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Tuesday, December 21, 2004

A fish in a tree

I recently had the pleasure of a brief email exchange with a Jerusalem blogger whom I’ve been admiring from afar.

I’ve actually been enjoying Rahel’s blog ‘Elms in the Yard’ since around the time of the great Anglo-Israeli blogmeet last September, but since she doesn’t allow comments on her site (and I’d been too lazy and self-absorbed to actually send her an email), I’m sure she had no idea I’d become a big fan.

One of the reasons I love Rahel’s blog is that it has forced me to examine many of my long held convictions about gender roles in Jewish law, Jewish observance and good old-fashioned tradition. She doesn’t always write about women’s issues… in fact such topics are more of a sub-text on her blog. The topics about which she chooses to write are actually quite varied, but have the common theme of trying to advance and illuminate goodness in the world... an important (and seldom assumed) task if ever there was one.

Most long-time readers of treppenwitz are aware that I became more religiously observant in my late teens… an age when most observant Jews are completing their formal religious education, not just setting out. As a result of my many insecurities and lack of extensive textual knowledge, I take great pains to always stay very close to what I perceive to be the more centrist position when choosing among the wide range of ‘minhagim’ (traditions) and interpretations of Halakha (a very broad term encompassing the sum of Jewish Law).

Over the twenty-something years that I have been observant, I have noticed that I tend to become uncomfortable when dealing with people and ideas that ‘push the envelope’ towards either of the extremes of Jewish observance (right or left).

Many people don’t realize that halakha is actually quite elastic, and that it has evolved dramatically throughout the history of the Jewish people. However, to those who view halakha through a lens of months or even a few years, it probably seems quite static and inflexible.

The downside is that those who have been brave (or foolish) enough to place themselves on the cutting edge of Jewish law … pushing for subtle (and not-so-subtle) change based on prevailing conditions and ‘modern norms’… are often viewed during their lifetimes as, at best kooks, and at worst heretics.

Even worse, just because an individual or group attempts to push halakha and observance in a particular direction doesn’t necessarily mean they will be successful. It is only decades, or even centuries later that scholars can look back and discern whether a particular trend became incorporated into ‘normative’ Jewish practice or whether it became an aberration or even a cautionary tale against religious rebellion.

One of the things I’ve realized since I began reading Rahel’s blog is that I have made many of my decisions about my own level of religious observance based on wanting to be in the center (what the Rambam – Maimonides called the ‘golden mean’)… and more specifically not wanting to be perceived as being near one of the extremes.

The best way for me to explain this is to compare Jewish observance to walking through a house with all the lights out. If it’s your house and you are intimately familiar with every nook and cranny, you probably have no problem navigating easily through the rooms, and even the more obscure corners, without bumping into something. But if you are in an unfamiliar house... say an extended stay in a friend’s home… you may not trust your recollection of where the furniture and stairs are located once the lights are turned off.

For me, straying too far from the most widely accepted path of religious observance means risking barking my shins on something hard/sharp. To stretch the analogy to its breaking point, I worry that by not knowing the precise halakhic guidelines for why a controversial practice may be either permissible or problematic, I may transgress and fall down a darkened flight of stairs.

In one of her emails to me, Rahel said:

"I firmly believe that today’s committed Jews need to learn to distinguish between their personal comfort level and what halakha allows. Too many times I’ve heard people say, when confronted with an idea they’re not familiar with such as women reading from the Torah, wearing tallitot (prayer shawls), or the like, some variation of ‘I don’t care if halakha allows it. I don’t like it, so they shouldn’t do it’. In my opinion, that is intellectually dishonest, to say the least."

I get the impression from her blog that Rahel is comfortable in her role as a pioneer in the world of Jewish observance/law. I’ll be the first to admit that many of the ideas she espouses make me uncomfortable. But I will also freely admit that I don’t necessarily think she is wrong. It has taken me over two decades to arrive at a place where I can admit such a thing to myself.

However, for me to embrace all the ideas and practices that Rahel holds dear, would be like sprinting through an unfamiliar house with all the lights off. I’m sure I would eventually make it through… but as an 'Am Ha'aretz' (one who is largely ignorant of Jewish texts and practice), am I brave enough to risk all the bumps and bruises that would surely accompany such a dash in the dark?

In response to my request to publish exerpts from our correspondence, Rahel related some of the hateful and thoughtless things that have been said to her because of her opinions and practices. Apparently many of the people who claim extensive knowledge of the laws dealing with women’s roles in Judaism are somewhat less familiar with the laws of Loshon HaRah (‘guarding one’s tongue’) [my observation, not hers]. That is indeed unfortunate, and I cringe to think that sincere people like Rahel, who are not using Judaism as performance art or to advance a secular feminist agenda, are frequently denigrated and insulted without the opportunity to debate or defend their position in a scholarly environment.

I know from a comment she made in one of her emails that Rahel is not immune to the pain associated with constantly living on the cutting edge. She said that much of the time she felt "like a fish living in a tree." This off-hand remark from such a knowledgeable, deeply committed woman reinforced for me the difficulty of being part of a group struggling to affect change from within. It indicated that she is often excluded from orthodoxy’s warm embrace to which those of us in the center have become accustomed.

The question then is whether I am a traitor to my values (or at very least a coward) for allowing someone else to ‘take the heat’ for doing something that makes me uncomfortable... but which I do not consider objectionable?

Obviously, for women’s roles to continue evolving within the world of observant Judaism, someone has to be the vanguard. However, being part of a vanguard can be painful business. I became observant partly to seek the order and security of well-worn ritual. I’m just not sure I am brave enough to expose myself to the pain of living on the cutting edge... and potentially becoming 'another fish living in a tree'.

[Note: I have a small request to make. Before leaving a comment, please take a moment to note that this is not a discussion of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or any other form of Judaism. I have limited myself to that broad area known as Orthodox Judaism (although I intensely dislike the term "orthodox’). I welcome and encourage lively, repectful debate... but I would ask that before bringing up any issues you might have with orthodoxy, you remember that this is not an invitation to compare and contrast orthodoxy’s merits or flaws according to the viewpoints of the other movements, but rather a difficult topic within the orthodox world. Please be sensitive to that distinction. Thank you.]


Posted by David Bogner on December 21, 2004 | Permalink


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I'm getting confused at the moment about the different branches of Orthodox Judaism. Do Modern Orthodox, Chassidim etc disagree about the precise halakhic guidelines, or are their differences on some other level?

Thanks for this very interesting post. I love your idea about halkha being elastic- I think good rules have solid roots plus flexibility higher up- like a tree that sways in the wind.

Posted by: Alice | Dec 21, 2004 5:27:07 PM

Alice... As you've probably figured out, Jews don't agree on too many things. :-)

Within the spectrum of orthodoxy there are many traditions and interpretations of Jewish law. To list them all here would be a huge task (and way beyond my knowledge or ability). Most Orthodox Jews follow the Shulchan Aruch (literally ' The Set Table'), the compendium of Jewish law compiled by Rabbi Yosef Karo of Tzfat (in Israel) in the mid 1500s. It was complimented by a publication called the 'Mapa (literally 'the tablecloth') written by Rabbi Moshe Isserlis in Poland about 10 or 20 years later which gave specific guidance to what Ashkenazic Jews should be observing.

From there, just as in civil law, you have precedent-based opinions and rulings from later Rabbis and judges.

The label 'modern' or 'ultra' or anything in between should not be misinterpreted to suggest that some follow more or less of the rules... but rather that there are different levels of stringency in many aspects of Jewish law and observance.

Hope that gives you a nudge in the right direction.

Posted by: David | Dec 21, 2004 5:50:26 PM

Reading back over my reply to Alice I realized that it may appear to some that Jewish law didn't exist as a before the 1550s. This is obviously not the case. The Torah (written and oral laws) was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai and has been handed down from generation to generation ever since. However, each genration has had it's own unique issues based on the times and location and the rabbis have ruled according to their intellect and the collected wisdom of those who ruled before them. By the 1500s this body of legal rulings was quite unweildy and it became necessary to codify it into an organized form... and that's what Rabbi Karo did. Anyway... moving on...

Posted by: David | Dec 21, 2004 5:57:41 PM

there is a sefer called halichot besah that goes through the list of halachot pertaining to and discussed in detail. even so there are interesting questions raised as to the reasons why.

Posted by: dave | Dec 21, 2004 6:35:29 PM

So much of what we do is based upon minhag and is loosely based upon halachic interpretation. Much of it causes me to shake my head. One of the many things that makes me very comfortable in Jerusalem is the climate feels very similar to that of Los Angeles.

And in both places it is not unusual for there to be very hot days. On an exceptionally hot day it seems silly to me to dress like a 17th century Polish nobleman just because the minhag is to do so.

I have a hard time believing that the Besht would have wagged his finger at me for dressing in a style that was more comfortable and compatible with my environment.

I also have a problem with Kol Isha and the view of some that men cannot control our sexual desires. Got a meeting to run to, will try and return in a bit.

Posted by: Jack | Dec 21, 2004 6:49:56 PM

Dave... Thanks for the tip.

Jack... I have a funny mental image of you playing tackle football in the mud with your old frat buddies while wearing a long black coat and black nickers! :-)

Posted by: David | Dec 21, 2004 9:05:15 PM

May I ask what minhag is?

Are there different levels of Jewish law and its interpretation (?), or different ideas about what constitutes proper fulfilment of mitzvot, or just different methods of trying to ensure proper good behaviour somewhat indirectly, or (guessing maybe...) all of these?

Posted by: Alice | Dec 21, 2004 10:21:06 PM

For me, My general approach to halacha and Jewish observance has always been a combination of what is halachically acceptable according to my Rabbinic/halachic authority and what also "works" for me. For instance, what I mean, is that, when it comes to Jewish feminist issues, such as women's tefilah groups, aliyot to the torah, etc. I personally have no spiritual pull in that direction for myself. However, if someone else feels a need to expand their traditonal role & spiritual practice, and has the halachic authority/rabbinic shoulders to to rely upon, then "gezunte heit" (go in health). Meaning, "whatever floats your boat" as long as you have the halachic basis for what you are doing.

Part of our tradition is also a concept of "elu v'elu" - that there are many ways to understand various halachot, which lead us to various opinions when it comes to halachic rulings & practice (hence, "two jews, three opinions")

One of the things about halachic observance in the various orthodox communities in today's world that "gets my goat" is the lack of clarification between halacha, stringency in observance of halacha, and minhag (customary practice). These lines do tend to blur when you jump from community to community (for instance, according to some hasidic halachic authorities, it is an absolute requirement for married women to cover their hair with 2 coverings, while other halachic authorities rule that 2 coverings is an "enhancement" and 1 covering is all that is required - so to the hasidic person, 2 coverings is absolutely essential, while to the litvish person, that level is not required but an individual may accept that level of observance upon themselves as an enhancement).

Sometimes in the very stringent circles, people get caught up with minutias of practice, and treat them like absolute halacha - and they view anyone who does not follow that minhag as violating halacha. This is a problem that needs to be addressed. It is also related to the problem of children who "go off the derech" - these kids/teenagers/adults are brought up taught that everything in Jewish practice is absolute, and they don't learn the difference between Biblical obligations, Rabbinic, Minhag,etc. So that when they get fed up with one aspect of Jewish observance, they toss the baby out with the bathwater and don't realize that there is "shvil Hazahav" that they can still be observant, just not keeping the strictest level of halacha. If this were more clear, I think we'd have fewer kids who go off the derech, because they would know that there are a variety of options/halachic opinions regarding various behaviors and choices.

This is a lengthy discussion and I am sure I have opened up a can of worms...

Posted by: Chavi | Dec 21, 2004 10:45:40 PM

Alice... It sounds like Chavi answered your question (in paragraph 3). There is also a lot of other good info there...

Chavi... Wow! Thanks for that... I feel like I just took a class.

Posted by: David | Dec 21, 2004 10:54:43 PM

Jack... I have a funny mental image of you playing tackle football in the mud with your old frat buddies while wearing a long black coat and black nickers! :-)

Actually David there are pictures like that floating around. On a slightly different tack, about 10 years ago I worked as a coach at an Orthodox Boy's high school.

One day I had to break up a fight because during a game of tackle football one of the boys had ripped the Tzitzis off of another one's Tallit Katan.

Sometimes in the very stringent circles, people get caught up with minutias of practice, and treat them like absolute halacha - and they view anyone who does not follow that minhag as violating halacha.


I totally agree with the point you make and think that this is an area in which there is a huge failing. Few things in life are absolute, no matter how badly we wish them to be.

It is a way of practicing things that I think scares more people away than it brings in. Beyond that I have a problem with creating unthinking automatons.

Posted by: Jack | Dec 21, 2004 10:56:14 PM

Jack, it is my hope, that we are creating THINKING jews! I have friends in various circles/sects of Orthodoxy (and beyond), and one of the things we all have in common (and that attracts me to them as friends) is the idea that we are ALL searching for intellectual and spiritual truth - by asking questions.

Yes, there are many automotons out there, I find them in ALL communities and groups of people, not just in our own religious circles. My hope, is that by surrounding ourselves with other thinking people, and encouraging our children to ask questions, and think for themselves, that they will each find for themselves a path and a style/approach to Judaism that works for them (hopefully within the realm of halacha!). I think this is the root of the idea "Chanoch L'naar al Pi Darko" - Teach each child according to his ability/interest/etc. As thinking human beings, we hope to create/inspire others to think critically for themselves, and to question and hopefully come to answers that will allow them to lead more fulfilling lives.

Yes, it saddens me that there are some groups of people that perpetuate this inability to think by not providing their children with the tools to ask and think for themselves. The answer to this problem, I think, though starts with us "at home" - with our own children, friends, etc. By creating and educating our own children to ask, and at the same time exposing our children to variety of practice within torah-Judaism, I think we are already making a difference. Yes, it is small- thinking, perhaps, but we start with our own family, then perhaps our community, maybe build a school with this approach, etc - and who knows what can happen from there?

I look forward to working with you to build a (greater) Jewish community that is accepting, honest, and constantly striving for spiritual growth .

Posted by: Chavi | Dec 21, 2004 11:45:01 PM

Yes, it is small- thinking

I wouldn't consider this to be small thinking. Work within one's own household can be a very large endeavor, no matter how worthwhile. This is something that to me would work better on a viral level than in some kind of one fell swoop application.

Posted by: Jack | Dec 21, 2004 11:52:21 PM

David, you're not the only one who feels like they took a class! Being a gentile with admittedly minimal exposure to Jewish laws/customs/relgion, I am continually amazed at how much I learn reading your posts.

As for Rahel, I admire her strength to follow her path and try (despite negative reactions from others) to put more light into the world.

Thank you for writing about this.

Posted by: Lachlan | Dec 22, 2004 2:22:58 AM

Jack & CHavi... you two seem to be playing nicely so I'll leave you to your [very interesting] exchange.

Lachlan... Just so you know, I don't set out to educate people or change anyone's mind when I sit down to write in the morning. That having been said, I love hearing that I have done one or the other... in my experience information is the one thing that has a chance of standing up against prejudice and bigotry (yes, even within a social group or religion).

You happen to be (in my experience) a particularly receptive/sensitive person, so its fun to hear your reaction to some of my more esoteric posts.

BTW, It sounds like you and Bayou had a fun 'outing' at the company party... and it doesn't hurt that just by being there you probably 'enlightened' a few people. See?... everyone wins. :-)

Posted by: David | Dec 22, 2004 8:45:37 AM

"viral level"

Jack, exactly my thoughts! We start from within our own homes, and build from there - our children, our children's friends, our friends, our shul, our community, etc...

Let's get to it!

Posted by: Chavi | Dec 22, 2004 6:15:14 PM

Just to chime in on the whole "thinking" thang.... Na'Aseh V'Nishma! Literally translated... it means "we will do and we will ask." I have never been lead to believe by ANY teacher of limudei kodesh (Torah learning) that the automaton-thing is a desired result.

Most of my own education has been heavily influenced by the eagerness of good teachers to be asked -- even interrogated -- interesting questions. All, of course, in the quest of both better understanding law and ideaology AND in expanding our own personal spheres of knowledge.

Posted by: zahava | Dec 22, 2004 7:29:30 PM

This is Alice from NC. Thanks for the info. smarties!

Posted by: Alice | Dec 22, 2004 9:55:36 PM

Reading with interest. As someone who is not Orthodox, but has good friends who are Orthodox feminists, I get tired watching them. To me, it looks like they are banging their head against a brick wall. To me, it was very telling when Alice Shalvi finally threw in the towel and joined the Conservative movement.

Posted by: Allison | Dec 22, 2004 11:22:57 PM

Allison... which is why I made the observation about the frustration one experiences when looking at the development of Jewish law through the lens of only a few months or years. Decades, or even centuries measure the real progress in Halakha... but that is little or no comfort to people who want to create change NOW. I hope that Rahel (and people like her) don't give up.

Posted by: David | Dec 22, 2004 11:28:19 PM

I have often wondered what will happen if science proves conclusively that homosexuality is genetic. How will it be reconciled.

I think that there is much to be said for tradition and continuing traditions, but it is a mistake not to explore the reasons why we do what we do and evaluate them to see if they still stand up.

Posted by: Jack | Dec 23, 2004 3:48:57 AM

Jack... And if science proves such a thing, so what? We have so many other urges (good and bad) that most likely have a scientific explanation, why should this one be different. The challenge is as usual, our reaction to the way the world, and those in it, were created.

Posted by: David | Dec 23, 2004 8:47:57 PM

Jack... And if science proves such a thing, so what? We have so many other urges (good and bad) that most likely have a scientific explanation, why should this one be different. The challenge is as usual, our reaction to the way the world, and those in it, were created.


I suppose that my question is really geared to those people who take Torah literally. What happens if the "literal" word turns out to be "different" than you thought it would be.

Posted by: Jack | Dec 24, 2004 1:14:24 AM

I suppose that my question is really geared to those people who take Torah literally. What happens if the "literal" word turns out to be "different" than you thought it would be.

Jack: Please explain. The Torah doesn't say that homosexuality is not genetic. It states that men having sex with men is a sin (actually a stronger word than that). Are the two incompatible?

Let me make myself clear. I do not believe that the Torah can be read literally. But I do believe that moral judgements can be put on behaviors that have genetic predispositions. Heterosexual men have a strong genetic predisposition to attempt to inseminate as many women as possible. To ask them to restrict their sexual activity to their wives is in direct conflict with their genetic drives, and yet this request is a Torah-based societal norm that I support.

I don't understant what that has to do with taking the Torah literally. Anyway, those who take the Torah literally have much bigger problems to solve starting with the very first chapter of B'reshit (Genesis) in which trees are created before stars. Does anyone really believe that?

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Dec 24, 2004 3:10:39 AM

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