modesty” are not expressions of contempt for the body, the physical, but on the contrary, expressions of their kedusha (holiness). A Torah scroll, for example, is covered, because of its high degree of kedusha. A woman‟s body – as well as a man‟s – is covered, because it is kadosh. The most intimate physical relation between man and woman is reserved, private, not for public display, and not for anytime, anywhere, with anyone – because it is kadosh, special, apart.

As Zalman Posner points out, tz‟niut “is not a question of a bit of cloth, it is a life-mode, perhaps the bedrock of Judaism.” It has not to do with just hemlines or head coverings, but with thought, speech, sexual relations – our sense of who and what we basically are, a sense that our personhood is kadosh, inviolate. The body is not a piece of property, an object to be disposed of casually; it, too, is an integral part of the sanctity of personhood, the kedusha of the Jew.

– Shaina Handelman, “The Paradoxes of Privacy,” Sh‟ma, November 1978

Another great resource is this CJLS responsa “Modesty Inside and Out: A Contemporary Guide to Tzniut”, by Rabbis David Booth, Ashira Konigsburg, and Baruch Frydman-Kohl

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Excerpt

The choice of clothing is one key area of modest practice. Halakhic literature offers several broad descriptions of appropriate dress, but nowhere in rabbinic literature prior to the 20th century can one find specific and complete dress codes as we find today.

While the Talmud, Rishonim, and Aharonim describe and require certain ritual attire or distinctively Jewish dress, they do not describe any requirements more specific than that married women must cover their hair. Much of the literature focuses on situations and clothing that arouse sexual feelings, what is appropriate in public settings versus private settings, and the response of the viewer.

Although rabbinic sources describe many actions as exposing ervah,22 the minimum requirement of modesty is to cover genitalia and anus. This limit depends on two Torah passages, Deuteronomy 23:13-15 and Leviticus 18-20. The Torah prohibits the uncovering of nakedness, or ervah.

The holiness code of Leviticus similarly prohibits לגלות ערוה , often translated as “to uncover nakedness” of someone.

וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־יִקַח אֶת־אֲחֹתוֹ בַת־אָבִיו אוֹ בַת־אִמוֹ וְרָאָה אֶת־עֶרְוָתָהּ וְהִיא־תִרְאֶה אֶת־עֶ רוָתוֹ חֶסֶד הוּא
וְנִכְרְתוּ לְ עי ני בְ ני עַמָם עֶרְוַת אֲחֹתוֹ גִלָה עֲוֹנוֹ יִשָא…
וְעֶרְוַת אֲחוֹת אִמְך וַאֲחוֹת אָבִיך לאֹ תְגַ לה כִי אֶת־שְׁ ארוֹ הֶעֱרָה עֲוֹנָם יִשָאוּ:

If a man takes his sister and sees her ervah, and she sees his ervah, it is a disgrace….23 He has uncovered his sister’s ervah, he bears his guilt. … You shall not uncover the ervah of your mother’s sister or of your father’s sister, for that is to expose one’s own flesh; they bear their guilt…. (Leviticus 20:17-19)

Reading the two sources together suggests that ervah means specifically the genitals. The punishment in Leviticus is for one who exposes their reproductive organs. Similarly, the organs for urination and defecation must remain covered while in the camp. Brown, Driver, Briggs in their biblical lexicon define ervah as “pudenda,” meaning genitalia.24

According to Rabbis Karo and Isserles, there is no specific body part that needs to be clothed. Rather, it is dependent on context and how people usually behave or dress. 29

As a result, cultural norms have halakhic significance for determining appropriate dress. In a context where it is normal to go swimming in a bathing suit, for example, such behavior is permissible. A man wearing a bathing suit in a business environment is problematic because it is so different to the typical office attire and so will draw the eye. Flapper dresses in the 1920s were initially quite shocking; as society became accustomed to the style, the dresses began to be seen as appropriate.

Shorts or sleeveless tops for men or women may be inappropriate, depending on the context, because they raise similar issues of context and modesty. That is, a tank top might be appropriate at the beach but not in shul, in part, because it surprises. The change in people’s expectations affects their perception of modesty and appropriate attire. By the same token, a person has a responsibility to others and should choose clothing suitable to the context.

One might assume that as women’s breasts in our culture are often hyper-sexualized they must certainly constitute ervah. But this assumption is mistaken. For example, because of the commonplace occurrence of breastfeeding, Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad (known as Ben Ish Hai, 1835 – 1909) considered the exposed breasts of a nursing mother as any other normally exposed body part.

י”א כיון דהאשה דרכה לגלות דדיה בזמן היניקה הרי הדדים נחשבים אותו זמן כמו כפות
הידים והפנים :

There are those who say that since it is her practice to uncover her breasts while nursing, a woman’s breasts in at the time of nursing are just as though they were the palms of her hand or her face. 30  For the Ben Ish Hai, a nursing woman’s breasts are without sexual connotation.

(Footnote 29) Within much of the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox sources, the covering of thighs and shoulders is asserted as a biblical ordained halakhah. Please note, however, that Rabbi Avrahom Karelitz (Hazon Ish) in the 1920s is the first person to suggest that thighs and shoulders must be covered to be modest outside of a prayer context.

Modesty Inside and Out: A Contemporary Guide to Tzniut 
Rabbis David Booth, Ashira Konigsburg, and Baruch Frydman-Kohl

Modern Orthodox responses

Rabbi Josh Yuter – Jan 9, 2012

The topic of “tzniut” or “modesty” has recently become a prominent point of discussion in the Jewish community… the common theme… is almost exclusively framing the issue in the context of women. In particular, modesty is most frequently defined in terms of how women ought to dress, how a woman is supposed to behave, and in some general instances the appropriate role of women in Jewish if not secular society. With this focus on women, it is not surprising that tzniut/modesty is almost exclusively construed as a sexual ethic.

In this shiur I challenge this assumption by approaching the topic of modesty not from the socially defined understanding of tzniut, but rather how and when the root “צנע” is used in the Talmud. While the term is certainly used in the context of female sexuality or displays of femininity (B. Ketuvot 3b, B. Berachot 8b, B. Shabbat 113b, B. Sotah 49b), the Rabbinic tradition also applies tzniut to men as it pertains to his relationship with his wife (B. Shabbat 53b) and his mode of dress (B. Menachot 43a).

Furthermore, the ethic of tzniut is asserted in the contexts of going to the bathroom (B. Berachot 8b, 62a), eating (B. Berachot 8b), not displaying one’s wealth (B. Pesachim 113a), and even religious observance (M. Ma’aser Sheni 5:1, B. Sukkah 49b/B. Makkot 24a).

Given the contextual range of the root צנע, I suggest that tzniut in the Rabbinic tradition may best be described not as a sexual ethic at all (let alone a female one), but a general attitude of behavior of which sexual behavior is only one component. In other words, the true Jewish ethos of modesty does not exclusively pertain to sexuality, but rather reflects a universal ethic, one which is equally applicable to men and women in all facets of life.

Current Jewish Questions on Tzniut Modesty. Josh Yuter.

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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”

Separating a Person from their work: What do we do with Carlebach’s music?

A provocative and important article from WhoKnowsOneBlog

One of the more obscure ‘secrets’ of the Jewish community involves the legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Anyone who has been to a Friday night prayer service has almost certainly sung some of the many tunes composed by Carlebach. Many have heard stories of his unique ability to bring people closer to Judaism by focusing on the unique, spiritual potential of every individual. What is not as well-known about Carlebach, however, is that he allegedly committed an almost unfathomable number of sexual assaults.

….What do we do with his legacy — specifically his music which has become a staple in the Jewish community? Phrased a bit differently, I think that this is a good case-study of whether or not we can separate a morally deficient person or event from the “objective” work that they produce.

Separating a Person from their work: What do we do with Carlebach’s music?

Homosexuality

In Jewish thought, sexuality has both a positive and negative potential, depending on the context in which it is expressed. The commandment to procreate is the first mitzvah in the Torah. Yet aside from procreation, Judiasm recognizes that sexual need (Yitzra De’arayot) are essential.

 

Traditional understanding

The Bible seems to explicitly prohibit homosexuality in the strongest terms. See Leviticus ch. 18, v. 22: Do not mishkevei ‘ishshah (“lie with a male as one lies with a woman”) it is an abomination.” However, this applies only to men, not to women, and arguably, like the laws against getting a tattoo or eating shellfish, may indeed apply only to Israelite/Jewish men.  As such, the Torah isn’t prohibiting all homosexuality in terms of feelings and actions; it is restricting a specific act between Jewish men.

Understanding the verse in context

The JPS Torah Commentary – Leviticus. Commentary by Dr. Rabbi Baruch Levine.

Leviticus 18:22 – Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman.

Hebrew mishkevei ‘ishshah means literally “after the manner of lying with a woman” by the introduction of the male member. Male homosexuality is associated with the ancient Canaanites, if we are to judge from biblical literature. Two biblical narratives highlight this theme, one about the men of Sodom in Genesis 19, and the other concerning the fate of the concubine at Gibeah in Judges 19. Although Gibeah was an Israelite town, the story clearly implies that Gibeah’s Israelite residents had descended to the abominable ways of the surrounding Canaanites.

Both of these accounts place the phenomenon of male homosexuality in a particular context: xenophobia. This extreme fear of strangers induces a community to attack visitors. In both of the stories cited here, the form of attack was homosexual assault. It is also thought that the pagan priests, called kedeshim, regularly engaged in homosexual acts (cf. Deut 23:18; I Kings 14:24; and Job 38:14). The term mehir kelev, “the pay of a dog,” mentioned in Deuteronomy 23:18-19, refers to the wages of a male prostitute, who usually serviced men, not women, in ancient societies.

Male homosexuality is called to’evah, “abhorrence, abomination,” a term that occurs frequently in the admonitions of Deuteromony. It occurs no fewer than four times in this concluding section of our chapter. In Genesis 46:34 and Exodus 8:22, it serves to characterize what Egyptians considered abhorrent, principally pastoral pursuits (This was suggested by W. F. Albright in From the Stone Age to Christianity, 423f).

There has been considerable speculation as to why lesbianism is not explicity forbidden in the Torah. In due course, rabbinic interpretation added this prohibition, as well (See The Code of Maimonides: The Book of Holiness (Book V), trans. L. I. Rabinowitz and P. Grossman, 135).

Non-halakhic bigotry towards homosexual women and men

(section to be written)

Nothing shows the hypocrisy and illiteracy shown by some religious believers towards homosexuality better than this photo.

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Conservative Jewish responses

Homosexuality, Human Dignity and halakhah: A Combined responsum for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. By Rabbis Elliot N. Dorff, Daniel S. Nevins and Avram I. Reisner

Homosexuality, Human dignity, and Halakhah

Homosexuality, Choice, and Jewish Law: If homosexuality is not chosen, then there is precedent in Jewish law for condoning it. By Rabbi Elliot Dorff, from Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics, Jewish Publication Society

Homosexuality, Choice, and Jewish Law:

“Dear David – Homosexual Relationships: A Halakhic Investigation” by Rabbi Simchah Roth.  http://www.bmv.org.il/ab/dd.asp

Orthodox Jewish responses

I. Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community

Recently a number of Orthodox rabbis and educators have been preparing a statement of principles on the place of our brothers and sisters in our community who have a homosexual orientation. The original draft was prepared by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot. It was then commented upon by and revised based on the input from dozens of talmidei chachamim, educators, communal rabbis, mental health professionals and a number of individuals in our community who are homosexual in orientation. Significant revisions were made based upon the input of Rabbi Aryeh Klapper and Rabbi Yitzchak Blau …

Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community

We, the undersigned Orthodox rabbis, rashei yeshiva, ramim, Jewish educators and communal leaders affirm the following principles with regard to the place of Jews with a homosexual orientation in our community ….

Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community

II. Hakirah, Metzitzah, and More.
By Marc B. Shapiro, Modern Orthodox rabbi and historian of Judaism

http://seforim.blogspot.com/2013/01/hakirah-metzitzah-and-more.html

Hakirah has performed a valuable service in dealing forthrightly with the matter of homosexuality. Issue no. 13 (2012) contains R. Chaim Rapoport’s “Judaism and Homosexuality: An Alternative Rabbinic View,” which I think is an outstanding presentation of the alternative to what has seemingly become the “official” haredi position in this matter. This “official” position is, in my opinion, so misguided that I would like to say a few words on the topic, since R. Rapoport did not go far enough in his criticism.

To remind readers, Hakirah no. 12 had a discussion on homosexuality with R. Shmuel Kamenetsky. This was followed by the publication of a document signed by many rabbis which follows R. Kamenetsky’s approach. It is available here. (The document is also signed by an assortment of mental health professionals,  rebbitzens and “community organizers”.)

There are so many problems with the approach found in this document (called a “Torah Declaration”), some already noted by R. Rapoport in his response to R. Kamenetsky, that it would take a lengthy piece to go through them all. Let me just call attention to a few points that I don’t think have been made yet. To begin with, while many rabbis have signed this document, including a number that I know personally, I have yet to speak to someone who actually believes what the document says, and this includes the people who have signed it!

Many will regard what I have just said as pretty shocking, in that I have declared that people who signed the document do not believe what it says. Yet I know this to be true, at least with regard to some of the signatories (those that I know personally), and I suspect that other than R. Kamenetsky, it might be that no one who signed the document really believes what it says (and it wouldn’t be the first time that people sign declarations that they really don’t believe in).

Let me explain what I mean. According to the document,

Same-Sex Attractions Can Be Modified And Healed. From a Torah perspective, the question whether homosexual inclinations and behaviors are changeable is extremely relevant. . . . We emphatically reject the notion that a homosexually inclined person cannot overcome his or her inclination and desire. . . . The only viable course of action that is consistent with the Torah is therapy and teshuvah. The therapy consists of reinforcing the natural gender-identity of the individual by helping him or her understand and repair the emotional wounds that led to its disorientation and weakening, thus enabling the resumption and completion of the individual’s emotional development.

The ideas just quoted are the very foundation of the Torah Declaration, and as we see in his Hakirah interview, R. Kamenetsky has been convinced by the dubious proposition that homosexuals can change their sexual orientation. He goes so far as to say that “no one is born gay with an inability to change” (p. 34 [emphasis added]. Not long after the appearance of the interview and the Torah Declaration, the man most prominently identified with the notion that gays can change publicly rejected his earlier viewpoint.)

Whether people can change their sexual orientation is a scientific or psychological issue, no more and no less. The first objectionable point of R. Kamenetsky’s approach is turning this into a matter of theology. Indeed, R. Kamenetsky has created a new dogma in Orthodoxy. According to him, believing that a homosexual can change his orientation is a basic Torah value. The reason for this is stated in the document: “The Torah does not forbid something which is impossible to avoid. Abandoning people to lifelong loneliness and despair by denying all hope of overcoming and healing their same-sex attraction is heartlessly cruel. Such an attitude also violates the biblical prohibition in Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:14 “and you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.”[1]

There you have it. Human beings are deciding what God can and cannot do and declaring that it is impossible for someone to be created with an inalterable homosexual nature. That this is completely incorrect is acknowledged by none other than the most extreme advocates of reparative therapy. They themselves acknowledge that there is a significant percentage of people who cannot change their orientation. They have never claimed that everyone can change. What the document gives us, therefore, is a theological statement that is rejected by all scientists and psychologists, including the ones who provide the very basis for reparative therapy. That itself should be reason enough to reject it. (On Nov. 29, 2012 the RCA acknowledged “the lack of scientifically rigorous studies that support the effectiveness of therapies to change sexual orientation.” See here.)

 

III. Homosexuality: Another Orthodox Perspective

Rabbi Gil Student presented without debate this guest post by Dr. Alan Jotkowitz

A modern scientific approach to homosexuality maintains that for most (if not all) homosexuals, change therapy is at best useless and can be harmful. In addition, there is a strong biological and genetic component to the same sex attraction. Psychoanalytical theories of homosexual tendencies due to family conflicts or arrested development have not held up to scientific scrutiny. If this is the case, can halakhah then relate to the homosexual in a different way? Clearly, Rabbi Feinstein’s approach of homosexuality as a willful rebellion against God does not ring true to modern sentiments and while Rabbi Lamm’s view of acting under duress eliminates the punitive aspect, it still maintains that homosexuality is at best a mental illness.

The Noda Bi-Yehudah has suggested that there is a halakhic category called “Shoteh Li-Dvar Echad,” someone mentally incompetent on a single issue. He writes in the context of a responsum on the famous Get of Kleiv case:

A Shoteh Li-Dvar Echad, even if it is not one of the things mentioned in Chagigah, and is not considered a shoteh because he has no signs of those things [mentioned in Chagigah], is not considered a shoteh in general. However, for that thing that disturbs his mind and with which he is obsessed, it is clear that for everything related to that thing he is considered a shoteh. Therefore, mitzvoth related to that thing are not relevant to him, even though for all other mitzvoth he is considered a wise man [and obligated in them] [6]

Rabbi Moshe Farbenstein explains, “the Noda Bi-Yehudah has originated a new idea, and writes that a Shoteh Li-Dvar Echad is exempt from individual mitzvoth that relate to his specific condition and is obligated in all other mitzvoth.” [7]

Can one extend this idea of the Noda Bi-Yehudah to other areas which are biologically driven but not necessarily considered mental illness (and just to be absolutely clear I am in no way suggesting that homosexuality is a mental illness)?

If the basis of the Noda Bi-Yehudah is that someone who cannot prevent his behavior in a specific area is not obligated in mitzvoth related to that area, can one then apply that principle to biologically driven homosexuality? I am aware that this is an enormous intellectual leap but it might play a role in relating halakhically to any rabbinically prohibited acts that might occur in private between homosexuals.
Can one perhaps use this approach (or others along these lines) in adapting an inclusivist Orthodox approach towards homosexuality?

http://www.torahmusings.com/2013/05/homosexuality-another-orthodox-perspective/

Traditional Talmud and Responsa solutions

Masorti Rabbi Simchah Roth (זכר צדיק לברכה) gives us a halakhic solution, straight from the Talmud, Tosafists, and other major rabbinic commentators.
__________

Seemingly, the Torah is quite adamant about male homosexuality. In two verses in Leviticus it makes categorical statements:

You shall not lie with a male as with a women: it is an atrocity [18:22]. Any man who lies with a male as with a woman – both of them have committed an atrocity; they shall dies and their blood is upon them [20:13].

Some of the terms used in these verses are not as clear in the Hebrew as they appear to be in their English rendition. However, I am not going to expatiate on these difficulties since they are not germane to my present purpose. However, one term which seems to be perfectly clear presents a difficulty to the sages, and that word is the one I have rendered as “atrocity”.

The Gemara [Nedarim 51a] brings the following discussion between Shim’on bar-Kappara and Rabbi [Judah, the president of the Sanhedrin]. (A reminder: Rabbi Judah was one of the greatest of the sages of all time, and he is the editor of the Mishnah that we are studying. The Mishnah was published at the very beginning of the third century CE.) The scene is at the wedding celebration of one of Rabbi’s sons.

During the celebration the two sages, who were also very good friends, got to discussing Torah. Bar-Kappara asked Rabbi how he understood the word To’evah, “atrocity”. (I shall return later to my guess as to why Bar-Kappara suddenly referred to this word: the continuation of the passage makes it quite clear that the question was asked in the context of Leviticus 18.)

Every interpretation of To’evah offered by Rabbi was shot down by Bar-Kappara. Finally Rabbi said, “So you interpret it!” He replied … “This is what God says [in the Torah]: To’evah – ‘You go astray in respect of her'”. [Nedarim 51a]

It is quite clear from the Hebrew original that Bar-Kappara’s interpretation is a play on words, since the Hebrew phrase that I have translated “You go astray in respect of her” sounds like the Hebrew term To’evah, ‘atrocity’.

But what does Bar-Kappara mean? Rashi [Rabbi Shelomo Yitzĥaki, Western Europe 11th century CE] gives an explanation that does not seem to make any sense in the context:
“‘You go astray’ in that you forsake your legal spouse and take this [female] prostitute instead” – unless his words should be understood (somewhat forcedly) as “that you forsake your legal spouse and take this road of fornication instead”.

The Tosafists [a school of West European sages that was active during more than 200 years from about 1150 to about 1350 CE] are much clearer:
“‘You go astray’ – in that you forsake your wife for male homosexuality”.

Their words are repeated verbatim by the Rosh [Rabbi Asher ben-Yeĥiel, Germany and Spain, 1250-1327 CE]. Ran [Rabbi Nissim Gerondi, Spain, 14th century CE] also understands Bar-Kappara as forsaking a spouse for male homosexuality.

What is interesting about all these interpretations of the words of Bar-Kappara is that they understand him to be referring to a man married to a woman. I suspect that they were influenced in this by another aspect of the original account in the Gemara (which might also explain why Bar-Kappara asked Rabbi about this Biblical term in particular during the wedding feast). The Gemara tells us that Rabbi, himself a millionaire, had married off his daughter to another millionaire. His son-in-law, Ben-El’assa, seems to have been an effeminate fop, who spent an enormous sum of money on a special hair-do. Ben-El’assa was party to this conversation between Rabbi and Bar-Kappara, and it made him so angry that he left the celebration in a huff, dragging his wife in his wake. Surely, it does not require too great a stretch of imagination to see that Bar-Kappara deliberately asked his friend to explain this term in order to gently berate him at having married off his daughter to money in an unhappy marriage because her husband had obvious preferences.

Be all this as it may, one thing is clear. And that is that Bar-Kappara, Rashi, the Tosafists, the Rosh and the Ran all see that the “You” of the Biblical verse [You shall not lie with a male as with a women: it is an atrocity] as referring to a man married to a woman.

Here is the means by which latter-day sages could (if they wished to) remove most forms of male homosexuality from the list of capital crimes. It has all the outer forms used by the Tannaïm: most important of all, it leaves the text of the Torah untouched and unchanged and still valid. It simply restricts in drastic manner the possible application of the text. This is a maneuver that we have seen practiced many a time and oft – and we shall see it practiced again and again in the near future as regards other aspects of our present Mishnah.

Commentary on Talmud Sanhedrin, with proposed halakhic solution.

 

Mamzer

A mamzer (ממזר‎‎) is a person born from certain relationships forbidden by Jewish law. The common English translation is “bastard”, which has some similarities to a mamzer, but it is not the same as “illegitimacy.” Jewish law does not consider a child illegitimate if the mother happens to have been unmarried. As such, to avoid confusion we do not use “bastard” as a translation. We simply use the Hebrew word.

A mamzer is a person born out of adultery by a married Jewish woman and a Jewish man who is not her husband, or a person born out of incest.

Mamzer status is not synonymous with illegitimacy, since it does not include children whose mothers were unmarried.

Biblical origin

A mamzer (ממזר‎‎) shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD.
— Deuteronomy 23:2

Understanding of this term in rabbinical Judaism

A mamzer is the offspring of a biblically forbidden union (Yevamot 4, Mishnah 13: “כל שחיבין עליו כרת בידי שמים”. – Circa 200 CE

According to the Shulchan Aruch, a mamzer can only be produced by two Jews (Shulchan Aruch, “Even haEzer” 4:19). Circa 1560’s CE

A child born of a married woman’s adultery is a mamzer. The child of a single woman and a man she could lawfully have married is not a mamzer (Shulchan Aruch E. H. 4.) It is irrelevant if the man is married or not.

If one of the parents is not Jewish then the child can’t be a mamzer.

In order to make certain that almost no child would have the status of mamzer, the rabbis canonized legal fictions that prevented the term from being used in many cases, for instance:

A child born within 12 months of a woman’s most recent meeting with her husband is presumed to be legitimate (Shulkhan Arukh 4:14)

Any child born to a married woman, even if she is known to have been unfaithful, is nonetheless halakhically presumed to be her husband’s (Shulchan Aruch, “Even haEzer” 4:15)

In the last century, much of the Orthodox Jewish community has made significant, and some would say harmful, changes to Jewish law on this issue. People being educated in Orthodox yeshivas are no longer even taught the wide array of traditional views on the subject, and students graduating even as rabbis are unaware that halakha has a “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy on this subject: It is literally forbidden to ask if someone is a mamzer.

The concept of mamzerim was discussed in the Rabin Mishna Study Group: Daily Mishnah Study in the climate of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism. Rabin Mishnah Study Group, by Rabbi Simchah Roth.

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Mamzer: A person who was born of parents who were prohibited from marrying each other by Torah law. For this reason translations such as “bastard” and “illegitimate” are misleading. In western law a bastard is a person whose parents did not happen to be married at the time of his birth. A Mamzer [or Mamzeret] is a person whose parents were prohibited by Torah law from marrying at the time of her conception; the parents could not have married even if they had wanted to. The main cause of mamzerut is adultery by the woman.

The non-adulterous union of a Kohen with a woman otherwise prohibited to him, does not cause mamzerut. (Many Conservative rabbis today consider the restrictions on the marriageability of a Kohen to be obsolete, and they have substantial halakhic reasons to support their opinion. In any case, this has nothing to do with mamzerut.)

Halakhically speaking, the ‘mamzer’ suffers no disabilities except one: a ‘mamzer’ can only marry a ‘mamzeret’ (and vice-versa) and their descendents will be ‘mamzerim’ in perpetuum! This is such a terrible situation for a human being to find himself in that not only Conservative rabbis, but all decent-minded rabbis, make every effort to obviate the situation. This cannot be done, halakhically, by erasing the status as if it did not exist; the best approach has always been to find some valid reason why the person is not, in fact, a ‘mamzer’ as at first thought.

Halakhic solutions which get rid of the problem:

Solution #1

Rabbi Tarfon says that Mamzerim can become rehabilitated. How? If a Mamzer marries a Canaanite servant-woman [shifchah kena’anit] the offspring will be a Canaanite servant [Eved kena’ani]. If he grants the servant manumission his son has become a free man. Rabbi Eliezer says that he is but a Canaanite servant who is also a mamzer! (His suggestion was feasible only in his time.
Rabbi Tarfon says that a mamzer can become rehabilitated. The Hebrew word that I have translated thus is “litaher”, which really means “can become purified” or “purged” – of
the taint of mamzerut. We learned at the end of the previous mishnah that the offspring of both the Canaanite servant and the mamzer take their status from the mother.
[Unlike Jewish servants, under Torah law non-Jews held in service to Jews are partially “Jewish” and can regain their freedom only by manumission. The status of the Eved Kena’ani and the Shifchah Kena’anit was amply discussed on RMSG between 16th November and 5th December.]

Rabbi Tarfon’s idea is that if a free Jewish man who is also a mamzer takes a gentile woman as his Canaanite servant and has a child by her, the child is automatically also a Canaanite servant. The father, who is also the master, has the right to grant his slave-son his freedom at any time. The son, upon being manumitted, becomes a fully-fledged Jew and can marry any Jewish woman he chooses! I suppose that in Rabbi Tarfon’s time this was ‘neat’. I wonder whether anyone noticed that it only solved half the problem: a mamzeret could not ‘pull the same stunt’ by marrying an Eved Kena’ani, since her offspring would take her status. Rabbi Tarfon’s elder contemporary, Rabbi Eliezer, denies the feasibility of the halakhic ‘trick’.

The Gemara [Kiddushin 69a] discusses whether Rabbi Tarfon’s proposal is acceptable ‘a priori’ – as a valid halakhic procedure in all cases. The final conclusion is that this is the case and that the halakhah is according to Rabbi Tarfon (and not according to Rabbi Eliezer).

Something to think about: All lines of descent from antiquity are suspect…Given the long tumultuous history of the Jews, there were many periods when records of personal status were not kept accurately, and certainly not universally from community to community. People of mamzer ancestry definitely married within the general Jewish community without the community realizing it.

In fact, in Temple times no Kohen was permitted to officiate in the Bet Mikdash unless he had a certified pedigree lodged in the Temple secretariat. All others who claimed to be kohanim (let’s say because their father told them so) but could not bring authorized proof of their status, were still considered to be priests, but could not officiate as such. This is the status of ALL kohanim today.

Question: Hmm, might this not this mean that we are all mamzerim?

No! In Western jurisprudence there is a basic ‘presumption’ – that all people are innocent of wrongdoing, and even those accused of a crime benefit from this presumption until it has been conclusively proven to be untenable in a duly constituted court of law. This is what we call the ‘presumption of innocence’.

In halakhah there is a similar presumption as regards personal status: “kol Yehudi be-chezkat kasher” – every Jew is presumed to be of unblemished pedigree unless there are solid and factual reasons for denying him or her the benefit of that presumption.

Cf. Rambam Issurei Biah 19:17; Tur Even ha-Ezer 2, Bet Yossef Even ha-Eezer 2:2:a, Shulchan Aruk ibid.

Solution #2

Another “cure” for mamzerut is “assimilation” – and it is the obvious solution for our own times. This matter is deliberated in the Gemara, Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 71a, as part of the discussion on the first mishnah of Chapter Four. The Jews of Babylon were of the opinion that the Jews in Eretz-Israel were not as meticulous as they should have been concerning the ‘kashrut’ of families suspected of not having a pure Jewish pedigree. Rabbi Yochanan, probably the most influential and most prestigious of the Amoraim of Eretz-Israel (he died around the end of the third century C.E.) virtually admits the accusation … “but what can I do about such a family, seeing that some of the most illustrious people of our age have assimilated into it?” The Gemara explains that Rabbi Yochanan is of the opinion that “once a family [of impure pedigree] has become assimilated [into the fabric of Jewish society] – it is assimilated [and accepted]”.

This opinion became accepted halakhah! Rambam [Maimonides] codifies as follows:

“If an impure element mixes in the pedigree of a family, and this fact is not generally known, ‘once it has assimilated, it has assimilated. Anyone who knows of this is *forbidden* to publish the information, but must let the family continue in its presumption of unblemished pedigree.”

Solution #3

We must also recall the famous dictum of Rabbi Yehoshu’a ben Levi [Kiddushin 71a, top] that “money purifies mamzerim” [“kessef metaher mamzerim”].

Rashi interprets this extraordinary statement as follows: when mamzerim become affluent, other people cease to be concerned with the blemish on their pedigree! Another interpretation from the Middle Ages links the Hebrew word “kessef” with the same root in Aramaic which also means “to blanch with shame”: if mamzerim are ashamed of their status and ‘keep it quiet’ they will soon assimilate and the status will disappear.

Solution #4

Most rabbis would keep no records of presumed mamzerut, would do their best to prove that the person was not a mamzer (as did Goren), and the mamzer would do well to move to an area where he/she was not known, so that they could eventually assimilate into the general community, as we have previously discussed. If the matter is not known it will not be a problem.

The possibilities that exist for modern mamzerim who are _aware_ of their halakhic status are:

(1) to refrain from procreation altogether so as to prevent this “curse” falling upon a new generation;

(2) to brazenly ignore the halakhah altogether;

(3) to procreate with a life-partner “without benefit of clergy” (i.e. without Chuppah and Kiddushin);

(4) to reside in an area where their relative anonymity can be maintained and their halakhic status is unknown, to choose a life-partner and to procreate with that life-partner after Chuppah and Kiddushin have been performed.

I do not believe that as Conservative rabbis we have the power to demand option #(1), so I do not see the point in discussing its ethical aspects. We cannot condone option #(2). So we have to choose between options (3) and (4). I know which option I would prefer. [ #4 ]

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Morality, Halakha and the Jewish Tradition

Ethical kashrut

Ethical & Sustainable Kashrut

Some religious Jews separate certain technical laws of kashrut from the rest of Torah. They determine if a kosher food company is acceptable only if a small number of mitzvot, especially about slaughter and inspection, are followed. People in this school of thought believe that this is a “traditional” or “Orthodox” position.

Others, influenced by teaches such as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi advocate integrating kashrut to include all Torah mitzvot. This would include mitzvot related to ecological considerations, humane treatment of workers, and humane treatment of animals.

Hazon has collected information on a number of companies who make sustainable, kosher food products.

Recent scandals in the kosher meat world have led many to reconsider what kosher meat really means. While we might have at one time assumed that kosher meat was healthier and more sustainable, in fact most kosher meat is raised the same as conventional non-kosher meat.However, a small number of crusaders have launched companies to make sustainably raised kosher meat available ….as more and more people are looking for meat that meets their standards of kashrut, as well as environmental sustainability, worker treatment and animal welfare, these companies are in the right place at the right time.

Green Pastures Poultry: Founded by Ariella Reback in Cleveland, Ohio, this company offers chicken, duck, turkey, and free-range eggs. Green Pastures Poultry can also help you organize an on-farm slaughter with your community.

Grow and Behold Foods: Founded by Naf and Anna Hanau, Grow and Behold Foods currently offers pasture-raised chicken under the product line Sara’s Spring Chicken, delivered fresh in the New York, Boston and Philadelphia areas.

http://www.growandbehold.com/

KOL Foods: Founded by Devora Kimmelman Block in the Washington, DC area, KOL Foods (which stands for “Kosher Organic Local” offers grass-fed beef, lamb and poultry, shipped frozen nation-wide.  http://www.kolfoods.com/

Wise Organic Pastures believes that animals should be treated with dignity and allowed to roam free. Meat is no place for antibiotics or hormones or pesticides. Families, not big business, make the best farmers and that the quality and purity of the foods we eat is not negotiable. Heksher: Crown Heights Kosher and OU. Products: Chicken, Turkey, and Beef. Distribution: Online shipping is available. Contact:info@wiseorganicpastures.com or 718-596-0400

Kosher Sustainable Meat : Hazon

Another major player in ethical kashrut is Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization guided by Torah values and dedicated to combating suffering and oppression.

Through community based education, leadership development and action, Uri L’Tzedek creates discourse, inspires leaders, and empowers the Jewish community towards creating a more just world. Tav HaYosher, launched by Uri L’Tzedek, is a local, grassroots initiative to bring workers, restaurant owners and community members together to create just workplaces in kosher restaurants.

Thousands of workers are paid below minimum wage. Even more are denied their legal rights to overtime pay and time off. Workers are often subjected to unsafe and abusive working conditions.
There are three standards that a restaurant must meet to qualify for the Tav HaYosher:
The right to fair pay.
The right to fair time.
The right to a safe work environment

Launched by Uri L’Tzedek, the Tav HaYosher is an initiative to bring workers, restaurant owners and community members together to create just workplaces in kosher restaurants.
The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute is a Jewish animal welfare organization that educates leaders, trains advocates, and leads campaigns for the ethical treatment of animals.

Video interview on Jewish Social Justice and Kashrut: PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

oil turned into plastic spoon and then thrown away

Related resources

The Magen Tzedek Commission has developed a food certification program that combines the rabbinic tradition of Torah with Jewish values of social justice, assuring consumers and retailers that kosher food products have been produced in keeping with exemplary Jewish ethics in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity. From Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Assembly.  Magen Tzedek.org
What Is Next for Kosher Living? Modern Orthodox group takes up one aspect of eco-Kashrut.  What’s next for kosher living?